Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 1998)

New and recent books about the Caribbean


Faber Caribbean Series

(Faber and Faber 1998)

The British publishing house Faber and Faber has embarked on a major Caribbean publishing project, a new series consisting mainly of deeply serious fiction, with sponsorship support from BWIA. Edited by the St Kitts-born novelist Caryl Phillips, it promises to introduce English-speaking readers everywhere to “the finest writing from the Caribbean and its diaspora”. Phillips has nailed his colours to the mast with the first four titles, published last month: where other British publishers have burned their fingers on Caribbean imitations of Mills & Boon romances, Faber is going upmarket, with no concession to populism. The Fragrance of Guava (ISBN 0 571 19326 9) features the Colombian Nobel prizewinner Gabriel García Márquez conversing about his life and work and the Hispanic Caribbean. Maryse Condé of Guadeloupe now teaches in New York: her Windward Heights (ISBN 0 571 19324 2) is a lush re-working of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a 19th-century Caribbean setting. A View From The Mangrove (ISBN 571 19325 0) is a collection of stories from Cuba’s Antonio Benítez-Rojo (who defected to the US in 1980), spanning four centuries of Caribbean experience. The only anglophone writer represented in this first round is Guyana’s Wilson Harris, an artist more praised than read, who has lived in England since 1959: his 1960 novel Palace Of The Peacock is re-issued (ISBN 0 571 19323 4). These are fine books whose authors are not nearly visible enough in the anglophone Caribbean, and they deserve a wider audience. This is an interesting gamble; it remains to be seen whether the enthusiasm of literary London can bring these writers a new readership.


They Called Us Brigands: The Saga of St Lucia’s Freedom Fighters

Robert J. Devaux (Optimum Printers, St Lucia, 1997: ISBN 976-8056-62-2)

The guide books tell you plenty about the epic colonial struggles over St Lucia, Admiral Rodney and the Battle of the Saints and all that; they urge you to discover the old military fortifications on Pigeon Island and Morne Fortuné. Historian Robert Devaux would have you take more interest in places that are much harder to find but much closer to the island’s heart: the network of rock shelters, tunnels and caves, camps and lookouts, used by St Lucia’s “Brigands”, the equivalent of Jamaica’s Maroons. For a short time at the end of the 18th century, these ex-slaves virtually controlled St Lucia. Slaves had been escaping from the plantations and the colonial military into St Lucia’s mountains and forests for decades. The French Revolution, the freeing of French slaves, the island’s capture by the British and the swift re-imposition of slavery, the provocations of the French republican Victor Hugues — all this led to a showdown between the “Brigands” and the British, months of guerrilla warfare that ended with a truce in November 1797 and the shipping of the “Brigand” leaders to Sierra Leone. Devaux’s purpose is to rescue these forest fighters from the “bad-guy” tag of colonial-flavoured history books and reposition them as real freedom fighters, telling the story at last from their point of view. That such a task should be necessary, let alone controversial, two centuries later, is remarkable; even more so is the data Devaux has unearthed about the way they lived and fought — he documents over 100 sites that he has personally explored, and adds an extensive list of St Lucian place names and creole terms associated with the “Brigands”. The book is a useful corrective to received perceptions and deserves to be widely read — but it also deserved more careful editing and proofing, and a crucial page on the Battle of Rabot is missing from our review copy.

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The West On Trial: My Fight For Guyana’s Freedom

Cheddi Jagan (Hansib Caribbean 1997: ISBN 976-8163-08-9)

First published in 1966 and revised in the early 70s, this is Cheddi Jagan’s testament: essentially an autobiography, it is also his account of those traumatic years before independence when the direction of Guyana was set for generations. The formation of the People’s Progressive Party, the split between Jagan and Forbes Burnham, the parties divided along ethnic lines, social upheaval, intervention by London and Washington in those heady Cold War days to engineer the fall of Jagan and the ascendancy of Burnham — it was one of the most scurrilous episodes in colonial history, and Guyana has paid the price ever since. By the time Dr Jagan finally returned to office in 1992 as President, he was already in his mid-seventies and Guyana’s economic and social decay was far advanced. When he died in March 1997, he had just added a new Epilogue to this book, outlining the problems his incoming administration faced and how he tried to deal with them. History will assess his record in that respect. Meanwhile, it is good to have a new edition of one of the key works on modern Guyanese political history. Perhaps for the next printing someone should add another Epilogue exploring the ironies of the December 1997 election, when the ghosts from the past returned to entangle his widow, President Janet Jagan — ethnic divisions and rivalries, entrenched mistrust over the possibility of fair elections.

General History Of The Caribbean: Volume III — The Slave Societies Of The Caribbean

ed. Franklin W. Knight (UNESCO Publishing/Macmillan Caribbean 1997: ISBN 92-3-103146-5)

It has taken the best part of two decades to get UNESCO’s magisterial six-volume Caribbean history on the road. Volume III seems to be the first of the six to appear, and covers the most-trodden areas of the region’s past — the period of slavery. Not exactly a light read, this is an exhaustive, comprehensive, 400-page paperback that tackles the subject thematically rather than chronologically. In individual chapters, taking a regional view as far as possible, Professor Knight’s team of high-powered academics moves systematically through demographics, economics, social structure, maroon communities, social and political control, slave resistance, culture, religion and the disintegration of Caribbean slave systems. Oddly, for a project that is supposed to view Caribbean history from the inside rather than from the outside (“as if from the ports and capitals of European colonizers,” as Sir Roy Augier’s introduction puts it), only three of the 11 contributors are Caribbean historians, and only one of those (Professor Hilary Beckles of the University of the West Indies in Barbados) actually works in the Caribbean. The other volumes in the series will cover everything from the first settlers to the late 20th century, with a whole volume reserved for methodology and historiography; Volume III is studiously silent about when these might appear.

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The Debt Dilemma

Horace A. Bartilow (Macmillan/Warwick University Caribbean Studies, 1997: ISBN 0-333-67990-3)

Since the 1970s, the long shadow of the International Monetary Fund has fallen heavily on many of the Caribbean’s small economies. Enmeshed in the developing world’s debt crisis, heavily dependent on single-commodity exports and on a dizzying range of imports, governments in dire need of capital infusion found themselves locked in complex and bewildering negotiations over “conditionalities”. This usually meant a partial surrender of sovereignty to an institution that behaved like a grim global schoolmaster: price controls, devaluations, wage freezes, spending limits, tax increases, divestment, interest rate hikes, trade liberalisation — it was bitter medicine. But if you did not take it, you were put in detention by the unrelenting schoolmaster. Take it or starve. For many regional ministers, it was a sharp and painful learning experience, made even harder as their already small geo-political leverage (the Cuba card, etc.) drained away with the fading of the Cold War. Dr Bartilow’s thoroughly researched and well argued book focuses on the delicate art of negotiation, taking as case studies Jamaica (under both Manley and Seaga), Grenada (under Maurice Bishop and the PRG) and Guyana (under Burnham). How the game was played makes an often fascinating story. Among other things, Dr Bartilow — a political scientist at the University of Kentucky — shows how IMF objectives were sometimes quite different from the US government’s. Pragmatism counted for more than ideology — especially in Grenada, where the IMF was more interested in working with Bishop than indulging Ronald Reagan’s obsession with those meddling Cubans. Some useful insights here, by no means irrelevant to the late 1990s.