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The caribbean is a story in any language

  • Ms. ASHBY Soyini University of the West Indies Mona, Department of Geography and Geology


Imagine asking someone who lives in the Caribbean to describe the Caribbean. He or she could describe it in the way one would describe any place: by naming the landmarks that make up the area, and giving their relative positions. In other words, this person would paint a visual picture of what is physically there – like a mental map or a verbal landscape painting. Inevitably, the person doing the describing puts some things into the description, and leaves some things out, even landmarks that might seem blatantly obvious to others. It is often easy to tell a lot about the person doing the describing, or painting the picture, by what he or she puts in and what he/she leaves out. Likewise, there is a deeper significance to the picture anyone paints of the Caribbean, whether in words or in maps.

As strange as it may sound, the Caribbean is not actually a real place. Yes, there are a real set of land masses in specific locations, but there is nothing natural which demands that these land masses must constitute something called the Caribbean. Nothing natural determines which land masses get put in the picture and which ones get left out. In fact, depending on the country of residence or the native language of the speaker, the picture painted of the Caribbean can be surprisingly different.  

For an English-speaker, the word “Caribbean” most likely conjures up an image of the archipelago that borders the Caribbean Sea. If that English-speaker lives in a territory of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Caribbean may then be seen to include the archipelago, plus Guyana and Belize, but nothing else. To assume that the Spanish and French names - El Caribe and La Caraïbe – are exact translations for the English word “Caribbean” would be a mistake. For most Spanish-speakers El Caribe refers to the Spanish-speaking islands of the archipelago (Girvan 1999). For others, it describes all of the Central and South American nations which have coastlines on the Caribbean Sea. The French-speakers use of the term La Caraïbe tends to have a focus on the islands, particularly those of the Lesser Antilles. There are other names that are used for the region as well, such as the West Indies and Les Antilles. Though some people use these terms interchangeably with terms like Caribbean and Caraïbe, closer examination reveals that they have their own specific connotations and associations.

Even among speakers of the same language, different people use different criteria for deciding what places make up their picture of the Caribbean. Most academic literature describes the Caribbean as a space outlined by a common history of slavery, plantation society and colonisation (see Knight and Palmer 1989 and Benítez-Rojo 1996). At the same time, there are others who focus more on popular culture for their definitions of the Caribbean, painting a picture of the Caribbean as an area where common rhythms and messages that permeate the music (see Rohlehr 2007, and Ho and Nurse 2005 for examples). Either approach to defining the Caribbean would make it possible to include or exclude several islands and countries in Central and South America. 

The truth is that the Caribbean only becomes a reality as we paint its picture in our verbal and written descriptions, and draw its maps. A place is not just an area on the earth’s surface, it really consists of three things: a geodetic location (a set of coordinates that position it on the globe), a material environment, and the subjective attachments that people have to it (see Creswell 2004). A location really only becomes a place when the latter sets in; that is, when people attach meanings to it. Therefore, the Caribbean, like any place, is more imagined than real.

Consequently, when a person describes the Caribbean or draws a map of it, he or she is representing an imagined landscape. The basic dictionary definition of landscape describes it as “a portion of territory that can be viewed at one time from one place” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2011). Therefore, what is included and what is omitted is really a product of one’s particular vantage point or perspective. For this reason, we can say, paraphrasing the words of the geographer Pierce Lewis, that any representation of the Caribbean landscape is really a story that people tell themselves about themselves: their own “unwitting autobiography” (Lewis quoted in Lippard 1997).  

It is less important to come up with a single definition of the Caribbean than it is to understand how people come up with their image of what it is. However the Caribbean is defined, and whatever goes into painting its picture, the act of definition itself tells a story: a story both of who we are, and who we want to be.  

Catégorie : What is the Caribbean ?

Pour citer l'article : Ashby S. (2013). "The caribbean is a story in any language" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/what-is-the-caribbean/the-caribbean-is-a-story-in-any-language.html.


Benítez-Rojo, A. (1996). The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Translated by J. E. Maraniss. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Creswell, T. (2004). Place: a short introduction. Malden, MA, Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell.

Girvan, N. 1999. Reinterpretar al Caribe. Revista Mexicana del Caribe, 7, 6-34.

Ho, Christine G. T., and K. Nurse. (Eds.) 2005. Globalisation, diaspora and Caribbean popular culture. Kingston: Ian Randle.

Knight, F. W., and C. A. Palmer. (Eds.) 1989. The Modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

“landscape.” 2011. In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/landscape.

Lippard, L. 1997. The Lure of the Local. New York: The New Press.

Rohlehr, G. 2007. A Scuffling of Islands: The Dream and Reality of Caribbean Unity in Poetry and Song. In The Caribbean Integration Process: A People Centred Approach, edited by K. Hall and M. Chuck-A-Sang (pp. 48-121). Kingston, Miami: Ian Randle.