Monday, September 8, 2014

The Origins & Meanings Of The Word "Sambo"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part series on the word "sambo".

Most of this post focuses on the etymology (the origin and meaning) of the name "Sambo". However, I've also included a comment from a folk discussion forum about the Caribbean meeaning of the word "sambo" and I've also included an excerpt of a critique of Helen Bannerman's 1899 book Little Black Sambo. I've included that last excerpt because of the undeniable influence that book has had on cultural connotations about the name "Sambo".

Click for information about the history of the "Sambo" stereotype.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II of this series presents examples of the name "Sambo" in songs/rhymes that are featured in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise.

Click for Part III of this series. Part III showcases Caribbean folk songs that include the word "sambo".

These posts are presented for cultural and informational purposes.

All copyrights remain wth their owners.

Thanks to those who are quoted in this post.

DISCLAIMER: These posts aren't meant to imply that these are the only songs that include the word "sambo".

Also, I'm aware that the source of the word "sambo" may be more than one traditional African language, and that word (including that name) may have different meanings in those languages, aside from the meanings that were given that word outside of African cultures. Furthermore, I believe that it's also likely that the word "sambo" meaning "mixed racial" came from a different source than the personal name "Sambo".

I've assigned numbers to these excerpts for referencing purposes, but must confess that I prefer the eytmologies for the word "sambo" that are given in the first three excerpts than the etymology that is given in for that word in the Wikipedia excerpt which I assigned #4.

Excerpt #5 refers to the meaning of the word "sambo" in the Caribbean [as does a portion of Excerpt #1]

Excerpt #6 is from an critique of the 1899 book "Little Black Sambo".

Excerpt #1: From
"sambo (n.2) stereotypical name for male black person (now only derogatory), 1818, American English, probably a different word from sambo (n.1); like many such words (Cuffy, Rastus, etc.) a common personal name among U.S. blacks in the slavery days (first attested 1704 in Boston), probably from an African source, such as Foulah sambo "uncle," or a similar Hausa word meaning "second son."

It could be used without conscious racism or contempt until circa World War II. When the word fell from polite usage, collateral casualties included the enormously popular children's book "The Story of Little Black Sambo" (by Helen Bannerman), which is about an East Indian child, and the Sambo's Restaurant chain, a U.S. pancake-specialty joint originally opened in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1957 (the name supposedly from a merging of the names of the founders, Sam Battistone and Newell "Bo" Bohnett, but the chain's decor and advertising leaned heavily on the book), which once counted 1,200 units coast-to-coast. Civil rights agitation against it began in 1970s and the chain collapsed, though the original restaurant still is open. Many of the defunct restaurants were taken over by rival Denny's.

sambo (n.1) "person of mixed blood in America and Asia," 1748, perhaps from Spanish zambo "bandy-legged," probably from Latin scambus "bow-legged," from Greek skambos. Used variously in different regions to indicate some mixture of African, European, and Indian blood; common senses were "child of black and Indian parentage" and "offspring of a black and a mulatto."

Excerpt #2: From
Vol. IV, no. 3 (Summer 1997) Africa Update Archives
“African Languages and Ebonics" by Dr. Katherine Harris, Central Connecticut State University
..."It is nevertheless too simplistic to conclude that African Americans retained nothing of their multilingual heritage. One can look briefly at naming practices to find evidence of linguistic ties. For example, Juba, one of the day names given to a male child along the Guinea coast, was also a nickname given to a girl born on Monday in slave communities to describe "tomboy" (1620s-1800). The name Juba, which was fairly common among African men in the l7th and l8th centuries, was also the name of a region in modern Kenya/Somalia and Sudan.

