Caribbean Bookshelf (January/ February 1996)

Some new and recent books about the Caribbean


Politics

French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana Today

ed. Richard Burton, Fred Reno (Macmillan/Warwick University Caribbean Studies, 1995)

 

Britain, the Netherlands and the United States may maintain colonies or quasi-colonies in the Caribbean, islands where independence is theoretically possible. But France tells a different story: its island territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the South American country of French Guiana (home of the Ariane space programme), are officially part of France, as French as Cannes or Nice, just transposed a few thousand miles across the Atlantic. This notion brings with it French identity, French language and culture, representation in Paris, French security, lots of French tourists, French business and a higher standard of living than most of the Caribbean can aspire to, underwritten by French subsidies. It also creates a psychic dilemma: to what extent are the people of these territories French, and to what extent West Indian? How far can inherited culture and identity be supplanted by Europe? The problem is complicated by reciprocal access with the European Union countries, and the awareness of how deep the dependence has gone. The anglophone Caribbean hears virtually nothing from its French neighbours, and vice versa. This collection of essays is a cool and very welcome study of a complicated and little-reported situation, no less real for being officially non-existent, at least in Paris. As well as focusing on the individual territories and their relationships with mainland France and with the Caribbean, it explores the French West Indian community in France, the situation of French West Indian women, and the emerging literature of the French Caribbean.

For Children

Patricia the Baby Manatee, and other stories

Janet Jagan (Peepal Tree Press, 1995)

 

A young girl finds a baby snow leopard and takes it home; the animals throw a party and stage a fashion show in front of an empty TV set; a hummingbird discovers how to be helpful to a great eagle; a difficult cat called Thomas discovers that it’s possible to like dogs; another cat called Elvis plays Phagwah in Trinidad and comes home green; a young girl learns to ride a dolphin. These short but charming stories by Guyana’s First Lady are set mainly in the Caribbean (but also in the Gulf of Mexico, the Crimea and Mongolia): they were written to be read aloud, they carry messages of reconciliation and overcoming fear of the strange and unknown, and they will be popular with children who responded to the author’s earlier collection When Grandpa Cheddi Was A Boy.

The Illustrated Anansi

Philip Sherlock; illustrations by Petrina Wright (Macmillan 1995)

 

The distinguished Jamaican historian and educator Philip Sherlock tries his hand at storytelling. The four Caribbean folk tales in this short volume, rooted in the West African trickster and spider-man Anansi who — consciously or not — haunts the Afro-Caribbean imagination, are classics of their kind. Their message is that, with a little creativity and cunning, the weak can outwit the strong and powerful, the greedy and the vain, and not merely survive in a hostile world but triumph. Anansi, a mere spider, can run rings around tigers and alligators and snakes. The tales survive so well because of their simple and universal meaning, and Sherlock retells them vividly and with the right degree of tongue-in-cheek humour. The British-born, Cayman-based artist Petrina Wright contributes 22 bright full-page illustrations in which Anansi is oddly depicted as a four-armed, four-legged Rastafarian — it would have been interesting to see what a Caribbean artist made of him.

History

A Return to the Middle Passage

Capt. W. H. Angel, ed. Ken Ramchand, Brinsley Samaroo (Caribbean Information Systems and Services, Trinidad, 1995)

Last year saw the publication of a 19th-century eye-witness account of a “coolie ship”: The Other Middle Passage (Hansib Publishing) recounted the troubled voyage of Captain Edolphus Swinton and his ship Salsette, carrying Indian indentured labourers from Calcutta to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean in 1858. Here is a second account: this time the clipper ship Sheila, captained by W. H. Angel in 1877, on the middle leg of a triangular trip from England to India with a cargo of pig-iron and bricks, to Trinidad and Guyana (then British Guiana) with 626 “coolies”, and back to England with a load of rum, sugar and annatto. Captain Angel did not publish his book — based on his contemporary log — until 1921, more than 40 years later, and was then largely concerned with singing the superiority of sail over the later fuel-driven hulls. He was a seaman above all: he took enormous pleasure in handling his clipper ship, in racing all comers, and in his skill against the forces of wind and tide. He wrote well, and had a lively curiosity in all sorts of things, from the details of sugar manufacturing in British Guiana to the striking beauty of some of the Indian women in his care and the sincerity of Indian religious beliefs (which he compares with “our unctious, bumptious so-called Christians”). The editors of this new edition are quite stern about his failure to grasp the iniquity of the industry he was involved in and the conditions of the labourers on board his ship; but Angel was a man of his time, serving an imperial nation at the height of its power, and was much too plain a man to question his role through 20th-century eyes. His text (much of which has been cut for this edition), with all its vivid political incorrectness, makes the point on its own, all too clearly.

 

The Dominica Story: A History Of The Island

Lennox Honychurch (Macmillan Education, UK, 1995)

 

Dominica is one of the most beautiful and fascinating of Caribbean islands, rugged and mountainous, thickly forested, often mysterious and hard of access. It is lucky to have a chronicler as committed and as able as Lennox Honychurch: he seems to campaign for his native land through every possible medium — books and journalism, broadcasting, cultural and environmental lobbying, painting and acting, archeology and conservation, playing mas at Carnival time.

 

First published in 1975, this book originally grew out of a radio series, and has become the standard history of the island; now it has been revised and updated in a third edition, with the story brought up the early 1990s. It is readable, well researched, an essential reference not just for thoughtful visitors but for Dominicans. As Honychurch argues in his introduction, this is “a time when we must know, understand and come to terms with our history . . . we cannot create a new society unless we know where we have come from.” In this new edition, Honychurch has fleshed out his chapters on the 1970s and 80s, so the book now ends with a useful and detailed summary of recent political and social development.

Criticism

West Indian Literature

ed. Bruce King (Macmillan Education, UK, revised edition 1995)

 

Caribbean writers have made a contribution to world literature out of all proportion to the size of the region. Professor Bruce King — who has extensively revised this overview of the subject, first published in 1979 — finds this “surprising”, but then goes on to suggest reasons for it, ranging from a sound colonial education system to the vitality of multicultural societies. The book covers literature in English only — the literature of the Spanish, Dutch and French Caribbean is a world in itself. The first few chapters present a history of West Indian writing from 18th-century beginnings to the present day, surveying developments from 1930 decade by decade, with a special look at women writers and contemporary West Indian writers in Canada, one of the liveliest areas of the regional diaspora. Then there are separate chapters on several “significant authors”, a sort of Top Ten of West Indian literature. The favoured names are Jean Rhys (Dominica), Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris (Guyana), Samuel Selvon, Earl Lovelace and V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago), George Lamming and Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados), Derek Walcott (St Lucia) and Trevor Rhone (Jamaica). The contributors, all academics in the flourishing pastures of Caribbean studies, include such distinguished Caribbean names as Edward Baugh and Mervyn Morris. For anyone who wants a good, basic overview of West Indian literature, this is the book.

Nature

Growing Orchids In The Caribbean

Marilyn Light (Macmillan Education, UK, 1995)

 

Fifteen pages of colour photographs show just some of the spectacular orchids that can easily brighten up Caribbean gardens and galleries. This is basically a handbook on what to do: the initial chapters delve into how to grow orchids, how to propagate them, and how to protect them against the various predators and diseases that can attack them. Then there’s a detailed checklist of orchid selections, lists of nurseries, suppliers and publications, a glossary, and a chart summarising exactly how to care for each variety.