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Arts & Culture Last Updated: Jun 17, 2017 - 1:19:36 PM

Bullfrog in Soldier Clothes
By Andrew Conway
Jun 17, 2017 - 3:30:18 AM

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Bullfrog dress up in soldier clothes
Went to de river to shoot some crows
Crows smell fire and dey all fly way
Bullfrog get vex an he cry all day

It seems like a harmless nursery rhyme, but it dates back to the terrible days of slavery, and tells the story of how enslaved people manage to outwit their oppressors.

The enslaved could not complain openly about their situation, so they disguised their stories as animal fables. Europeans with their harsh voices became the croaking bullfrogs, and Africans the wily crow. This particular song has been recorded in various forms since the 1800s, in both the USA and the Bahamas. It’s still well known in the Bahamas, most notably by Ronnie Butler as part of his sublime tribute to Bahamian culture, Burma Road, though Delbon Johnson’s recording from the 1950s is also worth listening to.

It’s possible that it is still popular here because it refers to an event in Bahamian history. During the Exuma Slaves’ Revolt, British soldiers (aka redcoats, or bullfrog dressed up in solder clothes) were sent to suppress the rebels.

Later the same day Captain McPherson and half the soldiers set out overland to search the second slave village at Rolleville, five miles to the north. The Stevenstone slaves were not released until two hours after McPherson's party left, but Pompey, "knowing a Shortcut to Rolle Ville along the Beach, got there before the Party and by giving the Alarm frustrated the intent of the Expedition" (McPherson, 1830). Most of the slaves hid in the bush and only three more muskets were found in the huts.
-- WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED: POMPEY'S SLAVE REVOLT IN EXUMA ISLAND, BAHAMAS, 1830, Michael Craton, New West Indian Guide, Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (1983), pp. 19-35

You may be thinking that there are no rivers anywhere near Rolleville, or indeed anywhere in the Bahamas, but older versions of the song say that bullfrog went “down yonder” or “to de field”. They also say that the crows “smelled powder”, placing the origins firmly in the days of muzzle loading guns.

The Exuma Slaves’ Revolt was an inspiring example of peaceful civil disobedience a century before Gandhi and Martin Luther King. On a day when we celebrate the end of slavery, those of us who are descended from enslaved people should be proud that our ancestors resisted their tyrants in song and action. Let’s hear that song one more time Ronnie.

Andrew Conway is a mostly retired computer geek who loves Bahamian music, juggling, and messing about in boats.

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