Fighting for freedoms: revolution, resilience and turbulent times in the Caribbean

by Dr David Howard

20 Oct 2017

The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) heralded the beginning of the end of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, and the overthrow of colonial powers. Successive revolutions have shaped the region’s political, economic and cultural landscapes today, as slavery has been challenged, and freedom sought. 

As part of Revolutions season, the British Academy explored the legacies of rebellion, and challenges faced today across the Caribbean in an event with experts from academia, music and journalism. Chair of the event, Dr David Howard, writes here about the long history of revolution and resistance in the region. 

Revolution, revolt, rebellion and the struggle for freedom have long marked the histories of Caribbean peoples, from indigenous groups facing the arrival of Spanish conquistadores, to emergent labour unions challenging colonial governments along the road to independence. Most heralded, perhaps, are the series of events and layers of resistance that shaped the Haitian Revolution during the 1790s, which established by 1804 the first black independent state in the western hemisphere. The ‘Haitian case’ has left a lasting reality and memory across the Caribbean region and beyond, once provoking fear among the remnants of a colonial past chained in slavery, while inspiring contemporary political and cultural fights not only to overthrow colonial powers and enslavement, but to liberate the creative energies of the Harlem renaissance and civil rights movements.

Extending this autumn’s focus on Revolutions, a series of nationwide events promoted by the British Academy, a public event of discussion and debate was held in London to explore how successive revolutions have shaped the Caribbean’s political, economic and cultural landscapes today, as slavery has been challenged, and freedoms sought. Panellists from the worlds of music journalism, academia and dub poetry, who have concentrated their work on the legacies of rebellion and challenges now faced, pitched their thoughts before the audience. Debate centred on the Haitian revolution, indeed all revolutions, as unfinished political projects - a process rather than a state of societal change. The aftermath of colonial revolt in Martinique during the nineteenth century, against a still incumbent French state, voiced examples of historical silencing, and the ongoing shaming of those islanders who sought freedom. A comparative glance towards the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, which first caused Parliament and the British metropole to start questioning the unquestioned ‘merits’ of Empire, noted how resistance and revolutionary aspirations founded the building blocks for national identity and independence a century later. The attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and the rumbling evolution of civil conflict during the 1970s in Jamaica, while political parties flared news fires of discontent and ongoing tussles for equality, led to reflections on the role of rebel music across the Caribbean. Commentary on the failed 1990 coup by the Jamaat al Muslimeen organisation in Trinidad, and a critical, poetical account of the riots in England during 2011 brought a sense of present resentments, struggles and resistance to the fore.

Just as resistance and revolution go hand in hand, so too, the concept of ‘resilience’ has entered mainstream language and policy-talk. People and places are increasingly praised by governments and colleagues for being ‘resilient’, or are ‘future-proofed’ by planners against sudden shock or the gradual attrition of everyday living. Resilience is largely deemed to be an unquestioned ‘good’, perhaps as colonialists of yore saw empire as ‘good’. But resilience-thinking stems from a systems approach - after the shock, things settle, and life goes on as before. The system is restored, which seems fine if the system provides calm for people and place. Revolutions arguably arise to upset those decayed, corrupt or unfair systems - to break the resilience of olden ways reproducing lingering inequalities.

At the backdrop of the evening’s discussions on the revolutionary Caribbean, lay the turbulence of the previous month’s hurricane storm paths and ensuing environmental terrors that cut, on successive occasions, a swathe of misery and pain across the islands. Assurances of ‘planning for resilience’ were severely tested as systems broke down. The patchwork of colonial pasts were blown wide open, visible for all. Territorial bases for metropolitan military forces and rescues services across the French and Dutch Caribbean reacted on site, while British responses depended on the deployment of largely seaborne logistics and aid networks. Tensions between elements in the White House and the isle of Puerto Rico bubbled over as the flood waters and winds receded, leaving freshly surfaced neo-colonial scars of economic and racial inequalities, dependency and doubt. Still suffering from the economic and societal aftershocks of the earthquake in 2010, Haiti avoided the harshest of Irma’s attentions, but by focusing on the broad legacies of past revolutions, this event highlighted that the process of challenging political, economic, social and environmental stresses continues at all levels across the region and beyond. 

Dr David Howard is Associate Professor in Sustainable Urban Development; Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

Listen to an audio recording of the panel discussion on Fighting for freedom: rebellion, revolt and revolution in the Caribbean, held on 19 October 2017.

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