Home > Themes > What is the Caribbean ? > Introduction


Things seem very simple at first glance. The Caribbean appears to be a set of territories – essentially insular - bordered by the Caribbean Sea. However, despite this apparent simplicity, understanding this regional space is quite a complex matter since the definitions vary according to the regions, authors and their areas of expertise (see for example: Gaztambide-Geigel, 1996; Kempado, 1999; Guarch-Delmonte, 2003; Sheller, 2003; Godard and Hartog, 2003; Girvan, 2005). What exactly does Caribbean mean? Is this designation the most appropriate one? Does it only refer to the islands? The islands and Central America? Should Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Louisiana, or even Florida be included? Can the islands situated outside of the Caribbean Sea (The Bahamas or Barbados) be considered part of the Caribbean? Similarly, what about the territories located outside of the Caribbean Sea that are historically and culturally connected to the region (Guyana and Surinam for instance)? Conversely, how should we consider the islands located at the heart of the Caribbean Sea, whose political status links them directly to Europe (Saba, Martinique and the Cayman Islands just to name a few)?The articles in this firt theme of the Caribbean Atlas are aimed at demonstrating that there is no clear-cut answer to all these questions. There are various points of view, resulting from different approaches placing an emphasis on location, culture, history, language, the economy or even political status.

What if the Caribbean did not exist?

The multiplicity of views encompasses diverse and often complementary visions. Thus, for sociologist M. Sheller (2003), the Caribbean is just a “fantasy”, a “context”, a European ideological “construction” (and “destruction”), an “object of study produced in the academic centres of the North”. In other words, Mimi Sheller is somewhat in agreement with Aimé Césaire (1939) who describes our “archipelago arched with an anguished desire to negate itself”.Sheller’s argument is based on the European construction, over several centuries, of an imaginary paradisiacal space called “Caribbean”, sold as a sort of “Garden of Eden”. Sheller clarifies, however, that this imaginary paradisiacal space, which is sold in travel agencies, in no way reflects reality.Haitian author Dany Laferrière(1), whose work is as inspired by Césaire’s as it is by Hemingway’s admits to not sharing “the idea of the Antilles”. “It is, in his view, a colonialist vision of the space(2).” He prefers to consider himself American, in the broad sense of the word. It is true that the very exonyms that we still use today to describe our space were imposed on us and are profoundly Eurocentric: “Antilles” (from the Latin Ante and Illum, literally “before the continent”, if one considers the route from Europe naturally), “Caribbean” (from the Kalinago Amerindians, referred to as Caribs by the Europeans, rooted in Cannibal), in English, “West Indies”...Various arguments against the idea of a Caribbean regional group can also be invoked. How can one speak of a regional group when there are so many dividing lines: different languages within a single territory and among the territories, populations of different origins, differences in political status, etc.? What is worse is that the Spanish-speaking populations of the Caribbean islands are only rarely considered “Caribbean” (their main identity being that of “Latinos”). Additionally, one of the studies in this Atlas demonstrates that the same is true of several inhabitants of the islands that still belong to France.

Toward the emergence of the Caribbean

However, to consider the Caribbean a figment of the imagination is to deny a geographical, historical, cultural and social reality. The term Caribbean denotes an arc/intersection, where all the great civilisations met. Admittedly, the Caribbean is American, yet it represents a sub region that is well-identified by the structural and cultural heritage of the sugarcane plantations (Best 1967) and the “habitat” that supports them (Chamoiseau and Confiant 1999). The “habitat” is the Caribbean reproduction of the slave organisation that prevailed in Rome and Ancient Greece, and on which were built, inter alia, the economies of Western Europe (Patterson 1982). 

The Caribbean is also a physical space of extraordinary beauty; the atrocities of history do not detract from this. The St. Lucian writer Derek Walcott (2000) regrets in this regard that “no historical study recognises that the beauty of the Caribbean islands may have contributed to the survival of the slaves”. In his view, the beauty of the islands, the magical light of cloudy evenings, the serenity of the majestic mountains are comparable in all respects to the beauty “of the strength and endurance of the survivors”. Moreover, the poetic beauty of the Caribbean space is found in the expression of its authors, poets, storytellers, singers and other modern-day griots. To be convinced of this fact one only has to read "Eloges" by the Guadeloupean Saint John Perse, or the works of Earl Lovelace of Trinidad and Patrick Chamoiseau of Martinique, among others.  Through this profusion of poetic works, the Caribbean tells its story in order to progressively free itself from one of the shackles of history, as expressed by Jamaica Kincaid (1988): “For isn't it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?”.

A space torn apart…

The Caribbean is generally defined in a simplistic manner by two opposing founding acts and two figures symbolically associated with them: on the one hand, the extermination of approximately 3 million Amerindians (in the Caribbean islands alone) and the deportation of more than 50 million Africans, the “naked migrants” in the words of Édouard Glissant, symbolised by Christopher Columbus; and on the other hand the “Nègre fondateur” (Black founding father) Toussaint Louverture and the heroic Haitian revolution3. The Caribbean is also the marronage of Africans “cured” in the Surinamese forests, the hills of Dominica and the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, in particular. A marronage that also rose up against the armies of Toussaint Louverture, in Haiti, when the latter were perceived as the spearhead of a new black plantocracy (Bell 2007). This marronage echoes the muffled cries of the resistance of the first people. The resistance continues: to tell this story is to resist the one written by the victors.

