As historian Franklin Knight has asserted, the Caribbean is a geographic space from which a large part of the history of humankind can be understood. For example, as noted by Antonio Benítez Rojo, the Caribbean was the birthplace of the plantation economy that dominated after the Conquest, “imperialism, the wars between colonial powers, monoculture agriculture and the repression that came with it; but also, rebellions and resistance.” This text focuses on certain elements: resistance, rebellions and revolutions in the Caribbean and the centrality of these ideas in the development of history. This is, in turn, explored through the prism of the historical importance of the sugar industry in the region.
An act of resistance can be defined as an individual’s or a group’s ability to defy the pressures of an external source — like the resistance of the wind to a moving body — or an individual’s or a group’s resistance to acceding to the demands of an external authority or power. The most warlike level of resistance, although the terms may be used in similar ways, is rebellion, or acts of armed struggle, subversion or disturbance in response to the demands of an external authority or power. Finally, a revolution can be defined as a series of acts, usually violent, aimed at overthrowing an existing system of government or authority. Thus an important difference between resistance and revolution is that the former, although aimed at bringing issues of injustice or oppression experienced by the resisting or rebelling group to the attention of the population, is not intended to or is able to overthrow the formal authority. In comparison, revolutions do have the fundamental objective of overthrowing the formal authority.
It is worth mentioning that these concepts are presented with the understanding that history is marked by ambiguity and is inconclusive and imperfect. Therefore, the acts of rebellion and resistance that may be pointed out are not always acts of apotheosis, “mass uprisings,” or based on clear and convincing goals. Similarly, not all revolutions result in “the end of history” for the previous rule. These types of events tend to be isolated and episodic, characterized by confusion, uncertainty or incomplete aspirations. This is because history is created slowly, often on actions and reactions that are unanticipated.
In the case of rebellions and resistance, these actions and reactions are meant to weaken the existing power structures. The power structure, or what is called the legitimate government (this is not based on broad considerations of justice or fairness, necessarily, but rather on legal access, as noted by Max Weber, through the management of violence, such as the militia, police, courts) always has an advantage because of its access to these structures. Seen from this perspective, it should not be surprising that most acts of rebellion or resistance are imperfect or incomplete. What is truly impressive is that these acts arise at all; even more so with revolutions.
Based on this more qualified understanding of the implications of these acts, the traditional interpretation of the region’s history can also be reexamined as one of apparent conformity or docility, as well as the racist interpretations of the Caribbean as an “exotic” environment populated by complacent and lethargic people of mixed race. The seeming absence of acts of rebellion or resistance has more to do with the limited definitions that have been typically given to those terms, along with the historical usefulness of silencing, or not recognizing, certain expressions of resistance, particularly those that were not violent and those that were related to daily survival.Contrary to these limited views, we must effectively highlight and include the numerous cases of individual slaves who escaped as acts of resistance and rebellion that occurred regularly in the Caribbean and resulted in the creation of various communities of former slaves on several of the islands. Added to this, as additional acts of persistent resistance, are the stubbornness in adapting and using the “correct” form of the colonial power’s language, a phenomenon on various Caribbean islands, including Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and the resistance to full assimilation of the Christian religion, as demonstrated by the propagation and perpetuation of Santeria and Vodou in the region.
To adopt the proposed focus on the history of the Caribbean, it is necessary to establish the centrality of the plantation economy. This history has framed such divergent and yet related scenes in revolutionary history as those of Haiti and Cuba. Historians believe that the first sugar plantation was developed in the British colony of Barbados in the early 1600s and continued to dominate the economy for a century. In the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, it was not until the 19th century that movements for abolition of slavery began and, therefore, the beginning of the dismantling of the sugar economy, resistance, and rebellions. It is impossible, however, to refer to this history without emphasizing the problematic example of the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and ended in 1804, “the first and perhaps bloodiest of the slave rebellions of the modern era,” as W. E. B. Dubois described it. A revolution that also, instead of leading to a period of freedom, unleashed “the poverty, isolation and authoritarianism” that has defined much of the history of the country and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Thus the Haitian Revolution did not open a new historical period of greater opportunities and better access to justice for the black rural majority, but instead, ironically, once the revolutionary period ended, the revolutionary leadership made those rural residents their first victims.
Given the dialectical nature of history, however, the undeniable role of the Haitian revolutionaries as precursors in the struggle for human rights for slaves must be emphasized. As noted by anthropologist Sidney Mintz, the value of the Haitian Revolution lay not necessarily in its achievements, but rather in the mere fact that it could take place in its time, sealing forever the story of liberation of slaves in the rest of the world. For Mintz, Haiti represents the extreme absence of continuity in the plantation model, a model that, on the other hand, the socialist government in Cuba that launched the Cuban Revolution of 1959 not only perpetuated, but also exalted as “combative and revolutionary.” Even though the majority of Haiti’s population continued to be rural after the revolution, the Haitian state did not create the necessary conditions for self-sufficiency and relative prosperity. Instead, it allowed a kind of unregulated agriculture of exaggerated self-sufficiency and overuse of the land. All of this culminated in an ecological crisis in Haiti that has paralyzed the country’s socio-economic development during the 20th century and continuing today. This, in turn, has been responsible for much of the extreme poverty and inequality that characterized the country, which is the poorest on the continent. All of this serves as a contrast with the continuity that in many ways was created by the Cuban Revolution’s development model, in which the rural masses have benefited from social protection from the state (education, health, services, etc.), but through dependency on a product related to colonial symbolism and the exploitation of slavery: sugar.
In conclusion, resistance, rebellions and revolutions, events that frame the entire history of humanity, also have their place in Caribbean history. However, as is the case with most examples around the world, it is difficult to establish rigid and absolute categories for these events, both in the Caribbean and in the rest of the world. Additionally, there have always been a certain fluidity and changing correlation between these events. This means that resistance may have elements of rebellion, but not necessarily. Or rebellions do not necessarily lead the rebel group to an absolute revolution. This concept of “absolute revolution” is highly questionable, as history tends to maintain a persistent affinity for continuity, although almost never in exact repetition, because while “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” “it is difficult to repeat history.”
Autor: Eloísa Gordon
Published: July 11, 2012.
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