West Indies

views updated May 29 2018

West Indies

The importation of Africans into the Caribbean area as slaves began in the sixteenth century but expanded greatly after 1640 when the islands became a major source of sugar and workers were needed for the plantations. Most of these people came from the various tribes along the coast of West Africa from present-day Senegal to Nigeria. The white planters looked upon Africans with disdain and developed the opinion that they had no religious life, that they were at best bearers of a set of heathenish superstitions. Such was not the case. While a few of the Africans were Muslims, the majority were followers of the West African religious system, which with relatively minor alterations from tribe to tribe pervaded the area from which the slaves were taken.

The West African system acknowledged a supreme divine power but found its more personalized expression in the various deities responsible for the harmonious operation of the natural world. In the West Indies the major deities included Shango, Ogun, and Eshu (in Trinidad) and Legba, Erzulie, and Damballah (in Haiti). The Haitian deities (loas ) were of two varieties: those of African origin (Rada) and those of Haitian origin (Pétro). Rites were constructed for both.

There was also a belief in fate, which to a large extent determined the course and eventual destiny of the individual. A person's future could be seen through divinatory practices. Also, by propitiating the messenger to the Gods, who carried words of the individual's fate, that fate could be altered to one more favorable. The religion was led by priests and priestesses (variously termed in the different islands), who performed the rites for the higher deities; medicine men, who dealt with lower evil spirits (the cause of disease and harm to individuals); and sorcerers, who were supposed to attack tribal enemies but sometimes, for a price, attacked individuals with their magical powers. The sorcerer (obayifo ) worked clandestinely at night. People wore amulets to protect themselves. The priest supplied the amulets and often worked to counter the effects of the sorcerer.

In Africa, this religion permeated tribal life. Religious practice included obeah (magic ), "possession" of certain people by the deities (similar to mediumship), and communication with and guidance from ancestor spirits.

In the New World, such religion was at best distasteful to the European understanding; it was often despised by the ruling elite. However, some of the planters did not hesitate to make use of obeah to manage the workers. To prevent theft of crops, for instance, they sometimes adorned trees around the edge of a banana or orange grove with miniature coffins, old bones, bottles of dirty water, and other obeah objects. Then the workers would not enter and steal. As late as 1908, a case of obeah was reported in a Jamaican journal:

"The cause célèbre at Half-way Tree Court, Jamaica, recently, was the case of Rex V. Charles Donaldson for unlawfully practicing Obeah. Robert Robinson, who stated that he was a laborer

living at Trench Pen, in the parish of St. Andrew, stated that on Tuesday, the 8th ult., he was sitting down outside the May Pen cemetery on the Spanish Town Road. He was on his way from work, and had a white handkerchief tied around his head. He was feeling sick, and that led him to sit down. While there sitting the prisoner came to him. He did not know the man before, but he began by asking him what was the matter. Witness replied, 'I am well sick.' The prisoner said, 'No, you are not sick; you havetwo ghosts on youone creole and one coolie.' Witness told the prisoner to go away and was left. He next saw prisoner on Wednesday 9th. He came to him at Bumper Hall, where he was working, and he said to him, 'Man, how you find me here?' 'Oh,' replied the prisoner, 'if a man is in hell self I can find him; I come for you to give me the job?' Witness then inquired, 'What job?' and accused told him he wanted to 'take off the two ghosts.' He would do it for £25, and he 'killed' for any sum from £25 to £50. He had worked for all classeswhite, black, coolie, Chinese, etc. Witness said he did not give him any 'good consent' at the time, but reported the matter after the accused left to Clark and Wright, two witnesses in the case. Clark told him he must not scare the man but go home. On Thursday, the 10th, the defendant came to him at his yard at French Pen. The accused told him he would come back to him to take off the ghost. He also told him to get a bottle of rum and 5s. He (witness) consented to the arrangement. The defendant began by taking off his jacket. He then opened his 'brief bag' and took out a piece of chalk. The accused then made three marks on the table and took out a phial and a white stone. The phial contained some stuff which appeared like quicksilver. He arrayed his paraphernalia on the table. They consisted of a large whisky bottle with some yellow stuff, a candle, a pack of cards, a looking-glass, three cigarette pictures, a pocket knife, etc. The accused also took out a whistle which he sounded, and then placed the cards on the table. He then asked for the 5s. which was given to him. He placed the coins on the cards around a lighted candle. The pint of rum which he (witness) had brought was on the table and prisoner poured some of it into a pan. He went outside and sprinkled the rum at the four corners of the house. Accused came back in and said, 'Papa! papa! your case is very bad! There are two ghosts outside. The creole is bad, but the coolie is rather worse. But if he is made out of hell I will catch him.' The prisoner then began to blow his whistle in a very funny waya way in which he had never heard a whistle blown before. He also began to speak in an unknown tongue and to call up the ghosts."

[The following dialogue is taken from court proceedings regarding the case.]

Mr. Lake"Aren't there a lot of you people who believe that ghosts can harm and molest you?"

Witness"No, I am not one.

" Mr. Lake"Did you not tell him that a duppy [Jamaican ghost] struck you on your back and you heard voices calling you?"

