History’s garden

By Nicolette Bethel

Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations,
by Sidney W. Mintz
(Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-05012-9, 257 pp)

Sugar workers, Puerto Rico, 1941

Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano, posted at Flickr by the Library of Congress

I think of the social history of a society as the garden in which the moral outlooks of a people are cultivated.

— Sidney W. Mintz, Three Ancient Colonies

For the anthropologist, culture is currency. It is the sterling of the discipline, the staple of the meal. Or, as Sidney Mintz would have it, it is “a resource — a pool of learned ideas, beliefs, customs, understandings — on which people draw in dealing with daily life.” But if we go to the root of the word — and root, perhaps, is the right word, as well as its brother-word, route — we will learn that it comes from another word that means to till the soil. Culture is, in a sense, cultivated. It is what human beings make from the environments they find themselves in, from the lands they inhabit.

Sidney Mintz’s new book, Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations, maps out that land. Too often we curse the garden for what it lacks, without understanding the soil in which it is planted, or — perhaps more important — the people who tilled that soil. Drawing upon a lifetime of ethnographic fieldwork in the Caribbean region, Mintz arrives at bold conclusions about the societies and realities of our provocative, complex, and generally undervalued region.

Mintz is no stranger to the Caribbean. Indeed, he has been described as “the doyen of Caribbean anthropology,” spending decades studying Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Jamaica, and developing anthropological theories to apply across the region. As a Caribbean anthropologist, I must confess my own bias; it was Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985) — describing the economic, historical, and nutritional role of sugar in transforming European peasant societies into a proletariat, and fuelling the Industrial Revolution — that inspired my own understanding of our region as pivotal to the development of the world in which we live. His approach is not unique, and the connection between the plantation and the factory has been documented by other Caribbean scholars. What has received less attention, though, is the place of Caribbean colonialism in shaping the social and moral landscapes of our time. It is this enterprise with which Mintz’s new book engages.

This book grew out of three lectures given by the author in honour of W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American intellectual and scion of two ancient colonies: St Domingue (present-day Haiti) and the Bahamas. The three case studies Mintz uses to illustrate his thesis present anthropological theory, history, and ethnographic field notes in such balance that a reader is convinced of the soundness of Mintz’s perspective, but is never lost along the way.

The Caribbean, he argues once again, remains more critical to contemporary global and regional realities than it is credited with being. So central once were the tiny islands of the Antilles to European prosperity that the European powers were happy to trade huge tracts of continental land for them — take France’s 1763 ceding of Quebec and Eastern Louisiana to Great Britain in exchange for Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St Lucia as an example. And while the Enlightenment and ideas of equality for all flourished in Europe and were transplanted to North America, the Caribbean was the ground on which the polar opposite was enacted — the enslavement and dehumanisation of millions of men and women. Through it all, the Caribbean was where colonialism was sown, grew, and ripened.

Understanding the history and society of the Caribbean region is crucial to a full comprehension of the development of colonialism, the modernity that colonialism created, and the hybrid and globalised society that the imperial world left in its wake. As Mintz observes,

Not only did most of the islands become colonial early, most of them also stayed colonial late. Barbados became British around 1627, but it did not get its independence until 1966. Puerto Rico became colonial in 1509, and has never been politically independent . . . People in erstwhile colonial areas besides North America may be slow to grasp how anciently colonial the Caribbean region is. The Indian subcontinent is usually thought to have become a colonial possession, mostly of Great Britain, when Clive defeated the nawab of Bengal at the battle of Plassey in 1757. Yet by 1757 the Antilles had been colonial for more than two hundred and fifty years.

His approach is both particular and general. The “three ancient colonies” of the title are Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Their selection is not accidental. They comprise the smaller islands of the Greater Antilles (Cuba is excepted), and as such hold geographical as well as historical significance. They also provide a case study for each of the major metropolitan powers to hold territory in the Caribbean: Britain in Jamaica, France in Haiti/St Domingue, and Spain and the United States in Puerto Rico. In this way, Mintz does not fall into the trap, as many do, of treating the Caribbean as three or more separate entities, each one defined according to the Western power which governed it — the British West Indies, the French Antilles, the Spanish Caribbean. Instead, he looks beyond historical particularities and, using anthropology’s methods of teasing out universals from variations in human social structure and culture, he lays out a template for thinking about the Caribbean in general.

That is not to suggest that Mintz regards history as incidental. On the contrary; he uses history as the key to understanding both the variations in the Caribbean experience and also their core similarities. He recognises the fact that there are deep divergences between the experience of the Spanish Caribbean and the remainder, and his choice of examining Jamaica and Haiti as well as Puerto Rico leads us to look beyond the usual links between the Hispanic Caribbean and the Latin American mainland. Mintz sees not only the differences between Puerto Rico and the others, but also the similarities; he observes — correctly, I believe — that despite real divergences in race, culture, practice, history, and language, deep forces link all the Caribbean islands.

