Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Authenticity and Authority in the Shaping of the Trinidad Orisha Identity: Toward an African-Derived Religious Theory

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Authenticity and Authority in the Shaping of the Trinidad Orisha Identity: Toward an African-Derived Religious Theory

Article excerpt

Historical Background

The contemporary practice of African-derived religions in Trinidad lends much to the theoretical discussion of Black religious formation in the Western Hemisphere in the twenty first century. Trinidad is the larger of two inhabited islands of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Among its multi-ethnic and multi-religious population of about 1.1 million are descendants of enslaved and immigrant Africans who comprise one of the two largest ethnic groups on the island.

For more than a century, African religious practitioners have preserved the memory of Africa in Trinidadian popular culture and thought. As the twenty-first century unfolds Orisha (Yoruba) practitioners best symbolize this legacy of cultural and religious preservation. This process of preservation however is simultaneously a process of self-definition where Orisha leaders are using ancient African ideals and principles to create new sources of religious meaning and new paradigms of authority within the tradition, especially during times of controversy and debate.

In recent years, the role of elders within the Orisha tradition has been challenged with regard to their strict adherence to religious orthodoxy, and their resistance to ritual innovation, and theological expansion. Debates surrounding theological orthodoxy and elder authority have been played out in the media as well as in the private arenas of individual shrines and small practitioner groups. This essay examines how power, authority, authenticity and orthodoxy are negotiated within the Orisha tradition in Trinidad. Specifically, it explores how Orisha participation in the masquerading tradition of the national Carnival emerged as a source of controversy for the community during the 2001 Carnival season. Furthermore, it analyzes how Orisha leaders are attempting to mediate conflicting rubrics of power, religious meaning and identity by appealing to Nigerian Yoruba values regarding elder status and divine revelation. This process of negotiation has served to punctuate the distinctions between competing conceptions of the Orisha community's "culture of origin" (Thomas, 1998-1999, p. 4-5) in the minds of practitioners and outsiders alike. Nevertheless, it also demonstrates conceptual and ideological continuities across contentious camps within the tradition. This current controversy in Orisha religious formation speaks to "Africa" not solely as imaged (Long, 1986, 173-184) in its complex religiosity and theology but as "culture of origin" writ large, especially as the tradition undergoes phases of intensive formalization in a post-Black nationalist context.


The historical presence of Africans in Trinidad occurred in multiple stages. Prior to their entry, Trinidad's enslaved labor force consisted primarily of an indigenous population that numbered some 20,000-30,000 amidst a reigning Spanish colonial regime (Newson, 1976, p. 228). Evidence shows that as early as 1617, Spanish settlers made requests of its Crown to supplement the indigenous labor force with enslaved Africans in order to promote plantation cultivation. In total, three hundred Africans were requested with the stipulation that two-thirds be male, and one-third female (p. 121). Following the denial of this initial request, colonial settlers resorted to the illegal smuggling of Africans into Trinidad. According to Linda Newson, "during the seventeenth century there were few recorded landings of negro slaves in Trinidad and although during the eighteenth century the asiento made between the Spanish Crown and various slave trading companies ensured a regular supply of negroes for the New World, relatively few reached Trinidad and they did not constitute an important source of labour" (pp. 131-132).

Early Spanish colonists who settled on the island of Trinidad disregarded the economic promise in developing Trinidad's plantation system and instead chose to use Trinidad as a host for supplying enslaved Africans to nearby territories. …

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