We have laid the foundations for this in the previous posts. We think it makes sense to briefly present the insights gained from this once again beforehand.
Let’s summarise the common etymology so far: nobody really knows today why the alcohol distilled from sugar cane in Barbados was called ‘kill-devil’, which Richard Ligon described in 1657 as “the drink of the island”.
It is thought that Kill-Devil was a name given by the lower classes of society. Hans Sloane said in 1707 that it was chosen because this kill-devil killed countless people every year. However, this statement should be questioned. For as Christopher Marlowe wrote as early as 1590, a kill-devil was not a devil who killed, but someone who killed a devil.
In any case, the term kill-devil became established and was adopted in other languages: in French as guildive, in Dutch as kiltem or keelduivel, and in Danish as kieldeevil or geldyvel. The French etymologists got creative and surmised that guildive meant something like “foaming devil” or “mad devil”, but they weren’t sure.
Kill-Devil was alternatively referred to as ‘Rum’. As settlers from Devonshire also settled on Barbados, it was assumed that rum was a shortening of the word ‘rumbullion’, which in Devonshire dialect refers to a “great tumult” and probably refers to the foaming up of the yeast during fermentation. However, other authors argue that the word ‘rumbullion’ is not known in the West Indies. There are also numerous other interpretations, but these are even less likely – which is why we will not repeat them here.
We express our doubts and consider all these interpretations to be inaccurate. Instead, we would like to make a new proposal based on West African traditions.
The terms ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’ are said to have originated in Barbados. As part of our new etymology, we therefore need to understand where the Barbadian slaves came from: it is West Africa, from Senegal in the north down to Angola.
Alcohol was important to the enslaved Africans. They already knew it from Africa, which is why we need to understand the importance of alcohol in West African religions.
Palm wine was traditionally drunk in West and Central Africa. Ancestors, spirits and deities played an active role in daily life there. Alcohol enabled alcohol-induced possession by spirits and communication with the spirit world. People also showed their reverence for ancestors and spirits through libations.
Birth was seen as a return from the spirit world. The use of alcohol was necessary for a successful transition between worlds. Alcohol was also required for marriages in order to gain the approval and help of the ancestors. Death, on the other hand, is the end of life in this world and a return to the spirit world. Alcohol was also needed for this, also to guarantee the future support of the deceased.
Alcohol was not only necessary for contact with the spirit world. It also played an important social role in drinking rituals to resolve social divisions, forge alliances and strengthen community ties. Those who possessed alcohol had power. Chiefs and elders had social control because they owned the land and labour needed to produce palm wine.
The importance of alcohol can also be seen in the fact that warring groups wanted to destroy the spiritual power of their enemies by destroying their palm groves.
Reports by European travellers to Africa tell of the beliefs there. Of course, they use terms such as God and devil from their European perspective. Summarised in bullet points, they report The Supreme Deity created heaven and earth, rules the world and is good at all times. It is therefore unnecessary to worship it and it does not require prayers. Africans refer to all evil as “devils”. These devils must be approached so that they become more merciful towards people, and they must be appeased with sacrifices. In addition to the supreme deity, there are numerous subordinate deities; each has a special name and a special task, and they are also the intermediaries between the people and the supreme deity. The lesser deities manifest themselves in things of nature, which is why “the sea, rivers, lakes, ponds, fish, mountains, trees, plants, herbs, rocks, forests, birds and animals” are also worshipped.
The fourth volume of “Voyages and Travels” was published in 1747. There is an entry in the index that is the key to understanding the etymological connections between Kill Devil and Rum. It reads: “Bumbo, Negro Devil ii.183 c“. In the second volume, to which reference is made, there is unfortunately nothing more about a devil, but it is only reported that there are many crocodiles in the river Gambia, which the locals call ‘Bumbo’. They were afraid of him and did not go into the water. If they did lead cattle across a river, they were accompanied by a “marbut“, “who prayed and spat on them to charm the crocodile“.
What we can deduce from the above is this: The crocodile is obviously inhabited by a spirit that needs to be appeased so that it does no harm; the text says that the ox being driven through the river is spat on by a priest to appease the crocodile. Everything that has been explained so far suggests that the ox was spat on with palm wine, the holy liquid, to appease the evil spirits. As there was no need to make sacrifices to appease the ‘good beings’, Europeans of the past interpreted these sacrifices – including to the crocodile – as devil worship. Against this background, it becomes understandable why the crocodile was called the ‘devil of the Negroes’.
Manding is a collective term for various dialects in West Africa and is spoken in Mali, Ivory Coast, Gambia, parts of Burkina Faso, Guinea and Senegal. In Manding, ‘bumbo’ means crocodile. ‘Bumbo’ must be a very old word, because Herodotus, Pliny and other ancient authors already know of an African river called Bambotus, which is rich in crocodiles. Did the name ‘Bumbo’ carry over from the crocodiles to the river, whose name was Latinised to ‘Bambotus’?
