Folk-Lore/Volume 29/The Provenience of Certain Negro Folk-Tales

Folk-Lore. Volume 29
Number 1 (September)
The Provenience of Certain Negro Folk-Tales




The Pass-word.

In the Cape Verde Islands "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" is a true folk- tale—I have called it "The Seven Robbers."[1] Whether the island tale came from Portugal as a folk-tale or as literature I do not know. The evidence as far as it goes is in favour of the second hypothesis. In the Portuguese collections accessible to me I have not found "The Seven Robbers."[2] The literary version of the tale I found known to a Saõ Nicolau Islander in Newport, Rhode Island, and to a Boa Vista friend of his in New Bedford.[3] But whether as a Portuguese or as a Cape Verde Islands folk-tale the following tale is of interest as representing probably the initial variant of a great number of variants of "Ali Baba" in negro folklore.

The Seven Robbers.

Once there were two brothers; one was rich, the other was poor. The poor brother gave the rich one his three sons to christen. Every day the children went to their godfather to get bread. Then he said that giving them bread every day was very expensive. One day one of his god-children came to his house to get bread. He took the bread, he threw it in his face, he said, "Do not come to get bread any more." The poor brother got grass for a living. One day he went out early for grass. He was too early, he sat down to wait for daybreak. He saw seven robbers come out through the rocks. He heard them say where they were going to steal. One said, "I'm going to Providence"; another said, "I'm going to Newport"; another said, "I'm going to San Francisco." After they left he went to the rock, he said, "Rock, open." He entered, he found all kinds of money on the ground like grass. He had only one donkey, no sack. He took off his trousers, filled them with money, saddled them on his donkey, he went home. Next day he borrowed a donkey, making two, and he took with him a sack. When he came home with all this money he saw he had too much money not to measure it. He sent to borrow a quarta from his rich brother. He measured the money, he buried it under the bed. Next day he went again with four donkeys, he sent to borrow the quarta again. Before this he bought food by the litre. His brother thought he could buy only by the litre, not by the quarta. He put some tar on the quarta he lent. He measured, when he sent the quarta a pound of gold stuck to the bottom of the quarta. The rich brother found it. He went to ask his brother where he got it. The poor brother said that was a quarta of corn which he bought. The rich brother answered, "No, I found a pound sticking to the quarta. If you don't tell me, I'm going to denounce you in the city." The poor brother told him how he saw the robbers come out of the rock as well as how he got the money. The rich brother said, "You must take me there to get some money." "Yes, I will take you. Yes, go and come at midnight, we will go." The man went home, but as he was in a hurry to get the money he came back at ten, he crowed like a rooster. His brother said, "Go home. You are not a rooster. When it is time, I will call you." He went, in half an hour he came back. His brother said, "It is still too early, but let us go." The rich brother took five donkeys, the other took two. They went to the same place, they sat down to wait. When it was time out came the seven robbers. The poor brother counted them. When all seven had gone and left, he said, "Rock, open." They went in, they collected the money together. There was a bar of gold. The rich brother said, "I will take it with me." The poor brother said, "No, don't take it. It's the only one here. They would discover it, they would miss it." The rich brother took it, however, he put it in his sack. Next day he did not wait for his brother, he went alone with twenty donkeys. The robbers had not missed the gold bar. He loaded his donkeys, he left. The next day he took forty donkeys. After he came there, six robbers came out, they left one there to catch the man who came there to steal. He counted "One, two, three, four, five, six, six, it can't be six, it's seven." He counted again. "That's six, but I'm going to make it seven. . . . Rock, open." He went in, he filled his sack. The robber who was inside caught him. He put irons on his hands and feet, he left him until the other robbers came. They took him, they skinned him, they cut him up joint by joint, they left him there. A day passed, he did not come home. His wife went to the house of her brother-in-law. She said to him, "If you don't go get your brother, I'll denounce you in the city." He answered, "I'll go for him, but I believe they've killed him." He went to the same place. Seven robbers come out as usual. He said, "Rock, open." The first thing he saw was his brother lying dismembered in the middle of the floor. He put him in the sack, took it on his back-and went home. He said to his sister-in-law, "I found my brother cut up piece by piece. I'm going to look for a shoemaker to sew him together. I'll put him in a bed, we will make out he died sudden." (The woman had three boys and one girl.) "If one of your boys wants to be a doctor or a priest we'll make him one. If the other wants to be a governor we'll educate him for it. The girl we'll teach what she wants to know. What money you want, when you need it I will give it to you to the end of your life." They put the dead man in bed, the shoemaker came and sewed him up, they gave him a lot of money for his work. When the seven robbers came they did not find the dismembered man, they said, "The robber has been again in our house." The next day they left one robber in the house again, but no one came. The captain of the robbers said that he was going into the city to see where they had buried him. The first house he came to was the house of the shoemaker. The shoemaker was at work. The captain said to him, "Can you sew well [enough] to make a pair of shoes?" The shoemaker answered, "That is nothing. Yesterday I sewed up a man's body that they cut up joint by joint." He had agreed with the poor brother not to tell. The captain knew that was the place. He said to the shoemaker, "Go with me. Show me the place. I'll pay you twice as much as they paid you." The shoemaker showed the place. The captain went home, he put the six robbers each in a barrel, he rolled the barrels on the road. He rolled them to the house of the widow. He asked her if she wanted to buy molasses. The woman said no. The boys went to the house of their uncle, they asked him to buy the molasses. They told the captain to put the barrels in the house of their uncle. While they were cooking for the captain, the children took the corkscrew to get out the molasses. They bored a hole in the barrel, the man inside the barrel asked, "Is this the time?" The little boy said, "No, wait a while." He told his mother that somebody was inside the barrel. The mother went and bored holes in all the barrels. "Is this the time?" they asked. "Wait a while," said the woman, "Wait a while." The woman took a club, she went behind the captain sitting at table. She gave him a blow on the head, she killed him. The woman put on the fire a big pot of water. She turned up all the barrels, in each she made a big hole. She poured boiling water into the barrels, she killed all the robbers. Then she sent to summon two kinsmen. They dug a big hole in the court, they buried the bodies. The poor brother went back to the rock, he took out the rest of the money, he brought it home, he divided it with the widow. The eldest son of the woman became a doctor, the second son a governor, the youngest a priest. The girl became a schoolmistress. The four children and the widow together built a fine house in their place. The road to their house was paved with gold. When the widow died she left all her wealth to my father. My father was so mean he drank up all the money and left me none.

