What the spider tales of the West Indian Indians say about how people come together, flourish and heal


We view our societies as static, earthly roots. Being sons of the soil, fatherland or motherland are dominant metaphors. They are subject to notions of race, community, culture and nation. We are invested in solid origins.

This notion is both misleading and exhausting. When language frames the natural, our metaphors need to be updated. A spider web gives a better picture of how we come together, thrive and heal as social beings.

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

African, Caribbean folklore

In 1928, American anthropologists Melville and Frances Herskovits arrived in Suriname, a Dutch colony on the edge of the Caribbean. The Herskovits, who studied popular folklore, were drawn to the “courtyards” of the capital, Paramaribo.

Migrants in a yard in Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit: Leiden University / KITLV signature / Image code 8859

Yards were proletarian zones outside of European control. At the interstices of the city they consisted of simple huts and open common areas. The colonial underclass – Afro-Surinamese, Javanese, Chinese and Hindus – could be found there. For Dutch officials, Paramaribo’s courtyards were rowdy and unsanitary: a moral and health hazard. But the Herskovits saw in them a creative ferment.

The Hindostani, or indentured Indians, came to Suriname after 1873 and the abolition of slavery. It took docile labor to keep the Caribbean sugar plantations, which had been central to European wealth since the 17th century, profitable. From a major subcontinental migration to the region, the Hindostani fell under Dutch jurisdiction. Other Indians went to nearby British Guiana and Trinidad or French Martinique.

The Hindustani were intended to reside near the Dutch plantations on which they worked, but soon established a presence in Paramaribo’s courts. The Herskovits saw them there along with African, indigenous and Asian people. Shipyards hosted an expressive mix of their traditions of diviners, healers, and ceremonial dances.

This interweaving of gossip, song and ritual involved Anansi storytelling. In West Africa, the Anansi spider has long featured in oral traditions. Through slavery and travel between the Gold Coast and the New World, this crawler became part of Caribbean folklore.

The Anansi is considered genius: cunning and a bit tricky. In one version, the spider uses cunning to trick the sky god into parting with his stories. The Anansi then share them with everyone and democratize private property. In other renderings on both Atlantic coasts, the spider outwits larger beings and disguises itself to reach its goal.

On Caribbean plantations, the school of life was stories. In order to survive, a strategic detour towards the colonizers was required. Work delays, staged confusion, and food theft maintained strength and demonstrated resilience. In this milieu, the Anansi story provided instruction and catharsis for the workers.

Woven strands

The web motif, Hazel Carby’s recent memoir informs, Imperial intimacies, about her Jamaican and British family. It suggests movement and narrative as a kind of connective tissue. The migration of bodies and stories we tell are woven strands:

“The architecture of this story has the pulling power of a spider’s web being spun across the Atlantic: spinnerets pulling threads from archives, stories and memories, connecting the movement of men from Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the flood of volunteers who fought the Atlantic left Caribbean for Britain during World War II; The radial fibers that keep rural England and rural Jamaica in tension connect the Atlantic port cities of Bristol and Kingston. Orphaned threads were broken because I don’t know how to connect them. Although I can’t make these repairs, the mesh will weather and hold up.”

A spider maze resembles our world in this way: one that is partial and frayed, that requires constant repair, yet has an overall architecture out of that incompleteness and fragility.

Here the net ensnares our social fiction as a pure family tree. The Anansi arachnid signals a convergence in movement for post-slavery communities, but also, what is crucial, what is undone and shared. The severing of African communications through the Middle Passage, the incessant demand to clear and harvest unknown lands. Unlike in the West, the idea of ​​pristine wholeness was impossible in the Caribbean.

What makes the Anansi relevant is that it transcended Afro-Caribbean groups. The story was picked up by neighboring others. Crucial here, in the West Indies, were interlocking spaces such as shipyards and steamships.

Gaiutra Bahadurs coolie woman, traces, for example, the indentured who moved back and forth between Guiana or Trinidad and India. Her travels were marked by physical danger, family stress and money worries. The Indians told “Nansi stories” on these difficult, lengthy sea passages.

Nansi stories were picked up by brown and black proximity: on plantations, in Creole towns, in Paramaribo’s courtyards. It was from such locations that the Anansi would trade between the Caribbean and South Asia when the Indians returned home. Anansi history moved across and spider-like in a detour from Africa to Asia via the West Indies.

This nonlinear motion shows how culture, a latticework, is diffuse and leaky. Some things remain – the Anansi’s journey through different societies – and others remain.

The network of society

So to a second enlightenment through the Anansi. The spider’s web is incomplete – its parts are patchy. Parts are broken by insects, damaged by rain, and weakened by wind. Its geometric components never achieve wholeness, as in the unit presented. The filaments that make up the mesh remain provisional, but are still supple and supportive.

As Carby says, nets can break or become separated but still have weather and support. No shape – be it a spider web or a person’s body or a social network – is complete. Our go-to roots metaphor implies primary lineage. It invites us to carve out differences in the service of future completion. But the layout of the web and our social arrangements are not fixed a priori. Many shapes are possible.

One term for this is beginning. For Adrienne Rich, in a poem with this title, the spider manifests what is possible in every moment:

“to know the composition of the thread
in the body of the spider|
first atoms of the network
that will be visible tomorrow”

Like spider snares or stellar constellations, we exist in troubled neighborhoods. Humans are like nets or galaxies: matter coexisting in indissolution. Our stories have yet to be told from connections not yet made.

networks of care

This brings us to the third part of this story, which is about the work of padding. The metaphor of roots invites a distinction between native and extraterrestrial. In India, America and Europe, others are viewed as an infestation: a threat to be uprooted.

The spider image makes it clear how absurd this way of thinking is. Nets are always frayed or damaged somewhere in their physical structure. A spider’s tracery can be riddled with holes and still serve as a place to rest, feed, and thrive.

An Indian man on a street in Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit: Leiden University / KITLV signature / Image code 8855

The banal but necessary work of life – nourishing, caring for, repairing, patching – is the lot of the spider. And it is also that of many people who form an invisible infrastructure of support. In many societies, it is distant migrants who clean, cook and take care of them. Their efforts are rewarded with neglect and even abuse.

As we have seen, government is mostly secondary to our well-being during the pandemic. What matters more are grids of relatives, friends, and strangers. We exist in the criss-cross of migrants and (often female) dependencies. Authorities tear up and tangle these nets – but depend on them. They harass foreigners and underpay women without whom society would collapse.

Our stories—even our relationships—are ephemeral forms in a larger design. A web will divide and dissolve. A person gets sick and disappears. Our societies are fragmenting and dispersing. Yet we react and recover to sew something new.

The spider is constantly moving around, repairing the form it is wearing. Mending for us is both the manual activity of fiber weaving and the emotional aspect of interpersonal healing. Sustenance becomes a practical and moral skill. A means of living and telling the story of how we should live.

So the Anansi figure and the spider web pull us into our present. It not only tells us how we came into being across time and space. It offers a vision of what we could be. Connected by sticky links, not tied to roots. In progress and undefined, not preset as fixed types. And able to repair and heal, not irreparably damaged.

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


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