TRAVEL, ETHNOGRAPHY, TRANSCULTURATION:

ST VINCENT IN THE 1790s

 

Paper presented at the conference

Contextualizing the Caribbean:

New Approaches in an Era of Globalization

at

University of Miami

Coral Gables

29-30 September 2000

© Peter Hulme 2000

 

The title of this talk offers three terms of its own – travel, ethnography, transculturation. Only ‘travel’ actually featured on the conference call for papers, although the other two terms were arguably implicit. I’ll come back to travel and ethnography in the course of the talk. But let me first approach transculturation via two terms from the conference title, in fact its first and last words: Contextualizing the Caribbean: New Approaches in an Era of Globalization. One of my starting points – which I take it was in the minds of the organisers – is that there must be a connection between those two terms; that in a ‘global’ era any text – like any event – is bound to need an even greater degree of contextualisation than normal in order to make sense of it. To look closely at the Caribbean inevitably therefore involves looking more closely at its connections to the world beyond. There’s a certain irony here. For a long time the Caribbean was seen as uninteresting from a cultural point of view precisely because it had too many connections to the world beyond: it seemed to have nothing of its own beyond the indigenous cultures which had been so comprehensively destroyed in the aftermath of European invasion. In recent years that picture has changed, partly due to a reassessment of indigenous survival – which will be the focus of my talk today, but it’s changed mostly because our sense of what counts as culturally interesting has changed so radically. When the cultural model demanded purity and authenticity, the Caribbean had nothing to offer because its history consisted, as Rolph Trouillot put it a few years ago, of "nothing but contact". Now that the cultural model embraces contact, along with travel and hybridity and impurity, the Caribbean seems not only newly interesting but in danger of becoming the key paradigm for cultural analysis. This doesn’t make the Caribbean essentially different from anywhere else: its special quality lies in its intensification of cultural processes found elsewhere, but often perhaps found later – which is another irony: having been regarded for so long as a fundamentally secondary and belated area, the Caribbean now finds itself ahead of the game. Transculturation is the term I use for Trouillot’s "nothing but contact". Transculturation has the advantage over alternatives such as hybridity of being itself a Caribbean term, coined by the Cuban Fernando Ortiz. I don’t use it in any very precise Ortizian sense, rather as a term to cover the complex mixing – biological, cultural, linguistic – that took place in the Caribbean especially in the aftermath of 1492, but with growing intensity over the course of the eighteenth century.

The second starting point for the paper – again stemming from the conference title, but perhaps this time not in the minds of the organisers – comes from reflecting on the term ‘globalization’. A useful sideline of the intense discussion of what globalisation might mean in the twenty-first century has been a reassessment of the elements of globalisation to be found in earlier periods. As my title suggests, the period I want to talk about today is the 1790s and one of the reasons for being interested in that period is that it has some claim to witnessing ‘globalisation’ in ways which I’ll try to make clear.

The final term in the title is St Vincent, not a Caribbean island that people pay much attention to these days. In the 1790s it was the centre of the world – or so I will try to convince you in the next thirty minutes.

1

Let me sketch some of the historical background. Three historical currents came together in St Vincent in the 1790s. One was the ongoing war between France and Britain. This had been running for much of the eighteenth century, but after 1789, and particularly after 1793, it was a more obviously ideological war, now between the forces of Revolution and those of reaction. After losing a huge chunk of its Empire to one Revolution in the 1770s, Britain was in severe danger of eclipse as a world power. This Anglo-French war, which continued until 1815, has plausibly been seen as the first world war, the first truly global conflict. The Caribbean was, though, probably its most important theatre; and for two years the island of St Vincent was centre stage.