Between this Cape Verde Islands variant and the following variant from Northern Nigeria occurs a gap which I have no doubt will be filled in when larger collections of African tales are available.

"Dodo [a mythical monster]. The Robber, and the Magic Door.— Soon the Women met a certain Robber who said that he was going to commit a theft in Dodo's house. So they said, 'When you go, say to the door "Zirka bude" [open], and when you have stolen what you want, and have gone out again, say "Zirka Gumgum" [shut].' So he went to Dodo's house and said, 'Zirka bude,' and the door opened. And he went in and stole Dodo's riches, but when he was ready to go away again he forgot the words, he could then remember only Zirka Gumgum, and immediately he had said this the door jambed more tightly than ever into the wall. Then he tried and tried to get out, but he could not do so.

"Now the Women from where they were standing began singing, 'O Mad Robber, we gave you the chance to steal, but we did not give you forgetfulness,' and they went off home. So Dodo when he returned caught the Robber in his house, and he killed him, and stuck his body on a spit. Soon the flesh was cooked, and then Dodo ate it."[4]

Since the Hausa are Mahometans, likewise great travellers and traders, this tale may well have been learned more or less directly from Arabic sources. The following variant from the Cape Verde Islands is probably more indirect.

Picking Teeth; The Password; In the Ashes.

