The Colonial Burden of the Caribbean

Las olas acudían, se abrían, para rozar nuestra eslora; se cerraban, tras de nosotros, con tan continuado y acompasado rumor que su permanencia se hacía semejante al silencio que el hombre tiene por silencio cuando no escucha voces parecidas a las suyas. Alejo Carpentier. El Siglo de las Luces. 1962.

I have always been interested in the Caribbean, but had not been able to visit, think, or learn about this region until the past few years. My entry point was not a beach resort or a cruise ship, but research I have been doing for an USAID project on youth violence prevention in the Eastern Caribbean (I have only traveled to what used to be called the leeward and the windward islands and Guyana). However, my first memories, or rather, imagined memories, of the Caribbean are connected with pirates, cannibals and seafaring adventures. I do not know if boys today still read pirate sagas or have exotic images of adventures in ships hopping through islands among pristine waters, but I imagine the stereotypes are still there, thinking about the success of Johnny Depp as captain Sparrow in the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies I have enjoyed so much watching with my kids.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) Poster

As I grew older, but still in my teens, my imagination of the Caribbean region was constructed through the works of Alejo Carpentier: The Lost Steps, The Kingdom of this World, and above all, El Siglo de las Luces (the translations of the title in English just don’t capture the nuance of it). I had all but forgotten how influential Carpentier had been for my intellectual growth, until I gifted a copy of El Siglo de las Luces to my daughter a few months ago, the same edition I read in the collection of books my father had bought in 1979, called Las grandes obras del siglo veinte. I came to realize that I was reading Carpentier when I was 13 or 14 years old. I am pretty sure I read every book by Carpentier, even ¡Ecue-Yamba-O! Only recently have I come to realize that most US American colleagues are not familiar with this great Latin American boom author (he called his style lo real maravilloso, rather than the realismo mágico of García Márquez) — his works were neglected by US readers and some even remained untranslated for many years, due to his sympathy to the regime of Fidel Castro.

Another great Caribbean book I read, once I was in university, was by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, Omeros, in the Jose Luis Rivas Spanish translation. The book was a present from my dearest high school friend, although I must confess I only understood the poem the second time I read it, three years ago, and as I watched this great poem staged at the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival, sitting in the second row, just behind Walcott himself. Over these last years I have been reading non-fiction on the Caribbean, with my understanding of the region deeply influenced by Laurent Dubois Haiti the Aftershocks of History and Carrie Gibson Empire’s Crossroads. I am sure my readings are quite haphazard and incomplete. I still have a very superficial understanding of the region. But during my last trip I became obsessed with the problem of colonialism and social exclusion, a theme that is impossible to ignore in the Caribbean.

Omeros playing at the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival with Joseph Marcell from the Shakespeare Globe in 2016

Traveling as a development expert to places where fancy tourist resorts and beaches are the engine of the economy is a deeply troubling and contradictory experience. I was doing academic work to support foreign aid. Aid is meant to have an impact in the quality of life of less developed countries. But ultimately the purpose of aid is to get countries to become self-reliant and embark in a path of growth and prosperity. I was sleeping, eating and drinking in a style that no local could afford. The Caribbean is the region of the world most dependent on tourism earnings, with the added peculiarity of these small patches of land in the middle of the sea receive a third of a very peculiar form of tourism, 100 million of the world’s cruise ship passengers. In the islands countries that I have got to know better, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia, tourists far exceed the total number of inhabitants. Cruise ship visitors barely get a glimpse of the country, from the familiar comfort of their floating hotels.

Except for those using their own sailboats and cruise ships, traveling between the Caribbean countries turns out to be a rather hard thing to do. Most flights in the Eastern Caribbean seem to involve connections through Barbados or Sint Maarten, with at least three legs. In the same way as railroads in Africa were built towards the ports, and not to connect the interior, air flights in the Caribbean are scheduled to link the island destinations to the customers in Europe and North America, not to link the islands to each other. The tourist resorts and the port terminals are foreign enclaves. That does not mean that there is no mobility among the inhabitants of the Caribbean: in fact, there is a constant flow of people moving around for jobs or other economic activities, probably not different from the navigation practiced by the Kalingo and Taino peoples before the arrival of the European colonizers.

