A dialectical entanglement

DEC The Caribbean A Brief HistoryThe Caribbean: A Brief History, 2nd edn
Gad Heuman
2014, Bloomsbury Academic
272 pages, paperback

HOW BEST to capture the history of a region like the Caribbean? To do so requires one to be able to balance a consideration of the historical regimes of violence – rooted in the earliest colonial projects in the so-called New World, long-running European colonisation that, by the eighteenth century, had become centred largely on the systematically brutal and dehumanising regimes of plantation slavery and the circum-Atlantic trade in human flesh, finance and commodities that were central to the early organisation of global capitalism – alongside analysis of the human resilience, everyday resistance and revolutionary upheaval that have performed their dialectical dance throughout history. In doing so, one has to engage with a startlingly diverse cultural history centred around migration, forced or otherwise, and colonisation, as well as decolonisation, formal independence and, in some areas more obviously than others, continued colonial intervention.

Such an historical synthesis would be an intimidating enough task for many a historian. For it to be accomplished in a mere 200 pages, with a literary as much as analytical verve that makes for a compelling read, is testament to Gad Heuman’s skills of historical interpretation and explanation. The first edition of Heuman’s The Caribbean: A Brief History was well enough received when published in 2006, and it is the constructive criticism of that publication that has, in part, motivated the publication of this expanded second edition, with new material in particular on the indigenous people of the Caribbean and on the modern history of the region.

The early history of the Caribbean is, inevitably, closely tied to that of South America. As Heuman recounts, the earliest migrants from South America arrived in Trinidad – then still attached to the continent by land – around 7,000 years ago. Around 40,00BC, a further wave of migration from Central America – the Yucatan Peninsula in particular – saw people moving into the area that later became Cuba, followed in 2500BC by the migration of Amerindians from the Orinoco region. In 1492, the arrival of Christopher Columbus would begin to spell disaster for these early inhabitants. Many, recognising the threat, fought in their thousands against the Spanish newcomers. Some, though, also took the opportunity to side with Columbus and to use his Spanish forces to obliterate their local enemies.

Heuman’s account of the early Caribbean inhabitants centres on two groups, the Tainos and the Caribs, whose social structure and means of subsistence is contrasted clearly. Yet Heuman leaves the reader in no doubt about the extent of the impact of European colonisation, which led to the “shattering of their economy and ecology and the disruption of their social structure and community”. As well as their impact on indigenous communities, the Spanish also set in train another historical process that would grow to increasing predominance over the economy and society of the entire region, introducing the cultivation of sugar cane from the Canary Islands around 1515.

Sugar cane, first domesticated in South East Asia, came to predominate over the region, driven by the desires of the imperial powers that came to control the region. Initially seen as a medical or luxury product, from the seventeenth century on “King Sugar” became an increasingly popular product across Europe; colonial planters, seeing their tobacco and cotton plantations struggling to earn the kind of money they had anticipated, were not slow to recognise the advantages offered by the cultivation of sugar. However, in order to maximise the gains from plantation sugar cultivation, a growing labour force was required, the need for which was no longer being satisfied by white indentured labourers from Europe.

Heuman’s summary of the transition to enslaved labour derived primarily from Africa captures the full brutality of both the transactions involved and the trade itself, summarising both statistical data and the wider cultural and historical transitions involved through a lively combination a precise prose, tabulated figures and clear maps. He attends both to the lived experiences of enslaved peoples themselves and to that of planter communities, as well as to those who lived outside of this divide, especially the maroon communities of escaped enslaved people living freely, rebelliously and with differing degrees of success across the region.

Joseph Roach has famously written that subsequent to the arrival of Columbus in the region, “a New World was not discovered in the Caribbean, but one was truly invented there”. Heuman’s summary demonstrates precisely how this was so, with the region being transformed by European colonisation from a series of sparsely populated indigenous communities centred on hunter-gathering lifestyles to become a centre of global trade in which, as CLR James depicted it in The Black Jacobins, plantation slaves bore the brunt of a quasi-industrialised system that placed the enslaved workers of San Domingo on whom James focused “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time”. Such political-economic, not to mention social, transformations meant, for James, that the enslaved Caribbean inhabitants lived a life that was “in its essence a modern life”.

In line with James’s understanding of the central place of the Caribbean in the history of modernity, Heuman devotes a full chapter to the events of the Haitian Revolution, in which Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, and their band of revolutionary enslaved supporters fought off European colonial powers and established a sovereign state freed from direct European colonisation, but still struggled to enact full equality and independence for former slaves (Toussaint himself pursued a system of forced labour that was intended to revitalise the economy of the region he governed by reviving the plantations). Not only does Heuman summarise the history of the revolutionary transformation of Haiti in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, he also gestures towards some of the wider ramifications of these events, particularly the way in which they would be a source of enslaved revolts.

The revolt of enslaved peoples was, of course, central to the abolition of both the trade in enslaved peoples and of slavery itself. In his discussions of enslaved resistance, Heuman is particularly alert to the role of women, and to the less symbolic, though equally as important forms of resistance. He also incorporates the wider debates over abolitionism, and the religious and economic factors that played a role in such debates. However, this abolition did not occur evenly across the Caribbean. The British Caribbean saw slavery officially abolished in 1834, the French Caribbean in 1848, the Dutch Caribbean in 1863, and in Cuba in 1886. Even then, systems of “apprenticeship” continued in the British Caribbean and in Cuba for limited periods of time, and the longer term legacies of slavery arguably persist today. Yet Heuman catalogues the riots and resistance, stimulated by the forced underdevelopment of the Caribbean by the colonial powers, that led, eventually, to the outbreak of widespread strikes and rioting across the Caribbean in the 1930s.

That decade saw the rapid development of trade unionism and the institutional establishment of resistant Marxist and radical leftist political movements whose fortunes would fluctuate throughout the twentieth century. However, the twentieth century also saw the USA pay increased attention to the region. Direct colonisation in some regions – Puerto Rico most notably – as well as the implantation of American military bases onto British colonies and military intervention into Cuba, Haiti and other Caribbean regions, the USA sought to influence the political direction of its near neighbours. Twentieth-century American interest in the region peaked, of course, with the Cuban revolution, another symbolic event that receives its own chapter.

Though it centres on a synthetic historical narrative, Heuman does not neglect some of the contemporary dilemmas that confront the region. He argues that the “traditional reliance on agricultural exports” has been a central problem for the region, as has a reliance on mineral extraction and tourism. The environmental as well as economic implications of each of these have been dire for the region, skewing economic development and driving deforestation, soil erosion, and the toxic polluted water supplies.

Without doubt, the history of the modern world is exemplified in the social, political and economic transformations of the Caribbean, marked as they have been by the dialectical entanglement of oppression and resistance that have had such a marked effect on shaping the cultural heritage of the region. This history is diverse, and the greatest strength of Heuman’s brief summary is his capacity to explain how and why particular transformations occurred in different ways and, often, at different times across the region. Yet he holds his narrative together by emphasising how “these territories have experienced similar histories of slavery, colonialism and exploitation and share a common history, despite their linguistic, cultural and geographic differences.” Throughout, the people of the Caribbean have responded creatively to whatever they have been confronted with. If environmental degradation and economic strife are to be overcome in future, inspiration will be needed from the historical inheritance of the wider Caribbean.