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The Caribbean

Aesthetics, World-Ecology, Politics

Postcolonialism across the Disciplines 18

Postcolonialism across the Disciplines

Series Editors
Graham Huggan, University of Leeds
Andrew Thompson, University of Exeter

Postcolonialism across the Disciplines showcases alternative directions for

postcolonial studies. It is in part an attempt to counteract the dominance
in colonial and postcolonial studies of one particular discipline – English
literary/ cultural studies – and to make the case for a combination of
disciplinary knowledges as the basis for contemporary postcolonial
critique. Edited by leading scholars, the series aims to be a seminal
contribution to the field, spanning the traditional range of disciplines
represented in postcolonial studies but also those less acknowledged. It
will also embrace new critical paradigms and examine the relationship
between the transnational/cultural, the global and the postcolonial.
The Caribbean
Aesthetics, World-Ecology, Politics

Chris Campbell
Michael Niblett
The Caribbean

Liverpool University Press

First published 2016 by
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Copyright © 2016 Liverpool University Press

The rights of Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett to be identified as the editors
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and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written
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Acknowledgements vii

Introduction: Critical Environments: World-Ecology, World Literature,

and the Caribbean 1
Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett
Prologue: The Brutalization of Truth 17
Sir Wilson Harris

Catastrophes and Commodity Frontiers

1 The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature 25
Sharae Deckard
2 Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology: Gothic Narrative in the
Work of Ana Lydia Vega and Mayra Montero 46
Kerstin Oloff
3 Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe: Vodou, the 2010 Earthquake, and
Haiti’s Environmental Catastrophe 63
Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

Ecological Revolutions and the Nature of Knowledge

4 ‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’: Robert Schomburgk,
Wilson Harris, and the Ecology of Modernism 81
Michael Niblett
5 Mining and Mastery: Ethnography and World-Ecology in the
Work of Charles Barrington Brown 100
Chris Campbell


6 Hegemony in Guyana: REDD-plus and State Control over

Indigenous Peoples and Resources 118
Janette Bulkan

Economies of Extraction: Restructuring and Resistance

7 Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power in Oonya Kempadoo’s
Tide Running 145
Molly Nichols
8 Jamaica and the Beast: Negril and the Tourist Landscape 161
Brian Hudson
9 Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique: The Discourse
of an Ecological NGO (1980–2011) 174
Malcom Ferdinand

Epilogue: Tingaling 189

Oonya Kempadoo

Notes on Contributors 197

Index 200



W e gratefully acknowledge the support of the Leverhulme Trust for

funding a research project (‘Literature and the Environment in the
Caribbean’) involving conferences in the UK and the Caribbean. The papers
and discussions at these two events provided the impetus for this collection.
We are grateful to colleagues from across the UK, Europe, the USA, and the
Caribbean who have participated in the ‘Decolonizing Voices’ and ‘Global
Frontiers’ research networks over the past three years. Many thanks, in
particular, to Jason Moore, Anthony Carrigan, Sharae Deckard, Jim Graham,
Kerstin Oloff, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Vicky Smith, and Claire Westall
for conversations and correspondence on world ecology and environmental
criticism. We have also had the pleasure of talking through our research
concerns over the past few years with the MA students who have attended
our modules on Caribbean literature and the environment at the university
of Warwick; their input to discussions has always been illuminating and
enlightening for us.
We appreciate the support received from colleagues in the Yesu Persaud
Centre for Caribbean Studies and the Department of English and Comparative
Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. Special thanks also to Yesu
Persaud (not least for hosting us in Guyana), Mark Tumbridge, Paloma
Mohamed, and David Dabydeen.


Critical Environments:
World-Ecology, World Literature,
and the Caribbean
Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett


The Caribbean in the World-Ecology

I n his magisterial study of environmental change in the Caribbean since

1492, David Watts notes that social scientists have often characterized the
region as ‘having been shaped by two of the most severe human traumas of
global significance to have taken place within the last four centuries: first, the
virtually total and rapid removal of a large aboriginal population following
initial European contact; and, later, the forced transference […] of many
hundreds of thousands of Africans from their homelands under conditions of
slavery to support a system of plantation agriculture’. To these, he suggests,
we must add the ‘third trauma’ of ‘environmental degeneration’, which is now
‘of equal and growing importance to the inhabitants’ of the Caribbean (1987,
3). Watts was writing in the 1980s, but his arguments resonate strongly with
the contemporary moment, in which the effects on the region of heightened
resource extraction and anthropogenic climate change (including rising sea
levels and extreme weather events) could be said to have thrust environmental
issues into the limelight like never before. But this is somewhat misleading.
For if the impact of explicitly environmentalist concerns and debates on popular
perception and government policy is relatively recent (one thinks, for example,
of the launch of Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy in 2009), worries
over environmental change and degradation in the Caribbean have a much
longer history. Columbus’s observations on the relationship between the
afternoon rains in Jamaica and the actions of European land clearers ‘provides
us with the first documented post-classical instance in a colonial setting of
a conscious connection being made between deforestation and a change in
rainfall’ (Grove, 1996, 31). By the seventeenth century, colonial observers were
growing increasingly alarmed over the impact of the rapid deforestation of
island landscapes; and by 1764, ‘programmes of forest protection were quickly

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

being put into effect on newly acquired British territories in the Caribbean’
A similar argument might be made in connection with Caribbean literature
and art. If avowedly environmentalist works such as Mayra Montero’s novel Tú,
la oscuridad (1992), Ian McDonald’s poem ‘The Sun Parrots are Late This Year’
(1992), and Llewellyn Xavier’s cycle of collages Environment Fragile (2004) are
relatively new phenomena, a concern for the environment and an emphasis on
the connection between the colonial-capitalist exploitation of labour and the
domination and degradation of the landscape has long been a preoccupation
of Caribbean writers and artists. Novels such as Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs
de la rosée (1944), George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953), and Simone
Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972), spring immediately
to mind. But consider, too, the importance of rethinking the relationship
between the human and the extra-human to the anti-colonial thought and
poetic imaginary of José Martí in the nineteenth century; or the striking
evocations of dehumanized bodies and blasted, despoiled landscapes in Eric
Walrond’s short stories, such as ‘Drought’ and ‘The Palm Porch’ (1926); or the
dramatization of the different socio-ecologies of the plot and plantation in
Elma Napier’s 1938 novel A Flying Fish Whispered.
Indeed, it is precisely the anti-colonial and anti-imperial orientation of
such works that demands this engagement with ecology. In their introduction
to Postcolonial Ecologies, Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley follow
Edward Said in arguing that postcolonial writing, in responding to imperi-
alism’s violent expropriation and exploitation of nature, can be positioned
as ‘a process of recovery, identification, and historical mythmaking “enabled
by the land”’ (2011, 3). If those colonial observers mentioned a moment ago
were able to identify the damage being done to Caribbean territories by
deforestation and the like – and even to initiate efforts to lessen its impact –
their responses were invariably circumscribed by the socio-economic logic of
the system in which they were enmeshed. The ‘local forest laws’ and ‘nascent
environmental anxieties’ of the colonial Caribbean ‘were soon overwhelmed
by the short-term priorities of a rapacious capitalism, contemporary medical
prejudices and the dictates of an imported landscape fashion’ (Grove, 1996, 70).
Or, as Bonham C. Richardson puts it: ‘The islands suddenly had been absorbed
into an expanding European-centred commodity exchange of trans-Atlantic
scope. And growing European market demand increased sugar productivity
schedules that knew or cared little about insular soil erosion rates or the
heightened drought susceptibility that deforestation created’ (1992, 30). The
impotence of conservationist measures in the face of the imperatives of
capitalist accumulation highlights how the problem of ecological degradation
is not merely an abstractly environmental one that can be dissociated from
questions of wealth and power. Rather, the issue is the way in which a
particular mode of production organizes, and is itself constituted through,
a specific configuration of relations between humans and the rest of nature.
To see things from this perspective, however, is also to begin to reframe


how we understand the relationship between social and environmental

change. Instead of seeking to identify the political-economic dimension of
environmental issues or the environmental dimension of political economy, it is
necessary to grasp historical systems such as capitalism as ecological projects.
That is, they are to be understood not as purely social forces acting upon an
external nature, but rather as developing through the web of life. This is the
view put forward by environmental historian Jason Moore, for whom historical
systems are bundles of human and extra-human activities and relations,
woven together in such a way as to instantiate definite law-like patterns of
wealth, nature, and power over long time and large space. Crucially, argues
Moore, these patterns are not produced by humans but rather co-produced
by humans with the rest of nature. Both human and extra-human natures are
agents of historical change, but neither has agency independent of the other. In
Moore’s view, human and biophysical natures are intertwined at every scale,
from the microbiome and the body to world empires and global markets.
Thus, capitalism, argues Moore, is not ‘a social system, much less an economic
one. It is, rather, a world-ecology. Capitalism does not “have” an ecological
regime; it is a world-ecological regime – joining the accumulation of capital
and the production of nature as an organic whole’ (2012, 227).
Underpinning Moore’s argument is the claim that with the rise of the
modern world-economy ‘varied and heretofore largely isolated local and
regional socio-ecological relations were incorporated into – and at the same
moment became constituting agents of – a capitalist world-ecology. Local
socio-ecologies were at once transformed by human labour power (itself
a force of nature) and brought into sustained dialogue with each other’
(2003, 447). The hyphenation of the phrase ‘world-ecology’ is thus intended
to emphasize the systemic, world-historical character of the production of
nature under capitalism.
The incorporation of the Americas into the modern world-system after
1492 was central to this epochal reorganization of global ecology. The role
of the profits from the Caribbean plantations in providing capital to finance
Europe’s domestic industrialization is well-documented (Williams, 1944;
Blackburn, 1997). In addition, scholars such as Sydney Mintz (1985) have
highlighted how sugar and other plantation products like coffee and rum
served as low-cost, high-energy food substitutes that helped cheapen the
living costs of the labouring classes in the core. The movement of these
commodities across the Atlantic involved the disproportionate transfer of
not only surplus value but also ecological resources, including biophysical
matter, soil nutrients, and human energy. Without a mechanism to return
the waste to the point of production, local nutrient cycling systems were
disrupted and environments depleted. Indeed, the whole range of socio-
ecological conditions that sustained production was mined to the point at
which relative exhaustion fettered profitability. These conditions, Moore
reminds us, ‘were not simply biophysical; scarcities emerged through the
intertwining of resistances from labouring classes, landscape changes, and

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

market flux – all specific bundles of relations between humans and the rest of
nature, specific forms of the oikeios’ (2011, 46).
Adopting Moore’s perspective means recasting Watt’s ‘three traumas’
(which anyway should be expanded to include the trauma of indentureship
and the transportation of Indian and Chinese ‘coolies’ to the Caribbean
in the post-emancipation period) in a slightly different light. Rather than
grasping them as discrete, if related, human and environmental events, they
must be understood as differentiated moments of a singular world-historical
process – the capitalist world-ecology. The extirpation and enslavement of
the indigenous peoples; the slave trade, slavery, the plantation regime, and
indenture; and the massive transformation of biophysical natures – all these
are dialectically interconnected processes that together were integral to
the emergence of the capitalist world-system, and to the way in which it
(re)produced itself through the reorganization of human and extra-human
natures on a global scale.
This understanding of human and extra-human natures as bundled together
at every level is one that can be detected in the work of any number of
Caribbean writers, including Kamau Brathwaite, Merle Collins, Ana Lydia Vega,
Pauline Melville, Édouard Glissant, Curdella Forbes, Erna Brodber, and Wilson
Harris. In a 2005 interview in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example,
Brathwaite offered up the following, suggestive analysis of catastrophe. ‘My
position on catastrophe’, he said, ‘[…] is, I’m so conscious of the enormity
of slavery and the Middle Passage and I see that as an ongoing catastrophe.
So whatever happens in the world after that, like tsunamis in the Far East
and India and Indonesia, and 9/11, and now New Orleans, to me these are all
aspects of that same original explosion, which I try constantly to understand’
(2005). In bringing together events such as a tsunami and 9/11, and connecting
these to the ‘original explosion’ of slavery, Brathwaite adopts a perspective
from which it is no longer possible to separate the so-called natural from the
so-called human. Given the integral role of slavery and the Middle Passage
in the development of capitalism, Brathwaite’s conjoining of these events
with those such as Katrina – positing them as constitutive moments of a
single unfolding spiral of catastrophe – might be said to gesture towards an
understanding of capitalism as developing through the knitting together and
periodic reconfiguration of human and extra-human relations and processes.
We can see this apprehension of the interpenetration of human and
extra-human natures at work in much of Brathwaite’s poetry. Take, for
example, works such as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Fever’ from Mother Poem, which stitch
together the longue durée of geological time (the erosive movement of ancient
watercourses), the ‘slow violence’ of the degradation of the soil caused by
plantation monocultures, the trading of commodities and the vagaries of
the market, and the temporalities of the body and of social reproduction.
From a world-ecological perspective we are better able to comprehend the
systematic imbrication of these forces, and to understand how Brathwaite’s
poems register the way in which the Caribbean’s forcible integration into the


capitalist world-ecology involved the radical transformation of human and

biophysical natures at every scale.
But literary works such as Brathwaite’s do not merely provide us with a
barometric reading of ecological transformations and crises; they are also
interwoven with and contribute to the reproduction of specific ecological
regimes. In his seminal essay from 1960, ‘The Occasion for Speaking’, George
Lamming famously observed:
There are, for me, just three important events in British Caribbean history
[…]. The first event is the discovery. […] The next event is the abolition of
slavery and the arrival of the East – India and China – in the Caribbean Sea.
[…] The third important event in our history is the discovery of the novel by
West Indians as a way of investigating and projecting the inner experiences
of the West Indian community. The second event is about a hundred and
fifty years behind us. The third is hardly two decades ago. […] As it should
be, the novelist was the first to relate the West Indian experience from the
inside. He was the first to chart the West Indian memory as far back as he
could go. It is to the West Indian novelist – who had no existence twenty
years ago – that the anthropologist and all other treatises about West
Indians have to turn. (Lamming, 2005, 36–38)
Lamming’s breathtaking distillation of the key moments in Caribbean history
clearly accords West Indian literature a central place in the processes of decolo-
nization and nation-building. But insofar as such processes fundamentally
involve the reconfiguration of human and extra-human natures – of patterns
of land use, of labouring practices, of attitudes to ‘nature’, and so forth – West
Indian literature must be understood as a historical agent in this ecological
revolution. This understanding of literary practice is, then, indicative of how
we construe ‘aesthetics’ in the title of this volume – not as ‘a discrete class
of objects’ but rather, following Michael Sprinker, as a ‘modality of worked
matter’ (1987, 276). Aesthetic form not only represents material reality, but
also, in producing it as an object of perception and understanding, contributes
to the remaking of that reality. Material transformations and symbolic praxis,
in other words, form a contradictory unity and are both always at work in
patterns of environment-making, not just in the Caribbean but across the

Global Environments: World Literature and World-Ecology

Since the turn of the century, the category of ‘the global’ has moved to the
forefront of historical enquiry. This has been prompted, in part, by the shifting
tectonics of power in the world-economy (not least the rise of Asia) and a
desire properly to historicize the phenomenon of globalization, claims for
the novelty of which underestimate the long history of economic, political,
and cultural linkages between regions. ‘How do you tell the history of the

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

world?’ asks Bruce Robbins in a recent article, noting that ‘not long ago this
question would have seemed naive’. Now, however, in the context of ‘the
decline of American power and the rise of China’, as well as ‘global warming
and other looming resource-related catastrophes’, ‘urgent reasons have made
themselves felt […] for trying to make sense of history on a planetary scale’
Robbins’s emphasis on the impetus given to scholarly activity by concerns
over the planetary ecosystem reflects not only the severity of the current
environmental crisis but also the headway made by environmental studies
since the 1970s in putting ‘green’ issues on the agenda. ‘By the dawn of the
21st century’, writes Moore, ‘it had become increasingly difficult to address
core issues in social theory and social change without some reference to
environmental change. […] The environment is now firmly established as a
legitimate and relevant object of analysis’ (2013, 1). This ‘green’ turn has been
paralleled in the field of literary studies, with the consolidation of environ-
mentalist and ecocritical approaches over broadly the same time period. As
Pablo Mukherjee shows, the rise of ecocriticism closely paralleled the rise
of postcolonial studies, with both developing institutionally in the 1990s but
with their constitutive theories being ‘largely fleshed out from the early 1970s’
(2010, 42). This constitutive intellectual work responded to contemporary
environmental struggles and concerns (typified by ‘Earth Day’ in 1970 and
the 1973 oil shock) and global political convulsions (not least decoloni-
zation and its aftermath). Of course, ‘eco-critical and postcolonial literary
and cultural theories often claim an intellectual inheritance of at least
over two centuries and counting (to the Romantics and various eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century anti-colonial struggles respectively)’ (2010, 43).
Nonetheless, Mukherjee suggests, it was the popularization of such ideas
as Arne Naess’s ‘deep ecology’ (a term he is credited with coining in 1973)
and the publication of works by thinkers such as Raymond Williams (The
Country and the City, 1973) and Edward Said (Orientalism, 1978) that laid the
foundations for the later institutionalization of both ecocriticism and postco-
lonial studies. This institutionalization was reflected in the proliferation of
academic ‘readers’ and edited collections in both fields from the mid-1990s
to the turn of the century. Notable examples include: Cheryl Glotfelty and
Harold Fromm’s The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), Richard Kerridge and Neil
Sammells’s Writing the Environment (1998), and Laurence Coupe’s The Green
Studies Reader (2000); and in postcolonial studies, Patrick Williams and Laura
Chrisman’s Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1994), Francis
Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen’s Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial
Theory (1994), Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin’s The Postcolonial
Studies Reader (1995), and Diana Brydon’s Postcolonialism (2000).
If up until the early 2000s these fields had followed related but largely
distinct trajectories, since the turn of the century they have been brought into
more direct dialogue. This has been driven by a recognition of certain blind
spots within their respective disciplinary protocols. For postcolonial studies it


was necessary more clearly to foreground the ecological devastation entailed

by colonialism and imperialism, as well as the emphasis placed on struggles
over the material environment by anti-colonial thinkers such as Aimé Césaire
and Amilcar Cabral. For ecocriticism, meanwhile, postcolonial perspectives
offered a necessary corrective to the field’s tendency towards First Worldism,
and in particular its privileging of North American wilderness narratives and
British Romanticism. The concern to interrogate the intersections of the two
fields and to refine their critical presuppositions is evidenced in books such
as Lawrence Buell’s The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), Ursula Heise’s
Sense of Place, Sense of Planet: Environmental Imagination of the Global (2008),
Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffen’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism (2009), Mukherjee’s
own Postcolonial Environments (2010), Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B.
Handley’s Postcolonial Ecologies (2011), and Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the
Environmentalism of the Poor (2011).
This interrogation of the established modes of enquiry of postcolonial
studies and ecocriticism is symptomatic of a wider sense of crisis in literary
studies, a crisis that has prompted, over the last decade or so, calls to
rethink longstanding categories of literary analysis. The reasons adduced
for this crisis are numerous, ranging from ‘the ongoing subordination of
culture generally to the laws of the market’ and ‘the apparently declining
significance […] of literature itself as a cultural form’ to ‘the steady assault on
the autonomy of the humanities’ within the university system (WReC, 2015).
More broadly (and in line with Robbins’s charting of the intellectual climate),
‘globalization’ is often identified as a kind of master-process driving these
institutional developments, as well as a whole host of other destabilizing
factors. In this context, the concept of world literature has (re)emerged as a
key node in arguments over the reinvention of the discipline. One of the most
significant interventions in the field has been Franco Moretti’s ‘Conjectures
on World Literature’ (2000). Borrowing his ‘initial hypothesis from the world-
system school of economic history’, Moretti posits the existence of a ‘world
literary system (of inter-related literatures)’ that is both ‘one’ and ‘profoundly
unequal’ (55–56).
Moretti’s challenging and provocative article fired a fierce debate over
the future of comparative literary studies. Even a brief sampling of the many
books that appeared in the wake of his intervention attests to the vibrancy and
urgency of the field, including, for example, David Damrosch’s What is World
Literature (2003), Gayatri Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (2003), Haun Saussy’s
Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (2006), Sarah Brouillette’s
Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (2007), Moretti’s Graphs,
Maps, Trees (2007), and Emily Apter’s Against World Literature (2013).
One line of enquiry to have emerged from this debate is that represented
by the efforts of various materialist critics to reconstruct the concept of
world literature in terms of its relationship to global capitalism (Brown, 2005;
Shapiro, 2008; Parry, 2009; Lazarus, 2011; Medovoi, 2011). For these critics,
world literature is to be understood, in the broadest terms, as the literature

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

of the capitalist world-system – as the literature that registers and encodes

the social logic of capitalist modernity. Following Fredric Jameson (2002, 12),
critics such as Lazarus insist that modernity must be grasped, like capitalism
itself, as a singular and simultaneous phenomenon, yet one that is everywhere
heterogeneous and specific. Modernity is here understood ‘as the way capitalist
social relations are “lived” – different in every given instance for the simple
reason that no two social instances are the same’ (Lazarus, 2011, 122–23).
Thus, the structures of experience corresponding to capitalist modernization
will be differently inflected in different locations, even as the dynamics of
this modernization process provide ‘a certain baseline of universality’ (Brown,
2005, 2). Hence the possibility of reconstructing world literature in terms
of its relationship to global capitalism: the (uneven) singularity of capitalist
modernity allows for comparisons to be made across literary works inasmuch
as this world-system constitutes their ultimate interpretive horizon.
Recently, a number of scholars have sought to yoke this understanding of
world literature to Moore’s concept of the world-system as simultaneously a
world-ecology (Deckard, 2012, 2014; Niblett, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015; Oloff,
2012). From this perspective, world literature must equally be understood
as the literature of the capitalist world-ecology. Or, to put it another way,
the world-ecology will necessarily be discernible in any modern literary work,
since this too – in the form of the transformations in relations between
human and biophysical natures through which the modern world-system has
developed – exists as the matrix within which all modern literature takes
shape. Our contention is that this world-ecology perspective provides a
new range of critical optics on literary production that build on, yet move
beyond, those currently prevalent in postcolonial ecocriticism. Not only is
it better able to attend to the systemic quality of global capitalism and its
structured unevenness; it also, crucially, extends our understanding of the
‘eco’ in ecocriticism. If everything from the microbiome and the body to world
empires and global markets is a relationship between humans and the rest
of nature, then what counts as ‘ecological’ criticism is radically transformed.
So while one may still usefully ask how novels register transformations in
the landscape, it is also necessary to consider how they might register the
operations of high finance as a way of organizing nature. While one may
attend to how poetry registers, say, the devastating impact of climate change
or extreme weather events, it is also necessary to consider how it might
register the ravages of state violence as a tool in the co-production of nature.