Witness"He told me so."[Continuing, witness said he had seen all sorts of ghosts at all different times and of different kinds also].

Mr. Lake"Of all different sexes, man and woman?

" Witness"Yes; any man who can see ghosts will know a man ghost from a woman ghost."

While it empowered those who practiced it, African religion had to be practiced undercover, and as a result it underwent some changes. For example, it took on an overlay of Christianity of whatever variety was dominant on the plantation. In Haiti, Voudou resulted from obeah's association with French Catholicism. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, Santeria emerged its mixing with Spanish Catholicism. In Brazil, Macumba is a result of its mixing with Portuguese Catholicism.

African-based religions gained significant favor in the West Indies because of their role underlying the various rebellions by which the slaves gained their freedom. Today, they survive in competition with the dominant Catholicism or Anglicanism. They are reemerging despite several centuries of negative writing by outsiders.

African-derived Caribbean religion entered the United States at the time of the Haitian slave rebellion in 1908 and in the years to follow. Voudou eventually became established in New Orleans and the surrounding countryside. During the twentieth century, and especially as immigration laws have eased during the last generation, numerous people have moved to America from the Caribbean, carrying their faiths with them.


Bisnauth, Dale. History of Religion in the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: Kingston Publishers, 1989.

Denning, Melita, and Osborne Phillips. Voudoun Fire: The Living Reality of Mystical Religion. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1979.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New York: Chelsea House, 1970.

West Indies

views updated Jun 08 2018

West Indies is the general geographical term for the many islands of the Caribbean, the largest of which are Cuba, Hispaniola (politically Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. After Columbus' landing on San Salvador in 1492, Spain claimed the whole region, concentrating first on Hispaniola, then on Cuba and Puerto Rico. Sugar plantations were established and black African slaves introduced. The first inroads into the Spanish monopoly came when Spain, in the early 17th cent., was still struggling to put down the Dutch revolt in Europe. English settlement started at St Kitts (1623) and Barbados (1627), followed by Antigua and Montserrat (1632), Anguilla (1650), and the conquest of Jamaica in 1655 by a Cromwellian expedition. The Bahamas, claimed as early as 1629, did not receive much attention until after the Restoration. Meanwhile, France had acquired Guadeloupe and Martinique (1635), Grenada in the 1640s, and had established a foothold on the western part of Hispaniola. Dutch settlements were on Curaçao and St Eustatius in the 1630s, and the Danes, entering the race comparatively late, acquired St Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1666 and purchased St Croix from the French in 1733. Control by European governments was necessarily fitful and the West Indies gained its reputation for piracy and buccaneering.

The 18th cent. saw incessant warfare between the colonial powers, towns repeatedly sacked, and islands taken and retaken, often for use as bargaining counters at the peace. Tobago changed hands so often that its inhabitants were said to live in a state of betweenity: at one stage, Charles II, who did not have it, granted it to the duke of Courland. Admiral Vernon became a national hero in Britain in 1739 when he sacked Porto Bello, Spain's base in Panama, at the start of the War of Jenkins's Ear. At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, Britain retained Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent, and Tobago at the expense of France. When British sea power wobbled during the War of American Independence, the French and Spanish took Grenada, Montserrat, St Kitts, St Vincent, and the Bahamas, but had to return them at the treaty of Versailles in 1783, retaining only Tobago.

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Britain added Trinidad from Spain (1802) and St Lucia from France (1814). By this time the West Indies were beginning to lose some of their economic importance to Britain, and the West Indian lobby some of its influence in Parliament. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery in the British empire in 1833. The colonial distribution did not change greatly in the course of the 19th cent. The western part of Hispaniola, ceded by Spain to France in 1697, saw a black rising in the 1790s and established its independence as Haiti in 1804: the other two-thirds of the island threw off Spanish rule in 1821, only to fall under Haitian domination, and the Dominican Republic was not established until 1844. British rule in Jamaica was shaken by a rising in 1865, and the governor Edward Eyre recalled in disgrace, but control was reasserted. As a result of the war between Spain and the USA in 1898, Puerto Rico was annexed to the USA, and Cuba was declared an independent state, though under American tutelage.

Since the Second World War, the great majority of West Indian islands of any size have become sovereign states. In 1945 only Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic were independent. In 1958 the British introduced the West Indian Federation, long an aspiration, to improve political and economic co-operation, but it rapidly fell victim to inter-island rivalries. Jamaica resented that the capital was in Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1,000 miles away, and voted in a referendum to pull out. Trinidad followed suit and the Federation was wound up in 1962. Jamaica and Trinidad then became independent, followed by Barbados (1966), Bahamas (1973), Grenada (1974), Dominica (1978), St Lucia (1979), St Vincent (1979), Antigua (1981), and St Kitts and Nevis (1983). Two of the enduring legacies of British colonialism are the use of the English language and an awesome addiction to cricket.

