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El Gran Caribe
y Professor Norman Girvan [1]

History of “El Gran Caribe”
me begin my reflections with an historical perspective on the development of the idea of the Greater Caribbean, El Gran Caribe, the subject of my lecture. The Puerto Rican historian Antonio Gaztambide-Geigel has argued—in my view persuasively—that the notion of a “Caribbean region” was invented by the United States at the turn of the 19th century, as a product of its military and economic expansion into the area[2] Indeed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Caribbean hardly existed as an imagined community to those who inhabited these parts.  Trinidad and Tobago was a colonial administrative entity, an integral part of the British Empire, on which the sun was never permitted to set. To conceive of this place as a society in its own right populated by free citizens owing to it their primary allegiance, as Sealy and his generation did, required a leap of faith, an act of intellectual insubordination to established authority--a conscious decision to reject the way in which the world was ordered.

As for the region, if people thought about it at all in the 1920s, it meant the British West Indies.  To be West Indian meant to be a British colonial subject from the islands—black, English speaking, and the beneficiary of a British-based education—good currency in places like Panama and New York City to which many people migrated. Sealy’s generation also set about replacing the colonial construct of British West Indies with the nationalist construct of West Indian nationhood. Its ultimate political expression was to be the West Indies Federation. And although the Federation collapsed, the sense of West Indian nationhood persists, as shown in the work of numerous artists, intellectuals and lyricists like the Trinidadian calypsonians Black Stalin in his “Caribbean Man” and David Rudder in his “Rally Round the West Indies”.

So that West Indian nationalism was a quantum leap for its time. But at the same time it carried the baggage of the past, for its sense of region was confined to those territories sharing the British colonial experience, especially the English language. Yet as early as the 1930s and 1940s the seeds of a broader pan-Caribbean consciousness were being planted in series of books by anti-colonial and anti-imperial scholar/activists[3]: CLR James and Eric Williams of Trinidad, the Jamaican W. Adolphe Roberts and the Colombian Germán Arciniegas.



These seminal works pioneered a view of the Caribbean that transcended language and colonial ties and focused on shared historical experience: decimation of the indigenous people, metropolitan rivalry and wars, the plantation system, slavery and indentureship. In the post-war decades these insights were fleshed out by successive generations of scholars. Professional historians analysed slave societies, creolisation, popular resistance and political struggle. They engendered history into herstory.  Sociologists and cultural anthropologists analysed ethnicity and cultural diversity, race and class, and pluralism. Political economists analysed the plantation system, dependency, and multinational corporations. Caribbean history, Caribbean society, Caribbean economy—they all became sub-disciplines.

The new awareness seeped into the popular consciousness.  By the 1960s, in the aftermath of constitutional independence, Anglophones had started to call themselves and their institutions “Caribbean” rather than “West Indian”. Note how the West Indies Federation gave way to the Caribbean Community—CARICOM. Today we have a host of other “Caribbean” organisations: the CXC, CAREC, CARIRI, the CTO and many others. No matter that the membership of most of these institutions is exclusively or mainly Anglophone.  What is significant is the subtle shift in proclaimed identity.

Many have noted the remarkable coincidence of the virtually simultaneous publication, in 1970, of two histories of the Caribbean with almost the same title, both authored by scholar/statesmen: the one in English by Dr. Eric Williams[4], then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the other in Spanish by Juan Bosch[5], a former President of the Dominican Republic. Both books adopted a consciously anti-colonial or anti-imperialist perspective. But there was a crucial difference between them. Eric Williams followed the definition of the Caribbean by then accepted among Anglophone scholars, as constituting the Spanish, English, French and Dutch-speaking islands plus the three Guianas and Belize.  This definition remains prevalent in Anglophone historiography and has recently been entrenched in UNESCO’s prestigious General History of the Caribbean.[6]

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Content © Norman Girvan, 2001 - 2002 - Copyright © CaribSeek 2002, All Rights Reserved. Web Published:  June 4, 2002