A General History of the Caribbean

A General History of the Caribbean

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A General History of the Caribbean

When one undertakes an historical study, any success in the undertaking is arguably predicated on an understanding of the subject to be studied. Knowing the culture of a given people or region, the geography and climate of its habitation, the attitudes of the people and their current political comportment – all of these breathe life into the subject. It is this deepening familiarization that gives life to the historical figures and events of that subject.

Perhaps nowhere is this preliminary requirement more necessary than when undertaking an historical study of the Caribbean islands. This archipelago of fifty small to moderate sized inhabited units that span a coarse 2,500 mile arc above the north side of Central and South America represent a very similar and yet very diverse group of people and cultures. Sharing a common climate, they contain a variety of terrain. Subjected to European invasion and conquest, then populated involuntarily by black African slaves under an oppressively dominating plantation system, the dissimilar timing of these very common circumstances lead to a curious variety of cultures. Conversely, the many languages spoken and the several cultural manifestations that are apparent in this region do not obliterate an essentially consistent ambience, a common rhythm that is unmistakably Caribbean. It is this contradiction, this sameness and yet difference, that makes a vigorous introductory approach such a compelling and, in itself, such a diversified component of this historical study.

Even more important than the natural lure of anthropological or sociological considerations in their own right is the insufficiency of chronological political events alone to frame a general history of the Caribbean. Unlike many regions that experience clear, defining events and forces in a more or less cohesive fashion, periodization is difficult to construct for Caribbean history. Some pivotal events were confined to the particular island on which they occurred, while others had a regional impact. Furthermore, these latter sometimes did so with the uneven yet certain rhythm of the waves that come across the sea to lap the shores of the receptive neighboring island. This tendency yields a certain proclivity towards eclectic explanatory approaches.

Three different yet mutually supportive approaches illustrate the utility of this eclecticism. The Caribbeanist Sidney Mintz employs the analytical approach of a social scientist to identify conditions of common description in his article "the Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area". Antonio Benitez-Rojo injects a decidedly cultural emphasis to his historical narrative of the region in his chapter "From the plantation to the Plantation", taken from his book The Repeating Island.

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And Michelle Cliff weaves a story of emerging adolescence in Jamaica during the late 1950’s with a parallel story of relevant historical memories in almost stream-of-consciousness manner in her novel Abeng. Cliff offers some autobiographical insights as well in the recollections, both childhood and adult, in her article "If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire".

The Plantation

In all these approaches, the plantation is identified as a central ingredient in defining the cultural development of the Caribbean. In Michelle Cliff’s novel, the ongoing importance of its place in Jamaican history is demonstrated in Clare’s visit to her ancestral compound. One hundred years after the emancipation and no longer owned by the Savage family, the great house stood as a ramshackle relic of a past enterprise.
Having ancestors from both the slave and master class, the feelings generated by this visit are mixed for this young mulatto girl. The faded wallpaper depicting scenes of an equally fading British upper middle class gentility and its notions of aristocratic grandeur contrast with the harsh image of the burned down and once squalid quarters of the enslaved black laborers. Clare’s father engaged in a running monologue about the refinement in furnishings that once adorned this room or that, while Clare visualized the brutal treatment that had once taken place in the outbuildings. This aroused in Clare deep consternation, for the great house was a part of her as well as Jamaica’s identity.

It was for her "…(d)ingy and mindful of the past. Both the source of her and not the source of her. The house carried over to her a sense of great disappointment – maybe a great sadness. It was a dry and dusty place – not a place of dreams…She had had expectations of the great house…Now – she wished that the fire (that Justice Savage had set) in the canefields would spread to the house and that it would burn to the ground. She didn’t need the house, now she had seen it. If it burned, only the stories she knew would be left." (Abeng, p37)

This visit to the great house is interwoven in the novel with the recalled story of Inez, the involuntary concubine of the former plantation owner and Clare’s ancestor, Justice Savage. The connection between the two stories is multifaceted and symbolic. The fire that engulfed the fields marks a passionate reaction to emancipation, is simultaneous with the escape of Inez, and demarcates the onset of poetic justice in the reversal of the Savage family fortunes.

