Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

Young Cubans crossing the Malecón as tourists drive by in antique American convertibles, Havana, May 2016

In his travel book The Middle Passage (1962), V.S. Naipaul notoriously claimed that “history is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Ironically the provocation in this statement was a display of typically Trinidadian picong, or goading insult; but the dyspeptic Nobel laureate was probably being serious.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, in his Island People: The Caribbean and the World, moves to an opposite extreme. The Caribbean, he suggests—in its racial mix, historic deracination, and even its transcontinental trade—is the place where globalization began, along with “the West’s still-ongoing conversation about universal human rights.” The region, to him, and to a growing body of historians, is a precocious paradigm of the modern situation, and its supposed marginality as a tourist paradise (despite broken economies and ingrained corruption) is an illusion.

While surveying the cultural history and impact of the major Caribbean islands, Jelly-Schapiro tacitly repudiates Naipaul’s conventional view of history (while still admiring his mental acumen). Island People is a creative hybrid of travel writing and in-depth reportage, embracing islands as diverse as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Martinique; but its author’s guiding mentor is announced from the start. He is another Trinidadian, the trenchant historian C.L.R. James, a grandson of slaves, who died in 1989 but whose work remains influential in postcolonial studies.

In linking Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution with the Haitian black rebellion of 160 years earlier—the only successful slave revolt—James sounded a clarion call for individual human rights, and envisaged a unified Caribbean experience and culture. Its human society, he claimed, was unique:

Wherever the sugar plantation and slavery existed, they imposed a pattern. It is an original pattern, not European, not African, not a part of the American main, not native in any conceivable sense of that word, but West Indian, sui generis, with no parallel anywhere else.

Jelly-Schapiro endorses this view. The sheer numbers of Caribbean slaves, he writes—some six million within three centuries—exceeded by over ten times those arriving in North America. This giant workforce, laboring above all on sugar cane, was instrumental in the financial and industrial rise of Europe. But that is not Jelly-Schapiro’s concern. The export goods he celebrates are ideas and culture. For the past half-century or more, he writes, this unique creole society, with its intrinsic rootlessness, has above all given the world a stupendous charge of music.

It is here that Jelly-Schapiro comes into his own. His political commentary and history, ample though they often are, pale before his fascination with the Caribbean soundscape. His chapters on Jamaica celebrate ska and reggae; those on Cuba echo with early son cubano, cha-cha-cha, mambo, and salsa; the Dominican Republic with bachata; Trinidad with calypso and steelpan drumming. Intermittently he traces their effects to the urban centers of the West and to street carnivals.

His obsession began in a way conventional to his generation in the 1990s, when college students were still sticking up posters of Bob Marley (along with Che Guevara) in their dorms as “an icon of racial justice and wry romance.” He writes:

I had by then developed an inchoate sense that would soon become a conviction: that it was in the Caribbean that many of the salient characteristics of the Americas at large—traumatic histories of colonialism and genocide and slavery; migration and creolization as facts of life; the persistent sense of cosmopolitan possibility and newness inherent to a New World—were brought into starkest relief.

Some twenty years of study and specialized journalism have preceded this book. Its balance of skepticism and enthusiasm is driven by both wide knowledge and a bracing sympathy for the oppressed. Jelly-Schapiro’s scorn is reserved for the wealthy and for the unthinking tourist. He favors poverty-stricken Haiti over its neighboring Dominican Republic, and loves crime-ridden Trinidad. The old regime of Cuba, with its Communist-inspired equality, incurs his nostalgic respect, while he derides the golf-club complacency of Barbados as that of a hypocritical Little England, grown from one of the cruelest slave-owning regimes in the Antilles.

This alignment with the downtrodden accords with Jelly-Schapiro’s insistence on the centrality of music. In much Caribbean music—in its yearning, in its incipient displacement and rebellion—the voice of the oppressed sounds clear. Almost by definition, it is subversive. When the Jamaican government tries to commandeer its heritage of reggae to promote “Brand Jamaica” and the interests of commerce, Jelly-Schapiro is quietly disdainful. Government ministers are not the cure, he insists, but the problem. The ghetto districts of Kingston, which “supply both their power and their shame,” are beyond their regulation. In the formal grounds of Emancipation Park, he witnesses an insipid showcase in which the minister of youth and culture—a former Miss World—presides over a primly irrelevant display of awards and dancing.


