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The theme “Columbus and the con­temporary dispensation within the Caribbean” is a fascinating one. In a conceptual sense, that Columbus’ mis­sion is still sailing; Columbus has not yet completed his mission. 


The few ships under his command contained a gang of criminals, naviga­tional skeptics, gold seekers and so on, but none of these things to my mind are really important. To my mind, what is really important are the six items that Columbus carried on his voyage: an eco­nomic ideology which was not yet la­belled nor understood, but which we will now come to understand as something called Commercial Capitalism. A social ideology of racism, again which at the time was not clearly articulated, but which found itself rooted in the Caribbean with the Columbus mission. A social ideology of patriarchy which assumed superior political and intellectual capacity of men over women. A tolerant Christian ideology and theology which defined other religions as subgroups, subtypes. An expansionist manifest with a focus on geographical expansion. A rationalist philosophy that promoted the notion of materialism as the way forward for man­kind. 


All of these things represented what Columbus was all about. Columbus was not only a very good sailor, he was a leader, an emissary of a new epoch. He was the carrier, I believe, of a virus, to which the people and the Caribbean Re­gion had no adequate immune response. He was the Flag Bearer of forces that were endemic to European civilisation, a civilisation which was then beginning to sail out of centuries of decay and stagna­tion and finding its identity in relation to a world yet undocumented by its own scholars. 


The notion of materialism and progress. It was clearly understood that in the march towards economic develop­ment, human beings were dispensable. For the first time, there was a clearly formulated view that it was necessary not only to enslave, but also to eliminate persons in the march towards material development. The plantation had to sur­vive, the mining industry had to survive, the Latifundia had to survive and there­fore these things required labour. It was not possible to organise a labour force of the new world under a free relation, be­cause the notion of freedom, they argued, was something which was endemic to European civilisation; that freedom was a concept in the Caribbean which would only apply to people of European ancestries. 


So therefore progress and freedom, two very important concepts, were linked to notions of race and civilisation, and all of these things were established within one year of Columbus’ arrival within this part of the world. The rationalist philoso­phy which clearly stated that there were certain organic forces within Eastern civi­lisation that ultimately will lead to devel­opment of a superior material culture, that there was conjuncture of religion, of philosophy, of economic thinking, of social thinking, and all of these things were not to be found in other civilisa­tions. Therefore, immediately, the no­tions of progress, of economic growth, of economic development were linked to ideas and concepts that were endemic to European civilisation, and the roles of the black people and Amerindian people within the system were that of labour. The position of labour, cheap, servile and dispensable was the role that was as­signed to our people within the Columbus’ mission. 


The Caribbean, therefore, emerged as part of the centre of a new global order. The Caribbean was a theatre where this new system that we now live in was first constructed. It was part of the world where international trade, international banking, international finance, political rivalry and international warfare all characterised the Caribbean people. They were fighting only not over land and wealth, they were also fighting over la­bour - labour of the African peoples, of Amerindian peoples. Therefore, we rep­resented the foundation of the new mod­ern order, and there is no way you could possibly understand the present situation in the world in its global dimensions, unless you fully understand the implica­tions of the Columbus’ mission and the establishment of the Caribbean in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. 


The notion that international trade was the only way to achieve economic development - a concept which was ar­ticulated by economists - all suggested the critical role of the Caribbean. With­out the Caribbean there could be no glo­bal development, without the Caribbean there could be no European industrial revolution, without the Caribbean there could be no global financial order. It was the foundation upon which the present dispensation was built. 


All these things of course were clearly stated by distinguished historians like Eric Williams and C. L. R. James. But, most importantly, C. L. R. James devel­oped a concept of creolisation and the statement that West Indian people in spite of that history, now represent per­haps a unique human specie; that perhaps Caribbean people are pioneers of the future; that within the Caribbean a mind set was created, a people was created, people who are the carriers of European ancestry, African ancestry, Amerindian ancestry, Asian ancestry; that almost every civilisation in the world was brought to focus upon the Caribbean to create eco­nomic growth, but resulted in a sociologi­cal mix which has created this person called the Caribbean person. 


The Caribbean person therefore is a futuristic individual not linked to any one civilisation, not linked to any one world view but indeed the conjuntural concoc­tion of all these things. He says therefore, that we are value-free people; we are a people who are flexible within this world system, we could live anywhere, we can go anywhere. Caribbean people are the perfectly adaptable creatures that emerged, and this represents, he argued, in the present system whereby they all become part of what we call the global village, that we are perfectly suited to survive the future because of our history. 


Now when we place the James’ con­cepts of the Caribbean person and the Williams’ concept of the economic rela­tionship between the Caribbean people and the wider world, then we are asked to look at the role of ideology. I believe, that the best way to look at ideology in the Caribbean is to go back to the first example; the first example I believe of racist thought and political facts. 


Let us look at St. Kitts and Nevis between 1624 and 1630 (those dates might sound rather remote) for a very interest­ing experiment emerged on that island). The French had settled on one half of the island and the English on the other - an island colonised by two European powers, and somewhere in the middle of the island were the Amerindian people. France and England were at war in Eu­rope and elsewhere, but they signed an agreement to abandon that war on the island of St. Kitts and collectively elimi­nate the Amerindian people. France and England who were fighting wars in the Caribbean and elsewhere came together to sign the treaties for the common exter­mination of the Amerindian people who represented a threat to the collective mission of European colonisation. 