There was a wolf with Tubinh.[5] One day they separated, Lob going to Ferrero and Tubinh to Sparadinha to meet again at Figondago. When they meet Lob asks Tubinh, "Xubinh, how is it you are so fat and I am so thin? Where is it you eat?" "I've been going about getting rats and lizards under the stones, Ti' [uncle] Lob. That's what makes me fat." "This is the seventh day I've been eating lizards," Lob says. "I've a little tail in my teeth. Come take it out." Tubinh took a needle to get it out. "No, Xubinh," objects Lob, "don't you remember it was a needle which sewed for the mortelha [mourning] of mothers?" Tubinh took a pin. "No, Xubinh, don't you remember pins were used as nails in the casket of our mothers?" Tubinh took a straw. "No, Xubinh, don't you remember it was a straw that choked our mothers to death } Why don't you take it out with your fingers?" Tubinh went to take it out with his fingers, Lob closed his teeth on his fingers. "Xubinh, you are a smart fellow, but I am smarter than you. Remember I am your uncle. I won't let you go until you tell me the truth about where you eat." " Ti' Lob, I eat at Ti' Ganga.[6] I was afraid to take you there. You are very cowardly, you might perish. If Ti' Ganga catches us there she'll kill us." "Xubinh, you take me there." "Well, when we go take a bag with you, when you eat one egg, put fifty in the bag." They go, Tubinh puts a hundred eggs in the bag, he eats one, Lob when he eats two hundred, he puts one in the bag. "Time to leave, Ti' Lob," says Tubinh. "I have still an empty place in my stomach," says Lob. "I have still to eat for my grandfather, for my father, for my mother, for my wife and for my children." Tubinh leaves him there, he tells Lob when he is ready to come out to say, "Port' tohoc tobac." When he is out, to say, "Port' burnec'." When Lob is ready to come out he says, "Port burnec,' port' burnec'and the door shuts tight. He can't get out, he sits down by the door. Tubinh is outside, he sees Ti' Ganga coming, near by on a little hill, he sings.

My little stick of ortolu
Which beats Nho Ti' Lob.
Ti' Ganga comes from the woods.

Inside the door Lob sings,

Subrinh', you are disengenuous.
You bring me into a person's house to eat well.
You know I have little luck.
Port' burnec' burnec'.

Outside, Ti' Ganga sings,

Uañ! Uañ! rain falls, sun shines, frost falls.
I am coming.

Tubinh sings,

My little stick of ortolu
Which beats Nho' Ti' Lob.
Ti' Ganga comes from the woods.

Lob sings,

Subrinh', you are disengenuous,
You bring me into a person's house to eat well.
You know I have little luck.
Port' burnec' burnec'.

Now Ti' Ganga comes up with her bundle of wood. She puts it on the ground, she says, "Port' tohoc' tobac'." Inside the door Lob sings, "Port' burnec'." Again Ti' Ganga says, "Port' toboc tobac'." Again Lob says, "Port' burnec'." Ti' Ganga sits down, she says, " Door, every day when I say, 'port' toboc' tobac',' you open, why don't you open to-day?" Then the door flew open, and Lob ran under the bed. Ti' Ganga made coffee, she drank, she lay down in bed. She broke wind. "You stinking pig!" exclaimed Lob under the bed. Ti' Ganga looks around everywhere. She sees nobody. She goes back to bed. She breaks wind again. " You stinking pig to break wind with me under the bed! " This time Ti' Ganga sees Lob under the bed. He came out, he jumped up, he caught hold of the roof truss. Ti' Ganga began to beat him. "Ti' Ganga, my hand is tired. My whole body is tired!" "Come down then and let me kill you." Lob dropped, he fell into a pile of ashes, he was lost. Just then Tubinh passed by. "Oh Subrinh', come here, come here!" called Ti' Ganga, "Lob was here, he disappeared from sight." Tubinh said, "The Barela race never die without breaking wind." Lob heard, he broke wind like a blast, he discovered himself. Then Ti' Ganga killed him.[7]

