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Located at the gateway to the New World in the plantation heartlands of the Americas, the settlement of Martha Brae, Jamaica, has witnessed the unfolding of two distinct, yet interrelated histories. Exploring the significance of Martha Brae as a European-Caribbean slaving port in the eighteenth century, Jean Besson simultaneously uncovers the neglected tale of Martha Brae's gradual appropriation by ex-slaves and its transformation into an African-Caribbean free village, bringing the story right up into the present day.
Central to this transformation is the system of "family land", which interrelates with kinship, community, economy, cosmology, gender, oral tradition, and state law. Besson shows that this customary land tenure is not a passive survival from either Africa or Europe, as conventional theories contend, but a dynamic creole institution created by Caribbean people in response to European-American land monopoly and cultural dominance. This perspective advances debates on African-American cultural history and the anthropological study of culture.
Jean Besson's book does some things in the field of Caribbean anthropology that I believe no other such book has done. She manages this both by defining a problem area the scale of which sets it apart from earlier books and by bringing to her work both the concerns and the accomplishments of Caribbean anthropology. A look at anthropology itself may help me to describe her achievement.
Cultural (or social) anthropology, the last-born of the so-called social sciences, began by studying small, technically limited societies, mostly in world regions far removed from Europe's populous centers. Such societies, commonly labeled "primitive," differed greatly among themselves. But often those who studied them thought they shared a great deal, even if it was primarily in terms of what they lacked. The technological gap between them and the West, their want of writing (to which there are some startling exceptions), and their lack of large secondary institutions such as the state were all seen to mark them off from those large, modern societies from which the observers themselves had come.
The choice of such "primitive" societies for study was neither arbitrarynor haphazard. Alfred Kroeber tells us that anthropology studied those societies, rather than others, because they were the ones in which no other discipline was interested-neither political scientists, nor sociologists, nor economists. Missionaries, yes; and novelists, such as Joseph Conrad, might make passing references to "savage" or "simpler" peoples. But other than for the work of a few anthropologists, the images of these remote, non-Western societies were almost entirely imaginary.
Though studying what nobody else was interested in had its drawbacks, it also had its advantages. Anthropology, more than most fields of inquiry, was able to collect data to punch holes in wonderful theories about allegedly universal human propensities toward monotheism, the nuclear family, free enterprise, monogamy, and the waging of war. Using field data, it was Kroeber himself who convincingly savaged Freud's "theory" of the origins of the incest taboo; Bronislaw Malinowski had already done much the same for the Oedipus complex. Raymond Firth, among others, took useful critical aim at economic Robinson Crusoe-ism. At least partly because nobody else was that interested in how "primitive peoples" really did behave, anthropologists would identify genuine exceptions to supposedly universal behaviors and motives, thereby cutting off at the knees many of the riskiest imaginings of others about "human nature in the raw." Data from anthropological research with humans in dramatically different cultures made some grand theorists in other disciplines quite nervous. This was, for the most part, salutary.
All the same, few anthropologists ever claimed that they wanted to study only so-called primitive societies. An American anthropologist named Melville J. Herskovits, for example, initiated the anthropological study of peoples of African origin in the New World and began to define an Afro-America that stretched from Argentina to Nova Scotia. There was nothing primitive about the peoples who interested him and who lived in this vast region. They had little in common, other than their humanity, with the New Guineans, indigenous Australians, and Native Americans whom most anthropologists gloried in studying. And what they had in common behaviorally with their African ancestors was clearly cultural, not genetic-historical, not "natural." By and large, before Herskovits's work, nearly anyone who wrote about the New World descendants of Africans treated them as cultureless, or as of only limited anthropological interest, in contrast to the Native American peoples throughout the hemisphere.
Herskovits's interest was not grounded in some governing polarity between primitive and civilized, nor was he romantic about the same things as most of his contemporaries. Impressed by the massive, lengthy, and violent transfer of many millions of persons across the Atlantic in an earlier epoch of European expansion-the last known slaver to deliver its cargo to the Americas sailed in 1867-Herskovits was led to ask some basic questions about the nature of anthropology's favorite concept: culture. What happens when enormous numbers of people, from hundreds of different communities, are dragged thousands of miles against their will and are then forced to reestablish themselves, under cruelly oppressive conditions, in a new setting? What becomes of their many different ways of life, their languages, customs, faiths, outlooks? From their terrible experiences, what can we learn about the fundamental principles by which cultures change or stay the same? By what means do people survive under such conditions? Are there any answers here that hold for our entire species?
