Edward Kamu Brathwaite

Edward Kamu Brathwaite

The name Caliban is an anagram of “cannibal” that was created by English playwright William Shakespeare. In the Shakespearian drama, Caliban is a kind of foolish and aggressive monster who must be ruled by the wise and kind Prospero. Because the word “cannibal” itself comes from the word “Caribbean,” the name Caliban has, over the years, simultaneously incorporated the idea of the Caribbean with notions of brutality, barbarism, and cannibalism. Caribbean thinkers and artists have reflected on the controversial name in two ways: first, in the measure to which it implies various European prejudices; and second, in the possibility that it presents an alternative for political and cultural liberation by pointing to a sense of identity among Caribbean people.

In Latin American literature, the first to offer an interpretation of the Caliban character was José Enrique Rodó of Uruguay, who contrasted the rough and irrational Caliban with the high and noble Ariel in his work Ariel (1900). In the second half of the 20th century, however, Caliban was converted into a hero who represented the struggles by Caribbean and Latin American peoples. The first to recognize this identity was writer George Lamming, a native of Barbados, in his book The Pleasures of Exile, from 1960. Lamming, however, saw Caliban as a slave to the language he inherited from the Europeans. Ten years later, the author returned to the topic of Caliban in Water with Berries.

Another important recreation of Shakespeare’s work is Une Tempête, by Martinique writer Aimé Césaire. In this work, Caliban is not a monster, but rather a black slave who refuses to assimilate to Prospero, culturally or politically.

Cuban poet Roberto Fernández Retamar is one of the intellectuals who have most extensively studied Caliban. The author sees the character as a European construction that tries to “animalize” the Caribbean to justify the subjugation of the region by the Old World powers. From a Marxist perspective, Fernández Retamar proposes that social revolution is Caliban’s true nature. Similarly, the poem Caliban, by Barbados writer Edward Kamau Brathwaite, uses the Cuban Revolution as a starting point for understanding Caliban’s liberation. Clearly, over time, Caliban has become an anti-establishment emblem that personifies the rebellious aspects of Caribbean subjects. So what was once a prejudiced distortion of a Caribbean native has been transformed into a valued representation of Caribbean identity.

It should be noted that, thanks in part to the works by Martinique philosopher Frantz Fanon, Caliban has come to represent many people, not just Latin Americans, but also victims of colonization around the world. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Raphael Armattoe (Ghana), Lemuel Johnson (Sierra Leone), Taban lo Liyong (Uganda) and Suniti Namjoshi (India) are other non-Caribbean authors who have addressed the topic.

Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: July 23, 2012.

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.