As powerful as this literary device is, it cannot be regarded as any sort of overstatement of the ongoing impact of the plantation. Nor is this a condition found exclusively in Jamaica, but is evident throughout the Caribbean. Sidney Mintz, in the course of describing nine major features of Caribbean regional commonality, declares the establishment of the plantation system as salient in its overarching impact. The plantation system was not only an agricultural device, according to Mintz, but became the actual basis for society there. It also became completely dominant on the islands where it matured. "The inability of freemen to compete in any local sphere with slave labor complimented and intensified a sort of manorial self-sufficiency in plantation areas, sharply inhibiting the development of occupationally diverse communities of freemen in the same region." (Mintz, p27) This tended to inhibit cultural development of any kind outside of the strict regimen of the sugar plantation.

The thrust of, and indeed, the very title of Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s chapter "From the plantation to the Plantation" speaks to the very primacy of this institution as a defining development in the Caribbean. He describes the onset of the small-scale experiment as undertaken by the Spanish in Hispanola, the plantation, being the model for subsequent refinement and development. This first series of establishments, controlled as they were by the Spanish monarchy, did not cover entire islands or completely overwhelm the emergence of creole culture and alternative economic activity, much to the chagrin of the colonial officials. The mature, pervasive Plantation system, as established by the British, French, and Dutch in the 17th century, serving the larger and growing European market for tropical produce, fashioned an overwhelming structure that either precluded or arrested cultural growth. "In plantation conditions, in spite of the enormous percentages reached by the number of slaves in relation to the total population, the African was reduced to living under an incarcerating regimen of forced labor, which stood in the way of his being able to exert a cultural influence upon the European and creole population." (Rojo, p70)

The Legacy of Slavery

Connected to the institution of the plantation was its source of labor, which was the institution of slavery. It is this involuntary installation of Africans on the Caribbean islands that substantially composes the region’s population. And it is the power of present effect that makes past slavery such an important factor in understanding the Caribbean. A system in which a few white plantation owners had absolute control over a far greater number of African slaves set into motion a caste system, the impact of which extended and extends far beyond emancipation. Its monumental impact can best be understood in relation to its huge demographic accomplishment. "Antillean slavery constituted one of the greatest phenomena in world history." (Mintz, p25)

"There was no cash compensation for the people who had labored under slavery. No tracts of land for them to farm. No employment for the most part. No literacy programs. No money to book passage back to Africa. Their enslavement had become an inconvenience - a–d now it was removed. All the forces which worked to keep these people slaves now worked to keep them poor. And poor most of them remained." (Abeng, p28)

Not only does this legacy have an economic component, which can be overcome in time and by succeeding generations of frugality and sacrifice, but also a social stigma component as well. Centuries of distinction made along racial lines, where darkness denotes inferiority, made an indelible imprint on all members of society. The introduction of mulatto members merely transformed the distinction from a bipolar one to a spectrum, that is to say, differentiation by degree. "Under this system, light and dark people will meet in those ways in which the light-skinned person imitates the oppressor. But the imitation goes only so far: the light-skinned person becomes the oppressor in fact." (Fire, p368)

It cannot be overstated the ways in which arbitrary presuppositions of superiority and inferiority along racial lines maintain themselves. Even children, whose innocence generally renders them immune to such matters as class and rank, quickly become inculcated to such distinctions in the subtlest ways. Cliff alludes to this in describing the friendship of the light-skinned Clare and the dark-skinned Zoe. "This was a friendship – a pairing of two girls – kept only on school vacations, and because of their games and make-believe might have seemed to some entirely removed from what was real in the girls lives. Their lives of light and dark – which was the one overwhelming reality." (Abeng, p95)

The stubborn persistence of differential treatment based on degree of apparent African ancestry seems rather remarkable given the substantial percentage of people of obviously African decent throughout the Caribbean. Mintz explains that an active program to prohibit any meaningful cultural development within the community of imported African laborers was a principle element in the design of the sugar machine. He declares that "…the formation of any cultural integrity always lagged behind the perpetuation of traditional bipolar social and economic structures, usually established relatively early in the period of settlement of each territory." (Mintz, p37)

A Diverse Archipelago

The preceding comments regarding the importance of the plantation and slavery to Caribbean identity may seem to suggest a homogenizing affect which would certainly be no more evident to a traveler to the region than it would be to its residents. Naturally, a certain difference would exist owing to the language of the occupying colonial power. The spoken French in Haiti, the English in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad, and the Spanish in Cuba and Puerto Rico, are all obvious distinctions at the surface. Also, an island’s size and soil, as various as they are, certainly did determine whether and to what degree sugar or any other plantation would be established, and to what extent it would saturate the available landmass. The unifying categorization that Sidney Mintz, at the outset, makes clear that each island’s particular geography dictated its suitability to plantation development.

