A Short History of the Peoples of the English-Speaking Caribbean Region

From Occupation to Independence: A Short History of the Peoples of the English-Speaking Caribbean Region

Thomas, Mark

London: Pluto Press, 1998 pbk L14.99; hbk L45.00

In From Occupation to Independence, Richard Hart examines both the colonization of the English-speaking Caribbean, and the movements for independence from colonial rule. The text is not a comprehensive historical study, but is rather a short overview of key events and historical points. While short in length, it is nonetheless an excellent source for an introduction to the histories of occupation and struggles for independence within the region. The text also examines a number of key themes of interest to those studying contemporary social and labour movements. For example, Hart documents the shaping of the contemporary social struggles by illustrating the connections between the anti-slavery struggles of the colonial period and the contemporary movements for national independence. Also examined are the role of trade union struggles in relation to struggles for national liberation. For Hart, the role of labour movements is of particular importance, as he uses his analysis of the intersections of labour and independence struggles to examine the deeper connections between race and class.

Hart begins by examining European colonization, starting in early in the 17th century. As indicated by the title, Hart focuses on the region that came to be the English-speaking colonies. Initially, however, Hart examines the colonial projects of England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. By the 1620s, all had established colonies on various islands in the Caribbean region. By the mid– 1600s, there was widespread conflict between these rival colonizers, which lasted throughout the remainder of the 17th century and well into the 18th. But by 1815, Britain had emerged as the dominant European naval power, bringing an end to the regional conflict between the European colonizers.

The region was of immediate economic interest to the Europeans, due to the availability of crops such as tobacco, cotton, and sugar. Before long, however, sugar became the predominant export. By the mid-1600s, the indigenous populations of the islands had been dramatically reduced due to the cruelties of colonial rule. Thus, in order to secure the large labour force required by the sugar plantations, European colonizers initiated a slave trade from West Africa, capturing West Africans and transporting them to the Caribbean colonies to work as indentured labourers on the plantations. Hart also notes the role of ideologies of racial superiority in providing the European colonizers with justification for the use of African slave labour in the colonies.

Hart documents the enormous cruelty inflicted upon the slaves by the British colonizers and slave traders. However, he is also quite careful to note the degree to which the enslaved Africans resisted this condition and rose up against the slave traders and plantation owners. Individual escape attempts were often made. On a broader level, there were mass escape attempts, as well as various forms of mass rebellion and guerilla warfare. The text contains an extensive listing of the many anti-slavery uprisings that took place throughout the colonies during the 18th century. Most of the rebellions of this period ended in defeat or only partial victory; however, they nonetheless represented a continued determination on the part of the enslaved Africans to pressure for their emancipation. As well, the continued rebellions placed pressure on the British government to address the injustices of the slave trade. By the early 19th century, concerted opposition to the slave trade in the Caribbean was growing in Britain as well. In 1833, British Parliament approved legislation providing for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies.

But the abolition of slavery was only the beginning of the struggle for independence from colonial rule. As free wage labourers, former slaves in the islands found themselves faced with restricted access to land, extremely low wages, and a colonial state that was determined to maintain a system of labour relations that ensured the dominance of White landowners. These pressures initiated the struggles for independence that were to take place from the mid-19th century well into the 20th. Hart notes that under the post-slavery system of labour relations, the recently freed slaves began striking for better wages and working conditions, leading to numerous labour struggles. These struggles led to the formation of a trade union movement, which pressured for and achieved labour reform in the 1930s. These labour struggles became intertwined with struggles to reduce the powers of colonial assemblies, to eliminate the rule of Black majorities by White minorities, and to ultimately bring about an end to the systems of colonial rule in the English-speaking Caribbean. By the early 20th century, anti-colonial protests had become organized through various labour and political bodies and a growing movement for national independence paralleled the protests of organized labour. This movement created the pressure needed to initiate the processes of decolonization that began in the 1940s and continued into the 1960s and 1970s.

While the text provides a strong analysis of economic and political issues, little attention is paid to questions of culture. The reader is left wondering about the role of cultural forms of resistance in building the anti-slavery and independence movements in the Caribbean colonies. As well, apart from a brief examination of the gendered nature of slave labour, Hart does not examine the question of gender in any substantive manner. Given that both labour and nationalist movements can take highly gendered forms, this is an area that requires specific attention. Finally, the text does not provide in-depth, `on the ground’ historical analysis. Those well– versed in the history of Caribbean independence movements may not find new information in this work. However, the text is quite comprehensive in its examination of key events, institutions, and organizations over a very broad period of history. From Occupation to Independence provides a highly readable account of both the colonial occupation of the English-speaking Caribbean and the eventual overthrow of that colonial rule through resistance movements that spanned four centuries.

Reviewed by Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is from the Department of Sociology, York University, Toronto, Canada

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Summer 2001

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