There are also numerous Manding words in the Caribbean. A report on the history of Jamaica from 1774 also refers to the language used on the island: “The Africans speak their respective dialects, with some mixture of broken English. The language of the Creoles is bad English, larded with the Guiney dialect, owing to their adopting the African words, in order to make themselves understood by the imported slaves“. The report states: “Bumbo, Original Import: Alligator, Common Import: Pudendum muliebre [the female vulva].« This ambiguity is not surprising, as the crocodile is also a fertility symbol in West Africa.
As we have already established, most African peoples believe in a god or goddess. These are often not worshipped directly, as they are considered too sacred to listen to people’s wishes and prayers. Instead, people pray to lesser gods who control the elements, such as wind, fire or water. These lesser gods are often associated with an animal, including the crocodile.
For the Yoruba in West Africa, for example, the crocodile symbolises the transition between different areas of existence, as it crosses borders. It is therefore important per analogiam for people’s communication with the spirits.
The crocodile in voodoo
The African-American religions widespread in the Caribbean are based on West African beliefs. One of these is voodoo. Today, this religion is not only mainly practised in Benin, Ghana and Togo, but also in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There are also followers of the cult in Louisiana. Voodoo came to the Caribbean through the abduction and enslavement of the West African population. In the Caribbean, elements of other religions, predominantly Christian, were added.
The spirit of the crocodile plays a role in voodoo. It lives in different realms, in the water and on land. It therefore symbolises the transition between different realms of existence and is also regarded as an animal of transition between this world and the spirit world. It brings the spirits of the dead across the river that separates the two worlds and is a medium for making contact with the spirit world.
As the crocodile also has an inherent nature that is not fundamentally good, it must be appeased so that it does not become evil. Alcohol is therefore also sacrificed to it. In religious rituals, the spirit of the crocodile can enter a person and you can then communicate with the spirit world and the crocodile spirit. People possessed by the crocodile then move like a crocodile.
Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god
The crocodile also had a religious significance in Ancient Egypt. Sobek, as the crocodile god was called there, was worshipped in Egyptian mythology as the ruler over water and as the god of fertility. In the New Kingdom, Sobek was also often mentioned in underworld books. So was the crocodile also something of a mediator between the worlds for the Egyptians? Just as ‘Bumbo’ lives on land and in the water as a mediator between the worlds and symbolises fertility? Is this just a coincidence, or is there perhaps a connection between the Egyptian Sobek and the West African Bumbo?
Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC that crocodiles were sacred to some Egyptians. He wrote about the inhabitants of Thebes and Al-Fayyūm: “Every household raises a tamed crocodile. They hang jewellery made of glass stones and gold on its ears, put bracelets on its front feet, give it special food and offerings and the best treatment as long as they are alive. After their death, they have them embalmed and buried in sacred coffins. However, the people in Elephantine [near present-day Aswan] do not consider them sacred. They even eat them.”
The reason for these differences in worship is probably this: In Ancient Egypt, there was not only the Nile crocodile, which still lives there today, but also the West African crocodile, which is no longer native to the Nile. The Nile crocodile is significantly more aggressive than the West African crocodile. This is probably why genetic analyses show that apparently only the much tamer West African crocodile was mummified and thus revered.
Let us now turn our attention to the Caribbean. Before we come back to the crocodile, let’s look at the importance of alcohol for the slaves taken from Africa.
Alcohol was already familiar to them, and they also brought their cultural and religious practices with them to the Caribbean.
In addition, it was probably the enslaved Africans who carried out the first experiments on fermenting sugar cane juice in the Caribbean. The first evidence of such a drink dates back to the 1510s. The slaves were most likely not only the main consumers, but also the producers of these fermented drinks. This allowed them to continue their African alcohol tradition in the Caribbean. However, they did not only use sugar cane. The production of palm wine was also an option, just as palm wine had already been produced in Africa.
However, when the production of sugar and sugar cane distillates began in the Caribbean, the traditional palm wine was replaced by alcohol made from sugar cane, especially rum, to maintain a connection to Africa and the spirit world.
Religious traditions in the Caribbean
As in Africa, alcohol played an important role in the daily lives of Africans in the Caribbean. The easy availability of alcohol made it possible to maintain traditional African drinking rituals. The Caribbean slave societies followed the common West and West-Central African beliefs. As in Africa, contact was made with the ancestors and the spirit world with the help of libations and offerings.
As in Africa, alcohol was of central importance to Caribbean slaves at birth, marriage and death. In particular, an alcohol-rich spirit such as rum was a powerful means of making contact with the spirit world.
