Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Identity: An Interpretation of Caribbean Identity

Jan Carew

The African presence was established in the Caribbean during the first decade of the European explorations in the Americas. Nicholas Ovando, the Spanish governor, brought Negro slaves to Hispaniola in 1502, shipping them from Spain to this island where the first permanent Spanish settlement in the New World had been established (see Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean). These Negro slaves who came to Hispaniola via Spain spoke Spanish and Arabic. That they were able to communicate in these two languages was more the rule than the exception, since the Moors had ruled Spain for six centuries, and Granada—the last of the Moorish strongholds—had only fallen to the Spanish on January 2, 1492, a mere seven months before Columbus had set sail on his historic voyage. In fact, over those many centuries of enlightened Moorish rule, the evolving Spanish and Portuguese cultures had constantly oscillated between Europe and Africa. Therefore, at the beginning of the Columbian era, the African presence in Spain included slaves, defeated soldiers, artisans, artists, musicians, and members of the former ruling Islamic elite who were being hounded down by the Inquisition and living in estranged circumstances. Furthermore, both the Portuguese and the Spanish had been actively engaged in the slave trade along the West Coast of Africa for almost half a century before 1492.

Spanish histories of the early colonial period simply lumped Africans together as slaves and Amerindians as victims who, because of their "savagery," somehow deserved the fate that befell them. However, inadvertently, some of these early chroniclers provided us with invaluable insights into the role these two maligned peoples played in humanizing the new civilizations that, starting from seminal beginnings in the Caribbean, were being created in the Americas. One of these, Antonio de Herrera y Tordecillas, tells us that in 1540 a Negro had taken holy ecclesiastic orders, and that in 1542 three Brotherhoods of the True Cross were established in the New World—one for Spaniards, one for Indians, and the third for the Negroes. Sifting through these early histories, we learn not only of anonymous slaves but of the first Black Roman Catholic priests in the Americas. This was a matter of some significance since in that age of exploration, conquest, and colonization, the power of the church, in both spiritual and temporal affairs, was pervasive.

Those Africans whom Ovando brought to the Caribbean had come with the sanction of the pope and Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish sovereigns. They were shipped to Hispaniola in order to replace a rapidly dwindling Taino and Carib population, as disease, slavery, and "pacification" campaigns were depopulating this and other islands that the Spanish controlled. Bartholomew de las Casas, an influential Dominican priest and historian, had convinced the Spanish sovereigns that, as Africans were hardier than Indians, using them as a labor force in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas would save the Indians from extinction. Toward the end of his long life—he died at the age of 91—this "Apostle of the Indians" recanted and, abandoning that earlier benighted and contradictory point of view, ultimately denounced all forms of slavery as being contrary to the teachings of Christ. But this was after the transatlantic slave trade had already taken root in the Caribbean and become institutionalized.

An important sequel to Ovando's introduction of African slave labor into the Caribbean in 1502, occurred in 1505, a mere three years later; there was a slave rebellion in Hispaniola in which Africans and Indians joined forces against their Spanish colonial masters. This rebellion was a portent of black slave resistance and solidarity with Indians that would reoccur everywhere in the Americas as long as slavery continued to exist (see Seminole Wars). In addition, almost simultaneously with open rebellion and other less dramatic forms of resistance, there was the phenomenon of maroonage in the Americas-that is, slaves escaping to forests, swamps, and mountain hideaways and establishing free societies. These maroon societies sprang up in Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and many of the islands in the eastern Caribbean. The most formidable and enduring maroon settlements would eventually be set up in the hinterland of Suriname, when as part of the Dutch Antilles (see Netherlands Antilles) it was called Dutch Guiana. These safe havens helped to preserve invaluable elements of African culture that would otherwise have been lost, and through a process of cultural symbiosis, these were fed back into the mainstream colonial societies through music, Creole languages, folk myths, millenarian religions, and the secret cultural grapevines that oral traditions created. Bewildered slave owners were known to comment that the Negroes had an uncanny ability to communicate among themselves and that they could share information across great distances in a short time.