The development model of the Caribbean islands seem to me to be very much at odds with what another Saint Lucian, an Economics Nobel Prize winner, W. Arthur Lewis, had in mind when he described the mechanics of modernization and development in his famous two sector model. In that model the “subsistence” sector would gradually come to disappear as the “capitalist” sector absorbed surplus labor, and as the scarcity of the labor force gradually increased, generate higher wages. If savings rates in an economy were high enough, a turning point towards development could be reached. Many of the Caribbean countries attempted after independence various forms of state led planning and development strategies that relied heavily on state intervention, attempting, against all odds to recover, their sugar industries. These attempts perhaps increased the savings rates and shifted employment away from subsistence economies, but they did not bring about development. The Lewis model seems actually out of sync with a fundamental reality of the economies of the Caribbean: they have always been shaped by capitalism, or at least since the time when that mode of production came about at a global scale after 1492, as dependencia theorists often insist. The challenge has not been to shift an economy away from subsistence into a capitalist logic, the Caribbean has always been at the core of capitalism.

One of the things that struck me most in this last trip to the Eastern Caribbean is to consider the experience of forgetting the historical name of a territory. Virtually all the names of the places in Saint Lucia are French. And almost all the places in St. Kitts and Nevis are either English or French, even though the member islands of the federation itself get their names from the Spanish San Cristóbal and Nieves. Saint Lucia was in principle established in 1594 and Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1624, as stamped t-shirts of the West Indies declared (the shirts are primarily sold to tourists, but I found locals in the village of Sandy Point, in St Kitts, also wearing them). The t-shirts made me think about one striking feature of colonialism and the experience of extraction and dispossession that was lived by the inhabitants of these territories, upon their encounter with the Europeans: not even the names of the places inhabited by the original peoples have survived. As a Mexican this is quite surprising, since virtually all the place names in Mexico are indigenous. The dates of those t-shirts mark the point of contact with the Europeans as a threshold of historical memory or identity for local communities, seemingly erasing a pre-existing identity as Tainos (Arawak) or Kalinago (Carib).

In the Islario of Alonso de Santa Cruz, the cosmographer of Phillip II, composed between 1536 and 1560, the Caribbean is depicted in the very first map, together with Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and the pen-insula of Yucatán and the islands of the Cannibals. The map has specific names the Spanish explorers gave to the islands in the first century of European exploration of the Americas. Only Cuba and Jamaica (Xaymaca) have kept their Taino (Arawak) names. Everything else has either the name of a Christian Saint or a feature that was familiar to the Spaniards (the Sierra de Guadalupe or the Mountains of Montserrat, or snow capped mountains). In his discussion of this region of the world, Santa Cruz does often record the original name of the islands. But by the time the English, French or Dutch colonizers were writing about “their” hard fought possessions in the West Indies, all the original names are forgotten.

Closeup of the first map in Alonso de Santa Cruz Islario in the Biblioteca Nacional de España, available at World Digital Library. Just in the same way as indigenous place names were erased from the geography of the Caribbean, Santa Cruz authorship was paradoxically scraped from the front page of his treatise, as the next Cartographer of the King, Andrés García de Céspedes, tried to appropriate the unpublished Atlas.

As many European scholars of this era, Alonso de Santa Cruz repeats the conventional story claiming that Carib Indians were hunting down peaceful Taino Indians from the neighboring islands, in order to sustain their loathsome practice of cannibalism. Santa Cruz notes, however, that “with the help of God, they are being expelled from all the islands, many have perished at the hand of the Spanish, others were spent by the pox, and the rest have taken shelter in the continent” ending by noting that the continent is mostly “free of this thing [anthropophagy], monstrous and contumelious to the humanity of men” (p328v). Of course the true inhumanity was the European one, that depopulated the Caribbean islands in just a few decades.

Such erasure was most brutal when considering a particular location shown in most maps of the the island of Saint Cristopher (St. Kitts), called Bloody Point. Alonso de Santa Cruz notes that the island of St. Kitts was very fertile, crossed by two good rivers. It is clear that at some point before the French and English settlements of the islands, the Kalingo established thriving communities, displacing the Taino who previously lived there, but adopting their language. Petroglyphs near Bloody Point provide evidence of early settlement since at least the year 500. Bloody Point, while not retaining an indigenous nomination, gets its name from a brutal massacre committed by French and English colonizers in 1626. Settlers were alerted of plans by the Kalingo chief to expel them from the island, and in a preemptive strike, they European settlers killed all the leaders of their Indian neighbors, during their sleep. This much is unapologetically described by a Dominican Friar Jean Baptiste du Tetre, well known for his defense of the notion of the “noble savage”, in his history of the islands, published in 1654. What du Tetre omits from the story, is however, that around two thousand Kalingo, probably the majority of the dwellers in that specific river valley, were also killed the next morning, turning the waters of the river red for three days. I heard the story from my driver the first time I went to St. Kitts a few years ago, but now it takes on an added significance when I think about no single place name in the whole island remaining with a Kalingo trace.

