Caribbean voices, Caribbean thinkers

"Nothing was created in the West Indies", V.S. Naipaul famously wrote. Yet many of the earliest writers and thinkers in the Americas were Caribbean men and women, creating histories, novels, essays, poems, autobiography, newspapers, new political thought. Tony Martin puts the case for the defence

  • right: Guyana Scholar Forbes Burnham became his country's President. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • Norman Manley, founder of Jamaica's People's National Party and father of Jamaican independence. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • Trinidadian Pan-Africanist George Padmore became a close adviser to Kwame Nkrumah. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • Jamaican poet Claude McKay. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • Author and educator Edward Wilmot Blyden, from St Thomas, became Liberian ambassador to Britain. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • The Bahamian Dr. J. Robert Love founded The Jamaican Advocate. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • The Jamaican scholar Francis Williams. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica
  • Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey. Photograph courtesy the National Library of Jamaica

C.L.R James, Marcus Garvey, Eric Williams, Francis Williams, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, J.B. Philippe, John Brown Russwurm, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexandre Dumas, John Jacob Thomas, Dr J. Robert Love, T.A. Marryshow, Marcus Garvey, Eric Walrond, Claude McKay, Luis Pales Matos, Albert Gomes, Henry Sylvester Williams, Antenor Firmin, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and many others — a survey of the Caribbean’s earliest writers, thinkers, and achievers

As a Caribbean person long resident abroad, but making frequent trips back home, I have come to see my birthplace as a region which, contrary to popular opinion at home, has long been one of the most creative places on God’s earth.

I see it in sport as I sit before my television set in Boston, absorbed by the Olympics. While the rest of the world sees the United States versus Russia, I see Caribbean athletes versus the rest of the world. I see a Guadeloupean woman sprinting to gold for France. I see the United States sprint queen, Marion Jones, making her victory lap flying both US and Belizean flags. I see a Canadian relay team made up of men from Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad. I see a male gymnast with Trinidadian roots medalling for the United States. The Caribbean is well represented among British medallists as well.

The Caribbean athletes who have stayed at home are no less accomplished. Jamaica, and to a lesser extent Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas, have long been track powerhouses. The Cubans have excelled in a wide range of sports. One of these days I would like to see a new kind of track meet — the Caribbean versus the world. For this one glorious occasion, Caribbean athletes at home and in the diaspora would compete together, against everybody else. And I earnestly believe we could win.

As in athletics, so in other areas. African America’s first millionaire was reputed to have been William Leidesdorff of St Croix. He owned extensive holdings in mid-19th century California. Lovey’s String Band from Trinidad was recording paseos in the United States in 1912, before jazz made its way onto wax.

The story is the same in literary and intellectual endeavours, though this ought not to be as surprising as it is. C.L.R. James often observed that the Caribbean was the world’s pioneer modern society. Here, he argued, the sugar plantation provided the world’s first quasi-proletariat. Though the African majorities were enslaved, they nevertheless constituted a vast, socialised workforce, interacting with modern technology on a scale not seen elsewhere until later. These Africans toiled in a region that saw the first European city in the Americas, the first university, and, alas, in the extermination of the native Arawaks, the first modern genocide.

The African majority dealt with slavery by forming runaway maroon communities and staging slave revolts. They also fought back through literary means. Many of their early writings sought to refute the prevailing European pseudo-scientific racism which viewed Africans as semi-human. (Laws forbidding the education of slaves had of course tried to turn these notions into self-fulfilling prophecies.)

Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister, the eminent historian Eric Williams, wrote of the 18th-century English-Jamaican historian Edward Long that he “concluded that Negroes are ‘a different species of the same genus’ equal in intellectual faculties to the orangutan, which has in form a much nearer resemblance to the Negro than the Negro bears to the white man.” Yet Long was writing in 1744, when the Anglophone Caribbean’s first celebrated African intellectual was already well known in the Jamaica they both called home.

Francis Williams (ca. 1700-1772) was sent to English grammar school and Cambridge University by the Duke of Montagu as an experiment to see whether an African could benefit from education. Williams successfully completed his bachelor’s degree and returned home to teach white children and write Latin poetry. Even if he had done no more than learn to read and write, he would have struck a blow against pseudo-scientific racism. He went further, however, and hinted ever so gently at the prospect of equality for Africans. In his Ode to [Governor] George Haldane, he expressed the hope that under the new ruler’s benevolent governance:

Alike the master and the slave shall see
Their neck reliv’d, the yoke unbound by thee.

