Home 9 Volume 2 9 The Caribbean: A Reflective Overview


Malena Kuss and Hazel Campbell (2005)

OLD AND OLDER WORLDS first met when Columbus landed on Guanahani (San Salvador or Watling Island), a part of the Bahamas chain, in 1492. The gold for which the Spaniards hungered would not be found in any significant amounts on the islands, which, however, later would become “jewels in the crowns” of several Western European empires as the wealth generated by the sugarcane plantations and vast trading profits fed affluent lifestyles and contributed to the expansion of European kingdoms on an unprecedented scale.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, colorful pirates and buccaneers, including the women pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, headquartered in the Caribbean and made sure that some of the new wealth was redistributed. Their brazen exploits are part of the legends of these lands.

Envy of Spain’s new possessions led to official as well as clandestine wars among European powers. The Caribbean became a giant game of checkers with the islands changing hands, some several times, as reward or penalty according to the fortunes of war. These changes continued well into the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Cuba (although nominally independent) and Puerto Rico became U.S. possessions, and up to 1917, when the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark.

The development of the plantation system in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought irreversible changes to the environment. Large areas of virgin forests were cleared to plant tobacco, coffee, and sugarcane. As the indigenous population of Arawaks and Caribs had proved unable to withstand the exotic diseases introduced by Europeans and unfit for the hard labor forced upon them, new peoples were brought in. The early involvement of voluntary or indentured workers from the colonizing kingdoms soon gave way to the brutal and brutish system of slavery, which, introduced by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, disrupted whole areas of Africa in the search for labor to satisfy the exorbitant demands of “King Sugar.” The first colony to liberate its slaves was Saint-Domingue, which forced France to recognize the Haitian revolution (1791-1803) and officially abolish slavery in 1793. Santo Domingo declared its independence from Spain in 1821. After the Republic of Haiti (1804) invaded and annexed the Dominican Republic in 1822, and under Haitian rule, slavery was abolished throughout Hispaniola. The British abolished slavery in their colonies in 1834, and, after four years of apprenticeship, emancipation followed in 1838. In the French and Dutch colonies, abolition took place in 1848 and 1863, respectively. Spain did not free the enslaved in its colonies until 1873 (Puerto Rico) and 1886 (Cuba). When slavery ended in the nineteenth century, East Indians, Chinese, and more Africans were brought in as indentured laborers. These newcomers—sailors, settlers, traders, and immigrants—steadily introduced new crops and domestic animals to add to the already lush and bountiful tropical panorama.

The colonial era still is reflected in the linguistic paradigm that entrenched a subdivision of the Caribbean into “Spanish-, French-, English-, and Dutch speaking” subregions. Among them, “only ‘Spanish-speaking’ has an accurate application to the Caribbean” (Alleyne 1985: 155). While colonization history, cultural retentions, and the legacy of different types of political institutions validates it, the subdivision of the region into the once dominant European languages belies linguistic complexities in the subtending essentialism of monolinguistic criteria. No longer Spanish, French, English, or Dutch, most of these islands—as well as Suriname, Guyana, and Belize on the northeastern coast of South and Central America—are now independent nations celebrating their Creole languages and a cultural pluralism that privileges the long-suppressed African heritage. Both French and Kreyòl are Haiti’s official languages, as are Dutch and Papiamentu in Aruba, an autonomous member of The Kingdom of The Netherlands since 1986. Although Papiamentu appears to have been the only Creole language spoken by all social classes in the late eighteenth century and continues to be the unofficial language spoken by a majority of the people in Curaçao and Bonaire, the official language of The Netherlands Antilles is Dutch and English prevails in Sint Maarten, Saba, and Sint Eustatius. The case of St. Lucia also defies the monolinguistic paradigm: after two centuries of intermittent French control during which the island changed hands fourteen times, France ceded it to Britain in 1814 and independence was attained in 1979. According to Jocelyne Guilbault and Embert Charles (see “St. Lucia” in this volume), the island is culturally related to Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and, to a certain extent, Haiti. Although the daily spoken language in St. Lucia is Kwéyòl, English is the island’s official language. In the special case of Puerto Rico, U.S. control in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War kindled an identification with the language of the first colonizers. From the time the United States imposed English as a second official language in 1902, the debate on this issue has remained unabated and recently took center stage in partisan politics when a pro-commonwealth government passed legislation establishing Spanish as the only official language in 1991, only to be reversed by a pro-statehood government restoring the equal status of Spanish and English in 1993. Formerly dismissed as “illegitimate,” Creole languages are being studied as a part of the larger and burgeoning field of creolistics. These once dynamic oral languages, which defied regulative principles of traditional linguistic analysis, also are fueling a wave of critical revisionism probing the premises of established linguistic theory. Like the unclassifiable Australian platypus that befuddled 18th-century European naturalists and challenged theories of creationism, evolution, and the classification of species for nearly ninety years, Creole languages, including those spoken in the Caribbean, are shaking the foundations of a discipline. In the words of linguist Mervyn C. Alleyne (1985: 157-58),

This diversity of linguistic phenomena and language patterns is the direct result of the modern post-Columbian history of the region, which witnessed migrations of peoples and population replacements of a magnitude and complexity perhaps unsurpassed in any other period of equivalent duration in human history.

