‘This two-be-three island/ hard like rock’ (Howard Fergus)

‘Landscape is its own monument: its meaning can only be traced on the underside. It is all history’. (Edouard Glissant).

‘Our landscape was as manufactured as that of any great French or English park. But we walked in a garden of hell, among trees, some still without popular names, whose seeds had sometimes been brought to our island in the intestines of slaves’. (VS Naipaul)


As these quotations indicate, the Caribbean must be seen as a place that is both intensely man-made but also resistant to human endeavour; and as a place whose meaning is as various and contradictory as the interests of the people who have found themselves there.

The irreducible given is a region made from volcanic outcrops surrounded by sea, burnt in the tropical sun, subject to hurricane (Salkey’s Hurricane and Philp’s Hurricane Center), volcanic eruption (Fergus’s Volcano Verses and Weekes’ Volcano); or the Guianas, muddy coastal strips, with tropical rainforest and savannah as hinterland, subject to drought and flood (Gilkes, Joanstown).

It is a place divided by the tourist’s segregated view of private beaches, the sometimes romanticised view of the visitor and the inhabitant’s perception framed by history, ethnicity, class and occupation. As a number of recent studies have made evident, since the 18th century, artists, picture postcard manufacturers, designers of tourist brochures and film-makers of quasi-Caribbean product advertising, have been constructing carefully framed narratives that turn harsh labour into pastoral, the man-made into the illusion of the natural and turns poverty into the picturesque.

For the tourist the sea is for recreation, for the scientific visitor it is a repository of marine life; for the nativist writer it has a history littered with the bones of the millions who died on the middle passage, or the kala pani that separated Indians from their homeland.

It is a region of great natural beauty: the Eden of the earliest visitors, of Raleigh’s ‘We passed the most beautiful countrey that ever mine eyes behld’, of Walcott’s ‘We were blest with a virginal, unpainted world/with Adam’s task of giving things their names…’ Walcott writes, too, that whilst the made landscape records the enslaveds’ oppression, nature’s beauties may have saved their sanity.

It is also a region where so much is man-made (the plantation as the first truly industrialised landscape); where environmental degradation began with 17th century monoculture and the soil erosion which left islands like St Kitts exhausted. It is a region where many indigenous species (along with the Amerindians) have disappeared and where alien species (the cane rat, the mongoose, goats) have taken over; where the landscape has been greatly changed by botanical as well as human migration. But note, some of the botanical migrants – such as the peepal tree – came not with the masters but with indentured Indian labourers and like their bringers have nativised themselves.

It is a region where whole hillsides have been ripped out by quarrying, where rivers, as in Guyana have been poisoned by the mercury used in mining. One powerful image of the damage sustained by the physical environment is conveyed in the gendering of landscape as an abused woman. A powerful image of the alienation between people and the physical land they live in could be seen in the astonishing level of littering that filled the canals and verges of Georgetown and the East Coast Demerara road with plastic bottles, plastic food trays and every kind of indestructible rubbish.

This man-made landscape can never shed its historical burden. A Trinidadian told me years ago (when cane was still grown in T & T): ‘I don’t like to go to Tobago where you can see Black people cutting cane.’ (It was okay for Indians to be in the fields). In Guyana there are still people living in logies (at Cane Grove) that go back to indenture (‘the bung coolie yard’) and slavery (Martin Carter’s ‘I Came from the Nigger Yard’).

As part of its embedding in history, landscape has been ethnicised. This is not just the association between whiteness and the ‘Great Houses’ of the plantation owners (which are now becoming ‘heritage’ sites, such as Devon House in Jamaica); there are parts of southern Trinidad where the people, water buffaloes, temples, jandhis and peepal trees give the place a feel of India – an alien space to some Afro-Trinidadians.

Unlike Europe where the countryside is, for the majority, a place for recreation and delight in ‘nature’ (however man-made), for the majority of Caribbean people (who either are still living there or left no more than a few generations back), the country is a place of servitude to hard physical labour, a place to escape from.

In terms of manufacturing, the Caribbean (with the exception of parts of Trinidad and Puerto Rico) is still only lightly industrialised. Whilst it is not untouched by, and in some ways is peculiarly vulnerable to globalist consumerism, it is not wholly enmeshed in the technological, commoditised world of the USA/Western Europe. Many still live in hugely individual houses that are very far from mass-produced, and remain in touch with traditional forms of husbandry through yard plots (not gardens).

It is a region where there is still a pre-industrial scale by virtue of populations being isolated on small islands, narrow coastal strips, in scattered rural communities, where it is still possible to write letters to people using only their names and the village as indicators of address. Even among the mainly urban, educated professional minority, there are many who have relatives at the grass-roots. It is this connectedness that makes the concept of the Folk a real, if sometimes romanticised one in Caribbean writing.

This has implications for the nature of social relations and communal intimacy, a rootedness to place (and sometimes a wary hostility to outsiders  – see Earl McKenzie’s Against Linearity). The reverse of this can perhaps be seen in the breakdown into communal conflict in the garrison ghettos of Kingston where political conflict perhaps feeds on a derangement of an accustomed sense of rootedness and scale.

The last point reminds that for many, as in much of the developing world, the dominant experience of place is of inward migration from the country to the city. For instance, for many Indo-Caribbeans there has been, over a few generations, a spacial journey from the sugar estate to the village, to the city, to the suburbs – each a landmark in the process of cultural transformation. In an earlier period, the novels of Roger Mais record the transformation of country people into city-dwellers.

Accounts of city life towards the end of the period of slavery and its immediate aftermath indicate that it was a place of relative freedom for African Caribbeans. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Caribbean cities saw both the development of a politicised working class and of a lower middle class with it roots in the civil service, teaching and the professions. Kingston, Port of Spain, Bridgetown and Georgetown (though to a lesser extent than Havana or Port au Prince) could claim to be genuine cities, supporting theatres, newspapers and other cultural institutions, and a man-made environment which was developing its own Creole vernacular architecture.

The flood of inward migrants in the 1950s and 60s and the absence of work or decent housing has seen the death of several Caribbean cities as coherent networks of distinct but connected communities. Instead there has been the fissure into shanty towns of squalor (Laventille, Albouystown, Tivoli Gardens – though such places have often been the source of what has been most innovative in Caribbean culture such as steelband and reggae, sprawling suburbs, the flight of the rich into the hills and gated, guarded communities (such as described in Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s novel, Mrs B), the decay of mixed housing communities, the building of out-of-town concrete shopping malls: in short, the segregation of the old mixed heterogeneity into communities strictly demarcated by income and class. Ralph Thompson’s poetry (‘Vigil’, ‘This New Light’, in Moving On and in his narrative poem View from Mount Diablo), Kwame Dawes’ Prophets and Michael Gilkes’s Joanstown all catch this process of the death of the old colonial city.

Since the 1950s, from Roger Mais’s The Hills were Joyful Together (1952) and Orlando Patterson’s The Children of Sisyphus (1964), there has been a growing body of writing focusing on the city as concrete jungle (Knights’ Woman Hold Your Head and Cry, Meek’s Paint the Town Red, Philp’s Benjamin, My Son, amongst others).

Yet despite the ubiquity of plantation agriculture and the sprawl of cities and their suburbs, there are still spaces where mystery, wilderness and otherness survive: mountains, gullies, caves and forests, themselves historicized places, the freedomways of the maroon, the runaway slave. This celebration of place as space for personal freedom is explored in the work of writers such as June Henfrey in Coming Home and Other Stories, Anthony Kellman’s The Coral Rooms and in several of Kwame Dawes’ stories in A Place to Hide, among others.

And wilderness is still sufficiently real in some parts of the Caribbean for writing about it to have a degree of ambivalence. It is a signifier of freedom, but also a threat to human survival and effort. Jennifer Rahim’s poetry collection Between the Fence and the Forest catches some of this feeling, and both Vincent Roth’s A Life in Guyana and Mathew French Young’s Guyana The Lost Eldorado are filled with images of the vanity of human ambition as Eldoradean enterprises return to bush. Wilson Harris’s novel Heartland contains a powerful account of the power of the forest in the mental disintegration of a man who is ill-at-ease there.