In the slave narrative, African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans created what was up to the late 19th century their most enduring literary genre. These first-person accounts by former slaves recounted the horrors of slavery and their heroic struggles against it. Though the slave narrative is usually associated with the United States, the first book of this type was in fact written by a man who had been enslaved in Montserrat and who sailed to St Eustatius, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St Croix and the Bahamas among other places. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself, was published in London in 1789.

The first American female slave narrative also came out of the Caribbean. This was The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, first published in London and Edinburgh in 1831. Prince was enslaved in Bermuda, Turks Island and Antigua. She told of mothers driven to insanity by the sale of their children; of slaves beaten with a ferocity and frequency that resulted in maggot-infested wounds that never healed; of sexual assaults on female slaves; and of the wanton disregard for the approximation of marriage that slaves were allowed to enjoy. Like Equiano’s, Mary Prince’s story became a potent weapon in the hands of those opposed to slavery.

After the abolition of slavery, Francis Williams, Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince therefore ensured that the newly-emancipated Africans found the beginnings of a literary tradition already in place. An outstanding addition to their number was the Trinidadian J.B. Philippe, who published Free Mulatto in 1824. Philippe was a British-educated medical doctor and a member of the buffer mulatto, or coloured, class. The target of institutionalised racial harassment from the whites, the coloureds nevertheless were a free and often well-educated slave-holding class.

Philippe, though a slave owner himself, challenged official racism on behalf of both Africans and coloureds. Even in 1824, Free Mulatto already possessed many of the qualities which would distinguish Caribbean writing for the next hundred years or more. It was erudite. It was anti-colonial. It demonstrated a grasp of events affecting Africa’s descendants in other lands. It was passionately opposed to all manifestations of pseudo-scientific racism, including the Hamitic Myth, the distorted interpretation of a biblical story which slave owners claimed as the divine sanction for slavery.

Shortly after Philippe’s book, in 1826, Jamaican John Brown Russwurm became one of African America’s first college graduates. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine. Russwurm represented an early example of the Caribbean tradition of exporting intellectuals to the metropolis, a tradition very much alive today (it applies to sport as well). It would be difficult to find a prestigious university in the United States without at least one person from the Caribbean on its faculty. In 1827 Russwurm co-founded African America’s first newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. He emigrated to Liberia in 1829, and in 1830 founded the Liberia Herald.

Russwurm therefore helped inaugurate what quickly became a road well-travelled by Caribbean intellectuals. In the 1850s, graduates of Codrington College in Barbados formed the West Indian Church Association. They established a teaching mission in Rio Pongo, West Africa, and were still active there well into the 20th century. When, in 1859, African-American emigrationists sent a two-man delegation to Abeokuta in present-day Nigeria, one of the emissaries was Robert Campbell of Jamaica, a chemistry teacher at the famous Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia.

Edward Wilmot Blyden, arguably the African world’s outstanding intellectual of the late 19th century, took a similar route. Blyden left St Thomas for the United States in 1850. Disillusioned by racism, he moved on to Liberia. There, he distinguished himself as an educator (president of Liberia College), diplomat (Liberian ambassador to Great Britain) and prolific author. This early intellectual trek back to Africa was also fed by Muslim former slaves who were literate in Arabic. One of these, Mohammedu Sisei, a Trinidad Mandingo, made it back home to the Gambia.

Nineteenth-century Caribbean intellectuals also found their way to Europe. The Dumas family, one of France’s celebrated literary dynasties, had Haitian origins. Alexandre Dumas was a general in the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. His son and namesake wrote The Three Musketeers.

Those intellectuals who stayed at home were well aware of the accomplishments of those abroad. By the 19th century there was already a vigorous interchange of ideas among the recently freed in the Caribbean, North America, Europe and Africa. In 1865 a few hundred Barbadians emigrated to Liberia, and by 1904 one of them, Arthur Barclay, had become President of the Republic.

Among the celebrated home-based intellectuals was John Jacob Thomas of Trinidad. In 1869 he established a reputation in international scholarly circles with his Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, a groundbreaking study of Trinidad’s Creole (patois) language. Thomas became even more famous with his 1889 publication of Froudacity, a polemic against the pseudo-scientific fulminations of James Anthony Froude, a visiting English historian.

The newly educated descendants of slaves faced many obstacles in their quest for intellectual growth. Higher education was unavailable at home, except for rare exceptions such as Codrington College. For those who could not make it overseas, however, there were still some avenues for academic advancement. Preaching, teaching, pharmacy and the solicitors’ segment of the legal profession were qualifications that could be obtained at home. In the 20th century a hardy few also studied for external degrees from overseas universities.

