The different passages of time that witnessed the construction of the region combined the longue durée and the very sudden, but with many shared characteristics. The brutality of physical and climatic events, and the permanent fragility of the resulting natural and human structures, provided a constant legacy.

The slow and powerful movements of tectonic plates – which for millions of years have collided at their boundaries, diving one under the other, or sliding past each other – have pushed up great mountain chains, and the emergence of islands made up of molten lavas and volcanic ashes from glowing clouds, immediately pounded and demolished by the sea. It is these first substrata that provided the foundations of the isthmus and archipelago to which were attached calcareous and coralline formations, and silts of the low-lying mangrove plains. Violent earth shocks broke up the islands and isthmus, punctuated here and there by continual volcanic activity. Movements remained episodic but always cataclysmic, characterized simultaneously by long periods of uplift, as well as the short-lived eruptions, depositions of ash and flows of lava and mud.

Regularly, the inter play between tectonic plates reminded societies of their location astride the regions of Meso-America and the archipelago. To the examples of Soufriere which provoked the emptying of more than two-thirds of the little island of Montserrat to the north of Guadeloupe in 1997, and the awakening of Popocatepetl in 2000 to the south of an enormous agglomeration in Mexico, can be added the less dangerous 'exoticism' of the submarine activity of Kickthem Jenny off one of the Grenadine isles, periodically causing sea disturbance. These spectacular volcanic events combine with the violent seismic activity which, though a constant presence across the region, is always sudden and sometimes brutal. Over the 500 years since the European occupation of the region, several have devastated both countryside and towns. That of Guatemala in 1976 with its 20 000 victims, or the quake that partially destroyed the capital of El Salvador are still remembered.

The intensity of activity is characteristic of Central America and its extensions into the Archipelago, always creating disruption for both rural and urban populations who are frequently displaced, sometimes without the chance to return. Though Saint Pierre in Martinique has never regained the splendours of the end of the 19th century, and San Salvador still carries the scars of its last earthquake, the rural populations of central Mexico continue to exploit the young rich soils of volcanic origin and tourism takes advantage of submarine volcanic activity. Nature, in the form of tectonic forces that have left their scars, continues to devastate present-day landscapes, so much so that throughout history societies occupying these environments have had to integrate their stirrings and live alongside them. They have constructed myths, which recall the enormous energy of these cataclysms.

The arrival of the Europeans radically changed the landscapes of Central America and the islands. In less than two centuries an impressive migration of plants would colonize different parts of the Caribbean and, in a reverse movement, local indigenous species spread in turn across the world. Over thousands of years, the flora and fauna evolved in a largely endogenous context, protected by the Andean physical barrier, blocks resulting from successive uplift and subsidence, and by the territorial fragmentation of the islands. These conditions limited the variety, richness, and adaptation of different species. South America had retained more African types, whilst North America recalled the ‘Old World' and the isthmus took on the role of frontier between the two. Admittedly, the Europeans who discovered these countries were in search of gold-bearing riches and spices, but they were also bearers of scientific ideals. They sought to learn, to understand. From the very beginning of the great transoceanic voyages, the navigators included in their cargoes goods that were often more precious than gold or manufactured products: sprouting shoots and seeds. It is not simply anecdotal to recount the story of the captain who rationed his crew's and his own water allowance in order to water and feed the transported plants.

The exotic landscape, the publicity clichés of our contemporary world, took shape in the 16th and 17th centuries with coconut palms and bougainvilleas. Mangoes were already spreading on to the hills, becoming “wild” to the point of people believing that they were native to the West Indies or Central America. The banana, introduced and cultivated first in the Canaries and Madeira by the Portuguese who after 1492 conquered the West Indies and Central America, remains a legacy of these ‘migrations.' Less recognized, because as a food-producing plant brought in from Asia since Antiquity it had already conquered the tropical Old World, the yam's implantation in the New World began in the last decade of the 15th century. Its acceptance would save the first settlers from famine.

