The history of the Caribbean is a story marked by encounters and blending, by voyages between continents and exchanges among the islands and territories that make up the region. Its literature is, therefore, a hybrid and a product of these convergences.

Although some Europeans came to the Americas and the Caribbean before Christopher Columbus, it was not until the end of the 15th century that the real process of “discovery,” conquest and colonization of these territories began. These territories were completely new and totally unknown to the various European countries that began racing to add them to their kingdoms. Spain came first, but England, France, Portugal, Holland and Denmark soon followed.

This distribution was most evident in the Caribbean. While in North, Central and South America, the hegemony of the colonial powers was obvious (Spain and England), control of the islands in the Caribbean was divided among more countries. Curiously, although most of the countries that make up the American continents have been independent republics for approximately two centuries, relationships that can be called “colonial” still prevail between various islands of the Caribbean and the European countries that claimed them. Examples include Suriname, the Dutch Antilles, Guadalupe and Martinique, to mention a few. Thus the colonization process has not ended.

The literary output of the Caribbean is deeply marked by the processes of conquest and colonization that brought slavery with it , first for the original inhabitants and later for the Africans who were brought as laborers after the indigenous population was decimated. During the early decades of the initial encounters between these “two worlds,” the European and the Caribbean, the genre that was most commonly produced was mainly the chronicle (although a debate exists about whether these writings should be considered historical documents or literary stories).

These texts, grouped under the generic name of Chronicles of the Indies, consist mainly of narrations of events that took place during the conquest and colonization of the Americas. The accounts written during this period tell the story of the interaction between the conquerors and the inhabitants (accounts of exchange of knowledge, of abuses and resistance) in the recently discovered lands and of the landscapes, natural resources, and other riches that were found there.

In many cases, the language of the chronicles was intended to be neutral or impartial, but the writer could not avoid his surprise at the marvels of the encounters with the new and unknown, so neutrality and impartiality were impossible. As Alicia Llarena wrote in her essay A Verbal Astonishment for a Discovery: The Chroniclers of the Indies, this event “not only brought out the emotion that any contact with that which is alien to us provides, but also to the direct recognition of diversity, illuminating certain relativist nuances that launched nothing less than the first literature of the American continent.” Although the literary purpose of these texts was always secondary, reality surprised the chroniclers and their stories eventually included adventures and marvelous events, as incredible as the experiences they lived in that world they had just discovered.

Many of them were commissioned to narrate the actions of the Europeans (mainly the Spanish) during this period. The chronicles were mainly written to inform the kings about the voyages in which they had invested so much money and which represented their dreams of expansion. Among the most important chroniclers were: Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco López de Gomara, Fray Toribio de Benavente and Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

The first writing about the “New World” dates to 1493 and was written by Christopher Columbus. In it, he talks about “the islands” discovered on October 12, 1492, and describes the territories discovered and the “compliant people,” and promises the kings of Spain “countless gold.”

The main texts by Hernán Cortés were collected in his five letters or Cartas de relación, written between 1519 and 1526. These letters were reports written by Cortés to recount the events he saw and experienced. In the letters, Cortés tries to justify the acts of war against the indigenous people as part of the conquest of what is known today as Mexico. In the first letter, or Letter from Veracruz (1519), he tells of two expeditions prior to his. The second letter tells of the march across Mexico to enter Tenochtitlan. The taking of Tenochtitlan, the capture of Cuauhtemoc and the attempt to dominate Mexico fills the third letter. In the fourth letter (1524), he describes the financial problems related to the conquest and in the fifth letter (1526) he tells of the expedition to Honduras.

Another eyewitness to the conquest was Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, author of Summary of the Natural History of the Indies (1526) and General and Natural History of the Indies (Seville, 1535).

In 1541, Fray Toribio de Benavente wrote History of the Indians of New Spain. n 1524, Hernan Cortés received this Franciscan, along with twelve others who came to the Americas to evangelize.

One of the most outstanding chroniclers was Bernal Díaz del Castillo, author of True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Written in 1555 and unpublished until 1632, this history also includes episodes narrated by Cortés. The writings of Bernal Díaz del Castillo are known for including comparisons between his experiences in the “New World” and the knights errant novels that were so popular in that era and of which he was an avid reader. This is another literary device the chronicler used in his writing. Unable to create new words to describe experiences for which he had no reference points, Díaz del Castillo resorted to striking parallels between the fantastic and unknown reality that he was experiencing and the literary fiction that was more accessible. This is the basis for designating the chronicles as literary texts. According to Pupo-Walker, says Alicia Llarena González: “the American historiographer is exceptionally creative when inclined to observe the individualized events that stand out in the making of history” and “thus illuminates the first moment of the invention of Latin America.”

Another outstanding chronicler, mainly because of the influential role his writing had in the history of African slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, was Fray Bartolomé de las Casas of Seville, who became a defender of the Indians against the abuses of colonialism from his arrival in the Americas in 1502. His Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) was printed, along with other treatises, in 1552. In this text, he reported on the crimes committed by the Spanish conquerors in various provinces. He also wrote History of the Indies, unpublished until 1875. His defense of the Indians led to the creation of the New Laws (in 1542). Las Casas, however, supported the importation to the Americas of African slaves to replace the indigenous laborers, an act he would later repent when he declared himself against any kind of slavery.

This point can be established as the genesis of the Caribbean (and of the literature born there) as a region that includes many countries which, although diverse, share attributes that define and identify them as part of the same geographic and cultural zone. As Antonio Benítez Rojo says in his book The Repeating Island:

“…I should clarify that what makes Las Casas the founder of that which is Caribbean is not his editing of Columbus’ diary or his natural descriptions of the islands or the lexicographical and anthropological information about the aborigines. Las Casas can be seen as a founder of that which is Caribbean because of the chapters we have seen here in his History of the Indies; those that talk of the details that led to the sugar plantation and the African slavery of the New World, which are precisely the murky institutions that best define the Caribbean and that support the wealthiest strata of the Caribbean.”

There are several ways to analyze the process of conquest and colonization as a theme in Caribbean literature. First, as a historical period during which the literature produced in and about the Caribbean was mainly in the form of the chronicles. Secondly, as a promoter of the institutions that define the region and, as a result, launched the beginnings of that which is “Caribbean,” setting the basis for a Caribbean form of literature. And, thirdly, to understand this era of history as a theme that, because of the violent nature of the process, has not only continued in Caribbean letters from the beginning until today, but also still leaves an indelible mark on the history and politics of many countries in the region.

There are numerous writings about the latter field. Marga Graf, of Aachen University, selects the novels El arpa y la sombra by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, Maladrón by Miguel ángel Asturias of Guatemala, and Terra Nostra and Cristóbal Neonato by Carlos Fuentes, as texts with the conquest as the backdrop that demystify the main characters of the historical era.

At the same time, there is no Caribbean literature that does not carry the scar of colonization. Almost all of the great Caribbean writers (whether in French, English, Spanish or Creole) have addressed the topic in their texts, whether explicitly, through direct denunciation, or through the use of highly aesthetic metaphorical language.

Some of these writers are Aimé Césaire (Une TempeteLa Tragédie du Roi Christophe) and édouard Glissant (Pays rêvé, pays réelLe Quatrième Siècle) of Martinique; León Damas (Black-LabelNévralgies), of French Guyana; Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) of Dominica; George Lamming (Water with BerriesNatives of my Person) of Barbados; Samuel Selvon (Moses Ascending) of Trinidad; Andrew Salkey and Joan Riley of Jamaica; Derek Walcott (Omeros) of St. Lucia; Alejo Carpentier (El reino de este mundo) of Cuba; Lola Rodríguez de Tió, José de Diego, René Marqués and José Luis González of Puerto Rico; and Pedro Henríquez Ureña and Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic, among many others.

Without a doubt, the colonization and the conquest were, and continue to be, events that left their mark on the course of history in these territories and, instead of being a barrier that separates, serve as a shared scar that will never disappear.


Author: Neeltje van Marissing Méndez
Published: December 26, 2011.

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