The culture of the Caribbean people as practiced and experienced among the islands of the Caribbean Sea, that stretch from the Bahamas in the north to the mainland shores of the Guianas in the south, comprises a complex amalgam of influences gathered together over a period of some five hundred years. Caribbean anthropologists, like their colleagues in sociology, history, geography, political science, economics and even literary criticism, are increasingly expanding the frontiers of their respective disciplines to overlap and encompass previous academic boundaries in their quest to effectively represent and interpret the heterogeneity of the Caribbean experience. In his post-modernist perspective of the region, the Cuban, Antonio Benitez-Rojo considers that this eclecticism should not be regarded as a reluctant concession but rather as a considered strategy. For him, the Caribbean can be regarded as a cultural sea without boundaries. "Who can tell us that he has traveled to the origins of Caribbeaness?" he asks. "This is why my analysis cannot dispense with any of the paradigms, while at the same time it will not be able to legitimate itself through any one of them, but rather only in and through their nonlinear sum" (Benitez-Rojo 1992:270).
Anthropology's front-runner in the Caribbean by almost two decades, Melville
Herskovitz, conducted research among Afro-Caribbean populations in Surinam,
Haiti and Trinidad between 1928 and 1939 (Herskovitz and Herskovitz 1934, 1947;
Herskovitz 1937) His ground-breaking study on the Haitian peasantry stimulated
postwar work on peasantries, sugar cane workers and social pluralism by other
North American anthropologists such as Julian Steward (1956), Michael Horowitz
(1967) and Eric Wolf (1966). They found, as the entire corpus of Caribbean anthropology
has since confirmed, that their studies had to be read against a background
of the incongruity between the traditional object of their discipline and the
inescapable history of the region. In a recent review of his life's work in
the Caribbean, Mintz has concluded that its people engage in a continuous and
historically rooted process of refashioning the cultural material that has come
their way. In its multi-racialism, this process emerged as part of the encounter
of the entire non-Western world, with the West, within the Caribbean. From as
early as the seventeenth century, this process represented a social and cultural
modernity, which was happening in the colonies before it happened in Europe
In his sixty years of working in the region, Irving Rouse, the eminence gris of Caribbean archaeology, has had to make numerous revisions to his pre-Columbian map of the region as new material has emerged (Rouse in Olsen 1974; Rouse 1948 a&b, 1986, 1992:31). Distinct styles of pottery, divided into successive ceramic series extending along the island chain from the mouth of the Orinoco River to the islands of the Bahamas.
These have formed the basis of theories on regional systems and chronological frontiers of culture. Various groups of mainland people moved from the Orinoco delta northwards over a period of 4,500 years, from about 3000 BC to 1500 AD. They followed the course of the South Equatorial Current as it mixed with the waters of the Orinoco River and curved up into the Caribbean. Aided by the ocean currents and the close proximity of the islands to one another along the chain, waves of settlers paddled their way into the region in fleets of dugout canoes.
The earliest group of indigenous people to come up the islands was an archaic group of hunter-gatherers. They grinded and chipped basic stone tools. One of their first settlements has been identified by a site at Otoire in eastern Trinidad. This is dated at c4000 BC. They moved across the sea channel from Trinidad to the islands of Tobago and Grenada c2000 BC. Because of their initial location at Otoire, archaeologists call these people the Otoiroid.
The Saladoid people followed these Otoiroid in c250 AD. They are associated with the introduction of horticulture and ceramics into the islands. The Saladoid chronology starts c2, 000 BC in the middle ranges of the Orinico River at a place called Saladiero. The Saladoid had migrated along the riverine route from the headwaters of the Orinoco valley to the South American coast. Here they developed a new sub-series called Cedrosian Saladoid. This they carried to the Antilles. Their horticulture was concentrated on the cultivation and processing of cassava (Manihot esculenta). They settled all along the islands of the Lesser Antilles and gradually peopled the Greater Antilles. Here, among the large islands of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba, the Cedrosian Saladoid spread widely, extending into the scattered islands of the Bahamas. Because of this wide distribution their culture grew apart, diverging into separate series and sub-series. By the middle of the ceramic age the Caribbean had diversified into four regional lines of cultural development:
1: The mainland, including the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Region 4 was centred on Hispaniola, which was the base for renewed migration spreading into the Bahamas and Cuba (the Western Taino) and back into the Virgin Islands and the Leeward Islands (the Eastern Taino). The 'Classic' Taino developed on the coast and in the interior of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico (Coe, Snow & Benson 1986:160; Rouse 1992:105-137).
