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…
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