The central tale in this group of tales is familiar to and very popular among all the Cape Verde islanders. Were they to give it a name it would probably be, Ti' Ganga. One has only to mention Ti' Ganga to prompt the tale. A close variant to it is the following tale from the Bahamas.[8]

Now this day b'o' Rabby came to b'o' Boukee, and said, "Man, you know I could carry you to a house where plenty food." Anyhow, next day they start. When they got there, they said, "Open, ca-banger, open!" The door open. When they got in, "Shut, ca-banger." The door shut. Now they start to steal. Now some tamaring (tamborine?) was there. Now when they had their bag half full, b'o' Rabby gone to the tamaring, took it up an' beat.

Sting bow, sting, you bellee full go long.

He gone now. Bo'o Boukee gone, take up one and start.

Sting bow, sting, you bellee full go long.

He throw that down, he pick another.

Sting bow, sting, you bellee full sit down.

So he start to get again. So when he listen, he heard, "Open, ca-banger, open." The door open, an' b'o' Boukee ran under the bed. So they put ehild under the bed, an' gave her her food. So b'o' Boukee said, "Give me some." She gave him. "Give me more." She gave him. "Give me the pan." She gave him. He did that four times. Then, when they look under the bed, they said, "Oh! Boukee here." So they took him out, and sixteen double swish on him; and fast they gave him the cut, he said, "Shut, ca-banger." And when the child said, "Boukee, say 'gomma maura,' "b'o' Boukee pitch out de door and he heavy—the pitch he pitch knock me here to tell that story.[9]

In the Bahamas the setting of the pass-word pattern has been even more variable than in the Cape Verde Islands. An excellent illustration is the Bahama tale of

The Pass-word; The Tree Closes.

Once Rabby went an' he fin' a tree with honey in it. Ev'ry mornin' he have honey to drink with. B'o' Boukee always sen' de boy over to b'o' Rabby for a little bit of fire, an' b'o' Rabby always give de boy honey in de mornin'. So b'o Boukee say, "Boy, where you get de honey?" An' boy say, "B'o' Rabbit give me some." So b'o' Boukee went over to b'o' Rabbit an' say, "B'o' Rabby, were you get honey." Say, "I know where dere a tree full of honey." Say, "Well care [carry] me dere." Say, "I'll care you dere to-morrer." Boukee gone, gather up all de casses [cases] he could to go for honey. So b'o' Rabbit say, "Where you goin' with all dem t'ings?" "B'o' Boukee says, "I want plenty honey."—"Min'," he says, " can't be there too long, 'cause b'o' Long-Tus' an' b'o' Johnny-Bear will kill you." So de nex' mornin' b'o' Rabby an' b'o' Boukee went. When dey got dere, dey say,—

"Timmy fee,
Timmy fin."

An' de tree bruk open. B'o' Rabbit take a bucket an' he dip out his bucket full. An' b'o' Boukee shove he head, an' de tree close on his neck. B'o' Boukee look up. Long-Tus' an' b'o' Bear be acomin'.[10] An' when he put his han' up an' shove dat tree, he peeled his skin right off. An' when he get home, his chillun look up, he say, "Pa has a raw head." An' he say to them, "Why you don' say, "A raw head an' a bloody bone." An' when de chil' ran feel his head, he slap him, an' de chil' darted, an' I flash him an' cause me to be here to tell you dat story.[11]