Probably the most important determinant in cultural variation is the relationship between the European conquest of a given island in relation to the onset of a mature plantation system. The rapid introduction of large-scale plantation enterprise soon after acquisition is a model followed by the British and Dutch and as well to a certain extent by the French. Mintz points out that the Hispanic colonies deviated to some extent from this model. Here, Europeans or Creoles always outnumbered slaves, with settlement patterns established centuries before large-scale plantation developments were underway. Augmenting this paradigm, Rojo concludes that, even to the extent that slaves composed a given island’s population "…the Negro slave who arrived at a Caribbean colony before the plantation was organized contributed much more toward Africanizing the Creole culture than did the one who came within the great shipments typical of the plantation in its heyday." (Rojo, p70)

Even among the more monotonous models of British plantation construction, differences in the relative dates of acquisition had some effect on the attainment of critical mass, and therefore on the resulting cultural consequences, as Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad bear witness to. More textured is the various responses to any alternative economic enterprise that may have emerged in the more creolized Hispanic colonies. The 16th century development of a vibrant Creole economy in leather on the northwest side of the island of Hispanola represented a potentially more lucrative activity than did Spain’s dwindling agriculture near Santo Domingo. Situated as it was outside of the Casa de Contratacion, the enterprise of this banda norte was subjected to devastation by the colonial officials in 1605-06. According to Rojo, "…As a coda to this episode of the devestations, one would have to add that the colony took centuries to recover from the adverse economic and social consequences that the incident produced." (Rojo, p48)

A similar alternative economic development in Cuba at about the same time produced very different results. Cuba’s eastern region, just as its nearby northwest Hispanola neighbor, was engaged in a leather trade of its own, and its creole practitioners were themselves removed from the official Spanish port of Havana. Under these circumstances, they too were subject to threat of punitive sanction. Here, however, a fortuitous avenging of a mediating bishop’s kidnapping gained this renegade community a reprieve and allowed it to continue its activities unmolested. "The region’s inhabitants continued to smuggle more than ever, and the type of society generated by the leather economy lasted until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its complex cultural forms also endured and, sometimes withdrawing into themselves while at other times extending outward, they made up a long lasting creole culture." (Rojo, p51)

Rhythm of the Waves

The common and recognizably Caribbean and simultaneously island-distinct qualities of the music, style, and cuisine of the region can assuredly provide ample material for a study of its own. Interesting and less obvious are the parallel attributes of political developments in the region. Common themes of emancipation, independence, and economic development animate the discussion of political direction on each island at some time, but each in its own unique context while still influenced by others of them. Michelle Cliff has Clare recall a fleeting image from the car window, unexplained, but a relevant message for 1958: "CASTRO SI, BATISTA NO. In black paint. In large letters against the cathedral." (Abeng, p22)

This message would resonate in Jamaica some years later, not in a violent Communist revolution, but with independence and later with the socialism of Michael Manley. Same rhythm, but different. And the wave was uneven, for it would not resonate sufficient to alter the autocratic regime of ‘Papa Doc’ in Haiti.

These waves had been undulating back and forth for some time. The Haitian revolution that resulted in her independence in 1804 sent its waves across the sea to Jamaica to inspire slave revolts and producing emancipation for its slaves, but the wave took three decades to achieve its full effect. Curiously, Cuba, situated between the two, was meanwhile accelerating its slave-driven sugar plantation and did not absorb that rhythm for still another half century.

The eclectic examinations of a diverse and yet similar group of people and the islands on which they dwell help capture the essence of a most curiously heterogeneous accumulation of cultures that share a common sea, a common climate, and a remarkable history that makes it hard to understand one without first understanding them all.


Cultures of Sidney Mintz, "The Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area" from M. Horowitz, Peoples and The Caribbean (Garden City, NJ, 1971)

Antonio Benitez-Rojo, "From the plantation to the Plantation" from The Repeating Island (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1992)

Michelle Cliff, "IF I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire" article from anthology. Michelle Cliff, Abeng (Penguin, NY, NY, 1995)
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