… and a paradoxical space 

We can quote Barbadian author Karen Lord to describe “the Caribbean [as] a beautiful paradox: insular and cosmopolitan, ancient and modern, radical and conservative, accommodating and unforgiving”(4). An entity united in its diversity, or more precisely its "diversalité" as it is referred to by Patrick Chamoiseau, i.e. the maintenance of diversity in the universality that is characteristic of Caribbean creolisation. Paradoxically, the Caribbean is both pluralism – a particular form of segregation that keeps “Blacks”, “Whites”, “Indians”, “Chinese”, “Javanese”, etc. apart - and creolisation, i.e. a form of mixing without synthesis: “in the creole culture each individual contains an open part of others, and where each individual ends, there remains quivering the impenetrable part of others" (Chamoiseau and Confiant 1999). This certainly explains, in part, the fact that the Caribbean has been able to produce Nobel Prizes in Literature as diverse as V.S. Naipaul and D. Walcott (and of course Saint John Perse), political experiences ranging from "Castroism" and the “Bolivarian Revolution” to the neoliberalism that preceded Bootstrap, and the Fabian socialism inaugurated by Eric Williams, musical genres as diverse as Bob Marley’s militant reggae and the Koudjay’s Kompa5, launched under the dictatorship of “Baby Doc”.  The Caribbean is also the untold misery of Haiti, one of the twenty poorest countries in the planet, in contrast to the extraordinary wealth of the world’s richest territories such as the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. The economic disparities within these countries are similar in nature. The Caribbean showcases to the world a wide range of populations, cultures, arts and political systems, both old and new, at times original but more often creolised.

What are the common points that unite the Caribbean? No doubt this drop of African blood, of varying prevalence, which makes it the Central “Afro-America” referred to by Gaztambide-Geigel (1996), although this is diminishing in view of the number of persons and cultures that are part of the Caribbean matrix. This heritage is found in the perpetuation of African traditions of high symbolic value, such as limbo, or the Anansi fables that author W. Harris (1995) links to the art of survival of the Caribbean people. Creolisation is another fundamental aspect, whose most evocative form is found in the languages and syncretic religions practised in this region. These languages and conceptions of the world, which all originated in the plantation, “one of the bellies of the world” (Glissant 1990), are now the more recent and consequently the most modern that exist. Paradoxically once again, and contrary to the ideas that have penetrated the very heart of our region, Jamaican creole, for instance, is much more modern than British English, having broken free of the “barbarism of its regular forms" (Adams 2002) and the religion known as “voodoo” is much more contemporary than Christianity, from which it originated in part (Métraux 1977). The Caribbean is undoubtedly a modern, complex and plural space, which can only be truly appreciated after a long process of demystification, rejection of traditional conceptions, openness to one another, as well as openness to others. To understand the Caribbean, one has to become Caribbean, i.e. become immersed in the history, language and culture, in short, one has to live and think Caribbean.

[1]    Prize Medicis 2009 for his book « L'énigme du retour » and  Great Prize Metropolis Bleu 2010.

Image: NYPL Digital Gallery

Catégorie : What is the Caribbean ?

Pour citer l'article : (2013). "Introduction" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/what-is-the-caribbean/introduction.html.


Bell M.S. (2007). Toussaint Louverture, a biography.  New York, Pantheon Books.

Best L. (1967). « Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom », New World Quarterly, Vol.3, n°4.

Césaire A. (1939). Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, Paris, Présences Africaines

Chamoiseau P. et Confiant R. (1999). Lettres créoles, Paris, Folio, Poche.

Kempado K.(Ed.) (1999). Sun, Sex and Gold, Tourism and Sex Work in the Caribbean, New York, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Gaztambide-Geigel, A. (1996). « La Invencion del Caribe en el Siglo XX. Las definiciones del Caribe como problema historico e metodologico », Revista Mexicana del Caribe, Ano 1, Num.1, p. 75-96

Girvan N. (2005). « Reinterpreting the Caribbean » in Pantin (Ed.) The Caribbean Economy, a reader, Kingston, Ian Randle Publishers

Godard H. et Hartog T. (2003). « Le bassin Caraïbe : Présentation ». Mappemonde, n°72, 4/03, http://www.mgm.fr/PUB/Mappemonde/Mappe403R.html 

Guarch-Delmonte J. (2003). « The first Caribbean People », in Sued-Badillo J. (Ed.) General History of the Caribbean, Vol I. Autochtonous Societies, p93-133.

Harris W. (1995). History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas, Calaloux Publications.

Kincaid J. (1988). A small place. Strauss & Giroux.

Patterson O. (1982). Slavery and social death, a comparative study, Londres, Harvard University Press.

Sheller M. (2003). Consuming the Caribbean, from Arawaks to Zombies, London & New York, Routledge.

Walcott D. (2000). « A Frowsty Fragance », in Krise T. (Ed.), Caribbeana : An Anthology of English Litterature on the West Indies, University of Chicago Press, p1657-1777.