Genocide, Narrative, and Indigenous Exile from the Caribbean Archipelago

Melanie NewtonThis spring’s colloquium series Whither the Caribbean? Critical Perspectives on History, Politics, and Culture opened with a talk by Melanie Newton, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto.  Newton specializes in the social and cultural history of the Caribbean and the history of slavery, gender, and emancipation in the Atlantic World.

Newton presented her paper “The Race Leapt at Sauteurs”: Genocide, Narrative, and Indigenous Exile from the Caribbean Archipelago, which explores the history of Garifuna people (Afro-indigenous descendants of the people of the ‘Caribbee’ islands) between 1492 and the eighteenth century. Her objective was to demonstrate that the Lesser Antilles’s histories of enslavement and colonization fit the 1951 United Nations definition of genocide as an attempt to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” To do so, she took into account three acts of annihilationist violence committed by the Spanish in 1493, the French in 1651, and the British from 1796-1797 against the Lesser Antillean peoples who came to be known as the Caribs. The three military defeats suffered by the Carib people translated into symbols of racial annihilation that helped colonial authorities to dispossess Caribbean aboriginal people of legal claims to either redress or rights based on Carib ancestry.

Newton clarified that the narrative of Carib defeat=disappearance survives to this day. In fact, Carib survival narratives have been marginalized and obscured by genocidal anti-Carib narratives. Newton gave several examples of these narratives:

  1. From his first voyage Christopher Columbus labeled the indigenous people of Hispaniola caribes, “men-eaters,” and with this claim he justified the Spanish attack against the local populations. Newton stresses that the Hispaniola encounter was the first expression of Spain’s annihilationist impulse in the Americas, yet it was the ‘Caribs’ who entered the imperial archive accused as ‘man-eaters’ and murderers. From 1503 to at least 1608 there was a succession of Spanish decrees sanctioning Caribs’ enslavement and/or slaughter because of their putative cannibalism. ‘Carib’ came to be an anthropological reference to people from the southeastern Caribbean and the nearby coastal mainland as well as a legal category of genocidal proportions that justified the enslavement, dislocation, and annihilation of collectives of any people classified as ‘Carib’.
  2. In 1635 the king of France granted the Compagnie des Iles d’Amérique the ‘right’ to colonize three of the ‘Caribbees’ – Martinique, St Lucia, and Grenada. Nevertheless, the French were unable to establish themselves on either Grenada or St Lucia because of “the multitude of Savages who lived there.” It is during these battles that the infamous stand-off at Morne des Sauteurs took place. Morne des Sauteurs is a cliff in the island of Grenada that overlooks the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Being trapped by the French, the Caribs preferred to jump from the precipice into the sea, rather than perishing at the hands of the French. Newton explains that the ‘Leap at Sauteurs” entered the narrative of Antillean history as an emblem of the assumed connection between the arrival of Europeans and the Caribs’ almost wholesale ‘disappearance’ from their ancestral territory. This narrative marks the second Carib annihilation.
  3. The third annihilation narrative involves the forced removal of the Black Caribs from the island of St. Vincent by the British. Melanie Newton elucidates that in the slave-holding era Afro-indigenous ‘mixing’ was especially dangerous, for such people might be slaves who could invoke the claims to territory and sovereignty of free aboriginal people. Hence, the British articulated a narrative that denied the Carib-ness of “Black Caribs.” According to the story that they created and that circulated until the eighteenth century, a slave ship wrecked off the coast of St. Vincent and the Caribs rescued and enslaved the Africans. The blacks then multiplied more rapidly than the Caribs and extirpated the original possessors of the Island. The British insisted that “Black Caribs” were of African and not Carib ancestry. The seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial insistence that ‘blackness’ had destroyed St. Vincent’s Carib heritage explains the Vincentian Carib Territory’s absence from the legal landscape of indigenous rights that is reflected in scholarly silence on its historical significance.

Newton’s article challenges the exclusion of the history of the Caribs from wider conversations about genocide and offers a reflection about the perpetuation of annihilation narratives.

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