It is to Jamaica that Jelly-Schapiro devotes almost one quarter of his book, above all to the “weary, wary city” of Kingston and the music at its heart. The capital is grimmer and more violent now than when the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands, wrote that even the city center was as squalid as the dreariest London outskirts. That was in 1948, before the florescence of the music that captivates Jelly-Schapiro. In the 1960s, from a complex ancestry that included local genres and New Orleans jazz, reggae was born and reached its apogee in the dynamic trio the Wailers, whose transcendent star was Bob Marley.

Jelly-Schapiro traveled among the aging producers, relatives, and Rastafarian acolytes of this diverse trinity: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston. Marley and Tosh were both dead, but he visited the pilgrimage sites that are their graves. Tosh had been angrier and more demanding than Marley. Some Jamaicans regard him as a truer (but less exportable) son of his country. In a telling double portrait, Jelly-Schapiro calls these two the equivalents of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X:

One an inspired conciliator with a prophet’s smile (never mind how key the juxtaposition of “screwface” scowl and lover’s grin were to Bob’s appeal); the other an icon of black rage, glowering behind dark glasses (never mind the goofy strain central to Peter’s manner and hits).

Peter Tosh, murdered at the age of forty-two, lies in a concrete chamber in a sleepy village by the sea. Marley, dead from cancer at thirty-six, was brought back to his birthplace in the dusty hamlet of Nine Mile, where his grave has become part of the tourist circuit. It is a modest, informal site, bright with Rasta colors. Marley’s mother, apparently, started to dream that her son’s coffin had been buried facing the wrong direction (a devout Rasta must face the sunrise), and rumors on the island supported her concern. The assiduous Jelly-Schapiro runs to earth the man who rectified this: Bongo Joe, who secretly dug into the mausoleum under the supervision of Marley’s mother and brother and an Ethiopian Orthodox priest.

Tireless in his exploration, Jelly-Schapiro catches the eccentric survivor of the Wailers, Bunny Livingston, singing among Rasta pilgrims at Tosh’s grave; he hears the legendary Toots Hibbert performing at a book launch in a modeling agency; back in New York, he talks with Harry Belafonte (whose calypso he labels ersatz). Back in Jamaica, he interviews the entrepreneur Chris Blackwell, “the man once responsible for bringing Jamaican music to the world,” in his ocean eyrie GoldenEye, the former home of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

Jelly-Schapiro’s musical obsession supplies both Island People’s strength and its imbalance. Its author’s expertise is patent, but the Caribbean soundscape’s multiple styles and personalities sometimes become wearing, and Jelly-Schapiro’s writing can grow clotted with convoluted syntax and knowing references.

At its best his passion is infectious, and a reticent skepticism permeates his book, while leaving its freshness intact. He has a journalist’s flair for interviews and is as deft with chance encounters as with pop idols. Above all he finds dignity as well as excitement in this beautiful archipelago.

But the beauty comes at a cost. Most travelers treat the Caribbean as a luxury to be consumed. Its corrupt politics, crime, and dire economies are too easily subsumed by a travel-brochure mirage of aquamarine seas and rum-drunk carnivals. There is a profound discomfort here. The beach compounds of package tourism are often insulated from the island interior by concrete walls and barbed wire, and the only native whom vacationers may meet is the man who mixes their daiquiris or sidles up to sell marijuana.

Yet the independence of many of these island nations occurred within living memory. Their culture developed around the ingrained notion of white superiority. And white people are back, still wealthy and superior, expecting to be pampered on beaches and cruise tours by those who may resent them. As the Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid put it in her book A Small Place:

[The natives] are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

V.S. Naipaul bluntly labeled this a new slavery.


An exception to this servitude was Cuba. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which once bankrolled the Cuban economy, did Fidel Castro reluctantly recant his hatred of tourism. Even then entry was hard for the lone US citizen, although it is becoming easier now that the US and Cuba have established diplomatic relations. But Jelly-Schapiro (a white New Englander) received a year’s fellowship in Havana in 1991, and his delight spills onto the page in three full chapters of Island People.

He loves Havana for its run-down Hispanic glamour, its vivid colors, its street banter, its people larger than life. It is a city to walk in. Old Havana has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982, but revolutionary placards still displace commercial advertisements. The alleys may be nearly empty of traffic, the haunt of old dominoes players and children, but they empty into streets magnificent with crumbling balconies and porticoes, threaded by ancient taxis.

