Key Text: Stick Fighting, Dominica, West Indies, 1779
This primary source looks at this image’s relationship to dance, carnival, rebellion, diaspora, and resistance throught its empahsis on the insider versus outsider perspective
Born in Rome, Italy in 1730, Agostino Brunias was a painter. Brunias always had a passion for art and painted a series of images representing West Indian art, such as the “stick fighting” (published in 1779).
Stick fighting is a dance ritual that resembles a form of martial arts involving the use of sticks, oftentimes performed during Cannes Brulees (Elder 1998). Stick fighting was not done as a means of passing time, but rather as a physical act of resistance to release feelings of anger, sadness, and annoyance (Hollis 1998). The songs and chants that accompany this dance were inherently rebellious, shown through its loudness and desire to be heard.
Caption: This is a sketch of the Kalinda Dance by Russel Archer featured in Hollis Liverpool’s “Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or European?"
Citation: Liverpool, Hollis Urban. "Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or European?" TDR, no. 3 (1998): 24-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146677.
Europeans, especially artists like Brunais, quite often thought that enslaved people were simple-minded making them seem incapable of rational thought. So these Europeans would look at dance and other parts of their culture and think that they were incapable of designing something with complex meaning. In this image, all of the enslaved people pictured are looking in varying directions, giving the image no sense of focus. The men participating in the ritual are centered looking at each other with their bodies bent towards each other. On the left, the spectators observe the stick fighters while on the right, the spectators are gazing beyond what is in view. The varying directions of the gazes create a sense that the image lacks a focal point and ultimately depicts stick fighting, itself, as having little ability to captivate a spectator’s attention.
Caption: “Stick fighting, Dominica, West Indies, 1779” is an image of enslaved people in Dominica partaking in the ritual of stick fighting, a dance that is representative of rebellion.
In this depiction, Brunias takes power away from the significance of the ritual, because he sees himself as an audience member and the ritual as a form of performance for the sake of entertainment. Brunias was unable to recognize the cultural significance of stick fighting focusing his depiction instead on positioning the stick fighters outside of the direct focus of the viewer. Because of Brunias’s inability to understand dance, the rebellion is successful, as performance (alongside other oral traditions that go unnoticed by colonizers) illustrates how enslaved people are able to communicate rebellion to each other. In Brunias’s depiction, he purposely draws attention away from the high level of focus both men partaking in the dance carry. He uses the eye movement of the spectator to gain power over the enslaved. This portrayal of stick fighting shows how the colonizer's self-absorbed nature and lack of access to Carnival allowed enslaved people to openly practice rituals of rebellion in front of colonial powers.
Despite the image being heavily romanticized, these images are still helpful to look at when exploring traditions of resistance and the significance of oral traditions in the Caribbean. There are different genres of oral traditions and because of the performative nature of dance, using a visual may better allow us to visualize and understand the movement and collectivism associated with dance. These depictions are some of the only historical records left that give people an idea of the type of rituals that would occur in the Caribbean as well as illustrate how enslaved people were able to hide their resistance in plain sight. This image is also unique, as it was not taken of the dance occurring in Trinidad but Dominica instead. Yet it is still useful for us to look at because this image illustrates rituals that took place all over the Caribbean. This dance was just called a different name in each region, for example, in Dominica, this dance was referred to as stick fighting whereas in Jamaica this dance was known as stick licking, and in Trinidad, the dance was called the Kalinda (Slavery Image Depiction).
Elder, J. D. "Cannes Brûlées." TDR, no. 3 (1998): 38-43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146678.
"Stick Fighting, Dominica, West Indies, 1779 ", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave
Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora.
Liverpool, Hollis Urban. "Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or
European?" TDR, no. 3 (1998): 24-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146677.