‘The Caribbean’ by Gad Heuman

2006, 184 p. & notes

This is the second short history of the West Indies that I have read- so any comments I make about this book will be in reference to a grand total of TWO books!  However, reading two similar books within a short period of time does allow some comparisons to be made, and the very act of comparison highlights the differences in approaches that can be utilized in writing a short history.

This book forms part of a “Brief Histories” series published under the Hodder Education umbrella. Other books in the series cover Modern Greece, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe 1939-2000. I strongly suspect that it has been written as an undergraduate introductory text by its layout, level of generality and in the reference section which is divided at a chapter level into primary and secondary sources.

The Perry, Sherlock and Maingot book that I reviewed earlier focused on  political and economic forces, particularly those emanating from Europe, and their effect on the West Indies.  They highlighted the island nature of the West Indies, and heavily emphasized the maritime nature of the West Indian economy, and the place of the Caribbean within the jostling for naval supremacy between empires.   This book is almost a polar opposite.  It focuses on the topography of land on these islands, rather than the seas that separate them, and is largely a social history of the plantation system and the slave and coloured community that arose in response.

It is, of course, a far more recent book than Perry et al , which came out in first edition in 1956.  Recent scholarship is reflected in Heuman’s book in terms of indigenous people, resistance, agency and women. He devotes a chapter to  the Tainos people, the Amerindian people who moved to the Caribbean c 2000 BC to establish a relatively sophisticated, hierarchical agricultural society- a group largely dismissed in a couple of pages in Parry et al’s book.  Heuman highlights the resistance to plantation conditions and the apprenticeship system conceded grudgingly in the wake of the abolition of slavery, especially among women.  This book explores the nuances of colour, especially among the Free Coloureds who, despite the legal equality with whites  granted just prior to the abolition of slavery, always found the social and economic  line between slave and coloured more permeable than that between coloured and white.

The book does not have a strict chronological order, and it takes the Caribbean as a whole rather than carving out separate French, Spanish and Dutch spheres of influence.  As Heuman notes in the preface:

All these territories have experienced similar histories of slavery, colonialism and exploitation and share a common history, despite their linguistic cultural and geographic differences (p. xii)

He argues that although they developed at different times and under different European powers, slave societies in the Caribbean followed a similar trajectory.  What happened in Barbados was repeated in Jamaica and Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the 18th century, and Cuba and Puerto Rico in the 19th century.  Likewise, the planter class structure was largely replicated across different settings, despite the different nationalities represented.

Slavery, emancipation, resistance and revolution take up the body of the work, and form the narrative skeleton of the book.  I must admit to skim reading the latter parts of the book dealing with the twentieth century,  which  in terms of page numbers alone is less detailed than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The book draws on primary sources and visual representations as a way of providing a far more human perspective than Parry et al’s book.  It does not particularly engage with the historiography of the Caribbean, beyond the fairly recent challenge to Eric Williams’ reappraisal of slavery and abolition through his Capitalism and Slavery published in 1944.

There are only limited footnotes in each chapter, although a ‘further reading’ list is provided at chapter level as well as a more general bibliography.  And it has a beautiful, clear, well-labelled map!


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2 responses to “‘The Caribbean’ by Gad Heuman

  1. This reminded me of my foray into Caribbean history several years ago and a book that I found second hand but which has sat unread on my bookshelf. Have you come across, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969, by Eric Williams, published by André Deutsch in 1970? I am rather cautious about the book as chapter 1 is titled ‘Westward Ho!’

    • residentjudge

      No – I haven’t. I have Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ on my bookshelf (likewise unread!) which I gather was a foundational but now debated book. If it’s the same Eric Williams (which it probably is) he was a professor of history and ended up prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and is/was very important.

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