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Caribbean Crucible: History, Culture, And Globalization

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Caribbean Crucible:

History, Culture, and Globalization

Kevin A. Yelvington

In the present age of globalization, it is often forgotten that these world-encompassing processes were initiated with European expansion into the Caribbean beginning more than five hundred years ago. We now see the proliferation of overseas factories enabling owners, producers, and consumers of products to be in widely distant locales. It seems to us that in the search for profits, commercial activity has recently spread to every corner of the earth. We observe that the continual movement of humans across borders results in new forms of hybrid and creolized cultures. And, we feel that the world around us is moving faster and faster: the rapid circulation of images and information, the advent of cheap long-distance travel, and the attendant quickened workplace demands all give us the impression that time is actually speeding up.

Rather than the beginning of something new, these global processes can be traced to when the Caribbean became the site of Europe's first industries, starting in the sixteenth century. At that time, industrial techniques and a rational approach to time management were applied to the production and export of sugar, tobacco, and other commodities to be consumed by the burgeoning European urban bourgeois, artisan, and working-classes. These industries, in the forms of plantations and haciendas of various sizes, presaged and enabled Europe's Industrial Revolution.

These new enterprises were worked by millions of enslaved Africans hauled from diverse West African societies from present-day Senegal all the way down to Angola; before them, by thousands of native slaves and European indentured workers; and, after them, by hundreds of thousands of indentured workers from Africa, Europe's periphery, India, China, and even Java. Not only was it in the Caribbean where the first sustained European external colonizations occurred, but these colonies required and stimulated the creation and marshalling of far-flung trade and governmental networks--a truly global undertaking--with the aim of enriching imperial treasuries and creating dependent territories in their service.

Reconsidering the Caribbean as an origin-point of the modern global system means more than an understanding of the Caribbean's role in the world. It means understanding the world's role in the Caribbean, the constant back and forth movement of people, ideas, and things, and the intricate interplay of forces at work in shaping economies, societies, and cultures. It means donning a perspective that allows or, better, forces one to simultaneously reckon the larger processes and the historical specificities of this complex world region.1

Conquest and Colonization

"In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" begins the children's rhyme. Not always, however, do the North American children who recite it or their teachers who teach it acknowledge the gravity of Columbus's project or the world transformations that came in his wake. For North Americans, the emphasis on Columbus's voyage has involved chiefly the settlement of their continent. This leads to a failure to realize that the primary axis of colonial expansion was decidedly to the south, where populations of indigenous peoples were ill-equipped militarily to completely deter the invaders and possessed no resistance to the diseases the Europeans brought with them. Columbus, hopelessly geographically confused, referred to the native inhabitants as "Indians" and characterized some as noble savages and others as bloodthirsty cannibals, thus justifying European intervention, Christian conversion, enslavement, and colonization.

The Caribbean was fortuitously situated in terms of soils, climate, and location to facilitate the westward development of the nascent European sugar industry from Sicily, Spain, and the Atlantic islands. Columbus brought the first sugar cane to the Caribbean on his second voyage in 1493; he brought it from the Spanish Canary Islands. It is likely that enslaved Africans from Spain also accompanied him on that voyage, foreshadowing the African-slave-sugar-commodity connection. In the Western hemisphere, sugar was first grown in the present-day Dominican Republic and shipped back to Europe around 1516. With the rapid destruction of the native populations, enslaved African laborers were imported shortly after the first canes were planted, thus paving the way for the proliferation of the widespread and centuries-enduring plantation complex and the rapid transformation of tastes and consumption in Europe.

One by one, at least six European powers entered the fray and wrestled with each over the riches to be obtained from the region under colonization. Caribbean islands were exchanged as part of peace negotiations after European wars, and sometimes captured outright by those countries that could muster the naval power so far from their shores. The source of this wealth was the fruits of the labor of enslaved Africans. Commercial and military intervention on the African coast ensured a supply of captive laborers for the plantations. The slave trade represented the largest capital investment in the world, meaning that the slaves themselves were valuable commodities, and was promoted and patronized by the royal families and leading merchants and politicians of Europe.

Africans were enslaved and taken to the Americas, agricultural commodities were transported, often in the same slaving vessels, from the Americas to Europe, and trade goods were shipped from Europe to Africa for more slaves--the so-called "Triangular Trade." More than nine million enslaved Africans reached the New World (see Table 1), about 40 percent going to the Caribbean. Jamaica received nearly twice as many slaves as were imported into the United States; Barbados and Martinique, tiny islands where plantation slavery was established very early, each received roughly the amount received by the whole United States. While these figures cannot take into account the many millions who died en route, they do provide an idea of the intensity of Caribbean slavery. Caribbean slaves were notoriously malnourished, overworked, and susceptible to disease. They died in droves. It was cheaper for planters to simply import new slaves than to maintain their existing labor forces, and women were not encouraged to bear children until it appeared the slave trade would end.

While Caribbean slavery was diverse and no two islands had the same experience, the exigencies of the sugar production process imposed certain common patterns. The climate dictated harvesting times. Fields

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