I’ve long been a fan of Sidney Mintz. His study of the impact of sugar on the creation of modernity, which I read first in the 1979 article “Time, sugar and sweetness,” (Marxist Perspectives 2 (4): 56-73) and then more fully in his book Sweetness and Power, shifted the way in which I thought about the Caribbean, the world, and my place in it. I’ve fallen out of touch with his work. Our research interests diverge somewhat. But this new book of his, which grew out of three W. E. B. Du Bois lectures (2003), has brought me back.
Won’t say much here. After all, I’m supposed to do that for CRB, and I will. Let me jsut say that thanks to Mintz, I’m remembering the excitement of rediscovering our region (even though he repeats the not-so-wise wisdom of excluding the Bahamas from the historical Caribbean), and, most importantly, of the place of history in our realities.
For those of you who think that colonialism is dead, that there is no point in “resurrecting” the past (I put the word in quotes because that past has not yet died within us), understand this: without colonialism there would be no us. The Americas in general as we know them, populated and shaped largely by an extension of a Europe that conquered, subordinated and coerced other groups of people in the process are the specific creation of colonialism. As long as we exist, it can never be dead; we are our past, as the past created us. Until we get that through our heads, until we understand that process, until we know who we are and give up the myths and wishes that fool us into thinking we are “free”, we will never inhabit complete societies. For, as Mintz observes:
The history of the Caribbean region … embodies the real beginnings of European overseas imperial rule … the modern world’s first colonies are to be found mainly in the Caribbean region. … Not only did most of the islands become colonial early, most of them also stayed colonial late. … People in erstwhile colonial areas besides North America may be slow to grasp how anciently colonial the Caribbean region is. The Indian subcontinent is usually thought to have become a colonial possession, mostly of Great Britain, when Clive defeated the nawab of Bengal at the battle of Plassey in 1757. Yet by 1757 the Antilles had been colonial for more than 250 years … Once it can be acknowledged that Caribbean colonialism is truly ancient, its history can help to give additional nuance to the term “postcolonial”.
In other words, globally, we cannot understand colonialism or independence or postcolonialism without first understanding the Caribbean — without understanding ourselves. Mintz and others (Eric Williams, for one, C. L. R. James for another) have argued that we cannot truly understand modern western civilization without understanding the Caribbean either, and each time I reread the argument I’m reconvinced. But more on this later. For now, I’m reminded. The significance of our region is far more than we comprehend ourselves. We must know our history, and the history of the world, to understand this. “The world in a basin” is not simply a romantic term; it’s more real than we can understand ourselves.