Fundamental to all the societies he examines is the core element of oppression — an oppression of a very particular kind. It is the oppression inherent in the idea that an entire region of the world should be used as the generator of capital for another, and that the labour used to fuel it be forced in some way or another. Every Caribbean society is defined by the plantation mentality, even though the plantation itself is present or absent. Each society examined by Mintz, then, is shaped by this core concept. The idea that the Caribbean is not a place that people inhabit, but rather a profit-producing acreage, is central to the social and moral history of the region. As he writes:

Caribbean peoples were modernised by enslavement, by forced transportation in large, ethnically mixed groups, by massing in time-conscious enterprises, by the reshuffling of gender roles, by constant oppression, and by the need to reconstitute their cultural forms anew, and under pressure. This was happening to people from societies of a different sort from the ones into which they were brought; they were thrust into what were remarkably industrial settings for their time, with their smokestacks, mills, and raging fires. Finally, they were controlled primarily by physical violence. They learned how to live under constant repression. It is for these reasons and these forces, acting continuously and in concert, that Caribbean cultures took on what I call a remarkably modern cast for their time.

What makes Mintz’s argument so effective — laying out in the cleanest, brightest prose the case for the centrality of the Caribbean to both the modern and postmodern enterprises, both interrogating the plantation and establishing its importance — is his commitment to describing life “on the ground,” as anthropologists would have it, as well as examining the forces affecting those lives from far beyond the region. No matter that his ethnographic examples were gathered between 1949 and 1980, and that the details of this lived experience have doubtless changed beyond recognition in contemporary Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Mintz has a gift for describing the life of the people, and he uses those descriptions to illustrate his wider perspective.

Sugar cane worker, Puerto Rico, 1942

Sugar cane worker in the field, vicinity of Guanica, Puerto Rico, 1942. Photograph by Jack Delano, posted at Flickr by the Library of Congress

Perhaps most interesting, though, is his concluding of the consideration of these “ancient colonies” by deconstructing, redefining, and reclaiming the concept of creolisation. The common understanding of the term involves either hybridity — the kind of mixing that happened in the plantation Americas — or else nativity, delineating the difference between a transplanted inhabitant of the area and one who was born there, the child of the transplant. Jean Rhys was a Creole of European descent; in colonial Guyana and Trinidad the black population was described as “Creole” as opposed to “East Indian”; in New Orleans, Creoles are the children of the unions between the Africans and the French. Mintz prefers to present creolisation as a process involving three themes: first, “a reaction of people to the terrible constraints of enslavement and the concomitant ethnic disorganisation — an attempt by the victims to respond creatively to their condition”; second, the creation by the enslaved of “collective social institutions within slavery”; and third, and most intriguing, the process of forming new and coherent patterns of life out of the dehumanising deracination of the plantation society.

This last goes beyond merely responding to an untenable condition. The plantation, he suggests, provides researchers with a window into the way in which humans create culture. Creolisation, for Mintz, is the process of making a new world out of the smithereens of the old — and of doing it with intention, with purpose, and with coherence.

It is this redefinition of the concept of creolisation that allows Mintz to make sense of the difference between the Hispanic Caribbean and the rest of the region. As he puts it:

All three Hispanic societies [Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico] failed to develop the explosive adaptations based on slavery, plantations, and sugar that typified Spain’s northern European colonial rivals in the region during the period 1650–1800. As a consequence, none of the three took on the characteristic nearly all-slave, all-African character of the “sugar islands.” Because they did not, none experienced creolisation as I have described it . . . An additional consequence was the absence of any deep fissure between the poor and the white — a fissure in the creolised sugar islands that was reflected in language, culture, and nearly everything else.

I believe Mintz exaggerates the difference. He is right to notice that, unlike the English and French and Dutch Antilles, the Hispanic Caribbean lacks the bilingualism that marks the others; where the others have their own local creoles and dialects, in the Hispanic Caribbean, Spanish — even given local variations — is only language there is. But I would question the lengths to which he takes this observation, tantalising as it is, for the process of subjugation in our region is by no means over. Rather, I find greater strength in the process of creolisation that he has described, the idea that Caribbean morals and societies are the products of the creative response of the dehumanised to their condition. It is here that Mintz’s treatment of his subject has greatest power; for understanding this process may illuminate our consideration of all the anomalous societies of the region, whether they be the seafaring, commerce-centred archipelagos on the periphery of the Caribbean proper (Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands) or the less slavery-centric Hispanic societies.

For those of us who live in — or who are products in some way of — this fertile and complicated location, Mintz’s book serves to remind us of our significance in the world. And it is worth reminding ourselves of this. We who are children of this extended colonial history cannot take independence, self-determination, full personhood, and true sovereignty for granted. As we continue to struggle with the consciousness that we are not full citizens of the world, Mintz’s book explains why the journey seems so hard. Ours is a regional culture shaped irrevocably by ideas of conquest, depopulation, subjugation, the turning of humans into possessions, and the violence wrought by the institution of slavery — the stealing of human beings, the trafficking of individuals, the transformation of people into chattel. What is more, the colonial culture of the Caribbean extended over centuries — over the entire history of Europe in the so-called New World — and still continues today. The differences among Mintz’s three case studies serve only to illuminate these core facts even more brightly.


The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

Nicolette Bethel is a Bahamian playwright, poet, anthropologist, and blogger, and the editor-in-chief of the online literary journal tongues of the ocean. Her work has been published in a variety of print and online publications, including The Caribbean Writer. She was formerly director of culture for the Bahamas, and is now assistant professor of sociology at the College of the Bahamas, and the founding director of the annual Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival.