It is currently becoming fashionable it seems, to speak of Caribbean Civilization. Fashionable, I say, because I don’t think many have really thought through the matter, or at least it does not seem so from the context in which they utter the phrase. To my knowledge, the first time the idea was publicly stated was by Barbadian Prime Minister Errol Barrow in a speech at the Miami Conference on the Caribbean in November 1986, titled, ‘Our Caribbean Civilisation’. This is fitting, because in the English-speaking Caribbean, Barbados — with the oldest continuous elected Assembly of legislators in the Western Hemisphere (365 years old this year) and commendable achievement in building a secure, prosperous, confident, and well-ordered society — perhaps has the greatest justification in making the argument. More recently, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, has forwarded the idea at the Inaugural Lecture in the Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by CARICOM on February 12, 2003. He had spoken on the topic before, and I have read the late Tim Hector make reference in March 2001, to a book of collected speeches by Gonsalves titled, The Politics of Our Caribbean Civilisation. In addition, O. Nigel Bolland, Professor of Sociology at Colgate University, New York, has recently edited and compiled a collection of readings titled, The Birth of Caribbean Civilisation: A Century of Ideas about Culture and Identity, Nation and Society, soon to be published by Ian Randle Publishers.
The University of the West Indies for a few years now has been offering an introductory course for all undergraduates — in every faculty including Science & Agriculture and Engineering —titled, ‘Caribbean Civilisation.’ The Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies also offers a course to American university students titled, ‘“Caribbean Civilisation in the Americas.’ I have delivered politics and sociology lectures in both the UWI and TTWI programmes. Yet I find it difficult to accept the idea that there is a Caribbean Civilization. It is high-sounding. It is inspiring. But is it true? A civilization is difficult to define. Specialists generally disagree on the criteria used to judge a civilization and, by extension, the number of civilizations in world history. However, it is vital that we state here at least a working definition. The existence of Caribbean civilization cannot be derived simply from the indignant sentiment that if others have one, we must have one, too; part of a frustrated claim for full humanity.
Thankfully the discussion is not limited by these sentiments (although it surely must feed on them). Barrow’s claim seems to be based on the existence of a distinctive identity, culture, and history; the viability of the region’s societies; the intellectual and institutional resources to understand and grapple with our problems; resource potential for continued development; and a heritage of exquisite natural beauty entrusted to it. In his own analysis, Gonsalves identifies eight core characteristics which mark out the civilization: the geography of the Caribbean archipelago; a shared history of European conquest and empire; a population mix of indigenous peoples, British, Portuguese, Africans, Asians, Jews, and Arabs; political values from Western Europe, transformed by Caribbean experience; a distinct cultural matrix fashioned by pre-Columbian Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and Asia, with in-grown developments; European languages distinctively modified; a productive and technological apparatus which sustains the region’s viability; a permanence of being in the Caribbean landscape and seascape. I am unaware of any systematic statement on the matter from the UWI or the TTIWI. The Principal of the University, however, has referred to the fact that Samuel Huntington in his famous article, ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, (briefly, in one passing reference) identified the (Anglophone) Caribbean as a civilization. On the other hand, Marxists and other radical (Western) critics have dismissed the idea of civilization as is commonly understood, seeing it as a mask for economic relations of dominance. Tim Hector takes this position in his sympathetic, but critical, discussion of Gonsalves’s book. I am not satisfied by any of the above. The definitions by Barrow and Gonsalves seem to be based on peculiarities, distinctions, and differences. This is not sufficient. Mere difference from other civilizations does not make that cultural formation a civilization. There may exist a Caribbean culture zone, but this should not be confused with a Caribbean civilization. I reject the radical critique as part of Western civilization’s pretensions of, or premature ambitions to, universality. Illuminating as this critique can often be, I cannot realistically accept that national cultures and distinct civilizations do not exist, are not significant, or are ideological superstructures of capitalist substructures. I believe that civilization is of primary significance. I venture my own working definition. Rather than a checklist of features like the classical metallurgy, writing, class stratification, economic and natural resources, a complex of political, religious, and social institutions, military capability, and so on; I prefer a more intuitive definition.