The second historical current was the long struggle of the indigenous population of the Caribbean against European invaders. This struggle had, of course, begun in 1492. By the early eighteenth century there were only two indigenous Carib strongholds left, Dominica and St Vincent, which were – not accidentally – the two islands most fiercely contested by Britain and France. In 1763, at the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years’ War, St Vincent became a British possession – as far as the British were concerned – and land commissioners were sent to survey the island and arrange for its sale to British planters. The particular prize on offer was the huge fertile plain on the eastern side of the island, which was the last new area in the Caribbean suitable for large-scale sugar plantation. Unfortunately for the British, the Carib population on St Vincent was large and prepared to fight to the death. St Vincent had long been the island of Carib refuge: there was now hardly anywhere else left to retreat to. In the 1770s the Caribs had defeated British attempts to build a road up the eastern coast, and had helped the French take control of the island for a few years. Then in 1795 a major Carib revolt broke out. The Caribs sought to drive the British out of St Vincent. But the British saw behind the Carib revolt the hand of the French, and in particular that of Victor Hugues, the French commissioner on Guadeloupe, best-known to students of Caribbean literature through his portrayal in Alejo Carpentier’s great novel about this period, El siglo de las luces.

As Carpentier’s novel makes clear, the third of the historical currents that came together in the 1790s concerned issues of race and slavery. Events on St-Domingue were already sending shock waves through the Caribbean. France was providing revolutionary ideals and rhetoric, and would formally abolish slavery in 1794. These issues were present in a less obvious way in St Vincent, which had for many years also been the island of resort for escaped African slaves, especially from Barbados, with the result that the indigenous population of the island was to some degree mixed. Indeed the British saw that indigenous population as starkly divided into two ethnic and racial groups – the pure Yellow Caribs and the mixed Black Caribs – and saw itself as fighting against the numerically superior Black Caribs.

So, these three currents – Anglo-French wars, indigenous struggle against Europeans, race and slavery – came together in St Vincent in 1795 with the outbreak of what the British called the Brigands’ War, which pitted the British against French, Carib, and free black and coloured fighters. That’s one reason for considering St Vincent the centre of the world, at least for the eighteen months that followed.

Although St Vincent is a small island, it would be difficult to overestimate either the precariousness of the political situation in these years or the complexity of the social mix on the island – the degree of what I’m calling transculturation. In 1795 the British planters on St Vincent shared the island with a few French-speaking large planters, a group of petit blanc settlers and merchants, a small free coloured and free black population (mostly French or creole-speaking), a large slave population, an indigenous Carib population of various hues (speaking French if they spoke a European language at all), and small groups of black maroons. When the rebellion broke out, almost all these groups divided: some part of each – except for the large planters – fought against the British; some part of each, except the Caribs and maroons – fought with the British. Some individuals changed sides. Into this already complicated situation came a variety of French-speaking free coloureds and blacks and French soldiers, to fight with the rebels; and as part of British reinforcements came not only white British soldiers (many of whom were actually German-speaking mercenaries), but black British soldiers in new slave regiments (often ‘recruited’ directly from Africa), and French-speaking ex-slave black and coloured militia recruited in Martinique and commanded by white French officers antagonistic to the Revolution – and so fighting with the British. The quantity of crossings between racial and ethnic groups over the years already meant that by the 1790s in St Vincent it was difficult to account genealogically for particular individuals. Increased population movements of this kind now meant it was difficult to tell who anybody was by looking at them. Just when it became absolutely crucial for the British to be able to recognise friends and enemies, as a bitter war erupted, the complexity of the social and racial mix on the island was reaching phenomenal and disconcerting proportions. Social identity was no longer transparent.

The British ultimately won that Brigands’ War. They defeated the French and their native allies, rounded up the Caribs and transported them en masse to an island off the coast of Honduras in Central America, where they still survive as the Garifuna. Yet the cost of the war was enormous and the experience so horrific even for the victors that the few survivors had no desire to talk about what they had been through. As a result, there has been little writing about the war. The only people who seemed to want to tell the story, their story of suffering and eventual triumph, were the British planters; and through their pens, their version of the story of the Vincentian Caribs entered the historical record, where it has never been seriously challenged.

2

I’m going to introduce three travellers today, three men whose complicated pathways through the late eighteenth century took them to St Vincent and into contact with the Caribs. Only one of them is well-known – well-known being a strictly relative term when it comes to Vincentian history – and that is William Young, chief spokesman for the British planters in the 1790s, who produced what he called an "authentic account" of the Black Caribs. Young was a Member of Parliament and author of several books, but as the son of the original land commissioner for St Vincent he inherited the papers which form the basis of his account of the Black Caribs.

The Vincentian story that Young tells is a story of the usurpation of Carib territory: not, though, as you might imagine, usurpation by European settlers but by what Young calls African colonists. His origin story about these Africans involves the shipwreck of a slaving ship, the Caribs enslaving the shipwrecked Africans, the Africans revolting, setting up their own community, stealing Carib women, joining forces with existing maroons, becoming stronger than their erstwhile captors, and eventually – as Black Caribs – taking over the most fertile parts of the island. This story helps Young stress that these Black Caribs and the original ‘Yellow’ Caribs were what he calls "two nations of people of very different origin and pretensions". So completely, according to the British account, had the Black Caribs come to dominate their former masters that Young estimates that in the mid-eighteenth century there were around 3000 Black Caribs and somewhere between 100 and 500 Yellow Caribs.

Young’s evidence for two distinct nations or races, for how that division came about, and for how completely the Black Caribs dominate by 1795 is not without certain self-contradictions, not least that – even on Young’s own account – the Black Caribs spoke the same language as their Yellow counterparts and had adopted the entire repertoire of their cultural practices, such as flattening infant heads and burying their dead upright. There is predictably little evidence of what the Caribs thought of all this, but one Colonial Office document quotes the Black Caribs as refusing to give up any of their lands, "which lands were transmitted to them from their ancestors and in defence of which they would die" – suggesting that they saw themselves very much as Caribs first, at least on this issue. But if, linguistically and culturally, Black and Yellow Caribs were identical, the British planters were determined that the Black Caribs should be seen as distinctly African.

This Africanisation had a number of advantages for the planters. It emphasised the Black Carib role as usurpers. It helped avoid a repetition of the groundswell of British liberal opinion in defence of the indigenous Caribs during the war of the 1770s – which had forced the British to sue for peace. And it drew upon the traditional association of blackness with savagery and evil, exacerbated by the success of slave revolts in the Caribbean and, of course, especially in St.-Domingue after 1791.

However, in effect, Young’s version has become historical truth because he appeared to be the only witness prepared to give testimony: providing evidence which, he wrote, "a British court of justice would admit as competent, and decide upon as true". All subsequent histories and ethnographies of the Vincentian Caribs draw on his evidence. And Young’s account of the formation of the Black Caribs has become one of the primary narratives of ethnogenesis – the anthropological concept which describes how ‘new peoples’ supposedly came into being during the colonial period, one of the most direct consequences of tranculturation.

So the story of the so-called Black Caribs, as told by Young, has had widespread influence within anthropological theory as offering a supposedly classical case of how two groups merg to produce a third ‘new’ people.

 

The second traveller I want to discuss is Alexander Anderson, a Scottish botanist who’d been trapped in the Caribbean by the Anglo-French wars after fleeing New York in the run-up to the American Revolution, and ended up in St Vincent. Anderson is a fascinating figure, not least because of his pioneering ecological understanding of the relationship between deforestation and climate. He worked within the colonial regime but outside the dominant planting interests, which gave him an independent viewpoint especially with regard to Carib lifeways, which he seems to have understood rather well. Unfortunately, although he wrote a great deal, none of Anderson’s writing was published until quite recently, and most of it still remains unpublished.

However, Anderson comes into this story not as a writer but as one node in the complex global nexus that came into being in the second half of the eighteenth century: what Mary Louise Pratt describes, in a useful shorthand term, as the age of "planetary consciousness". By the 1790s the settlement of Australia had made global travel just about feasible; and one consequence of this was the widespread transportation of plant species from one part of the Empire to another -–the most famous example being Captain Bligh’s expedition on the Bounty, and later, more successfully, on the Providence, to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean, in fact in particular to St Vincent, which was chosen as a destination because it had the best botanical garden in the West Indies – run by Alexander Anderson. The spider at the centre of this global web was Sir Joseph Banks, founder of Kew Gardens in London.

The intellectual foundation for planetary consciousness had been established by the Swedish botanist, Linnaeus. He had classified the natural world by making observable differences transparent through language, thereby enabling those global systems of classification bearing his name which are still in place today. But collecting and classification also had a human dimension. By the 1790s two forms of human classification were emerging: by skin-colour and by skull shape. These two forms operated in radically different ways, but in response to the same imperative: to try to hold back the degrading effect of transculturation on social identity. In places like St-Domingue, where the social order had been under such pressure, writers like Moreau de Saint-Méry evolved huge tabular classifications which gave names to the minute distinctions of skin colour that result from the almost infinite number of possible racial crossings between white and black and mixtures thereof, a charting which in theory – if not in practice – enabled a check to be kept on those who might have the audacity to possess seemingly white skins even though they actual had, say, one African great-grandparent. Attention to skin colour was the local response to transculturation.

Meanwhile, in Europe, scientists with a global perspective were working towards establishing the smallest possible number of human types by comparing and classifying skull shapes and sizes. Within a few weeks of the Caribs going to war in 1795, the influential third edition of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s book on the varieties of the human species was published in Germany – a book still regarded as the founding text of physical anthropology. For Blumenbach there were five principal varieties of the single human species: the middle, or Caucasian, variety; two extremes, Mongolian and Ethiopic; and two intermediate varieties, the Malay and the American. Engravings of five skulls illustrated Blumenbach’s treatise, one for each variety; and the whole of the American variety was represented by the skull of a Yellow Carib chief from St Vincent, a gift of Sir Joseph Banks, who had received the skull from Alexander Anderson, who had dug it up at dead of night from a sacred Carib burial site.

This was global thought in action, and St Vincent was here, at least at this one moment, if not the centre of the world then the representative of the whole of the Americas in the global tableau displayed in the study of a German scholar in Göttingen.

The last of the Vincentian travellers is the least well-known of the three. In the first half of the nineteenth century, when slavery began to become the subject of scholarly analysis, the earliest statistical study was published in France in 1842 by Alexandre Moreau de Jonnès, already a distinguished historian of the French Caribbean islands and author of a study of yellow fever, the disease that had devastated the islands at the end of the eighteenth century. Moreau went on to crown his academic career with a book on the general principles of statistical analysis. However, in 1858, at the age of 80, he published a memoir of his first career as a soldier, in which he revealed that he’d acted in the Caribbean during the wars of the 1790s as a agent of Revolutionary France, including making two secret visits to St Vincent where he’d been appointed by Victor Hugues to train Caribs in the use of fire-arms.

In late 1795 Moreau spent several months in a Carib village near the east coast of St Vincent, fascinated in equal degree by the social life of the savages, the tropical vegetation and crops around him, and the beauty of the chief’s daughter, Eliama, aged eighteen, the same age as Moreau. He calls the village a paradise and says that it has always stayed in his memory as the place where he spent the happiest moments of his life. "This was truly Eden," he writes, "with its perpetual spring, its shady forests, its magnificent views, its flowering groves, [and] its singing birds. Nothing was missing, since a second Eve lived in this pleasant retreat." Remember that this was in the middle of the most fearsome guerrilla war in Caribbean history.

