Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The British Caribbean and its history

By Franklyn W Knight:

The English-speaking population of the Caribbean represents less than 20 per cent of the conventionally defined region. That definition describes a Caribbean composed of the island chain from the Bahamas and the Dutch ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao plus the mainland enclaves of Belize, Guyana and Suriname. Sometimes Bermuda is included although its 68,000 additional souls hardly change the proportion.

In the 1980s a new political definition became popular. It added the Central American states but omitted Cuba, displaying more the political bias of the United States of America rather than the reality of Caribbean affairs and the peculiar history of the region. The driving force behind the conventional definition of the Caribbean was a certain uniformity of history. The states of the conventional Caribbean were inordinately influenced by the interrelated sugar revolutions that convulsed the region between the 17th and the 19th centuries.

These sugar revolutions radically transformed the political, social, occupational, economic, demographic, and environmental structure of most of the Caribbean islands. Sugar was the principal driving force but it was not the only one and not all the islands succumbed to those revolutions. The massive importation of Africans - more than 10 million between 1518 and 1870 - made possible the transformation of the vast region between the northeast of Brazil, the Antilles, the Magdalena-Cauca river valleys of Colombia and a huge swath of the southern part of what today is called the United States of America. But African slavery affected every country in the Americas to some degree.

Slavery, of course, existed long before Christopher Columbus and his ill-fated caravels wandered into the Caribbean. Slaves constituted an integral part of Roman expansion and colonisation of most of Western Europe. The preferred slaves of Romans came from the region that today comprises Germany. But the word itself derives from the Slavic peoples who formed the greater proportion of people who were traded in the slave markets of the Mediterranean. Europeans continued to enslave one another until the middle of the 19th century, although mostly in Russia. And Muslim states enslaved captured Europeans in the Mediterranean until the Napoleonic Wars.

African and indigenous American peoples also enslaved one another. Throughout the continent of Africa, stronger states subordinated weaker states and subjected their conquered peoples to some form of slavery. Among other occupations, male slaves were employed as warriors or protectors of harems and religious sites. In Mexico a system of slavery called Tlacotli existed until the arrival of Hernán Cortés in 1521.

Slavery in the Americas reconstructed by the Europeans and their slaves finds no precedence anywhere else in the world. Neither in Europe, Africa nor among the indigenous societies of the Americas did the practice demonstrate the rigidity and suffocating mutually reinforcing cleavages developed after 1518. Only in the European American colonies were race and colour essential aspects of enslavement. Only in the Americas did slavery perform a vitally important economic function, assets that could independently generate wealth. The American slave society and the American slave-holding society were fundamentally different.

Nevertheless, the way the history of the Caribbean is taught, especially in the British Caribbean, leaves much to be desired. It tends to be excessively centred on the British Caribbean experience and neglects the integral connection with the non-Anglophone Caribbean or with the wider Americas.

To begin, not all Africans arrived in the Americas as merchandise. Several Hispanised Africans arrived with the Iberians in the first century of conquest and colonisation. Columbus recruited travel companions such as Juan Garrido and Pedro Alonso Niño from among the large free black population that lived in Andalucía, in cities from Málaga to Huelva. Nuflo de Olano who accompanied Vasco Nuñez de Balboa across the Isthmus of Panama was probably a bought African slave. Juan Valiente who accompanied Hernán Cortés to Mexico was described as black. So was Estebanico who wandered for 10 years with Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca from Florida to Mexico by way of Louisiana and Texas.

These free blacks, like their fellow adventurers, spawned a large, free, mixed population wherever they went. There were blacks and descendants of blacks all across the Americas who were never enslaved. They formed pockets of free population in cities, especially port cities like Havana, New Orleans, Vera Cruz, Porto Bello, Cartagena, Lima, Salvador de Bahia and Buenos Aires. And the town of El Cobre in eastern Cuba had a town council of freed and semi-free residents between 1680 and 1780.

During the 19th century another group of free Africans arrived along with Chinese and Indians from the Asian subcontinent to assist in the transition from slave labour to wage labour across the Caribbean. While smaller than the imported numbers of the commercial transatlantic slave trade, these immigrants are a part of the history that should not be neglected.

The massive importation of Africans was necessary because, unlike the narratives of Bartolomé de las Casas, the population of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean in 1492 was not as large as the friar supposed. The Caribbean islands may have had a combined population of just about one million. That population could not support the increased labour demands of export-oriented plantations. The decline of the Native American population between 1500 and about 1650 was extremely complex and not the result of the single or simplistic explanation of Spanish genocide. Indeed, genocide is an inappropriate description for the decline of the Tainos of the Antilles.

But slavery is not the only theme in which moving the boundaries beyond time and space offers rewards. Hispaniola had a relatively early sugar complex - as early as 1512. The distillation of rum has a history preceding the English arrival in Barbados. Rum was distilled in the 13th century by Benedictine monks in Lebanon. Maroons were not really instrumental in the process of disintegration of the Caribbean slave society, and their role in the Haitian revolution seems highly exaggerated. Finally, the peasant society in the Caribbean goes back to the 16th century.

July 07, 2010