In at present’s visitor publish, R. Grant Kleiser, a PhD candidate at Columbia College discusses his expertise with instructing the Caribbean as part of Huge Early America. Kleiser research the early fashionable Atlantic world and his proposed dissertation examines the institution of free ports in eighteenth-century British, Spanish, French, Danish, and Dutch Caribbean islands, investigating their promulgation inside varied political-economic philosophies and measuring their impact on “free commerce” financial philosophers akin to David Hume and Adam Smith, American Revolutionaries, Spanish Bourbon reformers, and British politicians. He has been a Educating Assistant for the course, “The Trendy Caribbean,” this semester beneath the course of Dr. Natasha Lightfoot.
“Draw the Caribbean.”
That was the primary in-class project I gave my college students as a Educating Assistant within the course, The Trendy Caribbean, taught by Dr. Natasha Lightfoot at Columbia College. I’m extremely indebted to Molly Perry of the College of the Virgin Islands for offering me with the inspiration for this exercise. Perry, a Ph.D. graduate of William and Mary and a professor of Caribbean historical past instructed me that she at all times invitations her college students to “draw the Caribbean” on the primary day of sophistication. Some folks would element a few the “larger” islands (the Larger Antilles), others would come with the outlines of Central, South and North America together with varied “dots” signifying the Lesser Antilles, whereas some took the project as an invite to supply an image of individuals stress-free on a sand seaside with palm timber swaying within the wind.
I believed that every one these potential drawings may event a instructing second for reflection on geography, varied understandings of what the Caribbean is perceived to be, and the necessity for outlining phrases (such because the Caribbean) based mostly on respectable and well-stated standards. An ideal project to begin of the semester, I assured myself. What I didn’t anticipate was for it to be thrown again in my face.
Whereas my college students have been busy placing pen to paper, I made a decision to finish the project for myself. I began by (very crudely) drawing the borders of Northern South America, of Colombia and Venezuela, of Central America and Mexico, after which Florida and the Jap Coast of america. I then made some circles of varied sizes denoting the Larger and (many of the) Lesser Antilles, in addition to the Bahamas. Earlier than I completed, I added three dots on the Jap Coast of the US: roughly the place Philadelphia, New York Metropolis, and Boston are situated.
“Alright, time’s up. Let’s see what you bought!”
My college students had created principally maps, exhibiting most of the Caribbean islands, South America, Central America, and Florida. I had everybody clarify their justifications for his or her drawings. “These locations all are a part of the identical tropical local weather that’s related to the Caribbean.” “I included these areas as a result of all of them have an identical Caribbean tradition.” “I simply did the islands as a result of these are the ‘Caribbean’ as I understood it, however I put Florida in as a geographical reference.”
One scholar raised her hand and stated: “Grant, why did you embody most of North America in your map?” I instructed her I might wait for everybody to share their reasoning earlier than I defined mine. A number of extra college students spoke up, however the authentic scholar nonetheless appeared involved. Finally, she raised her hand once more. “I’m sorry, however I’d actually like to listen to your reasoning. I feel that together with what’s now america may be a little bit bit offensive, to be sincere. I imply, that’s a little bit bit Western-centric placing the US in there, no? Why does the US should be concerned right here? It additionally hyperlinks folks to the Caribbean who don’t have the id as being from the area, and that map will not be actually attune to the distinctive id of the Caribbean area in my view.”
Effectively, I undoubtedly didn’t anticipate that response. In a little bit of a panic, I lastly detailed my map’s justification: I research eighteenth-century commerce and so I included the three dots of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York as a result of these have been key ports that traded with the Caribbean within the 1700s and offered many of those locations with important lumber, cod, wheat, and different provides. I famous that some students, as an example, have argued that New England was a hinterland for Jamaica.Thus the “Caribbean” area, in my commercially-focused thoughts, has modified over time based mostly on completely different buying and selling connections, and the area appears completely different based mostly on the various experiences, considerations, and views of the authors defining it. I attempted to elucidate the idea of “Huge Early America,” that North America has been intimately related through migrations and commerce to South and Central America and the Caribbean. I attempted to encourage them to suppose extra broadly concerning the fluidity of areas, how they alter over time and perspective. I thanked the coed for her perspective and inspired her to maintain talking up and difficult even (and particularly) my concepts.
However after the category I believed to myself: was I being offensive? Was I adopting a “Western-centric” mindset? How do folks from the Caribbean at present really feel about being lumped into the idea of “Huge Early America?” Does that class deprive them of their distinctive id? Would a greater time period, based mostly on the middle of financial gravity within the early fashionable interval, be the “Huge Early Caribbean?”
Whereas I recognize and admire the Omohundro Institute’s emphasis on making America “huge,” a lesson to be realized right here is that classes usually are not at all times innocuous. Not solely do areas change over time based mostly on migratory patterns and buying and selling connections, as students akin to Ernesto Bassi argue, however areas additionally carry satisfaction and which means for individuals who establish with and outline them.Some may even see the incorporation of North America into maps of the “Caribbean” as merely reinforcing notions of US political, financial, and navy interventions and exploitation of the area. We’d lose a number of the richness, uniqueness, and defiant id of the area at present if we solely emphasize connections to the mainland. In sure contexts and sure lessons, perhaps the Caribbean ought to simply be the narrowly-defined Caribbean. Or we may shift the angle, telling tales of the “Huge Early Caribbean” that facilities the contributions of the individuals who labored, lived, and died there to histories that went far past their sandy shores.
On the very least we are able to attempt to have these debates in our school rooms and encourage our college students to suppose deeply concerning the phrases they use, the locations they privilege, and their very own views and reasoning within the making of historical past and the making of areas.
Possibly we are able to even begin right here. What are the implications of Huge Early America for the Caribbean as a area? How would you conduct such an project? What would you draw? I’m curious to listen to your solutions.
See, as an example, Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia: College of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Mark Peterson, The Metropolis-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Energy, 1630-1865 (Princeton: Princeton College Press, 2019); Peter Pellizzari, “Supplying Slavery: Jamaica, North America, and British Intra-Imperial Commerce, 1752-1769,” Slavery & Abolition.
See Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Larger Caribbean World (Durham, N.C.: Duke College Press, 2016).