Caribbean Literature in World-Ecological Perspective

The centrality of the Caribbean to the development of the capitalist world-

system and the often rapid and catastrophic nature of the ecological
transformations experienced by the region – from, say, the mass deforestation
demanded by plantation agriculture to the environmental upheavals


occasioned by hurricanes and volcanoes – make writing from the archipelago

a particularly fruitful locus for thinking through the implications of this new
kind of ecological criticism. Consider, for example, three very different literary
texts: James Grainger’s 1764 poem The Sugar-Cane, Wilson Harris’s 1962 novel
The Whole Armour, and Mayra Montero’s 1991 short story ‘Corinne, muchacha
amable’ [‘Corinne, Amiable Girl’]. Grainger’s work, with its descriptions of
plantation life and technical advice on sugar cultivation, obviously registers
elements of the landscape and society produced by the imposition of cash-crop
agriculture in the Caribbean. But at the level of form it also inadvertently
says something more. Kamau Brathwaite has noted the awkwardness that
besets the text at various points as it struggles to reconcile its literary model
with the reality of the Caribbean. Whenever Grainger contemplates ‘Nature’,
Brathwaite argues, ‘the “Caribbean” disappears, and we find ourselves in
English autumn, anticipating Keats’ (1993, 140). Moreover, this view of Nature
comes to dominate Grainger’s view of the enslaved. Quoting the following
lines from the poem –
On festal days; or when their work is done;
Permit thy slaves to lead the choral dance,
To the wild banshaw’s melancholy sound.
Responsive to the sound, head, feet and frame
Move aukwardly harmonious; hand in hand
Now lock’d, the gay troop circularly wheels,
And frisks and capers with intemperate joy.
Halts the vast circle, all clap hands and sing;
While those distinguish’d for their heels and air,
Bound in the center, and fantastic twine […].
– Brathwaite contends that there can be no doubt that Grainger saw slaves
dance: ‘The wheeling is there, the dancers in the centre […]. But ‘frisk’
and ‘caper’? The dancers are moving to the wrong rhythm. This really is a
Scottish reel or a Maypole dance. No wonder the performers seem “aukward”’
(1993, 141). This awkwardness, we would argue, which marks the disjuncture
between local content and imported form, also indexes the disjunctions and
rifts attendant upon the Caribbean’s violent integration into the capitalist
world-ecology. It might be said to figure the disruption to local nutrient
cycling systems and food regimes caused by the reorganization of human and
extra-human nature in line with the demands of the core. Just as Grainger
imposes a foreign form on his material, so the plantation remade the landscape
to facilitate the workings of an externally oriented colonial economy.
It is possible to grasp Harris’s novel as also mediating this history, albeit
it does so consciously and as part of a critique of the impact of colonial
penetration and of the ongoing underdevelopment of Guyana by capitalist
imperialism. Set in a village on the Pomeroon River, The Whole Armour
contains a series of images that emphasize the unstable, eroded quality
of the landscape. References abound to the ‘torn and eroded’ earth (243),

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

the ‘crumbling foreshore’ (244), the ‘crumbling bay’ (249), and the ‘erosive
impact of the sullen seas’ (260). One character, musing on the land, expects
‘the bank to slip at any moment and the planted roots to protrude stripped
of their grotesque soil and footing and earth’ (250). Such descriptions not
only register the specificity of the Guyanese landscape, but also suggest the
exogenous character of the country’s economy, its peripheral position within
the capitalist world-ecology and the leaching away of its ecological resources.
Indeed, the image of the land crumbling into the Atlantic Ocean serves as a
metonym for the history of cash-crop monoculture in the Caribbean as the
history of the indirect exportation of the soil from beneath the feet of the
primary producers. These dynamics are figured at the level of form too: the
generic discontinuities of Harris’s novel – its juxtaposition of, for example,
modernist techniques with indigenous narrative traditions – might be read
as mediating the disruption caused to local socio-ecologies by imperialist
Mayra Montero’s ‘Corinne, Amiable Girl’, meanwhile, highlights the violent
remaking of human and extra-human natures that have continued under
‘postcolonial’ regimes of various stripes, focusing on the desperate example
of Haiti under Jean-Claude Duvalier. The story recounts the attempt of a
young man, Appolinaire Sanglier, to draw the light-skinned Corinne away
from her fiancé and make her his wife through her zombification. Enlisting
the help of the houngan Papa Lhomond, he reduces her to a death-like state.
Following her burial, he must rush across the city, on the eve of elections,
to disinter her before she wakes and suffocates. As he crosses the city,
he is caught up in a massacre being perpetrated by the notorious Tonton-
Macoutes, who are butchering those attempting to vote Duvalier out of
power: ‘The streets of the city looked like the streets of a ghost town. […]
He continued sneaking through like a shadow, he crossed the line of men
firing and saw the others, the strangers armed with machetes butchering
already exhausted bodies, remote and sweet like burst fruit’ (1994, 844–45).
The image of dismembered bodies littering haunted, blood-stained streets
speaks to the harrowing conditions confronted by the Haitian people as
Duvalier sought to perpetuate his grip on power and to force through a
destructive, US-financed programme of neoliberal economic reform. The
effects of this reform programme were catastrophic for the Haitian peasantry
in particular, with local agriculture eviscerated as a consequence of policies
favouring the interests of US industries (Dupuy, 2007; see also, Oloff in
this volume). This brutal restructuring of human and extra-human natures
is embodied in the figure of the zombie itself. As Kerstin Oloff observes
in her essay in this collection, ‘the zombie sits at the fault lines of racial,
class, gender and environmental violence, registering the impact of the
ecological revolutions through which the capitalist world-system unfolded’.
In Montero’s story, the zombie’s articulation of these intersecting modes
of domination is emphasized by the way in which Apollinaire’s masculinist
desire to subordinate Corinne to a patriarchal ideal of wifely submission is


bound up with the state-sanctioned violence and bodily terror visited on the
Haitian populace by the Macoutes.
The chapters that follow in this volume are dedicated to thinking through
Caribbean ecology from the perspective of aesthetic practice in ways similar
to those we have adumbrated in the brief readings above. The collection
seeks to be genuinely interdisciplinary, bringing together work by literary
and cultural critics, writers, social scientists, and social and environment
activists. It includes contributions from those who have been actively
involved in implementing environmental policies or advising on planning
and development schemes. The volume opens with a hitherto unpublished
essay by the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris. In ‘The Brutalization of Truth’,
first delivered as a lecture in 2003 in the wake of the illegal invasion and
occupation of Iraq, Harris meditates on capitalism’s ‘cannibal appetite’ and its
destructive thirst for ever more resources, not least oil. The lecture captures
Harris’s longstanding investment in a post-Cartesian vision of the world – one
in which the creative imagination has a central role to play in disrupting the
received contours of social reality and revealing the mutual constitution of
human and extra-human natures.
The first section of the volume, ‘Catastrophes and Commodity Frontiers’,
comprises three essays that all in different ways address the long history of
violent ecological transformations through which the Caribbean region has
developed. In the opening chapter, Sharae Deckard provides an expansive
analysis of the metaphorics and aesthetics of tropical storms and ocean-borne
‘disasters’. Examining the stasis and amnesia induced by colonialism and,
latterly, neoliberal capitalism, she attends to the way Caribbean writers use
storm-events to create formal disruptions that revitalize the possibility of
collective consciousness or action. In the essay that follows, Kerstin Oloff
examines the ways in which two writers from the Hispanic Caribbean, Ana
Lydia Vega and Mayra Montero, use the figure of the zombie critically and
consciously to probe issues of environment, race, and gender. Oloff argues
that through their engagement with the European Gothic tradition and early
US zombie films, Vega and Montero confront their readers with the Gothic’s
‘ecological unconscious’. This unconscious is one that is constitutively
marked by struggles over the reproduction of gender and racial difference. In
Oloff’s reading, both writers’ works open up a perspective that allows us to
think patriarchy alongside deforestation; zombies alongside racialized state
violence; and, ultimately, to reinsert these seemingly unlinked phenomena
into their world-ecological context. Finally, in Chapter 3, Lizabeth Paravisini-
Gebert considers the connection between environmental catastrophe and
religious discourse in Haiti, exploring the links between the history of severe
deforestation on the island, an ongoing cholera outbreak, the crisis of faith
unleashed by the January 2010 earthquake, and the nature of forest spirits like
Bwa Nan Bwa.
The second section of the collection, ‘Ecological Revolutions and the
Nature of Knowledge’, is centred on Guyana, the three essays included here

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

providing a long-view on the ecological transformations through which

this Caribbean territory has developed. The section opens with Michael
Niblett’s chapter examining the work of the nineteenth-century Anglicized
Prussian explorer Robert Schomburgk alongside the 1965 novel The Eye of the
Scarecrow by Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. Arguing for an understanding of
modernism as representing a certain kind of response to capitalist moderni-
zation, Niblett’s essay suggests that the representational strategies deployed
by both Schomburgk and Harris can, in very different ways, be read in relation
to the ecological revolutions through which such modernization occurs. Chris
Campbell’s essay on ethnography and world-ecology considers the case of
Charles Barrington Brown. Like Schomburgk, Brown surveyed the Guyanese
interior in the nineteenth century, recording his experiences in writings that
would be published as Canoe and Camp Life in British Guiana (1870). Campbell
argues that this narrative is one seemingly structured around the absence of
its primal cause – the search for mineral wealth. Reading Canoe and Camp Life
against the official reports of Brown’s expedition, it is possible more fully
to understand the connections between narrative-making and environment-
making in the capitalist world-ecology. Ultimately, the case of Brown serves
to show how the generation and legitimization of systems of knowledge can
be viewed as an integral part of the production of nature under capitalism.
The final essay in this section brings the discussion up to the present as
Janette Bulkan, who worked for more than fifteen years in the Amerindian
Research Unit at the University of Guyana, offers a social scientific analysis
of the controversies surrounding Guyana’s efforts to reduce forest carbon
emissions. In 2009, the governments of Norway and Guyana signed the
REDD-plus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)
agreement. On paper, REDD presented a unique opportunity for Guyana to
restart stalled processes like the national development strategy and national
land use planning in partnership with indigenous and other forest-dependent
people and coastal constituencies. In practice, REDD procedures and projects,
argues Bulkan, presented the government with funds to reward loyal subjects
and buy votes at elections.
The volume’s third section, ‘Economies of Extraction: Restructuring and
Resistance’, considers issues around the neoliberal restructuring of the
Caribbean, the impact of tourism in the region, and the work of environmental
activists in resisting the repercussions of these processes. Molly Nichol’s
essay explores the ways in which Oonya Kempadoo’s novel Tide Running (2001)
reflects, challenges, and complicates the sexualization and eroticization of
both Caribbean bodies and environments. Examining the violence exercised in
a context of sexual labour and neoliberal reforms in Tobago, Nichol’s reading
of Tide Running shows how Kempadoo not only creates a space for depicting
the beauty of landscape and the pleasure of sex, but also reveals the ways in
which the production of nature and of sexual difference is always enmeshed in
relations of class power. Similarly concerned with the discursive construction
of the Caribbean landscape and the effects of tourism, geographer Brian


Hudson’s chapter explores the transformation of the Negril area in Jamaica

in the latter half of the twentieth century. His study not only shows how
development projects driven by the tourist industry have physically remade
the landscape, but also considers its aestheticization or ‘repackaging’ in
newspapers, travel guides, and other media. Hudson witnessed the early
phase of Negril’s development during his period of service with the Jamaican
Government Town Planning Department. Later he became involved in the
conservation movement in Jamaica, responding to the baleful effects of poorly
designed and inadequately controlled development. Hudson’s inclusion in the
volume is designed to give voice to those who, in one way or another, have
been directly involved in local development schemes. While his essay throws
light on the tendency for the Caribbean to be portrayed, problematically,
in terms of ‘unspoiled’ beaches and paradisiacal beauty spots, interestingly
Hudson also reveals the way in which the rhetoric of ‘the pristine’ versus
‘the degraded’ can be mobilized in the cause of resisting unsustainable
Finally, in this section, Malcom Ferdinand explores the interweaving of the
narratives of ‘ecology’ and ‘colonialism’ in Martinique, focusing in particular on
the way activists of the environmental non-governmental organization (NGO)
ASSAUPAMAR (Association pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine martiniquais
[Organization for the Preservation of the Martinican Heritage]) relate their
ecological concerns to the colonial history of the island. He examines the
epistemologies surrounding various environmental conflicts and shows how
issues such as the scandal over the continued use of the chlordecone pesticide
in Martinique (after it had been banned in France) are linked to struggles
over cultural identity. Ultimately, Ferdinand excavates how the activists of
ASSAUPAMAR have narrated their claims to the preservation of the Martinican
landscape and the history to which it is, as Édouard Glissant once observed, a
monument (Glissant, 1989, 11).
The collection is brought to a close by an evocative piece of writing
by Oonya Kempadoo, adapted from her novel All Decent Animals (2013).
Kempadoo’s fiction has long been interested in exploring the interconnections
between landscape, identity, sexuality, and politics. In All Decent Animals, set
in Trinidad, the city of Port-of-Spain emerges as a character in its own right,
the narrative registering the unevenness of an island at once both underde-
veloped and riding high on booming energy revenues. The sketch presented
here, ‘Tingaling’, is a compelling description of the aesthetics of Carnival
and its relationship to the urban environment. Indeed, the piece prompts us
to consider Carnival as an ecological project. The narrative reveals how the
ecological transformations through which Trinidad has developed – resource
extraction, the exploitation of landscapes through cash-crop agriculture,
the production of waste, and the reshaping of bodies and labour regimes
– are incorporated and aestheticized within the Carnival procession. The
saturation of Trinidadian society by the political ecology of oil, for example,
is powerfully registered in the description of the route of the Carnival bands:

Chris Campbell and Michael Niblett

‘The oil-drum segments crawl like a massive centipede, electric black and
shiny. Ripples of floating legs slide it forward, adrenalin anticipates the bite.
Hair raising. […] Rum and heat stoke this engine of men and old steel. Car rims
and angle iron, metal-rod drumsticks in gnarled hands.’ In the final lines of
the piece, Kempadoo weaves together references to the long history of slave
labour and the commodity regimes that have dominated Trinidad’s economy –
sugar (‘Molassie’), cocoa, and oil – with the city of Port of Spain itself and its
inhabitants, at once both anguished and defiant: ‘Independence Square is the
deadly magnet, pulling trucks full of steelpan, sound systems, hoarse singers,
and the hordes of devils – mud, cocoa, paint-covered bodies and lost souls.
Jab Molassie. Crude-oil rhythm. A guttural, primal scream is building, coming
from pavement cracks, the bellies of rats, the white-rum spittle of the mad
woman, from the city itself and its demons.’
This edited collection of essays responds, we hope, to the need for an
engaged, pan-Caribbean-oriented investigation into the relationship between
aesthetics and ecology, one capable of situating the analysis of cultural
production within both the specific contexts of local environmental concerns
and struggles and the wider ecological transformations through which the
capitalist world-system develops. Whether by explicitly applying a ‘world-
ecological’ perspective to aesthetic production, or through the way in which
they speak to this perspective in their consideration of political and social
struggles over Caribbean environments, the essays collected here throw
new light on Caribbean aesthetic practice, while contributing to new ways of
thinking about world literature and environmental criticism.

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The Brutalization of Truth
Wilson Harris

Wilson Harris

M any years have passed and I find myself still deeply immersed in changes
to the form of the novel that seem crucially necessary in the clash of
fundamentalisms that lays waste to civilization. Such changes are subtle but
they break through a language that has become polarized, I feel, in conven-
tional usage, and unable to yield far-reaching cross-culturalities that could
alter fixed one-sided sensibilities. When I say ‘polarized’ I do not deny the
satirical and ironic investments in the language of a ruling culture that has
virtually conquered the world in terms of its own values. Yet one knows that
there are natures and rhythms that are complex in going far beyond the ruling prose
fixtures of the conventional novel.
The term ‘novel’ – as Anthony Burgess has pointed out – means ‘new’
and should share in such purposes. These should open, I would think, in the
Caribbean, for example, a range and a depth which have apparently been
eliminated under colonial measures of ‘divide and rule’ whereby linearity is
maintained like a blocked door to cross-cultural psyche.
My novel The Mask of the Beggar (2003) probably brings my work to a degree
of climax. It is impossible to deal with the various paths I have followed within
myself, beyond myself, over the past forty-odd years that take me back to
Palace of the Peacock (1960). But my novels and essays – and indeed some of the
profound criticism of these that has emerged in spite of a ruling opposition to
changes in the form of the novel – speak for themselves.
There is a Note that comes at the beginning of The Mask of the Beggar which
runs as follows:
In The Mask of the Beggar a nameless artist seeks mutualities between
cultures. He seeks cross-cultural realities that would reverse a dominant
code exercised now, or to be exercised in the future, by an individual
state whose values are apparently universal. He senses great dangers for

Wilson Harris

humanity in the determined and one-sided notion of universality. He senses

unconscious pressures within neglected areas of the Imagination that may
erupt into violence. The roots of consciousness are his pursuit in a quantum
cross-cultural art that brings challenges and unexpected far-reaching subtly
fruitful consequences. (vii)
Let me pause and stress ‘quantum cross-cultural art’. This is extremely
important and I shall attempt to define what I mean by this in a little while. In
the meantime, the Note I was reading to you continues:
The West has implicit governance of the world in politics, economics,
social and cultural values. This is a well-known fact. It may have started
with the Conquest of the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas in
the sixteenth century and the decline of the ancient civilizations of China
and India.
The Mask of the Beggar is based on the disguise Odysseus adopts on
returning to his kingdom of Ithaca. It is changed, however, into a holed or
fissured face in which Chinese, Indian, African and European immigrants
may be invoked in Harbourtown, an imaginary gateway into South and
Central America. Quetzalcoatl, an ancient god of the Americas, comes into
focus in an unusual way that adds mutual and implicit distinctions between
figures that appear.
Well-nigh forgotten, ancient pre-Columbian imageries are explored.
They offer new perspectives. European codes begin, it seems, to suffer a
measure of transfiguration as they face faculties and creativities beyond
their formal tradition. The language implied by the artist – in his sculptures
and paintings and writings – is of quantum variation. It is necessary to
remember that ‘quantum’ has a counter-intuitive meaning and this bears
on the mystery of consciousness and gives to characters an independence
not sustained by conventional art. (An independence in that they possess a
quantum faculty to dumbfound and yet re-create the author’s imagination.)
This independence is of extreme importance. It implies not an absolute
position but the necessity of cross-culturality. It implies that no individual
is paramount but needs to undergo changes in sharing in the making of a
community that is ceaselessly partial in creative and re-creative membership
as it struggles to understand itself in range and depth. Paramountcy has led
to deadly dictatorships and to an incessant feud, however hidden, between
man and man in which one state or party seeks an absolute control over
the others.
Intuition continues to help but needs to surrender partially at times
to unexpected variations that are deeply concerned with a cross-cultural
creation – in which Spirit through manifestations and pigmentations that
are never absolute, mirrors consciousness in range and depth.
The artist is dumbfounded when he meets someone in the Street,
who appears to be a Carnival dancer, and who is an exact, living copy of
a sculpture in his studio. This is crucial and leads to the arrival of other
living copies of sculptures he has created, or has hidden, in his studio.


Some have sprung from figurines or miniatures that he keeps hidden in his
notebooks, out of guilt perhaps, and this is part of his Dream in meeting
real people: that they have come to life from neglected resources in the
closed Imaginations of the world that hide them in the archives of history.
The boundaries of certain Western artists are extended beyond their
centrality. Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Goethe are instances of these.
There is a very brief outline of a formidable theme, which carries in
its variations historical figures such as Cortez (a master of the globe),
Montezuma (the last independent emperor of Mexico), and Trotsky (who
was murdered in Mexico by an agent of Stalin and who was intent on a
permanent revolution).
All sculptures and paintings are partial and therefore capable of some
measure of fulfilment in unexpected ways through cross-culturalities in
Space and Time. (vii–ix)
This may sound strange but it happens to us all the time though we may
not recognize it. In essence we are involved – whether we know it or not
– in counter-intuitive proportions that bring unexpected events that vary
our intuitive expectations. There may be intangible threads connecting all
intuitions, past and future, but this is a matter of the mystery of consciousness
which no culture or individual absolutely controls. Yet we do not creatively
understand this and we set out to control others, with whom we differ, with a
blind rhetoric. We may do this secretly or openly by means of war or violence
since we believe we have the values that should dominate the world. In our
lack of profound understanding we obliterate the parts we have played in
building what we appear to detest in those we would subdue. Our claim to
absolute control of nature and psyche runs into a curious void – a counter-
intuitive void – when we discover that there are many who disagree with
our actions though they themselves are bewildered by what is happening.
We force our way along with a coherency of words that deceives us about
reality, deceives us about the severity of conflicts that grow with each layer of
violence we place upon the world.
All this points through our blind rhetoric to counter-intuitive proportions
that we need to study in cross-cultural ways that may open spheres of
profound creative and re-creative dialogue, between fundamentalist closed
attitudes, to permit us to gain a range and depth bottled up in fixtures of
value …
I am suggesting that – in the art of fiction – we need to accept the
curious void that cultures enter; to accept this as new creative potential. That
potential brings the characters (or character-masks) we think we absolutely
control into a different and independent position in which they energize our
imaginations to feel and think our far-reaching responsibilities so differently,
so differently from hidden conquistadorial intentions, that new patterns of
shared control, of which we have never guessed, are set up: new patterns that
may bring a measure of re-creative sharing in the building and re-building of
shattered communities.

Wilson Harris

This is a formidable problem that I feel we have scarcely considered in all

its philosophical and creative proportions that bring changes to the form of
the novel. In such an art of fiction we may begin to perceive a new, mysterious
independence to characters (and character-masks) we have held in subjection.
Perhaps here is a beginning in the creation of spheres of dialogue, which we
desperately need to avoid ceaseless repetitions of violence.
Quantum proportions bring the arts of fiction a little closer to a necessary
modification of intolerant frames that have guided the West for centuries. We
may not perceive it but we are still over-shadowed by the intolerance of the
Church. No apology – as far as I am aware – has appeared in Church records
for the condemnation of Giordano Bruno, a great thinker, to death by fire early
in the seventeenth century. As alarming – if not more so – was the treatment
of the accursed (as it was felt at the time) Aztecs and Incas in the sixteenth
century. Many of their so-called savage arts – which were grounded in fear
and cosmic emotion – could teach us much about the perils of humankind.
But they were destroyed in a lust for gold and land. Even as today many
foreign artistic premises are stricken in a lust for oil. Montezuma, the last
independent emperor of Mexico, was tried and sentenced unjustly. He was
offered death by hanging rather than fire if he would abandon his faith and
accept Christianity. There are many others we can mention who were bestially
treated by an intolerant master-power that assumed it was absolutely right.
Science – it seems to me – is now being jockeyed by cultures into playing
the part that religion once exercised. Science has its great uses but it is
peculiarly vulnerable and needs to be seen in quantum proportions. The
quantum experiments make a hole in a wall and discover two holes where one
alone should be. This could lead to the modification of traditional frames in
the art of fiction. I spoke of Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch painter, earlier. Van
Gogh was affected by Chinese imageries in his work. Such cross-culturality is
not a purely statistical fact to be side-stepped or ignored. It makes us ponder
on masks that shift to reveal some partial vision of an inner, subconscious
I spoke also of Oscar Wilde. You may remember Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Dorian
is said to have committed debaucheries but his human apparition remained
innocent. There was a painting of him, however, that was hidden away and
this changed more and more with signs and omens reflecting the deeds he
performed. Was he truly conscious of what he was doing in the rooms and
buildings and streets that seemed as innocent as he? Did the painting confess
subconsciously or unconsciously? If so, it raises an index of unconsciousness
we rarely consider in our pleasures and business affairs. These primitive
considerations were taken into The Mask of the Beggar.
Unconscious rooms and buildings and walls were employed as subtly alive
to register connections between seeming innocence and deeds or actions we
tend to blot out. In such blotting out art loses its links between the passive
and the active. Art becomes an ornament. It becomes nothing more than a
picture in words divorced from the truths of reality.


What is the room or home of art?