The pattern of the pass-word is used in several other ways in the Bahamas and elsewhere. It is the introduction to the tale of "In the Cow's Belly," a tale in which, in Sierra Leone Frog and Spider, in the Cape Verde Islands Lob and Tubinh, in the Bahamas Rabbit and Boukee, go into the cow to cut flesh.[12] The animals use the pass-word to go in—"Cow open" or "Vaca, abri nhefa, dexan entra (Cow, open mouth, let me in)," "Vaca, fixa nhefa, dexan sai (Cow, shut mouth, let me out)," or "Open, gobanje, open," "Shut, gobanje, shut,"[13] and Lob or Boukee[14] forgets it when he wants to come out. In the Cape Verde Islands the pass-word or formula is also used in connection with a mama peixe caball, a mother sea-horse. You say in the tale, "Mama (breast) bax'," and the sea-horse comes in to the beach, you say, "Mama riba," and she goes out to sea. The water homologue in the Bahamas occurs in a tale about Rabbit and Boukee crossing a river to get pumpkins. Rabbit tells Boukee to say, "Low water, low," but Boukee forgets and says, "Flow water, flow." Common to both island groups is a tale of an ascent to Heaven. In the Cape Verde Islands tale the pass-word serves as a means for bringing down the fig tree—"Figerinha, bax', bax'," "Little fig-tree, down, down," "Figerinha, tip, tip," "Little fig-tree, up, up,"[15]—on which Lob eats and, forgetting the formula, is carried on up to the sky; in the Bahamas the formula brings down the spirit house—"Susie come down, Susie go up" or "Mary come down so low," "Mary go up so high."

With a North Carolina variant of the foregoing down and up variants, I will conclude our pass-word series, a series of tales that illustrates remarkably well, I think, whatever the vicissitudes, the immense vitality of the folk-tale.

One day, in the old times, Ann Nancy[16] started out to find a good place for to build her house; she walk on till she find a break in a nice damp rock, and she set down to rest, and take 'servation of the points to throw her threads.

Presently, she hear a gret floppin' of wings, and the old Mr. Buzzard came flying down and light on the rock, with a big piece of meat in he mouth. And Nancy, she scroon in the rock and look out, and she hear Mr. Buzzard say, "Good safe, good safe, come down, come down," and sure 'nough, when he say it three times, a safe come down, and Mr. Buzzard he open the door and put in he meat and say, "Good safe, good safe, go up, go up," and it go up aright, and Mr. Buzzard fly away.

Then Ann Nancy, she set and study 'bout it, 'cause she done see the safe was full of all the good things she ever hear of, and it come across her mind to call it and see if it come down; so she say, like Mr. Buzzard, "Good safe, good safe, come down, come down," and sure 'nough, when she say it three times, down it come, and she open the door and step in, and she say, "Good safe, good safe, go up, go up," and up she go, and she eat her fill, and have a fine time.

Directly she hear a voice say, "Good safe, good safe, come down, come down," and the safe start down, and Ann Nancy, she so scared, she don't know what to do, but she say soft and quickly, "Good safe, go up," and it stop, and go up a little, but Mr. Buzzard say, "Good safe, come down, come down," and down it start, and poor Ann Nancy whisper quick, "Go up, good safe, go up," and it go back. And so they go for a long time, only Mr. Buzzard can't hear Ann Nancy, 'cause she whisper soft to the safe, an' he cock he eye in 'stonishment to see the old safe bob up and down, like it gone 'stracted.

So they keep on, "Good safe, good safe, come down," "Good safe, good safe, go up," till poor Ann Nancy's brain get 'fused, and she make a slip and say, "Good safe, come down," and down it come.

Mr. Buzzard, he open the do', and there he find Ann Nancy, and he say, "Oh, you poor mis'rable creeter," and he just 'bout to eat her up, when poor Ann Nancy, she begged so hard, and compliment his fine presence, and compare how he sail in the clouds while she 'bliged to crawl in the dirt, till he that proudful and set up he feel mighty pardoning spirit, and he let her go.[17]

