Publication Date

February 1, 1995

Residents and nonresidents alike are exposed to a plethora of contrasting and conflicting representations of the Caribbean. The societies of the region are frequently depicted as exotic playgrounds with picturesque scenery, beautiful beaches, and smiling, congenial, and happy peoples. On occasion, these images are presented alongside those of unrelieved poverty, hopelessness, crime, and violence. Recently, the image includes that of drug-dependent societies held captive to a variety of crippling social ills and seemingly insoluble problems. But stereotypes aside, there are a variety of faces to these societies: they are richly diverse on the one hand, but there are deeply shared historical experiences and human and cultural tics on the other with which researchers of both United States and world historyshould be familiar.

The polyglot peoples of the Caribbean can trace their ancestry principally to Asia, Europe, and Africa. Few physical traces of the first inhabitants—the Guanahuatebeys, Arawaks, and Caribs—remain. Almost all of the other contemporary residents can claim a history that began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the 1490s, and the extraordinary forces that were unleashed in the wake of European colonization. Today, the island societies and the enclaves on the South American mainland that are usually considered a part of the Caribbean have a combined population of approximately 35 million. Three states—Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic—account for about 70 percent of the total.

How should one teach about these societies? A relatively unscientific survey of the curricula of American universities indicates that there are at least five different kinds of courses that treat the Caribbean, either marginally or in substantial depth. The region is sometimes included as a part—albeit a small one—of world history surveys; it receives some attention in courses that address the history of the Americas; and thematic offerings on the history of the Atlantic slave trade, comparative slavery, social revolutions—among others—also draw examples from the region. A few universities offer surveyor specialized courses whose primary focus is the history of the area, and there are courses with an interdisciplinary emphasis, usually containing historical segments but also devoting substantial attention to the literature, economy, social and cultural institutions, and the political life of the peoples. This short discussion is primarily concerned with those courses in which the history of the Caribbean peoples receives more than just superficial treatment, although others are likely to profit as well.

The matter of how to define the Caribbean invites attention from the outset. Should the criteria be primarily geographic, cultural, or based upon some other measure? The answer to this question will depend on whether one accepts the view that the societies washed by the Caribbean Sea possess a cultural unity that tempers their individual trajectories or whether one chooses to see each society as fundamentally unique in its historical evolution and contemporary character.

Recently, I attended a workshop in Miami where a few scholars maintained that South Florida should now be considered a part of the Caribbean because of the significant presence and cultural impact of Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Cubans, and others. In this rendering, the Caribbean consists of moving frontiers, the geographically disparate societies are united by shared cultural understandings. Other scholars would include Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, and the Yucatan because of the long history of cultural interaction and exchange between these peoples and others linked by the Caribbean Sea. Scholars may divide on the boundaries of the Caribbean and the criteria for establishing them, but the issue must be addressed and the reasons for the inclusion or exclusion of some societies must withstand informed analysis.

History courses that discuss the Caribbean, regardless of how the area is defined, can no longer start in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus; such a perspective is not only Eurocentric but ahistorical as well. Significant attention must be given to the internal history of the first inhabitants of the area, their systems of thought, economic arrangements, and the ways in which they organized their lives prior to the fateful events of 1492. Our students must develop a balanced and healthy appreciation of these diverse societies, shorn of the ethnocentrism or romantic condescension that has often interfered with our study of the early peoples of the Americas. They must be able to situate the indigenous peoples in their own cultural and geographic space and seek to understand them in their own context. Moreover, it is important not to define these ethnically variegated peoples by the appellation "pre-Hispanic" since such a description tends to see them as important only in terms of their relationship to the European "Other."

The events of 1492 present special interpretive problems. We cannot characterize the European arrival as a "discovery," given the Eurocentric connotations of that word when used in this context. But did this historically momentous occurrence and its aftermath constitute a "conquest," an "invasion," a "collision." or merely an "encounter"? This is more than just a semantic problem. Our characterization of the nature of those events will shape in large measure how we-and our students too-interpret subsequent developments and the relationships between the outsiders and the indigenous peoples.

