Seeing connections in our Caribbean Sea

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Seeing connections in our Caribbean Sea Reflections on Epic Aesthetics of the Archipelago The AuTThor: Dr Kris Rampersad At LiTTribute to the Antilles @ Museum of Antigua and Barbuda St John’s, Antigua, March 23, 2013 The Caribbean has never been taught to appreciate the value of the space contained by the Caribbean Sea from which it draws its name, identity, and sustenance. We have been programmed to conceive of ourselves as islands. To see ourselves in our smallness, rather than in the bigger picture of who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things and the broad mechanics of this space we occupy in the universe.We are 22 islands, we are told, and then our knowledge providers give us other diminutive denominations of identity: Greater and Lesser Antilles; Windward and Leeward Islands; big and small islands of the Caribbean: OECS, CARICOM, ACS; and then the linguistic divisions – English, French, Spanish, Dutch speaking; our islands named and still yet the narrow national markers of identity: Trini Doubles, Jamaican Jerk, Bajan Flying Fish. We get lost in the minute divisions. Rarely do we hear the bigger picture: a presence in a Caribbean Sea that contains us – almost three million square kilometres of earth; that comprises not just 22 territories, but more than 7000 islands physical among us; almost one tenth of the world’s coral reefs; one of the largest oil producing areas of the world; an outstanding biodiversity, and a magnet to almost one third of world’s tourists; cultural forms that have grown out of us smashing island and national contours: Steelpan, Carnival, Calypso, Phagwa; Junkanoo, and so much more. Together, with the continental Caribbean, we are more than 240 million people. And we did not come into existence just about 500 years ago. We are almost 600 million years old! The sad truth is that one can find those bald facts nowhere in one place, which pinpoints the singular deficiency in all definitions and markers of the possibilities for recognition remains underexplored. These are the facts that children in pre and primary schools should be taught to recite by rote so they grow with a consciousness of themselves as children of the Caribbean Sea. While substantive data on the various elements of this prime Caribbean water resource exists, except for a few sporadic soundings by a handful of academics or intellectuals, the Sea has never been viewed as a driving force for social, economic and development by the decision-making machinery of the region. Although it has been functioning as such from its inception – a conduit or prehistoric, archaic and native peoples to connect, there has been no sustained and collated vision of the immeasurable potential of this body of water, nor development of the infrastructure to make it so, despite the advances in transportation and communications. While some research has been done on its biodiversity, on its marine heritage, the wrecks that lie beneath; on tourism it supports, on its geological history and it features in its role in the colonisation process, these have remained largely in the academic discourse and have not filtered through the education system, nor into the kind of social consciousness as the material has never been adapted to forms that can appeal to and shape the thinking of our children into adulthood. Significant elements that would complete the picture and provide the basis for defining its value remains nebulous – even such basic research as comprehensive data on tidal patterns that reflect regionality rather than islandism. Our Caribbean Sea has also remained peripheral to all discourse on the Atlantic trade, defined as the Middle Passage in post colonial literature of the Americas that has dominated the discourse, the content of which evoke the pain of slavery, the ill-gotten gains of piracy and the exploitation of mercantilism. But less attention has been given to the flip side of the coin, and notion of the Caribbean Sea as the panacea for those ills; its role in supporting the resilience of people to counter those negatives of the Atlantic Trade; as an economic resource; in forging and carving and creating a Caribbean society and sense of identity from so many disparate elements of cultures, ethnicities, languages and histories; and as a mechanism that has fuelled the survivalism and growth and development of the region. Considered as a market in holistic terms – its 240 million people is indeed a significant global force to be reckoned with – as suppliers and consumers. Folklorists, poets and philosophers through the ages have glorified the bodies of water around which their civilisations have grown – think of the tributes in song, art, music, poetry and epics to the Nile of Africa, the Tiber of Rome, the Ganges, the Danube, the Seine, the Tyne. Though such epic views of the Caribbean Sea in its potential for clinching Caribbean cohesiveness has resounded through the ages from our poets, philosophers and folklorists, full appreciation and recognition of its value as such a resource has suffered from our lack of emphasis on our own literatures and folklore in schools and in popular culture. It has been a route of connecting our islands since prehistory – the stepping stone from island to continent; the conduit of trade. As an important shipping route with its ports – the middle passage of colonial history, but also the route for trade and commerce for prehistoric civilisations and our indigeneous and subsequent peoples – it also supports sailing regattas and commercial and game fishing and yachting and kayaking, diving and scuba diving, yet apart from piecemeal national level