This is an immense question.
Does it not reflect an accumulative, growing place – however apparently
passive in a privileged studio – that unmasks itself to break the traditional
divorce between innocence and guilt?
All this comes starkly into The Mask of the Beggar in these lines which I now
Vacancy is the lifeblood of Timelessness.
What do I need by vacancy?
I mean the subtle, apparently unimportant happenings – to which one pays
little attention – at a business engagement. (96)
The artist in the book notes that business has a cannibal appetite that is so
strong it blots out edges. The acquisition of land becomes all-important, the
gains made in gold, or oil, or whatever. These become so strong they tend to
kill the intimate, far-reaching nerve-end of art that should reach everywhere.
The divorce between the active and the passive remains a formidable ‘vacancy’
in tradition.
Tumatumari (1968), a novel of mine, carries an English translation of an
Amerindian or Native American word which means ‘sleeping rocks’. Many
Europeans who have been institutionalised into a way of reading fiction may
see ‘Tumatumari’ or ‘sleeping rocks’ as a picture in words. But for someone
who has travelled and lived intensively in areas of South America it could be
equated with the decimated peoples of Native American stock who have come
close to extinction across the centuries. This is implicit, by the way, in the
passage on ‘vacancy’ which I shall shortly quote.
The ‘sleeping rocks’ is much more than a picture in words. One needs to
probe and creatively to open its psychical motivations in concert with Indian,
Chinese, African, Portuguese, and others – many of mixed race – who have
existed in a ‘sleep’ that makes them an unconscious mind-scape of the islands
and the continent on which they live.
‘Sleeping rocks’ is a major clue in which the sculptured and visionary
forms of land and water, of space and waterfall, imbue the native mind-scape
into awakening to masks and presences. The fiction is shot through with the
turbulence of memory to fashion bones and rocks and jagged shapes across a
divide from passive to active.
There are Europeans who wrestle with this uncanny novel-theme – if I
may so put it. Hena Maes-Jelinek, who has explored my fictions since 1968,
has written a major essay in which she infiltrates a mask worn by a particular
character in Tumatumari. It is a shifting mask embodying a sentient nature
whose many ruses we have bottled up as insentient. This insentience leads to
the brutalization of truth which we are experiencing around the globe in our
manipulation of lands and waters.
Let me now return to the section on ‘vacancy’ from The Mask of the Beggar
which I referred to a short while ago. But before doing so I must tell you of a

Wilson Harris

book by John E. Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in

which he reports on an evolving scientific cosmology as follows:
space itself, far from being empty and lifeless, is filled with its own
powerful fluctuating energy called the vacuum energy field or zero point
energy. (Mack, 1999, 87)
I learnt of this when The Mask of the Beggar had already been accepted for
publication. It brought a shock of surprise.
Without more ado, here is the passage from which I shall continue to quote,
in which the artist meditates on ‘vacancy’ as the ‘life-blood of Timelessness’,
contemplating as to whether it is ‘more real than the real’ in bringing back
victims rather than heroes:
The vacancy of my room became the ground of opposites, sorrow and
celebration, times past and times present, interiorization and exteriori-
zation, ruin and origin, absolute, cruel authority and the creative/re-creative
fulfilment of an endless moment of Love beyond material images of love.
[…] Normality is rife with complacency. The atrocities perpetrated on
Native Americans were dismissed as though they never occurred […]. Four
hundred treaties were signed with Native Americans. All were broken.
Business reasons, land grabbing, etc. Yet subtle, apparently unimportant
pressures remained on the glass of history like small drops of architectural
blood. The Rain was a Timeless signal an artist such as myself could not
ignore. Natives who complained of a broken treaty were put in prison.
Some scholars and anthropologists estimate that seven to eighteen million
natives were alive when Columbus touched the continent in 1492. I speak
now of North America. The figures for Central and South America are as
terrible and alarming after Cortez and Pizarro completed their Conquests.
As far as the Natives of North America go, we know that in 1924 fewer than
a quarter of a million – out of seven to eighteen million – remained. Their
ancestors had been slaughtered, victimized, starved, across the centuries,
‘vacant’ centuries that carry the life-blood of Timelessness. (97–98)

Works Cited

Harris, Wilson. 1960. Palace of the Peacock. London: Faber & Faber.
—. 1968. Tumatumari. London: Faber & Faber.
—. 2003. The Mask of the Beggar. London: Faber & Faber.
Mack, John E. 1999. Passport to the Cosmos. New York: Crown.

and Commodity Frontiers
chapter one

The Political Ecology of Storms in

Caribbean Literature
Sharae Deckard

Sharae Deckard
The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

‘Find the storm’s swirling core, and understand’ – Derek

Walcott (1969, 69)

T he opening lines of The Tempest, in which the Boatswain proclaims that

the tempest overturns the authority of the monarchy – ‘What cares
these roarers for the name of King?’ – capture the carnivalesque conditions
opened up by storm-events, during which ordinary mores and hierarchies are
suspended. The Latin root of ‘tempest’ is tempus, which denotes a time of
occasion and opportunity, and in early modern literature was related to the
word ‘temper’, evoking organization according to a scheme of natural elements
(Herron, 2007, 97). Prospero raises the elements at the opportune moment to
cause the ship to wreck and catalyse a crisis of authority. The tempest thus
embodies the kairotic moment, where nature in turmoil engenders chaos,
the dissolution of the current social order – though order and authority are
reconstituted by the conclusion of the play. The classical image of kairos
was often depicted as scales balanced on a knife point or a winged figure
signifying the fleeting rhetorical moment when appropriately chosen words
could have the most power to temper a course of events which previously
seemed immutable (Beehler, 2003, 74–88).
The Sophists conceived kairos as requiring an irrational choice, with the
knowledge that to temper events is to close off one path in favour of another.
Although kairos enables the breaking up of antitheses and the emergence
of something new, it is not inherently good, but requires human effort to
determine what it will engender: whether rebellion or capitulation (86). Kairos
is the sudden manifestation of hitherto unseen gaps or aporiai: it is, in Sharon
Beehler’s analogy, like a merry-go-round which demands readiness in order
to alight: ‘When the rhythms and spaces align between child and moving

Sharae Deckard

platform, then they can come together. The separate continuity of the child’s
existence temporarily matches and accedes to the movement of the merry-go-
round. In order for this to occur, a gap must be opened to allow passage from
state of being to another, and yet we glimpse both simultaneously’ (75). The
kairotic moment thus often intersects with the spectral, like the appearance
of Hamlet’s father, whose ghost manifests the secret history of regicide,
or the pre-colonial history of Sycorax’s isle intimated in Caliban’s speech.
Shakespeare’s plays are also kairotic in their use of rhetorical structures
that lead ‘to a transcendent experience between players and audience’,
producing a double-consciousness of twin contexts of temporality – ‘real’
time and ‘theatrical’ time (80). The storm-event in The Tempest thus enfolds
these various dimensions: crisis in the social order, rhetoric in the service
of action or change, the manifestation of obscured histories or realities, the
temporary dissolution of existing structures and antitheses, temporal double-
consciousness, and the implication of extra-human natural agency (though
Prospero’s alchemy would still aim to master it).
Since the Ur-text of The Tempest, imagery of tropical storms has reverberated
throughout representations of the Caribbean, not merely as thematic content
and setting, but as plot, trope, noise, rhythm, syntax, diction, structure,
and geopoetics. If storms served throughout the imperialist imaginary as an
intertextual, transhistorical metaphorics for rebellion, mutiny, and colonial
insurgency, then in the postcolonial imaginary tempests, cyclones, hurricanes,
and typhoons have been linked to insurrection, slave rebellions, labour unrest,
general strikes, anti-colonial liberation movements, nationalist movements,
and socialist revolution. In real life, hurricanes disrupt the space and time
of the human every day, interrupt social patterns of labour and recreation,
and subvert anthropocentric notions of the privileged status of humans in
the natural world. Within literary texts, storms embody something like the
revolutionary opening-up of historical time suggested by Marx, which disturbs
the repetitive, cyclical, seemingly ‘time-less’ homogeneity of capitalism.
In this essay, I will survey texts from the Anglophone, Francophone, and
Hispanophone Caribbean in which the radical disruptive potential of tropical
storms is embedded in literary form in order to explore how storm aesthetics
correspond to political ecologies and materialize the specific socio-ecological
conditions from which they emerge.
To interpret the literary uses of storm aesthetics is not to romanticize
the human suffering that tropical storms can cause. However, it is crucial
to acknowledge that tropical storms are not ‘disasters-to-nature’, but rather
serve ecological functions, lowering seawater temperatures, maintaining the
global heat balance by recirculating humid tropical air to mid-latitudes and
polar regions, and periodically stripping away excess vegetation in order to
restore open, sandy ecosystems and redeposit sediments. Hurricanes such as
Katrina, Hugo, or Ivan are ecological disasters only when social conditions
cause them to be experienced as such, exposing the hidden geographies that
attend environmental crisis. The most vulnerable, disadvantaged populations

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

often live on reclaimed or coastal land exposed to elemental forces, situated

within landscapes of socio-economic inequity. As Mike Davis argues, ‘the
social construction of “natural” disaster is largely hidden from view by a way of
thinking that simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment
and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof of a malign and
hostile nature’ (1999, 9).
Storm-impacts are differentiated across the Caribbean archipelago according
to the specific histories of deforestation and desertification through which
plantation agriculture and ‘development’ projects have unfolded in particular
islands. The destruction of barrier reefs by shipping lanes and by coral-
bleaching due to pollution, poaching, and rising sea temperatures has greatly
increased the vulnerability of islands that rely on reefs to buffer storms before
they reach shore. Deforestation of mangrove swamps by mass-aquaculture in
tidal zones denudes natural barriers to ocean surges and leads to increased
flooding. Coastal development – the building of paradise hotels and beach
resorts, the clustering of poor fishing villages and worker-slums in export
processing zones – further erodes the vegetation and substrates which absorb
the shock of tidal surges. Disaster Studies has produced important critiques
of the violence of ‘reconstruction’ in the wake of extreme weather events in
the Caribbean, through which the appropriation of land and privatization of
resources deepens socio-economic inequities and dispossesses marginalized
populations (Anderson, 2011; Carrigan, 2011). However, while acknowledging
these conditions, this article’s focus will be on the ideological and geopoetic
uses of storms in Caribbean literature.

The Hurricane in Caribbean Geopoetics

Mais le cyclone, lui, sans pied ni tête, voleur d’eau de mer sans feu ni lieu,
faufilé entres cimes et racines, dédaigneux des continents, c’est en plein
cœur des îles qu’il vient de très loin nous frapper – Daniel Maximin (1995, 15)

The hurricane is almost over-determined in Caribbean literature as a figure

signifying a social ecology – the dialectical ‘poetics of Relation’, to use
Glissant’s term (or ‘tidal dialectics’ to use Brathwaite’s), between humans
and extra-human Caribbean nature – whose particularity European poetics
cannot capture (Glissant, 1996; Brathwaite, 1983). The word hurricane itself
was received into English from the Spanish huracán, which derived in turn
from the Taino word hurican (devil wind) and the Mayan storm god Hunraken.
The word is a palimpsest of the eruptive history of multiple colonizations,
dispossessions, and exterminations in the Caribbean, preserving the trace
of Amerindian cultures, and recording the continuity of extreme weather
conditions as they marked multiple cultures throughout the longue durée.
‘Hurricane’, as a word denoting the particularity of Caribbean ecologies, has
been crucial to geopoetics since the first articulations of Caribbean identity.

Sharae Deckard

Thus, in the Hispanophone tradition, Alejo Carpentier privileges the

hurricane as a signifier of the ‘natural’ difference of the Americas, whose
extraordinary geology and climate underlie his conception of the marvellous
Our continent is a continent of hurricanes (the first American word to
have become part of universal language, seized on by the sailors of the
Discovery was hurricane), a continent of cyclones, earthquakes, tidal waves,
floods, which impose a redoubtable rhythm, due to their periodicity, upon
an almost untamed nature, a nature still largely subjected to its primordial
upheavals. (Carpentier, 1990, 29)
Here, the hurricane evokes American alterity in primitivist terms redolent of
the imperialist imaginary of the New World: untamed and primordial, existing
outside history. This elides the radical transformations to which Caribbean
environments had already been subjected by the 1940s when Carpentier was
writing: deforested, mined, subordinated to plantation monoculture. Yet the
description of the cyclical rhythm of storm-events, a periodicity which seems
to contradict the linear, homogenous time of capitalist modernity, gestures
to an experience of temporality which is particular, eruptive, and rooted
in the lived experience of regional environmental conditions: a ‘metereo-
logical pulse’ which pulsates through the storm-aesthetics of generations of
Caribbean and Latin American writers.
Gabriel García Márquez similarly conceives of the hurricane as embodying
the socio-ecological unevenness and diversity of the Caribbean, and thus as
underpinning his magical realist aesthetic:
I believe the Caribbean showed me how to see reality in another way, to
accept supernatural elements as something that forms part of our daily
life. […] The human syntheses and contrasts in the Caribbean are not
seen anywhere else in the world. I know all its islands: […] hot and dusty
towns whose houses are destroyed by hurricanes; and on the other hand
skyscrapers of solar glass and a sea of seven colours. (García Márquez
quoted in Browitt, 2007, 55)
Again, in Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s oft-cited theorization of the ‘repeating
islands’, the ecological features of the ‘generalized instability of vertigo
and hurricane’ and the repeated bifurcation of lands across the Caribbean
archipelago are inextricable from the cultural features of ‘historiographic
turbulence’, ‘sociocultural fluidity’, and ‘ethnological and linguistic clamor’
(Benítez-Rojo, 1993, 3).
In the Anglophone literary tradition, the most famous articulation of the
hurricane’s centrality to Caribbean identity is Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite’s
declaration in History of the Voice (1984) that the ‘hurricane does not roar
in pentameters’. Brathwaite thus presents the ‘rhythm’ of ‘environmental
experience’ as integral to the formation of Caribbean poetics: Shakespeare’s
tempest must become a hurricane and take on the dialect of the Caribbean

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

earth (Brathwaite, 1984, 8). In Shar: Hurricane Poem (1990), he formulates

a new aesthetic to represent the devastation of hurricanes. Written in
Brathwaite’s ‘time of salt’, during which he suffered the death of his wife and
the destruction of his house and library archive by Hurricane Gilbert, Shar is
a bleak post-catastrophe elegy whose kairotic element lies in its opening of
multiple dimensions of temporality. In part 1, the storm event opens up the
memory of 500 years of capitalist modernity and the deep time of ancestral
origins, ranging from the originary death of the Arawaks, through centuries
of slavery and plantation, and forward into the present wreckage of the
Caribbean towns subjected to natural disaster, yoking them all together into
a chant of pain and destruction: ‘wasted wasted wasted all all all wasted
wasted wasted / the five hundred years of Columbus dragging us here’ (7).
The ‘lumbering prehensile thunders of the holocaust’ are both those of the
hurricane, and the storms of history (10). The force of the hurricane itself,
‘dropping its pale nuclear tons’ (16) is captured in long, rolling yet percussive
lines, whose staccato punctuation, word-splitting, and repetition embody
the winds hammering on roof and trees, but also suggest strangulation, the
poet’s voice choked by pain, unable to express the extremity of the hurricane’s
And what. what. what. what more. what more can I tell you
on this afternoon of electric bronze
but that the winds. winds. winds. winds came straight on
& that there was no step. no stop. there was no stopp.
ing them & they began to reel. in circles. scream. ing like Ezekiel’s
wheel (9)
The poem demands to be recited, chanted, sung; its meaning is simultaneously
aural and oral, emerging from the performative pauses for each full-stop, the
long unfolding of cadences which are paradoxically undulating and rushed,
accumulative yet constantly interrupted, as if to lay waste to momentum and
to embody aurally the cyclical devastation invoked in the millenarian image
of Ezekiel’s wheel.
Written in Brathwaite’s ‘Sycorax video style’, the poem’s aesthetics are
also gestural, a performance whose deliberate anti-elegance explodes the
smooth formality of conventional typography with blown-up, lo-fi typefaces,
revelling in the subversion of canonical notions of poetic formality, but also
incarnating the eruptive force of the hurricane and the exploded, torn-open
landscape – both visually on the page and, physically, in the utterances of the
performer. However, it is significant that the type-faces increase in font-size
not in the first part of the poem where the hurricane is described but in the
moment of its aftermath, in the imperative ‘sing’. Here, the typography
demands an increase in volume from the performer, a ‘loudening up’ attached
not to the disaster-event, but rather to the moment of affirmation, so that the
emphasis is not, in the end, on the laying waste, but rather on the emergence
of the voice from the wreckage. From the shattering of the storm emerges a

Sharae Deckard

consciousness of multiple temporalities of destruction and the formation of a

poetics, a song, which can speak them and reaffirm life in the midst of waste.
The aporiai of Caliban’s and Sycorax’s lost tongues are resuscitated and sung
out, rather than recontained and submerged as in Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Even in Francophone literatures, where the word used for hurricane is
cyclone, the image of the Caribbean storm still dominates poetics, as in the
famous example from Martinican Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My
Native Land (1939). Here a demiurgic utterance links the explosive articulation
of negritude to the lived experience of the Caribbean environment: ‘I would
say hurricane. I would say river. I would say tornado’ (2001, 12). In Césaire’s
triumphant acceptance of the ‘special geography’ of the Caribbean land and
sea-scape, he imagines the archipelago as a ‘world map made for my own
use’ marked with the historical wounds of slavery and colonialism, on which
‘beached hurricanes’ appear alongside ‘demasted hulls, old sores / rotted
bones, vapors, shackled volcanoes’ (2001, 43).
Haitian poet Frankétienne, member of the Spiralism movement, similarly
imagines the poet’s mythic utterance as a ‘storm of words’ in his poem
‘Dialecte de cyclones’:
   Every day I use the dialect of lunatic hurricanes.
I speak the madness of clashing winds.
   Every evening I use the patois of furious rains.
I speak the fury of waters in flood.
   Every night I talk to the Caribbean islands in the tongue of
hysterical storms.
I speak the hysteria of the rutting sea.
   Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Languages of storms.
I speak the unravelling of the spiralling life. (2012)
The hurricane informs the spiral poétique of Frankétienne not only at the
level of language, dialect, and rhythm but at the levels of content and
narrative structure, recalling ‘the foundations of the Caribbean oral tradition,
according to which stories unfold cumulatively or cyclically; [and] are
relatively unconcerned with any purely narrative structure or horizontal,
linear development’ (Glover, 2010, vii). Kaiama Glover observes that the spiral
is a universal structure, found in the double helix of DNA, the galactic
swirl of stars and dust, and in Haiti’s ecology: ‘It is present in the bands of
the hurricane winds that regularly ravage the island, and it makes up the
structure of the conch shell, an object that functions symbolically to recall
the rallying cries of Haiti’s revolutionaries’ (2010, vii). Glover’s argument that
spiral form ‘anchors the Spiralists’ fiction in a Haitian geo-cultural space’ can
be extended to consider the use of hurricane form in narrative fiction and
poetry throughout the whole Caribbean (vii).
Indeed, the relation between the cyclone and literary form is elegantly
explored in Guadeloupian theorist Daniel Maximin’s geopoetics of Caribbean

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

literature, Les Fruits du cyclone (2006). In ‘L’Île aux trésors’, Maximin delineates
a ‘typology’ of the four cataclysms that imprint geopoetic imagination in the
Caribbean: the volcano, the earthquake, the tidal wave, and the cyclone (2006,
92). Whereas the earthquake is the brutal, accidental tremor, the volcano is
the creator of the island, manifesting the longue durée of geological time. By
contrast, the cyclone embodies cyclical recurrence in its annual return, and
signifies the dual temporalities of the two alternating seasons, the carême
and l’hivernage. It thereby incarnates a different sense of temporality – time
as cyclical and ‘spiralique’ – to that experienced by inhabitants of capitalist
urban cores such as Los Angeles, where the modern obsession and desire to
master nature through technological prediction leads to denial of the cyclical
nature of cataclysms (103). This spiral temporality is significant because ‘la
spiral de la vie réintroduit le toujours possible – malheurs et bonheurs – en
brisant l’alliance entre le cyclique et la fatalité’ (104–05) – that is, it could be
understood in kairotic terms as interrupting the conditions of the present to
reintroduce the always possible.
With its periodical cataclysms punctuating fair weather, the cyclone
disturbs European theories of climate as proceeding in a rational quadri-
linear order (97) and manifests a distinctive sense of geopolitical space,
initiating a dialectic between here and there, since its winds come from
the coasts of Africa, from elsewhere (‘d’ailleurs’) (98). Because the cyclone
is experienced across the whole of the Caribbean basin, it produces an
archipelagic consciousness (‘cette conscience archipélique’) engendered by
the circulation of the elements, an ethic of care for neighbouring isles subject
to the same destructive passages and hazards (100). The cyclone is a key
constituent of socio-ecological relation that paradoxically roots the Caribbean
person to her island, like the fisherman clinging to his boat in a storm (100).
This is not to elide the intensification of the suffering of slaves or of the
dispossessed by extreme weather conditions, which Maximin acknowledges.
However, geography and geology also ally with the slave and enable her to
fight, to imagine the possibility of liberty and a rooting in the here and now
(91). Cataclysms visualize the possibility of opposition to oppression and
explode the European myth of the purpose of the society of man as being
the domination of nature. The theme of ‘nature as enemy’ or nature’s revenge
which haunts the imperialist imaginary is seemingly reinforced by the fact
that more colonial ports were destroyed by cyclones than by invasions and
rebellions, and this has the possibility of engendering in the oppressed a
dream of revolt, to imitate a nature which says ‘no’: ‘Depuis l’origine, les
révoltes de la nature sont présentes dans l’histoire de l’île, qui peut dire “non”
aux habitations, aux cultures, aux bateaux, aux villes et aux ports’ (93).
The hurricane as nature’s revolt against the depredations of capitalism is a
trope with a long history in abolitionist and imperialist discourse. J. M. Turner’s
painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On
infamously deploys a hurricane as the incarnation of nature’s terrible revenge
on a slave-ship. Turner’s poetic epigraph portrays the storm as attacking

Sharae Deckard

not only the slave-trade but a society in which all life is subordinated to
the market: ‘Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds / Declare the
Typhon’s coming / Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard/ The dead
and dying-ne’er heed their chains / Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope! / Where is
thy market now?’ (Shanes, 2008, 222). However, Turner’s painting has been
criticized for its romantic depiction of the typhoon’s sublime might, which
reduces the drowning slaves to a lurid backdrop, obscuring their faces and
eyes and reducing them to dismembered parts – hence Guyanese poet David
Dabydeen’s decision to write an epic poem, Turner, narrating the story of those
lost lives.
In Maximin’s more subtle reading of nature’s revolt, the cyclone has an
anthropological significance for the slaves who must endure its intensity and
violence, but is not to be conceived merely in anthropocentric terms. As he
argues, nature has an objective reality outside of human symbolism and does
not exist merely to furnish instrumentalist metaphors: ‘La Nature vit sa vie et
n’est pas là pour fournir des métaphores et des symboles classifiés des folies et
des tourments des humains’ (105). Furthermore, the cyclone that destroys the
installations of the oppressors also destroys their victims without prejudice.
Instead of reading nature as revenge, Maximin argues that cataclysms make
visible ‘modalities of revolt’: ‘C’est en ce sens que les modalités de révolte des
quatre éléments ont servi de modèle élémentaire pour le combat des opprimés.
La géographie a permis d’en revenir, pour cet homme nu, à la puissance de
l’élémentaire’ (93–94, emphasis original). The transcendent, uncontainable
power of meteorological events demonstrates the vulnerability of European
colonial hegemony and serves to model forms of resistance (94). Maximin is
quick to point out that modalities of revolt do not imply an irrational myth of
nature’s anger, and should not be read as desperate acts (as of suicide), but
rather as the expressions of political consciousness and deliberate strategies
of resistance calibrated to particular historical conditions (95). These acts are
historical eruptions (‘éruptions historiques’). They are not gestures of despair
or vengeance, but rather ‘geste[s] d’inscription d’une espérance dans la terre
et dans la mémoire du peuple survivant’ (94).
Michael Niblett argues that representations of ‘eruptive nature’ are
ubiquitous in Caribbean poetics, with this violence understood not as
something to be defeated but rather as integral to the articulation of cultural
identity and political consciousness in terms of the socio-ecological partic-
ularity of environments throughout the Caribbean region (2009, 62). For
writers such as Maximin, the ‘effulgent character of the Caribbean landscape,
its environmental specificity[,] emerg[es] as inseparable from the acclamation
of a resistant socio-cultural specificity’ (Niblett, 2009, 63). In the following
section, I will explore the ways in which tropes and plot devices of hurricanes
serve the articulation of personal and political identities in socio-ecological

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

Storm as Subjectivity:
Hurricanes and the Articulation of Identity

‘Chaque jour, j’emploie le dialecte des cyclones fous’ – Frankétienne

As Jill M. Gaeta argues, the hurricane is a pervasive metaphor for the antinomies
of adolescent subjectivity in Francophone Antillean Bildungsroman:

Centuries of slavery, colonization, and departmentalization, as well as an

assimilationist policy and continuing hegemonic pressures, have created
an illusion of French superiority – the eye of the hurricane. Those who fall
victim to that illusion often deny their heritage, even their ‘race’, and strive
to become something colonial ideology will never allow them to become.
They are caught in a maelstrom where their identity is in constant contra-
diction – the hurricane itself. (Gaeta, 2011, vi)
Thus, in Maryse Condé’s Hugo le terrible (1991), the hurricane symbolizes
the inner turmoil of the 13-year-old protagonist Michel, a boy from a
privileged, upper-middle-class, well-assimilated background who gradually
realizes the cultural and socio-economic contradictions of his class position
and Francophile identity. However, it also acts as a plot catalyst, making
vividly apparent the socio-economic stratification of Antillean society. When
Michel travels to Gachette (a slum occupied by immigrants) intending to
help his friend Gitane prepare for the hurricane, he is confronted with
extreme poverty and social alienation. The cataclysmic hurricane produces
‘a bouleversement of all that Michel had known’, reducing the town to a
nightmare of ruins (Gaeta, 2011, 102). While the narrative acknowledges the
tragedy of this total destruction, particularly for poor communities such as
Gachette which have no economic buffer, it also presents the flattening of
existing structures as an opportunity for their alternative reconstruction.
The hurricane is portrayed as a social disaster with a stratified impact on
differently privileged communities, rather than a ‘natural’ disaster, but it is
also imagined as the kairotic event that makes visible structural inequalities
and thus opens up the desire to dismantle them.
In Anglophone Caribbean children’s literature, plots involving hurricanes
and storm-events also abound, performing a similar role in crystallizing the
individual subjectivities of adolescents, while at the same time affirming
notions of national consciousness or burgeoning anti-colonial identity.
However, unlike Gaeta’s reading of Francophone narratives, where the
hurricane’s chaotic flux partly serves as an expression of the contradictions
of departmentalization and the stunting of national consciousness, in many
Anglophone narratives the hurricane might express tension between colonial
ideology and emergent national consciousness, but is more straightforwardly
linked to a celebratory politics of decolonization.
Thus in Andrew Salkey’s Hurricane (1964) the might of Hurricane Chod
assails the house of a 13-year-old Kingston boy as his family waits for the eye

