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Reviews of Beyond Fragmentation: Perspectives on Caribbean History

Beyond Fragmentation is a distinctive collection of eleven historiographical essays that deal with key themes of Caribbean history — mainly slavery, the transition to freedom, colonialism, and decolonization. Unmatched in scope and intellectual depth, it advocates a pan-Caribbean perspective on Caribbean history. The editors acknowledge that in addition to casting aside Eurocentric approaches, ‘pan-Caribbean analyses require recognition that the very labels academics use to categorize the region are problematic’ (p. xiii). For example, the linguistic labels that categorize the region into British, French, Danish, Dutch, and Spanish have ‘proven to be a matter of convenience for historians” but are ‘not necessarily grounded in historical reality’ (p. xii). They argue that pan-Caribbean approaches allow for microanalyses and are more than just ‘comparative analyses that transcend the linguistic divisions of the region’ (p. xiii.).

“After a preface by Franklin Knight, the work is divided into an introduction and three thematically structured sections. The first deals with slavery and emancipation in the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch Caribbean, the second is dedicated to the aftermath of slavery in these regions, and the third focuses on colonialism and decolonization. David Geggus leads off with a comprehensive survey of slavery and emancipation in the French Caribbean, examining themes such as plantation slavery, religion, gender, resistance, memory, race, free people of color, and manumission. Geggus acknowledges the intellectual contribution of the late Gabriel Debien, but notes (pp. 4-6) that plantations continue to dominate slave studies, that no work devoted to urban slavery has appeared, and that the demographic history of slavery in French colonies is not as well researched as in British colonies.

“The remaining essays in this section highlight the effects of race and nationalism on the historiography of slavery. Francisco Scarano explores slavery and race over the second half of the twentieth century in Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico. He explores the differences in emphasis on issues of race within the Spanish regions, and shows how political developments there affected writing on slavery, among them revisionism in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. He goes on to chronicle different phases that the historical literature has gone through, including one that focused on the social aspects of slavery and another that emphasized the ‘racialist culture of politics’ (p. 53). He points out that after the Cuban Revolution, scholars turned away from questions of material life and labor, that is, from slavery and material life and labor of slaves, ‘to issues surrounding radicalized ideologies of self and nation, and the role of race in political and cultural processes’ (p. 47). And he notes that the rising tide of studies of race and nation in Cuba over the final four decades of the twentieth century has no counterparts in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico (p. 50). Scarano writes, ‘Whereas in Cuba … scholars have acknowledged black influences and the import of blackness in debates about the nation, and consequently have had to grapple with them, in the other two countries the emphasis has been on denial: of a viable slave regime, of the presence of a large proportion of blacks in the population, of widespread miscegenation, of the African imprint in popular culture, and of many other such negative conceptions’ (p. 50). Alex van Stipriaan, focusing on the twentieth century, stresses the gross neglect of slavery in Dutch literature, noting that ‘until recently the topic was hardly mentioned in school history books’ (p. 69). What the Dutch knew about slavery, he asserts, came through reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Certainly, economic diversification within the Dutch colonies was ignored until recently. However, the growth of nationalism in Suriname, and cultural assertion in the Dutch Antilles, has had an impact on the historiography. Similarly, Gad Heuman demonstrates how race affected the historiography of slavery in the British Caribbean, tracing the shift since the 1960s from a focus on the planter class and slaveholders to an emphasis on the enslaved (p. 93).

“The essays in Section Two make clear the need to acknowledge similarities and differences in the historical experience of the postslavery Caribbean and to delineate different phases of history while promoting comparative approaches. Matthew J. Smith observes that ‘by virtue of its early independence, Haitian history has followed a direction quite different from Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana’ (p. 113). Bridget Brereton offers an erudite and illuminating refinement of the model of a three-tier society in the British Caribbean. And essays by Aline Helg and Rosemarijn Hoefte show that, with regard to social hierarchy and race in the Spanish and Dutch Caribbean, Blacks still occupy the bottom rung (pp. 143, 172).

