The life and times of D’Chimbo, a native of Gabon from the Rongous tribe who landed in French Guiana with slave number 1144 have continued to evoke heated discussions from several writers, people of Guianese descent as well as from observers all over the world.
He is perhaps one of the most important characters of Guianese literature for several decades for a fundamental reason – he has been described by several ‘foreign’ writers as a thief, criminal, rapist and murderer who terrorised French Guiana between 1860 and 1862.
However, this narrative has been debunked by historians and recent writers alike who argued that D’Chimbo was actually a hero who fought the colonial system but was so described as a result of cheap manipulation and because he was a commoner or better still, a slave. But what are the facts?
French Guiana officially belongs to the French government. Although, it is about 7,000km away from Paris; it is designated as an overseas department of France. They have representatives in the French parliament. The country attracts tourist from all over the world and celebrates different festivals annually which have become a major center of attraction to outsiders who cherished this unique culture and tradition of the people.
But the capital city, Cayenne has been in the news owing to large-scale violence, some of which have been traced to the legacy bequeathed to it by D’Chimbo and other rebellious slaves, mostly of African origin who turned against their masters, as documented in some western newspapers in recent times.
It is also imperative to note that French Guiana is peopled by a number of various ethnic groups settled in a mosaic-like space. Florence Martin in the voluminous book “Francophone Critical Essays: Post-Colonial Cultures,” edited by Kamal Salhi, affirmed that “Guyaniti is shared by a number of various ethnic groups: the large Creole community (from Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guiana), various Amerindian communities, the Bushinenge (of African descent), an Arabic community (since the late nineteenth century), an Asian community (the Hmong since 1977, the Chinese), a South American community (particularly Brazilian), a group of Haitian refugees and the “metropolitans” (from France).”
D’Chimbo arrived in French Guiana in September 1858, some years after the abolition of slavery, and was driven on the approuague (a major river in French Guiana) to take up the job of an agricultural worker at the Compagnie Aurifere et Agricole where he exploited the first gold deposits discovered in Guyana. But he soon had a problem with the director of the company – Colonel Charrie who called for his arrest and later handed him over to the criminal chamber of the Imperial Court of Cayenne where he was sentenced to prison in 1859.
D’Chimbo had a fierce hatred for Charrie. He managed to escape jail and hid in the bush for seventeen months. The question is, how did he survive in the forest for so long? He was said to have engaged in hunting, stealing from his victims and raping some in the process.
The myth about him includes that he was protected by occult forces and was stronger than anyone alive. The colonial police could not even arrest him. A simple search on Google for his name will provide plethora of this type of evidence. The tales ended by saying that at his death, his head was cut off and kept in a jar while his body was buried to make sure he didn’t reappear, ever again.
This narration has been debunked in a publication by Serge Mam Lam Fouck, “ D’Chimbo: from criminal to hero, an excursion in the Guianese imagination.” The author said D’Chimbo was the most poorly known Guyanese and that the reality is that this African immigrant was denied his humanity by Guiana oral tradition and by some authors. It is sheer manipulation of people’s collective memory.
D’Chimbo was simply a slave whose humanity was subjected to abuse but who fought tooth and nail to ensure that all slaves were freed and the colonial system totally disbanded. He resorted to his physical and spiritual being to challenge the system but his efforts were denigrated.
It is sacrosanct that more about D’Chimbo will appear in the future. But to say that someone that died more than a century ago is responsible for violence in Cayenne today is outrageous. The misinformation in the D’Chimbo story is either an agenda by the western press to call a dog a bad name in other to hang it or simply an imagination of the people taken too far.
For instance, no one has been able to establish his real full name (he has been called different names and pseudo names in different works of literature) and why his story is often mixed up as criminal and a hero. Whatever it is, further research is required to unravel the story of D’Chimbo to know if actually, he was a 19th-century outlaw or a popular hero of African origin in the French Guiana.
One thing is for certain, with the avalanche of documentation about him, D’Chimbo has lived in French Guiana once upon a time and his footprints, no matter the confusion it created will continue to be debated for a long time.