Sharae Deckard

to pass over. The storm rips holes in the roof, uproots trees and gates, and
floods rooms with torrential rain, but the house emerges intact. As the storm
progresses, Joe Brown breathlessly telephones his friends and recreates its
‘Island-wide impact’ as he listens to wireless reports. The hurricane engenders
a collective geographical consciousness symbolized by Joe’s constant
imagination of the plight of the rest of the island, as he realizes that ‘a
thing like a hurricane, is bigger in every way, than an ordinary human being’
(Salkey, 2011, 31). The hurricane’s devastation is not traumatizing, but rather
represented through Joe’s eyes in ‘fantastic’ terms, as like ‘a science-fiction
film’ (90), and gives rise to Joe’s own desire to write the story of its impact
– the mythopoeic impulse embodied in the new generation. The novel thus
narrativizes Jamaica’s resilience, allegorizing the power of national culture
and modern communication technologies to unify the community. The Carib
movie theatre stands untouched at the end of the hurricane, a testament to
the power of culture and imagination, to regional identification across the
archipelago (a point underscored by the radio’s playing of calypsos from other
islands), and to the residues of Amerindian culture preserved within Jamaican
culture. The politics of the novel are unambiguously celebratory of bourgeois
nationalism, the strength of the family, and the growth of the individual,
rather than conceiving of social revolution. However, there is a hint at the
end of the novel that individual bourgeois aspiration is doomed, when Joe
discovers that the sea-facing house in a more affluent neighbourhood into
which his family had hoped to move has been utterly destroyed.
Similarly, Zee Edgell’s Beka Lamb (1982) features the 1931 hurricane
which struck Belize on National Day. Again, the hurricane enables the
forging of community, when Beka’s family gives refuge to 25 other people
in their home, allegorizing the integration of disparate elements into a
national whole. Here the integration is incomplete, however, marred by
the continued exclusion of Beka’s friend Toycie, who has violated race,
class, and gender taboos by having sex with a lighter-skinned boy from the
Hispanic Creole class and becoming pregnant. Toycie is killed on the night
of the hurricane, when her mental distress causes her to flee wildly into the
storm. Beka, however, who has been troubled by her inability to navigate the
contradictions of her colonial religious education, her bourgeois mother’s
Anglophilia, her grandmother’s anti-colonial politics, and her own incipient
desire for independence, finds the hurricane a source of inspiration. Writing
in the eye of the storm, as refugees huddle round her, she completes a prize-
winning essay on the history of Belize. Once more the mythopoeic impulse
is ignited, as Beka becomes the storyteller of the nascent nation, predicting
the independence movement that would evolve out of the four years of
labour unrest and strikes that followed the 1931 hurricane. Waiting out the
hurricane, Beka’s personal navigation of the contradictory politics of class,
race, patriarchy, and colonial ideology allegorizes the larger narrative of
decolonization and labour unrest, while still acknowledging those excluded

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

from triumphalist national narratives and the divisions engendered by

socio-economic and gender inequalities.
Outside of children’s literature, the hurricane is also used as a trope
signifying the emergence of personal or national consciousness. This might
be the expression of the contradictions of a creolized, gendered identity
in flux, as in Indo-Trinidadian Ramabai Espinet’s The Swinging Bridge (2003),
whose protagonist Mona Singh exclaims: ‘I live in the eye of the storm. My
whole life arches backwards and forwards according to the speed of the gust
around me’ (Espinet, 2003, 5). Or, more positively, it can be the expression
of socio-ecological resilience bound to expectation of a better future, as in
Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey (1970), where cyclonic winds and rain do
not terrify but rather reassure the young protagonist, Tee. Here the storm
purrs like ‘a huge mother-cat’ and envelops the children in a ‘cosy darkness’,
a maternal ‘situation of inescapable intimacy’ which is both ‘frightening and
exciting’ (Hodge, 2000, 19). The hurricane signifies the children’s embedding
within the cyclical seasons and temporalities of local ecology, from which
Tee will be alienated later in the novel when she is sent to attend a colonial
Similarly, in Guyanese Grace Nichols’ much-anthologized ‘Hurricane Hits
England’, the 1987 storm which swept the British isles is heralded by the poet
as Hattie, ‘my sweeping, back-home cousin’ (Nichols, 1996, 34). The hurricane
roots the poem’s Black-British immigrant persona in the seemingly alien
ecology of England, invoking an Atlantic imaginary which connects the isles
of the Caribbean and Great Britain: ‘It took a hurricane, to bring her closer /
To the landscape’ (34). The ‘howling ship of the wind / its gathering rage / like
some dark ancestral spectre’ is paradoxically ‘fearful and reassuring’, recalling
the colonial history of the slave-trade which preceded immigration, but also
fostering a consciousness that she is part of a wider world-ecology (35).
The hurricane shatters her sense of alienation and permits a new ecological
recognition: ‘Ah, sweet mystery / Come to break the frozen lake in me, /
Shaking the foundations of the very trees within me, / Come to let me know /
That the earth is the earth is the earth’ (35).
However, the uses of the hurricane which I have described in this section
have been somewhat conservative, both in the sense of formal constraints (the
drive to ‘development’ and ‘resolution’ within the Bildungsroman) and in their
limited capacity to imagine future conditions of revolution or socio-ecological
transformation. They tend to offer personal politics in place of the social
polity, or to offer the nation as a site of mobilization without problematizing
the pitfalls of bourgeois nationalism. Therefore, in my concluding section I
wish to turn to an examination of how the hurricane as kairotic-event can
function in its most radical form as the prefiguration of modalities of revolt
and rebellion.

Sharae Deckard

Modalities of Revolt

‘He’s got a preoccupation with storms that’s almost theological’ – Gabriel

García Márquez (1973: 105)
An early demonstration of the formal potential of storms to induce upheaval
in linear narratives appears in the famous conclusion to Carpentier’s The
Kingdom of this World, where the narrator, Ti Noel, finishes his fantastical
account of the abortive reign of Henri Christophe following the Haitian
Revolution. Appalled by Christophe’s grotesque mimicry of French colonial
racial hierarchies, Ti Noel despairs that Afro-Caribbean society is doomed
to an eternal cycle of exploitation based on false hierarchies. However, his
despair is reversed in a sudden epiphany that ‘man’s greatest, fullest measure’
lies not in a utopian future beyond life – the kingdom of heaven – but rather in
the earthly process of ‘suffering and toiling’ to bring into being the Kingdom
of this World (Carpentier, 1957, 184–85). This moment of anagnorisis opens
into a mythic mode of narrative resolution through a storm-event, summoned
as the old man orders his subjects to rise in revolt:
At that moment a great green wind, blowing from the ocean, swept the
Plaine du Nord, spreading through the Dondon valley with a loud roar.
And while the slaughtered bulls bellowed on the summit of Le Bonnet de
l’Évêque, the armchair, the screen, the volumes of the Encyclopédie, the
music box, the doll, and the moonfish rose in the air, as the last ruins of the
plantation came tumbling down. (Carpentier, 1957: 186)
Kingdom has been criticized for its aestheticization of ‘the marvellous reality’
of the Haitian revolution: sensationalizing violence and Vodou, and peddling
essentialist racial stereotypes, rather than portraying the complex organi-
zation of the revolutionary movement and the socio-political factors which
led to its betrayal. Given the novel’s exoticist treatment of social resistance,
and its mythic treatment of history as cyclical, the conclusion poses a
narrative contradiction: how to represent the possibility of future autonomy
at the same moment that utopian conceptions of the future are disavowed.
This is resolved through the introduction of the supernatural wind, in which
the apocalyptic potential of hurricanes to flatten man-made structures
is harnessed to an eschatological end: the wind collapses the material
infrastructure of the plantation regime alongside the signifiers of colonial
culture and philosophy. The conclusion of a narrative about the failures of
the Haitian revolution is thus reconfigured to imagine the threshold of a
revolutionary new social order (such as that of the Cuban revolution of the
1950s, which Carpentier’s novel could be seen as prefiguring), yet without
representing the historical dismantling of colonial structures that such a
revolution would require.
A similar deployment of an irrealist, apocalyptic hurricane concludes
the first novel of Miguel Ángel Asturias’s banana trilogy, which chronicles

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

the impact of a North American plantation, modelled on the United Fruit

Company, in a small village in Guatemala. In Viento juerte (1950), the native
planters and peasants struggle but fail to block the Company’s relentless
expansion. At the conclusion, when all seems lost, the shaman Rito Perraj
uses the disinterred head of a dead worker, Hermenegilo Puac, to call up ‘a
wind that would blow at ground level: constant, strong, stronger; stronger
and lower all the time to uproot the banana trees of Tropical Banana Inc. and
tear them out forever’ (Ángel Asturias, 1967, 224). The cyclone sweeps away
the vestiges of US plantation: railways, infrastructure, twelve million banana
trees, company managers, shareholders, superintendents: ‘Houses lifted from
their foundations, such was the force of the wind. Darts of water flew past like
dead stars; iron towers were smashed; telegraph poles uprooted, and in the
banana plantations nothing remained standing’ (225).
The logic of the plot suggests that at this point in history the cyclone
is the only force which can be imagined as strong enough to destroy the
accumulated wealth of the American multinational and uproot the ecological
regime of the banana monoculture: political rebellion having failed, the
cyclone stands in as the hope of future revolt. The next novel of the trilogy,
El Papa Verde (1954), traces the continued struggle of the peasants and
workers, despite the seizure and burning of their villages. The third novel,
Los ojos de los enterrados (1960), follows Octavio Sansur’s attempt to rally the
masses into a general strike and concludes with their final victory through
organization. Thus, for Asturias, the hurricane prefigures a material rebellion
and transformation of existing structures: it is not an apocalyptic capitu-
lation to the impossibility of imagining a better future but rather the use of
an irrealist, liminal event to rearrange briefly the conditions of the possible.
Read in the context of the whole trilogy, it is not the tragic climax, but
merely a precursor to the real climax: the historical eruption of organized
revolution which disrupts the seemingly inexorable capitalist time of the
United Fruit Company and which is figured in the novel in tandem with the
messianic re-emergence of Sansur from the ashes of volcanic catacombs,
reincarnated as Juan Pablo Mondrago.
The proliferation of hurricanes and cyclones in Caribbean and Latin
American narratives of plantation and commodity regimes is possessed of a
certain economic logic. Hurricanes serve as objective correlatives to forms
of ‘disaster capitalism’, since natural disasters are frequently followed by
shock doctrine. Furthermore, the complexity of extreme weather systems,
the spatial relation of local and global processes across vast spaces from
the coasts of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, and their unpredictability which
refuses to yield entirely to meteorologists’ rational instruments of calculation,
lends itself as a metaphor both for the irrationality of capitalism and the
perpetual motion of capital as it penetrates the peripheries of the world-
system. In Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Leaf Storm and 100 Years of Solitude (1967)
apocalyptic images of ‘magical realist’ hurricanes are used to figure the
violent penetrations of multinational capital and the forcible incorporation of

Sharae Deckard

societies and ecologies into modes of production. In the lyrical preface to Leaf
Storm, the litter-storm (hojarasca) does not exoticize the alterity of Caribbean
geography, geology, or ethnicity. Rather, it encodes the violent transformation
of the oikeios as both human subjects and non-human ecology are belatedly
inducted into capitalist modernity:
– Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town,
the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm. […] In less than
a year it sowed over the town the runnel of many catastrophes that had
come before it, scattering its mixed cargo of rubbish in the streets. And
all of a sudden that rubbish, in time to the mad and unpredicted rhythm
of the storm, was being sorted out, individualized, until what been a
narrow street with a river at one end and a corral for the dead at the other
was changed into a different and more complex town, created out of the
rubbish of other towns. (García Márquez, 1972, 9–11; emphasis original)
The litter-storm corresponds to a distinctive political ecology ‘formed of
human and material dregs’, which combines the political detritus of Colombia’s
civil wars with the economic ideologies of modernization imported by the
American United Fruit Company and brutally enforced by the neocolonial
state. The whirlwind transforms the town’s ecology, creating a metabolic rift
that drains ‘the rich soil’ in order to export banana crops, while at the same
time accumulating the waste by-products of commodity consumption. The
banana company is figured in natural terms as a hurricane precisely because
it inaugurates a socio-economic regime – the plantation monoculture – which
is also ecological, and which will appropriate the ‘good quality of [Macondo’s]
soil’ as a commodity frontier.
As defined by environmental historian Jason W. Moore, ecological regimes are
the ‘relatively durable patterns of class structure, technological innovation and
the development of productive forces […] that have sustained and propelled
successive phases of world accumulation’ (Moore, 2010, 405). Because plunder
exhausts the non-commodified relationships that allow capital accumulation
to proceed, capitalism is always in search of what Moore calls commodity
frontiers to facilitate new rounds of extraction and appropriation. The rapid
appropriation of commodity frontiers (in bananas, sugar, rubber, cocoa, and
so forth) undermines the socio-ecological conditions of profitability, typically
within 50 to 75 years in any given region. The relative exhaustion of an
ecological regime – its inability to maintain the conditions for extended
accumulation as a result not only of biophysical depletion but also of the
scarcities which ‘emerge through the intertwining of resistances from labouring
classes, landscape changes, and market flux’ (Moore, 2011, 46) – precipitates
an ecological revolution, characterized by the extension of exploitation to new
geographies and resources, the intensification of existing forms of extraction,
and the production of new technologies and social-nature relations.
The last lines of Márquez’s description clearly position the litter-storm as
an ecological revolution instituting new socio-ecological relations: ‘it developed

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

unity and mass; and it underwent the natural process of fermentation, becoming
incorporated into the germination of the earth’ (García Márquez, 1972, 11; emphasis
original). The whirlwind is initially exhilarating, bringing the intoxications of
commodity relations and the technics of modern infrastructure to a peripheral
town excluded from the previous regime of sugarcane plantations. However,
the novel traces the boom-bust logic of commodity frontiers, showing how
the ecological regime of the banana plantation collapsed in the 1930s after
the world-market price of bananas plummeted and the costs of suppressing
labour unrest rose too high for foreign corporations to continue to extract
profit-surpluses. The devastating effects of the whirlwind become clear only
after the withdrawal of the banana company, as capital evacuates the region,
laying ‘waste’ to the very structures it had once erected: ‘The leaf storm had
brought everything and it had taken everything away’ (1972, 131).
In 100 Years of Solitude, the trope of the ‘banana company hurricane’ returns
again (García Márquez, 1995, 330), this time accompanied by a four-year
plague of rain that erases all evidence of the infamous massacre of the striking
United Fruit company workers: ‘The sky crumbled into a set of destructive
storms and out of the north came hurricanes that scattered roofs about and
knocked walls and uprooted every last plant of the banana groves’ (1995,
314). The revolution to which this storm-event corresponds is not the decolo-
nization anticipated in Carpentier’s ‘green wind’, or the failed revolution of
Asturias’s ‘strong wind’, but rather the collapse of the ecological regime of the
banana monoculture when no longer profitable:
In the swampy streets were the remains of furniture, animal skeletons
covered with red lilies, the last memories of the hordes of newcomers who
had fled Macondo as wildly as they arrived. The houses that had been built
with such haste during the banana fever had been abandoned. The banana
company tore down its installations. (García Márquez, 1995, 330–31)
This exhaustion of the commodity frontier, in terms of both soil fertility
and labour, is experienced as catastrophic repression of agency rather than
eschatological fulfilment of a political telos. The destruction affects not only
the man-made environment of the town but produces ‘a bog of rotting roots’
in the once ‘enchanted region’ where the banana plantations had sapped the
fertile soil and ‘laid waste’ to the fields (1995, 330). In a region evacuated of
capital and drained of ecological nutrients and human ‘collective strength’,
reconstruction proves ‘impossible’ for the inhabitants (331).
In both Asturias and García Márquez, figures of storm and hurricane are
inextricably bound up with the formal contradictions of narrating histories
of betrayed insurrection. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the strike of the
plantation workers haunts the narrative as a spectre of failed revolution, not
only in national terms as the possibility of autonomy repressed within the
neocolonial state, but also as disillusion with the collapse of the socialist
international. The ‘biblical hurricane’ and ‘cyclonic strength’ that annihilates
Macondo at the conclusion of the novel as retribution for the fatal solipsism

Sharae Deckard

of its inhabitants represents a recourse to formal interruption and upheaval

at the very point where social transformation fails to transpire in the material
realm of history (1995, 415). The liminality of this last scene suggests narrative
unrepresentability, an inability to call into being the not-yet-possible conditions
of emancipation. The wind is described as ‘full of voices from the past […]
sighs of disenchantment that preceded the most tenuous nostalgia’, before it
metamorphoses into a ‘fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble’, destroying the
town (1995, 416). Unlike Asturias, Márquez conceives no hope through organi-
zation of the masses: there are only the spectres of betrayed unionization
and massacre. In the face of the failure to conceive new forms of collective
struggle against multinational capital or the neocolonial state, all that can be
imagined is a mythic clearing of the slate.
However, later Caribbean texts link hurricane events more optimistically
to historical possibility. In these texts, hurricanes construct liminal narrative
spaces which overturn social hierarchies, invoking the seeming lawlessness
of natural weather-systems, and creating radical disruptions which revitalize
the possibility of collective action or consciousness in the face of the
stasis or amnesia produced by (neo)colonialism and neoliberal capital. Thus,
Trinidadian poet Indrani Rampersad conceives of the hurricane as an event
which disrupts ideological semblance and awakens collective resistance:
‘Cold winds / Strong winds / Impending hurricane / For the people of the
sugarcane / A suppressed people! / An oppressed people! Awake / And
activate!’ (Rampersad, 1992, 224–25).
Similarly, the virtuosic opening narration of four centuries of Trinidadian
history in Earl Lovelace’s Salt links the destruction of material structures
by a major hurricane with a series of historical insurgencies in which slaves
became conscious of their power to contest existing social relations and build
Four hundred years it take them to find out that you can’t keep people in
captivity. Four hundred years! And it didn’t happen just so. People had to
revolt. People had to poison people. Port-of-Spain had to burn down. A
hurricane had to hit the island. Haiti had to defeat Napoleon. People had to
run away up the mountains. People had to fight. (Lovelace, 1996, 7)
In Erna Brodber’s Myal (1988), the healing of ‘zombified’ Ella O’Grady by a
community of myal spirits in a sacred grove produces a dramatic lightning-
storm which tears through the island of Jamaica as Ella expels the colonial
ideologies which led to her schizophrenia:
The shaking did not cease but became a mighty hissing electric storm as
she infected each little body with her tremors and each transmitted the
infection to the other. Shook, shimmy and shake in the wholly colony of
stone bruise! Shook, shimmy and shake as they electrified the sap in the
base of the mango tree so that its branches reared their heads and kicked
their feet like so many wild jennies with no stockings to their can-can.
(Brodber, 1998, 2)

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

On one level, the storm embodies the animistic beliefs typical of Afro-Caribbean
religions such as Myal, in which human subjectivity extends into elemental
forces of nature. The grove, and by extension the wider extra-human
environment, exists ‘by nature in a state of perpetual tension which is how
the slightest bruise by thought, word or deed sent its substance inside out’
(3). This sharply contrasts the Cartesian vision of nature dominated by man’s
technological mastery that directly follows the exorcism, as the novel flashes
back to Ella at age 13, reciting Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’ in the colonial
The ‘Big Steamers’ of Kipling’s jingo-poem visualize Jamaica’s structural
position within the world-ecology, as a peripheral site of raw materials to be
extracted and shipped back to England for metropolitan consumption: ‘But if
anything happens to all you Big Steamers / And suppose you are wrecked up
and down the salt seas?’ / ‘Why you’d have no coffee or bacon for breakfast’
(Brodber, 1998, 5). Spectres of untamed nature – salt seas, harsh winds, storm,
and shipwreck – are wished away in favour of clement weather and a fantasy
of nature domesticated by the ecological regime of the plantation in service
to the metropole: ‘Then I’ll pray for fine weather for all you Big Steamers / For
little blue billows and breezes so soft’ (5). As such, Ella’s recitation expresses
her subordination to colonial hegemony and her alienation from the truth of
her own constitution as a human subject in relation to extra-human nature,
whereas the lightning storm can be read as the return of the repressed, or
‘nature which says no’, to recall Maximin.
Significantly, Ella’s recovery from alienation is completed when she
becomes a school teacher and refuses to teach a story assigned by the
colonial curriculum in which a group of domestic agricultural animals go on
‘strike’ from a farm, only to return because they are too ‘lazy’ and ‘ignorant’
to survive without their paternalistic overseer. The fable is an obvious
allegory of the transition from slavery to wage-labour, urging emancipated
plantation workers not to strike but to continue to labour in abject conditions
for the backras. It is set in 1919, a year of labour strikes in Jamaica that were
crushed by colonial forces, but which would resurface throughout the 1920s
and 1930s. Though the historical strikes are not mentioned explicitly in the
novel, the allegorical significance of the storm-event, which at first seems
to represent only the transformation of an individual consciousness, can
be understood as extending to the collective politicization of the whole
society – the brewing storm of labour unrest. Ella’s ‘private hurricane
bec[omes] a public event’ (70) and enacts what Mass Cyrus calls a ‘short
circuit’, which jams the transmission of colonial ideology and challenges an
ecological regime in which humans have their ‘knowledge of their original
and natural world [drained] away from them’, leaving them ‘empty shells’
(107). Her zombification is not merely a figure of cultural schizophrenia
under colonialism, but rather an ecological figure of the metabolic rift, of
both human and extra-human nature exhausted by colonialism.
Yet the storm does not function only metaphorically. Its ‘sudden destruction’

Sharae Deckard

of human and non-human lives, infrastructures, and organisms is narrated in

a literal catalogue:
71,488 coconut trees
3,470 breadfruit trees
901 residences totally
203 residences partially
628 out-buildings, and left
65 standing but damaged.
It killed 1,522 fowls, 115 pigs, 116 goats, five donkeys one cow and one
mule. Several humans lost their lives from drowning in the thunderstorm
and swollen rivers that it brought. (3–4)
The novel thus holds in tension the storm-event as a supernatural happening
which serves as a formal disruption activating an animist consciousness
rooted in the land and catalysing collective action, and the storm as a
geophysical force with material consequences beyond its mythic significance,
whose impact is worst in the most impoverished districts: ‘[Mass Cyrus] shook
his head. For the trees and the buildings, which the freak storm which he
drove from his grove destroyed, mostly belonged to his tribe of people. So
did the lives’ (4).
If the aftermaths of hurricanes make visible social hierarchies, during the
duration of the storms the anamorphic spectre of death-by-natural-forces
overturns the myth of human privilege over the non-human. Hurricanes
challenge the notion of individualism and create the conditions for the renewal
of collective solidarity. Thus, in Daniel Maximin’s L’Île et une nuit (1995), which
takes place over the seven hours of Hurricane Hugo’s assault on Guadeloupe
in 1989, personal, collective, and geological histories are welded together in
the novel’s form. The struggles of the first-person narrator, Marie-Gabriel,
for individuation, are interrupted by a first-person-plural voice, nous, which
asserts the necessity of collective solidarity over the self-reliance of the
consumer individual. The old women mock ‘the youth and strangers who
were carting shopping carts full of frozen food, without realizing that the
electricity will be cut off’ and note that ‘ten years without hurricanes changes
the inheritance of in-born survival instincts’ (Maximin, 1995, 13; translation
mine). The hurricane allegorizes the community’s struggle for survival within
neoliberal conditions after an incomplete process of decolonization.
Yet, as Celia Britton remarks, reducing its significance to the merely
allegorical elides the lived experience of storms, since ‘people in the Caribbean
are fundamentally affected by the forces of nature, and it is important to
start, at least, by taking these literally’ (Britton, 2008, 112). The hurricane
must be read in texts not merely as symbolic, but as a material represen-
tation, making visible the objective reality of the ‘stubborn, recalcitrant and
unpredictable physical and ecological world that, like the weather, constitutes
the environment in which we have our being’ (Harvey, 2010, 185). In L’Île, the
hurricane is not an apocalyptic event which elicits the paralysis of despair,

The Political Ecology of Storms in Caribbean Literature

but rather an anti-climactic, prolonged assault over the duration of one night,
a slow erosion which demands resistance in the form of patient endurance:
‘This is not only a night of apocalypse. It is also the grinding resistance, the
scraping of nails that carve rainbow-arcs in the shingles’ (Maximin, 1995, 53;
translation mine). To insist on the literal meaning of the hurricane is to refuse
the metaphorical freight of apocalypse, since here the devastation wrought
by Hugo is not a cataclysmic, irreversible end of the world, but rather a
geophysical phenomenon with historical limits. We might thus differentiate
between texts such as Maximin’s and Brodber’s that consciously utilize natural
disaster-events to encode dialectical representations of the relation between
human and extra-human nature, and those which are more instrumentalist in
their use of the hurricane as a metaphoric repository, an imaginary through
which to conceive critique, resistance or alterity.