It was a society composed of chiefdoms with ceremonial ball courts and a religion based on the worship of sacred objects carved from wood, bone, shell and stone called zemis, one of the earliest studies of which was carried out by De Hostos (1923). All of the above branches of the Cedrosian Saladoid have, in historic times, been covered in the literature by the appellations "Arawak" and "Tainos". These were the people who Columbus met on his first voyage (Cohen 1969:86). Sued Badillo (1995:77) strongly rejects Rouse's earlier theory of a frontier between Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles (Rouse 1986:31,144-55) and has argued that since the first continental migrations of ceramic people to the Caribbean, the Eastern Caribbean and Puerto Rico had formed a rather homogeneous cultural area. He affirms that although there were changing orientations in ceramic styles, there was no break in cultural continuity between the two areas and this permitted a two-way flow of cultural influences. At both ends of the Lesser Antilles therefore, there was significant interaction. It placed the people who occupied the centre of this route in a prime location for trading with the continent to the south and the Greater Antilles to the north, and it exposed key settlements along the chain to the cultural influences that accompanied this trade.
The end of the pre-Columbian era in the Lesser Antilles has been associated with the Sauzoid series c1200 AD (Rouse 1992). But this has been contested by Boomert (1995:28-29) who argues that the Cayo complex, c 1250 AD, found in the Windward Islands from Tobago to Dominica (Boomert 1986,1987) " is the only protohistoric pottery tradition from the Windward Islands meeting all the requirements needed to classify it as the Island Carib ceramic assemblage" (Boomert 1995:28).
Carib Prehistory and Identity
In summarising his assessment of these two models, Wilson concludes that whatever the eventual outcome, historical and archaeological evidence from the Lesser Antilles suggests that there was more cultural heterogeneity than had previously been recognised:
Although speculative, I feel it is more likely that the prehistoric and early historic Lesser Antilles contained a complex mosaic of ethnic groups, which had considerable interaction with each other, the mainland and the Greater Antilles. As now, the individual islands and island groups would have become populous Trading centres or isolated backwaters according to the abundance of their resources, the strength of their social and political ties with other centres, and their unique histories of colonisation and cultural change (Wilson 1994).
That there was a 'complex mosaic' composed of popular trading centres and isolated backwaters at the time of this immigration is supported by Allaire (1977), in his pioneering study of contrasting pre-Columbian settlements on the geologically older and younger parts of Martinique. He argues that groups who were active at the same period may have had cultural practices significantly different to each other depending on whether they occupied the older reef-bound lowlands or the steep, actively volcanic regions. Older sections incorporated geological, botanical and faunal resources, which the younger parts of islands did not. Martinique has been the most studied of the group and has provided archaeologists with examples of contrasting habitats on the same island. This has led to indications that the cultural distribution of pre-Columbian groups in this part of the Lesser Antilles was far more complex than originally thought and the island has become the focus of debate for the most recent theories on the origins of the Island Carib (Allaire & Mattioni 1983).
When such aspects of the natural environment are studied in relation to the
human ecology of Amerindians and the later Creole societies, which developed
after them on the islands, important resource zones may be identified across
the region, which could have had equally significant implications in pre-Columbian
times. By reassessing the environment of the islands through the eyes of foragers,
hunter-gatherers, fishermen, horticulturalists and cultivators, and informed
by both archaeology and ethnohistory, it is possible to construct a basic resource
map. This is guided by the biological archaeology of middens and refuse areas
around settlements, and by studies of the geology of artifacts such as stone
tools and pottery (Olson 1982).
The culture of the indigenous people was very closely associated with the environment. The size of the islands that they occupied often determined the cultures that they developed. The Lesser Antilles, being close to the continent and being tied into the trade, which was carried on with this region, was therefore much more influenced by life on the Orinoco and Guianas coastline. The Greater Antilles, being further removed, and with settlements being on large islands with more resources, developed more complex cultures. While the Southern Lesser Antilles people still had a tradition of having originated from South America, the creation myths of the Taino people of the Greater Antilles placed their beginnings in the caves of Hispaniola.