The relatively warm waters of the Caribbean Sea lie in a basin separated from the Atlantic Ocean by an arching series of small islands and numerous islets, cays, and rocks that make up the Greater and Lesser Antilles. These scattered pearls, the tips of submerged mountains thought to have once linked North and South America, still show volcanic activity in the boiling sulphur streams of some islands. Volcanos such as La Soufrière in St. Vincent and Mt. Pelée in Martinique have erupted in modern times, but few events were more devastating than the 1995 eruption in the Soufrière Hills of tiny Montserrat that covered the island with a massive cloud of white ash and forced the displacement of entire villages. The trade winds that blow across the Caribbean are moisture laden but not normally rain bearing, and the typical blue skies dotted with white puffs of small cumulus clouds have become affixed to the imagery of this commodified paradise. However, local conditions can cause sudden heavy downpours, and the most common natural disasters occur from the passage of hurricanes that normally affect these islands from June to October. Earthquakes are another regional hazard. Kingston, Jamaica’s main port, which was first settled in 1692, became the political capital of the island in 1872 after an earthquake destroyed Port Royal. In addition to natural disasters, these islands have had to contend with loss from more than nature’s fury. Legal and ecclesiastical archives preserving the history of Santo Domingo’s first century of cathedral music, for instance, were destroyed when the Dominican capital was burned and pillaged in 1586 by an English fleet dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I to inflict damage upon Spanish possessions overseas under Sir Francis Drake, whom many viewed as a pirate.

Caribbean waters also wash the northern shores of South America and eastern Central America. Historically, Guyana (formerly British Guiana) in South America and Belize (formerly British Honduras) in Central America were administered as part of Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Along with other former British colonies, nearly all now independent nations, Guyana and Belize presently form part of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) group of The Commonwealth of Nations. Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, gained its independence in 1975, and, since 1946, the continental territory of French Guiana shares the status of Overseas Department within France with the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The population is a fascinating mix shaped by voluntary and involuntary migrations over the course of centuries. Preceded by Haiti, which proudly represents itself as the first black republic in the Western world (1804) and traces the ancestry of its people to “101 ethnic nations,” there are now many independent countries in the Caribbean whose population is of predominantly African descent. European descendants constitute a higher percentage of the population on the Spanish-speaking islands, and small pockets of Arawak and Carib descendants intermittently play a symbolic role in the construction of national identities. In Puerto Rico, for instance, a figurative identification with the mythified Arawakan-affiliated Taínos, seen as “first people,” gained symbolic force as a viable alternative to two subsequent types of colonization and is expressed in the use of the Native American term Boriquén for the homeland and Boricua for its people on both the island and in the United States. The need to define the homeland “not simply as a novel colonial creation but as a nation with ancient roots” also has recast the image of Carib descendants in Arima, Trinidad. These “enduring relics from a vanishing past” are now agencies in an Amerindian revival that can lay claim to a legitimate share in the national society’s pluralist paradigm (Forte 2005: 4-6). Larger and longstanding Amerindian settlements are to be found in continental Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Belize, where Maya descendants share what is now a national territory with the Garífuna (an ethnic group of mixed African—among them Efik, Ibo, Yoruba, and Ashanti—and Carib ancestry). A significant percentage of the population of Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname is of East Indian descent. As Peter Manuel writes in this volume, “In the 1990s, and after an Afro-Guyanese dictatorship ruled from 1964 to 1992, the unprecedented degree of political and economic power enjoyed by Indo-Caribbeans enabled them to demand acceptance and legitimacy in new national paradigms of multiculturalism” (see “East Indians in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname”). In 1999 Bharrat Jagdeo (b. 1964), a Guyanese of East Indian descent, assumed the presidency of Guyana. A sprinkling of many other peoples, among them Chinese, Sephardic Jews, Koreans, Javanese, and Lebanese, contribute to the richness of the pepperpot.