We must stare into the ruins – bravely, resolutely – and we must see. And
then we must act – Junot Díaz (2011)
Throughout this chapter I have traced a typology of storm-aesthetics in
Caribbean literature whose trajectory ranges from the early articulation of
the particularity of Caribbean geographies and social ecologies, sometimes
verging on essentialism or nativism; to the symbolic potential of ‘weather
systems’ to figure the ecological revolutions of (neo)imperial capital; to the
use of apocalyptic magical events as formal disruptions to circumvent the
paralysis of forestalled revolution and the amnesias produced by neocolonial
states in the service of neoliberal capital; to the construction of liminal
narrative spaces in which social hierarchies are overturned and the possibilities
of collective action or consciousness are reactivated; to dialectical represen-
tations of the real materiality of storm-events in relation to human cultural
The radical, disruptive expression of storms as modalities of revolt is
represented not merely on the level of thematic content – the invocation of
histories of insurrection throughout the Caribbean – but is often accompanied
by literary aesthetics which veer into the irreal, as if to accomplish on the
level of form what cannot be fully represented through realism. The perfect
spiral of the cyclone can be detected by the satellite’s eye, but the totality
of the storm in all its force, violence, and geographical extent cannot be
wholly rendered in words. Accordingly, the formal disruptions of storm-
aesthetics could be understood as attempts to reimagine ‘the potentialities’
latent within the real by changing the ‘laws’ of the not-real, summoning the
impossible through the storm event which refuses to submit to the capitalist
domination of nature, disrupting reality in order to create new possibilities
for action. Of course, agency conceived within a novel is not the same as

Sharae Deckard

agency and change enacted. Rob Nixon rightly warns against a fetishism of
literary aesthetics which projects ‘questions of social change and power’
onto ‘questions of form’, thus inflating discursive resistance over political
action (Nixon, 2011, 31). This is especially true when environmental crises
are more easily appropriated for reactionary than for radical purposes, as
evidenced in the shock doctrine policies applied in post-Katrina New Orleans
and post-earthquake Haiti. Yet, while the mere act of representation cannot
itself bring change, it may temporarily interrupt the seemingly immutable and
make change possible to imagine.

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Maximin, Daniel. 1995. L’Îsle et une nuit. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
—. 2006. Les Fruits du cyclone: une géopoétique de la Caraibe. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Moore, Jason. 2010. ‘The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist
World-Ecology, 1450–2010’. Journal of Agrarian Change 10(3): 389–413.
—. 2011. ‘Wall Street is a Way of Organizing Nature’. Upping the Anti 12: 47–61.
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Niblett and Kerstin Oloff. Amsterdam: Rodopi: 51–72.
Nichols, Grace. 1996. ‘Hurricane Hits England’. Sunris. London: Virago: 34–35.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Rampersad, Indrani. 1990. ‘The People of the Sugarcane’. In Creation Fire: A CAFRA
Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry. Ed. Ramabai Espinet. Toronto: Sister Vision
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Salkey, Andrew. 2011. Hurricane. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press.
Shanes, Eric. 2008. The Life and Works of J. M. Turner. New York: Parkstone International.
Walcott, Derek. 1969. ‘The Hurricane’. In a Green Night: Poems, 1948–1960. London:

chapter two

Zombies, Gender,
and World-Ecology:
Gothic Narrative in the Work of
Ana Lydia Vega and Mayra Montero
Kerstin Oloff

Kerstin Oloff
Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology
The individual, the community, the land, are inextricable in
the process of creating history. Landscape is a character in
this process. Its deepest meanings need to be understood –
Édouard Glissant (1989, 105–06)

I t is widely accepted that Gothic fears construct ‘a monster out of the traits
which ideologies of race, class, gender, sexuality and capital want to disavow’
(Halberstam, 1995, 102). Indeed, much has been written on the Gothic’s
inherent relation to racist-patriarchal capitalism, but the role of ‘ecophobia’
within the Gothic has only more recently become a focus of sustained critical
attention.1 Historical capitalism has developed through a series of metabolic
rifts that have as their ideological complement the nature–society dichotomy
(a dichotomy which is also gendered and racialized). Put simply, these ‘rifts’
refer to the increasing alienation of the majority of the population from the
means of reproduction – most fundamentally, the land and the body. The
zombie is ideal for starting to think through Gothic representations of these
rifts (Oloff, 2012). Zombies have become globally recognizable figures because
they speak powerfully to the anxieties produced by the commodification of
labour: humans are reduced to being bodily vessels for the production of
specifically capitalist value (socially necessary labour time). Yet commodifi-
cation is also fundamentally an ecological process, something that becomes
clear if we consider the zombie’s Haitian origins. The zombie has its roots

1 ‘Ecophobia’ is defined by Estok as ‘an irrational fear (sometimes, of course,

leading to contempt or hatred) of the agency (real or imagined) of nature’ (2013,

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

in a paradigmatic moment in the emergence of capitalism: the Caribbean

experience of the sugar frontier’s violent restructuring of nature–society
relations.2 If we follow Jason W. Moore’s injunction to understand capitalism
as world-ecology (2010), the classic zombies toiling on the plantation fields
can be read as a cultural response to capitalism’s development through the
ruthless exploitation, degradation, and commodification of nature through
enslaved labour.
There exist a number of variations on the zombie figure, the most important
of which for this chapter is the vacant-eyed, light-skinned, female zombie. This
female zombie – the victim of patriarchal society and a clear instantiation
of the monstrous-feminine3 – functioned as a staple within the US imperial
imagination, where she encapsulated racist fears of contagion (as in the
Halperins’ White Zombie [1932] or Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie [1943]).
She also appears within twentieth century Haitian literature, articulating
and examining racial, class, and gendered anxieties.4 If, from an eco-critical
perspective, it is relatively easy to discern the ecological dimension of represen-
tations of the zombie labouring on the plantation, the trope of the vacant-eyed
female zombie has been less open to such a reading. For the mediation of the
female’s relation to her surroundings through patriarchal structures tends to
background questions of ecology. Under capitalism, a social-economic system
‘necessarily committed to racism and sexism’ (Federici, 2004, 17), women’s
(unpaid or under-paid) labour and their reproductive functions are subjugated
to the structures of patriarchy. Sex, like race, functions as a specification of
class relations, ‘serving to cheapen the cost of labour and to hide the exploi-
tation of women and colonial subjects’ (Federici, 2004, 17). The violence of
this process is registered in the female zombie – fought over by male suitors,
silenced, and reduced to her bodily existence. If we read zombies as figures

2 ‘Frontier’ is understood as ‘the forward movement of the (capitalist) system’

into uncommodified land (Moore, 2000, 412). The plantations rapidly reshaped
environments; disrupted local ecosystems through the radical simplification of
nature; produced almost exclusively for the global market and, in turn, required
capital inputs from financiers abroad; brutally installed global divisions of labour
that were racialized and gendered; and, from the start, led to the rapid exhaustion
and degradation of extra-human and human resources. The geography of sugar
production was therefore historically restless and, like capitalism more generally,
tended towards outward expansion after each ‘bust’ (Moore 2000).
3 See Paravisini-Gebert, 1997 and Braham, 2012. Creed defines ‘the monstrous-
feminine’ as follows: ‘As with all other stereotypes of the feminine, from virgin to
whore, she is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase “monstrous-feminine”
emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity’
(1993, 3).
4 See, for instance, Jacques-Stephen Alexis’s ‘Chronique d’un faux-amour’, in
Romancero aux étoiles (Gallimard, 1960), in which a young light-skinned Haitian
woman is zombified and confined to a French nunnery. Here Alexis examines the
intertwining of a dehumanizing racialization (through, for instance, animalistic
descriptions) and female objectification.

Kerstin Oloff

that speak to the nature–society relations through which capitalism unfolds,

then the vacant-eyed female zombie enables us to think through the role of
patriarchal exploitation within this. In its various incarnations, one might
therefore say that the figure of the zombie sits at the fault lines of racial, class,
gender, and environmental violence.
Building on the premise that zombies are figures that register the logic of
capitalism-as-world-ecology, I will turn to two contemporary writers – Puerto
Rican Ana Lydia Vega and Cuban-Puerto Rican Mayra Montero – who have
engaged with the Gothic from a perspective that is both overtly feminist
and consciously ecological. ‘El baúl de Miss Florence: fragmentos para un
novelón romántico’ (1991) [‘Miss Florence’s Trunk’, 1994] by Ana Lydia Vega
and Tú, la oscuridad (1995) [You, Darkness, 1997] by Mayra Montero are texts
that critically and consciously probe the fault-lines of capitalist modernity,
addressing issues of ecology, race and gender within a world context.5 In both
texts, the zombie is merged with, or considered alongside, another classic
Gothic figure: the madwoman. I will argue that it is through their engagement
with the European Gothic and early US zombie films that they confront their
readers with the Gothic’s gendered and racialized ecological unconscious. Their
texts encourage us to think patriarchy and racism alongside deforestation;
zombies alongside the classic ‘English governess’; and, ultimately, to reinsert
these only seemingly unlinked characters and phenomena within their global
world-ecological context. In direct conflict with postmodernist aesthetics,
their texts encourage us to think these relations against the background of
the world-ecological totality, while mirroring, in their fragmented, postmod-
ernist structure and technique, the increasing reification of modern life.
Considering both their texts alongside each other has important implications
for thinking through the contemporary global environmental crisis: while
Vega addresses capitalism’s drive towards unsustainable plunder and the
exhaustion of resources within a nineteenth-century Puerto Rican context,
Montero takes us to the present day with her emphasis on concerns about
frog extinctions and Haiti’s socio-environmental disaster.

In the Magic Circle of the Gardens:

Gothic Narratives and the Ecological Unconscious

In ‘El baúl de Miss Florence’, Vega engages with two key Gothic texts:
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), one of the most canonical Victorian Gothic
novels, and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which transposes
Brontë’s novel onto a Caribbean island as imagined from an imperial US
perspective. Importantly, Vega’s novella is structured around a boom-and-
bust narrative arc that is determined by the rise and fall of La Enriqueta, a

5 I will quote from the English translations listed in Works Cited.

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

plantation near Arroyo.6 Opening in the USA in 1885, when the governess
Florence Jane receives the news of the death of her former mistress Miss
Susan (the daughter of Samuel Morse and wife of the Danish merchant Edward
Lind), Part I of the novella focuses on the years Florence spent in Puerto Rico
(1856–59), using the narrative device of journal entries read in the narrative
present. Part II focuses on her return to Arroyo in 1885, where she finds
that slavery has been abolished, the hacienda is in ruins, and her former
employers are dead. Through this structure, Vega highlights the fundamental
role of the inherently volatile international sugar industry in shaping local
and global environments and social dynamics.7 Revolts and rebellions against
the social order (which increased after the collapse of the 1820–40 sugar
boom [Baralt, 2007, 62]), soil degradation, deforestation, and ensuing water
scarcity and climate change all contributed to undermining the profitability
of the Puerto Rican sugar industry. As we shall see, Vega’s attention to this
historical context helps render explicit what the two precursor texts could
only register through horror and the monstrous, raising questions pertaining
to the imperial Gothic’s ecological unconscious.
In a well-known passage from Jane Eyre, when Jane first arrives at Thornfield
Hall, she looks out of the attic window:
I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet lawn […];
the field […]; the wood, dun and sere […]; the church at the gates, the road,
the tranquil hills, all reposing in the autumn day’s sun; the horizon bounded
by a propitious sky […] I longed for a power of vision that might surpass
that limit. (122)
The scene encapsulates Jane’s desire to escape different forms of patriarchal
enclosures (Henson, 2011, 38). Yet, while she can see Rochester’s seemingly
idyllic feudal lands (contrasted here implicitly with the bustle of the towns),
she cannot see the colonial Jamaican origins of part of his wealth, which,

6 The boom-and-bust arc is based on the historical rise and fall of the hacienda La
Enriqueta (1827–85; see Overman, 2000) and evocative of Puerto Rico’s nineteenth-
century sugar boom, which was sustained by the Ponce-Patillas coastal belt,
encompassing 162.5 square miles of alluvial plain (Figueroa, 2005, 20). It rapidly
transformed Puerto Rico (which up until then had been a frontier society),
displacing coastal peasants, reshaping its landscapes far beyond the actual
plantations, and fuelling the demographic explosion. Particularly ecologically
devastating were the ‘intensified occupation of the highlands and the wholesale
cutting of timber for construction, which exacted a heavy toll on water-retaining
vegetation’ (Scarano, 1984, 47). Environmental degradation was felt quickly, as
‘average annual rainfall declined and severe droughts became more common’
(Figueroa, 2005, 21), and is still visible today.
7 In an interview, Vega states: ‘In the southern region of the island, three-quarters
of the landowners – the people with money – were foreigners. […] There were
North Americans too. This world fascinated me, especially the town of Arroyo,
an international emporium of great wealth based on the exploitation of sugar’
(Hernández and López Springfield, 2004, 821).

Kerstin Oloff

in displaced form, haunt the house through the ‘preternatural’ laugh of

Bertha Mason (123), ‘a defeated ‘colonia[l]’ othered in [her] questionable
racial provenance, swarthy and un-English’ (Paravisini-Gebert, 2012, 249). In
contrast, when Ana Lydia Vega’s ‘Jane’ looks out of the window of the hacienda
La Enriqueta in southern Puerto Rico, she sees ‘this empire of sugarcane
stretching as far as they eye can see toward the dark-blue Caribbean’ (169).
Vega’s story turns precisely on the limitations of the viewpoint of the governess
– a figure that came to encapsulate ideals of imperial domesticity, which were
themselves bound up with a ‘civilizing’ mission and the production of an ‘elite
whiteness’ (Tolentino, 2011, 324).
As a white privileged servant of the Lind family, Florence’s social status
in Puerto Rico is ambiguous; after her own father’s death, she is both an
economically dispossessed female and an active civilizing agent enabling
‘Euro-american elites to produce a hierarchy of whiteness that could strengthen
and expand their claim to white racial identity’ (Tolentino, 2011, 323, 325). The
story situates Florence amidst a series of female doubles (including Miss Susan,
Selenia, and Bella), defining them ‘as part of a racialized gender hierarchy’
(Tolentino, 2011, 322). Florence is a fully developed character (who likes to
read novels by Charlotte Brontë), but she also functions according to the logic
of the Gothic romance and in so doing exposes its mechanisms. Unlike in Jane
Eyre, her expectations of romantic resolution (with the lascivious slave-owner
Edward Lind) are hinted at but thwarted by his death; in a similar manner,
the novella evokes and debunks the myth of ‘la gran familia puertorriqueña’
that was ‘revered in the works of the treintistas (members of the Generation of
1930)’ as well as ‘the glorified hacienda that served as its primary metaphor’
(Moreno, 2012, 92). It is also noteworthy that Vega erases the potential
racial differences between Jane (Florence) and Bertha (Miss Susan),8 both of
which recall gothic representations of women as ‘mad’ and ‘zombified’. Their
will power has turned into bagasse, the crushed left-overs of sugar cane
production, metaphorically subordinating their decision-making powers to
both the sugar industry and the logic of gothic romance. The Gothic secret
thus no longer focuses on the madwoman in the attic and her provenance, but
rather on the fact that their ‘golden cage’ is built on the ‘the bones of so many
of God’s creatures’ (186; 217); it is the moment of fetishistic disavowal that
turns into the gothic secret.
Within this narrative universe, an alternative perspective is advanced,
as Miss Florence’s unreliable viewpoint is exposed. In a key scene, René
Fouchard, the French doctor who is an alternative love interest for Florence,
does not woo her as a more traditional storyline would have dictated, but
instead leads her into the slave quarters of the hacienda, a place very much
outside of what she refers to as the ‘the magic circle of the gardens’ (200). As
Tolentino observes (2011, 38), Fouchard seeks to use this as an educational
moment to expose the inhumanity of the system that produces sugar for her

8 On ‘race’ in the story, see Alcocer, 2013.

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

coffee; Florence, on the other hand, experiences this as a moment of terror

that needs to be erased from memory:
a long cortège of ragged men and women, their bare feet, covered with
mud, stumbling in the clumsiness of exhaustion, began to file slowly
toward us. My heart beat violently in my breast. I raised my gaze to my
companion’s face, my eyes pleading for an answer to this spectacle.
‘Look at them. Look well, Florence’, he said, bringing his lips down to my
ear so close I could feel his breath. ‘These are the men and women who give
sweetness to our coffee.’
My eyes clang fatally to those emaciated torsos, those scarred backs,
those grim and hostile countenances that looked like faces from some dark
cavern in the bowels of hell. Eager to erase the painful ugliness of that
scene, which the failing light invested with a spectral glow, I quickened my
steps along the trail back to the house. René followed, but we spoke not a
single word to each other until we were once again inside the magic circle
of the gardens. (199–200)
While her position as governess is certainly one of marginality, she also
here participates in the ideological erasure of the inequalities on which
the system is based – inequalities that are written on to unnamed bodies.
Florence translates all the markers of destitution and discontent into gothic
terror, as the slaves who bear marks of their mistreatment are represented in
such a way that they recall both the traditional zombie figure as well as the
shuffling hordes popularized in US cinema by George Romero. The gothic
mode acknowledges the displaced fears of rebellions, the possibility of which
is noted by Florence, who is aware of the Haitian Revolution and smaller
failed insubordinations in the vicinity. As Tolentino points out, in this scene,
Fouchard seeks to instruct Florence ‘in the link between slave labour and
civilized domesticity’ (2011, 328), exposing the way in which the figure of
the governess was inscribed in discourses of colonial domesticity and racial
segregation. Florence, on the other hand, seeks to disguise power relations
between herself and her employers and to erase slave labour from her ‘magic
circle’ of consciousness altogether.
The scene further functions as a comment on the repression of the
ecological exhaustion through which capitalism develops. ‘The magic circle of
the gardens’ is where the human and ecological degradation of the bateyes and
the surrounding canefields is forgotten. In Victorian fiction, the garden was
usually defined as a ‘woman’s space, a safe boundary between the domestic
and the wider world’ (Henson, 2011, 7), an ideological association explored
and exposed by Vega. Florence’s racialized femininity, as well as her English
domesticity – stereotypically defined through the tea-drinking habits she
brings to La Enriqueta (Tolentino, 2011, 324) – are bound up with the gardens
that encapsulate the ostentatious excess of the hacienda. Within this space,
what matters is her relationship with a transnational slave-holding elite, which

Kerstin Oloff

she, as white British subject and ‘sexual and gender missionar[y]’ of Empire,
seeks to civilize (Tolentino, 2011, 321; 326). The civilizing mission translates
into Florence’s educational efforts and, more generally, into her attempts to
contain any threat to racial and class boundaries, a threat embodied in the
text by her double Selenia, described by Mr Lind as belonging to a ‘hybrid race
[…] born without soul’ (192). In a similar manner, Charlie, who has grown up
in Puerto Rico, knows much about the local flora and fauna, and refuses to
abide by racial segregation, appears to Florence a ‘little wild beast’ (170), who
needs to be domesticated. The reference to ‘magic’ in the ‘magic circle of the
gardens’, then, names the fetishistic moment of the erasure of the gardens’
relation to the ‘non-domestic’, ‘un-civilized’ space of the cane fields. That
relation is, as we have seen, inextricably racialized and gendered.
Throughout the novella, Vega paints a very unevenly developed landscape,
as the differences between cane fields, the gardens of La Enriqueta, and
the environment that surrounds the plantation are very pronounced. Vega’s
descriptions illustrate that ‘nature’ needs to be understood as a social relation.
The ‘dry monotony of the landscape’ outside of the plantations contrasts with
the out-of-place, ‘artistically designed gardens’ (168) peopled by Greek and
Roman statues as well as caged animals (snakes, monkeys, and parrots) and
flowers that recreate stereotypical images of ‘pristine’ exotic nature. Most
remarkable is the contrast between the aridity of this surrounding scenery
(that makes Florence yearn for the English countryside) and the large artificial
pools of the gardens that defy the ‘tireless sun’ (168). These pools mark the
height of the plantation’s splendour; as we know from historical accounts,
they would be empty after the plantation’s bust (Overman, 2000, 127). To put
the lavishness of landscaping into context, by the mid-nineteenth century,
the impact of the plantation economy on the local eco-system was felt in the
decline of rainfall and the greater frequency of droughts (Figueroa, 2005, 22;
70). The original, sparse lowland forests had been rapidly destroyed through
cane cultivation while the ‘intensified occupation of the highlands and the
wholesale cutting of timber for construction […] exacted a heavy toll on
water-retaining vegetation’ (Scarano, 1984, 47). That the availability of water
and irrigation was also a concern for the real Edward Lind is attested to by
his disagreement with his neighbour Santiago Ryes over access to a nearby
brook in 1857 (Overman, 2000, 108). In Vega’s novella, when the hacienda is
approaching ruin and Lind is heavily indebted, the conditions for making fast
profits are exhausted, as both water and labour after emancipation are scarce.
The contradictions that led to the bust are encapsulated in the image of the
hacienda, standing ‘like a soulless body amid the green of the trees’ (241),
metaphorically exposing the zombification at the plantation’s core.
Further, through Susan and Florence, who turn into figures of mad
femininity, Vega draws out the ecology of the monstrous-feminine. While
their transformation had preceded the bust and was conditioned by their
subordinated role within patriarchal structures, their zombification only
fully emerges after the tragedy of Charlie’s suicide, which encapsulates the

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

plantation system’s social contradictions and was followed soon thereafter

by the death of his father. Miss Susan in the early 1880s, and later Florence in
1886, both keep returning to the cane fields as the site that evokes environ-
mental degradation and racial segregation. Miss Susan finally turns into a
version of Bertha, forever haunted by the fields:
She locked herself up all day, calling him and talking to the walls. At night,
we’d see her walking through the gardens, looking for him behind the trees,
crying and moaning like a soul in purgatory. Mr Lind would send me out to
get her, so she wouldn’t get a mind to do somethin’ crazy. Sometimes, we’d
be walking through the canefields as the sun was coming up. (254)
Vega’s madwomen haunting the cane fields are strongly reminiscent of the
plantation-owner’s zombified wife Jessica in Tourneur’s film. In its most iconic
scene, the Canadian nurse Betsy – Tourneur’s ‘Jane’ – leads Jessica across a
field of sugarcane where they happen upon the zombie sentinel Carrefour.
Interspersed with shots of the sentinel, of animal and human skulls that
primivistically paint an environment alien to the women, the camera tracks
‘swiftly the women’s movement from light to shadow’ (Paravisini-Gebert,
1997, 44), offering shots of them through the cane from different angles,
thus transforming the cane stalks into important component elements of
an overall threatening atmosphere. While the film offers a critique of the
white plantation elite (as the white matriarch herself is ultimately to blame
for Jessica’s zombification) and is subtler in its treatment of zombies than
the films that preceded it, nevertheless it mobilizes a primitivist-racist and
ecophobic imperial imaginary. As Bishop puts it, ‘the true horror […] lies
in the prospect of a Westerner becoming dominated, subjugated, symbol-
ically raped, and effectively “colonized” by pagan representatives’ (2010, 66).
Returning to Vega’s text, Florence, unlike her precursors Jane and Tourneur’s
Betsy, does not serve as the more ‘rational’ counterpart to Miss Susan, but
turns into a ‘virginal lay-sister’ of the cane fields (253).
In what ways does Vega’s novella, then, invite us to reflect on these precursor
texts? Her narrative enables us to understand patriarchy, colonialism, and
imperialism as environment-making processes, encouraging a rethinking of
the causes for, and implications of, Jessica’s ‘thingification’ (Bishop, 2010,
88). Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife and the madwoman in the attic,
is exposed as the site that registers the repression not only of racial and
gendered exploitation and discourse but also of the ecological violence on
which Rochester’s wealth is based and that allows for the articulation of Jane’s
Victorian domesticity. Bertha, like the zombie, blurs the boundaries between
the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’: ‘What it was, whether beast or human being,
one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours’ (327).
Through her, the realm of the ‘natural’ and the corporeal, with which women
have conventionally been associated, becomes a site of monstrosity and
‘horror’ (148). While Jane is identified throughout with the English landscape,
‘the West Indian landscape (with which Bertha is associated) is given its full

Kerstin Oloff

infernal meaning, inextricably linked to the unexpurgated sexual female,

“gross, impure, depraved”, driven mad by her own excesses’ (Henson, 2011,
49). Jane’s domesticity – bound up as it is with discourses of gender, ‘nature’,
and race – is not only contrasted with, but structurally depends on, Bertha,
her ‘wild nature’ and the invisible cane fields. It is this dependence that Vega
renders visible, as she reveals the ecology of the monstrous-feminine.
In other words, Vega evokes the gothic mode since it makes manifest the
ecological unconscious in disruptive fashion. The ‘ecological unconscious’ leans
on Jameson’s well-known formulation of the political unconscious, which,
in turn, rests on a ‘conception of the social totality, and, concomitantly,
the ability, somehow, to represent the unrepresentable: the totality and
its relation to lived experience’ (Lesjak, 2006, 39). Jameson posited three
horizons for the political unconscious: the ‘narrowly political’ (a perspective
that allows for a reading of the text as a ‘symbolic act’ that resolves contem-
porary political contradictions); the social order (in which the text is seen as
an ‘ideologeme, that is, the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antago-
nistic collective discourses of social classes’); and the ‘ultimate horizon of
human history’, in which distinct modes of production and correlative sign
systems coexist and crisscross within the present (Jameson, 1981, 76). In this
third, and largest, horizon, the text is read in terms of ‘the ideology of literary
form itself in its unconscious transitions between modes of production’
(Medovoi, 2013, 87). To arrive at a Jamesonian ecocriticism, Ivakhiv suggests
that the ‘contemporary world system can hardly be thought today without
reference to the larger – and until recently unthinkable – totality of the
ecological system which both sustains and interpenetrates with the political-
economic system’ (2008, 99; my italics). However, if we accept that capitalism
is an ecological regime, then one would have to go beyond conceiving of two
distinct (albeit interpenetrating) systems, and instead view all three horizons
as already consisting of ‘messy bundles of human and extra-human relations’
(Moore, 2011a, 42). This entails repositioning the ‘ecological’ and the political-
economic as mutually constitutive. There is thus an important distinction to
be made: in Ivakhiv’s argument, ‘global nature’ haunts as the ‘unmappable and
uncanny Other’ (101), but this ‘Othering’ is itself a product of the metabolic
rifts through which capitalism develops and thus part of the reification that
obstructs our view of the relations between human and extra-human natures,
between, for instance, the governess and the cane fields. To the ‘structural,
experiential and conceptual gap between the public and the private, between
the social and the psychological, or the political and the poetic, between
history or society and the “individual”’ that Jameson describes (1981, 20),
we might thus add the ‘structural, experiential and conceptual gap’ between
extra-human nature and the self, the roots of which lie in the metabolic rifts
that are constitutive of capitalist modernity. The ‘reification and privati-
zation of contemporary life’ that, as Jameson puts it, maim our existence
and ‘paralyz[e] our thinking’ (20) also affect the way in which we are able
to conceptualize nature–society relations. Nature has become the ‘uncanny

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

Other’ that haunts and disrupts just as Ivakhiv suggests, but only because of
the modern imaginative inability cognitively to map the unfolding of modern
capitalist society through transformations in nature–society relations. To
return to the gothic tradition of mad women, feminized nature is externalized
as wild Bertha and internalized as tamed and thingified Jessica, domesticated
in the hacienda.

