The Caribbean: Through a Lens Brightly

James Anthony Froude is a name now lost to time. In the Victorian era the British historian, writer, and traveler held great prominence, much of which was due to his unabashed celebrations of ...

James Anthony Froude is a name now lost to time. In the Victorian era the British historian, writer, and traveler held great prominence, much of which was due to his unabashed celebrations of imperialism, which he most famously presented in his influential 1888 study, The English in the West Indies. Froude’s infamy arises from his travelogue’s thesis: that the islands of the Caribbean would degenerate to unimaginable depths of barbarism if allowed to rule themselves. Caribbean intellectuals blasted him publicly, and many, such as the Trinidadian J. J. Thomas, assembled book-length rebuttals. The reaction to Froude touched on an enduring aspect of the Caribbean: its people are highly sensitive to how they are presented by others, and in ways that are unique to the region. This touchiness is a palpable legacy of former slave colonies, long treated as factories for commercial raw material and otherwise considered to have provided hardly any worthwhile contributions to modern existence.

The foreign traveler who desires to record the Caribbean experience is thus faced with a daunting balancing act of reconciling both personal observation and objectivity. As reflections of an author’s particular background, travelogues are always going to reveal their innermost thoughts and predilections. All things eventually change with time, and travel writing provides snapshots of a moment in the life of a place destined to do the same. Froude and his followers could not see this, because they could not look beyond the haze of their Victorian anxieties.

Froude’s personal journals reveal that his jaundiced conclusions about the Caribbean were drawn long before he got off the ship that brought him there. Has our age presented us with a different way for the foreign traveler to view the Caribbean? Joshua Jelly-Schapiro believes that it has. His fascinating new book, Island People, demonstrates that the fundamentally different media-technological, cultural, and political conditions of our times allow for a more sensitive take on the archipelago.

Armed with a laptop, Jelly-Schapiro arrives in the Caribbean more open-minded, amasses a great deal more knowledge and data, and cultivates much more access than his forebears. He regales the reader with tales of sleeping on freighters, riding on the back of Haitian motos, and seeking out as many forms of public transportation as possible. He studies Spanish in Havana and opts, wherever he settles, for the cheapest accommodations on offer. He widely embraces the democracy of modern travel, and where other writers seem duty bound to offer political assessments of the state of things, Jelly-Schapiro prefers a chiseled presentation of details gathered from his numerous and varied conversations. Like all good travel writers, he privileges these above all else. His observations of the people he meets—some of them known personally to this reviewer—are spot-on.

The places that ring the sea from which the region takes its name look very different now than they did in 1888, and so, too, do its foreign chroniclers. Today the Caribbean is a great presence in the world’s conception of the wider American region. Jelly-Schapiro’s book is, after all, subtitled “The Caribbean and the World.” The global fascination for all things Caribbean, along with the burgeoning population of people of Caribbean descent in far-flung metropolitan centers, has broadly affected international perception.

Jelly-Schapiro’s labors raise implications for the future of Caribbean travel writing.

Today’s foreign visitor to the Caribbean is not only the outdated Froudeian—diminished but very much still alive—but also business people, Carnival devotees, winter evacuees, thrill seekers, reggae aficionados, and millennials who tramp through places their predecessors would never have entered. The Caribbean is more accessible and more in vogue than ever, and nothing has attracted more appeal than its popular culture, which has become so accepted these days that it is considered part of the global mainstream.

Jelly-Schapiro is as wise to this power as he is to so many other identifying features of the region, and he places popular culture very much at the center of Island People. A citizen of the United States in the age of new media, Jelly-Schapiro tellingly integrates into his travelogue’s wide net such cultural events as Cayman’s extempo GIMISTORY festival, Jacmel’s Carnival in southern Haiti, references to a Beyoncé concert in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, immersion in the transnational history of salsa, and an obligatory trip to Bob Marley’s mausoleum in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. He is a respecter of the immense talent that has come out of the Caribbean and salutes their achievements.

Jelly-Schapiro is at his best when he lets the scenes of his encounters come to life. An engrossing retelling of a night out in San Juan at a glitzy $200-a-person show put on by small-town-performer-made-legend Rita Moreno is charged by the ironies inherent in a mostly English-language performance in a venue and setting that couldn’t have been less authentic to her background. He collects stories from vivid interlocutors along his journey, carefully rendering their likenesses with sharp prose, sensitively presenting the places as they are, and not merely as previously imagined. There are wonderful passages in the book that crisscross time to offer a meditation on the history of colonialism and the resistance to it that is inscribed on the Caribbean’s present.

Jelly-Schapiro anchors his book with a vision of the region that was famously laid out in the work of the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, an itinerant intellectual who was at heart a passionate regionalist. James’s celebration of resistant culture appeals to Jelly-Schapiro as a moving expression of Caribbean peoples’ persistent assertion of self-identity. Like James he attempts to see the region as whole. Hence, the breadth of his travels spans the entire archipelago, with extended visits to its larger islands, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Cuba. Even if the book occasionally suffers from distracting inaccuracies, it’s all the more refreshing for this panoptic lens.1

Jelly-Schapiro’s labors raise implications for the future of Caribbean travel writing. Audiences expect travelogues to affirm or deny received wisdom. The travel writer’s power lies in the ability to move away from stereotypes hardened by the centuries and offer instead an approach focused on observation. Up through the last century writers have rarely appropriately deployed this power. The basic observational requirement—to see that in spite of their small size this diverse collection of nations is fascinatingly complex—has been conspicuously missing from much of the developed world’s writing about the region.

Perhaps we are now at a time when a more informed outsider receptive to the inclinations of contemporary globalized youth can offer up something new: an approach that contemplates the divergences and similarities across the Caribbean as achievement rather than as failure. This new approach brings to light many of the ways that the West has been unable or unwilling to see the reality of places they helped to shape. In Island People Joshua Jelly-Schapiro presents a clear way to expand the field of view. icon

  1. To wit, Kingston’s airport is named Norman Manley International, not Kingston International Airport; Garvey’s UNIA was founded in 1914 in Jamaica, not in 1917 in New York; “Jah No Dead” is a well-known Burning Spear song and isn’t by Bob Marley; the Coral Gardens Incident in St. James Parish in Jamaica was in 1963, not 1962; Christopher “Dudus” Coke did not die in the Western Kingston Incursion of 2010; the Haitian term for the 2010 earthquake is goudougoudou, not garou garou, and so on.
Featured image: Taxi Boats, Haiti (February 29, 2013). Photograph by Steve Bennett / Flickr