Rum became a unifying element of the Afro-Atlantic world. It helped Africans in Africa to establish a symbolic connection to their brothers overseas, and it also helped slaves in the Caribbean to establish a connection to their African homeland.
Yoruba and African-American religions
The Yoruba are a West African people who live mainly in south-west Nigeria, but also in the neighbouring states of Benin, Ghana and Togo.
The Yoruba religion is also the basis for many African-American religions, including voodoo and Santería. The boundaries between these religions and Christianity are fluid. The Yoruba gods are referred to as Orishas in the Yoruba religion, but also in African-American religions. There are hundreds of different Orishas. Their closeness and intimacy with people is shown by the fact that they reveal themselves through trance states in the initiates. Oshun is an Orisha named after the river of the same name in Nigeria. It symbolises fertility. Olorun stands above the Orishas. He is too powerful and it is dangerous to make direct contact with him. Therefore, the Orishas serve as intermediaries between the living and Olorun. Eshu is an Olorun who has a special role to play. He is regarded as the doorkeeper and messenger of the gods and must therefore be the first to be greeted at all rituals. He must also be the first to receive his offerings.
In addition to the Orishas, there are also the N’kisi. N’kisi are spirits or objects that are inhabited by a spirit. The N’kisi are closely linked to communication with the ancestors. One of the N’kisi is Bombo Njila, also known as the (male) Exú (Eshu) or Bombojira. He is the door opener. Vangira, also known as Pombagira or Pomba Gira, is the female Exú.
This reminds us that in West Africa the crocodile plays a similar role to Bombo Njila: as a door opener that connects the worlds and enables communication with the ancestors, or even ensures the transition between the worlds and brings the spirits of the dead across. The crocodile is called Bumbo – so is the name ‘Bombo Njila’ merely coincidental or does it indicate a closer relationship?
Obeah in the Caribbean
The connection with West African traditions was evident in the religious practices of slaves in the Caribbean, not only British but also French. Obeah was widespread in the British Caribbean. Obeah combines healing, spirituality and ancestor worship. The rituals require the sacred use of alcohol. With its help, individuals and the community could be protected from harm and malevolent spirits could be appeased. Drink offerings were an important component.
Voodoo in the Caribbean
Alcohol also enabled communication with the spirit world in the French Caribbean. It was not obeah that was practised there, but voodoo. Voodoo originated in West Africa; we have already mentioned this. Voodoo and the associated ancestor cult arrived in the Caribbean with the displaced Africans and still plays a major role there today, especially in Haiti. During voodoo ceremonies, drinks made from rum are consumed and offered as libations. Voodoo ceremonies involve dancing and possession by spirits.
Santería in the Caribbean
Similarly, alcohol plays a central role in Cuban Santería. There, offerings are made to the spirits.
In Santería, Oshun merged with the Virgin Mary, as in America the Orishas were syncretised with Catholic saints in most religions.
Oshun – we have already mentioned her in connection with the West African Yoruba – protects pregnant women and represents not only human spirituality and sensuality, gentleness, refinement, love and everything to do with women, but also religious severity and symbolises relentless punishment. Oshun is the only one who can appear before Olofin to plead for people. She is symbolised by rivers, and she is also the goddess of the river of the same name in Nigeria. Her messenger is the crocodile, and her followers seek her favour by making offerings at rivers.
Candomblé in the Caribbean
Candomblé is an Afro-American religion that is mainly practised in Brazil. It also has its roots in the Yoruba, which is why it is known as Orishas, N’kisi or Vodum. As Olorun cannot be approached directly, contact is made with them. They can take possession of a person who then moves differently to the other participants in the ritual: the possessed person dances like the being that has taken possession of it.
In Candomblé, only 16 orishas were retained instead of hundreds. Among them is Exu (called Eshu in Africa). He is the messenger of the Orisha. He is associated with palm oil and spirits as food offerings, black goats and roosters, and his attributes are phallus and trident. We have already described him in connection with the West African Yoruba.
A new etymology
African beliefs are the religious roots of the Africans who were displaced to the Caribbean. Despite different forms, there are similarities. The crocodile always plays a role. The supreme deity cannot be approached directly. Instead, people turn to lower gods and their messengers.
Among the Yoruba – where the roots of voodoo lie – the Orishas are lesser gods. Among them is Oshun, named after the river of the same name in Nigeria. It symbolises fertility and mediates between people and the supreme god. Eshu is regarded as the doorkeeper and messenger of the gods and must therefore be greeted first in all rituals. N’kisi are spirits or objects inhabited by a spirit. The N’kisi are closely linked to communication with the ancestors. One of the N’kisi is Bombo Njila, also known as the (male) Exú (Eshu) or Bombojira. He is the door opener. Vangira, also known as Pombagira or Pomba Gira, is the female Exú.