Conscious of the importance of plants from a purely utilitarian perspective, given the necessity to plan for revictualling at any port of call and to provide for the return voyage, from his second voyage onwards Christopher Columbus carried sugar cane and citrus fruit in the holds of his ships. In return, America was soon offering cassava and cocoa to the populations of Africa, and to those of Asia and Europe, maize, potatoes, and tomatoes. Only a few decades would pass before cassava had completely changed the food regime of peoples along the Angolan coast and Gulf of Guinea. It represented a veritable upheaval at an inter-continental scale. Today, the coconut palm is the adopted, emblematic tree of all these tropical islands and regions.

These disruptions, the result of anthropic actions over several hundred years combined with the sudden violence as well as the fragility of the environment in question: new plants are introduced, eruptions or cyclones destroy them, and each time it is a strange floral assemblage that reconstitutes itself. Vegetation systems attach themselves to the steep slopes of the mountainous flanks of the sierras or the hills of the archipelago. Altitudinal gradients come into play by introducing diversity and abrupt changes, which sees humid evergreen forest giving way to dry steppe-like landscapes dotted with cacti. This complex mixture combining relief and climate with seismic, volcanic and cyclonic risk, accentuates the unstable character of the population's living conditions. Such instability becomes all the more acute given that the greater part of the regions affected is densely populated. Saint Pierre in Martinique belongs to a collective memory; more recent mudflows caused either by volcanic action on the flanks of Nevada del Ruiz in Colombia, or by torrential rainfall in 1999 in Venezuela, can lead to tens of thousands of deaths. Construction and destruction are inherent to this zone.

In addition to these physical particularities, the societies seem themselves to have absorbed this brutality, this fragility which has presided over the very shaping of their region. Over 300 years, and in the midst of great disruption, an immense human puzzle has been created. If the isthmic mainland has managed to conserve its original native peoples, it is because of the role played by nature, of being physically hemmed in, in providing a protective niche. In the same way, the coastal mangroves and the intra-montane basins covered in dense forest have protected the Indian tribes. In the Archipelago, it is a totally non-native population that has fashioned the present-day world, the West Indies have undergone a massive human substitution through immigration.

The brutal eradication of the indigenous population in the 16th and 17th centuries is of fundamental importance. There was no explicit political intention to commit genocide: the conquest, the first encounters with the Spanish, then the other European powers, very rapidly placed local populations in perilous circumstances, leading to their quasi-total disappearance from the islands. The few hundred Caribbeans who were able to escape these attacks, as well as disease, were those who took refuge in the most inhospitable islands that were also the most difficult of access for the Europeans who would settle only very slowly on the steep slopes of Grenada or Dominica. It was not so much a question of numerical inferiority found in both camps (the European adventurers were actually very few in number) as of the geographical configuration of the territory itself and technical superiority that would lead to the fateful outcome. The finite, enclosed and relatively small size of the islands left few possibilities for the natives to escape their pursuers, very different from what occurred on the continental mainland. Technical superiority asserted itself in all domains. Mere contact with Europeans propagated diseases that were fatal for the Amerindian populations. Inversely, malaria and other diseases associated with hot, humid climates provoked a higher death rate amongst the colonizers: but Europe with its human masses was able to make good the numbers lost. These new societies were born and built amidst violence, often of the most absolute kind. The total substitution of the native population by European colonists and enlisted soldiers gave rise to a very different settlement history.

The beginning of the 16th century ushered in some 300 years of European occupation. Initially they were relatively few in number and male, in contrast to those who went to North America, where the immigration was made up of whole families, the newcomers established the plantation economic system based on slave labour. For more than 200 years, the human relations between white masters and black slave populations were steeped in brutality. Between Whites themselves, or Blacks, it was the same. The slave-based system remained as it was set up, with a central principle that would endure and help it become one of the summits of brutality that have marked society up to the present day, an unjustifiable and intolerant system. Historians agree that 10 to 13 million people were brought across the Atlantic to provide the workforce for the plantations of the Caribbean basin. This contempt for human life still leaves its traces across inter-personal relations at the beginning of the 21st century. Under constraint and duress without any hope of return, the slaves peopled the islands and parts of the low-lying coasts of Meso-America.

