For Joshua Jelly-Schapiro the poet Derek Walcott is but one example of the “outsized global figures the Caribbean has produced in abundance”. Walcott, who died last week aged 87, was, alongside VS Naipaul, one of two Nobel Laureates to hail from a region characterised in the popular imagination by palm-fringed beaches and rum cocktails.
There have been no shortage of other writers of international stature to emerge from the islands, not to mention the great intellectuals, outstanding musicians and downright revolutionaries, a phenomenon one of them, the Trinidadian scholar CLR James, attributes to the Caribbean’s own “peculiar” history and culture.
It is this peculiarity that Jelly-Schapiro attempts to unpick as he travels through the 28 nations created out of the thousand-plus islands in the archipelago, from Cuba, the largest, to Antigua, like St Lucia, Walcott’s birthplace, a proverbial dot in the ocean.
Originally inhabited by Amerindians before being invaded by the imperialist powers, the Caribbean formed the nexus of transatlantic slavery for 300 years. At least six million West Africans were shipped in to work the plantations, more than 10 times the number who arrived in the US, an existential dominance that helped fuel waves of slave revolts and, later, opposition to colonial rule.
Other migrations followed, including indentured workers from the Indian sub-continent and Ireland, and the result is a unique cultural hybridity that has “expanded beyond the sea with a vengeance” to decisively shape the modern world. It is in fact “the place where globalisation began”.
Jelly-Schapiro has been visiting the Caribbean for more than a decade, first as a Yale undergraduate then as an academic, and while the book is scholarly in approach it is full of lively asides as as he gets up front and personal with assorted locals – like Madam Diamette, a Haitian trader he meets on a beach before she sets off by boat to the Dominican Republic to buy goods, an enterprise that would be cut short a few months later by the hostile DR authorities.
In his first chapter on Jamaica, he examines the life and times of Bob Marley, whose search for roots via sublime pop found universal resonance. As a result, reggae joined Cuban-inspired Salsa and Trinidad’s calypso rhythms in transforming the soundscapes of cities everywhere. Mambo maestro Arsenio Rodrigues, poet-turned-politician Aime Cesaire, novelist Jean Rhys, and CLR James himself are among the other famous names the author discusses.
As a white man from New England whose Caribbean awakening began with a teenage crush on Marley, Jelly-Schapiro is bound to annoy with his sweeping assertions and obtuse political reasoning, for example blaming Cuba’s economic tribulations on its creaky communist bureaucracy rather than the spiteful decades-long US embargo.
But he can also be amusingly perceptive. His description of taking a flight from St Vincent, a sovereign state, to its much more prosperous neighbour Martinique, an overseas region of France, speaks volumes, the former characterised by a bored customs agent dressed in a blue uniform faded by too many washes, the latter by an official in de Gaulle-style cap and blinding-white shirt who barks questions at him.
Sadly, after enriching Europe over the centuries, much of the Caribbean today finds itself marginalised, its nation states too small and puny to withstand encroachment by global conglomerates or to negotiate favourable trade deals for the few commodities it still exports. If they have not become offshore tax havens, most countries are forced to rely on tourism to fill their coffers, sometimes selling themselves in demeaning ways. US-run Puerto Rico, the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean, has been pauperised by a debt crisis of Greek proportions, while life in Jamaica and Trinidad is marred by politically-influenced gang violence.
The sheer bulk of information that Jelly-Schapiro delivers can be daunting, not helped by his often dense, paragraph-long sentences. But he has produced an absorbing introduction to the region as a whole, one that is clearly motivated by a love for all things Caribbean.
Island People, The Caribbean and the World by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is published in hardback by Canongate
This article first appeared in the Camden Review, March 23, 2016