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A Concise History of the Caribbean offers a comprehensive interpretation of the history of the Caribbean islands from the beginning of human settlement to the present. It narrates processes of early human migration, the disastrous consequences of European colonisation, the development of slavery and the slave trade, the extraordinary profits earned by the plantation economy, the great revolution in Haiti, movements towards political independence, the Cuban Revolution, and the diaspora of Caribbean people. In this second edition, Higman covers the political, social, and environmental developments of the last decade, offering sections on insular politics, Cuban communism, earthquakes, hurricanes, climate change, resource ecologies, epidemics, identity and reparations. Written in a lively and accessible style, and current with the most recent research, the book provides a compelling narrative of Caribbean history essential for students and visitors.
Enslaved, enserfed, and otherwise dependent peoples always existed within larger populations, living alongside people with other statuses. Sometimes, the enslaved were the immediate kin of their owners. In other cases, such as eunuchs, they were biologically quarantined. In every population, the enslaved were at least potentially exposed to the same conditions of life as their masters. Just as the social relation of enslavement or dependency did not stem from a natural separation of people, so it is necessary to consider the enslaved as part of the larger population in which they were embedded, capable of contributing to its growth and decline. Slave and free were connected, however unwillingly and unwittingly, by kinship, epidemiology, environment, and governance. It was the character of these connections that determined patterns of shared demographic experience and patterns of difference. In some cases, the difference in wealth and welfare between owner and slave was relatively narrow; in others, the gap was huge, with owner and slave living in different continents, invisible to one another. The consequences of these variations for demographic performance were substantial for both slave and free.
MODELS AND THEORIES
Ideas about the demographic significance of enslavement and other forms of dependency were most often expressed by free people, many of them leisured intellectuals and some of them directly enriched by slaveowning. When proslavery thought came gradually to confront emergent streams of antislavery argument in the eighteenth century, both sides gave substantial weight to demographic factors in the debate over the economics and moral justice of slavery as a system.
Enslaved people never accepted their lot. They found themselves trapped, often for generations, unable to see a way out but given half a chance, they grasped the opportunity to escape and live in freedom. For numerous reasons, the decades after 1770 offered many more opportunities than had come before. Wherever they could, enslaved people seized these opportunities – to rebel and revolt – and to a striking degree they proved successful. These were the decades labelled by modern historians the “age of democratic revolution”, associated at first with the period 1760–1800 but later broadened to encompass the hundred years 1750–1850 and simplified to an “age of revolution”. The key events of the period initially were identified as the American Revolution and the French Revolution but the revolution in St Domingue demands an equal place in this narrative. Similarly, the struggle for political liberty in Spanish America and the struggle for the abolition of slavery constitute vital elements of the age of revolution.
The resistance and rebellion of enslaved people in the Caribbean now was embedded in a broader struggle that saw white people in conflict with their rulers both in the metropolis and the colonies. Arguments about the rights of man to liberty and equality – keystones of the French and American revolutions – could not be confined easily to a select group of free white men.
A Concise History of the Caribbean presents a general history of the Caribbean islands from the beginning of human settlement about seven thousand years ago to the present. It narrates processes of early human migration, the disastrous consequences of European colonization, the development of slavery and the slave trade, the extraordinary profits earned by the plantation economy, the great revolution in Haiti, movements toward political independence, the Cuban Revolution, and the diaspora of Caribbean people. Written in a lively and accessible style yet current with the most recent research, the book provides a compelling narrative of Caribbean history essential for students and visitors.
Set in the sea, off the beaten track of early migration routes, the islands of the Caribbean waited long for the beginning of their human history. When people did eventually come to inhabit the islands, almost all arrived in boats carefully crafted to cross the water. Even when it became possible to fly, few of those who travelled in planes became residents and, indeed, the plane was used much more often as a machine in which to escape. Three sea-crossing technologies – canoe, caravel, and container ship – serve as symbols of the main periods of Caribbean history. The last – the container ship – defines a short period, the past fifty years. The caravel stands for a period ten times as long, the 500 years from 1492. The canoe accounts for another multiple of ten, the previous 5,000 years or more. Each of these vessels carried with them whole cultures, representing an increasingly global cargo.
For thousands of years, people paddled canoes to move from one island to the next, to circumnavigate islands, and to get to and from the American mainland. They knew no other way. It was virtually impossible for them to develop connections with a world wider than the archipelago and its continental hinterlands. This did not limit the possibility of building a population and a civilization but the effect was to tie the island cultures to those known from the mainland and these continental foundations were essential to developing an indigenous response to the natural environment of the islands.
The Caribbean is named for its sea but the islands define the region and make its history. As a marine environment, the Caribbean Sea is a creation of the land that encloses it, with an unbroken continental coastline to the south and west, and a permeable but continuous arc of islands facing the Atlantic Ocean. Without the islands there would be no sea. The water would be nothing more than another stretch in the fluid maritime history of the ocean. Equally significant, the islands of the Caribbean surround and demarcate the Sea rather than sitting in it. This geographical formation determined fundamental features in the development of the Caribbean and distinguished the experience of the region from that of other island histories around the world.
Islands can be scattered in many different kinds of patterns. Sometimes they stand alone, in splendid isolation, but often they occur in groups or clusters. The tropical Atlantic from the Caribbean to the coast of Africa is almost empty of islands. In this vast oceanic zone, islands are small, few in number, and extremely isolated. The islands of the Caribbean, by contrast, are numerous and vary greatly in size (Map 1.1). What determines the uniqueness of the Caribbean islands as a whole is the way they form an archipelago, spread through an extensive arc with large bodies of water to each side, and the way the archipelago floats free of the mainland. The Caribbean Sea, like the Atlantic, is largely empty of islands.