A further stage in this human upheaval would take place at the very moment of the abolition of slavery, with the arrival of Asiatic populations from China or southern India. The white plantocracy refused to offer decent wages to the now liberated black workforce. From 1838 until 1924, the plantation owners did not cease to recruit and transport workers from Asia. Often these migratory flows would exceed 10 000 individuals a year, for the whole of the West Indies and Guyanas. The areas of recruitment were closely linked to the cultural and linguistic affinities of those recruiting, that is to the colonial homelands. So Suriname, a Dutch colony, sought the workforce it needed in the island of Java, whereas France fulfilled its need from Indochina, which it had colonized. The abolition of slavery complicated the human landscapes, accentuating ‘mestizisation:' plantation owners and small white employers, the black workforce, recruited Asian workers, to which could be added some populations from the Atlantic islands like Madeira. These movements disturbed former relations, introducing new divisions. During more than four centuries, the region had become a territory of voluntary or forced immigration.

The dream of a tropical or American 'El Dorado' had long preoccupied the minds of the inhabitants of the Old World. The Basque fisherman who settled in Cartagena or Mantiqueira, the Germans who colonized interior basins of the Venezuelan Andes, the Spanish who founded and developed the states of the isthmus, without forgetting the Dutch who introduced the processing of sugar cane, the Jews and protestants who fled persecution - many nationalities of all social classes would find themselves in this region. Relatively long time-scales, the harsh voyage, severity of living conditions, all must be taken into account when everything is there to be built. Yet against wind and tide, the illusion grows of a possible and peaceful paradise, which climate and myth have sustained.

It is in these conditions that the mass of poor peasants, whatever their origin, living out a more or less autarkic existence, would make their life. Ports constituted by definition the interface between traditional societies and the modernity that loomed ahead. Rare produce that could not be found in the Old World was exported: this in turn would permit the arrival of manufactured goods. Here the free blacks found their refuge, and the former slaves clutched at the mirage of a possible job. Above all, it was here that modernity suddenly arrived. Through the port came news, information gathered in and communicated, revolutionary ideas. It is there the first steamships appear, and the machines that would contribute to the decline of the domestic sugar house and, at the same time, the birth of the factory.

These were complex exchanges and as brutal as the earlier events that disrupted the rural landscapes. In the second half of the 20th century towns exploded outwards. They imposed themselves physically in all the island states under the triple pressure of the crisis in agricultural production in the 1960s; the tertiarisation of economies and the improvements in sanitation which reduced mortality and led to an exponential growth of population. Agricultural crisis and overpopulated countrysides provoked an intense rural exodus, propelling a mass peasantry in search of jobs in all the towns across the Caribbean, the isthmus and the southern continental mainland. Some agglomerations grew in tentacular fashion; everywhere they invaded, and ate into, surrounding environments. These uprooted populations, fragile because socioeconomic conditions remain precarious, settled in the unhealthy zones of the mangroves or on the abrupt slopes of the 'mornes' (hills), leading to the development of shanty towns, like those of Kingston, Port-au-Prince, or Pointe-à-Pitre. In the quarters where the most total insalubrity reigns, human life is little valued. Outside the system, without any building authorization, these are zones of extreme violence into which the law barely penetrates. It is always the most vulnerable, women and children, who become the most threatened. The order of social relationships from the past has re-established itself: the law of the strongest once more prevails. More time will be required before security and the improvement of daily life appears and this is not yet the case in many Caribbean shanty towns.

A variety of townscapes, long tenement blocks, timber shacks with corrugated iron roofs, luxurious villas, are juxtaposed in more or less quick succession. The blatant appearance of commercial buildings and shopping centres impinge, followed by so-called industrial zones of which Puerto Rico and Martinique provide the prototypes. Only the neon signs announce that one is in francophone, anglophone or hispanophone territory, while the number of 'Western' brand names advertise a globalized economy. The shopping centres introduce another functional dimension of an urban scene based essentially on consumption. It is thus not by chance that some islands are generously provided, whilst in others the level of provision still belongs to the past, testifying to a very low standard of living. From the rattle-shaken taxis of Jamaica, Haiti or Cuba to the limousines of Puerto Rico, or powered engines of Martinique, an urbanized world has spread itself into daily life, pushing back rural space and the ways of rural life. Whether an island is rich or poor, everywhere the traffic jams give the illusion of modernity.