data, one cannot get comprehensive tidal data for the Caribbean anywhere. Is it any wonder then that despite continuous talk, no concerted effort has been placed on developing a regional transportation system that fully utilises the Caribbean Sea to connect the islands and the mainland? It is a source of sustenance in another way; of fresh water, desalinated for those of our islands without inland water resources, like Antigua, for instance – though known as the land of 365 beaches and what I saw as the 50 shades of green-to-blue, it is the Sea that quenches its thirst. Our Sea washes our shores and neutralises linguistic barriers. George Lamming considers it a mediation zone. Derek Walcott finds in it our epic dimensions, uniting the experiences of millennia of indigeneous peoples – like the Mayans, Tainoes and Caribes and migrants whose knowledge, tradition and practices hold the wisdom for redressing natural and ecological risks and threats that can transcend the painful memories and hurts of history. We are not short of ideas or of documentation of ideas whether in fiction or non fiction. The Caribbean Sea – how does our writers present this? Our 22, or our 7000 islands? Fragmented in language, and ethnicities and cultures? Yes, indeed, but also, they look beyond and see the potential of what we are. Peoples from all the continents of the world who have joined indigeneous Caribbean peoples here to create, not just fragments of peoples and places and cultures; nor just a microcosm of the world, but our own cosmos that is rich and wholesome and energetic and vibrant and prolific and a cauldron of creativity. They see us in our fragments and in our wholeness. I saw a sunset on my first evening here in Antigua, spilling from the heavens to the ocean and connecting sea and sky in St John’s Harbour. And I am mesmerised because I see in it what Martin Carter penetrative vision sees in his 1927 poem Till I Collect published in Poems of Resistance in 1964: “Over the shining mud, the moon is blood/falling on ocean…but my own hand I dare not plunge too far…lest only bones I resurrect to light.” The beauteous bloody moon to him mirrors the scattered skeletons and bloodshed of his ancestors that have settled on the sea bed. Similarly, the atrocities on land spill out to sea and the Sea purges us in A J Seymour’s poem of 1914, There Runs a Dream, who sees the black waters of our rivers taking the dreams of the ‘perished’/abandoned plantations, to the sea; Edward Braithwaite in New World a-Comin’, written in 1930; published in 1967 in Rights of Passage draws hope: that the blood of those who left Africa …will create new soils, new souls, new ancestors; will flow like this tide fixed/to the stars by which this ship floats/to new worlds, new waters, new harbours…. In Pages from a Journal of 1934 Dennis Scott’s character is a captain, leaving the islands with his loot – not Raleigh’s El Dorado/gold – but our New World loot – ‘decks’ of sugar and spices, green bananas. He knows, and all our writers who have written from here, or tried to escape memories and the past and sometimes unsavoury realities of the present, know that: ‘the islands float behind, not leaving because “the past permits no unchaining”. Our sea evokes Noah for Wayne Browne, who in waiting for it to subside possesses everything; and then loses everything when he gets what he wishes – its subsidence. John Figueroa evokes the story of the Roman legend of Palinurus, the Lost Helsman in his 1920 poem of that name Love Leaps Here – the tragic figure of the Trojan War, who defeated in battle, in him is entrusted the task of taking his people to safety and who trusted too much the calm of the sea…the waves crooning against our bows …that claims him as a sacrifice so his people will be saved. And our Nobel Laureates – the men who we often love to hate, one more than the other: To Naipaul in The Middle Passage, this, the Caribbean Sea, is the sea of passages, the replicated voyages of colonialism and a regurgitated mercantilism that have persisted into now times – neocolonialism I believe it is called in academic circles – except this time the cargo is not spices, and coffee and tobacco and sugar, but people – the ships take migrants from the Caribbean to England – what Louise Bennet calls ‘colonisation in reverse’ … the three month journey of slavery truncated to five days on these neo slave ships: one journey echoing all those others that went before. And Derek Walcott: in his Nobel Lecture: Titled The Antilles – Fragments of Epic memory draws analogy of the creative genius among us to the love that is poured into reassembling a broken vase – as stronger than the love that appreciated it when it was whole. “It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments …. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture … Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.” That is the love, reassembled that we are witnessing here today; that I have experienced in the process of creating and delivering this book LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago to you and in planning is coming out and these, LiTTributes, this LiTTribute to the Antilles; to the people who inspired it. The Caribbean Sea has been the vessel that has contained the sum total of our history, our experiences and our ideas over its 400 million years of existence; why are we only taught to recognise and acknowledge only 400 years of it? The Caribbean Sea possesses and contains all the potentials and possibilities of us, to look beyond ourselves as individuals and see it as the Sea that binds and unites us. The Caribbean Sea is what makes us Antillean fragments, an Antillean whole. Kris Rampersad, St John’s Antigua March 23, 2013. Seeing