Hills and Mountains

The eminence of mountain peaks is one of the features that distinguish one Caribbean island from another. Though nowhere in the Anglophone Caribbean has peaks to match those of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the hilly and mountainous areas of Jamaica (the Blue Mountain Peak at 2256 metres) contrasts sharply with the flat terrain of Barbados where Mount Hillaby makes just 340 metres. Countries such as the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and Anguilla (all like Barbados flat limestone islands raised on fossil coral) barely rise above sea level, unlike those islands that are the result of volcanic action (with live peaks in Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Vincent – see Volcanoes).

Hills and mountains have been historically important not only making plantation latifundia economically difficult if not impossible, but also by providing one kind of sympathetic terrain for resisting enslavement. The remoteness, height and difficulty of the Jamaican Cockpit country made it territory that the Maroons were able to defend for centuries. In the post-slavery period, economic activity, apart from coffee, has tended to feature the most independent minded of occupations such as charcoal burning and small market garden production. Derek Walcott’s Makak in Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970) reflects such an archetype of solitariness. In the postcolonial period, areas of hills and mountain, such as the Northern range in Trinidad, that features in some of the stories of Sharon Millar in The Whalehouse and Other Stories, by their remoteness play host both to cultures and cosmologies of place that resist modernity, and networks of criminality wholly enmeshed in global postmodernity.

In addition to responding to their historical significance, as V.S. Reid does in New Day, where the Campbell family attempt to escape from the aftermath of the Morant Bay rebellion by fleeing to the hills, Caribbean writing, following the actual naming of places, has found metaphoric and often Biblically resonant place for hills and mountains. Samuel Selvon in I Hear Thunder, Earl Lovelace in The Dragon Can’t Dance, and Ismith Khan in The Crucifixion all reference the stations of the cross on the hill settlements of Calvary Hill on Laventille, as images of human suffering, though in their work climbing the hill is physical pain, not spiritual transcendence.

But, no less than for the Romantics, mountains and hills have offered other Caribbean writers the physical and metaphoric challenge of ascent – and  what dramatic descents from the heights can signify. In Kwame Dawes’ story, “Flight” in A Place to Hide, the character Hugh wakes with the knowledge that he has to climb Blue Mountain Peak. It is a place of revelation and in the midst of a psychic crisis he needs revelation to believe, though for him, too, it is the physical pain of ascent that is most vivid to his senses and his visions that are clearly delusional. Whilst one part of his mind imagines he is flying on his descent, he cannot ignore the reality of the thick bush that impedes his progress.

Every prophet has his mountain, because mountains are nearer heaven, from Moses bringing down the tablets from Mount Sinai, Elijah finding revelation there, too, to Jesus delivering his sermon on the mount. Dawes taps into these Biblical images with brilliant effect, particularly in his narrative poem, Prophets (1995) when the prophet Thalbot seeking God and refuge in the mountains, hears God telling him to descend to the wicked Sodom of Kingston to preach repentance. The passages describing Thalbot’s descent in minibus and coach are tour-de-forces of helter-skelter movement down from the prophetic heights.

Hillsides also enter the social class geography of the Caribbean. On the one hand hills have been the refuges of the very poorest who built shacks in those places where squatting was least likely to be opposed by the state, or where land was cheapest (because it had little economic value). Laventille is the classic example of such a settlement, the site of several of Earl Lovelace’s novels, including While Gods Are Falling, The Dragon Can’t Dance and his most recent, Just A Movie. More recently though, following the huge expansion of Caribbean cities, as the poor flocked in from the countryside (See From the Country to the City), hills have increasingly become the refuge of the wealthy, so that the mere mention of Jacks Hill in a novel signifies class privilege. In Jacqueline Bishop’s novel The River’s Song, the heroine’s family literally go up in the world when her mother makes a relationship with a wealthy “businessman” (his business is undoubtedly illicit) and they leave the ghetto streets below to ascend to comfortable but isolated splendour in the hills.

The sense of insecurity of class privilege as it relates to the view from the hill is vividly caught in a number of Ralph Thompson’s poems. There is the privilege of the lovely view over the city in the evening, but also of the threat recorded in “Vigil” of “The lights below flicker / like torches held by warriors / waiting to reclaim lost territory, / ready to creep forward / if the eyelid lowers.

Of course, mountains may be simply seen as places of beauty, as in Ralph Thompson’s poems “Mountain Time” (from Moving On) and “He Knows What Height Is”, (from The Denting of a Wave), or of the beauty that hints at transcendence as in Edward Baugh’s poem, “Hurrying Across Hill Country” in Black Sand. Most of the writers referenced here are, naturally perhaps, Jamaican. As Kei Miller records in his essay “But in Glasgow There are Plaintains” (in Writing Down the Vision), “Caribbean people feel exposed and afraid in flat landscapes uninterrupted by mountains.”