The Tainos appear to have considered themselves superior the wild "small islanders" to the south-east, for when Columbus arrived on Hispaniola on his first voyage of 1492 he was warned about the fearful "Other" across the waters. With preconceived notions of cannibalism and savagery picked up from the Tainos he sailed further south on his second voyage in 1493 and found a people upon whom he and his reporters placed a reputation, which has survived for centuries. The earliest mention of the Caribs is that made by Columbus in his journal on 26 November 1492: "All the people that he has found up to today, he says, are very frightened of those of caniba or canima." (Hulme & Whitehead 1992:19). His initial reference to the word is as a place where people were located, rather than the name of the people themselves. In other statements the Tainos may have been using the term to refer not to a specific ethnic group but to any hostile band who attacked their villages, particularly those who came from the small islands to the east of where they were in Hispaniola. ). They have variously been called canima, canybal, caraibe, carebie, caribbee, charaibe and cribe in other European languages (Hulme & Whitehead 1992:354).
'Carib' as it is interpreted among the people of Dominica and the islands of the Eastern Caribbean today, means any of the descendants of the aboriginal people who occupied islands of the Lesser Antilles at the time of the arrival of Columbus and who are associated with settlements on the central east coast of Dominica, the north east coast of St.Vincent and an area within the district Choiseul in southern St. Lucia. In Dominica particularly there has been a cultural revival movement in progress since the 1970s as young Caribs research their past, form cultural groups, and in several ways attempt to revive traces of an indigenous culture that has been heavily mixed with European and African influences over the last five hundred years. This process of admixture between Caribs, Europeans and Africans was the beginning of Creolisation, a process which became the dominiant cultural dynamic in the colonization of the region.
With the arrival of other European powers into the Caribbean and their seizure and partitioning of lands across the region, the word was appropriated by the Dutch, French and British. By then Creole was also being applied to the so called "seasoned" or second generation Africans, born and brought up into the Creole ways of their respective European colonies, and speaking the relevant Creole language which had emerged from the colonial melange of cross cultural influences pouring into the Caribbean.
The Oxford Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Allsopp 1996) takes up two
pages of fine print to explain the term and its derivatives. Virginia Dominguez
who has studied the changing usage of Creole in Louisiana since the eighteenth
The term is used in the Caribbean to apply to language, specific social groups and the inherited culture of the islands or, as Allsopp phrases it in one of the subsections of his dictionary: "of or belonging to, or typical of, the life-style and culture of today's Black West Indians". Later, however, under Creole White, he provides the definition: "A Caribbean person of strongly marked European stock, with no obvious signs of African mixture." "Obvious signs" are the operative words here, and such questions as the interpretation and perceptions of "purity" will eventually emerge in any discussion on the White West Indian and the Carib.
As a designation of colour and origin in its earlier sense, 'Creole' is sometimes a subtle euphemism also combining references to both colour and class, drawing attention to the fact that Caribbean people of whatever ethnic mixture are confronted daily with their past, for it colours both the observers' and the natives' understanding and handling of their present. This is so because, as one Cuban writer put it, "every race within the region and every hybrid under the banner of its skin and its speech, carries a local history, a sociology and an economics which feature a common turbulence"(Benitez-Rojo 1992:119). But used in such a context it's meaning varies locally. In Jamaica and several other islands of the English-speaking Caribbean 'Creole' designates anyone of Jamaican (or respective island) parentage, except East Indians, Chinese and Maroons, or Caribs in the case of Dominica, St.Vincent and St.Lucia. As in Guyana 'Creole' does not include Amerindians, and East Indians are also classified as a separate entity. In Trinidad it primarily denotes the mainly white, 'French Creole' descendants of seventeenth and eighteenth-century planters, but secondarily it is applied in the same manner as in Guyana. In the French Antilles, as in Trinidad, 'Creole' refers more to local born whites than to 'coloured' or black persons, although confusingly, in reference to culture, it is applied to 'the entire way of life' of the people of Martinique, Guadeloupe and its dependencies. In this respect, the term is more commonly applied in the islands of the English Caribbean, which at some time in their history had been occupied by France, namely Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada or, in the case of Trinidad, where the dominant population had been of French extraction who were living under British and Spanish rule.
