The Caribbean: History & Political Economy

For a complete copy of the official syllabus

Winter Semester, 2014-2015
03 credits
January 7 – April 8, 2015
Meeting days and times:
Wednesdays: 8:45am—11:30am
Campus: SGW, MB-2.330

As an introduction to the social and cultural history of the Caribbean, primarily since 1492, this course focuses on diverse topics in the political economy of the region, from Indigenous resistance and survival, to the development and legacy of racism and plantation society, as well decolonization, nationalism and imperialism. The tension between new forms of domination and resistance/rebellion form the broad contours of this course and its focus on the meanings of freedom in the Caribbean context.

“The Caribbean islands began their association with modern society as the pawn of European power politics, the cockpit of Europe, the arena of Europe’s wars hot and cold….For over four and a half centuries the West Indies have been the pawn of Europe and America. Across the West Indian stage the great characters, political and intellectual, of the Western world strut and fret their hour—Louis XIV and Bonaparte, Chatham and Pitt, Castlereagh and Canning, John Stuart Mill and Carlyle, Clarkson and the Abbé Reynal, Victor Schoelcher and José Martí, Jefferson and Adams, Joseph Chamberlain and Theodore Roosevelt, the ancient régime and the Revolution of 1789, Gladstone and Disraeli, Cobden and Bright, Russell and Palmerston, the mercantilists and the Manchester School. The beet sugar industry of Prussia, slave labour from Africa, contract labour from India and China, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam—all have left their mark on our West Indian society. Of the West Indies more than of most geographical areas it is possible to say that we are one world.”~Eric E. Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969 (1970, pp. 69, 11)

“Its historical trajectory permanently impressed by the twin experiences of colonialism and slavery, the Caribbean has produced an unusual collection of societies with a population mélange that is different from any other region in the world. There, Europeans, native Americans, Africans, and Asians came together to create a new society, a new economy, and a new culture. It is an eclectic blend of all its components. This new Caribbean society constantly changes in response to the challenges of nature and the intervention of man. In the beginning it was a revolutionary society, and to a certain extent it remains revolutionary. It is, in many respects, a society of striking contrasts.”~Franklin W Knight and Colin A. Palmer, “The Caribbean: A Regional Overview,” in The Modern Caribbean (1989, pp. 1-2)

“The ‘discovery of America’ has been inscribed as a beginning….Discursively the Caribbean is a special place, partly because of its primacy in the encounter between Europe and America, civilization and savagery, and partly because of its location, both physical and etymological, as the place of ‘cannibalism’.”~Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797 (1992, pp. 1, 3)

“Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.”~Eric E. Williams, Capitalism & Slavery (1944, p. 7)

“Caribbean territories have a universal significance far beyond their size and social weight.”~C.L.R. James, Spheres of Existence: Selected Writings (1980, p. 173)

“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.”~C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1989, p. 138)

If one unquestioningly imbibed the messages of North American popular culture and mass media over the past several decades, one might be convinced that this course would or should be about cannibalism, zombies, pirates, limbo dancing, backward banana republics, beaches, and maybe Bob Marley (or today, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj). This course then is as much about “unlearning” as it is about gaining knowledge of an extraordinarily complex world region, one that embodies and even established much of what came to be known as the “modern” world. Yet, as a brief course, both the lectures and the readings can only begin to scratch the surface, and for students this course should thus serve as an invitation to learn much more independently and to learn that the most important thing in our work is not the answers we give, but rather the questions we ask.

Our course is, inevitably and necessarily, structured by history, but without a neat, linear chronological procession of “events” and “facts.” The aim is to introduce students to the histories, geographies, ecologies, communities, politics, and economics of the region, with some initial notes on transculturation, cultural creation, and international relations. In many ways, the founding of the Caribbean as a “region” is itself a key part of the founding of the world system. That does not mean that all of the popular topics listed above are barred from study, as much as they are meant to be properly contextualized and understood both as fantasy projections of the West and in very different ways as local expressions of Caribbean cultural and social history.

This course takes a big sweep, which introduces students not only to the Caribbean as a locality but to many global phenomena which it has shaped, and which have shaped it in turn. This study thus involves probing into capitalism, war, and empire; slavery and monoculture; the plantation system; religion and resistance; racism, indigeneity, and blackness; dictatorship, populism, and revolution; decolonization, independence, and the meanings of sovereignty in a so-called “globalized world.” We will also study some of the momentous revolutions produced by the Caribbean, including the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, both of which continue to leave a deep imprint on the region. Migrations, drug wars, and U.S. intervention are also a part of our study.

In class, we will further explore diverse topics as they become relevant, from the creation and cultural practices of the Garifuna people in St. Vincent and Belize, and further afield; the theology and political discourses of Jamaican Rastafari; the nature and role of vodou in Haiti’s political organization; the contemporary Caribbean Indigenous resurgence; the uprising of the Jama’at al Muslimeen in Trinidad in 1990; the impact of the East Indian diaspora; and, some immersion in the extensive social and political commentary of Calypso/Kaiso.

As with any course, there are definite limitations—this is particularly so with any new course, which this was as of the fall of 2013. One is that not every topic of serious significance can be studied, or even mentioned in passing. Another is that no attempt is made to strike some sort of balance between the French-, Spanish-, Dutch-, and English-speaking parts of the Caribbean. The personal study and life experience of the course coordinator also imposes certain biases, particularly towards examples dealing with the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean, revolutionary movements, and the social and cultural history of Trinidad & Tobago. Students should see this as an invitation to continue learning about the Caribbean–if only to realize that in learning about this region a single lifetime will not be enough.

(Of possible interest to students who take this course is that a companion course is currently being developed which will focus on everyday life, on the different cultures, ethnicities and religions in the Caribbean, on music and festivals, novels and poetry, agriculture and food, kinship, urbanization and rural life. That course will likely be offered at the 300-level, in alternate years when this course is not offered. It is expected that the course will be titled, The Caribbean: Ethnographies.)


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