The imposition of European rule after 1492 was an important watershed in the history of the Caribbean. But while we cannot and should not deny the fundamental changes that European colonial rule wrought, it is important to search for watersheds in the evolution of the indigenous peoples prior to 1492. In other words, the tendency to view these early societies as static must be avoided. The rise of sedentary communities, for example, represented an important break with past practices and understandings, and so did the development of agriculture. These and other innovations occurred at different times in different places but they presaged new societal challenges and directions.

Post-1492 watersheds, to be sure, are easier to identify if for no other reason than the historical literature is more abundant. In addition to the inauguration of colonial rule, the demographic consequences of the European presence were catastrophic for the local peoples. These related developments, together with the introduction of African slavery in 1502, must be seen as important benchmarks in the history of the area. Most of the islands, with notable exceptions such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, had majority black populations by 1700 and maturing plantation economies, with enormous consequences for their racial, cultural, and economic configurations.

The achievement of emancipation at various times in the 19th century must also be viewed as representing sharp breaks in the old regimen, as did the social and political movements of the 1930s and 1940s. The Cuban Revolution and the achievement of political independence by some countries in the 1960s and later should also be seen as initiating, or at least as having the potential to chart, new directions in their societal orders. Historians of the region may properly disagree with the identification and timing of these watersheds and with the measure of their significance. The point I wish to emphasize, however, is that the watersheds that are identified must be rooted in the internal history of the peoples of the region, be centered in their experiences, and reflect their own struggles and achievements.

As a practical matter, post-1492 developments will undoubtedly constitute the major emphases of most courses. The literature is more extensive, as I have noted, and there is a host of complex issues to be analyzed. Since African Slavery was established in 1502 and racism became systemic in all of the societies, a credible course on the Caribbean-as well as any that brings the region into focus-can hardly avoid a discussion of the ideological bases of racial slavery and the roles that ''race'' as an independent agency played and continues to play.

Students in our classes must appreciate the fact that there was nothing inevitable about the introduction of African slaves in the Caribbean or elsewhere in this hemisphere. It was only one of several labor options Europeans confronted. Some historians have, unwittingly, come dangerously close to embracing the view that the enslavement of Africans was not only inevitable but indispensable for the successful colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. We must be certain that our students develop some understanding of the complex roots of racial slavery and its ideological, cultural, and economic matrices.

The process by which the Caribbean was colonized and the nature of the colonial regimes and societies deserve attention. The colonial powers established the legal boundaries within which the free and the enslaved operated, and they promoted an ideology that legitimized the social order. We cannot, of course, revert to the practice of earlier times when the real stuff of Caribbean history consisted almost entirely of the activities of the colonizers, their competition for new possessions, and the wars they fought in the area. These issues, to be sure, are not unimportant and so must form part of the story; rather, it is largely a matter of perspective and balance. The history of the emerging black majorities in most islands should, I would suggest, be the principal-but not the exclusive-focus of our attention. In time, they would give these societies their distinctive identities and shape their social, cultural, and political trajectories.

Fortunately, historians can no longer lament the paucity of literature on the Atlantic slave trade and slavery. The last two decades have witnessed a veritable flood of scholarly work in this area, much of it reflecting a commendable methodological sophistication. Studies of the slave trade by Philip Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: ACensus (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969); Herbert Klein, The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade (Princeton Univ. Press, 1978); James Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History (New York, 1981); David Galenson, Traders, Planters and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986); Robert Louis Stein, The French Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century: An Old Regime Business (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1979); and Johannes Menne Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade. 1600-1815 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990) have shed considerable light on its changing organizational structure, the ethnic origins of the human cargoes, the process of their enslavement, the nature of the Atlantic passage, and a variety of demographic issues. This new information must be incorporated into our discussion of the Caribbean, but the slave trade cannot be seen as merely the movement of peoples. Africa—in all of its cultural richness and diversity—came to the Caribbean and to the Americas as a whole, as Michael Mullin has argued in Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the Caribbean, 1736-1831 (Univ. of Illinois Press. 1992). Consequently, our students must obtain a deep understanding of the various African ethnic streams and cultures that went into the making of the Caribbean.

