The Caribbean has been a contact zone for many populations that initially came to the region because of the strategic plans that Western Europe had for this part of the world. Beginning in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Caribbean was seen as an important region first for mining and later for agriculture.
From the beginning of the Spanish land grants, the region did not have enough labor for the various business enterprises. Various strategies were considered for addressing the problem, considering that many of the Caribbean’s indigenous inhabitants had died. The first strategy consisted of bringing white servants from Europe to work in what was eventually called the West Indies. Gradually, settlers came from various parts of Europe based on promises of work. One of those promises was that those who worked for a certain amount of time in a priority job would be given land. Those promises dissolved, however, as the region came to be seen as important for agriculture. This occurred because the mining techniques of the era could not extract enough precious metals to make the effort worthwhile. Also, once Hernán Cortés took power over Tenochtitlan in 1521, the Spanish crown had large amounts of land rich in minerals such as silver. Later, the arrival of Francisco Pizarro to what we now call Peru, and the conquest of the Incan empire, gave Spain more reasons to decide not to use the Caribbean for unproductive purposes.
Intensive and extensive agriculture was the way to generate wealth for the European investors. There were huge difficulties in launching such an enterprise, however. Among these was the lack of capital to support production, the high costs of the machinery needed to produce the agricultural commodities — especially sugar — and, no less important, the lack of labor. In the measure that more land was needed to develop the region’s plantation economies, the owners were less inclined to make them available to white servants arriving from Europe. Large amounts of land were set aside for agriculture but were not necessarily used all the time. In other words, there was a lot of land in the hands of a few owners who influenced sugar production because they controlled how much land was used for growing cane. If they wanted the price of sugar to rise, they produced less. But if they wanted it to fall, they had to produce more. The immense size of the plantations was a function of these economic forces and it did not make sense for the owners to grant land to white workers when they might need that land later.
Eventually, the white workers were too few in number to be able to keep up the rate of production the plantations required. New labor was needed. As was generally known in that era in Europe, Africa had huge numbers of persons who could be used as slaves in agricultural operations.
Initially, in the early 16th century, some Portuguese businessmen thought they could capture and enslave people themselves. Several failed efforts convinced them, however, that they would have to negotiate with the leaders of the political entities on the west coast of Africa if they wanted to obtain the large numbers of people they needed. This led many European businessmen to establish “bases of operation” at various sites along the coast and these bases were the bridge between the slave trade in the interior of the continent and the European ships. Because of the complexity of the African population — with its many ethnicities — many people were thrown together on the coast and shipped to the Caribbean as slaves. Upon arriving in a new place, the diversity among them became even more evident, due to the small size of the islands and the plantations where they were put to work.
Over four centuries, slave production was the motor that drove to the region a wide variety of people with different customs, ways of thinking, religions and knowledge. In the 18th century, however, and especially in the 19th century, slavery began to face insistent opposition.
The reasons used to argue for the need to abolish slavery in the Caribbean were many. They included economic reasons, that a slave was a more expensive worker than a free one, and humanitarian reasons, which were not only proposed in the European power centers, but also by Caribbean thinkers such as Ramón Emeterio Betances, among others. In 1807, Britain prohibited maritime slave traffic. This eventually led to a huge scarcity of labor and, gradually, to the abolition of slavery in various parts of the Caribbean. At the same time, there was no denying the symbolic impact that the Haitian Revolution had on the slave communities in the Caribbean. The 19th century was a turbulent and difficult one for those trying to maintain the system of slave-based production. As various efforts to abolish slavery came to fruition, it became apparent that slave labor would have to be reinforced with free workers. In the British colonies, for example, the compensating workers came from India, with thousands of laborers arriving to the Caribbean. In other colonies, thousands of people from China arrived to fill the labor void in various sectors.