Lowenthal points out that the word was extended "to things, habits and ideas: Plants grown, goods manufactured, and opinions expressed in the West Indies were all 'Creole'"(Lowenthal 1972:32). Writing in the 1970s, Lowenthal was of the view that in the English-speaking Caribbean, "where independence and black power now favour national and ethnic appellations, the term 'Creole' is today considered old-fashioned, self-conscious, or 'arty'" (1972:33). But thirty years later there had been a post-independence resurgence of the term, particularly in the French-influenced islands mentioned above, where the negrétude, black power, or 'back to Africa' movements observed by Lowenthal in the late 1960s have been tried, tested and found inadequate in representing the 'Caribbean self'. As a result, Creolité has witnessed a revival, and even the Lesser Antillian Rastafarian movement now moulds the locally created components of Creole culture in ethnobotany, music, food and fashion, with the vision of an Ethiopian diaspora of which the late Emperor Haile Selasie I is the spiritual inspiration. This is the continuing process of creolization identified by Brathwaite (1971) as being active in the eighteenth century. He was convinced that studying Creole society of the period was essential to an understanding of a present "which is becoming increasingly concerned with racial and cultural identity and West Indians place in the world". He confirmed that the regions's "present condition and cultural orientation ... are as much a result of the process of creolization as the slavery which provided the framework for it" (Brathwaite 1971:i). Lewis (1983) also sees it as the main generator of the historical evolution of Caribbean society in its ideological aspects from 1492:
The process was that of a subtle Creolizing movement, whereby all of those modes of thought were absorbed and assimilated and were then reshaped to fit the special and unique requirements of Caribbean society as they developed from one period to the next. The moral and intellectual baggage of Europe, this is to say, once unloaded, became indubitably Caribbean (Lewis 1983: 27)
But only a few, such as Gullick (1976b, 1985,1995) in St. Vincent, have considered the creolization process as it affected those people who were already occupants of the Caribbean at the time of the European and African arrival. In this the most colonial of all colonial societies, where the deepest wrong was done, the effects of the process of colonization and the creolization, which accompanied it, have -- like the subject peoples themselves -- been marginalised. While others arrived with their respective cultures and contributed them to the crucible of change, or exchange, within the proverbial 'melting pot', the Amerindian culture was already there.
The cultural variation was as immense as the geographical area from which these people were drawn. It spread from present-day Senegal in the north, southwards along the Gulf of Guinea to Angola.
This range included as many as fifty main cultural groups and their numerous related sub-groupings. The diversity of language reflected this complex merging of cultures as people whose origin on the coast could be as much as two thousand miles apart were thrust together in small controlled communities in the Caribbean. Tribal languages that appear here and there in Caribbean speech range from Hausa, Kru, Ibo, Edo, Bini, Nembe, Yoruba, Ashanti, Ibibo and Ijo to Fulani, Ewe, Kikongo, Efik, Kwa, Fon and Twi and a couple dozen others. The shreds of cultural patrimony transported in the mind across the terrifying waters of the Middle Passage were pieced together on the shores of the Caribbean into a patchwork of cultural practices, traditions and skills. Their origins became blurred, picked up and pinpointed here or there during the twentieth century by linguists, folklorists and the early anthropologists of the region.
Traces of what was Igbo, Ibo or Ibibo lingered in a word here, a song pattern there, or a character of the spirit world, whose African roots had survived but who had acquired a French or Spanish name in the process of Creolization. The destruction and recreation of the shattered cultures of West Africa in the form of a variegated collage of influences is the main feature of the African cultural remnants in the region. For much of the five hundred years, ever since the first Spanish ship transported the first boatload of Africans direct from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola in 1518, the validity of this African remnant has been rejected. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries its presence was seen as a socially negative undercurrent of West Indian society that was better suppressed, covered up or denied. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century, during a period of great social and political transformation, did the African element in Caribbean culture have its renaissance, manifesting itself in the work of academics, artists, dancers, writers, cultural activists and the Rastafarian movement.
Stripped of everything but the contents of the mind, the African who arrived in the Caribbean carried only memory and skills. And yet it was from these intangible possessions that a new world was recreated, transformed and reordered. For all of its apparent confusion it was anchored by key lifelines of cultural security that helped to give stability, aid survival and make sense of a world gone mad. The plantation system and the regimen of work and mental stress and personal degradation associated with enslavement did not allow for the replication of the structured tribally determined patterns of life as had existed in Africa. Despite their condition they wove these lines of survival wherever possible into their plantation existence. Spaces of cultural opportunity were taken advantage of at every available turn. Subterfuge, sarcasm, innuendo and bitter humour became the antidotes to the circumstances in which they had found themselves. In folktales, songs and dances these threads were woven, providing a pliable ever-changing mask to the reality that lay beyond. The scraps of religious beliefs, once rigidly defined from tribe to tribe became a composite. Some elements were stronger on one island than another depending on the majority of influence from one group of Africans rather than others. But there were general themes associated with a spirit world where good and evil were in contest and whose balance had to be maintained. Spiritual possession and respect for the ancestors ran through it all in spite of the variations.