The infusion of African slave labor into the Caribbean, which began in 1502, however, would gradually increase until it became a flood between 1550 and 1850. The sugar industry and the transatlantic slave trade—the two became synonymous—transformed the Caribbean islands and adjacent mainland territories into highly prized colonial possessions. It was as if European colonial powers like Great Britain, France, Spain, and Holland, caught up in the thralldom of greed and intense imperial rivalries, were engaged in a game of "musical chairs" as they seized and relinquished colonial possessions in and around the Caribbean Sea. Scholar and writer George Lamming described this historical drama in a splendidly evocative piece when he wrote

That mischievous gift, the sugarcane, is introduced, and a fantastic human migration moves to the New World of the Caribbean, deported crooks and criminals, defeated soldiers and Royalist gentlemen fleeing from Europe, slaves from Africa, East Indians, Chinese, Corsicans and Portuguese. The list is always incomplete, but they move and meet on an unfamiliar soil, in a violent rhythm of race and religion.

Christopher Columbus's error in geography left us with the terms Indies, West Indies, and Antilles, and then we have the Caribbean Sea, which was named after his implacable foes, the Caribs. Columbus can also be credited with the slander that these warriors and intrepid sea rovers were "cannibals." The term Caribbean currently encompasses not only the island archipelago stretching from Cuba and the Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago, but also the adjacent mainland territories of Belize (in Central America), and Guyana, Suriname, and Cayenne or French Guiana (in South America). Despite the numerous bureaucratic restrictions imposed by colonial and independent state authorities alike and the fact that there are different official European and unofficial Creole languages spoken in the Caribbean, a common historical experience of slavery, indentured labor, colonial rule, plus bonds of race and culture, continues to link the peoples of this region together.

The African identity in the Caribbean is based on a concept of the term African, which assumed a more authentic meaning in the New World than it did on the African continent itself. The peoples living on the littoral of the Mediterranean Sea who had first given Africa its name, had done so with only a vague idea of its vastness and complexity. The estimated 10 million slaves who survived the transatlantic crossing and landed in the Americas during the three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, therefore, gave the term Africa a meaning that it had never had before. It redefined a continent with a bewildering variety of peoples and cultures, one that had cradled the human race and occupied one-eighth of the world's land surface.

Today, the majority of the Caribbean population is of African descent, and yet, tracing and defining the African identity of this majority is like trying to pin down two elusive archetypal figures in Carib and Afro-Caribbean folklore—the Shape-shifter, and Br'a Anancy, the Spiderman. The Carib Shamans and African village storytellers in Guyana say that these folk heroes and trickster archetypes can assume as many guises as the sea has waves. The fusion of folk myths that took place among the Afro-Caribs in the islands-and to a greater extent between Arawakian tribal groups and the descendants of Africans in the Guianas—provides us with interesting insights into the way in which the latter began creating a new identity for both of these peoples in the Caribbean.

Identity is defined as being oneself and not another, but from the very beginning, the African identity in the Caribbean entailed being oneself and another. For after the trauma of a violent uprooting and the attempt by slave masters to relegate Africans permanently to the status of chattel, slaves arriving in the Caribbean had to create a new ontological system in which they could continue to see themselves as human beings. Although these slaves came from different ethnic groups, different cultures, and, more often than not, spoke different languages, they learned how to establish new communities, to share their collective memories, to synthesize and preserve what was useful, and to discard what was no longer relevant to their survival in a new land. So the Africanness of this identity was constantly being transformed as each new generation was called upon to adapt it to its particular needs. Christianity, which the slaves adopted very readily, and that book of books, the Bible, played a vital role in this process of cultural assimilation.