Frailty and violence are traits that characterize the unrest, which pervades the mass of young unemployed, shattering the images of serene tranquillity during the 1960s and 1970s. The quiet provincial centres of not long ago increasingly resemble those of American agglomerations. Degraded, they are now prey to populations marginalized by unemployment. Clandestine immigration accentuates these forms of exclusion, today symbolized in the island of Saint Martin or Guyana. In these places, hard drugs, like crack, and prostitution are closely linked to violence. Unsurprisingly, Pointe-à-Pitre or Kingston belong to this group, but Castries or Cayenne, such peaceful places in the 1970s and 1980s, are becoming dangerous townships. Deviancy has multiplied, petty thieves and more or less big time dealers abound. In response to this situation, as on the mainland or in the major cities, the better-off move out and re-locate, sometimes higher up into nearby hills or occasionally further out in 'ghettos of luxury.' Whatever the choices of this wealthy class, the gap between these two worlds is enormous. This new mobility is clearly evident and brings enduring change; as a phenomenon of recent date, it is growing and extending across all the islands, even though they might have seemed better protected from this transformation. Today, too great a number of young people, together with an oversupply of obsolete jobs, is spurring on an increasing migration towards the old metropolitan countries or to the United States and Canada, the new 'El dorados' of the turn of the 20th century. The Caribbean region is no longer attracting new populations; it has become a place of departure. These flows were established with the embargo placed on Cuba, the civil wars that have long torn apart states like El Salvador, Nicaragua or Suriname, lawless regimes like Haiti, and above all the poverty of the region's populations.

The expansion of air transport undeniably facilitated and intensified these exchanges, altering the whole notion of proximity. It clearly underpinned these movements of population but it was not the only means used. The media often make great play of clandestine movements, of precarious means of transport, like the Cuban ‘balseros' or the Haitian ‘boat people,' never certain of reaching their destination, and underlining the extent to which violence pushes people into attempting to escape. However, arrival at the destination also remains fraught with difficulty: these ethnic groups, even those of mixed origin, retain traces of their African decent, and are often met with hostility. They face great difficulties integrating into affluent societies, as their levels of qualification in most cases are very low. Their everyday life in the ghettoized neighbourhoods of London and New York, even if it protects them from the harshness of exile and difficult social relations, does not favour integration. As in most situations, only a minority thrive: the members of the intelligentsia, and those singled out because of their musical and sporting talent.

The flows emanating from these diasporas are more complex than might appear at first sight. Inter-island migration to those already developed can provide a first tangible move to acquire experience, develop competences, schooling the children in an environment that recalls their mother-island, prior to longer distance displacement. These intermediate stages lead, in addition, to the growth of commercial exchanges between the islands of the Caribbean, between each island and the continental mainland.

Today, such movements are both on the increase as well as becoming more confused. Some populations are leaving, others manage to effect returns to their home country. The time spent away can be of different durations, again interrupted by periodic returns. Tourists, retired West Indians, or those now resident abroad, may come back to the Archipelago for stays of several months. The myth of the mild tropical climate, the dream of return for those who have worked for many years in the Northern hemisphere, lives on. It gives birth to the more recent migrations, but which are more and more on the increase. The Archipelago seems very much to have become a cross-roads around which more and more flows of people meet. ‘Mestizisation,' the constituent element of the Caribbean, provides an image paralleled over a large part of the world and is leading to the building of more and more fruitful encounters that testify to a recognition of 'otherness.' This becomes evident in the everyday, colourful medley of crowds, in a literature ever more open to the world, in artistic activities which penetrate into the Archipelago. Caribbean identity is being forged in these creative, innovative mobilities, posing and imposing itself in relation to others. Perhaps one may hope that such transformations will diminish the brutality and vulnerability that has so long confronted the peoples of the Caribbean.

Author: Monique Bégot
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith