The Islands of the West Indies are the stuff on which fiction is built. Moored in the Caribbean Sea they are the perfect setting for what one historian calls `a romantic saga of tropical paradises, an historical canvas of sex, piracy and slave revolt.’ But the reality of the Caribbean, the sobering gut-wrenching poverty of the poor majority, the massive unemployment, the unacceptable gaps between power and impotence is a side of the canvas which remains hidden to the casual tourist.
In the Third World the Caribbean is unique. It was the first region to be successfully conquered by British colonialism and the first to yield up its wealth to the imperial power. But the moulding of the West Indies into the `sugar bowl of Europe’ was done in a way without parallel before or since.
First, the Arawak and Carib Indians who occupied the islands when the Europeans arrived were eradicated. Some were enslaved, others hunted down and still others succumbed to European diseases which decimated whole communities. Modern estimates place the number of indigenous people in Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the middle of the fifteenth century at near five million.
Less than 100 years later the Indian population was virtually wiped out. Today, apart from a few isolated villages in the islands of Dominica and St. Vincent, native populations are a vague blot in the region’s past.
It was the Dutch who introduced sugar cultivation to the West Indies in the 1630s. But it was the English who first grasped the crop’s potential. The climate was perfect, the soil rich. There was only one missing ingredient - labour. African slaves appeared the perfect answer. Not only were they cheap, they were infinitely replaceable. For 200 years the slavers plied the coasts of Africa, jamming their human cargo into squalid holds for the long journey across the Atlantic. Millions died en route. Millions more fell to disease, undernourishment or overwork.
The space alloted to each African on the Atlantic crossing was five and half feet by sixteen inches. `Packed like "rows of books on shelves", chained two by two, right leg to left leg, right hand to left hand, each slave had less room than a man in a coffin. It was like the transportation of black cattle, and where sufficient Negroes were not available cattle were taken on.’ So wrote the present Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery.
Sugar cane was the ideal crop for largescale plantations. Cultivation costs were negligible and the profits enormous. By the 1660s little Barbados was the most important of all the British colonies. As Adam Smith, one of the founders of modern economics wrote, `the profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known either in Europe or America.’
English merchants traded manufactured goods for slaves who were then sold to West Indian planters at a vast profit. The sugar, cotton and molasses produced by the slaves were shipped to England and sold at a further profit. This lucrative `triangular trade’ became the primary source of capital for the industrial revolution. As Eric Williams argues eloquently:
`By 1750 there was hardly a trading or manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. .. the West Indian islands became the hub of the British Empire, of immense importance to the grandeur and prosperity of England. It was the Negro slaves who made these sugar colonies the most precious ever recorded in the whole annals of imperialism.’
But the heyday of `King Sugar’, as the crop was known, was not to last - at least not in the British colonies. With the discovery of new sugar-growing territories in Cuba, St. Dominique (Haiti), Brazil, Guiana, and India, West Indies sugar came under intense competition. Not even slavery could boost productivity to match the vast, fertile soils in the new lands. Abolition when it finally came in 1834 was really a grudging realization that the West Indies colonies were past their prime. Slavery was no longer necessary. In fact it was becoming a financial burden to the ‘plantocracy’.
Freedom for the slaves meant the planters were under no obligation to feed, clothe or house them. Instead black labourers could be hired for wages when they were needed, and left to muddle their way through on small subsistence plots during the slack out-of-crop season.
In those colonies where surplus labour was still needed when the slaves were freed (mainly Trinidad and Guiana) the planters turned to indentured workers. China, the Portuguese islands of Madeira and especially India were the sources of this new contracted labour. The move was really no more than a sleight of hand replacing the `whip of slavery with the prison of indenture’. By the time indenture was finally halted in 1917 over half a million Indians had been imported to work the sugar fields of Trinidad and the Guianas.
And a new ingredient was added to the miasma of race, language and culture in the West Indies. Racial tensions were unavoidable as the cheap indentured workers undercut black wage levels. Indians and blacks still live in isolation from each other, divided by religion, work and even geography. Stereotypes exist on both sides.
In Port-of-Spain a loquacious Indian taxi driver still confides that the main problem is `the lazy blackman who doesn’t like to work and prefers to have a good time in the town’. Many blacks on the other hand resent the Indians’ success in small business. And both harbour deep feelings of distrust for the whites and lightskinned `Creoles’ who wield the real economic power in most islands.
The expatriate Trinidadian novelist V. S. Naipaul argues that the Caribbean territories `are not like those in Africa or Asia, with their own internal reverences that have been returned to themselves after a period of colonial rule. They are manufactured societies, labour camps, creations of empire’. Although the bulk of the islands are now independent nations the stamp of empire is everywhere. Slavery and the monocrop plantation economy set the underlying pattern of development and dependency that continues today.
The West Indies were never intended to be more than appendages to their colonial master - whether Britain, France, Holland or Spain. While their tropical staples were exported, everything else was imported from the mother country or the American colonies.
A century and a half later every country and mini-state in the Caribbean is still plagued by precisely the same economic weakness. The islands produce few of their own basic requirements. Their major exports - even in socialist Cuba - are still confined to a handful of primary agricultural commodities, with sugar leading the list. On average 70 per cent of the GDP of the West Indies is related to exports and imports with few links between the two.
