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 -
The notion that international trade was the only way to achieve economic development -
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-
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 -
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-
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-
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 -
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-
The western world did to Haiti what they would have done to Cuba -
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]