Several members of this educated group also became journalists. Black-owned newspapers were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the many illustrious examples were the Jamaica Advocate founded by Bahamian-born Dr J. Robert Love. Love had studied medicine in the United States and had earlier been a clergyman in Haiti. He was a mentor of one of Jamaica’s most famous sons, the Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey. Grenada’s T.A. Marryshow founded The West Indian in 1917. These earlier newspapers found their apogee in Marcus Garvey’s Negro World (1918–1933), which, though published in Harlem, New York, was nevertheless circulated widely throughout the Caribbean.

These pioneer publications did not confine themselves to reporting the news. They were also focal points for anti-colonial agitation, whose publishers (for example Love and Marryshow) were often also major political figures. They functioned as literary magazines as well. In an age of liberal education it was not unusual to find schoolteachers writing plays and politicians penning poems. Marryshow, for example, wrote the following lines in his 1921 poem And Yet:

Poor rags and all tatters
My portion might be,
And yet robbed in Manhood
No slave dwells in me;
The world’s dearest mantle 
Is true liberty!

Garvey’s Negro World provided an outlet for several early writers of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, African America’s most celebrated literary era. Among these were the short story writer Eric Walrond of Guyana, and poet Claude McKay of Jamaica, two leading lights of the period.

In the racially-polarised reality of the Caribbean, a white literary and intellectual tradition developed its own specific characteristics. Whites enjoyed a virtual monopoly on literacy, personal and political freedom and economic power for at least the first three-and-a-half centuries after Columbus; their intellectual output was hardly commensurate with their privileged status.

J.G. Stedman, a Scottish soldier fighting for the Dutch against Suriname’s African maroons in the 18th century, left us a famous portrait of a day in the life of a Surinamese planter. This “West India Nabob”, as Stedman characterised him, awoke at 6 a.m. to breakfast served by his finest slaves. His overseer then produced slaves accused of misdemeanours. These were summarily stripped and flogged until “sufficiently mangled”, whereupon they were sent to work without medical care. The nabob then took a stroll.

Breakfast took place around 10 a.m., followed by his midday nap. Slaves fanned him while he slept. He awoke at 3 p.m. to a sumptuous meal. At 6 p.m. his overseer presided over more flogging. “His worship,” Stedman observed, “generally [began] to yawn at about 10 or 11 o’clock”, whereupon he was “undressed by his sooty pages” prior to retiring “in the arms of one or another of his Sable Sultanas . . . ”

There was little time for intellectual pursuits here, though Stedman did say that the planter might look at a book before his siesta.

Such white literary activity as there was began in the time of Columbus. Much of it consisted of travel accounts and historical works by European visitors or European-born residents. Whatever the genre, a dominant recurring theme was the human-ness or otherwise of non-white people. Early Spanish jurist Juan Gines de Sepulveda could find few “vestiges of humanity” in the Amerindians. They were as morally “inferior to Christians” as women were to men, and as different as monkeys were from humans. Slaveholder-turned-abolitionist Fr Bartolomé de las Casas begged to differ. The Sepulveda school, however, seems to have prevailed for the next three-and-a-half centuries or more. It applied to Amerindians and Africans with equal earnestness.

Jewish slaveholders left behind a significant body of wills, which, though not intended for publication, constitute an offbeat literary expression. A Jamaican Jew, Judah Monis, was teaching Hebrew at Harvard in the 18th century.

The 20th century saw the tentative beginnings of a literary community transcending racial lines. In the 1920s, white Puerto Rican poet Luis Pales Matos ushered in the negrismo movement, wherein mostly white authors glorified an exoticised version of black life. Portuguese-Trinidadian Albert Gomes presided in the 1930s over a remarkable outburst of artistic expression; his protégés tended to be Afro- or Euro-Trinidadians. An East Indian Literary and Debating Association was already active in Trinidad in 1917, and two Indian newspapers appeared there by 1919; but it would be some time before Indo-Trinidadians entered the non-sectarian literary marketplace in significant numbers.

The widespread preoccupation with literary and intellectual excellence could also be seen by the early 20th century in the close connection which developed between academic distinction and politics. The intellectually gifted were often accepted as natural leaders. Conversely, political leaders demonstrated interest in literary pursuits. Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams, who founded the modern Pan-African movement in 1900, was a schoolteacher, lawyer and magazine editor. Antenor Firmin, Haitian author of the pathbreaking Equality of Human Races (1885), led anti-government factions in the civil wars of 1902 and 1910.

Trinidadian C.L.R James, the major Marxist theoretician of the 1930s and 40s, was also an eminent historian of the Haitian revolution, as well as a novelist, short story writer and more. Trinidadian George Padmore excelled as a student in the United States in the 1920s. He produced several books, many of them while head of the “Negro Bureau” of the Moscow-based Red International of Labour Unions. Martiniquan Frantz Fanon helped lead the Algerian Revolution in the 1950s while writing his classic Wretched of the Earth.