  1. But the tale of "Ali Baba and the Piece of Lead" is given by Braga as a folk-tale (Contos Traducionaes do Povo Portuguez, No. 78, Porto, 1883). See Journal of American Folk-Lore, xx. 1907, pp. 113-I16, for a Spanish-Tagalog variant of Ali Baba, "The Fifty-one Thieves," and ib. xxiv. 191 1, pp. 424-8, for a new Mexican variant.
  2. Both men told me the tale. The Boa Vista man subsequently showed me the text he had procured from Lisbon through his Saõ Nicolau friend. The one seminary of the Islands is located on Saõ Nicolau, and Saõ Nicolau Islanders are accounted the best educated men of the group.
  3. One of the two variants recorded by Edwards in the Bahamas (Bahamas Songs and Stories, No. xx. Mem. Amer. Folk-Lore Soc, iii. 1895, appears to me to have a literary source.
  4. Tremearne, A. J. N., Hausa Superstitions and Customs, pp. 211-12, London, 1913. In a variant a woman succeeds in stealing food from Dodo's house, but when her husband goes to the house he is caught.
  5. Dialectical for subrinho, nephew. Lob and Tubinh figure in a cycle of tales in the Cape Verde Islands as Boukee and Rabbit figure in a Bahama cycle.
  6. A water-fowl.
  7. For other African variants see Sierra Leone, Cronise, F. M., and Ward, H. W., Cunnie Rabbie, Mr. Spider and the other Beef, pp. 233-4, London and New York, 1903. Yoruba, Eilis, A. B., The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, pp. 271-4, London, 1894. (This tale appears to be a translation of a tale originally reconled in French. Basset, R., Contes Populaires d' Afrique, pp. 217-20, Paris.) In the Yoruba variant Lizard lakes Tortoise to a rock full of yams. "Rock, open," is the pass-word, and "Rock, shut." The plantation owner, a man, catches Tortoise, who had put yams on his back, yams on his head, yams on his arms, and ynms on his legs.

    There is a Banto tale of opening a rock by magical formula during flight. See, for example, the Herero tale of "The Fleeing Girls and the Rock," in Folk- Lore Journal [South Africa], ii. ]88o, pp. 80-85, which appears in a measure reminiscent of "The Pass- word."

  8. Parsons, Elsie Clews, "The Folk-Tales of Andros Island, Bahamas," 5, ii. Memoirs American Folk-Lore Society, xiii. 1918.
  9. In several particulars, for an even closer variant, compare "De Wolf, De Rabbit, an' De Whale's Eggs," in Christensen, A. M. H., Afro-American Folk-Lore, Told round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, pp. 108-116, Boston, 1892. The Wolf tricks Rabbit into putting his hand in his mouth to help him cut his teeth; Wolf protests that he has a big family and he must get enough for them; Wolf hides behind the door; Whale catches and kills him.
  10. In a Louisiana variant it is Sunday dresses and new shoes for his children Compair Bouki goes to get from the tree. Forgetting to say "Tree, open!" Bouki is caught by the thieves who hid their booty in the tree. They gave Compair Bouki such a beating he could hardly move. Fortier, Alice, Louisiana Folk-Tales, p. 112; Mem. Amer. Folk-Lore Soc. ii. 1895. For the pattern applied to a tree see too Hartt, C. F., Amazonian Tortoise Myths, pp. 17-18, Rio de Janeiro, 1875.
  11. Parsons, 31.
  12. The provenience of the rest of this tale we shall consider in a later article.
  13. Or "Hopen, Kabendye, hopen!" (Bahama Songs and Stories, pp. 77-8).
  14. In the Sierra Leone tale (Cronise and Ward, pp. 231-38), instead of forgetting the pass-word, Spider cuts into the cow's heart and the cow drops dead. This version, the proper version of "In the Cow's Belly," is also told in the Bahamas. "The Pass-word" has obviously been spliced into "In the Cow's Belly."
  15. Or Figerinha, dixe dixe, Figerinha, subi subi.
  16. Annanci, the Spider of the West Coast and of the West Indies. In the Bahamas I found the name likewise converted into the woman's name, Nancy.
  17. Backus, E. M., "Animal Tales from North Carolina," No. v. J. Amer. Folk-Lore, xi. 1898.