Out of their Minds: Madwomen, Zombies, and Species Extinction

In You, Darkness, an ‘avowedly environmentalist’ novel that addresses frog

extinctions and is set mainly in Haiti (Paravisini-Gebert, 2005, 192), Mayra
Montero evokes zombies and madwomen in a context of political, social,
and environmental violence that is global in nature, but felt with particular
virulence in peripheral locations. While her zombies can be placed within a
tradition of writing from and about Haiti, her novel does not promote a view
of ‘Haitian exceptionalism, or the view that Haiti was bizarrely unique’ (Dash,
1988, 141). Rather it places Haiti within an international history of the gothic,
as well as within world-history more broadly. The novel challenges the reader
to reintegrate Haiti into a monstrous world-order, in which witches, zombies,
and madwomen point to disavowed processes of subjugation and commodi-
fication and invite us to understand patriarchy and racialization alongside
deforestation and climate change. Most interesting in this context, then,
is the role of zombies, madwomen, and witches within the novel’s overall
structure and their relation to the narrative of frog extinctions.
The narrative present of the novel is dominated by US herpetologist Victor
Grigg’s search for the last of the grenouille du sang [blood frog] – also referred
to in the text by its taxonomic referent, Eleutherodactylus sanguneus. Zombies,
madwomen, and witches feature in the text as part of Haitian guide Thierry
Adrien’s retelling of his family saga, which unfolds over four decades and
may seem to have little to do with Victor’s quest narrative. This seeming
disjunction is reflected in the structure of the novel, which intersperses
its twenty chapters, narrated alternately by Victor and Thierry, with nine
fragments that document frog extinctions around the globe. These culminate
in a tenth and final fragment that brings together the novel’s different strands,
as the two childless protagonists die alongside the last male specimen of the
grenouille du sang in a shipwreck. Since the late 1980s (especially after the
1989 First World Congress of Herpetology), frog extinctions have received
increasing public attention. While they are not a new phenomenon, they
reached cataclysmic proportions by the late twentieth century, when ‘the
extinction rate of amphibians increased at least 200 times above the rate
of the last 350 million years’ (Collins, 2009, 105). These extinctions have a
significant impact on entire eco-systems across the world, since ‘amphibians
play a key role in energy flow and nutrient cycling’ and thus ‘a central role in
the food web’ (Collins, 2009, 11). Montero’s narrative of frog extinctions is

Kerstin Oloff

thus explicitly global in scope, but plays out within a specific local context,
one marked by extreme deforestation, soil erosion, and flash floods, as well as
the long history of colonialism, extractivism, poverty and under-development.
While Montero’s zombies are marginal to the main narrative, they arguably
register in condensed form the novel’s primary concerns. In chapter 6, for
instance, Thierry recalls his father’s participation in the zombie hunts during
his youth, evoking the classic figure of the exploited, branded, enslaved
zombie that may awaken after eating salt:
in those days it was not unusual to see the living dead cross the town at
all hours […] the children threw stones at them and they didn’t know how
to dodge them, they slipped and fell, they got up and in a little while they
fell again, their eyes fixed on the bare hill. […] the pwazon rats […] rounded
them up, roped them like iguanas, and tied them, like iguanas, in bunches.
Illustrating the links between poverty, social divisions, and environmental
degradation, the zombies’ plight is situated against a backdrop of deforested
hills and eroded soils. It is noticeable that in the narrative present of the novel,
which is set during the Raoul Cédras regime, ‘the zombies have been supplanted
by distinctly non-magical, non-erotic mutilated corpses and burning dogs’
(Braham, 2012, 46). Overall, the novel offers a story of increasing (social,
political, and environmental) violence, escalating in the apocalyptic narrative
present in the years after the first ousting of Jean Bertrand Aristide, ‘when
approximately 5,000 Haitians were assassinated and many thousands more
raped, tortured, and terrorized by ex-macoutes and paramilitaries’ (Braham,
2012, 45).
Within this narrative focalized exclusively through male narrators,
gendered exploitation occupies a central place, as is signposted early on
by the inclusion of a common gothic trope – femicide.9 Montero inserts the
brutal tale of a white German woman who escapes into the Haitian forests
in a symbolic attempt to go beyond the confines of the patriarchal-capitalist
system, but who is quickly hunted down and then beaten to her (presumed)
death. This story suggests that gendered exploitation is international and
integral to capitalist modernity: here, institutions (doctors), family (brothers,
fathers, sons), and other men (in this case, the Haitian men hired to hunt her
down) all work together to bring the woman, who was ‘out of her mind’, back
under patriarchal control (26). The young Thierry shows some awareness
that the woman may not in fact be mad, and thinks of asking her husband

9 The feminization of poverty as integral to capitalism has been amply commented

on (Mies, 1986; Federici, 2004). In the Caribbean and Latin American context,
Dupuy writes: ‘women have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of unemployment,
suffer greater wage discrimination, have less income of their own, are more
economically dependent, have less access to and use or control over resources,
are more politically disempowered, and are more subject to violence than men’
(Dupuy, 2007, 13).

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

‘not to hit his wife too hard because she could die’ (37). However, both he
and his father are instrumental in her capture, which echoes the capture of
the zombies. Overall, Thierry’s narrative enacts a patriarchal masculinity of
sexual prowess, defined through his relations with different women, while
female voices remain absent (Boling, 2008, 62–63). Victor’s narrative is equally
characterized by blind spots, especially when it comes to the breakdown of
his own marriage, the reasons for which are merely hinted at (one might list
here the couple’s complete lack of communication and his overinvestment in
a male-dominated academic environment and heroic quest narrative). Both
Thierry’s and Victor’s narratives illustrate types of patriarchal masculinities
that curtail male–female relations; the women’s stories (that feature rape,
death, and female promiscuity) are only accessible through these male
narratives. In contrast to Kearns (2006, 122), I would argue that Montero
highlights that patriarchal exploitation is part of the colonial-capitalist legacy,
denouncing both.
Boling has commented in detail on Montero’s denunciation of the link
between patriarchal capitalism and environmental violence (2006, 317). This
is symbolized most poignantly in the tale of the German woman, since it is
during the search for her that Thierry first sees the grenouille du sang, who
functions as a harbinger of death and appears at moments when violence
is about to erupt. As the captured woman lies in the back of the car, ‘she
moaned again, and from time to time a putrid bubble boiled up from deep in
her throat, it was like the song of the frog’ (37). If environmental degradation
is fundamental to capitalist expansion and disproportionately affects poor
peripheral countries, so was the feminization and racialization of poverty;
and it is those connections that Montero seeks to render visible in her novel.
Montero’s (and indeed Vega’s) text may thus be read within an international
corpus of environmental feminist work from the last quarter of the twentieth
century. Anti-capitalist environmentalist feminist thinkers – important
precursors for current work on world-ecology who are often sidelined within
mainstream ecocriticism – have gone some way to providing the global
framework that the novel gestures towards, and highlighting the ideological
and material links between the ‘subordination of nature, women and the
colonies’ (Mies, 1986, 77). This is not to say that female exploitation is the
same everywhere or across racial and class differences: capitalism unfolds
within ‘nature’, develops through the intertwined subjugations of women
and the extra-human environment, but this is differently inflected by class
struggles, racialization, and peripheralization (Federici, 2004; Mies, 1986). To
reconnect this argument with the role of ‘zombies’ in You, Darkness, I would
suggest that Montero encourages us to read the gothic tale of the German
woman – seemingly out of place within the novel as a whole – alongside
the story of the dispossessed zombie hordes staring at the hills, as well as
alongside the depiction of environmental degradation.
The tale of the German woman might also be compared to an episode in
the novel involving death through zombie poison, the reversal of the tale of

Kerstin Oloff

female zombification, and a witch/whore figure. The victim of the zombie

poison is white Australian herpetologist Wilson, the first foreign scientist with
whom Thierry collaborated, who eventually dies in the 1960s, after showing
signs of having ingested zombie poison made from toads and (allegedly)
prepared by Ganesha, the black Guadeloupian woman with whom he lived.
The chapter is reminiscent of Wade Davis’s sensationalist research on Haitian
zombification, with its different recipes for zombie poisons, including toads
and puffer fish, as well as its representation of similar signs of intoxication
(1985). Wilson’s story not only doubles Victor’s quest, but also highlights the
gendered violence that underlies stories of female zombification. From the
perspective of Thierry, Wilson is to be pitied since Ganesha has ‘swallowed
his soul’ (68) and embodies various negative female stereotypes, from that
of the promiscuous woman who ‘offered her rump like a dog’ to the ‘witch’
with unusual intimate body marks (70). Yet Thierry is clearly unreliable, as
disturbingly violent and increasingly gothic details belie his narrative of the
wronged man: Ganesha periodically tries to escape from the house (secured
with barbed wire, ostensibly to keep the suitors from getting in), while Wilson
always recaptures her, ‘grabb[ing] her by the throat and dragg[ing] her back to
his lair’ (70); he is finally poisoned by her (according to Thierry). The ending
thus reverses the common tale of female zombification, in which the woman
(normally light-skinned and of a higher social position) is made compliant by a
bokor to ensure her amorous availability to the suitor.10
Overall, then, the interweaving of these tales could be seen as emblematic
of the way in which everything that is alive exists within a ‘red de interde-
pendencia’ [web of interdependence] (Boling, 2006, 318), arguably offering
an implicit self-indictment of the lack of meta-narratives, of a framework
that might help the reader understand the implied connections. How do we
think the potential of a Haitian apocalypse (evoked by Thierry) alongside
the global frog extinctions that have been occurring since the 1980s? What
insights are offered by Ganesha’s story? How can we think the gothic tale of
the (presumed) death of the white madwoman at the hands of her husband
alongside the deforestation of Haiti during the second half of the twentieth
century? While several characters seek out larger explanatory paradigms,
notably, Victor does not – for him the violence of the de facto military regime
merely represents an ‘absurd danger’ (41) that hinders his efforts to find the
last of the species. As Rivera Villegas puts it, both he and the scientist who

10 In her short story, ‘Corinne, Amiable Girl’, Montero made these ‘sexist, racist, and
political underpinnings’ (Paravisini-Gebert, 1997, 51) very explicit: the offspring
of a white priest and a black prostitute, Corinne can be ‘saved’ from her mother’s
fate through making sure that she will ‘never raise her voice’ at her unwanted
husband-to-be (Montero, 1994, 837). Significantly, Montero also uses this story
to question the usefulness of the gothic mode for understanding Haiti under
Duvalier: the gothic plot is derailed by the massacre of anti-Duvalier protesters,
and anonymous piles of bodies render the female zombie meaningless.

Zombies, Gender, and World-Ecology

sent him are incapable of looking ‘más allá de los paradigmas que aprendieron
en su socialización’ [beyond the paradigms that they learned in their sociali-
zation] (161). The inadequateness of Victor’s approach is symbolized quite
deftly in what he finds when he returns to his destroyed campsite – the ‘most
recent issue of Froglog, a monthly bulletin of data concerning the decline of
amphibians, [lying] on a stone, covered with a pile of shit’ (43). Even when
attempting to make sense of his experience, the only way in which Victor is
able to connect human and environmental degradation is in terms of ‘species
extinction’: to him, Thierry looks to belong to ‘a dying species’ (177). This
perspective, then, is one that easily slips into a form of environmental racism.
Montero’s critique of Victor is twofold: Victor’s method of enquiry is
ahistorical and unable to inscribe itself relationally within a larger geopolitical
context; further, his approach to extra-human nature is to objectify it – he is
unable to view ‘nature’ as anything more than an object of study. Dr Emile
Boukaka, a surgeon, amateur herpetologist, and houngan, points to the
limitations of a blinkered scientific approach that thinks through environ-
mental catastrophes merely from a consequentialist, mono-causal viewpoint:
‘You people invent explanations: acid rain, herbicides, deforestation. But the
frogs are disappearing from places where none of this has happened’ (94).
Boukaka proposes a more all-encompassing Vodoun view on the matter,
while the novel as a whole presents a narrative universe on the verge of an
all-encompassing apocalypse. Victor’s viewpoint is also explicitly challenged
by that of Thierry. As background to his family saga, he provides information
on the radical restructuring of nature–society relations (with continued
references to ongoing deforestation, impoverishment, and political and social
You want to know where the frogs go. I cannot say, sir, but let me ask you
a question: Where did our fish go? Almost all of them left this sea, and in
the forest, the wild pigs disappeared, and the migratory ducks, and even
the edible iguanas, they went too. You only have to see what’s left of the
people here, take a careful look: you can see the bones pushing out under
their skins as if they wanted to escape, to leave behind that weak flesh
where they are so battered, to go into hiding somewhere. At times I think,
but I keep it to myself, I think that one day a man like you will come here,
someone who crosses the ocean to look for a couple of frogs, and he will
find only a great hill of bones on the shore, a hill higher than the peak of
the Tête Boeuf. (12)
While Thierry also remains blind to certain issues (especially when it comes
to gender), he insists on linking human and extra-human devastation.11 More

11 Thierry’s statement alludes to the extermination of the native pig population

(at the urging of USAID) in the early 1980s (ostensibly, to eradicate swine fever,
but in the process devastating the Haitian peasantry to the benefit of the North
American food-processing industry and the Haitian elites) (Dupuy, 2007; Farmer,
2006, 37–41).

Kerstin Oloff

generally, Thierry’s apocalyptic narrative of increasing impoverishment and

starvation (evoked unambiguously in the image of ‘the bones pushing out under
their skin’) registers the neoliberal destruction of local agriculture (including
the rice industry, a local staple) during the pro-USA Baby Doc dictatorship
that unquestioningly accepted free market and development ‘solutions’. As a
result, by the middle of the 1980s, ‘Haiti had become the most impoverished
country of the Western Hemisphere by any measure’ (Dupuy 2007: 51). Since
its occupation of Haiti in 1915, the USA has played a major role in increasing
Haitian dependency, backing, even if reluctantly, the brutal and systemically
violent Duvalier dictatorships for their anti-communism and willingness to
‘offer all the advantages to foreign capital’ (Dupuy 2007: 40). Yet, when in
Montero’s novel, the US-trained Victor comes to do fieldwork in Haiti during
the ‘reign of terror’ of Raoul Cédras (who had come to power in a CIA-backed
coup), he is unable to fit the violence that erupts into any narrative that might
make sense of what he is experiencing. While the novel does not comment on
the role of international finance, the USA, or US-dominated institutions such
as the World Bank or the IMF, it does ask the reader insistently to look for a
larger framework.
In conclusion, Vega’s and Montero’s novels have much to contribute to
current debates on the ecologies of the gothic. Both texts demand that the
gothic be inserted within global processes, which are inherently ecological.
Most interestingly, both texts reflect on the ecology of the trope of the
madwoman and other instances of the monstrous-feminine. Miss Susan,
Florence, Selenia, Ganesha, and the German woman are products of a
capitalist patriarchal system, which, as we have seen, also translates into
particular ways of inhabiting, dividing, and working the land. They are thus
also ecological figures, even though their relation to their environments
tends to be mediated by patriarchal institutions (which are themselves
environment-making processes). As Glissant put it most eloquently, ‘landscape
is a character’ in the process of creating history; it is not merely a background.
This emphasis on the centrality of the land is reflected in Montero’s insistence
on the intertwining of human and non-human animal destinies and Vega’s
attention to the characters’ relation to the landscapes they inhabit, whether
the gardens or the plantations. As I have argued, the zombie is particularly
suited to thinking about these relations, since in its various incarnations s/
he not only sits at the fault lines of racial, class, gender, and environmental
violence, but fundamentally speaks to the metabolic rifts through which
capitalism develops.

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chapter three

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe:

Vodou, the 2010 Earthquake, and
Haiti’s Environmental Catastrophe
Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only

the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they
are numerous and deep. – Toussaint L’Overture, 1803

I say your mother has called upon Bwa Nan Bwa

Don’t you see the misery I’m going through?
Oh, my mother has called upon Bosou Bwa Nan Bwa
Don’t you see the misery I’m going through?
Resign yourself Oh Resign yourself, Adyw!
Don’t you see the misery I’ve fallen into?
– Vodou song to Bwa Nan Bwa

I n Alan Lomax’s compilation of Haitian music – Alan Lomax in Haiti, released

in 2009 by the Smithsonian Institution – there is a song performed by
Francilia, a Rèn Chante or song leader in Vodou, dedicated to the lwa or spirit
Bwa Nan Bwa (Tree in the Woods), asking him to look upon the misery his
people are mired in. Francilia’s plaintive Vodou song, with its poignant faith
in the powers of the lwa to bring succour to their devotees in their wretch-
edness, reminds us that Haiti’s faith in Vodou – already tested by the nation’s
severe environmental predicament – entered a period of crisis in the wake of
the January 2010 earthquake and its aftermath of death, crippling injuries,
and epidemic. Her song sadly underscores the reality that Haiti’s severe
deforestation, the loss of 98 per cent of its trees – of the musician trees and
sacred mapous that filled its once abundant forests and formed the natural habitat
for Bwa Nan Bwa – had been the most tragic expression of the economic,
social, and religious quandary the nation of Haiti had faced before the January
2010 earthquake.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

In the discussion that follows, I trace a somewhat circuitous route – from

Haiti’s environmental predicament (the fate of its trees), through the ongoing
cholera outbreak and the crisis of faith unleashed by the January 2010
earthquake, and back to the trust in the lwa conveyed by Francilia and her
song to Bwa Nan Bwa – seeking to bring to the fore the connections between
Haiti’s environmental crisis, its contribution to the deepening of the impact
of the 2010 earthquake, and the nation’s foundational religious faith. In this
I will be guided by emerging theories of postcolonial ecologies, which seek
to analyse the history of environmental degradation in formerly colonized
societies, its representations through art, literature, film, religion, and other
cultural manifestations, and the environmental discourses that have emerged
through decolonization projects. Postcolonial ecological theory is partic-
ularly interested in examining the impact of globalization and neoliberal
policies on societies emerging from colonialism with degraded ecologies,
and the ways in which the burden of colonial legacies of racism, exploitation,
plantation agrarian development, tourism, to name a few, continues to
impact postcolonial societies such as Haiti. Such an approach allows us to
place the present crisis facing Haiti – ‘the longest neocolonial experiment
in the history of the West’, as the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot described
it (1990, 5) – within a complex and nuanced environmental framework. I
seek to show how the new crisis ushered in by the earthquake manifests
the vulnerability of postcolonial peoples like those of Haiti living in deeply
compromised environments, how the environmental crisis has been linked
to the development of Haiti’s cholera epidemic, and how the earthquake
and to a lesser extent the epidemic have affected that vital relationship
between lwa, serviteur, and the land in Haiti. Paul Farmer, in Haiti after the
Earthquake (2011), describes the condition of Haiti after the disaster and the
cholera outbreak as ‘acute-on-chronic’, interpreting the acute scourges of
earthquake, cholera, and hurricanes as compounding the chronic conditions
created by ‘five centuries of transnational social and economic forces with
deep roots in the colonial enterprise’ (3). These chronic conditions have
resulted in a deeply compromised environment that undermines the nation’s
resilience to both acute and chronic conditions.1
It is impossible to understand the nuances of Haiti’s post-earthquake
predicament without acknowledging the devastating role played by the
too-aggressive deforestation of its land in pursuit of the development of

1 In a review of Farmer’s book, Anthony P. Maingot argues that ‘in many ways, the
year 2010 could well be said to represent a watershed in Haitian history’, with
the compounding tragedies coming ‘on top of ongoing structural and systemic
problems that have bedeviled the island for the past two centuries. The ravages of
overpopulation, environmental devastation, inadequate food and health services,
and perhaps most harmful of all, the inability or refusal of the political class to
think and act outside its own personal and partisan interests did not start in
2010’ (2013, 228).

