Centring Caribbean History

By Franklyn W Knight,
Jamaica Observer, Wdnesday, December 21, 2011

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BY the 19th century, historical works on the Caribbean were joined by a flood of reportorial publications as the genre of travel literature developed and works of all sorts proliferated. Some were very good.
The insightful political accounts of Alexander von Humboldt on Cuba (1805) and William Sewell (1862) as well as the travelogue of James Anthony Froude (1888) stand out. With the abolition of slavery during the 19th century, that age of state and nation building with its new sensibilities and complex problems deserves the special attention given by writers such as Swithin Wilmot, Bridget Brereton, Barry Higman, Patrick Bryan, Brian Moore and Michele Johnson, Gordon Lewis, Roberto Cassá, Frank Moya Pons, Alejandro de la Fuente, and Melina Pappademos.
After 1700, the importance of the Caribbean in Atlantic history was well established and those writers who attempted a regional Caribbean coverage had to demonstrate some familiarity with two or three languages. European domestic politics were being determined by Caribbean events and vice versa. The expression "No peace beyond the line" referred to the line of amity decided on by conflicting states.
By the late 18th century the richest colony in the world was French Saint-Domingue, occupying the 10,000 square miles on the western part of the former Spanish island of Hispaniola. Caribbean export products, particularly sugar, and the Caribbean demand for African slaves helped establish capitalism as the major force of the modern world. The Caribbean accounted for more than 40 per cent of all slaves sold in the Americas — second only to Brazil — and generated more wealth per capita than any other part of the world.
The Caribbean produced two — the Haitian and the Cuban — of the seven great revolutions in the history of the modern world and played a role in three more — the US, the French and the Mexican. Those
great revolutions cannot be fully understood without looking closely at their Caribbean connections.
George Washington would probably not have prevailed had he not got the active help of Cubans who fought in the wars of independence but, more important, supplied the sugar, flour and military hardware necessary to keep alive the war effort in the last six difficult years. Juan de Miralles y Trajan, the secret Cuban/Spanish agent, formed a lucrative commercial relationship with Robert Morris of Philadelphia and was the first foreigner to be given a state funeral in the USA. Earlier in 1777, Miralles personally lent the city of Charleston 20,000 Spanish dollars "for public relief, food and medicines".
The Haitian Revolution made possible the Louisiana Purchase that gave the early United States the vast territory that fuelled its continental aspirations and led to the self-described Manifest Destiny that has complicated international affairs, especially inter-American affairs, since the 1850s.
The Caribbean and the Americas greatly expanded the scope of European and world food crops. The Caribbean experience introduced Europeans to tobacco, avocado, pineapples, maize, manioc, potato, various peppers, squash, some types of beans, chocolate, and a host of other cultigens that quickly found their way around the world.
In return, the Europeans introduced citrus, sugar cane, coffee, and cabbages as well as number of domestic animals. In the Caribbean the Europeans developed and honed their skills for long-distance administration as well as specialised commerce and cultivation methods.
The Caribbean influenced European languages as well as European culture. European words like cimarrón, Creole,
and plantation, underwent semantic transformation, while from the Caribbean dozens of new words like cacique, barbacoa, boucan, tabaco, canoa, hamaca, and cannibal entered the Spanish language and then the other European languages.
Obviously the Caribbean also deeply affected world culture. It gave Europe and the rest of the world the smoking habit. It altered European, African and Asian cuisine with its food crops — the potato and tomato in Europe; maize in all countries; and manioc (cassava) in Africa. Caribbean music penetrated the international market — the son, mambo, and cha-cha-cha from Cuba, salsa from Puerto Rico, merengue from the Dominican Republic, reggae from Jamaica, and the steel orchestra from Trinidad.
Caribbean literature is fully integrated in world literature with two Nobel Prizes in literature, and several writers in several languages of international acclaim. After North America and Europe, the Caribbean is the most democratic region politically in the world.
Barbados, Jamaica, and The Bahamas have some of the oldest forms of representative governments anywhere outside of Europe and remain today — despite the challenges represented in Cuba, Haiti and elsewhere — exemplary models of political democracy in an extremely diverse and relatively tolerant region.
Finally, the Caribbean perfected that marvellous spiritual distillate, rum, that for centuries was as vital in warfare as firearms. It helped in the conquest of the Americas as well as Africa, and until 1919 was the most popularly consumed spirituous beverage in the United States. Today, Caribbean rums are the finest in the world.
The Caribbean should not be regarded as merely an appendage of the American mainland or an exotic destination for those seeking sun, sea and sand, rest and recreation. The region deserves better. Fortunately, Caribbean Studies is taking off all over the world — in Australia, Japan, China, Europe, and Latin America as well as in Canada and the USA. It has much to offer the rest of the world and represents a sort of model of the modern area studies.
Some of the best histories of the Caribbean are written by locals and that is a wonderful achievement. No one portrays the region better than local writers and professional historians who live the complexities and paradoxes of the Caribbean. Including the Caribbean broadens the scope and richness of inquiry of national histories everywhere.
It is not just about knowing more, adding a few more facts, and covering a few more events. Modern history is about understanding better the ways in which world societies and global experiences are connected one to the other. In truth, as John Donne said long ago, "No man is an island unto himself; every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main."
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