The elusive concept of cubanidad thrives here. Cubanness is social, dynamic, and earthy. It smells of garlic and rum. And then there is the music. Jelly-Schapiro traces its myriad strands from French line dances and quadrilles (imported from Saint-Domingue) to bolero, cha-cha-cha, and the rhythms of Cuban slaves. Then comes son cubano, the conga, rumba, mambo, and salsa. In part this proliferation owes its energy to a quirk of Spanish colonialism:

Cuba was an island where slaves were always allowed to keep and play their drums—big open-ended cylindrical ones from Congo, conical ekpe ones from Calabar, hourglass-shaped batás from Yorubaland. Drumming was a source, for people from those places, of both social and spiritual health. And beyond the policy of allowing drums, the island’s Spanish owners tolerated a more institutional form of cultural preservation and communal power.

This institution was the black cabildo, the fraternal order that nurtured music and carnival, and brought together people originating from the same region of Africa. Even today,

and especially in the countryside, it’s anything but rare to meet a black Cuban who can tell with exactitude and feeling just where on the continent—based on the batás her uncle keeps, or the particular regla of deities followed by his mom—her people came from. The cabildos are a big reason why.

They partly account too for the survival of African beliefs in the syncretic faiths that flourish, sometimes behind closed doors, throughout the island. African deities have merged with Christian saints to produce powerful intercessors condoned by the church, while practitioners of regla de palo gather spirit-bundles to protect petitioners’ homes. The sect of Abakuá, which descends from the feared leopard society of Calabar, still practices secret rites that originated as a form of resistance to slavery.

None of these practices, of course, involves many white Hispanic Cubans, whose dominance is an unspoken feature of political life. Racial discrimination in Cuba was officially banned by Castro. Even its discussion went underground. It is intrinsic to the myth of the revolution that all Cuba’s citizens are equal, and the Communist legacy remains in free education, free health care, and greater material equality than anywhere else in Latin America. “No Cuban child,” it is said, “sleeps in the streets.”

Over three decades Cuba’s cold war status as a beacon of revolution and a model for the unaligned third world partly obscured its domestic tyranny, an oppression only slowly lifting now. Castro’s intimation in his rambling 1961 “Words to the Intellectuals” speech—that no honest writer would be harassed—soon darkened into repression. Jelly-Schapiro cites the case of the black Cuban writer Carlos Moore, who agitated against race prejudice and fled Cuba in fear of his life. There were many more (unmentioned by Jelly-Schapiro). Guillermo Cabrera Infante, author of the extraordinary novel Tres Tristes Tigres, fled abroad in 1965, and his implacable contempt for Castro’s rule was lifelong. Reinaldo Arenas, abandoning a regime hostile to homosexuals, died wretchedly in exile. Most prominent in its day was the cause célèbre of the poet Heberto Padilla, whose imprisonment and forced confession in 1971 echoed Soviet persecution, and whose memoir Self-Portrait of the Other, published in exile, was a devastating lament for creative freedom.

The sheer number and diversity of states in the Caribbean archipelago make any comprehensive survey all but impossible, and Jelly-Schapiro does not attempt one (nor does his book contain an index or a legible map). In the second half of Island People he follows a haphazard course through the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

He gives short shrift to the tamer and more tourist-ridden islands. Cayman receives only a few diary-style pages. Barbados is described as a faux-genteel ex-colony of Britain. Antigua profits from offshore banking and tourism. St. Lucia he ignores entirely.

Montserrat, on the other hand, evokes a gentler response. In 1989 the island was struck by a hurricane that left 90 percent of its residents homeless. Six years later its southern volcano became active, displacing half of the island’s inhabitants. Some went abroad. Others moved eventually to newly built houses that could not replicate the social structure traditional to this beautiful island: a family compound—the “matrifocal yard”—ruled by its senior woman.

Lying at the boundary of two tectonic plates, the scattered archipelago of the Lesser Antilles is especially vulnerable. Martinique, most populous of the old French colonial islands, was devastated when a volcanic eruption hit its capital, Saint-Pierre, in 1902. Within three minutes “the Paris of the Caribbean,” with its 30,000 inhabitants, vanished under ash and molten lava. (The sole survivor was the inmate of the city jail, whose thick walls saved him.) Soon afterward the capital was moved to Fort-de-France.