François Duvalier, Haitian President from 1957 to 1971, was in the 1930s a leader of The Griots, an important nationalist literary group. Martiniquan politician Aimé Césaire co-founded the négritude literary movement in France in the 1930s. Albert Gomes was Trinidad’s most powerful politician in the early 1950s.

Several leaders also came to politics after brilliant academic careers. Eric Williams, who presided over Trinidad and Tobago politics from 1956 to 1981, won an Island Scholarship, the pinnacle of secondary school achievement, in 1931. He graduated “First in the First Class” at Oxford University before going on to a doctorate and a distinguished academic career. His early deputy Prime Minister Patrick Solomon was also an Island Scholar. Barbadian Prime Minister Grantley Adams was a Barbados Scholar; President Forbes Burnham of Guyana was a Guyana Scholar. The sometime mayor of Port of Spain and later Chief Justice, H.O.B. Wooding, graduated at the top of his law school class in London. Prime Minister Norman Manley of Jamaica was a Rhodes Scholar, as was Dudley Thompson, a minister in the party Manley founded. F.E.M. Hosein, World War I-era leader of Trinidad’s East Indian National Congress, was the country’s first Indian Island Scholarship winner.

The literary achievements of the English-speaking Caribbean reached new heights after World War II, when writers such as George Lamming and Samuel Selvon became important members of the Anglophone world’s literary canon. Between 1987 and 2002, Olive Senior of Jamaica, Pauline Melville of Guyana and Earl Lovelace of Trinidad won Commonwealth Prizes for literature. Derek Walcott of St Lucia won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. Vidia Naipaul followed suit in 2001. Arthur Lewis of St Lucia had won the English-speaking Caribbean’s earliest Nobel (for Economics) back in 1979, but the French Caribbean had received even earlier recognition. In 1922 Martiniquan René Maran won the Goncourt Prize, the most prestigious award for French novelists. And in 1960 the Guadeloupe-born Saint-John Perse won the Nobel for literature. Nineteenth-century Guyana also produced a celebrated poet in Leo (Egbert Martin) who won an important British poetry prize.

For most of the period since the abolition of slavery, elementary school teachers provided an unobtrusive but heroic base for the intellectual excellence of these islands. J.J. Thomas was a teacher. So was Henry Sylvester Williams. Prior to the 1960s, when access to higher education was very limited, teachers’ colleges absorbed some of the best available brains. C.L.R. James and Eric Williams both taught briefly at the Government Teachers Training College in Port of Spain. A.M. Clarke’s pioneering Best Poems of Trinidad (1943) contained the work of several teachers, including Clarke himself. The Teachers’ Herald of that era was an important literary outlet.

It is no coincidence that it was teachers, some of them veterans of the Training College and of Clarke’s anthology, who ushered their fellow teacher and scholar-activist Eric Williams into politics in 1955. The Teachers Educational and Cultural Association sponsored Williams’s lectures, published his pamphlets, and eventually provided him with key members of his government.

The dawn of the 21st century sees high-achieving Caribbean high school students being aggressively recruited by United States universities. Their teachers are recruited equally aggressively by metropolitan school districts, even as their 19th-century forebears were recruited to teach the newly freed African Americans. While those at home bemoan an apparent drop in standards, metropolitan agencies have again discovered in the Caribbean a cost-effective goldmine of academic distinction.

The challenge for the Caribbean now is to maintain its outstanding tradition of excellence. Many Caribbean people, however, are only dimly aware of the region’s intellectual achievements. The regional university must rise to the challenge of the brightest of its student pool, lest they continue to be lured away by more attractive prospects abroad. And those who have developed their skills abroad must be enticed back home.

While we rightly bask in the glory of Commonwealth and Nobel Prizes, awards administered in faraway lands ought not to be the sole indicators of Caribbean literary excellence. Cuba’s Casa de las Américas is a pioneer in this area, and in the English-speaking Caribbean the Guyana government must be commended for having taken the lead in endowing the Guyana Prize for Literature, in spite of grave economic and social problems. We must also build a powerful indigenous publishing industry, a task which has happily begun with the formation of a Caribbean Publishers Network.

When all of this is done we will have fulfilled the admonition of Marcus Garvey, who urged long ago that: “We must canonise our own saints, create our own martyrs . . . The right is ours and God’s.”

Tony Martin teaches Caribbean and African American history at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Pan-African Connection, Literary Garveyism and other works.

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