This is crucial to our endeavour here, because the Caribbean does possess many, if not all, the attributes of a civilization; but I think we miss the essence, the main feature. A civilization must provide a centre for its people: political, economic, philosophical, linguistic, cultural, military, moral, judicial, aesthetic, and so on. A civilization is often composed of many societies, nations, and peoples. But there usually is an identifiable cultural, and often geographic, centre, around which others revolve, feed off, rebel against, or feed into. The details are less important than the effect or purpose. A civilization provides for its peoples a primary point of reference and orientation, its people are sure of the standards it sets, while constantly questioning and challenging them, if the civilization is dynamic. The Caribbean does not fit this definition. It remains a collection of satellites. Its states and peoples revolve around centres of authority outside of the Caribbean. The frequency of external reference in Gonsalves’s definition, for example, should give one caution. Indeed, Gonsalves expresses many fears for the survival of the Caribbean, even of its identity. He argues that if we do not recognize ourselves as an independent, authentic civilization, the Caribbean could be working out within 50 years an associate status with the US or EU. Surely the civilization of which he speaks is extremely tenuous. This is not unusual, however. The Caribbean is perhaps like Australia, South Africa, Canada, or Singapore. They have the potential to be autonomous, but for complex reasons remain extensions or satellites of other, great mother cultures (such as England, China, Germany and France). CLR James has argued that the Caribbean is an outgrowth, tropical extension, or branch of Western civilization. There is much truth to this. In the West Indies we speak English and our ideas and institutions are largely derived from or make primary reference to Western civilization. Indeed, what African language, let alone French or Spanish, books do we read in the West Indies? Our intellectual world is overwhelmingly American and British. Yet this does not encompass all of our cultural life, of course. Many cultural strands — native and ancestral, genuinely West Indian, and also African, European, and Asian — survive, even thrive here. But they only do so at the informal level.
This is what makes our societies half-made: the disconnection between the formal and the informal, between our lived experience and our official institutions. I do not think that in the history of the world more inorganic societies than ours ever existed. The 500 year old Enterprise of the Indies is a unique human episode. What we need to do is to understand what we are, and where we are in terms of our historical development (which should not be assumed to follow a simple linear progression). In this respect CLR James’s 1962 Appendix to The Black Jacobins, ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’ is crucial. (His 1977 essay, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ follows the theme but in a less impressive manner.) James describes the forging of a nation, of a people, as an historical unfolding, with surprising twists and turns. There he argues, Castro’s revolution is of the twentieth century as much as Toussaint’s was of the eighteenth. But despite the distance of over a century and a half, both are West Indian. The people who made them, the problems and the attempts to solve them, are peculiarly West Indian, the product of a peculiar origin and a peculiar history. West Indians first became aware of themselves as a people in the Haitian Revolution. Whatever its ultimate fate, the Cuban Revolution marks the ultimate stage of a Caribbean quest for national identity. In a scattered series of disparate islands the process consists of a series of unco-ordinated periods of drift, punctuated by spurts, leaps and catastrophes. But the inherent movement is clear and strong. Going through the nineteenth century, between the Wars, and after World War II, James draws from politics, society, economy, and the arts to show us a people in the curious and unpredictable process of recognizing themselves and their capabilities. Obviously meaning to inspire, James was nevertheless careful to honestly acknowledge limitations. In his 1960 lecture, ‘West Indian Personality’, James takes the example of the Americans and Australians who, like West Indians, are a new people who have developed characteristics of their own, which separate them from the Europeans to whom they are so closely related racially and like us, he argues, in the foundations of their civilization. Importantly, the West Indian type, James notes, is not a finished type, though it has certain characteristics which distinguish it, and its outlines are clear. It is in many ways an attractive type, he affirms. It is very graceful in manner and style, quick of wit, extremely intelligent, with more than average intelligence, producing an astonishing number of men and women, in proportion to our small numbers, of remarkable ability, in various fields. James acknowledges rapid development in the West Indian personality, in particular the confidence with which West Indians have developed in their relationships with Whites, and their ability to go abroad and compete successfully with representatives of far richer, larger, and