The island of St. Christophers, alias St. Kitts. By H. Moll Geographer, 1736. Bloody Point is located in the Southern Coast, between the Brimston Hill Fort and Basseterre. Rumsey Map Collection Image number 5580057.

The few surviving Kalingo after the Bloody River massacre were removed from the islands in the Antilles and concentrated in Guadaloupe and Saint Vincent a few years later. Some maps, including one of Martinique show regions still inhabited by the “savages” in the middle of the century (1667). But a few years later no indigenous trace is left. Bloody Point in Saint Kitts, however, reveals that even those places with forgotten name may be remembered collectively in a different way. The island has no place with any other original name (except for Mt. Liamuiga, that the colonizers had marked in their maps as Mount Misery). but it retains the collective memory of a river tainted in blood.

I should discuss another word, cannibal, given that I am giving so much importance to the names given to places, or to peoples. The word derives from the Carib Indians, morphed into Caribales, and then to Canibales, coming from the first reports provided by the letters of Columbus describing his encounters with the “New” World. The way in which the European imagination was fascinated by the practice of anthropophagy is evident in a print from 1621 included in the partly fiction, partly historical narrative Nova typis transacta navigatio novi orbis Indiæ occidentalis by Honorius Philoponus (a pseudonym for a Benedict monk Caspar Plautius). The print is meant to show the welcome that Europeans received in the Caribbean islands.

HonInsulae Canibalium: The Europeans as victims, flee to their ships as they are attacked by Carib indians, who feast on human meat in their island. Honorius Philoponus (1621) at the John Carter Brown Library,

The remarkable thing about the cannibal island image above is that, just like in the conventional Western movies depicting conflict between Indians and US settlers, in this imagined scene the European invaders are the victims. It does not matter that they have a fleet of portentous ships (10 of them!), firing cannons, with an obviously superior sailing technology (“mountains in the water” is the way they were described to Moctezuma when the ships were sighted in the coast of the Gulf of Mexico) and shooting their arquebuses. On the shore the Cannibals delight in the feast they make of the captured Europeans they cook, while their homes are decorated with severed heads, and heads in stakes dot the landscape. I was born in Mexico, so my imagined Mexican Indians never look this way, but I should confess that my exotic Cannibals did. Since a very early age the image imprinted in my mind of an Aztec or a Maya was a dignified, lavishly ornamented and “civilized” lord, like the kings carved in stelae or the seated emperors in the pictorial codexes I saw since my early years in museum visits or history textbooks.

I now know that those images of a Mexican Indian I had in my mind were produced by indigenous artists themselves, obeying rules of iconography that are quite distinguishable from the European ones. European prints of Theodore de Bry or the many Dutch, English or French engravings of the savage Indian are caricatures, often sourced from second hand accounts (These exotic European gaze of the savage Indians in those engraving is as alien to me as the Brueghel figures in European village). But in the Caribbean, as well as the US West, Virginia or Florida, it was possible to imagine the Indian as a half naked hostile warrior with feathers and a bow and arrow, as part of the justification for genocide.

The Spanish tyranny in the west indies, by Simon de Vries (1684) at the John Carter Brown Library, F682 V982c.

English, French and Dutch chroniclers seem take take pride in contrasting their colonial experience in the Americas with the Spanish brutality, the so called “Black Legend”. They want to believe that their colonizing enterprise was more enlightened and less cruel than the Spanish one. This conceit should not be given much credence. All the colonizers, including the Danes that I have not mentioned, were probably just as homicidal and inhuman. The Spanish were of course tyrannical, but so were all the other Europeans. The main difference between colonizers seems to me that the Spanish (and Portuguese) arrived first, setting the tone for what was to follow, but they also had to contend with more complex social realities in their vast territories with very large hinterlands. In the Caribbean islands there was no escape for the victims from their rulers, neither for the initial Kalingo resistance, nor some decades later for the runaway slave.