After the original indigenous people in the Caribbean, the region was populated by people from Ireland, Scotland (Celts), England, France (Normandy and Brittany, among others), Spain (Basque, Andalusia, Galicia, Canary Islands, Catalonia and Asturias, among others), Holland, Portugal, Denmark, India, China (from various regions) and Africa (Ewe, Fon, Yoruba, Ibo, Efik, Ibibio, Ijo, Akan, Mandinka, Congo and Ovimbundu peoples, among others). The ethnic and racial diversity of the Caribbean cannot necessarily be explained based on the above, however. The concepts of race and ethnicity must be critically analyzed, and though this analysis it is likely that everything that has been considered true about certain aspects of the history of the Caribbean can be reformulated and understood in different ways. It is not possible to continue to use concepts without knowing their history. In the end, these histories sometimes reveal the reasons for their origins and uses. These histories reveal the agendas behind the words.
Concepts of race and ethnicity began developing in Europe in the 18th century. From both biological taxonomy and cultural perspectives, they served many purposes. The most important was the link to European control of the world and the construction of the idea that only Europe had the superior way of life and the other inhabitants of the world were inferior by nature. From there emerged the idea that race, which only considered phenotypes, could serve to classify all the human beings on the planet. It must be understood, however, that there is nothing natural about the concept of race. Race is a human invention and nothing more. Based on the above, the white or Caucasian race was seen in Europe as the most superior of all. In the Caribbean, the Asians were yellow, the Africans were black, the Indians and indigenous people were brown and the mixed race people were also given specific names. It was supposed that each race was unique and that its “essence” would be expressed through physical characteristics. There is nothing in nature, however, that shows a white person to be superior to a black person. Nothing! The evidence only shows that they have differences, but share the same humanity.
On the other hand, the concept of ethnicity was also developed and used in Europe to refer, at first, to “inferior” or “primitive” cultural groups that Europeans began to study as part of a discipline known as anthropology. In this sense, an ethnicity was seen as a group of people who shared a religion, social organization, language, knowledge, and manners of relationship in their immediate environment. Generally, the concept of ethnicity, as well as that of race, was examined from the perspective of purity. In other words, ethnic groups were understood to have very particular characteristics that they developed in isolation. The purity of race and ethnicity was based on the idea, which was actually erroneous, that although there had been contact among different humans, that did not lead to mixing of characteristics. Eventually, anthropological work itself showed that this was false. In the early 1980s, the appearance of the work Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf gave the final blow to these old ideas. In his work, Wolf showed that the concept of race does not naturally exist and that an ethnic group is not made up of members who act, think, feel and suffer exactly the same.
Taking all of the above into account, we can undoubtedly say that although there have been and continue to be many inhabitants of the Caribbean who are different from each other, that does not automatically mean there are various races. There is only one race on the planet: the human race. At the same time, considering the quantity and quality of mixing among these inhabitants, it is clear that we cannot speak, even from a distance, of the concept of ethnicity in the Caribbean. Africans mixed among themselves, Africans mixed with Europeans, Africans with indigenous people, indigenous people with Europeans, Indians with Europeans, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Europeans, Chinese with Africans. In the end, the intensity of mixing, through marriage and other social institutions, does not allow to identify even a single ethnicity.
The Caribbean has been a region of confluence and mixing and this has made it a location where, based on the most recent perspectives, it is difficult to talk of race and ethnicity. If a race or ethnicity was consciously created in the Caribbean, it would be based on the belief that, in effect, these two concepts can be reconciled with the ideas discussed above, which are difficult to accept. Or, alternatively, it could be based on the idea that all identity, racial or ethnic, should be built on or affirmed by its historical, not natural, character. African identities can be constructed, for example, but that does not imply that there is something essentially African in the constructed identity. The same is true with other ethnicities and races. Finally, it is worthwhile to give free rein to a freer view of ethnic and racial frameworks in the Caribbean. Maybe this will bring greater sharpness and good sense to that which historically defines the region. But it continues to be crucial that, regardless of what characterizations are made of the region, they always come from the region itself, from the people who live there.
Author: Dr. José Alberto Cabán Torres
Published: April 11, 2012.
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