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Tobago's folklore stories
Published on January 13, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

A Tobago folklore map (Paria Publishing)

SCARBOROUGH, Tobago -- Tobago is an island rich in superstition and folklore. Predominantly these tales are African influenced, with many of them brought to the island by Tobago's slave population, but other nations who once ruled the island also left behind their oral traditions.

These tales were handed down from one generation to another by word of mouth or through dance, song, drama and music. Superstition is also expressed through food, craft, traditional medicine and games. Many of these beliefs and folklore were used by Tobago's African ancestors to come to terms with the harsh reality of living in a new place under the yoke of slavery.

Nearly every village has a performing or cultural arts group where these traditions are kept alive throughout the year. Speech bands are the keepers of Tobago's oral traditions, dancing and performing songs which focus on issues of political and social importance, often with a humorous or satirical twist. Every year Tobago's rich oral tradition is celebrated during the island's heritage festival in July.

There are countless stories but these are some of the most popular.

A portrayal of Gang Gang Sara, the witch of Golden Lane
Gang Gang Sara: The most famous of Tobago's legends, Gang Gang Sara was the African witch of Golden Lane. There are many versions of this tale. One of the most popular is that she arrived on Tobago in the last half of the eighteenth century, flying from Africa to Les Coteaux. She then journeyed to Golden Lane in search of her family who long ago had been transported there in slave ships. She lived to a great age and is remembered for her wisdom and kindness and becoming the loving wife of Tom. After Tom died she wished to return to her native Africa and climbed the great silk cotton tree at Runnemede to fly home. She fell to her death not knowing that she had lost the ability to fly as a result of having eaten salt.

Soucouyants: Also known as Old Hags, the Soucouyant lives by day as an old woman at the end of a village. By night, she strips off her wrinkled skin, which she puts in a mortar, and turns into a ball of fire. She then goes out into the night, looking for a victim. She enters the home of her victim through cracks and crevices before sucking people's blood from their arms, legs and soft parts while they sleep. This leaves behind a black or blue mark on the skin. If the Soucouyant draws too much blood, it is thought the victims will either die or become a Soucouyant themselves, leaving her free to take their skin. These creatures practice witchcraft and are believed to have traded their victims' blood for evil powers with Bazil, the demon who lives in the silk cotton tree. To expose a Soucouyant, legend dictates that heaps of rice should be placed around the house or at the village crossroad. The Soucouyant will then be obliged to pick up every grain of rice, thus allowing her to be caught. She can be destroyed by placing coarse salt in the mortar which contains her skin, leaving her unable to put it back on.

La Diablesse: Known as a devil women, La Diablesse is a woman whose figure and dress make her appear to be beautiful. But she wears a large brimmed hat to hide her disfigured and ugly face. In other versions of the tale her face is beautiful. Her long dress hides her one cloven hoof. She often appears from behind trees and she casts spells on her unsuspecting male victims whom she leads into the forest with the promise of sexual favours. These men are never able to catch up with her, eventually finding themselves lost and bewildered. Confused and scared, the victim tries to find his way home, often meeting a grisly end. Other versions of the tale see her male victims waking up naked in a stinging nettle tree. Those who thought that they may have encountered La Diablesse often took their clothes off and turned them inside out before putting them on again. It is believed that this will protect you from her.

Interesting there is a male version of this folklore character. Jack O'Lantern entices susceptible women away from the safety of their surroundings to certain doom.

The silk cotton tree at Runnemede where Gang Gang Sara tried to fly home to Africa

Duennes: These are the spirits of children who have died before being baptized, and are fated to roam. In another version of the tale Duennes are unborn children. They practice their wide range of pranks on children often luring them into the forest and then abandoning them. They are sexless and are recognisable as their feet are turned backwards and they have no faces. On their heads they wear large mushroom-shaped straw hats. To prevent the Duennes from calling your children into the forest at dusk, never shout their names in open places, as the Duennes will remember their names and call them later and lure them away. This tale was used by parents to keep their children at home.

Mermen and Fairy Maids: Mermen are half man and half fish and are Tobago's version of mermaids. They live in the deepest parts of the ocean and are believed to be handsome men. They are often richly garbed and look similar to the kings or warriors of old. They were known to grant a wish, transform mediocrity into genius and confer wealth and power. Mermen mate with Fairy Maids, who are the maidens of rivers, secret mountain pools and waterwheels. They are also found in caves behind waterfalls or beneath certain bridges.

These mythical maids are known to find smooth skinned men attractive and will often pursue men onto land. They are unable to turn corners. Men who find themselves in a relationship with a Fairy Maid and wish to leave must make her an offering of two pairs of shoes. The first pair has to be burnt on the beach. The Fairy Maid will then come out of the water and ask if she is to be paid for past services. The man must answer, “nothing but this pair of shoes” and then throw the second pair into the water. Fairy Maids are described as beautiful with long, lush hair. One of their feet is in the shape of a deer's hoof. They are also known to steal a man's shadow which can drive him demented. To reclaim his shadow, the man must go to the river and address the water to plead for its return. He must then leave the water's edge and not look back.

Sandy the Slave Revolutionary led an attack on Fort James in 1770

Fisherman Brush and Sandy the Slave Revolutionary: These two men have become legends in Tobago. Sandy the Slave Revolutionary led the first major slave revolt in Tobago in 1770. Sandy, from all indications was a perfectly built African slave who despised the cruel slave system, where his people suffered all unimaginable forms of brutality. He organised a number of meetings with fellow slaves to plan the revolt before leading his fighters in launching an attack on the British at Fort James in Plymouth to capture arms and ammunition. He then moved his fighters to the great house on Mount Irvine's sugar planatation. The revolt spread to different parts of Tobago and forced the British authorities on the island to call in battleships from Grenada to quell the revolt. It is said that Sandy and some of his followers escaped to the Toco/Matelot area of Trinidad from what is now called Sandy Point at Crown Point.

Less is known about Fisherman Brush. He is remembered for claiming to have gone to jail 99 times for stick fighting.
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Judy E. Bain:

Great article! cultural stories must be kept alive in order to keep a people vibrant.


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