After that task was completed, they resorted back to their normal rivalry; and indeed, England and France fought over St. Kitts for another on hundred years. The matter was only settled in 1715. So that represents an example of what used to be not only in the Caribbean, but also in the world. For those of you who have been watching the situation in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union’s abandon­ment of Cuba, and the abandonment of the African Revolution, the abandonment of South African and so on, all of these things can be used to explain the circum­stances, because there is nothing new about it. People of the European ancestry have always come together to defeat what they consider to be the common enemy, in spite of their own differences. 


But the people of the Caribbean, the Amerindian people, the African people did not accept passively the Columbus mission. In fact, for 500 years we have been trying to torpedo the Columbus ship. Some of the missiles have missed, the explosions of some were contained and, in fact, at a philosophical level we can very well say that the last 500 years have been 500 years of war. But, it has been a way in the Caribbean launched by the people who had been subjected to this mission, to overthrow it. 


Based on that, we can trace the terrain of this war from the very first revolt of Amerindian people in 1493; we can study the history; we can look at that long tradition of people resisting and strug­gling to overturn the Columbus’ mission. Amerindians fought a war to death- the notion that death is preferable to slavery; the notion that you must fight to the last man and when you have lost, it is better to sacrifice your life than live in indig­nity. These are philosophical views that people have been trying to understand for years. 


We have situations in the Middle East where people sacrifice their lives in what they call suicide missions; we have looked at these things; we have studied the phi­losophy of these things and many people have said that perhaps if our own people of Africa had developed that particular philosophical point of view, that matter would have been settled many years ago. But, there is that philosophy of fighting to death and the sacrifice of all. 


We have had a long history of black folks fighting in the mountains of the Caribbean, fighting on the seas of the Caribbean, fighting in the larger islands, in the smaller islands, with revolutionary resistance, men and women. We have fought the mission throughout the length and breadth of the Caribbean. Indeed, if you were to ask yourself what particular force is the most binding force in the Caribbean today, (or historically) it is not the cultivation of sugar, it is the history of black struggle, it is that force that binds all of these islands together, from then till now, and you will find that that same struggle runs from Cuba right down to the Guianas; you will find that that history unifies the common experiences of our people and therefore we can look at other attempts to undermine and to overturn the Columbus’ mission. 


We have had all kinds of coalitions; we have several cases of Amerindian-Black Coalitions. Indeed, the Amerin­dian of the Windward Islands repre­sented a safety net for struggling African people, getting on boats and moving out of Barbados and the Leewards for a safe haven in the Windward Island. 


I have recently written a paper which looked at Barbadian slaves, African people escaping on canoes and boats and fleeing to the Windwards where they were welcomed and accepted by the Carib people as part of the common resistance. We have a tremendous amount of infor­mation on this. One of my colleagues in Jamaica, the late Neville Hall, wrote a very interesting paper four years ago called ‘Maritime maroons’. This showed African people traversing the Caribbean, running away from their masters, going up and down on boats through the length and breadth of the Caribbean guided by Amerindian people. There is no question that the Amerindian people taught Afri­can people how to use the Caribbean terrain for guerilla warfare. The success of the Jamaican maroons in the seventeenth century cannot be explained without reference to the Amerindian maroons of the previous century. All these things must be explained as part of a common Coalition against a wider struggle. 


Of course, to my mind, the Haitian revolution, this year in its bicentenary, represents a far more significant event. Certainly, I hope that in the next six months, that is, next year, that the Carib­bean will recognise the importance of the Haitian Revolution - 200 years of that struggle when black people were able to seize political power and seize the state for the first time, and establish notions of independence, sovereignty and authority. 


Secondly, the Haitian Revolution rep­resents the first major success in the struggle against the Columbus’ mission and for that reason, the people are cur­rently paying the cost, a very dear cost for this particular example that success can be attained after years and years of struggle and sacrifice. 


There is no coincidence that Desalines, the first President of Haiti, renamed the Colony from St. Dominique and called it Haiti. Haiti was the Carib name for the island. We have a black President, the first black President in the Caribbean renaming a territory in the original Carib name. The abandonment of St. Dominique and the renaming of the territory repre­sents clearly an affirmation of African­-Amerindian solidarity at that very early stage. So we have that history. Haiti had to pay the cost for the first torpedo success against the Columbus mission. 


The western world did to Haiti what they would have done to Cuba - interna­tional blockade, international financial sabotage, no trade, no investment. The forces that Columbus represented sur­rounded Haiti and brought it down. No country could survive without interna­tional connections. No country could survive with the weight of international forces rallied against it. Those of you who want to explain the defeat of Michael Manley’s socialism, those of you who want to understand the defeat of the Grenadian Revolution, those of you who want to understand the present crippling of the Cuban Revolution, must study very, very carefully the Haitian Revolution and a hundred years after 1804 to understand that we have gone through all of this before. There is nothing new about it. 


Excerpt of an address by Dr. Hilary Beckles given at the UWI School of Con­tinuing Studies, Roseau, Dominica, July 1991


[This article was reproduced from Caricom Perspective, Nos. 52 & 53, Double Issue, December 1991, with the permission of the Caricom Secretariat]





COLUMBUS AND THE CONTEMPORARY  DISPENSATION

WITHIN THE CARIBBEAN


Excerpt of an address by Dr. Hilary Beckles  given at the UWI School of Con­tinuing Studies,

 Roseau, Dominica, July 1991