The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion.
Columbus landed on one in 1492, but the hundreds of islands and islets that make up the West Indies long remained terra incognita for scholars. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century has the richness of the region where Europe met America become fertile ground for economists, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers, and historians seeking to understand the complexities of the commercial revolution and the rise of capitalism, relationships between newcomers and indigenous populations, and, above all, the history of an institution inextricably interwoven with all the rest: slavery.
Two recent works, an anthology inspired by an interdisciplinary conference, and a monograph expanding an earlier work, are stimulating guides to the history of two separate island groups in the West Indies. The Lesser Antilles (as the editors of this volume are kind enough to point out) are a chain of islands stretching from the Virgin Islands through Barbados to Curacao and Aruba - not to be confused with the better-known Greater Antilles: Cuba, Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The Bahamas (as the author of the second volume is kind enough to point out) are an archipelago of islands stretching from Florida to Haiti. Recent research on the histories of these two island groups - the Lesser Antilles and the Bahamas - has much to offer, not merely to the Caribbean specialist, but to those whose interest is the broader and fast-developing field of Atlantic history.
Editors Paquette and Engerman have chosen fourteen contributions from a 1992 conference entitled "The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion" and solicited four more articles to round out an impressive collection. Meticulously edited, it is a veritable marshalling of the social sciences on the history of the region, from the Columbian Encounter to the Age of Abolition. Five major groupings, ranging in time from the 1490s to the 1830s, deal with the initial contacts between Europeans and indigenous peoples, international rivalries and wars, transatlantic trade and migration, slavery, and the end of slavery. In each section there is a wealth of material to enrich and to challenge existing knowledge of its subject.
In the first section, two articles by William Keegan and Louis Aliaire examine myths and misconceptions about the peoples called the Tainos (Arawaks) and the Caribs, pointing out that both cultures are more complex and heterogeneous than was previously thought, and that even the names Taino and Carib are of uncertain origin. Diseases brought by Europeans devastated these native populations, but a piece by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Omelas finds that among the Caribs the killers may not have been European, but African pathogens. Thus the slave trade that began only a few years after Columbus had effects far beyond its intent.
As Europeans settled in ever larger numbers, the Lesser Antilles became a theater of international conflict, with shifting alliances and warring factions for the next two centuries, as English, French, Spanish, Dutch all jockeyed for position and sometimes enlisted the natives. In the section called "War and Imperial Rivalries," white Europeans are by no means the only ones with active roles. For example, Michael Craton finds the Black Caribs (so called because of their mixed-race origins from Africans brought to the islands) on St. Vincent shrewdly playing off French and English interests throughout the eighteenth century. Europeans attracted to the islands by what John Appleby calls the "prospect of plunder" (p. 86) soon established a flourishing trade network complicated by wars and privateering, and as island colonies grew, so did the slave trade. Slaves by the thousands arrived in islands such as Barbados to labor on sugar plantations. An interest in protecting England's highly profitable sugar islands led to a presence of British troops by the eighteenth century, and one-fourth of all the British troops in America were stationed in the sugar islands by the 1760s. Andrew O'Shaughnessy's "Redcoats and Slaves . . ." is a valuable widening of perspective on the American Revolution. Julius Scott's work on the multiracial network of sailors on transatlantic vessels requires a re-thinking of the relationships between slave plots and networks of communications in the Atlantic community. The relationship between slave rebellions and the political ideology of revolution in the late eighteenth century has generated an ongoing dialogue among scholars to which this volume has much to contribute.
The section on migration, trade, and the transatlantic economy, introduced by Stanley Engerman's overview of the Lesser Antilles in the Atlantic world's economy, likewise invites further discussion. Engerman ponders the 1940s work of Eric Williams on capitalism and slavery, and points to the crucial, initial role of the Lesser Antilles' sugar and slave economy in the rise of capitalism. The relationship of capitalism to slavery, like that of racism to slavery, poses a perennial conundrum. Allison Games finds economic opportunity in pre-slavery Barbados. David Eltis revises the numbers in the British transatlantic slave trade, calling attention to the importance of the Lesser Antilles from the 1670s to early 1700s. P.C. Emmer considers the role of the Dutch as traders rather than founders of plantation colonies, and Norman Barka, using archaeological evidence, describes the significant role of St. Eustatius as entrepot during the eighteenth century.