J. A. Cannon

French West Indies

views updated May 29 2018

French West Indies

In 1625 French settlement began on Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), which was shared with the British. In 1635 the first settlers appeared on Martinique and Guadeloupe, supported by the Company of the Islands of America, which had been chartered by the French crown to provide engagés (white indentured labor) and free settlers and missionaries in return for fees payable in tobacco and cotton. The company went bankrupt for lack of government and merchant support, and the colonies were sold to private investors. Under the new owners, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Marie Galante, Désirade, the Iles des Saintes, Grenada, and part of St. Kitts emerged as plantation colonies worked by African slaves. In the western Caribbean, the French planted sugar in the unoccupied western end of Hispaniola. On the mainland of South America, they sank roots at Cayenne.

By the 1660s, the colonies were prospering sufficiently to attract the attention of the French government. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of trade, arranged to repurchase the colonies in 1664; set up the French West Indies Company to control and tax trade with the colonies; built slave trading forts in West Africa; forced the withdrawal of Dutch merchant competitors from the French West Indies by 1678; and forced Spain to accept French plantations on St. Domingue. Colbert also institutionalized the exclusif, which forbade colonial trade with non-French territories, as well as any trade or industry in the colonies that might compete with metropolitan merchants and manufacturers. The colonies were limited to producing the raw materials needed by French industry, and to consuming French products.

The colonies did not have local assemblies or councils empowered to make laws. The Council of State in France passed colonial laws and appointed all colonial officials. The intendants were French; the governors answered to the governor-general in Martinique.

In the eighteenth century, French losses to Britain included St. Kitts (1713) and Grenada (1763). Saint Barthélémy went to Sweden in 1784, returning to France in 1877. France acquired Saint Lucia in 1763 and Tobago in 1783, then lost them to the British in 1815.

The end of plantation slavery began in the French colonies in 1793 with the massive slave rebellion on Saint Domingue, which succeeded in ending both slavery and French rule in what was renamed Haiti. In 1794, the French Revolutionary government declared the end of slavery in all French colonies. In 1802 Napoleon reimposed slavery on the remaining Caribbean possessions.

Martinique and Guadeloupe, important producers of sugarcane, used slave labor imported from Africa. However, French farmers began growing sugar beets, thereby lowering demand for cane sugar. Abolition came finally in 1848.

Planters received compensation for lost slaves and help in acquiring 70,000 indentured laborers from India. Former slaves received limited political rights (e.g., universal male suffrage in 1848). Sugar and its by-products continued to dominate the island economies through much of the twentieth century. French Guiana experienced a gold rush at the turn of the twentieth century, and today exports jungle hardwoods. From the 1850s until 1947, French Guiana also functioned as a penal colony.

French Guiana, with an area of 36,400 square miles, consists of low coastal plains and tropical rain forests. Guadeloupe and its dependencies cover 700 square miles of coastal plains and interior volcanic mountains. Martinique, with similar topography, covers 440 square miles. By 1990 the population of Guadeloupe was 342,000, that of Martinique was 340,000 and that of French Guiana was 98,000. French Guiana was the most ethnically heterogeneous.

The Caribbean Départements d'Outre-Mer (DOMs) were created in 1946. One consequence has been the significant decline of agriculture in all three; their economies are dominated by the administrative and service sectors. As integral parts of France, they are provided with all the government services available in mainland France. French Guiana provides the French, and through them the European Community, with the space and missile complex at Kourou. Tourism is increasingly important to the economies of the two island territories. Unemployment is significant, over 25 percent, in all three territories but is offset by welfare programs and subventions from France that yield living standards that are among the best in the Caribbean.

The dominant political issue facing the three territories today is their political relationship with France. Virtually all political parties support the present relationship with France, although they differ on how much local autonomy is desirable. The several small independence parties are elector-ally insignificant but add to the ongoing debate.

See alsoFrench Guiana; French-Latin American Relations; Haiti; Martinique and Guadeloupe; Plantations; Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts); Santo Domingo; Slave Revolts: Spanish America; Slavery: Spanish America; Slavery: Abolition; Slave Trade; Sugar Industry.


Philip P. Boucher, Les Nouvelles Frances: France in America, 1500–1815. An Imperial Perspective (1989).

Robert Aldrich and John Connell, France's Overseas Frontier; Départements et Territoires d'Outre-Mer (1992). For recent developments, see the essays on the Western Indian DOMs in the annual Latin American and Caribbean Contemporary Record (1983–).

Additional Bibliography

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean. Williamsburg: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Farnsworth, Paul. Island Lives: Historical Archaelogies of the Caribbean. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Kadish, Doris. Slavery in the Caribbean Francophone World: Distant Voices, Forgotten Acts, Forged Identities. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

                                   Rosemary Brana-Shute

West Indies

views updated May 29 2018

West Indies Chain of islands encircling the Caribbean Sea and separating it from the Atlantic Ocean, extending from Florida to Venezuela. Geographically they divide into three main groups: the Bahamas, and the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Most islands are now independent, but were formerly British, Spanish, French, or Dutch possessions. The indigenous population was killed by the colonial powers, who fought for possession of the islands. They were transformed by the introduction of sugar cane in the 17th century, fuelling the slave trade from Africa. See individual country articles

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West Indies