In the 1920s when Herskovits first asked such questions, the majority of anthropologists, including many of his own classmates, associates, and friends, were supremely uninterested. The "primitive" peoples whom they chose to study spoke little-known languages, dressed in strange and colorful clothing, ate unfamiliar foods, worshiped curious gods in curiouser ways, got married, and traced relationships by bewilderingly complex rules. For Western scholars, they were-to use a word that surely no anthropologist would have admitted using for them-exotic. In disappointing contrast, the people that Herskovits wanted to know about were, for the most part, not exotic at all. It was not that their cultures were terribly familiar, so much as that they seemed so pathetically hybrid. No matter from what perspective one observed them, what they did, and what they were supposed to think, they and their lifeways seemed faded: a patchwork, tattered, makeshift, and, worst of all, mongrel. Anthropologists generally wanted to study (though again, none would have used the word) pure cultures.
At about the same time that Herskovits began his lifelong effort to understand Afro-America, an astute young folklorist at Vassar College named Martha Beckwith began to travel to the Caribbean region to collect material. The decision to do so on Beckwith's part made good sense. Though cultural anthropologists may have seen nothing in the Caribbean to attract them, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and folklorists did carry on research there. Perhaps because of their interest in history, scholars in those subfields, at least, made good use of their findings. Beckwith, whose training was anthropological, had made several field trips to the Caribbean for more specific, folkloric purposes. Then she published a kind of summary original essay on the culture of rural Jamaica, entitled Black Roadways (1929). Despite its occasionally condescending tone, and though it aspired to stand for the rural population of an entire country, it was based on Beckwith's work with particular persons in specific Jamaican villages and was a valiant first attempt to write an ethnography of a Caribbean people.
Black Roadways received very little notice. The Caribbean region remained intellectually remote from most anthropology of the time. Though rich in folklore, a sort of laboratory for physical anthropologists, somewhat interesting archaeologically, and the home of voodoo, the Caribbean region was peopled by groups who were almost the polar opposite of what anthropologists thought (or were told) they were supposed to study. Whereas New Guinea, Africa, and Amazonia offered kinship systems, costumes, coiffures, cuisines, languages, beliefs, and customs of dizzying variety and allure, to almost all anthropologists the Caribbean islands and their surrounding shores looked rather too much like a culturally burned-over, secondhand, unpristine world. Whether it was kinship or religion or language or anything else, Caribbean people all seemed culturally midway between there and here-everything was alloyed, mixed, ground down, pasted on, the least common denominator. For most North American anthropologists, that sense of things was probably accentuated because racism and social separation in North America had made their black fellow citizens alien without making them exotic. With the major exception of religious behavior-and even in that regard, mostly just Haitian vodoun-the Caribbean region, in the view of nearly all cultural anthropologists, was irrelevant.
But in the years following World War II, leading anthropologists in Britain and the United States sent students to the Caribbean to carry out fieldwork, and the received view of the region began slowly to change. A series of new understandings was sinking in. People were finding out that the first European colonies were not African or Indian or Asian, but Caribbean; that the first planned economic production undertaken by Europeans outside Europe was in the Caribbean; that the first European-engineered flood of new foods and goods to Europe came from the Caribbean. The slavery system that the Europeans had built upon Africans and instituted in the Americas had really changed the shape of the world, and over several decades, that realization slowly took hold. It also turned out that Afro-Americans, as Herskovits had been insisting, did have a past, and that the peoples of the Caribbean did have cultures.
In recent decades, another old idea about the Caribbean has finally won acceptance. Because of its long and extraordinary colonial history, the Caribbean region had been regarded by most anthropologists as largely irrelevant to the really big theoretical questions that interested them. It had seemed improbable that studies of the cultures of those poor, anciently colonial, seemingly mongrelized and rootless peoples might actually have some value for understanding the dynamics of culture change, the cultures of other places, or the character of modern life. So improbable was it that, as recognition of the theoretical importance of the Caribbean grew, what it represented was rebaptized as an original idea among the students of Australia, Africa, and elsewhere. Today one can speak of "creolization" in Europe or Asia without so much as a nod toward the part of the world where creolization was born, and where the process that the word represents was first studied. (The price of borrowing words without learning what they mean is, in fact, high.)