The last two sections on slavery and abolition offer further proof, if any were needed, of the complexity of these two subjects and the need to banish the one-model, or plantation, view of slavery as well as the notion of a single, simple narrative about the end of slavery. The Lesser Antilles produced some of the first slave societies in the New World, with more Africans being brought to these islands than were brought to the whole of North America, and the rise and fall of slavery in that region affords a rich comparative framework for slavery studies elsewhere. David Barry Gaspar points out the paradoxes of 1798 Slavery Amelioration Act, a piece of legislation designed to promote better conditions among Leeward Island slaves in order to increase the slave population when the slave trade should end imports. Articles by Anne Perotin-Dumon and David Geggus consider the varied responses to imminent emancipation, the varieties of slave resistance, and the roles of creoles and free coloreds in political actions. The debate begun years ago by Eugene Genovese on slave rebellions' restorationist versus revolutionary goals continues here, with evidence for both sides. While Perotin-Dumon concludes that the ideology of the French Revolution "swept across barriers of color and servitude" (p. 276) among the peoples of Guadeloupe, Oeggus finds that on Martinique, anti-slavery sentiment was more influential than revolutionary ideology.
The coming of freedom in the 1830s - with its expectations, tensions, and labor problems - raises anew the questions posed by an earlier generation of scholars about the relation of land, power, and labor in slave societies. Where land was scarce, former slaves had little choice but to keep working as they had done before emancipation. That was the case, for example, in Barbados and Antigua. But there were other islands with more land, where freed slaves deserted the plantation system for their own subsistence farming. The transition from slavery to free labor was also complicated by the difference between urban and rural slaves' work, and by the attitudes of free coloreds who often viewed the emancipation of blacks with mixed feelings. Michel-Rolph Trouillot examines the varieties of responses to emancipation in the first hundred days of freedom in Dominica; Roderick McDonald finds in the notebooks of one colonial official the complex relationships among slaveholders, slaves, and free colored residents of St. Vincent. This final section has a concluding article that reaches far beyond the Lesser Antilles. Seymour Drescher's discussion of the development of Dutch capitalism and the lack of Dutch interest in abolition offers a provocative challenge to the beliefs of some scholars that the rise of capitalism and the birth of the anti-slavery movement went hand in hand. If capitalism developed a conscience along with markets and thus played a role in the anti-slavery movement, Drescher asks, why did not the Dutch, who led the way in mercantile capitalism, also lead the way in abolitionism? This article, a slightly different version of Drescher's earlier work in the American Historical Review in 1994, is accompanied by an afterword discussing the responses to the work since the 1992 conference, and suggesting even broader lines of inquiry.
Just as the Paquette and Engerman volume offers evidence that the currents of major movements washed the islands of the Lesser Antilles in very different ways, so does the Johnson study of the Bahamas offer a reminder that the transition from slavery to freedom was far from uniform in slave societies. A slightly expanded version of the author's 1991 book, The Bahamas in Slavery and Freedom, this work examines the changing labor systems in the Bahamas from the early 1800s to the 1930s. While there is some new material examining the emergence of a system of indentures, sharecropping arrangements, and a peasant status for many slaves prior to emancipation, the scope of the book seems at once too wide in its chronology and too narrow in its economic focus on the "protoproletarianization" of urban slaves and the formation of others into a "protopeasantry (p. 47)." One wishes for more on the social side, such as descriptions of the kinds of labor performed. What, for example, did salt rakers and sponge harvesters do?
Chapter 1, an overview of the Bahamian economy from the earliest settlement to 1815, provides a useful background. Subsequent chapters trace the changing economic status of slaves in the Bahamas. As the slave population grew, slaveholders allowed their slaves to hire themselves out for wages, fostering a measure of autonomy. But with the end of the slave trade in the early 1800s, a considerable number of "liberated Africans" - the confiscated human cargoes of illegal slave ships - complicated the Bahamian labor system. From 1811 to 1838 indentures for these Africans forced them into a status that Johnson argues was worse than slavery. Meanwhile, the production of pineapples, salt, and sponges provided an uncertain base for the economy, with increasing control by a white "agrocommercial bourgeoisie" (167). After emancipation, the truck system and sharecropping that had existed during slavery kept the islands' blacks in another kind of servitude. Disciplined by an imported police force composed mainly of Barbadians by the late nineteenth century, and perpetually in debt, by the many Bahamas blacks sought relief by emigration to Florida from the 1870s to the 1920s. A brief conclusion summarizes the book's nine chapters and sets them in historiographical context. There is also a useful bibliography.
As the author points out, the history of the Bahamas has only drawn the attention of scholars in the present century. The same, with a few exceptions, could be said of the Lesser Antilles. For comparative and interdisciplinary studies, especially, both these island groups contain a treasure trove of materials yet to be fully unearthed.
Virginia Bernhard University of St. Thomas
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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