Guide and prejudice | On this day

Few things get outdated faster than a guidebook, but one century-old guide for Caribbean travellers reveals much about old stereotypes of the region — and what has and hasn’t changed, writes James Ferguson

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Fresh fish aside, what reaches its use-by date quicker than a guidebook? Almost before it is published, parts of it are already obsolete — hotels and restaurants have closed and new ones opened, airfares have gone up, and tourist attractions have closed indefinitely for restoration. Keeping a guidebook up-to-date is like painting the proverbial Forth Bridge: it never ends. No wonder, then, that the printed guidebook dominates the sad shelves of the local charity shop, shunned by the young in favour of constantly updated digital travel advice.

But people of a certain age like old guidebooks, precisely because they are so interestingly out-of-date, recalling a bygone era when francs, marks, and lire had yet to give way to euros, and when hotels boasted of hot water and electricity rather than Smart TVs and spa facilities. The further back in time they go, the more exotic they seem, as they describe places that may be familiar to us today, but through the prism of the past appear almost unrecognisable in their day-to-day detail.

I recently came across a guidebook to the Caribbean published exactly a century ago, in 1920. It was written by one Frederick Albion Ober, an American naturalist and travel writer who was the author of many books on the region. Slightly mysteriously, he is recorded as having died in 1913, so it can only be supposed that an earlier edition of A Guide to the West Indies, Bermuda, and Panama was updated by an unacknowledged contributor. And what a job that was. The book is 542 pages long, crammed with details of train and ferry timetables, recommendations for accommodation, and a plethora of historical and practical information, much of which had to be checked and refreshed. 

Ober’s work, as we will see, is very much of its time, but some of his remarks carry an eternal quality that will resonate with travellers of any period anywhere. Prices are surprisingly (in a bad way) high, service is slow and grudging, getting from A to B takes ages, and — in the specific case of the Caribbean — it is just too hot for a non-local. Grumbling of this type will never go out of fashion.

“These are abnormal times,” states Ober, and he was probably thinking of the volatile political situation in the Caribbean in the first decades of the twentieth century. The Spanish-American War of 1898 had occurred only twenty years previously, and signalled the end of Spanish control in Cuba and Puerto Rico and its replacement by US dominance. American troops were keeping a fragile peace and encouraging American investment by occupying both Haiti (from 1915 to 1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916 to 1924), while the Danish West Indies became the US Virgin Islands in 1917. The First World War had fuelled US fears of German aggression in the Caribbean, directed especially at the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, and Washington wanted to defend its vulnerable backyard at all costs.

The Caribbean islands were hence of huge strategic interest to the US. But they were also of interest to those increasing numbers of Americans who could afford a holiday in the sun. The end of the war, together with a brief economic boom preceding the 1929 Wall Street Crash, saw a surge in tourism — both cruise tours and hotel stays — and the favourite destinations were Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. Tourists wanted sun, sand, and whatever else was on offer, particularly after Prohibition in 1920 banned the legal sale of alcohol in the US.

Ober’s book, though, is less interested in encouraging the hedonistic tastes of his compatriots than in emphasising the benevolent role of US intervention in the region. Referring to the 1898–1902 occupation of Cuba, he writes, “Millions of dollars were poured into the island, as American blood had been poured out in its defence, so that the Cubans were in a better state than ever before, their neighbouring republic having sacrificed herself for their betterment.” Of Puerto Rico, he observes, “It has been the aim of the American administration to instruct the natives in every department of local government, in order to make them independent and self-reliant.” Haiti, he insists, should be “guided and moulded with patient firmness under American tutelage.”

Such paternalism turns to explicit racism in the case of Haiti, where from 1915 onwards the guerrilla cacos were fighting the occupying US Marines. Anyone planning a visit there “does it solely upon his own responsibility, and not through any representation of the writer,” Ober warns, shuddering at the thought of “voodoo” rituals that he imagines to be “the grossest forms of debauchery.” In general, all that is African-descended — the Jamaican Maroons (a “body of wild blacks”), Guadeloupe’s Creole language (“an uncouth patois”), Dominica’s popular architecture (“a mere collection of shanties”) — is painted in negative terms, while all that is European or American — Barbados as “Little England,” the exclusive country clubs of Puerto Rico, French cultural influence — is commendable.

But if Ober is predictably dismissive of the Caribbean’s multifaceted cultural identity, he is impressed by aspects of its history, leading his readers through Santo Domingo’s crumbling (now restored) colonial heart, Havana’s Spanish architecture, and the melancholic ruins of Martinique’s Saint-Pierre, the town destroyed in the volcanic eruption of 1902. His anecdotes invariably concentrate on the exploits of French buccaneers or
English pirates, and rarely concern those originating in Africa or India (the word “slave” features six times in the entire book), but what really fascinates him are natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and eruptions — perhaps not guaranteed to reassure more nervous travellers.

As a naturalist, his main enthusiasms are confined to landscapes and flora and fauna. St Lucia’s Pitons are “absolutely unique in conformation, and beautiful beyond description,” and even the south coast of Haiti, where human habitation is sparse, is “paradisiacal.” He is entranced by the Blue Mountains of Jamaica (less so by Kingston), and waxes lyrical over Port of Spain’s great expanse of greenery, the Queen’s Park Savannah, “one’s ideal of what an earthly paradise should be.” Less charmingly, however, he advises travellers in Trinidad to enjoy the “exciting adventures” of shooting alligators in the Caroni Swamp.

My favourite part of Ober’s guide is the advice he dispenses to tourists. “Avoid getting wet,” he insists. “It is no disgrace to carry a raincoat at one’s saddle.” That is good to know, as is his reminder that “women are advised not to wear taffeta dresses.” Cruise ship clients, meanwhile, are told that “life on board ship, without exercise, is not conducive to good digestion.”

A hundred years old, Frederick Ober’s guidebook may not be much use to the contemporary tourist seeking out the region’s varied cultural attractions. But it certainly tells us a great deal about how some people viewed the Caribbean at the beginning of the twentieth century. In this sense, it reveals not only how far the modern Caribbean has changed in a digital, global world, but also how much further our perceptions of its places and people have moved on.