The erosion of African names also occurred. Samba, meaning comfort in Wolof, is still recalled in musical form in Brazil, where there remains a strong African presence. A possible derivation of Samba is Zambo (Southern/Central Africa), which also means to give comfort. Other derivatives are Sambu in Mandinka and Sambo in Hausa. The fact that the name was at one time fairly common and no longer used may have relationship to a song popularized by white Americans during the war from 1861-1865, "Sambo's Right To Be Kilt," and especially the derogatory usage of the name enshrined in the book Little Black Sambo."

Excerpt #3 "Oxford Companion to African American Literature:
"Variants of the name Sambo can be found in several African cultures, including Samba in Bantu; Samb and Samba in Wolof; Sambu in Mandingo; and Sambo in Hausa, Mende, and Vai. Throughout census materials and assorted other eighteenth-century documents, these names emerge as those of new world slaves. The name also has possible Hispanic antecedents: the sixteenth-century word “zambo” refers to a bowlegged or knock-kneed individual.

By the late eighteenth century, whites had begun to use the name in a generic fashion to refer to male slaves. Before long, comic associations were commonplace; childishness, sloppiness, and a propensity to mispronounce multisyllabic words were the key traits of a Sambo figure. Such characters emerged in late eighteenth-century plays and sheet music, and became mainstays of nineteenth-century minstrelsy. By the time Helen Bannerman's The Story of Little Black Sambo was published in 1898, the name was thoroughly linked with the image of an immature, fun-loving, inept, black male."...

Excerpt #4: From
"The word "sambo" came into the English language from the Latin American Spanish word zambo, the Spanish word in Latin America for a person of mixed African and Native American descent.[2] This in turn may have come from one of three African language sources. Webster's Third International Dictionary holds that it may have come from the Kongo word nzambu (monkey). Note that the z of (Latin American) Spanish is pronounced like the English s rather than as the z in the word nzambu. The Royal Spanish Academy gives the origin from a Latin word, possibly the adjective valgus[3] or another modern Spanish term (patizambo,) both of which translate to "bow-legged".

The equivalent term in Portuguese-speaking areas, such as Brazil, is cafuzo.

Examples of "Sambo" as a common name can be found as far back as the 18th century. In Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair (serialised from 1847), the black skinned Indian servant of the Sedley family from Chapter One, is called Sambo. Similarly, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), one of Simon Legree's overseers is named Sambo. Instances of it being used as a stereotypical name for African Americans can be found as early as the Civil War. The name does not seem to have acquired the intentional, open derogatory connotation until the first half of the 20th century”...

Excerpt #5: From
Subject: RE: Lyr Add: Big Big Sambo Gyal (jamaica)
From:Q; Date: 11 Jun 11 - 10:37 PM
..."In notes with another "Sambo" song*, Walter Jekyll, 1904, remarks: "A Sambo is the child of a brown mother and a black father, being a cross between black and white. The Sambo lady, very proud of the strain of white in her blood, turns up her nose at the black man. She wants a white man for a husband. Failing to find one, she will not marry at all."
* "Another "Sambo" song = another song that includes the word "sambo" other than the song "Big Big Sambo Gyal" which is the focus of that folk music forum's discussion thread. I'm not sure about the name of that other song. However, the lyrics for and comments about "Big Big Sambo Gyal" are included in Part III of this pancocojam series.

Excerpt #6: "Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo:
Critical Evaluation
"Sambo’s name also worked against him in the United States. Bannerman’s choice of the name Sambo was understandable in her setting. Although the content and context of the tale are decidedly Indian (tigers, ghi, the bazaar, curly but not kinky hair, and the Indian place of authorship), Bannerman biographer Elizabeth Hay believes the author consciously chose a name she knew was associated with Africans (161). But the name Sambo could easily have been a variant of Sambasivan, a common boys’ name for the Tamil ethnic group among whom the Bannermans lived in Madras (“Tamil Names”)....