Who, then, were the immediate forbears of the millions of sons and daughters of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas? Delving briefly into their origins, C. L. R. James, the doyen of 20th-century Caribbean historians, tells us in his bold and lucid fashion

It was on a peasantry in many respects superior to the serfs in large areas of Europe, that the slave-trade fell. Tribal life was broken up and millions of detribalized Africans were let loose upon each other. . . . Tribes had to supply slaves or become slaves themselves . . . these horrors were the product of an intolerable pressure on the African peoples, which became fiercer through the centuries as the demands of industry increase[d] and the methods of coercion were perfected.

The limbo dance—which is often used to entertain tourists—is a profound symbolic expression of the long struggle of the Afro-Caribbean peoples against slavery, the plantation system, a stultifying colonial rule, and a demonstration of how the African identity established itself in the Caribbean. The dance demonstrates that no matter how impassible the barriers to freedom might appear to be they can always be breached. The dancer, moving in time to a mesmeric rhythm of African drums, must at all times have his or her feet planted firmly on the earth of a New World—not the New World but a New World—for it did not take the newcomers from Africa long to realize that the Americas were already old when the Tainos discovered Columbus on the beaches of Guanahani in 1492. The earth on which the limbo dancers plant their feet, therefore, is one where no matter how strange it is or how daunting the odds, they can always rely on their ancestral legacy of cultural resilience and cultural accommodation to claim their rights and their freedom.

C. L. R. James also said that modern Caribbean society is one of 20th-century people living in a 17th-century economy, and this statement rings true when one sees how the past casts long shadows across the contemporary scene. For it is a past that has left the Caribbean with a legacy of class, race, caste, color, religious, and ethnic contradictions. During the three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, this region became a testing ground on which the modern plantation system was perfected. The plantocracy and its supporters used this period to wring every drop of sweat that was possible from its slave labor and, at the same time, to suppress and denigrate African cultural manifestations. But, like the limbo dancers, the people of the African diaspora in the Caribbean used their extraordinary resilience to move around formidable obstacles that barred their way to freedom.

The Haitian Revolution, which erupted at the end of the 18th century and continued into the first decades of the 19th, was the first successful slave rebellion in recorded history.  It was also a supreme affirmation of the African identity in the Caribbean.  Toussant Louverture, a former slave on the Breda plantation, became the leader of the revolutionary forces. He was an adroit statesman and brilliant field commander, and in a relatively short time he managed to unite free blacks, mulattos, slaves (whom he called "cultivators"), white Jacobins, and pragmatic white planters. Louverture himself was a devout Catholic, and under his leadership Catholicism became the official religion. The majority of black Haitians, however, were Vodou devotees, who moved from one religion to the other with the greatest of ease. The Gregorian chants were transformed into Vodou incantations, and the solemn and somber rituals of Catholicism were enlivened by the hypnotic rhythms of African drums. Betrayed and captured, Louverture died in a bleak fortress in the Jura Mountains of France. But Haiti, which seemed to have exhausted itself with the splendor of its achievement in defeating French, British, and Spanish armies and overthrowing a slave oligarchy, has remained a repository of some of the finest examples of how memories of a lost African homeland blend with realities of the New World. The Haitians continued to create new and original paintings, sculpture, music, poetry, and a fecund and outstanding oral and written literature.

From the very beginning of the Columbian era, the Caribbean became the Sea of the New World, and inside its ellipse of island and mainland territories, great dramas of power, incalculable wealth, and national prestige were played out by the leading European powers. In sum, the triangular trade in sugar, rum, and slaves was an example of, as James wrote, "programmed accumulation of wealth such as the world has rarely seen." At the center of this drama was African slave labor, without which the new civilizations in the Americas would not have arisen. In fact, it is the ancestral legacy of resilience and cultural accommodation that has made it possible for peoples of African descent to survive not only in the Caribbean but in whatever countries migrants from the Caribbean have settled, be they Great Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Spain, Panama, or the littoral of Central and South America that borders on the Caribbean Sea.