February is Black History Month and is an excellent season for Scottish Americans – not least those with Highland ancestry – to reflect on how intertwined the histories and heritages of people of Scottish and African ancestry are. However much the legacy of racism and the language of color codes might insist we are separate and distinct, people of African ancestry have been part of the Gaelic community for a very long time.
Scots’ identification with Africa goes back to at least the 11th century, when the first surviving versions of the Scots’ origin myth claim that their name came from the ancestress figure Scota, the daughter of the Pharoah of Egypt. Versions of this foundation legend survived in Gaelic oral tradition into the 19th century and would have been familiar to many early emigrants who encountered Africans in the Americas.
Gaelic tradition asserts the idea time and again that all of those who speak the language and carry the culture are entitled to call themselves Gaels and be fully qualified members of the community. This has been the case for the many people of non-European ancestry who, in various ways, were enfolded within Gaelic-speaking homes and neighbourhoods. While much of this happened for people of African ancestry within the oppressive context of slave-holding, this not was always the case: some of this happened merely on the strength of the Gaelic language within the social setting in which people lived, or via adoption, or freely-chosen relationships.
Some of the most interesting cases come from Gaelic-speaking Canadian environments. I recently discovered the following article in the Winnipeg Tribune (20 February 1936) which discusses the Afro-Gaels of Cape Breton (one of whom I interviewed in 2009) in the racially-tinged language of the era, particularly by way the portrayal of such folk in a popular novel:
Stewart McCawley, of Glace Bay, Cape Breton, deals with the negroes of that part of Nova Scotia, who speak and also sing in Gaelic, gives records of them who could not speak any other language.
Mr. McCawley tells in the Halifax Herald that these blacks came from the United States, at the time of the Revolutionary War, with loyalists who came north, so as to remain under the flag and institutions of Britain, and took up residence in Cape Breton.
The Glace Bay writer tells of these blacks and their Gaelic, apropos of various references, on Mr. Kipling’s death, to the black Gaelic-speaking cook on the fishing vessel, “We’re Here,” both dealt with in his still popular “Captain Courageous.”
Mr. McCawley also gives reasons for a belief that Kipling’s black cook was one of two brothers named Maxwell, of whom George is still living at Wycocomagh, Cape Breton. Further, says Mr. McCawley, “He and his family talk Gaelic and sing Gaelic songs – and sing them well. He had a brother who moved to Truro and died there.
“George and his brother went to sea and it is possible that one of them was the cook on ‘We’re Here,’ the Kipling fishing banker.”
In Cape Breton, there are church records of the births and christening of negro babies, dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the progeny of blacks who came from the United States in the latter part of the previous century.
A court record shows that Donald Pringle, a “Cape Breton Celt,” barring his color and other racial characterizations gave his evidence through an interpreter. This colored witness did not speak a word of English. Pringle, despite his Scottish names, was of the coal black type.
Capt. Mackinnon, a teacher of Gaelic in the mining districts, well versed in all that concerns the adoption of that tongue, dealt with the subject of Gaelic speaking Cape Breton blacks as if it were a matter of course.
Those that arrived over a hundred years ago, could not very well escape speaking it. It was all prevalent. He gave those immigrants from the south handed down character of friendly, hard-working and likeable people, qualities which still characterize their descendants, now in the island.
There was nothing incongruous in Kipling’s black cook from Cape Breton speaking the Highland tongue, as some of the novelist’s critics pretended: Kipling had an appreciative sense of “story” values, would be quick to seize on the unique combination, racially and linguistically, and make the most of it, as he did.
Not only do a number of anecdotes such as these validate such people of African ancestry as Gaels, some acknowledge their mastery of Gaelic culture (particularly song and music) as superb bearers of ancestral tradition with which they connect to intimately. When discussing this topic in 2010 with John Shaw, one of the foremost authorities on the Gaelic tradition of Cape Breton, he related another anecdote which illustrates the unifying effect of song in the Gaelic community.
According to the anecdote, one of these Gaelic speakers of African ancestry came to work in one of the mines near Sydney. This man had grown up in a rural part of Cape Breton and was thus unfamiliar with the practice of racial segregation dominant in urban areas and amongst anglophones. When break time came, he went and sat amongst other Gaelic speakers, not noticing that the miners had separated themselves by race. This caused surprise, consternation and unease amongst some of the men, especially those who did not know him. To break the tension, the Afro-Gael began to sing a popular Gaelic song that had a chorus. The other Gaels around him joined him on the chorus and let down their guard.
I do not intend these brief notes to create an oversimplified and glib gloss over a long history of racism, injustice and violence done to people of African ancestry or any other: no one should get a free pass based on the past. It would also be wrong, however, to deny the fellowships and friendships between people whose descendants may now assume that they are inherently distinct, incompatible and disconnected. As these anecdotes illustrate, language and culture are the basic building blocks of community, even if it requires honour, integrity and constant vigilance to prevent prejudice and ill-will from damaging the bonds that unite us and undermining our realization of our common humanity and individual brilliances.
Michael Newton. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Saorsa Media, 2001.
Michael Newton. “Afro-Gaelic Music in America,” History Scotland March/April 2005, pp. 43-47.
Michael Newton, “’Did you hear about the Gaelic-speaking African?’: Scottish Gaelic Folklore about Identity in North America.” Comparative American Studies, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2010, pp. 88-106.