THOSE who live outside of the Caribbean often think of the British West Indies as a single unit, a cluster of islands set so close that the visitor on vacation can swim from one palm-fringed strand to another. There are, in fact, ten separate units for purposes of government, though imperial and local action has brought them together with increasing frequency for a wide variety of purposes.
The establishment of the Federation of the West Indies is the most important event in the history of these territories since their emancipation from slavery in 1833. It signifies that a new nation has come into existence on the southern frontier of the United States, a partner of that older dominion which was established on the northern frontier ninety years ago.
Geographically the new federation is the only one of its kind in the world, for its people do not share one territory but live in thirteen widely scattered islands. If Jamaica, the largest of these, were to be put where Minneapolis is, the Leeward Islands would straddle the state of Vermont, the Windward Islands would fall around the mouth of the Delaware River, while Trinidad, the most southerly of the group, would lie off the Atlantic coast in the direction of Cape Hatteras.
The three million people of the West Indies, like the three million people of the United States nearly two centuries ago, face the challenge of distance, and in addition the challenge of geographic separation. Washington and Madison of Virginia and John Adams of New England were three weeks away from one another in the horse and buggy days, but they knew that their scattered states formed part of the same country. West Indians, in contrast, know that the sea separates them from one another, and that only within living memory have their scattered islands come to be prized for their own sake.
Their sea has been more of a corridor than a meeting place. The gravitational pull of Europe to the east was balanced by a corresponding pull to the west. For most of their history the islands have been valued not as citadels and dwelling places, not as a new England or a new Spain, but as the outlying fortifications of a gate to great empires.
In our own time the establishment of American bases in the islands has driven home the fact that they are a part of the American defense system. The Caribbean waterways have linked Europe with Latin America and Spain with the Philippines, but they have divided the islands from one another. It is the airplane and not the ship that has made West Indian federation possible.
A blend of three continents
Four centuries ago Spaniards and Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English jostled and fought their way through the corridor of the Caribbean, bringing with them their languages, customs, and creeds; soldiers of fortune, scholars, priests, pirates, buccaneers. Then the cultivation of sugar transformed the islands from pirates’ nests into plantations. The estate swallowed up the small holdings that Englishmen had established in Barbados and Antigua. Sugar drove the European to hunt for labor through the coastlands of West Africa. It tore the Iho, Ashanti, and Yoruba peoples by hundreds of thousands from the accustomed security of family and tribe to labor in the Caribbean under harsh conditions of servitude.
The story is one of shame and cruelty, but it is also one of achievement, for it was African labor that sent the plantations spreading across the plains and deep into the valleys and up the sides of the mountains. After the African, in the last century, came the East Indian and in smaller numbers the Chinese. So, in the space of four centuries, people from three continents established themselves in the Caribbean. This explains the variety and contrast in West Indian society: the Hindu temples and Muslim mosques next to country houses in the colonial Georgian style; the soft clipped French patois that peasant folk speak in the valleys of Dominica and St. Lucia; the distant drums at night, bringing back memories of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder.
It explains why in the British island of St. Lucia some land is held under the provisions of the Code Napoleon, and in British Guiana under Roman-Dutch law; why in a small remote Caribbean island people of African descent dance the Scottish hornpipe; and why headmen in compact Maya villages on the mainland carry out the functions of British local government officers under the Spanish title of alcalde. It points to dichotomy as well as difference; to institutions and regulations, European in form, that run contrary to African or Indian folk custom; to revivalist bands with a Christian ritual and African mythology; and to the legal provisions for the individual ownership of property in a peasant society deeply committed to the African concept of “family land.”
Unity in diversity
Distance means difference. Alongside the richness of diversity there are the conflicts and tensions of a multi-racial segmented society in which social and economic differences have in the past been underlined in color. Yet, with all this, there is more cultural and social homogeneity in the West Indies today than existed in Canada at the time of its federation or in the United States of the 1780s.
The clashing economic differences which made relations between states so difficult in North America at that time have not yet developed in the West Indies. Instead, the islands have found it necessary to unite in order to protect West Indian products in commonwealth and world markets. Common economic interests, the bond of a common language, and common patterns of education and of administration have enabled these scattered people to find unity in diversity.
In these respects the new federation has an advantage over much larger and wealthier countries like Ghana and Nigeria, where there is no common language and where problems arise from the introduction of British parliamentary institutions alongside the traditional systems of tribal rule. These factors have encouraged cooperation, and the dynamic of nationalism has transformed cooperation into federation. The development of national sentiment has given a new feeling of status, of belonging together and to a region.
The result has been an outburst of creative energy that has vitalized West Indian society, giving it new directions and a new form. Painters and sculptors, poets, novelists, playwrights, and dancers in increasing numbers have been expressing themselves through West Indian themes and in patterns recognizably West Indian, while the politician has cast off the old colonial ties and, with the assistance of Britain, has put the center of government in the West Indies.
The pressure from within
This driving force has been given still greater power by economic necessity. West Indian unity owes nothing to the centripetal force of the threat from outside. In a world dominated by armed might, the West Indians have no power. With them the compelling threat is not from without, but from within, from the pressure of an expanding population upon limited resources and diminishing land space.
The trouble is not that the federal territories are islands, but that they are small. Population pressure reaches the fantastic figure of over 1200 to the square mile in Barbados, with the result that the main exports of that island of one hundred and sixty square miles are rum, sugar, and Barbadians. This basic problem of economic development is dramatized in a Caribbean triangle with its three points resting on Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.
Haiti, with its proud nationalism and desperate poverty, shows that political independence is not enough. Puerto Rico, where a child is born every seven minutes, has shown how trained and devoted intelligence can transform a slum into a lively progressive society that takes full advantage of the substantial benefits it gains from political association with the United States. Jamaica, unlike Puerto Rico, has no free entry into the internal market of the United States, but by the carefully planned development of all its resources it has pushed up its national income to just about $280 a head, as compared with about $130 in 1950. Much remains to be done, but both Trinidad and Jamaica have made a strong beginning.
It was once true that the West Indies were picturesque slums on America’s doorstep. They are still picturesque, but West Indians hope that those who visit them will see beyond the calypso and the formal beauty of coconut palms to their efforts at social reconstruction and economic development.
This kind of understanding means much to the West Indian. The dynamic for change comes from the national movement, and this has been singularly free from bitterness and hatred. Britain has been a partner in progress, while Americans are making an increasingly important contribution as technical advisers.
Situated as they are between Western Europe and North America, and heirs to Western civilization, West Indians believe that their federation can make a contribution to world ideas. They believe that they demonstrate how differences of race and culture can enrich human society. Their federation is built on the creative use of diversity.
There have been other periods of rapid social change in West Indian history, but the present period is unlike earlier ones because for the first time the West Indian community itself has the power, through its local and federal governments, to influence the process of change and of development. The new federal government is, therefore, an instrument for development, an expression of national unity, and an affirmation of the brotherhood of man.