Then, after a failed attack on British positions in December 1795, Moreau was recalled to Guadeloupe by Victor Hugues and only returned to St Vincent for his second visit after British reinforcements had turned the tide of the insurrection. This time, landing on the eastern coast in the spring of 1796, close to the village where he’d spent those idyllic months the previous year, the first thing Moreau finds is a massacred village – men, women, children, old people, all hacked to death and their houses burned. Then he learns that both the chief and his daughter Eliama – the Eve of his Carib paradise -- have been killed in the recent fighting. In fact, Moreau arrived just in time for the final defeat in June 1796, after which the French soldiers – including Moreau -- were returned to France, while the Caribs were shipped to a small island off the coast and subsequently transported to Honduras.

Moreau was obviously not a professional anthropologist, but I’d like to suggest that he can be seen as an ethnographer rather than simply a traveller. He certainly makes ethnographic claims. He recalls Rousseau’s "eloquent pages" about the Caribs (drawn from secondhand sources) and offers his own "humble tribute", consisting of what he calls "eyewitness observation and evidence". "Fighting with these natives and for them," he writes, "and living in the same village, sharing opinions, interest, and affection, I got to know them, and I could determine, through the exploratory procedures of the modern sciences, the curious elements of their social condition." None of this should, of course, be taken to imply that the French source is simply authoritative: Moreau looked to Enlightenment science for his rhetoric of authority just as Young looked to English jurisprudence Neither stance, neither rhetoric, delivers truth on its own account. In particular, the apocalyptic events of the 1790s mean that all evidence about the disposition of the Caribs needs to be read as extremely context-specific: after all, Moreau joined a community on a war footing. However, Moreau’s friendship with the Caribs did undoubtedly lead to greater intimacy and arguably to greater knowledge: during these four months Moreau lived in much closer daily contact with the Vincentian Caribs than any other outsider at this time, possibly during the whole course of the eighteenth century.

For example, living so intimately with the Caribs and having a lively interest in botany, Moreau is able to give a full picture of the crops the Caribs grow, which the British were largely unable to see, partly because of their ignorance of the terrain in which the Caribs lived, and partly because of British conviction that the island had been occupied by the Caribs without ever being made productive, which made the British reluctant to understand the concept of Carib agriculture at all.

We also get some sense from Moreau of the extent of Carib integration into the larger Caribbean world of the 1790s. After a storm in September 1795 destroys Carib crops, Moreau accompanies a group of Caribs on an overnight canoe trip to Trinidad with a supply of Spanish gold coins salted away after a shipwreck and which the Caribs use to buy food supplies and to charter three schooners to carry the supplies back to St Vincent. They operate perfectly happily within the money economy of the Caribbean. In addition, Moreau says, Carib pirogues were constantly on the move between the mouth of the Orinoco and the islands of the Bahamas, which meant they were well-informed about everything that was happening in the Caribbean. They were, Moreau says, Victor Hugues’ eyes and ears, the intelligence force for revolutionary insurgence. All this is very far from the picture of primitive savages that Young propounds. (Moreau also has much to say about the prominent rôle that women played both in the Carib councils and in the actual fighting; of which there is no hint in the British sources.)

But the most striking – and puzzling – aspect of Moreau’s evidence is that he lived and fought with a group he regarded as Yellow Caribs: he meets Black Caribs and even describes a kind of national council at which all indigenous leaders are present, but the picture that emerges from his account is of Yellow Carib dominance, both ideologically and numerically. The British, remember, were at this time estimating around 3000 Black Caribs and a very small number of Yellow Caribs: Moreau’s numbers are 1500 Black Caribs and in excess of 6000 Yellow Caribs. This is an enormous discrepancy, even taking into account the difficulty of estimating population numbers at this time and in this terrain. So Moreau’s evidence – never considered by historians or anthropologists – dramatically changes not just the picture of Carib lifeways but even the very constitution of racial and ethnic identity in St Vincent in the late eighteenth century; and therefore throws into question notions such as ethnogenesis by which anthropology has tended to approach the complexities of transculturation.