Minerals like bauxite and nickel together with precious dollars from Western tourists have helped in some countries. But even there the ultimate control rests in the hands of outsiders. Jamaica’s victory against the multinational bauxite corporations to increase the island’s share of the profits was overshadowed by the companies’ iron grip on marketing and processing. And tourists are notoriously fickle. The popularity of a vacation paradise rises and falls with alarming regularity. An economy that relies heavily on tourism builds its future on shifting sands.
Jamaica has the largest population in the Commonwealth Caribbean and the most developed modern sector. Yet manufacturing accounts for less than ten per cent of total exports. And 65 per cent of the manufacturing inputs have to be imported in the first place.
None of the islands are self-sufficient in food production, an irony of history in a region which lives by agriculture. Meat, poultry, flour, fish, canned goods, even fruit and vegetables are imported from abroad. The main ingredient in Jamaica’s national dish, saltfish and ackee, is salt cod from Newfoundland. Most governments will now readily admit that food imports are an enormous drain on foreign exchange, but apart from Grenada and Cuba few have done much about it.
The pattern set 200 years ago still is relevant today. Farming has never been a first-choice occupation for blacks. It is tinged with the smell and taste of slavery. In addition small producers have received little government encouragement. Most fertile land is still given over to large estates growing coffee, bananas and, of course, sugar. What isn’t used for cash crops is often left idle by wealthy owners.
West Indian society was organized to meet the needs of large, export-orientated plantations. Until the mid 1960s the banking system was controlled entirely by Canadian, British and American interests.
Commerce, cash crops and the export / import business soaked up most of the available capital. Peasant farmers were considered poor credit risks. This bias was strengthened by colonial education, which spread disdain for manual labour in general and agriculture in particular.
Compared to the plantation owner’s efficient methods of moving their crops to market small producers have no organized marketing system. They have to rely on less reliable informal means. In Jamaica the surplus from peasant plots is brought into town by the ‘higglers’. They form a veritable army of country women who squat along the sidewalks of Kingston and other towns selling breadfruit, green bananas, pumpkins, calaloo, charcoal and household items like toothpaste, soap, matches, shoes and toilet paper.
Despite the odds peasant farmers are still the majority in the West Indies. However, their share of arable land is meagre. For example, in the early 1970s those with five acres or less made up four-fifths of the farmers in St. Vincent and St. Lucia, but occupied only 18 and 27 per cent of the farmland in each island.
Increasing opportunities for peasant farmers to step up food production should be a top priority of Caribbean governments. It would not be a panacea, but it would create jobs in the countryside and plug the crippling loss of foreign exchange for food imports. But in general, though peasant agriculture is given lip service, governments are more interested in the flash and glitter of multinational investment and tourism.
In the post-World War II hysteria of unlimited growth `industrialization by invitation’ became the catch-word of development in the Caribbean. Western corporations set-up `screwdriver’ assembly industries and light manufacturing plants lured by dirt-cheap labour, tax holidays and lax laws on profit remittances. Puerto Rico became the showcase success bristling with US corporations and a San Juan waterfront duplicating the tacky, hotelstrewn strip of Miami. But the underside of the `Puerto Rican model’ reveals a darker vision based on cultural alienation, welfare and mass emigration. Unemployment runs over 20 per cent and nearly two million Puerto Ricans (40 per cent of the population) have emigrated to the slums of New York, Chicago and Miami. Nearly 60 per cent of Puerto Rican families are drawing food stamps. For US corporations, on the other hand, Puerto Rico has lived up to its Spanish name - a port of riches. In 1979, although the island represented only 37 per cent of all US investment in Latin America, it accounted for a whopping 67 per cent of Latin American profits.
Despite its spectacular failure to solve the region’s underdevelopment, the Puerto Rican model is far from dead. It was at the centre of the recent defeat of Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. The new Prime Minister Edward Seaga swept to victory on a promise to re-open the Jamaican economy to foreign investors and steer the island sharply back into the US orbit. Seaga’s victory was backed by large donations from private American sources and a smoothly-organized campaign to terrorize the Jamaican public. The CIA is also accused of attempting to de-stabilize the Manley government.
Yet the record of `industrialization by invitation’ in Jamaica is a dismal one. Between 1956 and 1968 when the scheme was in full flight it produced barely 13,000 new jobs. At the same time the labour force grew by 20,000 a year and 160,000 Jamaicans left the island for work elsewhere.
Michael Manley was the first leader in the English-speaking Caribbean to try to break the straight-jacket of economic dependency imposed by the colonial past. His programmes were piecemeal and cautious, but they were pointing to a new self-reliance. The partial nationalization of the bauxite industry, the JAMAL literacy drive, a modest land reform programme, equal pay for women, fixed prices on basic foodstuffs: these and other initiatives were attempts to right the imbalance between rich and poor in Jamaican society. Aninternational recession and conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund tightened the belts of the already hungry and combined to confound Manley’s policies. And eventually they contributed to his downfall. Conservative Caribbean politicians, American businessmen, the US State Department and those elites directly threatened by Manley’s brand of ‘democratic socialism’ heaved a sigh of relief at his overwhelming defeat.
The Jamaican election was a watershed in the Caribbean because the choices were stark and the main actors so clearly identifiable. West Indians will be watching closely Mr. Seaga’s attempts to pick up the pieces. For his failure will be a clear signal that self-reliant development is the only way forward.
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