As the native population was decimated, African slaves were brought to the Caribbean, together with new crops, to work in plantations. A print by Theodore de Bry from 1595 shows sugar cane economic activity, contrasting sharply with both the previous image of savage cannibalism or Spanish mistreatment. In this print African slaves are working hard in something that looks like a very advanced industry. They are not shown with a stereotypical physiognomy, but the artist makes sure to show them almost naked, just like the “savage” Indians. The striking thing about this image is that there are no foremen, whipping, or any visible signs of coercion. The image is meant to illustrate that as gold mining run out in Hispaniola, it was substituted by sugar cane, produced by slaves. But the image is eerily silent about the brutal experience of forced labor. What is omitted is in some way more important than what is show, in order to understand how European settlers conceived of what they were doing in the Caribbean.

Nigritae exhaustis venis metallicis consiciendo saccharo operam dare debent. Theodoro de Bry. 1595.

What did slavery mean for the islands in the Caribbean? I am not able to really describe what others with more literary talent can tell us. But in a realm I feel more competent, I can use statistics to think about the horror lived in these islands. The Slave Trade database provides extremely accurate data on the numbers of African slaves that were brought to the Caribbean. The information, given that it comes from ship manifestos, also allows for some idea about the region in Africa where the ancestors of the St. Kitts and Nevis inhabitants may have come from.

The table below shows the reconstructed data, together with the port of embarkation in Africa, for St. Kitts and Nevis and Guyana (the Saint Lucia data is aggregated for all the French colonies). The African slaves are in my mind original peoples, but in a different sense. An early print from a 1665 of the history of the Antilles (Paysage d’une partie de l’Ile de S. Christofle, avec un Crayon du Chasteau de Mr. le General) that a walled castle in St. Kitts with a “Town of Angola” just outside the city walls. Slaves working in the plantations may have initially had a distinguishable ethnic identity of their African origin. However, the data suggest that as the slave trade proceeded in the 18th century, slaves were brought from all over the Continent.

According to this data, the vast majority of the slaves disembarking in St. Kitts came in the 18th century. In one of the so called Blathwayt maps, made for the English Secretary of the Lords of Trade and Plantations (Carte de lisle de Sainct Christophle Scituée a 17 Degrez 30 Minutes de Lat. Septentrionale in the Rumsey Map Collection) it is stated that in 1667 the English section of the island of St Kitts had 10,000 inhabitants. Perhaps the French sections had another similar number. These ten thousand inhabitants were mostly slaves working in the plantations. Some other sources mention around 20,000 inhabitants in St. Kitts during the 18th century. The island today has around 52,000 inhabitants and seems to have had at least 40 thousand during much of the 20th century.

Slave trade data suggests that before 1720 there were no more than a ship or two carrying slaves directly disembarking in St. Kitts. Slaves must have arrived in the 17th century from other islands in the region. However, from 1720 to the end of the British slave trade in 1809, an average of 1,500 slaves were arriving only to the island of St. Kitts, each year. This provides a truly disturbing picture regarding the conditions in the plantations and the likelihood of premature death. In a back of the envelope calculation, if we assume half of the population (the number of inhabitants in the island must have been at around 20 thousand during much of the colonial era) may have been children, these numbers would imply that 15 percent of the working age population was being replaced in any given year by African slaves. That is more or less the same percentage as the difference between the embarked and the disembarked African slaves, namely the deaths occurring during the horrific middle passage in the Atlantic.

From the capitalist logic of plantation owners, it seems that the loss of labor force in any given year could be replaced at any time by 1,500 slaves newly brought from Africa. Such rate of death was deemed an acceptable loss in the calculated profit logic of plantation economies. Another way to think about these same numbers is that the entire population of the island was replaced every 13 years. Although distributed over time, it means that the scale of inhumanity of the slave trade is just as perfidious and large as the indigenous genocide.

The island nations of the Caribbean I have visited are born from a double historical trauma, even though it is not easy to disentangle how the echoes of the first one are still present today. The first trauma is about the decimation of their original peoples; the second one is about the repopulation of the islands with humans treated as merchandise, forcibly removed from their African homes through the Atlantic slave trade. What struck me most about the first historical trauma is that the eradication of the original peoples was so ruthless that it left almost no trace, genetic or otherwise. The absence is notorious through the disappearance of virtually all the place names. What strikes me most about the era of the slave plantations is the utter disregard for human life in the quest for profit within supposedly civilized and rational calculations of Europeans that felt morally superior to their Spanish peers.