connections in our Caribbean Sea Reflections on Epic Aesthetics of the Archipelago The AuTThor: Dr Kris Rampersad At LiTTribute to the Antilles @ Museum of Antigua and Barbuda St John’s, Antigua, March 23, 2013 The Caribbean has never been taught to appreciate the value of the space contained by the Caribbe an Sea from which it draws its name, identity, and sustenance. We have been programmed to conceive of ourselves as islands. To see ourselves in our smallness, rather than in the bigger picture of who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things and the broad mechanics of this space we occupy in the universe. We are 22 islands, we are told, and then our knowledge providers give us other diminutive denominations of identity: Greater and Lesser Antilles; Windward and Leeward Islands; big and small islands of the Caribbean: OECS, CARICOM, ACS; and then the linguistic divisions – English, French, Spanish, Dutch speaking; our islands named and still yet the narrow national markers of identity: Trini Doubles, Jamaican Jerk, Bajan Flying Fish. We get lost in the minute divisions. Rarely do we hear the bigger picture: a presence in a Caribbean Sea that contains us – almost three million square kilometres of earth; that comprises not just 22 territories, but more than 7000 islands physical among us; almost one tenth of the world’s coral reefs; one of the largest oil producing areas of the world; an outstanding biodiversity, and a magnet to almost one third of world’s tourists; cultural forms that have grown out of us smashing island and national contours: Steelpan, Carnival, Calypso, Phagwa; Junkanoo, and so much more. Together, with the continental Caribbean, we are more than 240 million people. And we did not come into existence just about 500 years ago. We are almost 600 million years old! The sad truth is that one can find those bald facts nowhere in one place, which pinpoints the singular deficiency in all definitions and markers of the possibilities for recognition remains underexplored. These are the facts that children in pre and primary schools should be taught to recite by rote so they grow with a consciousness of themselves as children of the Caribbean Sea. While substantive data on the various elements of this prime Caribbean water resource exists, except for a few sporadic soundings by a handful of academics or intellectuals, the Sea has never been viewed as a driving force for social, economic and development by the decision-making machinery of the region. Although it has been functioning as such from its inception – a conduit or prehistoric, archaic and native peoples to connect, there has been no sustained and collated vision of the immeasurable potential of this body of water, nor development of the infrastructure to make it so, despite the advances in transportation and communications. While some research has been done on its biodiversity, on its marine heritage, the wrecks that lie beneath; on tourism it supports, on its geological history and it features in its role in the colonisation process, these have remained largely in the academic discourse and have not filtered through the education system, nor into the kind of social consciousness as the material has never been adapted to forms that can appeal to and shape the thinking of our children into adulthood. Significant elements that would complete the picture and provide the basis for defining its value remains nebulous – even such basic research as comprehensive data on tidal patterns that reflect regionality rather than islandism. Our Carib bean Sea has also remained peripheral to all discourse on the Atlantic trade, defined as the Middle Passage in post colonial literature of the Americas that has dominated the discourse, the content of which evoke the pain of slavery, the ill-gotten gains of piracy and the exploitation of mercantilism. But less attention has been given to the flip side of the coin, and notion of the Caribbean Sea as the panacea for those ills; its role in supporting the resilience of people to counter those negatives of the Atlantic Trade; as an economic resource; in forging and carving and creating a Caribbean society and sense of identity from so many disparate elements of cultures, ethnicities, languages and histories; and as a mechanism that has fuelled the survivalism and growth and development of the region. Considered as a market in holistic terms – its 240 million people is indeed a significant global force to be reckoned with – as suppliers and consumers. Folklorists, poets and philosophers through the ages have glorified the bodies of water around which their civilisations have grown – think of the tributes in song, art, music, poetry and epics to the Nile of Africa, the Tiber of Rome, the Ganges, the Danube, the Seine, the Tyne. Though such epic views of the Caribbean Sea in its potential for clinching Caribbean cohesiveness has resounded through the ages from our poets, philosophers and folklorists, full appreciation and recognition of its value as such a resource has suffered from our lack of emphasis on our own literatures and folklore in schools and in popular culture. It has been a route of connecting our islands since prehistory – the stepping stone from island to continent; the conduit of trade. As an important shipping route with its ports – the middle passage of colonial history, but also the route for trade and commerce for prehistoric civilisations and our indigeneous and subsequent peoples – it also supports sailing regattas and commercial and game fishing and yachting and kayaking, diving and scuba diving, yet apart from piecemeal national level data, one cannot get comprehensive tidal data for the Caribbean anywhere. Is it any wonder then