A GLOBAL SEA BASIN
 
Position in the World

 

From the coasts of the Yucatan for a distance of less than 200 km as far as Trinidad (itself little more than 10 km from the South American mainland) the Archipelago spreads over nearly 4,000 square km in an arc that links the two American continents.

The name Caribbean refers first and foremost to the sea of the same name, an element of continuity round an otherwise fragmented terrestrial ensemble, whether made up of raised or subsided blocks through which sea passages are few and always difficult, or arranged in a string of islands which punctuate the western flank of this liquid mass. The name “Caribbean Sea” is indisputably steeped in history, it also describes a geographical entity.

For the people who inhabit, describe or work in this region, its limits can vary somewhat, as can its extent. Generally one is Caribbean by reference and comparison to other regions further removed. At a more localized scale, one may identify with an island or particular locality, but not, for example, when it is simply a valley physically separated from its neighbour. This constructed sense of place identity follows a widely adopted model applicable in many regions of the world, which becomes accentuated in the Caribbean. In both its history and geography, the Caribbean at different times has appeared continuous/discontinuous, single/multiple, large/small: its boundaries are not clear-cut, but when one searches for them, their reality becomes evident.

As elsewhere across the globe, one often evokes the notion of “Mediterranean,” in this context seen as American. Certainly, in terms of the classic work of the historian Fernand Braudel, analogies with that eponymous sea can be found. Though the arc of islands around its eastern side creates an opening, the Caribbean is a sea hemmed in between the continents of North and South America. The west and east parts can be viewed as further integrated by association with the two narrow bands of land, isthmus and archipelago, which in turn connect the masses of exposed land. The actual detail proves to be more complex than at first sight, as the arc-like archipelago is made up of two distinct entities which, whilst communicating with each other, remain very separately identifiable. Fernand Braudel, in his vast oeuvre, ‘The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World at the time of Phillip II,' describes this sea as “a succession of narrow liquid plains (…), of narrow seas defining worlds having each their own character, types of boat, customs, historic laws.” With some nuancing, the same descriptions can broadly be applied to the Caribbean Sea. In effect, the islands, straits, sea passages between islands represent worlds as much different one from the other. Often all that remains from the metaphor as applied to the Mediterranean is the idea of “mare clausum” and “mare nostrum” in relation to the United States, but adopting such a one dimensional approach is too simplistic; the notion of ‘Mediterranean' with its accepted modern connotation becomes more generally applicable if one adds to the idea of seas that are more or less closed, with their own character and navigation circuits, the element of contact between societies with different levels of living and cultural systems. The sea, with its localized exchanges within basins, with circulation made up of “come and go,” criss-crossing itineraries, ensures that constant level of contact.

The morphological originality of the region announces itself by the presence of three of the world's greatest rivers feeding into the Caribbean basin, creating locally a clay-filled turbulence mixed into the waters of the sea, and thence carried some distance away. Not surprisingly, the powerful sea currents generated by the Amazon push this material furthest, skirting the coasts of the Guyanas and, together with those sediments added by the Orinocco, deposit them off Trinidad. Mangrove has spread the whole length of the coast of the South American continent. On the opposite, northern side of the basin, the building up of the Mississippi delta has brought significant coastal gains of land over the sea. The coast of the Caribbean is thus characterized by long bands of sand, or of mangroves broken by rocky coastal escarpments due to the presence of volcanic and wave action.

In the course of the long history of human settlement of the American continent, the region's role has been as a bridging point, initially favouring a north-south migration before the peoples of the Orinocco reversed that flow from the Christian era onwards. These communities have used the archipelago as in a game of leap-frog, given the short distances between different islands.

Even when the population movements took on an east-west direction, the archipelago, with the arrival of the Europeans led first by the Spanish, remained a bridge, a fording-point. This role was unchanging during the 15th and 16th centuries. The West Indies, situated mid-way from the American isthmus, would become a re-victualling relay stop for fresh water and food.

From fording-point, it progressively became a cross-roads in the 17th century. From the 16th century onwards, and particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Caribbean was (re-) defined as Europe's richest integrated periphery. During the same period, the activities and exchanges between different coastal areas, notwithstanding opposition from metropolitan Europe, led to the emergence of a dynamic economic zone. Goods moved, people changed location, sometimes against their will, but invariably it was being noted, acknowledged, and cartographers were able to map the many areas being settled. In these various locations, settlers from Europe, of different origins and with very diverse motives, came into contact – adventurers certainly, but also scholars, planters and the military. Finally, the West Indies also became the redistribution centre for a workforce removed from the coasts of Africa. The islands retained their cross-roads role when they became suppliers of luxury, rare and exotic goods. Here were traded cloth from Europe, furniture, cod, sugar, tobacco, cocoa, or indigo.

Political and economic changes in the 19th century provoked another transformation. As a regional entity, the Caribbean started to grow away from Europe. Given its close proximity to the United States, it would become, in popular parlance, its “backyard” before the dream and the project of a federation based on the states of the South could see the light of day.

The whole zone appeared ready for the fragmentation of the contemporary era, with all its inherent discontinuities: political, with the emergence of sometimes tiny states, thereby much more easily controlled by former metropolitan capitals, or by a powerful neighbour, and economic, because the small territories no longer counted within the older children's playground. Today, the world of the Caribbean has ruptured and fragmented into a multitude of political entities. The largest are found on the mainland or within the Greater Antilles, however, in both cases, the disparities in size are always significant. Mexico is sixty times larger than Salvador or Belize, while Cuba is one hundred times the size of Martinique, which is by no means the smallest of the islands of the Lesser Antilles. It is often said today that the Caribbean has now become the Carribeans.

Not surprisingly, the geography of language closely mirrors the region's eventful history. Its original speech has largely disappeared. Only a few remnant words are found today within the modern languages of the Caribbean. The eradication of peoples has also been that of its languages, of words to describe elements of nature, of symbols created by different groups to give meaning to life. Still found today are traces of Amerindian languages in the rural communities of north and south Mexico, in those of Columbia and especially Guatamala. A few hundred, and sometimes as many as a few thousand speakers utilize dialects in the Guyanas. As a whole these non-written idioms, limited in use to very small populations, evoke the image of a kaleidoscope.

To give colour, form and identity to the peoples of the Caribbean basin, some observers have wished to see Creole as the language of regional unity. Forged in the plantations in order to permit communication between slaves of different speech and between masters and slaves, Creole borrowed heavily from the established languages. As a language, it is the creation of the last four centuries. When the young Haitian republic burst onto the scene onto the international scene in 1804, it simultaneously imposed Creole as the official language, but the area in question is clearly circumscribed, from which there has been no diffusion. The nuances of speech from one island to the next are such that communication is not always facilitated. If Haitian Creole spread very easily because of a large scale diaspora from the country, at no time did it impose itself as a model to follow. The language of the island slaves, language of displaced populations like ‘cajun' in Louisiana, Creole has remained the expression of affect, of emotions, capable of derision, and especially ‘self-derision.' It remains the language of metaphors of Caribbean poetry. Creole, the language of the oral but not the written, used in the harrowing context of slavery, has never been able to impose itself as the language of commercial transaction. It remained merely a vernacular language.

In political and commercial relations, English incontestably dominates. It recalls the major British presence of the last two centuries, but it is above all the shadow of American power that presents itself in the international conferences and seminars in the hotels and airports, in the ‘offshore' financial transactions (even in the case of Haiti or Cuba) and accompanied by dependence on the dollar, in the exchanges between the islands and countries of meso-America.

Even so, the map manifests a large Spanish-speaking presence, from the far reaches of Trinidad to Puerto Rico, including outliers in Florida where it competes almost on equal terms with English, thanks to the large Cuban immigrant communities and refugees from the Dominican Republic. In Texas, Spanish “thumbs its nose” at history, recalling that this state first belonged to the Viceroy, then republic of Mexico.

In both these states, Spanish became one of the languages of the education system, whilst reigning over the great plantations of large cattle ranches, and remains the language of commercial transaction in the transfrontier zones. Finally, it is still the language of a brilliant literary tradition, which from Alejo Carpentier to Miguel Angel Asturias, by way of Carlo Fuentes and many others, sang of the landscapes, peoples and passions of the Caribbean.

From this turbulent history, which produced such a linguistic kaleidoscope, French remains present but very much in retreat. Over the last two centuries, it has lost the place it so long occupied in the Caribbean plantocracy and in the Southern United States. The francomania of the elites has retreated in the face of economic realities.

The present language mosaic illustrates all the ambivalence in which the region evolved, which orientated itself northwards in the hope of finding an economic Eldorado, but which remains strongly tied to its colonial past, or to an identity which it now seeks to affirm.

The rapid development of transport from the second half of the 19th century, and particularly during the 20th, would marginalize the Caribbean basin. The large, ocean-going steamships no longer had need of the same relay stops. In effect, because of the Panama Canal, the oceanic routes shifted. From now on also, the intensification of agriculture would favour vast surface areas of farm land conducive to mechanization. Everything that had proved advantageous in a previous era, now became a disadvantage and a constraint. The archipelago found itself excentric to the great flows of goods and people, with political discontinuity becoming a serious handicap.

This marginalization, much more than in the past, has accentuated internal differences, contrasts and oppositions. Qualifying descriptions like “ultraperipheral regions,” “dead angle” and “American Mediterranean,” attributed to the Caribbean zone, have served to emphasize its situation. Far from just suffering, the small countries of the Caribbean have often sought to exploit their position by trading votes within the confines of the United Nations, obtaining particular accords and specific benefits.

Throughout the history of the last four hundred years, the Caribbean Sea has provided the matrix upon which contemporary societies were built. As with the European Mediterranean, it was and remains the locus of contact between different cultures; as such, it is another ‘Mediterranean.' Equally, it symbolizes an opening to the world beyond, and it is around itself and by reference to itself, that a communal sense of Caribbean identity has been constructed.

The definition of the Caribbean is by no means unique because the question of a political frontier, whether inherited or contemporary, does not arise. It is more a matter of an inter-lacing of geography and history, of seas, coasts, mountainous barriers, political conquests, colonization and economic systems.

The accumulation of four centuries of history has produced an interplay of relationships; of sizes and geometries prevailing at certain periods; today a certain balance is in place, and is even reinforcing itself. This is why it is not by default or by approximation that the boundaries of the Caribbean can be variously defined: the Greater Antilles, linked in turn to the Lesser Antilles archipelago, fit into a first sea basin closed off by the coasts of Venezuela, Panama, Yucatan and Florida, itself capable of integrating a much larger basin by including the adjoining Gulf of Mexico as well as coastal Texas. To varying degrees, these entities are all part of the Caribbean.

Beyond these limits, in order to better grasp the Caribbean in its geo-historical regional context, one can gain more by adopting a much wider perspective: the opening out onto the Pacific and California towards which the sea passages and flows originating from the Caribbean involved both effort and purpose; or again, the former Mason & Dixon Line on the 36° 40 N parallel, which would long mark more than just a legal boundary between North and South of the United States but also a difference in values and society. From the archipelago to the costs of Florida or Colombia, it remains the Caribbean, but always multi-faceted.

The societies that developed within this matrix have followed and continue to follow different trajectories. Some sought progressively to retreat into isolation, others benefitting from current strengths and a more propitious history, developed more open, collective attitudes. The direction of any future trajectory is balanced between these two extremes: closed or open-mindedness.

Numerous factors push towards retreat and closure: standards of living, education and training, and sometimes health; backwardness generally relative to the richest countries, marginalization and economic dependency; regionalist and nationalist movements but at high cost for their populations.

A number of other factors can pull the Caribbean along a different trajectory. Fundamentally, it is from within the region itself that solutions for sustainable development should produce synergies, and not conflict. Close to the major centres by virtue of effective communications links, the region could promote itself as an environment worth protecting in order to provide that natural habitat symbolically still viewed with fascination by wealthier societies in search of exoticism; an environment too which offers the much sought-after spaces for work adapted to the demands of our time.

One condition of this emerging Caribbean is a positive re-interpretation of the test bequeathed to it by history, mestizisation and creolisation. By refusing the path of a ‘closed' identity, a source of violence and misery, mestizo status, founded in mixture, can construct and affirm pluralities of identity, giving the Caribbean a new cross-roads role in a wider society presently taking shape.

Tendencies towards ‘closure' and tendencies towards ‘openess' are equally in evidence in the emerging Caribbean at the beginning of the 21st century. These trajectories are both inscribed in the possible futures facing the Caribbean.

Authors: Monique Bégot, Pascal Buleon

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