Pre- and post-emancipation history reveals the emergence of strong peasant groups, descendants of the enslaved who turned their backs on the plantations whenever they could and set up numerous villages, where they reared livestock, fished, and planted the land. They fed the local markets with produce and contributed to the development of export crops such as bananas and cocoa, which became important earners of foreign exchange when sugar lost its importance in world trade. This peasantry—which Sidney W. Mintz has called “reconstituted” because these groups began as something other than peasants—emerged before, during, and after industrialization, and displayed a number of characteristics that made them “different from the peasantries of other world areas” (1985: 133).

Population pressures traditionally were relieved by intraregional migration where opportunities for employment existed, and by migration to the “mother countries” of Europe. When these doors were closed to mass migration after many colonies gained independence in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States and Canada became increasingly popular alternatives.

The Caribbean, taken as a whole, is a fluid society looking both outward and inward, and the distance between islands is not great. Historically linked directly to the metropolitan centers of Europe, however, Caribbeans traditionally have looked in that direction rather than to their neighbors for trade and motivation. The aborted British West Indies Federation experiment among some British colonies (1958-62) was a casualty of this phenomenon. Through institutions such as the Organization of American States (OAS, 1948) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM, 1973), among other alliances of more recent vintage, many of these countries now are moving toward a measure of cultural and economic cooperation and assistance.

The increasing flow of information, especially from the United States, the growth of tourism in most of the region, and, indeed, its very proximity to the United States have created the desire for modern lifestyles among a majority of Caribbeans. The fabricated simplicity portrayed in tourist pictures of sea, white sands, blue skies, and smiling natives belies the complexities and paradoxes arising from the history of Caribbean societies.

During the heyday of slavery, this region witnessed the establishment of the first alternative society when the Maroons of Jamaica so successfully outmaneuvered and confounded the British that, in 1739, a treaty was signed officially recognizing their freedom and independence. Categorized by Sidney W. Mintz (1974 in 1989: 131-56) as among “runaway peasantries” who formed communities outside the purview of colonial authority as a “mode of response” to the plantation system and as a “mode of resistance” to the power of colonizers, the Maroons hold a unique position in contemporary Jamaican society because the government still recognizes and respects the treaties they signed with the British in 1739 and thereafter. The land allocated to them by these treaties is not taxed, and Maroons, who see themselves as “stewards of the Creator’s earth and bounty,” would not sell even a small parcel of it. They retain authority to elect their own political leaders and administer their own system of justice (except for crimes involving death) (see Olive Lewin, “Jamaica,” in this volume). Only preceded by the declaration of independence in the United States, the enslaved in Haiti wrested independence from the French in 1804 and established the first black republic in the Western world. The Haitian revolution, which also prompted migrations that left their mark on the culture of other islands, began with a congress of African leaders and a Vodou ceremony led by Boukman at Bwa Kayiman on August 14, 1791, followed by the uprising on the night of August 21. Like Haiti’s Kreyòl legitimized by officialdom in 1987, Vodou is a religion recognized as such by the World Council of Churches since 1983. At the other end of the time-spectrum are fledgling sovereignties whose age is coterminous with processes of identity construction and the growth of institutions reaffirming and recontextualizing cultural traditions. This criterion informs the order in which surveys of musical traditions in some of the former British colonies are grouped in this volume. Thus, Jamaica (1962), the first insular British colony to gain independent status, is followed by Barbados (1966), The Bahamas (1973), St. Lucia (1979), and St. Kitts and Nevis (1983). (See also Stone 1985; and Domínguez, Pastor, and Worrell 1993.)

Struggles for social justice continue and the Caribbean still accommodates dictatorships. Many islands are independent and bona fide members of the United Nations as well as other significant international agencies. Some islands and a continental territory (French Guiana), however, still are linked politically to European nations and the United States. The status of Puerto Rico, defined as Estado Libre Asociado or Commonwealth (1952) in association with the United States, differs considerably from the status of the U.S. Virgin Islands (among them St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and Water Island), which are administered by the North American nation. France never relinquished Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana, which have held the status of Overseas Departments since 1946. The British still own and administer Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. While Aruba seceded from The Netherlands Antilles and became an autonomous member of The Kingdom of The Netherlands in 1986, The Netherlands Antilles, an associated state within the federated Kingdom of The Netherlands since 1954, continues to negotiate its status and the regrouping of its members (Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten).

Linked to Latin America by their early colonial history, several islands initially were a part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1535). On any world map, however, the names of most of the Caribbean countries are many times larger than the spot denoting the land. Cuba is the largest and also the most densely populated among these nations, with 11.3 million inhabitants according to a 2004 census. Some very small islands count their populations in hundreds and many of the islets and cays are virtually unpopulated.