The African religions and beliefs were outlawed from the earliest days of plantation
slavery, not merely because they were seen to be pagan, primitive and generally
unchristian but more so because the plantocracy feared these practices were
a cover for revolt. Paranoia against any form of African religious spiritualism
rose sharply after the Haitian revolution, during which messages and plans of
insurrection were passed on during such gatherings. But despite these restrictions
certain forms of traditional religious practices survived under a blanket of
secrecy. Those who professed to control spiritual powers were respected and
there existed a network of shamans whose skills were called upon to cast spells,
make charms and call up the spirit world. They were consulted for their knowledge
of the use of herbs to cure illnesses and destroy enemies. These 'obeah' men
or women were visited for help and advice and legislation survives on the islands
up to today criminalizing obeah and those associated with the practice.
A host of tribal languages were quickly lost as people from one part of West Africa were mixed with others on the plantations. Soon slaves of each European colony were speaking their own form of English, French, Spanish or Dutch, depending from which nation their colonial masters originated. In cases were islands changed hands regularly between opposing European powers and where colonists from both Britain and France were resident, as in the case of Dominica, St. Lucia, and later Trinidad, parallel Creole languages developed in the same place. Many of the 'patois' or Creole forms of speech still exist. One can tell which island someone is from by listening to his or her accents.
Gradually the old African folk tales were being remodeled and retold in these new languages. Here and there particular African words or the names of spirits and folktale characters survive. The spider hero of the Akan people, Ananse, lives on in the Anansy stories. Tales involving magic and forests and rivers were also common. But here the spirits had merged with European folklore and had Europeanized names. One hears of the River Mama or Mama D'leau, the water spirit, and the forest spirit Papa Bois. Such characters are common in the former French colonies along with the Loupgarou a male werewolf and the La Diabless, the she- devil.
Changes in belief systems over time can be exemplified by a study of the currently used word, Jumbie or Duppy as applied to an evil spirit. The word Jumbie or Jombie originates from a branch of the Bantu language especially of the kongo-ngola group in which there is the good nsambi 'God' and the evil nsumbi 'Devil'. Carried across from Africa to Caribbean in various Central and West African language sub-groups, nsumbi became Jumbie or Jombie in its Creole form. Good and evil were under the same spiritual power constantly tussling for a balance between the two. Songs and religious practices celebrated the contest, but over time only the Jombie, the evil spirit, was remembered. In early folklore this Jombie could affect your health while you were asleep at night or wreck your good fortune. Practitioners of Obeah were supposed to be able to drive the spirit out or make it affect others. The Jombie is now largely used as a bogeyman in stories to frighten children into obedience.
Music traverses language and so it survived more strongly than other art forms. It was also incorporated into work and periods of festivity and lamentation and so had a continuity that evolved over time from slavery into freedom and further into the twentieth century emerging in forms of reggae, calypso, zouk and soca. Holes for sugar cane planting were dug to chants and the beat of drums. There were songs of sadness, joy, worship and revolt. Later in the post-emancipation period hauling of boats, sawing of wood, moving of houses and gathering of fishing nets was done to song. Much of the music was accompanied by dancing, some of these like the bele and kalenda had strong African retentions whereas European dances such as quadrilles, polkas, reels and lancers were given an African transformation, speeded up and choreographed anew with a flare which transformed them into something distinctly Caribbean.
The tunes for such dances incorporated the fiddle, accordion and banjo with a variety of drums and percussion instruments, which had their roots in Africa. Flutes, rattles, 'shack-shacks', scrapers, tambourines and 'bamboo-tamous' were among them. Goatskin was stretched across hollow wooden frames carved from tree trunks and casks from the sugar factories were utilized to form drums, the tamous or 'gro kas' of the French territories. The Spanish islands of the Greater Antilles and influences from Venezuela added an Iberian flavour to African rhythms and were complimented by brass instruments and guitars and quartos. In the British Caribbean, the island of Trinidad was particularly influenced by this, transforming the back-up music for its calypsos and it is even more strongly evident in the 'parang, music of certain communities.
