Monday, March 14, 2005


More about Caribs

Letter to the Editor
The Vincentian

Mr. Vincent Bhoy responded to my previous letter by ably stating the conventional view, the picture of the Caribs given to Christopher Columbus by the Taino and used by colonial administrators and schoolmasters for several generations to shape the self-image of the natives they had to control, the view I referred to as political propaganda. Fortunately we now have alternative views to look at. It is surprising how differently the Caribs appear when described in French.

The Caribs of St. Vincent, as described by Adrien Le Breton ("Historic Account of St. Vincent....", Myereau, 1998) from personal experience, are "perfectly equal, and they recognize absolutely no official, chief or magistrate." This is characteristic of the hunter-gatherer stage of social evolution and normally is limited to groups of the order of a dozen in size who operate by a combination of conformity and individuality. This is generally found at a population density of about a square kilometer per person in open country.

However, Le Breton also says "...the fortunate complicity of the country astonishingly encourages the people's frenzy for total independence. ...the island ... is riddled with bays and hollows ...[and].. offers each father of a family the opportunity to choose ...his ideal site. far from any foreign constraint and completely safe ... to lead his life exactly as he pleases."

What happens in open country is that when the tribe gets too large to balance the conformity necessary for social cohesion and the individuality necessary for personal survival the tribe fissions. The equivalent in St. Vincent was that these tensions are relieved without fission: Le Breton describes them as "visit[ing] one another as frequently as possible".

In that way the Carib society of the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition could maintain the small unit structure necessary for a non-authoritarian society operated by consensus and conformity while maintaining a reasonably uniform culture over the whole island. This would allow them to practice a low intensity agriculture and exist at a significantly higher population density than hunter-gatherers in more open country.

Inevitably, the Amerinds who settled the Greater Antilles, where there was greater opportunity for intense, high-volume agriculture, developed ideological cultures like those of the mainland native Americans. These ideological cultures had no option but to collapse under the impact of an ideological culture with more powerful technology. The Taino, whose culture involved subservience to the supernatural and its worldly representatives, simply assumed that their gods were replaced by the gods of the Europeans.

The Caribs, on the other hand, could appropriate european technology without european ideology, because they did not have a central popular religion that provided a base for an authoritarian society. They not only quickly adopted iron tools and weapons, but, as described by Moreau de Jonnes from his own experience, when there were food shortages on St. Vincent they felt free to hire schooners in Trinidad to transport bulk cargo (bought with salvaged spanish coinage) unsuitable for the pirogues they used to get to Trinidad. In other words rather than being "savages" they were perfectly capable of operating in a european-style economy. They simply chose not to.

Thus the Caribs of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines had a Transitional Society that involved independence of small groups and individuals within an overall culture or ethnicity that made hospitality a deeply ingrained characteristic. They could, therefore, absorb the Africans who landed in small numbers and who were used to hunter-gatherer cultural norms; and in whom the need for independence had been reinforced by their experience of the middle passage if not plantation slavery. The Caribs could tolerate the french voyagers who came in small groups and adopted a certain amount of local customs. But they fought, to the extent their technology permitted, the British Colonists who brought ideology and authority and a foreign culture that called for settlement by force using large groups of armed men.

To the extent that the Carib Wars on Saint Vincent and the Grenadines prevented the full establishment of plantation slavery almost until the elimination of slavery itself, the Carib value system was not completely eradicated.

This is what makes St. Vincent historically unique, and it makes it ironic that Disney should ignore that history in making a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean. The three lead characters of the first Pirates owe their charm precisely to their independence from the bureaucratic mindset of the authorities. They would find soul-mates rather than wild savages among the Caribs. At least they would if they spoke French. As I understand it, when the treaty of 1763 was negotiated between the British military and the Carib chiefs the Caribs were fluent in Carib and French, while only one British officer knew enough French to communicate.

It is not unusual for motion picture people from the United States not to know the history of the place they are filming in, and I'll have to admit that I didn't know how fascinating the history of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was when we first moved here, but it is a terrible shame that Disney would miss this opportunity to reinforce the theme of their film with history that is both true and startling.

There is more about the Mysteries of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on the internet at Father Le Breton's book may be out of print, but a pirated
version can be found at

Karl Eklund, Ph.D.

Incidentally, I have been booked as an extra.

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