That was true in the sense that those who wrote in the twentieth century had little idea of what had gone before. Now Kevyn Arthur’s investigation and meticulous editing of 18th century Barbadian newspapers and journals reveals there was, existing side by side with the horrors of slavery, a lively and heterogeneous literary world that begins to explore what it means to be Barbadian. This was, after all, a country that in 1651 had declared its independence from Cromwellian Britain and negotiated a treaty that gave it a degree of autonomy that influenced similar moves in the American colonies.
By the 1730s, when the publisher, printer and first collector of the material in this volume, the fascinating Samuel Keimer (frequently jailed in Britain for his anti-royalist libels), arrived in Barbados, it was an island in which amateur theatre flourished, there was a literary society, artists painted and Doctor Towne had published a treatise on West Indian diseases. It did not have a press, and Keimer, once employer of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, and then conclusively undermined by him, met that need by establishing the Barbados Gazette.
This first volume of Caribbean Treasure draws from issues of the Gazette published between 1731-1738, and later collected by Keimer in his Caribbeana, published in 1741. These newspapers contained much literary material, a feature dear to Keimer’s heart. There are poems, satires, essays and letters in the style of the Spectator, and other materials that give a vivid picture of the life of that time. It is, of course, a world seen from the perspective of the White, slave-owning class (though Keimer himself, radical Protestant, idiosyncratic Quaker and Gnostic, had tried to teach ‘his poor Brethren, the Male Negroes, to read’ in Philadelphia), but one which was cutting its ties with ‘the vain joys that Albion yields’ and could write of ‘Bless’d land, Barbados, hail! hail happy isle…’.
Amply footnoted, contextualised (with Latin translations for the unclassical), and with an insightful and persuasive introductory essay by Kevyn Arthur, this volume is the first instalment of a project that conclusively demolishes VS Naipaul’s infamous dictum: ‘History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies...’
Novelist and poet Kevyn Arthur was born in Barbados in 1942. He has worked as a journalist and as a philosophy lecturer, and currently lives in Virginia.