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The dawn of the third millennium saw prophets of doom foretelling the end of civilization. Central to this climate of fear was the willful destruction of the environment and, more precisely, the harm caused by climate change. In the Caribbean, such fears were confirmed by rising temperatures, the increased intensity of extreme weather events, the devastation of coral reefs, species extinctions, the virulence of viral diseases, and rising sea levels. Globally, nineteen of the hottest years ever recorded occurred in the first twenty years of the twenty-first century. The oceans were at their warmest in 2019, and global greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high. These alarming indicators of environmental deterioration had far-reaching ramifications in politics, economy, and society. Indeed, the challenges faced by the Caribbean in the first twenty years of the twenty-first century occurred in the context of a changing global geopolitical climate that affected most aspects of life, from health and material welfare to identity, sovereignty, and culture. For the Caribbean, the home of the hurricane, a perfect storm was brewing.
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 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 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 a 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.
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.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, European colonization had reduced the Caribbean islands to a blank canvas. In truth it was not so much a blank canvas as one that had been thickly painted by a series of hands, scoured and scraped, then smeared with a rough bloody cloth, and cleaned again of yet another attempted landscape. The people and the civilizations that had flourished in the Greater Antilles before Columbus had been virtually obliterated. They had not been replaced by any new substantial population or any new form of civilization. Even regions the Spanish had attempted to populate were being evacuated. The land that had been brought to a high state of cultivation by the Taínos was being reconquered by rainforest. Exotic trees made themselves at home in the woodland. Large feral animals introduced by the Spanish crashed through the undergrowth of this landscape, otherwise silent but for the night sounds of crickets and frogs, the occasional noisy cascade or crack of thunder. Only in the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean, which the Spanish had touched less heavily, did the indigenous people survive in significant numbers.
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. Some islands remained uninhabited long after their neighbours had been populated and are still uninhabited because they lack the resources to be viable. 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?
For the people of the Caribbean, World War II proved both an interruption and a catalyst. It meant blockades and shortages, and delays in dealing with social problems, and it tested loyalties to empires and imperial masters. It also exposed islanders to the challenges of self-sufficiency and, for those who joined the battle abroad, provided insights into the character of life and death in the imperial homelands and the intense racism that existed even within the fight for freedom and equality. The experience fuelled both a desire for political and human rights and a desire to live in a better place.
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. First, the United States replaced the European nations as the hegemonic imperial power in the region. Second, 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. Third, it was in the period after 1870 that, for the first time, Caribbean people began 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.
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.