The times of great celebration and festivals were Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and 'Crop-over" when the last canes were brought to the mills for crushing. In the French influenced colonies, the Roman Catholics celebrated Carnival for two days before Lent. From this there developed a lively tradition of street bands with colourful characters dancing and singing in costumes. The songs that accompanied these revelries often told of some recent scandal or some momentous event and this custom lives on today in the calypsoes which are composed and sung during these occasions.
The image of carnival and masquerade is an appropriate analogy to use when reflecting on Caribbean society in the first decades of the 20th century. As the major cultural group, the patterns set by the African Creole working class permiated the cultural expressions of Caribbean society. This was despite the efforts of the dominant class of Europeans and the influential professional sector, made up of the descendants of 'free people of colour', to maintain the colonial status quo. It was concerned with maintaining the longstanding connections of government and commerce with the world economy and particularly with the culture of each colony's respective mother country. In effect there existed a rigid facade aimed at 'keeping up appearances' while the undercurrent of the mass culture flowed vibrantly on beneath the mask. Political and social change from the 1920s slowly tipped the balance as Caribbean nationalism and self-discovery, made manifest in the arts on several levels, gave birth to a form of cultural liberation that allowed reality to surface and reveal itself from the 1950s. In many parts of the Caribbean this cultural manifestation had been given added dimensions by the arrival of Asian and Iberian immigrants from the middle of the 19th century.
Post Emancipation Cultures
As the prospect of full emancipation loomed before the Caribbean plantocracy
in the 1830s there was concern about a shortage of labour to work the cane fields,
particularly in the 'new colonies' of Trinidad and British Guiana and for the
Dutch in Surinam. For a brief period in the 1840s some agents in the islands
encouraged Africans from the Gambia and Seirra Leone to come over as wage labourers,
but the numbers were small and their cultural impact was only really felt in
parts of Trinidad where they refreshed some of the more Creolized African retentions
remaining from the period of slavery.
More significantly the British first tried Portuguese labour from the island of Maderia, where European farmers of Portuguese origin were struggling with agricultural problems that were crippling the local economy. From 1835 a few hundred Maderians escaping famine and land shortage arrived to work for wages on the plantations and were set down in the tropical equatorial climate amidst an unfamiliar and widely mixed society. As labourers they were not successful and suffered from the poor food, housing and medical attention. For a time they stopped coming but as a vine pest continued to wreck the grape crop in Madeira, poverty forced whole families to leave for the Caribbean, which absorbed some 40,971 Madeiran Portuguese between 1835 and 1881. Most of them soon moved into the main towns becoming shopkeepers and tradesmen and by the mid 20th century had established themselves as major players in the commerce and politics of mainly Trinidad, British Guiana, Antigua, and St.Vincent.
Cuba was the first island to use Chinese labour early in the 19th century. It was not until 1835 that the first ships transporting Chinese immigrants arrived in Trinidad, British Guiana, Jamaica. Some arrived in the French colonies and in Surinam the Dutch also took in large numbers of Javanese from their colonies in Indonesia. There was an agreement that indentured labourers would be given a passage home after their five year period of indenture was over. Numerous Chinese took advantage of this but others remained. Moving, like the Portuguese into the towns and becoming hucksters and small shopkeepers. In all, over 17000 Chinese came to the British West Indies between 1835 and 1884. Their cultural impact was strongest in Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana in terms of food and aspects of commercial activity.
In 1838, the ships Hesperus and Whitby sailed out of the Bay of Bengal and
headed for Demerara, some 14,800 kilometers across the world carrying the first
of many thousands of East Indians that would make the voyage in hundreds of
ships until the first decade of the 20th century. The success of East Indian
labour to the economies of those colonies that received them was shown in the
speedy rise in sugar production in Trinidad and Guyana after 1850. Although
as a rule the East Indians were promised a free return passage to India after
completing their five or ten year contracts, the majority remained saving money
to rent or buy land and invest in their children's education. Their pride in
their culture and their Hindu and Muslim religious heritage transformed the
societies in which they settled. A visitor to Trinidad in the middle of the
20th century was able to write:
Wide tracts of Trinidad are now, for all visual purposes, Bengal. The same
vegetation is here, the same villages, a semblance of the same clothing, and
everywhere little Hindu cemeteries with headstones inscribed with Urdu characters.