But the split personality of this African-French island persists. Jelly-Schapiro traces its evolution through the career of its preeminent poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, who first promoted the values of independence and négritude, yet fell in love with French literature and settled for the island becoming a département of France, which it remains today. In Fort-de-France—the largest city in the French Antilles—the women are more likely to wear Parisian fashions than native skirts. Its people inhabit streets named after French writers and purchase their baguettes and Bordeaux wine in euros; and country roads may be subsumed by spandex-clad racing cyclists as if the Tour de France had deviated westward.

Martinique was the birthplace, too, of Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary hero of Algerian independence, whose work remains powerfully influential, and for whom Jelly-Schapiro has a deep, if nuanced, regard. He travels to Fanon’s obscure childhood village in Martinique. Likewise he is cautiously sympathetic to the revolution in Grenada, cut short by an American invasion in 1983. He interviews a smooth-talking ex-minister, recently freed from twenty-six years in prison, whose part in the death of the short-lived revolution’s leader, Maurice Bishop, he deftly leaves ambiguous.

The United States’ takeover of Puerto Rico after 1898 Jelly-Schapiro mercilessly exposes for its greed, venality, and occasional violence. By the 1930s the spread of sugar plantations had turned rural farmers into cane workers earning seventy-five cents for a twelve-hour day. (It is a latter-day irony that their enormous sugar exports were probably undermining the health, as well as rotting the teeth, of their colonizers.) The workers found a champion in the lawyer and politician Albizu Campos, who refused the bribes of big business and was swiftly jailed for sedition. But after police killed nineteen civilians during a peaceful march of his supporters, Washington sought a new approach. Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jelly-Schapiro writes,

the way was paved for the island to elect its own governor—and perhaps to gain its full autonomy from the US. But sadly for Puerto Rico, the patriotic figure whose integrity and patriotic gifts perhaps made him the man most qualified to guide the island through those years was festering in a Georgia jail. The job, instead of going to Albizu Campos, went to the man who became his nemesis.

This was Luis Muñoz Marín, a turncoat from Puerto Rican independence, whose toadying to the United States and modernizing of his country made him at least as popular as Albizu. Today there are streets and institutes named for Albizu, and others for Muñoz Marín (as well as an international airport): martyrdom and compromise running neck-and-neck.

The starkest geographical divide between postcolonial government and black rebellion lies on Hispaniola, the island where the Dominican Republic and Haiti abut one another. Jelly-Schapiro’s sympathies, of course, go to Haiti, and above all to the expatriate Haitians laboring on Dominican sugar plantations, half a million of whom are threatened with deportation, despite having lived and worked there for many years. In its myth of racial homogeneity—the notion that its people are not black at all, but native Indian—the Dominican Republic is perhaps more repellent to Jelly-Schapiro than any other Caribbean state. It is a country, he writes, that “often feels like it’s built around the coarser aspects of masculinity.”

The Republic has the largest economy in the region, in contrast to its impoverished Haitian neighbor. But it was Haiti, under Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, that witnessed the only successful black slave revolt in history. Returning to the work of C.L.R. James, Jelly-Schapiro writes:

It’s only over the past couple of decades, fully two centuries after the Haitian Revolution, that a critical mass of historians has caught up to James’s argument that what happened…wasn’t merely central to the rise of global capitalism but birthed a question that’s still at the core of our politics now: How universal, really, are universal rights?

The assertion and the question are taken no further.

Perhaps fittingly, Island People concludes at the southern reach of the Antilles, in Trinidad, home to the visual arts and carnival and supported by the corruption of petrodollars, a tiny country that turned its fifty-five-gallon oil barrels into “the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century”: steelpan drums. It was the reluctantly acknowledged birthplace, too, of V.S. Naipaul, whose acerbic voice rises like a warning throughout these pages.

Literature, in fact, although a poor second to music, sounds here in varied lives and voices. There are notable passages on Jamaica Kincaid and a fascinating study of the reclusive Jean Rhys, the lushness and disquiet of whose Dominican childhood pervade her classic novel Wide Sargasso Sea. But the two writers who surface most often throughout Island People—V.S. Naipaul and Patrick Leigh Fermor—are very different, even from one another: the first skeptical and penetrating, the second warmly inquisitive. Jelly-Schapiro’s book, however uneven its writing, partakes in both of their qualities: rich in its enthusiasms, but tempered by the author’s own urbane intelligence.