Time and History

The starting point for thinking about modern, post-Columbian Caribbean history is to recognise that it has a timeline which is both short and characterised by radical points of change that are truly existential in scale as they relate to the actual make-up of populations, the status of the region in world history, and the relationship of the region's parts to each other and to external forces. This brief overview is offered as a way of relating Caribbean writing to the period of its production, to the way it has engaged with the periodisation of the Caribbean past, and of how that past relates to the present. Whilst connected essays give more detail for each period, this one sets out to indicate the connections and dividing points between periods.

c1492: The beginning of the genocide of the Amerindians and the process of European conquest and European competition for control. (This competition lasted until the 1800s and results in the fact that Guyana has a Dutch and British colonial background, Trinidad passed between Spanish, French and British control and St Lucia and Dominica have much in common linguistically with Martinique and Guadeloupe.)

c1650s: The dominance of sugar and slavery and the beginnings of the Africanisation of the Caribbean. For much of this period it is scarcely possible to say a society existed. As Vincent Brown has shown in his excellent study, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, in the British-ruled Caribbean, mortality levels were so high for both Europeans and Africans that there was almost a complete turnover of the population every seven years. Yet, as Kamau Brathwaite has argued in The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820 even under such conditions it was possible to see a language and a culture emerging unique to the region.

1804: Haiti becomes the first independent nation in the New World, the result of a revolution that undoubtedly signalled the inevitability of the end of slavery, with, in 1807 the British Parliament voting to end the slave trade, but not slavery, and in 1831 introducing the legislation that would end of slavery in the British West Indies by 1838 (though not until 1880 in Cuba).

1838/45 saw the beginning of indentured Indian immigration and the huge population shifts in the Southern Caribbean. Everywhere the 1840s marked the beginning of a period when an unequal battle was fought between the needs of the sugar planters and the needs of African Caribbeans struggling for a genuine freedom; it marks the beginning of a period where Dutch, French and British officials tried to shape colonial civil societies in varying images of the metropolis. Most local forms of quasi-independent planter dominated legislatures were replaced by Crown Colony constitutions dominated by non-elected colonial officials.

c1917: The end of Indian indentured immigration to Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica, by which time the predecessors of the region's current over one million people of Indian ancestry were well established, so that they are the largest population group in both Trinidad and Guyana.

1918: Demobbed soldiers from the West Indian Regiment returned with new ideas of social justice and a new deal for Black men (and sometimes women). Captain Cipriani and the barefoot men in Trinidad, Marcus Garvey in Jamaica, H.N. Critchlow in British Guiana began the formation of labour unions and the politics of race in a period when very few African Caribbeans had the vote.

1930s: The emergence in the upsurge of popular riots and rebellions of the ideas of local nationalism and self-government first argued for in the 1870s.

Post 1945: The beginnings of universal suffrage, limited self-government and the maturation of nationalism into mass political parties – and the death of Hindi as a mother tongue (except in Suriname).

1962: The collapse of the West Indian Federation

1962-83: The passage from colonial status to national independence (Jamaica and Trinidad in 1962 – to St Kitts & Nevis in 1983)

Cuba, of course had become independent in 1902 (after the region’s only second genuine war of national liberation) and then again in 1959 it freed itself from dominance by the USA and its business corporations. On the other hand, Puerto Rico, Martinique and Guadeloupe and parts of the Netherlands Antilles remain in various states of dependency, as do Montserrat, The Turks & Caicos, Bermuda and the BVI as British Overseas territories.

  Thereafter there have been five problematic decades of post-colonialism where postcolonial Caribbean states are still dealing with the effects of a past that was:

  • Dominated or framed by the deeds of others whose interests were not those of the region's people.
  • Where, with the exceptions of Haiti and Cuba, the positives of Caribbean people’s own interventions in history may at best be seen as the heroic failure of the defeated slave revolt.
  • Where present social and race relations and the ownership and control of Caribbean economies are still marked by the injustices and inequalities of the past.
  • Where the culture and cosmology of the Black majority still remains peripheral to the Euro-centred culture of the ruling elites.
  • Where the collapse of sugar production and ‘free trade’ tariffs on agricultural produce leave the region with increasingly impoverished rural economies and underdeveloped industrial sectors.
  • Where marginalisation in the global economy means that migration to North America is still the desired route for many Caribbean people.
  • Where the future is likely to remain dominated by global/American capitalism, the doubtful benefits of tourism and the seductions of narco-capitalism with all the consequences of spiralling crime and violence. This has been the fate of Jamaica since the 1980s, Trinidad since the 90s and Guyana now.

In such a context, it is not surprising that the past can feel like a burden and the present a dead end, and the consequences can be a nihilist desperation that can express itself in violence, frantic hedonism or withdrawal, or in the refuge of millenarian hopes of redemption, Christian rapture or return to Africa. Even so, there have been regular returns to the hope that it was possible to overturn the inherited social order: the Sam Sharpe rebellion of 1831 (Jamaica); Morant Bay in 1865, the Trinidad water riots of 1903; the worker uprisings that swept the British West Indies between 1935-1938; the Cuban revolution of 1959; the Black Power uprising in Trinidad of 1970; the confluence of radical ideas around the New World movement; the ideas and political activism of Walter Rodney and the WPA in Guyana; the Grenadian revolution of 1979. There have been defeats, some self-inflicted like Grenada, retreats at the hands of the IMF, but always the revival of hopes for true sovereignty, and the creation of civic societies based on social justice and cultural inclusion. There is also (and it remains the dominant impulse) a deeply embedded tradition of patient survival, of building from the ground up and a tradition of Creole inventiveness that transforms the world from whatever scraps are available. Not least has the region contributed, vastly beyond its size, to excellence in music, literature and sport on a truly world scale.

Not surprisingly, Caribbean writing has an intensive relationship to history that goes beyond the genre of the historical novel to an ever present focus on the relationship between past and present, a relationship seen variously as historical prison from which the region is struggling to emerge, or as a kind of midden littered with diverse fragments (Walcott’s ‘disjecta membra’) out of which a present may be invented; or as Wilson Harris’s idealist vision of a past in History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guiana that remains open and subject to change.

History enters Caribbean writing as an enquiry into the meaning of history, as a metaphor/metonym for describing the present (such as Hazel Campbell’s story ‘Jacob Bubbles’ in Singerman where a parallel narrative opens to the ironic possibility that the lives of some Jamaican ghetto-dwellers may have less human quality than the lives of some slaves), and in specific fictional/poetic reconstructions of the past, (in general also written for the light they throw on the present).