At the end of World War II, most Caribbean islands remained in some sort of colonial or dependent relationship. Independent states were uncommon. The balance was quickly reversed, however, and the thirty years to 1975 brought independence to the majority. By 2010, there were thirteen independent nations in the Caribbean. Another eleven distinct polities made up of islands or island groups remained part of the territory of a country outside the region but these accounted for relatively few people. This rearrangement of allegiances marked a major transformation, the political and social significance of which are still being worked out. The process was complicated, not only because it occurred in the shadow of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but also because the decline of formal imperialism and colonial status occurred in parallel with a great strengthening of long-term tendencies towards Americanization, internationalism, transnationalism, and globalization.
Caribbean people were caught up in this powerful process of change, both as individual actors moving relatively freely from place to place within the North Atlantic world and as the citizens of states that were almost always too small to be able to shape the world economy of material and cultural resources. They were contributors as well as receivers, particularly in the globalization of culture, but the new relationship that the islands now had with the wider world made the development of nationalism within the Caribbean more ambiguous and more ambivalent.
Any history leaves out much that might interest individual readers. The history of the Caribbean has its special difficulties, particularly because of the large number of states, polities, and islands in the region, all of them with their own individual as well as shared histories. I have simplified my task by dealing strictly with the islands and ignoring the surrounding rimland and the outliers – notably Belize, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana, which are often included in general histories – except when these continental places connect directly with the experience of the islands. The definition of the extent of the rimland or hinterland, making up what has come to be known as the Caribbean Basin, is problematic. Including the peoples living in all these countries can greatly distort the demography, multiplying the population by as much as four times that of the islands. Another large region is sometimes defined as the Greater Caribbean or the extended Caribbean, stretching through the coastal and insular territories all the way from Virginia in the north to Bahia, the easternmost part of Brazil, in the south. These larger regional conceptions have validity for some periods and patterns of development but not for all. Confining the narrative to the islands sets limits but at the same time provides an ecological coherence that enables an attempt to write a systematic comparative history.
Seen in the context of this broader perspective, my own research projects over the years seem incredibly limited.
Unlike the original peopling of the Caribbean islands, which came late in the human settlement of the Americas, it was in these islands that the secondary – Columbian – colonization of the continents had its beginning. This was not the only significant difference between the two colonizations. The secondary phase, which reached the islands in 1492 with Columbus did not have roots in the tropical rimland, as did the first colonization, but rather had its origins far away across the Atlantic, in Europe. It brought in its wake peoples, plants, animals, and technologies not only from Europe but from across the globe – particularly Africa, but also from the world beyond the Atlantic, from Asia and the Pacific. Further, whereas the first colonization peopled the islands, the initial impact of the secondary wave was characterized not by an augmentation of island populations but their destruction.
When Europeans first voyaged to the Caribbean, the Taíno population they encountered was relatively homogeneous and derived from a limited continental source. In the islands, the founder effect was so powerful that genetic diversity was being reduced rather than expanded. The first colonizers of the Caribbean brought with them few animals, but over time reduced the species diversity of the islands through extinctions. They carried with them a wider variety of plants and some of these, notably cassava, were fundamental to the food supply of a growing population, but at the same time the spread of agriculture was accompanied by the burning of forest.
If the middle decades of the nineteenth century saw the Caribbean becoming relatively sufficient unto itself – turning away from traditional genetic and trade links that had tied the region to an Atlantic world but more specifically Africa and Europe – the decades after 1870 were marked by the growth of a much more clearly defined North American orientation. This new connection had three main sources. In the first place, the United States replaced the European nations as the hegemonic imperial power in the region. Secondly, the Caribbean developed increasingly strong economic links with the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada in terms of trade, capital flows, and investment. Thirdly, it was in the period after 1870 that Caribbean people began, for the first time, to migrate out of the region in large numbers. Most common among the destinations of these new emigrants was the United States and its outliers. This newfound orientation towards North America laid the foundations for longer-term challenges to understandings of identity, nationality, and allegiance.
Looking northwards, rather than south towards the continental mainland or east to Africa and Europe, had precedents. North America had had close links with some of the Caribbean colonies – notably those of the English and the French – down to the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. These connections waned after 1783 and, in any case, had never weighed more heavily than the links the Caribbean had across the Atlantic with Africa and Europe.
People came late to the Caribbean islands – late in terms of the broad sweep of human history and late in the peopling of the Americas. The islands of the Caribbean remained uninhabited longer than almost any other of the world's major resource-rich regions. Even when the process of colonization began, it proceeded in fits and starts and took thousands of years to complete. Strangely, some islands remained uninhabited long after their neighbours had been populated. Many still remain uninhabited because they are too small to support a population or lack the resources to be viable, or simply are too isolated to be attractive. Why were the islands colonized so late and why, once commenced, was the process so protracted and erratic? Looked at another way, the more difficult question may be why people chose to live on islands at all. Why leave behind the immense resources of the continents in order to live in small places surrounded by saltwater?
Migration into the Caribbean began about 7,000 years ago. The first people to live on a Caribbean island did not venture far from the South American mainland, however, going no farther than Trinidad. A separate initial movement occurred about a thousand years later, this time originating in Central America and establishing populations in Cuba and Hispaniola. Next, a second wave of migration from South America carried people through the island chain stretching north of Trinidad and these people eventually came to occupy Hispaniola and eastern Cuba as well.