In a new book, Caribbean History: From Pre-colonial Origins to the Present, Tony Martin, Emeritus Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, has made the surprising revelation that the first Indian immigrant to the Caribbean arrived in Trinidad on February 17, 1595. This was 243 years before Indian immigration to the Caribbean is usually thought to have begun. Indians arrived as indentured laborers to Guyana in 1838 and to Trinidad in 1845. These are the earliest dates traditionally acknowledged and celebrated in “Indian Arrival Day” and similar observances in the region. Trinidad’s first Indian immigrant was one of two apparently enslaved Indians who arrived on an English pirate ship engaged in exploring the “Wild Coast” of South America (Guyana) in search of El Dorado, the legendary empire of gold. These Indians had been captured earlier during a round-the-world voyage between 1584 and 1586 by English adventurer, Thomas Cavendish. The English fortune-seekers made Trinidad their base for a few months as they explored Guyana. It was in Trinidad that the region’s first Indian jumped ship and made a dash for freedom. He may have joined the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks, or perhaps even made contact with the Spaniards, who had recently occupied Trinidad. His fate is however currently unknown. The only certain thing is that he escaped to Trinidad and his English enslavers left without him.
This 1595 Indian arrival is only one of numerous unknown or little known facts scattered throughout this new study, the most comprehensive synthesis of the Caribbean experience ever attempted. North African and European Muslims, Chinese, ancient Egyptians, West Africans and Christian Europeans were among the diverse people who probably reached the Western hemisphere before Columbus. Columbus visited Africa before coming to the Caribbean. On all four of his voyages he departed, not directly from Spain, but via the African islands of Cape Verde and the Canaries. When he arrived in Trinidad in 1498 Columbus mistook the indigenous people for Africans. A free African was with Columbus on his encounter with Trinidad in 1498. Trinidad’s first Spanish governor (in 1592), Antonio de Berrio, took a large party of soldiers and enslaved Africans into the Orinoco/Guyana area in the early 1580s. An African boy with Walter Raleigh was devoured by alligators in Guyana in 1595. The Arawaks of Hispaniola, traditionally portrayed as docile, actually put up a stubborn resistance before Columbus and his Spaniards exterminated them, thereby ushering in the written history of the Caribbean with an act of genocide.
Though African resistance to enslavement in the Caribbean is better known than its Arawak counterpart, Martin demonstrates that the African resistance to enslavement in the Caribbean can almost be called a perpetual war. Some of the region’s very first enslaved Africans took to the hills of Hispaniola and became maroons (runaways who successfully established independent communities) in 1502. Maroon communities and revolts were a constant reality of the regime of enslavement. In Suriname, Jamaica and elsewhere in the 1700s Europeans had to sign peace treaties recognizing the freedom of maroons, their former enslaved people. One group of African maroons, the so-called Black Caribs (Garifuna) of St. Vincent, fought and defeated French and British would-be conquerors for 100 years, before being defeated and deported by the British in 1796. The extraordinary history of struggle against enslavement culminated in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. Haiti remains the only country in the history of the world where enslaved people rose up and captured state power from their enslavers. In the process the Haitians defeated not only the French colonial rulers, but also the English who intervened from Jamaica and the Spanish in neighboring Santo Domingo. Caribbean History: From Pre-colonial Origins to the Present shows the remarkable strides made by the formerly enslaved Caribbean population after Emancipation, despite draconian measures to maintain them in a state of near-enslavement. Afro-Caribbean intellectuals published newspapers even before Emancipation. Several prominent intellectuals arose from this group, among them Edward Wilmot Blyden of St. Thomas and J.J. Thomas of Trinidad.
Some of the longest sections of Caribbean History are devoted to emigration and immigration in the 19thand 20th centuries. From Peter Jackson of St. Croix who became heavyweight boxing champion of Australia and the British empire, to Arthur Barclay of Barbados who became president of Liberia, to Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, who built the largest Pan-African movement in history from his New York base, to Eugene Chen of Trinidad, who served as foreign minister of China on four occasions, to the thousands of Barbadians, Jamaicans and others who built the Panama Canal, Caribbean people fanned out across the world, spearheading positive change wherever they went.
Martin follows Caribbean history through the 20th century and right up to 2011. The struggles for workers’ rights and political freedom are covered. The Rastafarian Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Grenadian and Cuban revolutions are some of the region’s radical developments that receive attention. The several literary and cultural movements arising out of the area are covered. Aborted coups such as the attempted Ku Klux Klan invasion of Dominica and the failed Muslimeen coup of 1990 in Trinidad receive attention. So does the region’s struggle with ethnic tensions and the international drug problem.
Martin concludes his history with a chapter entitled “Prognosis,” which predicts a great future for a region which has produced four Nobel Prize winners and which has in recent years come to dominate the men’s and women’s sprint events in the Olympics and World Athletic Championships.
Caribbean History: From Pre-colonial Origins to the Present is published by Pearson publishers in the United States.