The experiences of the slaves in the different societies at particular times remains controversial and imperfectly understood. Justice cannot be done to these debates here. Suffice it to say that our students should not view the history of these enslaved persons through the masters' lens or see them principally as helpless victims, emotionally drained, and socially dead. The tendency—at the other extreme—to characterize slaves as being always on the barricades and existing in a permanent state of rage represents a caricature of their lives, complex inner storms, and physical struggles. There is no doubt, of course, that African-born slaves and their creole progeny struggled to maintain a healthy sense of self and their psychic balance, even as they created the institutions that would sustain them as a people.

A good deal of the recent literature on slavery in the Caribbean and other societies of the Americas has avoided any discussion of the brutality of the institution and its impact on its victims and those who exercised power over them. Although this is an area of enquiry fraught with all kinds of minefields, we should question whether slaves, in teflon-coated fashion, walked away from their awful experiences unscathed. In fact, to suggest that slavery had a deleterious impact on its victims and their owners is, fundamentally, to affirm their common humanity. What must remain uncertain, and contentious, is the degree of that impact, its nature, and extent.

In exploring, or at least acknowledging, this controversial and emotionally charged issue, we must make a theoretical distinction between the impact of slavery on the enslaved, on the one hand, and the culture, social institutions, and sustaining mechanisms they created, on the other. The two questions are different but they are also interrelated. The distinction between the two often blurred in some of the literature, resulting in seriously flawed portraits of the institution of slavery and an overly "feel good" celebration of "slave" culture. The enslaved paid an enormous physical and psychic price as human property, and the circumstances that shaped the development of their culture-as important and exuberant as that was—should not be minimized.

Having said this, I think it is also desirable to devote considerable attention in our courses to the worlds of work, to the ways in which the enslaved ordered their lives, belief systems, world-views, medical practices, internal economies, and to the range of responses—from accommodation to resistance—to their life situations. It is important, wherever possible, to explore the degree of social stratification within the slave community and to make distinctions between the African-born and the creoles as they coped with their realities. All too frequently, we see the enslaved as a homogeneous group of persons, bereft of any individuality. Slavery as an institution was never static, and the reactions of its victims were neither unchanging, uniform, nor predictable. An underlying and pervasive theme in our discussion of slavery should be the process by which the Caribbean became culturally Africanized.

The emancipation of the slaves at various times in the 19th century brought new challenges and possibilities. In fact, the ways in which the newly freed organized their lives and attempted to shape their futures and create a liveable space for themselves constitute the principal themes of postemancipation history. The process and meanings of freedom varied and so did the responses to the changing circumstances, as Rebecca Scott has shown in her Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor. 1860-1889 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1983) and Thomas Holt in The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992). The arrival of the East Indians and the Chinese as indentured servants in some societies underscored an acute shortage of plantation workers, simultaneously adding new cultural and ethnic streams to the host societies.

The task of making sense of internal developments in the 19th century and later is complicated by the need to recognize the interplay between local forces and the ubiquitous external actors Caribbean societies, probably because of their size, have seldom been free from external interference and control. The Cuban struggle for independence, for example, was stymied by the imposition of the Platt Amendment. Puerto Rico was virtually absorbed by the United States after the Spanish-Cuban-American war. And Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Grenada have been invaded by American troops in more recent times. The role of the former Soviet Union in the affairs of Cuba is another striking example of external influence. The penetration of foreign capital, political ideas, and culture have also had enormous consequences for almost all of the societies and can and should be examined most usefully in a comparative context.

But while the Caribbean area has been subjected to foreign influences of one sort or another, this has never been a one-sided affair; migration is a dominant theme in the history of the region, particularly in the 20th century. England, the United States, Central America, and Canada, for example, have been the destination of a considerable number of the area's residents. Similarly, refugees from the great slave revolution in Haiti left their cultural imprint on Louisiana and elsewhere, as Alfred Hunt has recently shown in his Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1988). The Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, organized a mass movement in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century, and the ideology of an aggressive and confident blackness that inspired it still has a profound resonance in black America.

External influence and migration aside, the 20th-century Caribbean invites analysis from a variety of other perspectives. The social movements that challenged the status quo in many societies in the 1930s and later reflected the emergence of a new social order. The labor unrest that became almost endemic in those decades was symptomatic of deeper societal tensions and presaged bitter struggles for social justice and political rights. The configuration of these battles was, understandably, shaped by the circumstances of each society. In the case of the British West Indies, there were demands for universal adult suffrage, internal self-government, and, ultimately, political independence. Cuba, on the other hand, experienced a social revolution and asserted its independence from the United States. A profound sense of nationalism gave life to these struggles while simultaneously legitimizing them.

The political leaders who have emerged since the 1930s have confronted distressingly similar problems, although their prescriptions for change have been diverse. The states of the region are uniformly poor, and the Subcultural barriers to reform have been remarkably resilient. The Cuban Revolution represented one model for change, while the democratic socialism of Jamaica's Michael Manley seemed to suggest another. Puerto Rico tied its fortunes to the United States, and a series of rapacious and dictatorial administrations in Haiti ignored the problems of the dispossessed. With few remaining exceptions, Caribbean societies have won their political independence, and they share many of the same problems that have bedeviled the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some of these historical issues can be explored from a comparative perspective, an approach that will certainly temper any tendency to paint a picture of Caribbean exceptionalism.

Inasmuch as we must give voice to the dispossessed in our teaching of the history of the area, we should be similarly sensitive to the role that gender has played in helping to determine an individual's life chances. Specialists in the field have recently begun to employ gender as a mode of analysis, a methodological development that is certain to transform our understanding of the evolution of these societies. Similarly, the experiences of women must be included in the story that is being told, altering it in the process. Recent contributions by Hilary Beckles, Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados, 1627-1838 (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1989); Marietta Morrissey, Slave Women in the New World: Gender Stratification in the Caribbean (Univ. Kansas Press, 1989); and Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1690-1838 (Indiana Univ. Press, 1990) have enlarged our understanding of the lives of enslaved women, but such studies are still in their infancy. The complex interplay of race, class, and gender in circumscribing an individual’s or a group’s possibilities is a characteristic of all the societies.

This brief discussion does not exhaust the principal themes that should inform any discussion of the history of the Caribbean. An inescapable and continuing challenge is to present a picture that underscores the underlying cultural and historical unity of the area, while not losing sight of its diversity. A dynamic balance, therefore, must be struck between our recognition of the regional commonalities on the one hand and of the unique historical trajectory of each society on the other. We must, in other words, eschew any tendency to homogenize the experiences of these societies or to exaggerate their heterogeneity.

The recounting of the history of these peoples should not be trivialized and reduced exclusively to simplistic, patronizing, and mechanistic discussions of the physical resistance of slaves or of contemporary poor to their unenviable condition. Nor should we depict their history solely in terms of a tough, resilient peoples who have not been affected adversely, if at all, by the roll of history's unlucky dice. Their story is much more multifaceted, complex, and textured than such all-too-popular renderings suggest.

In the end, the history of the Caribbean, like the history of any other peoples, must be told—in large measure—from the perspective of those who made it and lived it. The interplay between the internal realities and the external forces must be given weight, but it is the Caribbean peoples themselves—with all their human strengths and vulnerabilities—who must occupy center stage as we seek to understand their experiences. Avoiding both hagiography and the temptation to view these peoples as the broken victims of malevolent forces, we are compelled to reconstruct their past, and to write and teach their history with empathy, a critical eye, and respect.

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