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Reviews of The White Minority in the Caribbean

“An outstanding collection of essays … a substantial and welcome contribution to Caribbean studies and ethnic history.”
Midwest Book Review

“Neglected in scholarship since the 1960s, when growing nationalism, decolonization, and black consciousness shifted research interests toward the experience of non-whites, the white minority in the Caribbean has not disappeared, and many remain in an elite position today. This collection of essays aims to bring a discussion of white minorities into mainstream scholarly thinking about the region in order to paint a more complete picture of social, economic, and political life. On a relatively untreated topic, this book provides foundational information which will prove useful to students and scholars of the Caribbean.

“The scope of these essays is relatively large in both time span, covering the period from the beginning of European settlement to the post-colonial era, and in geographical area, with essays on countries from Belize to Guyana. Although covering mostly Anglophone Caribbean countries, the book considers one Dutch island (Curacao) and one French (Martinique). The authors are historians, anthropologists, and one political scientist, most of whom are from Caribbean universities. The overall tone is more descriptive than analytic, and in many cases serves the function of laying the groundwork for previously untreated topics.

“One striking feature of the book is the variety of scenarios in which white elites maintain their power. In Belize, writes Karen Judd, an alliance with foreign interests has allowed local white families to maintain their position of dominance, and they place little importance on being ‘natives,’ a task left to the non-white Creole elite, who dominate politics and thus vie for the role of defining the national history. In post-emancipation Guyana, Brian L. Moore writes that the cultural life of whites focused on following as closely as possible Britain’s middle-class Victorian model, which fostered a sense of cultural unity based on middle-class prejudiced Victorian views, and served as a means of social control.

“In most other contexts, the white elites are a part of the local culture. Michael Craton traces white power through the Bahamas’ history as he examines different white interests, concluding that since the 1960s class and local identity are more decisive than race for the people of the Bahamas, and predicts a decline in numbers of native whites. Rene A. Romer traces the history of Curacao’s diverse white population from a period he calls the Old Society to the period after the Royal Dutch Shell Company established a refinery on the island in 1915. Following the economic development in the Shell era, a white and colored middle class developed which became the bearer of the national culture, and an emphasis on local culture emerged as churches became closer and the large population of Jews assimilated into the common way of life. He concludes that lines of race and religion are being replaced by class lines.

“Two essays treat the role of the white elites in politics. Karl Watson describes the class differences among the native whites in Barbados in the early nineteenth century as manifested by a split in political parties, one representing the landed elites and , the other the white middle class, although the two sides were unified in their commitment to slavery. At the same time, he also describes the ‘shared physical and mental landscape’ of all Barbadians, suggesting that nationalistic sentiment is stronger than any internal divisions among the population or even among whites themselves. Fred Constant looks at the way members of the white elite in Martinique maintained power after universal adult male suffrage in 1871 by manipulating the emerging colored political class and through lobbying efforts in which they used their economic power as a tool. He also argues that they have managed to maintain power because local leaders were able to convert public funds into private ones, and have always been adaptive, following whichever political party protects their private profits.

“In an interesting essay with a focus on gender, Hilary McD. Beckles examines the entrepreneurial journey of a female-centered household to Barbados, on the one hand bringing women into the historiographical picture as autonomous and independent historical agents, and on the other hand as a tool for examining the differentiated nature of the white community. Following the lives of these white urban businesswomen — the nature of their enterprises, their own slave-holding activities, and their set of values — helps us better understand the differences between urban and rural economies, class differences, and patriarchal society.

“Many of the essays treat the subject of the white elite both in terms of the role played in the society as a whole and as a heterogeneous group in and of itself. Bridget Brereton thoroughly discusses the society and culture of white elites in Trinidad between 1838 and 1950, calling them a ‘true elite’ in their domination of economic, political, and social life, but also the most diverse white elite in the British Caribbean. This diversity reflects origins and cultural traditions, but over the years the group began to homogenize somewhat as it became less hostile to British expatriots and more impenetrable to non-white middle and working classes. Patrick Bryan’s essay on the late-nineteenth-century Jamaican white elite argues that their economic power gave them their political power and their cultural influence. All whites had social authority, although they believed in their own racial and cultural superiority in different ways. Other divisions among group members (origin, class, occupation, ideology) show that the group was not monolithic.

“A common theme throughout the book is that although small, most white elite groups have been quite diverse in class, profession, and origin, and these groups have become unified only in relation to the rest of the population. Most essays grapple with the problem of post-emancipation societies and the ways power was or was not maintained by the white elites. But most are limited to historical situations, rarely venturing into the present. By focusing on a topic that has been largely neglected over the past few decades, however, this book takes first steps toward filling that gap by contributing to the establishment of a historical foundation on which future research on Caribbean whites can build.”
New West Indian Guide