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Thinking through the Caribbean as a region

  • Rivke Jaffe Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology Leiden University

Slavery in the Caribbean

What is the Caribbean? While the twentieth century saw the term itself gain dominance over ‘West Indies’ or ‘Antilles, the definition of the region has shifted over the centuries. As Boswell (2003: 19) notes: “like beauty, regions are in the eye of the beholder. Girvan (2000: 34) argues that the very notion of Caribbean was not only invented but has been continuously reinterpreted in response both to external influences and to internal currents. The islands in the Caribbean Sea have always been included in definitions of the region, but political factors have contributed to the inclusion of other geographic localities.  

The insular Caribbean was the locus of rivalry between the European colonizing powers, while the ‘Caribbean basin’ concept, which included Central American countries such as Costa Rica and Guatemala, was linked to twentieth-century US expansionism. The post-independence development led to the Caribbean being visualized as an ethno-historic zone or as Mintz (1971) terms it, a socio-cultural area. This concept refers to ‘Plantation Caribbean’ or ‘African Central America’ and includes the islands, the Guyanas and ‘Caribbean’ or black communities on the mainland, such as in Panama and Colombia. Recent globalizing processes have led to the inclusion of the Caribbean Diaspora, which allows the conceptualization of the Caribbean as a transnational community (Girvan 2000: 31-34). This means that if the population of the Caribbean territories is currently near to 40 million, the actual population of the transnational Caribbean community might well near double that.   While academics are generally attracted by the idea of the Caribbean as a region, this concept is not always a lived one with which the majority of Caribbean ‘nationals’ identify. Regionalism finds itself at odds with uniqueness, as certain islands or countries may prefer to stress their - usually cultural - individuality, a position for which ample evidence is always to be found, other nations may emphasize their allegiance with other regions, for instance South America in the case of the Guyanas or Latin America in the case of the Spanish-speaking islands.            

In the construction of ‘the Caribbean’, one might speculate that certain biases in academia have prejudiced the concept. The predominance of the English language in academic literature has meant greater prominence for the Anglophone areas. In turn, Jamaica as the largest English-speaking island has been the focus of a disproportionate amount of research and has perhaps shaped ideas of Caribbeanness and the academic agenda. While this is a point that remains to be explored, researchers, governments, artists and many others have located similarities, parallels and analogies amidst undeniable diversity. This focus on congruent factors agrees with Mintz’s basic understanding of the Caribbean region as oikoumenê: ‘a great historic unit ... a frame within which a particular combination of processes happened to achieve certain unique results’ (Mintz 1996: 293).   This emphasis on historic factors implies an engagement with colonial history: the plantation economies based on African slavery and (in the Southern Caribbean) Asian contract labor, and the associated extensive tradition of (involuntary) international and intra-regional migration, cultural exchange and trade, which resulted in proto-globalization from the seventeenth century on. In the Caribbean, the enduring impacts of colonialism are discernible in nearly every aspect of society; as Trouillot (1992: 22) argues: ‘Caribbean societies are inherently colonial ... their social and cultural characteristics … cannot be accounted for, or even described, without reference to colonialism'.

This article is an adapted version originally published as part of Jaffe et al. (2008), and is reproduced here with kind permission of KITLV Press.

Catégorie : What is the Caribbean ?

Pour citer l'article : Jaffe R. (2013). "Thinking through the Caribbean as a region" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/what-is-the-caribbean/thinking-through-the-caribbean-as-a-region.html.


Boswell T.D. (2003). 'The Caribbean: A Geographic Preface' in Richard S. Hillman and Thomas J. D’Agostino (Eds), Understanding the Contemporary Caribbean, Boulder, Lynne Rienner. Pp. 19-50.

Girvan N. (2000). 'Creating and Recreating the Caribbean' in Kenneth Hall and Denis Benn (Eds.), Contending with Destiny: The Caribbean in the 21st Century, Kingston, Ian Randle Publishers. Pp. 31-36.

Jaffe, R., A. de Bruijne and A. Schalkwijk (2008). ‘The Caribbean City: An Introduction’. In: Rivke Jaffe (ed.), The Caribbean City, Kingston and Miami: Ian Randle Publishers/Leiden: KITLV Press. Pp. 1-23.

Mintz S. (1971). 'The Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area' in Michael M. Horowitz (Ed.) People and Cultures of the Caribbean: An Anthropological Reader, Garden City, New York, Natural History Press. Pp. 17-46.

Mintz S. (1996). 'Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as “Oikoumenê”’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2(2):289-311.

Trouillot M.-R. (1992). 'The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory', Annual Review of Anthropology, 21: 19-42.