more advanced countries. But James notes that despite all of this, ‘we miss something’: I know, I have noticed it in Trinidad where I have lived for the most part these days, and I wonder if you in Jamaica will have noticed it among yourselves, or among your neighbours. It is this. We lack what I will call a back to the seat on which we are sitting. … When you speak to a body of English students about literature, you can almost feel the confidence from which they start … Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, The Victorians, Dryden and the rest of them, they know that they have taken a splendid place in the history of the literature of the world, and they can discuss with great ease from this background. You speak to French students and you will find their consciousness that France has the reputation of being the Mother of Laws and of civilisation. Americans by the way and Australians too are very self conscious when they are in Europe before the sophistication and the reserve of the European and his consciousness of his background. But the Americans are increasingly conscious of the fact that they occupy a great position in the world and that they are a nation of great wealth and power… [We West Indians do] not have that background that the others have instinctively. We will have to work for it. I believe it will complete the West Indian type when we have that consciousness. In relation to my definition of a civilization, West Indians are unsure of their autonomy and independence in matters they consider serious. In economic organization, justice, military matters, constitutional systems, and other institutional arrangements, our native sense is marginalised in favour of the ‘international’. If the English-speaking West Indian feels this about his own society, how much more does he reject the lived experience of his Spanish, Dutch, and French Caribbean kin? Indeed, this is a central aspect of the West Indian character, or indeed the culture area. Lloyd Best has remarked on this in his 1964 ‘Letter to CLR’. Best observes: Perhaps the most important among these is the basic ambivalence of the West Indian people and particularly of the West Indian leadership. To me this is the most important single structural fact in the situation. This peculiar Afro-Saxon “way of seeing” is so much part of us that we are unable to formulate any strategy to deal with Prospero. Indeed, among our leaders there is a covert acceptance of the Caliban role. … The emergence of the African presence and “way of seeing” (and by extension, of the Afro-Asian) is an essential condition for West Indian emancipation. Our basic ambivalence springs from the fact that we have this dual consciousness. But the African (or Afro-Asian) half is a Freudian consciousness, inarticulate and involuntary.
This has two effects. One is that the more articulate half always triumphs in times of conflict since it has the supporting elements of a known language and history and all the points of reference that come with those. The second is that we are incapable of bringing about any integration of the two halves and distilling what is our new Afro-Saxon heritage; the two halves have not yet been brought on the same level and that is an essential prerequisite for bringing them together and sorting them out. Indeed, the hallmark of our Independence movements in the Caribbean has been ambivalence. Its roots can be traced. From the ending of slavery up to the middle twentieth century, Afro-Saxon strategy was largely one of intensive self-upliftment and self-fashioning. Intellectual and social achievement won respectability, public dignity, and independence, in a time of readily expressed racism and actual colonialism. The establishment of villages and communities, the pursuit of education and the professions, and the achievement of political office were crucial. These ‘Afro-Saxons’ often out-Britished the British, excelling in European institutions. At the same time, they were deeply resentful of the openly expressed opinions that they did not have the required intellectual ability to fully participate in civilized life, and they resented the prejudicial policies that excluded them from these pursuits. Yet they could conceive of nothing more admirable than British civilization. (They should not be overly criticized for holding this opinion, for indeed, British civilization contained much to be admired, while much of African civilization remains difficult for us to accept.). Afro-Saxon protest was accordingly peculiar. John Jacob Thomas in Froudacity (1889) and CLR James in The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1932) persuasively argued that Negroes were not only ‘fit to rule’, but even ‘far more advanced in Western culture than many a European community.’ Indeed, as some sought Independence from Britain, it was largely an administrative affair, with little more ambition. To ourselves, we were, and are, far from being the centre of our world. I am not a pessimist. The Caribbean is blessed with much talent, its experience is of great value to the world (and to itself), and it has much to offer that is genuinely new. Yet this is not merely a matter of will. Public relations must not substitute for honest self-examination. We do not need yet more self-delusion. The truth of our past and present, as best as we can understand it, will not, and should not, wished away.