Moreau needs understanding against the background of the differential relationships with the Caribs established by the British and French during the second half of the eighteenth century. On St Vincent the French had small plantations where they grew coffee, tobacco, indigo, and cocoa, none of which had a deleterious effect on the environment, from a Carib point of view, while the British drive in the islands they gained at the Treaty of Paris in 1763 was to develop sugar plantations, which involved the large-scale destruction of the islands’ forest, which the planters tended to see as especially malign. As a result, British contact with Caribs was infrequent, limited to the political leadership, and often antagonistic. The French also had a long commercial tradition of the coureurs des îles, traders who would often dress as Carib, have Carib wives, and speak Carib – and presumably at least on occasion simply become Carib. So on a number of counts the French were regarded more sympathetically by the Caribs and had closer social and commercial relationships with them. In addition, of course, the British had been actively involved since the 1770s in trying to remove the Caribs from St Vincent, and the French – as enemies of the British – were Carib allies.

The comparison between William Young and Moreau de Jonnès is certainly instructive. Young compiled his history largely from his father’s papers. His own personal knowledge of the Caribs was limited to the chiefs who visited him on his estate. He wrote as the Caribs’ political opponent and with a view to getting the British government to remove the entire Carib community from the island. He keeps the Caribs as savages, yellow as good, black as dangerous: transculturation is recognised only in the form of the ethnogenesis which has brought two savage races together to form a "doubly-savage" race. By contrast Moreau wrote as a Carib ally. He provides evidence of transculturation not just between Caribs and Africans, but also between Caribs and French, for which the most intriguing witness is the chief’s daughter, Eliama, educated at a convent in Martinique, presumably able to pass as French, and yet dying as a Carib soldier by her father’s side.

Certainly, if we map these two accounts onto contemporary anthropological models, then Young emphasises the purity and savagery of the Caribs, their absolute separateness both from the lifeways of the British and from the viewpoint of the observer, while Moreau emphasises transculturation, shared ideals in practice, and romance: a form of participation which might from a scientific point of view be thought to undermine objectivity, but which from an ethnographic point of view achieves what looks like an ideal temporary integration into the culture he’s describing. One of the conference questions asks "What underwrites colonial historiography?" I’d suggest that at least in this instance colonial historiography has been underwritten by a failure to look beyond the sources offered as authoritative by those who won the military victories that determined the course of Caribbean history. William Young’s work is the most compromised and least informed of the three writers I’ve discussed; yet his book provides the version usually accepted as true; nobody writing Vincentian history reads Moreau de Jonnès, apparently because he wrote in French; and nobody reads Alexander Anderson because most of his manuscripts lie unpublished in the Linnean Society library in London.

3

A final word about the 1790s. The last five years of the eighteenth century were a time of enormous political and intellectual upheaval, in which the Caribbean played a central and active rôle, most crucially through the revolution in St.-Domingue. Moreau de Jonnès was a young participant in that upheaval, a teenage intellectual who was plucked from his studies to become a soldier and, I’ve suggested, an ethnographer. He belongs in some ways to that great French tradition of missionary ethnographers in the Caribbean – Breton, Du Tertre, Rochefort, Labat – but his ideals and methods belong to that late stage of secular Enlightenment thought which seemed, for a moment, in the late 1790s, to have found political form.

One of the reasons why Moreau has not been visible for so long is perhaps that his kind of ethnographic imagination quickly disappeared as a scientific ideal, to be replaced for most of the nineteenth century by the physical anthropology to which Alexander Anderson had contributed and which Blumenbach and others were in the process of formulating in European laboratories. For that form of anthropology, identity was written in bone, in the form of your skull, and was clearly susceptible of no negotiation whatsoever: race was destiny. A study of cultural process formulated outside the blinkers of racial thinking would need to wait almost a century, for the equally revolutionary decade of the 1890s, and for the work of José Martí.

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