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

sugar plantations in the eighteenth-century Caribbean and the crippling

burden of foreign debt the young nation assumed in exchange for interna-
tional recognition after gaining its independence from France early in the
nineteenth century, a debt paid partly through trade in precious tropical
woods. Deforestation – through its role in the loss of Haiti’s topsoil, and with
it the possibility of bringing agricultural production to anything approaching
sustainability – has resulted in the nation’s acute vulnerability to natural
disasters and exposure to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, from
which thousands have died since October 2010. Haiti’s acute deforestation
illustrates, materially and symbolically, the close links between Haiti’s history
of colonialism, racism, and environmental degradation, the high level of
environmental risk faced by its population, and the future of the religion that
has guided the nation’s history since its Revolution.
The immediate and extensive press coverage of the fate of Port-au-Prince
following the January 2010 earthquake barely alluded to Haiti’s environ-
mental crisis as a contributing factor to the deepening poverty that made
facing the dire emergency brought on by the earthquake such a seemingly
insurmountable burden. It did not require much depth of reporting, however,
before the world got a glimpse into how central environmental concerns
were to Haiti’s worsening economy and the crucial role deforestation had
played in limiting the country’s potential to develop a stronger economic
foundation, as subsequent reports have highlighted. Haiti had already figured
prominently in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
(2005) and David Guggenheim’s award-winning documentary An Inconvenient
Truth (2006) as emblematic of the condition of a nation in environmental
collapse. Both described Haiti, not as a victim of ‘a complex web of progress-
resistant cultural influences’, as some argued after the 2010 earthquake
(Brooks, 2010), but as ‘the canary-in-the-coal-mine of the Anthropocene’,2 a
dire warning to other nations of the dismal impact of acute deforestation in
an era of climate change, global warming, and rising sea levels. Barely a few
months before the earthquake, a report from the International Crisis Group,
noting Haiti’s dangerously low capacity for resilience, had concluded that
‘reversing a decades-long trend of environmental destruction [was] essential
to Haiti’s development, social and economic stability and, ultimately, security’
(Crisis Group, 2009). They argued that ‘concerted national effort and interna-
tional support [were] required to stop deforestation and land erosion; reduce
energy shortages and charcoal dependence; address rural and urban pollution,
including the absence of a solid waste collection and recycling system and

2 The ‘Anthropocene’, a word coined in the 1980s by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and
popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, is a geological term denoting
the period of significant human impact on Earth’s ecosystems, accomplished
chiefly through the burning of fossil fuels and leading to acute deforestation, loss
of biodiversity, and climate change. See Paravisini-Gebert, 2015 and Chakrabarty,

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

strengthen an inadequate capacity to cope with natural disasters’ (Crisis

Group, 2009). Haiti, in short, lacked the conditions necessary for resilience,
as measured through ‘the magnitude of shock the system can absorb and
remain within a given state, the degree to which the system is capable of
self-organization, and the degree to which the system can build capacity for
learning and adaptation’ (Folke, et al. 2002). As the largely ineffective efforts
to ‘rebuild’ Haiti after the earthquake have shown, this lack of resilience has
emerged as a central obstacle to recovery.
The history of Haiti’s deforestation could be traced – if one so wished – to
the community of boucaniers (hunters and meat smokers) that first settled
the western coast of Hispaniola and the Île-de-la-Tortue in the seventeenth
century. The extent of the damage they caused, however, was negligible
when compared with that inflicted on the land by the widespread cutting
of trees to make way for the development of sugar plantations, a damage
exacerbated after independence by the increasing fragmentation of small
family farms as the population grew. The nation, nonetheless, entered
the twentieth century with over 60 per cent forest coverage, making the
catastrophic conditions prevailing today (less than 2 per cent forest coverage
by 2006) a twentieth-century development with roots in the US Occupation
(1915–34). In the American imaginary, Haiti emerges from that occupation
as a despoiled, deeply Africanized terrain inhabited by zombies and other
otherworldly creatures whose population is separated from modernity by
their acute poverty and their faith in Vodou. But the Occupation, with is
insistence on despoiling Haiti of its resources to meet its foreign debt left
the island’s environment in shambles, its ecological balance in a fragile state.
It only reasserted the ‘slow violence’ that had been perpetrated on Haiti’s
land and people as a ‘resource extraction nation’, what Rob Nixon, in Slow
Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, defines as ‘a violence that occurs
gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed
across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as
violence at all’ (2). It also underscored the ultimately devastating failure of
the state in providing alternatives to cooking fuel and its cupidity in allowing
extensive logging operations to supply the urban demand for charcoal. The
slow violence of the attack on Haiti’s land – external as well as internal – has
left the viability of the nation itself and the survival of its people marked
by an urgency that seemed unimaginable in continental settings until the
January 2010 earthquake brought it to millions of worldwide households with
access to CNN’s non-stop broadcasting. It is impossible to separate, however,
the painful images accessible to the world since the destruction of Port-au-
Prince from an environmental crisis that has brought the rural population
of the country to the edge of desolation, initially pushing displaced farmers
towards the fertile plains of the Artibonite in Haiti’s central meseta – where
thousands died during the disastrous floods of 2008 – and from there to
Port-au-Prince and their catastrophic encounter with the 2010 calamity. The
rapid growth of the population of Port-au-Prince in the past two decades can

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

be directly linked to the nation’s ecological decline. 3 With only 2 per cent of
the land covered in forests, some previously fertile fields are now desert-like.
A significant portion of the topsoil has been washed to sea, where is has
contributed to the destruction of breeding habitats for marine life bringing
the small fishing industry into crisis. The topsoil is irrecoverable, as it takes
10,000 years to renew, and the resulting decreases in rainfall, which have
significantly reduced agricultural production and access to clean drinking
water, are irreversible in places where there is not enough topsoil left for the
roots of new trees to dig in. This environmental deterioration has been the
leading push factor propelling migration from rural areas to Port-au-Prince.
Given the centrality of the relationship between the land and Vodou, it is
easy to understand how this process of protracted assault on the land would
have important repercussions on the nature and practice of religious belief in
Haiti. The land grants to former slaves made possible by the triumph of the
Haitian Revolution resulted in a rural nation of subsistence farmers working
small family farms. Organized around small villages that functioned as extended
family compounds, known as lakous, they opened a space for the preservation
of African-derived Creole religions (see Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, 2011,
118–19). The growth of Vodou practices in the lakous meant that its rituals
and beliefs grew out of the needs and concerns of specific rural communities
and deepened the links between lwa, serviteur, and the land. Recognizing the
importance of trees and forests for the sustainable husbanding of the land, in
Vodou, the lwa or spirit known as Loco, the chief of Legba’s escort, is known
as ‘he of the trees’. He governs the tree or temple centre-post (the poto-mitan)
that serves as channel for the lwa, the divine life forces of Vodou, to enter into
communion with their human serviteurs through the phenomenon of possession
(see Paravisini-Gebert, 2005, 182). In Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti,
Maya Deren speaks of Loco and his consort Ayizan as the moral parents of
the Haitian people, the first oungan and manbo (priest and priestess of Vodou),
whose chief responsibility is that of imparting to humans the knowledge of
konnesans on which the future of the community depends, drawing belief and
ecology into one vital connection. They are also Vodou’s first healers, as it
was Loco ‘who discovered how to draw their properties from the trees and to
make the best herbal charms against disease’ and Ayizan who protects against
malevolent magic (Deren, 1953, 148). [AQ_01] Together they represent the
central belief in Vodou that spiritual maturity rests on the understanding of the
necessary balance between cosmic forces and the natural world.4

3 See Maingot for a discussion of how ‘the tragic collapse of peasant agriculture
in Haiti’, the result of ‘the disastrous erosion and loss of arable or at least
exploitable land available to farmers because of rampant deforestation’ has made
an alternative source of employment as well as emigration ‘absolutely necessary’
(2013, 234–35).
4 For a detailed discussion of Loco and Ayizan and their importance to herbal
knowledge and healing in Vodou, see Paravisini-Gebert, 2005.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

I would like us to retain this vital connection at the forefront of our

minds as I turn to the impact of the earthquake of 2010 and its aftermath of
epidemic on religious practices in Haiti. Haiti’s decreasingly fertile Artibonite
Valley – an increasingly vulnerable environment – offers the most substantial
hope for some measure of food security in Haiti, despite its slow recovery
from the floods that devastated lives and crops during the 2008 hurricane
season. Dependent on the waters of the Artibonite River – Hispaniola’s
longest – the region is an important producer of rice and other staples of
the Haitian diet. The Artibonite and its valley, however, represent a deeply
compromised environment. Deforestation along its trajectory has severely
impacted the quality and quantity of the water flowing through the Artibonite
River, and many of its tributaries in Haiti have dried up, leaving entire villages
dependent on the Artibonite itself for most of their water needs. There has
been a marked decline in the amount of fish in the river – now only tilapias
can be found – and its banks no longer provide a suitable habitat for the
American crocodile, which used to be abundant on its shores. Due mostly
to inadequate waste management systems throughout Haiti, the Artibonite
is heavily contaminated with high levels of bacteria, thus contributing to
the lack of clean drinking water in the Artibonite District and beyond and
leaving the population acutely vulnerable to water-borne illnesses. The Valley
sustained what former President René Préval described as ‘catastrophic’
destruction in 2008, when four deadly storms battered the region in quick
succession, causing fatal mudslides and widespread flooding (to which Haiti is
particularly vulnerable because of the extreme deforestation of the hillsides)
that led to 800 deaths and one billion dollars in damages, including the
destruction of most of the region’s infrastructure. The dire conditions caused
by the summer storms of 2008 – thousands of injured and traumatized
people living in makeshift shelters, with no food, water, or medical supplies
– repeated themselves following the 2010 earthquake, when 160,000 people
fleeing the destruction of Port-au-Prince were forced to resettle temporarily
in the Artibonite Valley, an increase in the regional population that strained
resources and compounded challenges in the removal of waste and the availa-
bility of clean drinking water, food, and cooking fuel.
The conditions in the Artibonite Valley in the early months following the
earthquake in Port-au-Prince provided the ideal environmental conditions
for an epidemic, conditions directly linked to environmental degradation.
Fears of outbreaks of diseases such as typhus or cholera had been expressed
within hours of the January earthquake, as bacteria can spread quickly amid
malnourished, poor populations among whom diseases like malaria and
tuberculosis are already endemic. The Artibonite Valley, slowly recovering from
the 2008 floods and after January 2010 home to rising numbers of refugees
from Port-au-Prince, became the epicentre of a cholera outbreak brought to
the island, most ironically, by Nepalese peacekeeping troops that had arrived
in central Haiti in October 2010, following upon a cholera outbreak in their
homeland. Located at Meille (or Méyè), a relatively remote village about 2 km

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

south of Mirebalais in central Haiti, the MINUSTAH camp that housed the
Nepalese troops stood above a stream that flowed into the Artibonite River,
which became contaminated through a faulty sanitation system that turned
the Meille tributary into a vector of cholera during the early days of the
epidemic.5 Given the environmental conditions in the Valley seven months
after the earthquake, and with an increasing number of people dependent
on the Artibonite for drinking, cooking, and bathing water, it was, as Dr Paul
S. Keim, the microbial geneticist whose laboratory eventually determined
the link between the Haitian and Nepalese cholera strains, described it, ‘like
throwing a lighted match into a gasoline-filled room’ (Sontag, 2012, A1). The
outbreak quickly overwhelmed existing health facilities in the area. More
than 9,000 people had died from the ongoing outbreak and thousands more
sickened as of December 2014, making this the worst such outbreak in the
world in decades.
Ethan Budiansky, writing within weeks of the diagnosis of the first cases
of cholera in Haiti, argued for our consideration of Haiti’s catastrophic levels
of deforestation as one of the central causes of the spread of the epidemic.
In conditions of severe deforestation and high biodiversity losses, as is the
case in Haiti, he argued, the soil becomes hard-packed, reducing its ability to
absorb water during heavy rains; hillsides become eroded, sending sediment
into streams and lakes; stagnant pools of water form that are havens for
bacteria (see Budiansky, 2010). Haiti’s critical deforestation has been linked to
severe reductions in water levels in rivers throughout the country, particularly
among the tributaries of the Artibonite. Streams that flowed high enough a
mere decade ago to make wading treacherous if not impossible are now slow
trickles due to deforestation in the highlands. Many tributaries have dried up
completely, compromising access to water in affected communities and forcing
a dependence on the Artibonite, however distant from their villages, as their
principal water source. The bacteria that cause cholera and other diseases
can spread quickly as untreated sewage contaminates ever-diminishing water
sources, leaving the population vulnerable to potentially deadly outbreaks. In
the case of Haiti’s cholera outbreak, Hurricane Thomas, a late-season storm
that struck Haiti on 5 November 2010, exacerbated conditions. It caused
deadly floods that dispersed the waters of the Artibonite beyond its banks,
spreading the bacteria and deepening the impact of the outbreak.
The world learned (albeit most superficially) about these struggles with
the ‘acute’ and the ‘chronic’ circumstances of Haitian life through intensive
coverage of the earthquake and the cholera outbreak from television, blogs,
commentators, magazines, photojournalists, and celebrities who brought
attention to the plight of the beleaguered population through visits to Port-au-
Prince and appeals for donations. The dominant narrative that emerged from
those covering the earthquake – and would be repeated with the news of the

5 For a detailed discussion of the Artibonite’s role in spreading the cholera bacteria
throughout the river’s valley, see Piarroux, et al., 2011.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

spreading of the cholera outbreak – was that of the Haitian people as ‘the
most resilient people on earth’ (Edwards, 2011). The ubiquitous references
to the resilience of the Haitian people rarely included any context except
the background of poverty and chaos that framed all such representations.
They became resilient by virtue of their endurance in the face of circum-
stances that the viewer would find unendurable: inadequately built housing
and overcrowding in Port-au-Prince; seemingly intolerable levels of poverty,
illiteracy, and food insecurity; the absence of a functioning government.
Coverage did not extend to the analysis of how the Haitian people found
themselves in their present predicament. In what Elizabeth McAlister called
‘the dehistoricization of the victims and the depoliticization of the disaster’,
audiences learned little or nothing about Haitian poverty as the result of
the US-supported policies of the Duvalier dictatorships, or of ‘international
debt and inequitable trade deals’, or of ‘international banking institutions’
neoliberal structural adjustment programs and the subsequent collapse of the
Haitian agricultural sector that stemmed from US imports’ (2012, 30).
The media’s discourse on resilience (a term poorly understood by
reporters) stemmed from a naive notion of the Haitian people’s ability to
recover, to bounce back, from the multiple misfortunes fate had inflicted
upon them – from the ‘acute’ rather than the ‘chronic’ – through strength
gained from a history of confronting adversity. This image of the Haitian
people as Sisyphean heroes fated to roll their immense boulder up the hill of
poverty and privation separated their sufferings from their history, relegating
their poverty to a natural condition. It was a depiction developed alongside a
parallel and contradictory discourse of helplessness built on media stories of
Haitian reliance on outside help – from photographs and video footage of long
queues at food distribution centres run by international NGOs (many of them
with religious affiliations) to reports on how a variety of foreign technical
experts were needed for tasks as important to recovery as the removal of
debris from collapsed homes and planting the season’s crops to forestall a
food crisis. The Haitian people moved from relentless resilient workers to
hopeless victims sometimes within the same television report, as opposite
poles in a problematic binary that could be used to justify both a continued
NGO presence and the possibility of leaving the resilient Haitian people to
their own devices as circumstances demanded.
This polarized depiction of resilience and helplessness was deployed
primarily through the discourse of religion. Whether Haitians derived their
strength to persevere through their faith in Vodou, or whether the earthquake
provided an opportunity to help Haitians move away from a demonic religion,
the impact of the double blow of earthquake and cholera was articulated
almost immediately in the press through the nature of religious belief
in Haiti. In the weeks immediately following the earthquake, a battle of
sorts was reported by the international press – played out chiefly in IDP
(Internally Displaced Persons) camps – between Vodou practitioners and
Christian missionaries (many of them provided with ample capabilities for

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

much-needed disaster aid). The ‘dominant conjecture’, Karen Richman has

argued, was that ‘the earthquake tested Haitians’ faith in their Vodou gods
because these gods failed to prevent the disaster’, leading to large numbers
of conversions to Christianity as many were ‘pushed by disappointment and
pulled by admiration for the modern messages and aid proffered by the
ubiquitous Christian non-governmental organizations, whose minions rushed
to assist in the rescue and recovery’ (2012, 149).
The silencing of Vodouists in the months following the earthquake led
many to believe that it (and the ensuing cholera epidemic) had given the
advantage to Haitian Pentecostals and US missionaries in the war of religion
being waged in Haiti.6 Visiting Port-au-Prince in August 2010, I was struck
above all by the silence of the drums – by the relative absence of signs that
were commonplace before of Vodou faith in action. During the entire visit
I only saw one ounfo (temple) being prepared for a gathering of believers –
and that was in Croix-des-Bouquets. When religious song soared in the air
of the numerous IDP camps, it was chiefly that of Protestant hymns about
the salvation provided by Jesus and it was principally through deafening
loudspeakers. As Haitian film director Jacques Roc would later recollect, ‘on
the day of the quake’, which in Haiti has come to be known as goudougoudou,
‘Jesus was the most popular spirit in Haiti’. Marie José Nzengou-Tayo, also
a witness to the earthquake, described the people surrounding her in the
minutes after the earthquake struck as invoking God and Jesus: ‘By the time
we had left the car, we could see people running from the slums like mad ants,
literally, some screaming the name of Jesus, some begging God’s forgiveness,
yo t ap depale’ (99). She described the night that followed, under a sky that had
never been ‘so beautiful’, as marked by prayers:
Charlie, Martine’s brother-in-law, commented that it was as if God were
mocking us; several indignant voices immediately hushed him. Someone
started to pray as if to make up for the blasphemy. The rest of the night
would be punctuated by even more prayers, chants, screams, and preaching
coming from the neighborhood. I counted thirteen aftershocks, some
accompanied by sounds of landslides from the other side of the gully.
(Nzengou-Tayo, 2011, 101)
As Haitians, Roc and Nzengou-Tayo’s accounts of the immediate responses
to the earthquake conflate Christianity and Vodou, eschewing the Vodou/
Christianity binary that marks foreign assessments of religion in Haiti and
characterized the approach of US missionaries to conversions and the distri-
bution of aid after the disaster. For Roc, Jesus was (perhaps temporarily)
‘the most popular spirit’ in the broad Haitian pantheon, while Nzengou-Tayo
describes appeals to God and Jesus followed by prayers and chants whose
addressees are not identified. Max Beauvoir, the ‘Ati’ or supreme leader

6 For discussions of this ‘war of religion’, see Butler, 2008 [AQ _16]; Germain, 2011;
and McAllister, 2009.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

of Haitian Vodou priests, spoke to the press within weeks of the quake of
the wedge being driven between Vodouists on the one hand and Christian
missionaries and Protestant NGOs on the other in the wake of the catastrophe:
‘People see rice being distributed in front of churches, and those homeless
now needing papers are being offered baptism certificates that can act as
identity documents. The horrible thing, though, is that by rejecting Voodoo,
these people are rejecting their ancestors and history. Voodoo is the soul of
the Haitian people; without it, the people are lost’ (Dodds, 2010a). Not so for
those whose pre-earthquake religious behaviour had already gravitated to
evangelical Christianity: ‘The earthquake is a warning from God to all those
witch doctors, letting them know what he can, what he will do’, Michele
Nandy Henry, 26, an evangelical Christian, told a Los Angeles Times reporter. ‘All
the spirits have a leader. That’s Lucifer’ (Mozingo). Pastor Frank Amedia, of the
Miami-based Touch Heaven Ministries, confirmed the ‘heightened spiritual
conflict between Christianity and Voodoos since the quake’: ‘We would give
food to the needy in the short term but if they refused to give up Voodoo,
I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because
we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft,
which is contrary to the Gospel’ (Dodds, 2010b). Elizabeth McAlister reports
instances of evangelicals attempting to ‘sing down’ those attempting to sing
Vodou songs in IDP camps (2012, 26). In many camps, the tensions between
Vodouists and Protestants quickly escalated into violence. In a widely reported
incident in Cité Soleil, one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest communities, a crowd of
young Christians attacked a group of Vodou practitioners praying for the safe
conduct for the souls of the dead:
[They] pelted them with rocks and halted a ceremony meant to honor
victims of last month’s deadly earthquake. Voodooists gathered in Cité
Soleil where thousands of quake survivors live in tents and depend on food
aid. Praying and singing, the group was trying to conjure spirits to guide
lost souls when a crowd of evangelicals started shouting.
Some threw rocks while others urinated on Voodoo symbols. When
police left, the crowd destroyed the altars and Voodoo offerings of food
and rum. (Dodds, 2010b)
The violence between religious groups intensified in the final months of
2010 through accusations that not only had God unleashed the earthquake
onto Haiti as punishment for its people’s continued adherence to Vodou but
Vodou priests had used their power to contaminate people with cholera
(Delva, 2010). The ensuing violence led to the murders of 45 oungans (priests)
and manbos (priestesses) in Haiti – most of them hacked to death by machetes.
As Beauvoir explained in his appeal to government officials to intensify their
efforts to halt the killings of Vodou priests and priestesses – representatives
of spiritual practices recognized and protected by the Haitian Constitution
as one of nation’s leading religions – their attackers had charged them with
spreading cholera by scattering powder or casting ‘spells’.

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

The violence that characterized relations between Vodouists and

representatives (both local and foreign) of a number of Protestant churches
and organizations working in Haiti, ultimately centred less on religion than
on differing approaches to interpretations of history and spiritual beliefs.
The discourse (intensified after the 2010 earthquake) of blaming Vodou for
the ills that plague Haiti and its people – from their acute poverty to the
earthquake and cholera epidemic – seeks to mislead Haitians into believing
that ‘their faith is the source of their plight’ (Germain, 2011, 247). This ironic
shifting of the burden obscures the history of colonial and postcolonial
environmental mismanagement that underlies the realities of Haiti’s slow but
steady economic and environmental decline since Independence. Moreover,
foreign religious-based deployment of considerable funds earmarked for
development projects to combat the effects of deforestation, food insecurity
due to soil erosion, and access to potable water – from pipes and water
treatment systems to seed distribution and health care – alters significantly
the flow of capital, especially in rural communities, where material benefits
derived from these projects reinforce the superiority of Protestantism to
Vodou practices whose priests have little access to the means to facilitate
infrastructural improvements. Felix Germain, writing about Christian
missionaries in Haiti, has pointed out how ‘missionary endeavors in Haiti,
and for that matter throughout the poverty stricken Global South, capitalize
on material deprivation and insecurity to advance their theological agenda.
Overtly, or covertly, they trade food, services like education and health care,
and even emotional and psychological support for “their God,”’ significantly
altering the local ‘geo-religious landscape’ in the process (Germain, 2011,
250, 258). The fact that a significant portion of these funds derive from
donations from abroad – only a tiny portion of which reached survivors
of the earthquake – underscores the differing levels of power available to
local Vodou or Catholic priests in comparison to their foreign Protestant
counterparts and their local followers (See Richman, 2012, 161). Conversion
to Protestant forms of Christianity, as access to significant funding would
imply, would translate into economic growth, an escape from poverty, and
quite possibly migration to the USA (see McAlister, 2009). The decades-
long struggle for the hearts and souls of the Haitian people had already
led many to convert to Protestantism before the earthquake and epidemic
severely shifted the religious panorama in Port-au-Prince and the Artibonite
Valley, pointing to Vodou not only as the source of the problem but also
as a stumbling block in the development of the conditions necessary to
increase Haitian resilience to natural disasters. As Germain argues, ‘besides
claiming that Vodou has no spiritual foundation and in fact angered God,
who unleashed his fury in the form of the earthquake, many Christian leaders
embrace a discourse criticizing the sociopsychological foundation of the
Afro-Haitian belief system, asserting that it actually promotes fatalism. In
other words, in addition to being the cause of the earthquake, they claim
that Vodou may also hinder the recovery effort’ (2011, 256).