In any case, uprooted from India and transplanted in American soil, the name turned out to be most inopportune. Sambo had become the generic name for a stereotyped, subservient, dim-witted African American male. As early as 1843, “Sambo” was the title character in the song “The Fine Old Color’d Gentleman” by Dan Emmett, founder of the first blackface minstrel troupe".
I've also read the theory that the name "Sambo" in Helen Bannerman's book could have come from the name for the Indian god "Shiva"*. However, I agree with "Bannerman biographer Elizabeth Hay [that] the author consciously chose a name she knew was associated with Africans" in large part because Bannerman also used other African words as names in that book [i.e. Black Mumbo for Sambo's mother and Black Jumbo for Sambo's father]. She also wrote and had published other books that used names which "were associated with Africans". Read my comment below for more about this.
* "The name Śambhu (Sanskrit: शम्भु), "causing happiness", also reflects this benign aspect [of Shiva].

"Śambhu, another common name or epithet of Śiva, has been compared with the Tamil chempu or Śembu meaning "copper," i.e. "the red metal."
While the name "Sambo" and the name "Sambu" are spelled simiarly, they have different etymologies and meanings. I doubt that Helen Bannerman, the author of "Little Black Sambo" was alluding to Sambhu when she named that character "Sambo"..

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  1. I don't think that it was accidental that Helen Bannerman named "little Black Sambo's mother "Black Mambo" and his father "Black Jumbo". The phrase "mumbo jumbo" were associated with Africans since that term was included in "Travels in the Interior of Africa" (1795) , a travel journal of the European Mungo Parks. Click for information about the Mandingo [West African] masquerade known as "mumbo jumbo".

    From the Wikipedia article about "Little Black Sambo" - "Bannerman also wrote Little Black Mingo, Little Black Quasha, and Little Black Quibba."
    I've no idea what those books are about, but can gather from their titles that they are about a boy or girl who is Black whether that child is in India or Africa or elsewhere. [I'm aware some people in the past and the present also use the color term "black" as a referent for East Indians. However, I'm referring here to the idea of placing Africanized characters in the geographical location of India. ]

    But my main point is that I believe like "Sambo" and "mumbo jumbo", the names "Mingo", "Quasha", and "Quibba" are derived from traditional West African languages:

    "Mingo" from "Mandingo" people/culture/language.

    "Quasha" = from Akan [Twi] "Kwa" names such as "Kwasi"- boy born on Sunday and "Kwaku" - "boy born on Wednesday"

    "Quibbi" possibly came from the Akan [Twi] name "Kwabena " which means "boy born on Tuesday" ; Other variants of that name are "Ebo" & "Kobby" (Kobi)

    Or "Quibbi" may have come from the Akan [Twi] name " Kofi" = male born on Friday ; Other variants of that name are "Fiifi" and "Koffi"

    There may be other traditional African names that are similar or the same as these names. My point is that it stretches the bounds of credulity to assume that Helen Bannerman just arbitrarily came up with the names "Mumbo", "Jumbo", "Sambo" and those other names without considering that those names were either from traditional African languages or were derived from those languages.

    1. As an correction to what I wrote earlier, thee name "Quibba" in Helen Bannerman's "Little Black Quibba" probably comes from a Caribbean/Americas variant form of the name "Afiba" meaning "female born on Friday. That name is documented as being "Phibba" and "Phibbi" (and probably other spellings. But I'm not sure if "Quibba" was actually given as a name.)

      That said, I don't know if Bannerman's character in that book was a female or a male.

  2. I looked in 'The Times' online for usage of 'sambo'. Earliest was 1800, in a song performed at the Royalty Theatre, 'Sambo in London, or, Goodbye to Guinea'. I would take that as Sambo being used as a stereotypical name for an African. (25 Dec 1800, p.1)

    But the other meaning, someone of mixed race, was known too. A court case in Trinidad involved several people, one of them being 'Thomas Davies,...a Sambo, who says he is free, was born in Barbadoes...' (25 Sep 1818, p.2): and a sailor called Manuel Titilliano is also described as 'a Sambo, a native of Brazil'(19 November 1819, p.3)

  3. Just looked for first 'Times' use of Mumbo, and again it's theatrical - a truly bizarre extravaganza advertised at the New Royal Circus in London in 1801.

