What the West Indian Indian Spider Stories Tell About How Humans Converge, Deploy and Heal

We see our societies as static and earthly roots. To be a son of the soil, of the fatherland or of the fatherland, are reigning metaphors. They underlie the ideas of race, community, culture and nation. We are invested in fixed origins.

This idea is both misleading and exhausted. If language frames what is natural, our metaphors need updating. A spider’s web gives a better picture of how, as social beings, we converge, unfold and heal.

To illustrate, let’s look at the story of the spider Anansi.

African and Caribbean folklore

In 1928, American anthropologists Melville and Frances Herskovits arrived in Suriname, a Dutch colony on the edge of the Caribbean. The Herskovits, studying popular folklore, gravitate around the “yards” of the capital Paramaribo.

Migrants in a yard in Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit: Leiden University / KITLV Shelf Mark / Image Code 8859

The yards were proletarian areas outside of European control. At the interstices of the city, they featured simple shacks and open common areas. The colonial underclass – Afro-Surinamese, Javanese, Chinese and Hindustani – congregated there. For Dutch officials, the Paramaribo construction sites were noisy and unsanitary: a moral and health hazard. However, the Herskovits saw in it a creative ferment.

The Hindostani, or indentured Indians, came to Suriname after 1873 and the abolition of slavery. Docile labor was needed to keep the Caribbean sugar plantations, the heart of European wealth in the 1600s, profitable. From greater sub-continental migration to the region, the Hindostani came under Dutch jurisdiction. Other Indians went to the vicinity of British Guiana and Trinidad, or French Martinique.

The Hindostani were to reside near the Dutch plantations on which they worked, but were soon present in the Paramaribo yards. The Herskovits saw them there, alongside Africans, natives and Asians. The building sites welcomed an expressive amalgamation, stemming from their traditions, of soothsayers, healers and ceremonial dance.

This web of gossip, song and ritual included Anansi’s narration. In West Africa, the spider Anansi has long been featured in oral tales. Through slavery and travel between the Gold Coast and the New World, this robot has become part of Caribbean folklore.

The Anansi is considered resourceful: cunning and a bit of a trickster. In one version, the spider, by subterfuge, gets the sky god to part with his stories. The Anansi then share them with everyone, democratizing what used to be private property. In other depictions, on both sides of the Atlantic, the spider outwits larger beings, hiding to achieve its goal.

In the West Indian plantations, the school of life was in the stories. Strategic indirection, vis-à-vis the colonial masters, was necessary to survive. Work slowdowns, staged confusion, and food theft preserved strength and demonstrated resilience. In this environment, Anansi’s story provided workers with instruction and catharsis.

woven strands

The web pattern, informs Hazel Carby’s recent memoir, Imperial Intimacies, about his Jamaican and British family. It suggests movement and story as a kind of connective tissue. The migration of bodies and the stories we tell are woven threads:

“The architecture of this tale has the tensile strength of a spider’s web woven across the Atlantic: spinnerets pull threads from archives, stories and memories, joining the movement of men from Great Britain Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the flood of volunteers who left the Caribbean for Britain during World War II; the radial fibers that hold rural England and rural Jamaica together link the Atlantic port cities of Bristol and Kingston. Orphaned threads were left broken because I don’t know how they should connect. Although I am unable to perform these repairs, the web is holding up and holding.

The labyrinth of a spider, in this sense, resembles our world: a partial and frayed world, which requires constant repairs and which nevertheless has, from this incompleteness and this fragility, an overall architecture.

Here, the web ensnares our fiction of society as pure pedigree. The arachnid Anansi, for post-slavery communities, signals convergence in the movement, but also, above all, what is undone and divided. The severance of African ties via the Middle Passage, the incessant demand to clear and harvest unknown lands. In the Caribbean, unlike the West, the vanity of primordial integrity was impossible.

What makes Anansi relevant is that it has permeated beyond Afro-Caribbean groups. The story was absorbed by other adjacent ones. Crucial here in the West Indies were mesh spaces, such as shipyards and steamships.

Gaiutra Bahadur Coolie Woman, for example, tracks those who have traveled back and forth between Guyana or Trinidad and India. Their journeys were marred by physical danger, family stress, and money troubles. On these long and difficult ocean crossings, the Indians told “nansi tales”.

Nansi tales have been captured by brown and black proximity: in the plantations, in the Creole towns, in the construction sites of Paramaribo. From these places, the Anansi traded between the Caribbean and South Asia, when the Indians returned home. Moving sideways, like a spider, Anansi’s story took a circuitous route from Africa to Asia via the West Indies.

This non-linear movement shows how culture, a trellis, is diffuse and elusive. Some things stay – the Anansi’s journey through disparate societies – and some things pass.

The web of society

Thus to a second illumination offered by the Anansi. The spider web is incomplete – its constituent parts have uneven integrity. Parts are broken by insects, damaged by rain and weakened by wind. Its geometric components never reach fullness, as in imagined unity. The filaments that make up its net remain temporary, but always flexible and united.

As Carby says, webs can be broken or disconnected, and still be strong and resilient. No shape – be it a spider’s web, a person’s body, or a social network – is finite. Our roots metaphor implies primary ancestry. It invites us to extrude the differences, in the service of future completion. Yet the configuration of the Web and our social arrangements are not determined a priori. Many shapes are possible.

A term for this is initiation. For Adrienne Rich, in a poem of this title, the spider manifests what, at every moment, is possible:

“know the composition of the yarn
inside the spider’s body|
first atoms of the web
which will hang visible tomorrow”

Like spider traps or constellations of stars, we exist in unstable contiguity. Humans are like webs or galaxies: matter coexists in irresolution. Our stories have yet to be told from connections that have yet to be made.

Care networks

This brings us to the third part of this story, around the work of connective care. The metaphor of roots invites a native-stranger distinction. In India, America and Europe, others are conceived as infestations: as threats to be uprooted.

The image of the spider illustrates how absurd this way of thinking is. The webs are always, somewhere in their physical structure, frayed or damaged. A spider’s webs can be full of holes while serving as a place to rest, eat, and thrive.

An Indian on a street in Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit: Leiden University / KITLV Shelf Mark / Image Code 8855

The mundane but necessary work of life – feeding, maintaining, repairing, patching up – is the spider’s lot. And it is also that of many people who constitute an invisible support infrastructure. In many societies, it is the distant migrants who clean, cook and care for. Their efforts are rewarded with neglect and even abuse.

As we have seen, the state, during the pandemic, is mostly secondary to our well-being. What matters most are the networks of relatives, friends and strangers. We exist in the intersection of migrants and dependencies (often feminine). Authorities tear and tangle – but depend on – these webs. They harass foreigners and underpay women, without whom society would collapse.

Our stories – our relationships too – move from form to a larger purpose. A web will split and dissolve. A person falls ill and disappears. Our societies are fragmenting and dispersing. Yet we always react and recover to embroider something new.

The spider is constantly moving and mending the form that supports it. For us, mending is both the manual activity of weaving fibers and the emotional aspect of interpersonal healing. Maintenance becomes a practical and moral ability. A way to live and tell how we should live.

Anansi’s figure and spider’s web thus lead us into our present. It doesn’t just tell us how we, across time and space, have become. It offers a vision of what we could be. Connected by sticky ties, not attached to the roots. In process and undefined, not predefined as fixed types. And able to repair and heal, not irreparably damaged.

Ajay Gandhi is a faculty member at Leiden University and a senior researcher at the Maria Sibylla Merian Center Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America.

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