“The third section concentrates on problems of the contemporary Caribbean. Drawing mostly upon literary texts, Laurent Dubois discusses such issues as the struggle over historical consciousness, political status, and the representation of the history of emancipation in the French Caribbean (p. 223). Likewise, Blanca Silvestrini shows how political developments such as U.S. military occupation led to the awakening of social consciousness in the Spanish Caribbean (p. 231). However, O. Nigel Bolland offers a sober reminder that being in a new era does not automatically signal the development of a new kind of history (p. 269). In spite of the awkwardness of using geographic labels to describe Caribbean territories, there is some overlap in the essays (mostly in those on the French Caribbean), and a lack of some chapter summaries. Beyond Fragmentation is highly recommended for its excellent scholarship. It is a most welcome addition to the historiography of the Caribbean that will enrich both undergraduate and graduate classrooms.”

New West Indian Guide

“The contributors to Beyond Fragmentation: Perspectives on Caribbean History have set out to address Franklin Knight’s description of a ‘fragmented nationalism’ that has typified the Caribbean from the fifteenth century until the present. Knight’s challenge of an integrated Caribbean has echoed throughout the field of Caribbean studies as well as the emerging Antillean nations themselves since he coined the term in the 1970s. As the editors suggest, although the West Indies, to use a colonial phrase, were separated linguistically and politically by the empires that administered them, they share common themes of slavery, plantation agriculture, emancipation, labor movements, independence, and nationalism.

“The book is arranged chronologically into three sections investigating major themes: Slavery and Emancipation, Aftermath of Slavery, and Colonialism and Decolonization. The challenge facing academics working in the field is to integrate the region into larger perspectives. Thus, the essays consistently contemplate nationalism, imperialism, and micro and macro history, as well as race. As the editors note in the introduction, the Caribbean is a region in transition simultaneously searching to construct national or island-state histories but often confined to imperial studies. Moreover, the scholarship of the region — as evidenced by the imperialistic focus of the essays in each section — remains linguistically divided. One of the best essays, by Francisco A. Scarano, provides some reflection on the difficult task facing historians of the region. As Scarano notes, post-revolutionary Cuban historians had their ‘sympathies for the revolutionary process’ (p. 38); Dominican historians during the Trujillo regime were ‘loath to discuss the slave past’ (p. 42); while historians of Puerto Rico have ‘accentuate(d) the relevance of race for national identity and nation-building’ (p. 51). Such problems have made it difficult to construct even a Spanish Caribbean history.

“Thus the political fragmentation of the Caribbean has been deeply rooted. The failure to create national or island histories has limited the ability of scholars to integrate the region into regional and global histories. Since Eric Williams’s pioneering Capitalism and Slavery, scholars of the British Caribbean have given considerable attention to Europe’s West Indian possessions and their pivotal role in the construction of the Atlantic world. Academics have focused on constructing economic histories or, as Gad Heuman contends, have ‘focused on the planter class and on slaveholders rather than on the enslaved’ (p. 93). The major themes, as Heuman notes, have been the plight of women in slave and post-emancipation societies, as well as the role of free coloreds in Caribbean society, and slave resistance and rebellions. Bridget Brereton remarks on the unevenness of literature on the British Caribbean, noting that ‘recent scholarship has tended to downplay the significance of [the] “great break”” or emancipation (p. 187). And although Brereton and Heuman identify the unevenness of the historiography within the British Caribbean, they are less direct than Scarano in tying this to the influence of nationalism in that region. Nonetheless an imbalance has resulted as scholars have gravitated toward those colonies that obtained independence first — Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana. This has directed scholarly attention away from islands like Grenada, St. Vincent, and Dominica, which were also settled by Britain. These later-established colonies probably developed differently than others in the British Caribbean. Beyond Fragmentation challenges academics to integrate the Caribbean more fully into both their scholarship and their classrooms.

“While the editors and contributors have certainly worked to accomplish Knight’s challenge, the literature that they must draw upon has unfortunately not yet fully matured. While today historians have been able to revise the assertions of previous generations and fill out the skeletal arguments made by pioneers such as Williams, the field is still divided along linguistic and imperial lines. While the dream of achieving a unified history has not been achieved, this volume is certainly an important step in that direction.”

Hispanic American Historical Review

“Historians from North America, Europe, and even two from the Caribbean itself review and critique past scholarship on areas within the region colonized by the French, Spanish, Dutch, and English. Among the topics are books no one has read on slavery in the Dutch Caribbean, the historiography and methodology of the aftermath of slavery in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and the historiography of decolonization in the Anglophone Caribbean.”

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