that despite continuous talk, no concerted effort has been placed on developing a regional transportation system that fully utilises the Caribbean Sea to connect the islands and the mainland? It is a source of sustenance in another way; of fresh water, desalinated for those of our islands without inland water resources, like Antigua, for instance – though known as the land of 365 beaches and what I saw as the 50 shades of green-to-blue, it is the Sea that quenches its thirst. Our Sea washes our shores and neutralises linguistic barriers. George Lamming considers it a mediation zone. Derek Walcott finds in it our epic dimensions, uniting the experiences of millennia of indigeneous peoples – like the Mayans, Tainoes and Caribes and migrants whose knowledge, tradition and practices hold the wisdom for redressing natural and ecological risks and threats that can transcend the painful memories and hurts of history. We are not short of ideas or of documentation of ideas whether in fiction or non fiction. The Caribbean Sea – how does our writers present this? Our 22, or our 7000 islands? Fragmented in language, and ethnicities and cultures? Yes, indeed, but also, they look beyond and see the potential of what we are. Peoples from all the continents of the world who have joined indigeneous Caribbean peoples here to create, not just fragments of peoples and places and cultures; nor just a microcosm of the world, but our own cosmos that is rich and wholesome and energetic and vibrant and prolific and a cauldron of creativity. They see us in our fragments and in our wholeness. I saw a sunset on my first evening here in Antigua, spilling from the heavens to the ocean and connecting sea and sky in St John’s Harbour. And I am mesmerised because I see in it what Martin Carter penetrative vision sees in his 1927 poem Till I Collect published in Poems of Resistance in 1964: “Over the shining mud, the moon is blood/falling on ocean…but my own hand I dare not plunge too far…lest only bones I resurrect to light.” The beauteous bloody moon to him mirrors the scattered skeletons and bloodshed of his ancestors that have settled on the sea bed. Similarly, the atrocities on land spill out to sea and the Sea purges us in A J Seymour’s poem of 1914, There Runs a Dream, who sees the black waters of our rivers taking the dreams of the ‘perished’/abandoned plantations, to the sea; Edward Braithwaite in New World a-Comin’, written in 1930; published in 1967 in Rights of Passage draws hope: that the blood of those who left Africa …will create new soils, new souls, new ancestors; will flow like this tide fixed/to the stars by which this ship floats/to new worlds, new waters, new harbours…. In Pages from a Journal of 1934 Dennis Scott’s character is a captain, leaving the islands with his loot – not Raleigh’s El Dorado/gold – but our New World loot – ‘decks’ of sugar and spices, green bananas. He knows, and all our writers who have written from here, or tried to escape memories and the past and sometimes unsavoury realities of the present, know that: ‘the islands float behind, not leaving because “the past permits no unchaining”. Our sea evokes Noah for Wayne Browne, who in waiting for it to subside possesses everything; and then loses everything when he gets what he wishes – its subsidence. John Figueroa evokes the story of the Roman legend of Palinurus, the Lost Helsman in his 1920 poem of that name Love Leaps Here – the tragic figure of the Trojan War, who defeated in battle, in him is entrusted the task of taking his people to safety and who trusted too much the calm of the sea…the waves crooning against our bows …that claims him as a sacrifice so his people will be saved. And our Nobel Laureates – the men who we often love to hate, one more than the other: To Naipaul in The Middle Passage, this, the Caribbean Sea, is the sea of passages, the replicated voyages of colonialism and a regurgitated mercantilism that have persisted into now times – neocolonialism I believe it is called in academic circles – except this time the cargo is not spices, and coffee and tobacco and sugar, but people – the ships take migrants from the Caribbean to England – what Louise Bennet calls ‘colonisation in reverse’ … the three month journey of slavery truncated to five days on these neo slave ships: one journey echoing all those others that went before. And Derek Walcott: in his Nobel Lecture: Titled The Antilles – Fragments of Epic memory draws analogy of the creative genius among us to the love that is poured into reassembling a broken vase – as stronger than the love that appreciated it when it was whole. “It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments …. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture … Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.” That is the love, reassembled that we are witnessing here today; that I have experienced in the process of creating and delivering this book LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago to you and in planning is coming out and these, LiTTributes, this LiTTribute to the Antilles; to the people who inspired it. The Caribbean Sea has been the vessel that has contained the sum total of our history, our experiences and our ideas over its 400 million years of existence; why are we only taught to recognise and acknowledge only 400 years of it? The Caribbean Sea possesses and contains all the potentials and possibilities of us, to look beyond ourselves as individuals and see it as the Sea that binds and unites us. The Caribbean Sea is what makes us Antillean fragments, an Antillean whole. From Demokrissy: kris-rampersad.blogspot.com Kris Rampersad, St John’s Antigua March 23, 2013.

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