The crocodile is a creature of transition between water and land, between the spirit world and this world. It carries the spirits of the dead across the river that separates the two worlds and is a medium for making contact with the spirit world. In religious rituals, the spirit of the crocodile can enter a person and one can then communicate with the spirit world and the crocodile spirit. People possessed by the crocodile then move like a crocodile.
The crocodile therefore plays a similar role to Bombo Njila: as a door opener that connects the worlds and enables communication with the ancestors, or even ensures the transition between the worlds and brings the spirits of the dead across. The crocodile is called ‘Bumbo’. We believe that the name ‘Bombo Njila’ or ‘Pombagira’ is not accidental and that there is a close relationship.
In the Caribbean Santería, Oshun merged with the Virgin Mary. She is symbolised by rivers. Her messenger is the crocodile, and her followers ask for her favour by making offerings at rivers. This duality of fertility and punishment, of good and evil, is also reflected in the double meaning of the word ‘bumbo’ – vulva and crocodile. Even though the crocodile is important for communicating with the spirit world, it is not always good. It can also bring death, which is why it has to be appeased with libations.
Something similar can also be found in Brazilian Candomblé: the supreme god is not addressed directly, but contact is made with Orishas or N’kisis. They can take possession of a person who then moves differently to the other participants in the ritual: the possessed person dances like the being that has taken possession of them. Exu (called Eshu in Africa) belongs to the Orisha. He is the messenger of the Orishas. He is associated with palm oil and spirits as food offerings, black goats and cocks, and his attributes are phallus and trident. Here, too, there is a connection to the crocodile ‘Bumbo’ and the Eshu ‘Bombo Njila’. It is also striking that the attributes assigned to Exu include spirits, phallus and trident. Do they not point to libations, fertility symbols and water (rivers)?
Alcohol is needed to be able to communicate with the spirit world and acts as a door opener to the spirit world. It enables possession, for example by the crocodile spirit. It is necessary as a libation to appease evil spirits. Alcohol is of central importance for all this and much more.
A look at the names also reveals the similarity in meaning: ‘Bombo Njila’, ‘Bombojira’ or ‘Pombajira’ mean ‘door opener’. The crocodile is called ‘Bumbo’. But the vulva is also called ‘bumbo’ as a reference to fertility, which is also symbolised by the crocodile. The crocodile can also be seen as a ‘door opener’, and as it is not fundamentally good, libations must also be offered to it.
We believe that there was a transfer of names, just as there was with the cocktail. Firstly, it was used to describe the cut tail of a non-purebred horse; then the ginger that was shoved into the anus of these horses so that they would carry this tail higher; then the drinks in which ginger was added; then the original drink category of ‘cocktails’, which no longer contained ginger; and finally mixed drinks of all kinds and much more.
Is it not conceivable that the sacred liquid alcohol was not also called ‘bumbo’?
The slaves would then have explained to the Europeans living in the Caribbean in their broken English that this liquid called ‘Bumbo’ was needed to appease ‘Bumbo’, the crocodile, and thus to kill the evil inherent in it, so to speak, and to make contact with the ancestors with its help. This liquid would thus be a kill-devil, the one that kills the devil.
One heard ‘Bumbo’ explained as ‘Kill-Devil’, tried to make sense of it, and the Devon settlers – if this part of the former etymology is true – then perhaps felt reminded of ‘Rumbullion’, and so ‘Bumbo’ eventually became ‘Rum’ as a short form of Rumbullion?
The analysis we carried out for the ‘drink category’ Bumbo and Rumbo also speaks in favour of equating alcohol and bumbo. Although it is sometimes said that Bumbo is prepared with brandy and Rumbo with rum, there is no evidence for this. Instead, we can assume that the differences in the names are the result of local variations and linguistic customs. The mixed drinks of this name are in no way well-defined. It is something alcoholic. And that’s what matters: Some kind of alcoholic drink that can be used to perform the religious ceremonies described here. This is also confirmed by Charles Leslie, a Barbadian writer who wrote about the history of Jamaica in 1739 that kill-devil should not be equated with rum, but with rum punch. It is therefore unlikely that rum and kill-devil were originally equated.
To summarise briefly: The term ‘bumbo’ also passed from crocodile to the alcoholic drinks used in religious ceremonies. They were also used to appease evil spirits, to kill them in a sense, as the slaves may have explained in broken English. Alcohol was therefore a ‘kill-devil’. As rum was ultimately the easiest alcohol to obtain in the Caribbean, this initially generalised term ‘bumbo’ was changed to ‘rum’, a term that was a variation of the word ‘bumbo’, and only ‘rum’ was understood as a kill-devil.