The Importance of History in Caribbean Writing

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

The collective history of the Caribbean islands has long fascinated and absorbed its most prominent writers. From earlier writers like George Lamming and his exploration of the colonial legacy in a pseudo-imaginary village in Barbados to more contemporary efforts such as Caryl Phillips' critique of historiography in Cambridge, authors have sought to engage with the history of their islands and the processes by which that history was created. The question is, why? In an age when many authors turn away from the past to contemplate the present and its technological bridge to the future, why has Caribbean writing consistently been infused with issues of history?

The answer comes in examining both the legacy that history has left in the Caribbean as well as the ways in which that history was written. Most prominently, the Caribbean still in some ways lives under the show of its past. To begin with, the true natives of the islands (if such a word is appropriate), American Indians such as the Caribs or the Arawaks, were all but wiped by the colonization of the 16th and 17th century. Their oral culture did not make for easy preservation and thus left barely a cultural mark for the new slave societies of black Africans (and South and East Asians) to cling to. Although slavery ended in theory in the late 1800s, the oppressive nature of Colonialism led many to believe that the liberation of slaves was only an illusion. For the maintaining of a powerful white plantocracy ensured that most blacks, though free, would still be living in conditions of poverty with low wages and little hope for advancement. For most countries independence began to come about in the late 1950s, as the foundation of the West Indian Federation (including nations such as Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Lucia) signalled a departure from the weight of British influence. But this organization dissolved in 1962, and while many countries (like Barbados or Jamaica) achieved independent status soon after, some (including St. Lucia, which did not gain full independent status until 1979) remained trapped under the colonial influence until quite recently. Thus, as these countries still experience the growing pains of their initial years of independence and still strive to move out from the shadow of their only-recently departed colonial rulers, writers quite naturally take concern with the history that has brought them to this point.

The institution of slavery tragically produced another unique issue in the history of the Caribbean and its people. It cut people off from their personal ancestry. Slaves were torn from ancestral homes in Africa and brought across the sea to North America (a voyage known as the Middle Passage). Once in the colonies, families were broken up and slaves were often renamed according to the master's whims, sometimes several different times if they changed owners. This, coupled with the fact that remaining family lived thousands of miles across the ocean and had become untraceable due to the name changes and family disintegration made the development of a personal lineage, of family traditions as we know them, impossible. Owners discouraged or prohibited slaves from marrying, yet encouraged lots of children to be taken from their parents and sold off or used in other areas. So until slaves were truly granted freedom, rootlessness rather than lineage and tradition formed the predominant historical mindset of the Caribbean people. One can see evidence of this dispossessed mentality in such works as Derek Walcott's Omeros, in which both the narrator and the protagonist Achille must seek out their ancestry across the sea, in Africa (and for the narrator examining his cultural influences) even in Greece, Italy, or America.

Finally, writers like Caryl Phillips have turned attention to the validity and accuracy of the written history of the Caribbean. In his novel Cambridge, Phillips sets historical documents such as Victorian women's travelogues and even slave narratives in opposition to each other, noting how the subjective nature of these documents tainted their validity. Indeed, how could a history of the Caribbean be fairly written when the only ones who truly had access to writing and publishing materials were the colonial white powers? Thus Phillips has led the way into investigating not only the history of the Caribbean, but the texts that make up that history.

Postcolonial Web [Postimperial] [History]