We came across a large temple of Vishnu standing under mango and palm trees.
Little coloured flags fluttered from poles of bamboo, and the walls inside were
frescoed with the figures of Shiva and Parvati and her son Katri and with outlines
of ligam and the bull of Shiva
. (Fermor 1951).
In song and dance too and in the adaptations to music, East Indian influence has made itself felt in the African Creole culture where it sunk its roots. The most popular food items were widely adopted so that today, throughout the Caribbean, versions of roti and pelau are now considered to be local dishes sold in most street side stalls and restaurants. So strong has been the growth of East Indian influence and population growth, that in Guyana and Trinidad sharp political and cultural divisions have emerged erupting from time to time into violent confrontation or at least causing underlying tensions that cut across society (Honychurch 1981).
At the end of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century small but influential groups of minor traders from Syria and Lebanon made their way to the Caribbean. Starting at first as itinerant vendors of cloth, clothing and cheap jewelry among the scattered villages and plantations, this group rose to prominence in the business sector from the 1930s and 1940s, establishing themselves as important powerbrokers in commerce and (mainly behind the scenes) in politics, as their descendants moved into the legal services and tourism development while maintaining strong business networks not merely in their respective territories but across the region.
Taken together, these diverse cultural crosscurrents have thrown up a peculiar
hybrid, a chaotic modernity anchored by strands of tradition and conservative
circumspection that are rooted in a variety of historical associations. After
more than a century of such interaction an observer in Trinidad could sum up
the society by saying:
Several preachers in Jamaica began to pray to Haile Selassie as the living God and the hope of African redemption. Worshipers of Selassie became known as Ras Tafaris, Rastamen. The Rastas wore long hair and beards because of an order on the Old Testament that no razor shall touch the head of the faithful. They became known as Locksmen, or Dreadlocks, and in some places they were simply called Dreads.
There is no definite creed for the Rastas. Some smoke large amounts of ganja or marijuana, while others shun it. Their members are in the forefront of repeated calls on the governments of the region to decriminalize the use of marijuana which has now become a virtually uncontrollable weed in the forested zones of several islands and is claimed by all of its advocates to have valuable medicinal qualities. Most of them are vegetarians, avoiding shellfish and meat, particularly pork. Processed or salted food is suspect and they prefer 'I-tal', natural grains, fruit, roots and vegetables. Some do not work while others are fine woodcarvers artists and craftsmen. The corruption of modern society is 'Babylon' and they hope to find peace in 'Zion'.
The spread of reggae music, which was influenced by and popularized the Rastafari, spread from Jamaica and influenced youth elsewhere in the Caribbean especially from the early 1970s. During that decade, many of them down the islands adopted the lifestyle, rejecting the prevailing establishment value system and turning to a more 'rootsy' lifestyle living off the land. The circumspect society and traditional, even if 'socialist' political establishment of the region reacted warily to this new movement that erupted in their midst. The question of hairstyle, dress, the cries of 'down with Babylon' and the declaration of novel perceptions of the Caribbean worldview caused a tide of reaction and response which shook island communities into new directions of social transformation.
The foremost exponent of this movement that swept the Caribbean was Bob Marley
who was for many the embodiment of Rastafarian culture as he was the best-known
ambassador of reggae to the world. By the time of his death in May 1981 he was
internationally acclaimed and for many the climax of his career was his performance
at the Zimbabwe Independence celebrations in April 1980. It was in this sphere
that the African Diaspora in the Caribbean gave to Africa a new cultural dimension
distilled in the region from numerous ingredients emerging from the colonial
experience, transferring a Caribbean perception of an almost totally mythical
Africa back to the 'homeland' itself. The influence of Rasta philosophy as carried
in the lyrics of Bob Marley's songs has been taken up by groups as far removed
from each other as urban youth on the African continent, New Agers in Europe
and Aborigines in Australia.
After the Second World War the traditional European powers in the region, except
for France, gradually turned their attention inwards towards building a European
community. This was first to form a strong western alliance as a bulwark against
Soviet influence during the Cold War but later, after the fall of communism
in the late 1980s, it moved towards establishing a global power group to offset
the unilateral dominance of the United States of America. As Britain embarked
on its policy of relieving itself of its colonies in the region, the United
States filled the vacuum. France made its colonies into overseas departments
of its continental state and the Dutch gave its islands greater autonomy within
a form of associated status with the Netherlands. Surinam became fully independent
and the Spanish had lost her last colonies in the Caribbean since 1898.