    It kicks off with a display of horsemanship', followed by a 'spectacle' called 'KING CAESAR, or the NEGRO SLAVES' which features 'an Indian overture', views of Port au Prince, a 'flourishing plantation', interior/exterior views of the 'Negroes casas', 'Negro banditti', 'Mulatto Dancing Youths' and 'the African ceremony of Mumbo Jumbo, being the Negro method of settling family disputes'. Right. Plus there is an actual character called Mumbo Jumbo, and an actress called Miss Denny plays the heroine, whose name is - wait for it - 'Samba'.

    It's clear the average audience member had only a hazy notion of where Africa was in relation to India, America, or the Caribbean. Also that the theatre manager was going to include every bit of scenery he owned which looked even vaguely exotic...

  4. According to OED an even earlier travel writer than Mungo Park, Francis Moore, made a reference in 1738 to 'Mumbo-Jumbo'. OED derives it from the Mandinka 'maamajomboo', the name of a mask, or dancer wearing a mask, in a cultic society ritual.
    The confusion between Africa and the East Indies goes back further than Bannerman. A con man from Bengal known as 'Mahomet Moxo' was arrested in London in 1839 for begging under pretense of being recently shipwrecked. Apparently he'd been doing this for four years and doing so well he'd just taken on a partner, also Bengali, known professionally as.... Mumbo Jumbo.

  5. I wonder if 'Kwabena' was the source of 'Quamina', which was the name of the African-born leader of the 1823 uprising in Demerara? (

    Charlotte Bronte borrowed his name for an African character in some of her juvenile writings, an Ashanti prince she called 'Quashia Quamina'. She wouldn't realise of course that such a combination of names was impossible, since it implied he was born on two separate days of the week :)

    1. Thanks slam2011 for sharing that information with us.

      Here are two online sources that confirm that Quamina' [who is known for his role in the Demerara rebellion in the nation which is now known as Guyana) was Akan, and his name is an Americanized form of the Twi [Akan] day name "Kwabena": [male born on Tuesday]
      "Quamina Gladstone, most often referred to simply as Quamina, was a Guyanese slave, a Coromantee,[citation needed] who was father of Jack Gladstone. He and his son were involved in the Demerara rebellion of 1823, one of the largest slave revolts in the British colonies before slavery was abolished."

      "Coromantee (derived from the name of the Ghanaian coastal town "Kormantse"), also called Coromantins, Coromanti or Kormantine was the English name given to Akan slaves from the Gold Coast or modern-day Ghana...

      The Akans had the single largest African cultural influence on Jamaica, including Jamaican Maroons whose culture and language was seen as a derivation of Akan. Names of some notable Coromantee leaders such as Cudjoe, Quamin, Cuffy, and Quamina correspond to Akan day names Kojo, Kwame, Kofi, and Kwamina, respectively."

      You are also correct that Charlotte Bronte's character Quashia Quamina has variant forms of two Akan day names: "Quashia" [usually found as Quashie or Quashee in the Caribbean and the Americas] from the Akan "Kwasi" which means "male born on Friday" and Quamina from the Akan "Kwabena" which means male born on Tuesday.

    2. When I wrote "Thanks for your information", I meant all of your comments, including those that you've gleaned from historical London newspapers and other sources about the ways that people in Britain and elsewhere experienced performances from Black people and performances that alleged to be patterned after people from Africa and from other places.

      I was particularly interested in the 1801 London Times circus advertisement that included mention of mumbo jumbo and a performer with the name "Samba". I wonder if "Samba" was used as a personal name by Black males or Black females in Africa and in the "New World" in the 18th century. And I wonder when was the earliest documented use of the word "samba" to refer to music and dance.

