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"Daar kom die Alibama" - the CSS Alabama and the New Year Carnival in Cape Town
"There comes the Alabama"
Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see,
Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see...
There comes the Alabama,
The Alabama that comes oer the sea,
There comes the Alabama,
The Alabama that comes oer the sea...
The minstrels, known in the local language as “klopse”, grew out of the experience of oppression by the creole descendants of slaves in the Cape, and their performances, in the words of French expert on music and culture, Dr Denis-Constant Martin, in his 1999 book Coon Carnival, provided “a site for the expression of ambivalence, for transgression of moral norms and for social criticism.”
Each year from about the mid-19th Century, at the beginning of each year, troupes of minstrels would parade, especially on the day known as “tweede Nuwe Jaar” (second New Year), the 2nd of January, up and down the streets of Cape Town singing songs, often composed for the specific occasion, dressed in bright costumes and accompanied by instruments such as banjos, clarinets and various forms of drums.
This soon became known as the “Coon Carnival” and was an opportunity for the oppressed local creole population to transgress the mostly unofficial but nonetheless rigid class and racial barriers in the Cape Colony.
The term “coon” is usually, and rightly, viewed as a racial pejorative but, as Martin points out, “Most members and captains of Cape Town’s Coon troupes are not aware of the origin of the word; to them it means just what they are – people playing carnival in a costumed band.”
When the Alabama sailed into Table Bay towing a prize conquered in the Bay, the Sea Bride, on 5 August 1863, a huge crowd of excited spectators on Cape Town’s Signal Hill gathered to watch the fun, and the ever-popular song was immediately created.
The song itself, in Martin’s words, “is definitely a Cape Town song; it shows the impact American minstrelsy had there in the 1860s and illustrates how it was reworked into a true creole production.”
The song has two aspects, the first being the simple relation of “there comes the Alabama”, but the second verse has some element of social commentary, perhaps alluding to cross-racial sexual liaisons, or with the experience of racial oppression of the Cape creole people.
Nooi, nooi, die rietkooi nooi
Die rietkooi is gemaak,
Die rietkooi is vir my gemaak,
Om daarop the slap.
(Miss, miss, the reed bed miss
The reed bed is made for me
The reed bed is made for me to sleep on.)
As Martin points out, “the lyrics juxtapose an incident involving an external actor with something that hints at the life of the people of Cape Town.”
Another interesting link between South Africa and the United States is provided in an incident just prior to the arrival of the Alabama in Cape Town, when the ship called at Saldanha Bay, just to the North of Cape Town.
On 30 July 1863 the Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes, arrived in Saldanha Bay and at 8.00 that morning he landed there, “this being the first time that I ever set foot on the Continent of Africa,” as he related in his memoirs The Cruise of the Alabama and Sumter.
While the ship was in Saldanha Bay some of the officers went “out to stretch their limbs, and enjoy the luxury of shooting,” wrote Semmes. The “luxury of shooting”, however, proved fatal for one of the officers, Third-Assistant Engineer Lieutenant Simeon W. Cummings, who was killed by his own weapon in an accident.
He was buried on 4th August with, as Semmes noted, “the honours due to his grade.” Semmes notes, a little ruefully, perhaps: “This is the first burial we have had from the ship.”
The story of Lieutenant Cummings does not end there, however.
In May 1994 his remains were exhumed from their resting place on Kliprug Farm, Saldanha Bay, and returned to the United States for re-burial in Elm Springs, Columbia, Tennessee.
This was reported in the Cape Town newspaper The Cape Argus on 4 May 1994: “Among the team responsible for his (Lieutenant Cummings’) return home is a descendant of the man who was largely responsible for his arrival here, esteemed Alabama master Admiral Raphael Semmes.
“That descendant, Robert W. Betterton jnr, executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, spoke to The Argus yesterday after landing in Cape Town.”
According to Betterton, Cummings was the only Confederate soldier to have died on duty and been buried abroad.
To return to the carnivals which keeps the memory of the Alabama so alive in the minds of South Africans – and there can be very few South Africans who have not heard the song, though they might not be aware of the song’s origins – the “New Year festivals symbolise the resilience of an independent, uncaptured and non-confrontational feeling of communal belonging, which still assumes the heritage olf a founding creolity, but nowadays carries a pervasive anxiety about the place of coloureds (the South African term for the creole slave descendants) in the New South Africa. If the dream of a rainbow carnival for future New Years materialises, it may well reflect the rainbow halls of slavery times, at long last transcending oppression, prejudices and separations.” (Martin, 1999).
How interesting that a ship of the Confederacy should contribute to such a vision!
- One Love, Ghoema Beat!
One Love, Ghoema Beat is a photographic exploration of the New Year's Carnival in Cape Town, South Africa. One of the world's most colorful, yet little known Carnival's, it's the subject of a new book by writer and photographer John Edwin Mason.