The close proximity of the powerful northern neighbour made itself more effectively felt from 1940, when it established military bases on several British islands. Already the agencies of US popular culture in the form of radio and the cinema were taking root on the islands. As the century progressed technology provided greater avenues for contact. There was increased tourism from North America following the Cuban Revolution and the US embargo on visits to Cuba. This was evident as US tourism investment shifted into the Bahamas and then into the Eastern Caribbean after 1959. This was coupled with the introduction of passenger jet aircraft on Caribbean routes and the increase in the size and numbers of cruise ships touring the region. As the Cold War progressed the Caribbean became a sensitive area in the geopolitics of the 1960s to 1990s, receiving greater US attention. The Black Power and Civil Rights era from the 1960s galvanized Caribbean attention as a new generation of intellectuals was influenced by the ideas of Black Pride and Pan-Africanism first espoused by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. The black presence in US media, sport, politics and show business provides strong feelings of shared identity between the Caribbean and the US. This intensified as television and Internet connections became widely available by the end of the century. The media blitz emanating from North America was embraced by Caribbean people despite the pockets of resistance and the warnings coming from vocal but outnumbered advocates of 'Caribbean cultural identity'. However, for a society that had absorbed so much, that had in fact been created by the process of adopting and reworking cultures, the flood of US popular culture into the region can be viewed simply as another addition to the 'melting pot' that will be reworked in its own time. A form of Creole nationalism, which attempts to maintain national pride and cultural awareness in the face of these manifestations of globalization, has emerged in response to these changes.
There was in all the states of the Caribbean a middle-class intelligentsia
who were largely responsible for articulating the adolescent nationalism of
the fledgling English-speaking territories in the early 20th century. They regarded
the accumulated Creole "folk ways" as representative of a type of
idyllic proto-nationalism, one that was less touched by the five-hundred-year
long intervention of colonialism from which the islands were emerging. Here
were symbols of survival, evidence of resistance, and examples of social and
cultural self-determination. When the nationalist politicians of the 1960s and
1970s sought symbols for the stimulation of a nationalist identity it was to
this "folk culture" that they turned. Here were the "roots"
which provided the framework for an "indigenous" tradition, which
would be revitalised, promoted or preserved in cooperation with Departments
of Culture. By Hobsbawm's definition, such programmes are classed as "the
inventing of tradition" and it is essentially a process of formalisation
and ritualization, characterised by references to the past, if only by imposing
In Oostindie's view, "The contemporary efforts of intellectuals of various ethnic backgrounds to substitute creole culture for earlier counter-discourses such as négritude therefore seems to address the project of bringing together the remaining 'coloured' and black segments of the local population no less than the attempt to insert the local culture as a unique entity into the outside cultural world" (Oostindie 1996:10). Parallels may be found in the ideas of such West Indian intellectuals as Stuart Hall and Rex Nettleford. Nigel Bolland (1992) argues that one of the reasons why the creole-society model has been so attractive in recent years is its nationalistic insistence on the validity of creole culture and its potential role in national integration in societies that have recently become independent.
To link cultural activism and identity, with tourism, is becoming less of a
contradiction in terms, as the small vulnerable economies of these islands become
increasingly dependent on this form of trade. "Cultural experiences"
form a major part of the commodity, while at the same time sustaining the ideological
perception of some kind of unique cultural emblem, which manifests national
identity in the midst of the tide of globalization. This is the new reality.
Baud (1996) has illustrated that the symbols and historical interpretations,
which are chosen to bolster ethnic or national identities are not completely
arbitrary, nor is their emotional appeal:
Bolland emphasises this in his study of creolization (1992), for it is a process in which the identity of each group which composes the Creole society is continually being reexamined and redefined in terms of the relevant oppositions between different social formations at various historical moments. Quite simply this has been the survival technique of Caribbean societies through the last five centuries: a continual reworking and appropriation of what comes its way. It is a form of cultural Darwinianism that is continually renewing, reordering and strengthening the resilience of its people.
Allaire, Louis & Mario Mattioni
1983--Boutbois et le Godinot: deux gisements aceramiques de la Martinique. In
proceedings of ninth International Congress for the study of Pre-Columbian Cultures
in the Lesser Antilles.
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