This ambivalence is present in what several writers reveal about the relationship of humans and the animal world. The experience of the plantation, (the commodification of people and nature, and the treatment of the former as no more than beasts of burden), and the impact of Christian teaching with regard to man’s domination over nature, has appeared to cause the loss of an ancestral African and Indian sense of human connection to the animal/natural world and the reverences that went along with it. Several writers (such as Cyril Dabydeen, Anthony Kellman, Earl McKenzie, among others) have focused on a strain of cruelty towards animals within Caribbean culture as a part of an expressed desire in their work for a reconnection with other living forms, within the context of more contemporary ecological concerns.

Jonathan Bate writes: ‘We enter into our being only when we have “entered in the place”’. The yearning for this kind of grounding is deeply embedded in Caribbean writing, in the attempts to express a yearning for an indwelling sacredness in nature, an unalienated vision of what Rilke describes as the laral. It is there in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and in the closing divali scene in Shinebourne’s  The Last English Plantation, in several of the stories in Khan’s A Day in the Country and in the significance of the stream and garden for the child in Lakshmi Persaud’s Butterfly in the Wind. But there is also a counter-current of ‘not-at-homeness’, rooted in the history of slavery and indenture (oppression on the land) of the hostility of nature to human beings. (In Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People, for instance, the alienation is expressed in the jumbie world of night and the area outside the logies.) This alienation is often attached to corresponding dreams of gilded Edens in Mother Africa and Mother India.

Some of the strategies for trying to overcome the feeling of alienation include Walcott’s and Kellman’s creolising of the landscape through naming it; internalising the absent Eden of Africa (the post Selassie Rastafarian stance) as portrayed in ND Williams ‘My Planet of Ras’, in Pras and Ras, or in the act of symbolic substitution such as where indentured Indians in Guyana named a stream on the Albion estate in the Courentyne: Albion-Ganges.  In a context where connection with place is accidental, forced, where place is exile, Caribbean writing has had a central role in negotiating new relationships between people and place. Indo-Caribbean writing, for instance, can be seen moving from the perception of the journey across the kali pani as one of shipwreck to one of Odyssey.

Whilst the sources of much earlier Caribbean writing about nature are colonial and imitative (a good many kiskadees wear Shelley’s skylark as their plumage), there has been a  steady accumulation of a body of nativised natural emblems such as the John-crow, the frigate bird, the green turtle, lignum-vitae, pouis and silkcotton trees, which have all made multiple appearances with broadly shared significances.

However, if most people arrived in the Caribbean as strangers, one central truth about the Caribbean landscape is that for many people it is seen in the process of either leaving it or coming back to it (usually temporarily). (See Cecil Gray’s ‘I strain through the thick oval lense/of the window to video the flight with my eyes,// seeing my world through its egg… ‘Flight’, The Woolgatherer) Thus place is often a signifier of loss within the process of migration, perhaps the most central of Caribbean experiences of the past half century, though V.S. Naipaul in The Middle Passage makes the point that he only began to ‘see’ Trinidad as a returnee. The power and clarity in the visual imagery of a good many diasporic Caribbean poets (from Claude McKay to Kwame Dawes or Anthony Kellman) in their writing about landscapes reinforces this point. The widely shared nature of this experience for all but the most rooted agrarian communities is conveyed in Jonathan Bate’s ‘Art as the place where we mourn our lost home upon the earth’ (The Song of the Earth)

Caribbean persons are thus often arriving in places ‘where I don’t know the name of birds’ (Marcia Douglas ‘January, Binghampton’ in Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom), and even where there is an attempt to ‘see’ the diasporic place, it is often as a contrast to remembered views. However, in the recent work of Kwame Dawes in Jamaica/South Carolina, Cyril Dabydeen in Guyana/Canada, Anthony Kellman in Barbados/Georgia and Geoffrey Philp in Jamaica/Miami there has emerged a rewarding duality of vision, of seeing each landscape through the other.