Yet these small islands have begotten world-class achievers and own a wealth of cultural capital. Forged and fueled by unique historical experiences, the creativity of Caribbeans has supplied the world with an inexhaustible stream of vibrant musics and idiosyncratic instruments, the focus of the present volume. In the case of steel pans or steel drums, which have become the sonic trademark of commodification, Trinidadians fashioned discarded oil drums into instruments whose versatility easily moves from the up-tempo calypso beat to scores of academic compositions. Several sons of these islands are Nobel prize winners, three of them in literature: from tiny St. Lucia Sir Arthur Lewis (1915-91), the recipient of the 1979 prize in economics, and Derek Walcott (b. 1930), the 1992 Nobel laureate in literature; from Guadeloupe Aléxis Saint-Léger Léger (1887-1975), who wrote under the name of Saint-John Perse and preceded Walcott in 1960; and from Trinidad V. S. Naipaul (Viviadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, b. 1932), whose writings were honored in 2001. The region’s towering literary figures, which include the Cuban Alejo Carpentier (1904-80) and others associated with the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, tell a story of the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. This literature, like the pop styles feeding an insatiable appetite for new forms of kinetic energy, has shifted scholarship from an emphasis on the origins of creole cultures and a reliance on dichotomized tributaries to studies of the process of creolization itself. For A. James Arnold—Professor of French at the University of Virginia and editor of A History of Literature in the Caribbean (1994-2001)— “the [region] has served as a crucible for virtually every social, political, economic, religious, and cultural form that has evolved in the Americas” (Feigenoff 2004). (See also Arnold 1995; González Echevarría and PupoWalker 1996; and Kutzinski 1996.)

Europeans enslaved bodies but they could not enslave minds. From fragments of memory, the slaves and their descendants slowly reconstituted a social and political existence that slavery had sought to deny them. From their many native tongues and those of the new lands, they created languages; despite the antagonism of the masters, they made their drums or invented substitutes and held their ceremonies. They sang to make work seem lighter and used music as a transformative form of energy to communicate with ancestors, summon spirit-gods, heal, and speak clandestinely with each other. Wherever possible they planted crops and cooked their food in the styles of their homelands. They consulted their own for medicinal cures and reconstructed their beliefs in syncretic religions that incorporate aspects of Christianity to African theology. Vodou in Haiti, Shango in Trinidad, Santería in Cuba, and Kumina in Jamaica are only the most resilient and widespread. Very often their real existence had to take place underground, unofficially and hidden from the masters. By necessity they developed alternative lifestyles from an amalgam that was no longer African and certainly not European. In 1970 Sidney Mintz, the distinguished anthropologist who made lasting contributions to Caribbean studies, formulated a basic principle subtending neo-African expressive culture that surfaces explicitly and implicitly throughout this volume:

Enslaved Africans were quite systematically prevented … with few exceptions … from bringing with them the personnel who maintained their homeland institutions: the complex social structures of ancestral societies, with their kings and courts, guilds and cult-groups, markets and armies were not, and could not, be transferred. Cultures are linked as continuing patterns of and for behavior to such social groupings; since the groupings themselves could not be maintained or readily reconstituted, the capacities of random representatives of these societies to perpetuate or to recreate the cultural contents of the past were seriously impaired. Again, the slaves were not usually able to regroup themselves in the new world settings in terms of their origins; the cultural heterogeneity of any slave group normally meant that what was shared culturally was likely to be minimal …. [however,] slaves could and did create viable patterns of life, for which their pasts were pools of available symbolic and material resources (1970: 7-8).

The essays that follow unfold this epic history through its musics. While research on specific traditions and styles grows exponentially, the webs linking forms of expressive culture remain largely unexplored. Meanwhile, neither modern economies diversifying into manufacturing, oil, bauxite, financial services, and tourism, nor the all-pervasive proselytizing effect of the mass media and other forces of globalization have yet managed to destroy the vibrant cultures of Caribbean peoples.



Independent countries: Cuba (1902); Dominican Republic (1844).

U.S. territory: Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1952).



Independent countries: Haiti (1804).

French administration: French Guiana (Overseas Department, 1946); Guadeloupe (Overseas Department, 1946); St. Martin (Guadeloupe dependency); Martinique (Overseas Department, 1946).



Independent countries: Antigua & Barbuda (1981); The Bahamas (1973); Barbados (1966); Belize (1981); Dominica (1978); Grenada (1974); Guyana (1966); Jamaica (1962); St. Kitts and Nevis (1983); St. Lucia (1979); St. Vincent & the Grenadines (1979); Trinidad & Tobago (1962).

British administration: Anguilla; Bermuda; Cayman Islands; British Virgin Islands; Montserrat; Turks & Caicos Islands.

U.S. administration: U.S. Virgin Islands.



Independent countries: Republic of Suriname (1975).

Autonomous members of the Kingdom of The Netherlands: Aruba (1986); The Netherlands Antilles (1954, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius, Sint Maarten).


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