    3. I didn't search for any information online yet about the use of the word samba as a personal name, but here's a quote from this article about the origin of samba music & dance:" by Tijana Ilich "The samba is arguably the most typical and familiar music of Brazil. It developed from the earlier choro, a song and dance form of the nineteenth century that is still performed today. Although there are many types of samba, its defining characteristic is the rhythm. This rhythm was originally derived from the candomble, or prayer music, in Afro-Brazilian religious practices. The word “samba” itself means “to pray”...

      That article also indicates that Samba came to Rio de Janeiro from the Bahia region of Brazil and "People in the poorer neighborhoods [of Rio] would band together into what they called “blocos” and would celebrate Carnaval in their own neighborhoods. Each ‘bloco’ would develop variations and their own distinctive style of dance...[and] The first documented samba school was Deixa Falar(Let them Speak), formed in 1928. "

      Here's another article that alludes to the religious origins of samba music & dance:
      "The Origin of samba music history in Brazil, which today can be seen in awe at the vibrant Brazilian carnivals, can be found in Angola,Africa, from where it was brought to Brazil with the slave trading in the interval 1600-1888....
      The word Brazilian Samba comes from Quimbundo language (the language of the area that became Angola) as “semba” and can mean several things. One meaning is to pray, or invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or the Gods of African pantheon. Samba could also be a complaint, a cry, or something like "the blues". Still another meaning is something of a “navel bump” which depicts the intimacy and "invitation" to dance. Today the word can also be a verb in Brazil as in “sambar” which is to samba (To dance samba)"
      So it appears from these articles that the West African personal name Sambo (and Samba?) have different etymologies than the music/dance that became known as "samba".

    4. I wrote "So it appears from these articles that the West African personal name Sambo (and Samba?) have different etymologies than the music/dance that became known as "samba"."

      I should have also added that it appears that the eytmology for "sambo" meaning "a mixed racial person" is also different than the etymologies for the name "Sambo" (and "Samba", if that word was actually used as a name other than in that 1801 London circus ad.)

    5. I thought the female name 'Samba' was not likely to be authentic, but probably just the invention of an English playwright who wanted a vaguely African-sounding name for his heroine. The other names given to African characters in the same sketch sound made-up to me. (Ever heard of 'Onako'?)

      A Times letter of 1823 describing the sort of marriage-service Methodist Africans in the West Indies regularly used, gives a sample of the vows as follows: "I, Quamina, take thee, Quasheba, to be my wife..." So it appears Quamina (Kwabena?) and 'Quasheba' (?) were considered very usual, even standard African names - much as 'John' and 'Mary' would be in England?

    6. Yes, it's possible that the name "Samba" was made up to "sound African" for the purpose of that 1801 circus advertisement, but there are usually female versions of African personal names. Was "Samba" an authentic female version of the name "Sambo"? I don't know.

      I also don't know about the name 'Onako'

      But here's a quote about the name Quasheba:
      "'(formerly, especially in creole-speaking cultures) a name given at birth to a black child, in accordance with African customs, indicating the child's sex and the day of the week on which he or she was born, as the male and female names for Sunday (Quashee and Quasheba) Monday (Cudjo or Cudjoe and Juba) Tuesday (Cubbena and Beneba) Wednesday (Quaco and Cuba or Cubba) Thursday (Quao and Abba) Friday (Cuffee or Cuffy and Pheba or Phibbi) and Saturday (Quamin or Quame and Mimba) "
      The Wikipedia page on Akan names gives that name as "Kwasiba". I think the suffix "siba" was changed to "sheba" because of the influence of the Biblical name "Bathsheba".

    7. I wonder if "Kwasiba" is pronounced like "Quasheba". It would be great if a person who speaks Twi would contribute to this discussion.

  6. Yes, it certainly would. The 'Quasheba' spelling after all was only an attempt by English-speakers to render the sound of an African name.