Lenin, Hobson, and the vintage theories of Imperialism, saw that slavery, the exploitation of raw materials and natural resources, and colonial rivalries among European powers were deeply connected with the origin of capitalism (and in the case of the US South, the book Empire of Cotton shows the deep connection between slavery and capitalist accumulation). Wealth or higher incomes have not really been generated in the Caribbean by taking advantage of commodities that may seek high prices in the international market (sugar, bananas or cacao), or through a boom as a tourist destination.

The islands of the Caribbean I know (and I might clarify, I have not been to the large islands of Hispaniola, Cuba or Puerto Rico) are places in which the modern enclaves of the service sector do offer relatively higher paying jobs than those in the rest of the economy. The rest of the economic sectors are not backward subsistence economies in the Lewis sense, but fundamentally “capitalist” too. Fishing and marginal small plots do exist, but the underlying fact is that after the demise of slavery, most laborers remained employed in the scarce fertile land in plantations (privately or publicly owned) meant to produce commodities for European markets. Indentured workers form the Indian subcontinent came to complement the mix after the demise of the English slave trade. Sugar cane, cocoa, bananas, mangos or tobacco will not generate development.

Nowadays, virtually everyone in the islands I have visited seem to depend on tourism. The jobs in the tourist service economy provide personal services at any time the client demands them. Shifts are distributed throughout 24 hours of the day, from 7 to 3, followed by 3 to 11 and a night shift from 11 to 7. Many of the youth I have met in the trips I have made in the past three years are raised by single mothers that are working afternoon or night shifts, sometimes commuting to the other side of their island. It is very hard to be a parent in those circumstances. Among the complex factors that have given rise to gangs and violence and the challenges affecting youth in the Caribbean, an important one is that parental supervision if often nonexistent due to the realities of a family structure of missing fathers and the employment opportunities of mothers. Furthermore, even the best jobs are insecure: a hurricane, or even something like the remodeling of a Four Seasons Hotel in Nevis, can unexpectedly leave most of the inhabitants in an island unemployed for long periods of time. And the extended family is not as strong as in “traditional” communities in other developing countries so as to offer a protection network. Risks are mitigated through migration within and outside the Caribbean region, remittance flows, and illegal economic activities including the sale of sex and drugs. It is clear to me that tourism will not be the source of development to the region either, and that the way it is being pursued may actually generate many ills in the social fabric, putting youth at risk of violence.

My trips to the region have also included visits to Guyana, a country that filled the imagination of Europeans wishing to become wealthy, since the time when a famous pirate, Sir Walter Raleigh, explored its coasts and rivers. Guyana is now being touted as the country that will become one the richest of the Americas, with its upcoming oil and gas boom. Experiences of oil curses in places like Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago or Mexico should temper any enthusiasm. The Guyanese experience itself, with diamonds, gold and forestry, should convince anyone that the second poorest country in the Americas will not become rich from a development model that, like tourism, is based on producing goods and services demanded by the global North, and not on the creation of diversified economies that generate better wages, skills and higher standards of living.

I am not denying the success stories of countries like South Korea or Chile based on capitalist development linked to global markets, but these have been the exception, not the rule. The likelihood that tourism in the Caribbean can have similar effect to what it does to the Italian economy, or that oil and gas in Guyana can be managed to generate something like the Norwegian Oil Fund is, in my view, very low. Obstacles are institutional, political, social, even cultural, and have a deep root in the colonial experience.

I do not know how a society recovers from a traumatic historical past. The societies in the Caribbean islands I have visited, despite the historical travails I have just described, are vibrant joyful places. Most of their youth are creative, open minded and creative. They open with an embrace to the strangers coming to their land. The Saintlucians, Kittians, Nevitians and Guyanese I met in my travels are all proud spirits. Yet, development for the Caribbean will take much more than a cruise ship here and there, a tourist resort, or a gas field, no matter how successful they may be.

A final thought. Perhaps visitors to the Caribbean should be educated about their historical responsibility. At the very least they should learn about what the colonial powers did to the islands they are enjoying. To be told something other than tales of pirates and savage cannibals. They should be told about the misadventures of peoples that were removed a Continent away, jailed as slaves or indentured servants in these beautiful islands to grow sugar or tobacco or bananas for their captors. And that the Kalingo and Taino peoples all but vanished. Tourists will perhaps feel awkward and uncomfortable, perhaps only for a few minutes. They should.

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