What Caribbeanist scholars themselves would study also changed through time. After World War II, when cultural anthropologists first began systematic fieldwork in the Caribbean region, they looked for units of study that might correspond in some way to those that had guided earlier research among the "primitives." What happened was expectable: they chose for study communities that they saw as representing-"standing for"-societies. In one case, a group project on Puerto Rico, a whole series of communities was studied in the hope that their collective description (along with some additional institutional study) might result in a work that accurately described the society as a whole. Herskovits and his wife Frances produced community studies of their own in Trinidad, Haiti, and Suriname (Dutch Guiana). Other students looked at communities in Martinique, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Cuba, and elsewhere.
Those community studies were a rich source of information on the peoples of the Caribbean region and on their widely variant cultural character. Nearly five hundred years of colonial rule by half a dozen powers, in various degrees of tight or loose control, resulted in enormous variety, half hidden by the touristic literature, the rum, the music, the beaches, and the palm trees. Serious, ethnographically sound community studies helped to delineate genuine samenesses and contrasts. Readers could get a deeper sense of how Caribbean peoples live, work, and think, in ways different from what we might learn from aesthetic invention, as in literature, and diarism, as in ethno-autobiography.
Yet those community studies, too, eventually lost much of their appeal. Descriptive, sometimes narrative in character, sometimes without substantial historical background, they rarely stood convincingly for anything bigger than themselves. Hence work in recent years has tended to shift toward urban studies, gender studies, race and race relations, factory studies, studies of gifted individuals, and the use of other Antillean settings in which to do fieldwork. Community studies continue to be made, but students of anthropology, hoping not to end up doing work that might prove redundant, have looked for other frames of research. There are vogues in the social sciences, as in much else; one senses a declining optimism about the wider value of the information that community studies can yield. It is in the light of such declining expectations that I wish to turn to the book before you.
Jean Besson gives us here the culmination of three decades of work, all of it essentially on different facies of the same problem, all of it ultimately on the same place. Yet it is definitely not a community study and should not be misread as one. It "originates" in one place, Martha Brae, within which there nest remarkable personal stories of individual men and women. Yet it reaches out not only to a region and to a whole nation, but also to the immense, centuries-old panorama of slavery, the plantation system, the colonial legacy, and the Atlantic world. But to define this book's analytic power, I wish first to add something more about the Caribbean region and about Jamaica.
The Caribbean was the first part of the New World to be discovered by the Europeans. We North Americans, if we reflect on our beginnings, naturally tend to think of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. But by 1619, when the first enslaved Africans reached a port in what would one day become the United States, Caribbean Santo Domingo had already been shipping slave-made sugar to Spain for more than a century. Though the time between the colonization of the Caribbean region and the peopling of New England has been consigned to forgetfulness, by 1619 European colonialism in the Caribbean had been exterminating people and building different societies there for more than a century. From the European perspective the Caribbean islands were the first Americas, and only much later, North America.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and first decades of the seventeenth century, the "development" of the Caribbean islands by Spain's rivals was for the most part still to come. For nearly 125 years, Spanish rule was territorially unchallenged in the Caribbean. Beginning around 1625, under the Danes, Dutch, English, and French in particular, much of what the Spaniards had owned in the Antilles would soon be appropriated by their northern European neighbors. In that story the island of Jamaica stands out importantly.
Excerpted from Martha Brae's Two Histories European Expansion and Caribbean Culture-Building in Jamaica by Jean Besson Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Preface and Acknowledgments|
|1||Caribbean Controversies and Anthropological Theory||5|
|2||Martha Brae's Euro-Caribbean History||37|
|3||The Origins of Martha Brae's Afro-Caribbean History||81|
|4||The Free Village of Martha Brae||127|
|5||Martha Brae's Free-Village Oral Tradition||259|
|6||Elaborations of the Peasant Economy||195|
|7||The Baptist Church, Revival Ideology, and Rastafarian Movement||239|
|8||Households, Marriage, Kinship, and Descent||277|