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

This allusion to resilience brings me back to Francilia and her plaintive

song to Bwa Nan Bwa, a song that pleaded to the lwa both for succour and
agency. Of the many ironies embodied in the story of Haiti’s environmental
plight, the earthquake that devastated its capital and the cholera epidemic
that drained it of resources and hope, the most cruel is perhaps the religious
discourse of blame that charges its lwa with the responsibility for multiple
forms of devastation whose roots are buried deep in colonization, slavery and
exploitation. As Claire Payton has argued, ‘there are powerful implications to
the misrepresentation of a religion practiced by millions of Haitian, including
material consequences for the earthquake recovery process and the future of
the country more broadly’ (2013, 248). The often oppressive foreign religious
presence in Haiti has been funded in part by funds drawn from generous
international donations earmarked for recovery and reconstruction efforts.
Their deployment of funds away from Vodou practitioners underscores the
latter’s perceived inability to exercise agency and influence the nature of the
solutions proffered to address present and future crises. If Vodou is redefined,
as it has been since the earthquake, as the cause of environmental collapse and
epidemic outbreaks in Haiti, then, as Kate Ramsey has argued in a different
context, its practitioners ‘cannot be entrusted with setting the terms of
development agendas in their own communities, much less with helping to
shape the vision of a new Haiti’ (2011, 22; quoted in Payton, 2013, 248). This
has been, indeed, the result of the chaotic efforts of an avalanche of religious
and lay NGOs that has emerged as a new kind of imperialism in Haiti, one
that once again has displaced local businesses and institutions, ultimately
weakening the local economy and the state, forestalling the urgently needed
measures to address the lingering crises created by the earthquake and
the cholera outbreak (the acute) and the worsening impact of an environ-
mental crisis that is expanding to include rising sea levels and climate change
(the chronic). Protestant religiosities have promised Haitians, drawing on
Ephesians 6, that prayer warfare against the demons of Vodou would have a
transformative effect on their country: ‘people would be healed, crops would
grow, social unrest and division would resolve, and the group or nation would
finally experience abundance and prosperity’ (McAlister, 2013, 226). These will
be difficult goals to reach in as deeply compromised an environment as Haiti’s.
The Haitian people, in the midst of these multiple crises, continue to rely
on powerful spiritual forces that established the grounds for the emergence
of the nation. Karen Richman has argued that the many religious conversions
witnessed in the wake of the earthquake and cholera outbreak may not entail
a radical break from Vodou, as ‘even the assertive, separatist stance of some
Protestants cannot disguise how firmly their congregants remain within a
fundamentally integrated spectrum of mystical techniques and strategies to
hold illness and misfortune at bay’, a system that in all likelihood will ‘outlast
the changes in religious costume tried on in the wake of the catastrophe of
12 January 2010’ (Richman, 2012, 160, 161). Haitians, accustomed to drawing
from multiple spiritual traditions when assessing their reality, have continued

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

to appeal to overlapping and cross-denominational spiritual resources when

confronting the significance of the earthquake and its aftermath. Until recently
a nation of subsistence farmers, they have a deep understanding of the ills
that plague the land and the reasons behind the cessation of rains in certain
parts of the countryside. Haitians have, moreover, a literary tradition to
remind them of the causes and possible remediation for abused land. Jacques
Roumain had his protagonist offer his life in Christian-like sacrifice in return
for the discovery of the source of water that could revitalize the land on which
his village depended in Masters of the Dew (1946). Marie Chauvet’s Fonds-des-
Négres (1961) offers the local oungan, the significantly named Papa Beauville, as
the repository of modern notions of agrarian management gleaned from the
city’s agronomists (from the need to contain soil erosion through the belief
that the land is still recoverable through careful husbandry).
All around Haiti, there is renewed hope in moments of public affirmation
and spiritual epiphany that point to the continuity of the reciprocal relationship
between lwa and serviteur in Haitian Vodou that sustains the connection
to the land and its improbable renewal. We had one such moment in the
public funeral in Port-au-Prince’s Champs de Mars for Lénord Fortuné, ‘Azor’,
drummer and singer for Racine Mapou, who died in July 2011 after performing
at the religious festival at Saut d’Eau. The mass wake presided over by Michel
Martelly filled the entire area of the Champs (with its importance as a national
symbol) with the drums and songs of Vodou. Equally important has been the
yearly affirmation of the popular pilgrimage to Saut d’Eau on 16 July, day
of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – a veneration of the Virgin and Erzulie (Ezili)
fused into a unique ritual, marking the ‘integrated spectrum’ of religion of
which Richman speaks. This pilgrimage to the waterfall at Saut d’Eau marks
a celebration of the waters and of curative baths that are essential to Vodou.
Among the descriptions from believers that appeared in the press during
the celebrations of 2011, I want to single one out – the narrative of an
epiphany that encapsulates the transformations that makes faith possible. The
narrative describes a young woman singing to the waters, echoing Francilia’s
poignant song to Bwa Nan Bwa: ‘The spirit that is here in the yard, come and
grant me my chance … Erzulie Freda bring me luck. If there is a spirit in the
yard, I will name its name and adore it’ (Charles, 2010). As she sang, the pitch
of her voice began to crack. She seemed to be in a trance, her lithe body falling
onto the rocks. As others watched – now believing that Erzulie had possessed
her – revellers rushed to her side, whispering their demands in her ears, sure
they were speaking to the goddess.
The touching simplicity of this transformative act of faith reminds us of the
enduring strength of the lwa and their ability to instil hope in a beleaguered
population living in a deeply compromised environment that nourishes little
hope for renewal. Francilia’s faith in Bwa Nan Bwa, like the faith of those
surrounding the young girl in her temporary embodiment of one of Haiti’s
most beloved spirits, speaks of a capacity to endurance rooted in an African-
derived religiosity that may continue to sustain the people of Haiti through

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

worsening environmental conditions despite the war being waged against

their core beliefs.
Haiti’s predicament reads like a cautionary tale for the rest of the archipelago,
as it is impossible to disconnect present crises of environmental and epidemi-
ological despair in Haiti from a history of mismanagement of the islands’
environments linked to slavery, racism, the plantation, and the exploitative
essence of colonial development. What postcolonial ecological studies can
offer, as I hope this example shows, is an approach to understanding the roots
of such problems as the means to reach culturally and historically sensitive
solutions to a worsening environmental quandary.

Works Cited

Brooks, David. 2010. ‘The Underlying Tragedy’. New York Times 14 January. www. Accessed 22 April 2015.
Budiansky, Ethan. 2010. ‘The Roots of Cholera in Haiti: A Lack of Trees’. Huffington Post
1 November.
h_b_777303.html. Accessed 12 August 2012.
Butler, Melvin L. 2008. ‘The Weapons of Our Warfare: Music, Positionality, and
Transcendence Among Haitian Pentecostals’. Caribbean Studies 36(2): 23–64.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’. Critical Inquiry 35:
Charles, Jacqueline. 2010. ‘Hope for Healing’. Miami Herald 31 July.
Crisis Group. 2009. ‘“Haiti” Saving the Environment, Preventing Instability and
Conflict’. Crisis Group. Latin America/Caribbean Briefing, Number 20. 29 April.
the-environment-preventing-instability-and-conflict.aspx. Accessed 13 June 2013.
Delva, Joseph Guyler. 2010. ‘Haiti Urged to Halt Cholera Anti-Voodoo Lynchings’.
Reuters 23 December.
voodoo-idUSTRE6BM4M720101223. Accessed 27 January 2016.
Deren, Maya. 1953. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. London: Thames & Hudson.
Désir, Charlene. 2011. ‘Diasporic Lakou: A Haitian Academic Explores her Path to Haiti
Pre- and Post-Earthquake’. Harvard Educational Review 81(2): 278–95.
Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. New York:
Penguin Books.
Dodds, Paisley. 2010a. ‘Tension over Religion Surfaces’. Seattle Times 12 February. Accessed 27
January 2016.
—. 2010b. ‘Voodooists Attacked at Ceremony for Haiti Victims’. Haitian Diaspora
24 February.
ceremony-for-haiti-victims/. Accessed 27 January 2016.
Edwards, Ben. 2011. ‘The Most Resilient People on Earth: Haiti Still Standing After
Trio of Disasters’. Frontlines (USAID).
haitiwomen-development /most-resilient-people-earth-haiti-still-standing.
Accessed 20 April 2012.
Farmer, Paul. 2011. Haiti after the Earthquake. New York: PublicAffairs.

Gade nan mizè-a m tonbe

Folke, Carl, et al. 2010. ‘Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and
Transformability’. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20.
Germain, Felix. 2011. ‘The Earthquake, the Missionaries, and the Future of Vodou’.
Journal of Black Studies 42(2): 247–63.
Guggenheim, David. 2006. An Inconvenient Truth (documentary film). Teleplay by Al
Gore. Lawrence Bender Productions/Participant Productions.
McAlister, Elizabeth. 2009. ‘Evangelical Spiritual Warfare and Vodou in Haiti’. Lecture
(video format). 19 October 2009.
Accessed 27 January 2016.
—. 2012. ‘Soundscapes of Disaster and Humanitarianism: Survival Singing, Relief
Telethons, and the Haiti Earthquake’. Small Axe 16(3): 22–38.
—. 2013 ‘From Slave Revolt to a Blood Pact with Satan: The Evangelical Rewriting of
Haitian History’. The Idea of Haiti. Ed. Millery Polyné. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press: 203–42.
Maingot, Anthony P. 2013. ‘Haiti: What Can Be Done?’ Latin American Research Review
48(1): 228–35.
Mozingo, Joe. 2010. ‘In Haiti, Some See the Spirit World Behind the Quake’. Los
Angeles Times 22 January.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Nzengou-Tayo, Marie-José. 2011. ‘Malè Pa Gen Klaksonn: A Personal Experience of a
Foretold Yet Unavoidable Disaster’. Meridians 11:1: 98–105.
Olmos, Margarite Fernández, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. 2011. Creole Religions of
the Caribbean. 2nd edn. New York: New York University Press.
Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. 2005. ‘“He of the Trees”: Nature, Environment, and Creole
Religiosities in Caribbean Literature’. Caribbean Literature and the Environment.
Eds. Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Renée Gosson, and Gorge Handley. Charlottesville:
University of Virginia: 182–96.
—. 2011. ‘Deforestation and the Yearning for Lost Landscapes in Caribbean Literatures.
Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. Eds. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and
George B. Handley. New York: Oxford University Press.
—. 2015. ‘All misfortune comes from the cut trees: Marie Chauvet’s Environmental
Imagination’. Yale French Studies. Special issue on Marie Chauvet. Fall, forthcoming.
Payton, Claire. 2013. ‘Vodou and Protestantism, Faith and Survival: The Contest over
the Spiritual Meaning of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti’. Oral History Review 40(2):
Piarroux, Renaud, et al. 2011. ‘Understanding the Cholera Epidemic, Haiti’. Emerging
Infectious Diseases 17(7): 1161–68.
Ramsey, Kate. 2011. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Richman, Karen. 2012. ‘Religion at the Epicenter: Agency and Affiliation in Léogâne
after the Earthquake’. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 41(2): 148–65.
Sontag, Deborah. 2012: ‘In Haiti, Global Failures on a Cholera Epidemic’. The New York
Times. 1 April: A1.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1990. ‘The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean and the
World’. Cimarrón. New Perspectives on the Caribbean. 2(3): 3–12.

Ecological Revolutions
and the Nature of Knowledge
chapter four

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’:

Robert Schomburgk, Wilson Harris,
and the Ecology of Modernism
Michael Niblett

Michael Niblett
‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

In The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), David Harvey argues that the

economic crisis that ‘engulfed the whole of what was then the capitalist
world’ in 1847–48 ‘created a crisis of representation, and that this latter
crisis itself derived from a radical readjustment in the sense of time and
space in economic, political, and cultural life’ (260–61). The events of the
mid-nineteenth century, he suggests,
proved that Europe had achieved a level of spatial integration in its
economic and financial life that was to make the whole continent vulnerable
to simultaneous crisis formation. The political revolutions that erupted
at once across the continent emphasized the synchronic as well as the
diachronic dimensions to capitalist development. The certainty of absolute
space and place gave way to the insecurities of a shifting relative space, in
which events in one place could have immediate and ramifying effects on
several other places. (Harvey, 1989, 261)
Harvey contends that such transformations were integral to the ‘first great
modernist cultural thrust’ (263). As old certainties regarding space and time
crumbled with the disaggregation of the existing, stabilized structures of
social relations, that which had been considered ‘real’, and represented as
such, could no longer be understood in the same way. This defamiliari-
zation of the everyday encouraged the kind of artistic experimentation found
in the work of, say, Manet, whose brushstrokes, writes Harvey, began ‘to
decompose the traditional space of painting and to alter its frame, to explore
the ­fragmentations of light and colour’ (263).
Harvey’s thesis is a suggestive one, I think, but his presentation is marked
by a certain conceptual slippage. He begins his argument by speaking of
‘the whole of what was then the capitalist world’, only to go on to refer
almost exclusively to Europe. Although he acknowledges that his analysis of

Michael Niblett

space–time compression will use ‘the European case (somewhat ethnocen-

trically) as an example’ (240), the way in which his argument proceeds leads
him to position that ‘first great modernist cultural thrust’ as a fundamentally
European (or, at best, Euro-American) phenomenon. In this respect, he
echoes ‘entrenched conceptions of “modernism” that privilege certain artistic
practices and values originating and flourishing in Europe and the U.S. during
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which supposedly then spread (or failed
to spread) to other parts of the world’ (Yao, 2012, 608). Harvey’s apparent
reiteration of this discourse circumscribes the promise of his most arresting
insight: that modernism might be grasped, first and foremost, as a response
to processes of capitalist modernization and as a means of registering and
encoding the experience of modernity. Modernism, in this view, would no
longer need to be yoked, definitionally, to Western Europe and to the period
spanning the thirty to forty years either side of the turn of the twentieth
century. Instead, the category could be harnessed to an understanding of
capitalist modernity as ‘a globally dispersed social logic’ (Lazarus, 2012,
232). This would allow its purview to be extended both geographically and
chronologically insofar as it is taken to designate works displaying a particular
relationship to capitalist modernization, wherever and whenever this occurs.
In the following chapter, I will rehearse this argument in greater detail as
part of a more general consideration of the relationship between processes of
capitalist modernization and literary form. My approach to these issues will
be framed by the world-ecology perspective. This is a knowledge movement
that pursues a post-Cartesian reconstruction of the theories, methods, and
narrative strategies of historical change. Positing reality as a historically
and geographically fluid (yet cyclically stabilized) set of actively reproducing
relations between manifold species and environments, it understands
historical systems as co-produced by humans alongside the rest of nature
(Moore, 2011; 2013; Deckard, 2014; Niblett, 2012; Oloff, 2012). Thus, it
is necessary to grasp the capitalist world-system as a world-ecology, its
development constituted through successive transformations in the accumu-
lation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the co-production of nature (Moore,
2012). From this perspective, the mid-nineteenth-century economic crisis to
which Harvey refers was a crisis in the particular configuration of human and
extra-human natures through which capitalist accumulation had previously
been enabled. In turn, the disaggregation of the stabilized structures of social
relations precipitated by this crisis implied the emergence of a new way of
organizing nature, a new ecological regime capable of reviving accumulation.
Such revolutions in the relations between humans and the rest of nature not
only involve transformations in labour practices, bodily dispositions, and the
material environment (new landscapes, infrastructures, machineries, and so
on). They also encompass innovations in ways of seeing and understanding the
world. These include not only new means of mapping, measuring, and coding
human and extra-human natures in the interests of capital accumulation, but
new forms of aesthetic practice too.

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

Focusing on the Caribbean, this chapter will explore the connection

between periods of ecological revolution and crises of aesthetic represen-
tation. It is in this context that I will address the question of modernism and
its meanings. For if modernism is understood as representing a certain kind
of response to capitalist modernization – to the imposition or the renewed
penetration of capitalist modes and structures – then it is equally a response
to the ecological revolutions through which such modernization occurs. My
argument, more specifically, will be that forms of literary modernism will
tend to flourish during periods of ecological revolution, which in disaggre-
gating existing socio-ecological unities problematize the ‘conviction as to
the massive weight and persistence of the present as such’ required by realist
representation, conventionally understood (Jameson, 2007: 263). Implied in
this argument is the suggestion that one way to organize our thinking about
the periodic florescence of particular aesthetic forms and styles is through
comparison of analogous moments of ecological transformation over the
longue durée of the capitalist world-ecology. Such an approach moves us
away from linear-stagist conceptions of literary history (realism, modernism,
postmodernism, etc.) towards an analysis of the concrete situations to which
individual texts respond. In order to test out this approach, I will examine
Guyanese author Wilson Harris’s 1965 novel The Eye of the Scarecrow. Many
of Harris’s signature stylistic mannerisms – non-linear plots, an attention
to inner consciousness, non-representational narrative strategies – could
be considered ‘modernist’ in a conventional sense. However, I think it more
useful to grasp the ‘modernism’ of his work not through reference to the
preponderance of such techniques but in terms of its relationship to the
modern world-ecology. The strange abstractions and irreal tonalities of The
Eye of the Scarecrow, I will argue, respond to the convulsions associated
with the post-1945 ecological revolution, both in its global dimensions and
in its localized unfolding in Guyana. Simultaneously, they also represent
the means by which Harris critiques the given world of social practice,
offering up a transcendent vision of new modes of humanity-in-nature (and
Before analysing Harris’s novel, however, and in order to delineate
more clearly the structures of knowledge and power he contests, I
will consider an earlier period of ecological revolution and the work of
someone directly implicated in the effort to reorganize existing historical
natures in the interests of capital accumulation. Between 1835 and 1844,
Robert Schomburgk, an anglicized Prussian explorer, conducted a series
of expeditions to British Guiana, supported by the Royal Geographical
Society of London. Tasked with demarcating the colony’s boundaries and
surveying the interior, Schomburgk’s subsequent reports and publications
mapped, quantified, and codified Guiana’s ‘resources’ (both human and
extra-human). His expeditions were undertaken amidst uncertainty in the
colony following the abolition of slavery in 1838, as well as in the context
of a general downturn in the world-economy, which would climax with the

Michael Niblett

crisis of 1847–48. Not only is his work replete with speculation on how the
ecological wealth he is describing might be utilized to the benefit of Guiana’s
future economic development; in its efforts to identify and secure new
streams of nature’s bounty it also contributed to the worldwide ecological
revolution through which the mid-century crisis was resolved. Although far
removed from literary modernism, Schomburgk’s texts and the representa-
tional strategies they employ can nonetheless be sifted for what they tell us
about the processes and experience of capitalist modernization. In this way,
they throw interesting light on the pressures (social, economic, aesthetic) to
which literary modernism responds.

Schomburgk’s Fish; or Modernization, Modernity, Modernism

In recent years, a concerted scholarly effort has been made to extend the
category of modernism beyond its conventional geographical and chrono-
logical coordinates, contesting the narrow application of the term to certain
works produced within Europe and the USA during the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries (Brown, 2005; Doyle and Winkiel, 2010; Friedman,
2010; GoGwilt, 2011). Within the field of Postcolonial Studies, modernism
had for a long time been treated with suspicion. As Simon Gikandi observes,
it was often posited as ‘the site of Eurocentric danger, a threat to the
assumed authenticity of the cultural and literary traditions of postcolonial
polities’ (2006, 421). However, an increasing number of critics have become
‘willing to acknowledge the affinities between postcolonial and modernist
literature’ (Brown, 2013, 7). In Caribbean Studies specifically, scholars such
as Simon Gikandi (1992), Charles Pollard (2004), Mary Lou Emery (2007),
J. Dillon Brown (2013), and Peter J. Kalliney (2013) have all sought to analyse
the connections between Caribbean writing and modernist literary practices
or ideals.
These works have provided a welcome corrective to more traditional
understandings of modernism. Nevertheless, in two key respects, many such
revisionist critiques frequently construe modernism in a way coincident
with conventional accounts: by conceiving of it in terms of ‘technique,
abstractly conceived’ and ‘through definitive reference to “Western”
modernity’ (Lazarus, 2012, 237–38). The result is that modernism continues
to be understood, whether implicitly or explicitly, as an originally ‘Western’
phenomenon, albeit one later appropriated or reworked by writers from
elsewhere. Thus Kalliney, for instance, analyses how ‘late colonial and early
postcolonial intellectuals […] were strongly attracted to the modernist idea
of aesthetic autonomy’, an attraction that made them into ‘some of high
modernism’s most faithful and innovative readers from the 1930s forward’
(2013, 5, 10). Directly responding to this argument in his analysis of the
Windrush generation of Caribbean writers, Brown contends that ‘the period’s
politics of form go well beyond the almost accidental confluence of aesthetic

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

agendas Kalliney suggests’ (2013, 11). Yet Brown, too, tends to construe
modernism as a set of techniques pioneered in Europe, then adopted and
refashioned by the Windrush writers.1
Against such tendencies, underlying which is often an assumption as to the
‘Western’ providence of modernity, a number of the contributors to The Oxford
Handbook of Global Modernisms (2013) follow Fredric Jameson in insisting that
modernity can only be adequately understood through reference to worldwide
capitalism. Modernity, in other words, must be delinked from the idea of the
‘West’ and yoked instead to the capitalist world-system. Like the latter, it is a
singular and simultaneous phenomenon, yet one that is everywhere hetero-
geneous and specific. As Neil Lazarus puts it, modernity ‘might be understood
as the way in which capitalist social relations are “lived” – different in every
given instance for the simple reason that no two social instances are the same’
(2012, 233). Entailed by this conception of modernity is an understanding of
modernism as equally detached ‘from any particular originating geographical
location or cultural tradition’ (Yao, 2013, 608). Modernism, thus, is not a
battery of aesthetic practices and values first elaborated in the ‘West’. Rather,
it is a certain kind of response to conditions of advancing capitalist moderni-
zation – a particular way of registering (whether in the form of negative
critique or, as in the case of futurism, say, in more celebratory fashion) the
transformations in social reality engendered by modernization as a globally
dispersed process.
As indicated above, such is the view of modernity and modernism advocated
in this chapter. But an important qualification must be entered here. For it is
tempting in this view, as Steven Yao observes in his generally sympathetic
discussion of the contributions to the Handbook, to call ‘everything “modernist”
that responds in some way to the forces of economic modernization’. And yet,
Yao continues, modernism
describes something more specific (if not itself wholly determinate) than
just any old aesthetic response produced under the conditions of global
capitalism. For it is not as if realism ceased to exist (or even to predominate
statistically) as a mode of literariness following the rise of those writers, in
whatever social, historical, and linguistic context, who have been deemed
‘modernist’. So ‘modernism’ is something more than just a marker for the
condition of historicity itself under the rise of global capitalism. Like any
really interesting question, what that ‘more’ ultimately is bears further
reflection. (Yao, 2013, 609)
To try to offer some answers as to what modernism’s ‘more’ might be, I want
to turn to the concept of ecological revolution.

1 See, for example, his claim that in the post-war period, ‘West Indian novelists not
only embraced the contemporary cultural legibility and prestige of modernist
writing but also found something particularly resonant in its mobile forms of
self-aware critique’ (2013, 11).

Michael Niblett

Ecological revolutions occur when the ecological regime – the specific

configuration of human and extra-human natures – that had enabled capitalist
accumulation in a given location or period becomes exhausted. Exhaustion
here refers not simply to the undermining of the biophysical conditions
of production; scarcities emerge ‘through the intertwining of resistances
from labouring classes, biophysical shifts, capital flows, and market flux’
(Moore, 2010a, 39). By disaggregating existing ecological regimes, ecological
revolutions mark the emergence of new, historically specific natures capable
of reviving profit rates. Central to this process is capitalism’s tendency towards
the radical simplification of nature. In the interests of rising productivity,
capital seeks greater and more efficient control over human and extra-human
nature by reducing all kinds of ecological specificities to interchangeable
parts (Moore, 2003, 325–26). This tendency is exemplified by, say, the ration-
alization of landscapes via the imposition of plantation monocultures. Such
material transformations are usually accompanied by symbolic revolutions
– in taxonomy or cartography, for example – that allow for the remapping of
reality in ways conducive to capital. In his analysis of the cotton boom in the
Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century, Walter Johnson shows how
the massive reorganization of nature required to transform the area into a site
of plantation-based agriculture relied initially on the work of surveyors, who
parcelled out the land into gridded, standardized units:
The work of the Land Office was to make the concrete landscape abstract:
to turn this salt lick into a salt lick; to turn a trail blazed through the woods
into field notes in a field book; to turn the surveyors’ recorded experience
into maps to be sent to Washington […]. The business of the land office
was to translate the practical knowledge of the surveyor into the abstract
knowledge of the investor, to refashion the particularity of the landscape
into terms susceptible of generalization and comparison, to make the land
legible – and saleable – at a distance. (Johnson, 2013, 36)
This process of abstraction reflects capital’s drive to remake the world in its
own image as – in accordance with the law of value – a world of fungible parts.
One way to think about the specificity of modernism as a response to
capitalist modernity is to grasp it as an attempt to encode the experience of
those moments when ecological revolutions submit the world to new levels
of abstraction and reification. What are commonly held to be ‘modernist’
techniques might better be understood as stylistic and formal barometers of
the disaggregation of the ecological unities that had endowed the ontology
of the present with a measure of stability; and of the emergence of new
areas of perception and experience as phenomena that had formerly been
parts of a whole become increasingly autonomous. The de-realizing effect
had by such changes quite obviously poses a problem for realism, which,
as Jameson contends, has ‘an aesthetic need to avoid recognition of deep
structural social change as such’. ‘To acknowledge the imminence of some
thoroughgoing revolution in the social order’, continues Jameson, ‘is at once

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

to disqualify those materials of the present which are the building blocks of
narrative realism, for from the revolutionary perspective they become mere
appearances or epiphenomena, transitory moments of history’ (2007, 263).
Rather than positing realism and modernism as merely successive phases
in an evolutionary literary history, Jameson describes them as dialectical
counterparts, as ‘so many stages in a dialectic of reification’ (1997, 256).
Realism’s historic mission, at the moment of its emergence, is the demysti-
fication and subversion of inherited genres and ideas, and the discovery and
articulation of new areas of social experience – from which perspective,
realism begins, paradoxically, to resemble a kind of modernism (Jameson,
1997, 255; 2012, 476). With the intensification of the forces of reification
under capitalism, their ‘suffusion through ever greater zones of social life
(including individual subjectivity), it is as though the force that generated
the first realism now turns against it and devours it in its turn’ (1997, 256).
Hence modernism, which seizes on those increasingly autonomous areas
of experience created by the advancing disaggregation of social reality and
turns them into subjects in their own right. Yet insofar as modernism thereby
registers the fundamental reorganization of experience wrought by moderni-
zation, it begins, paradoxically, to resemble realism. Indeed, Jameson notes
how forms of abstraction that in the ‘modernist’ works of a Joyce or a Picasso
were once considered ‘weird and repulsive’ have entered the mainstream of
cultural consumption and ‘now look rather realistic to us’ (1998, 18–19).
What I am proposing, therefore, is something like a reconstruction of
Jameson’s presentation of modernism from the perspective of world-ecology.
In this view, his emphasis on the dialectical movement between realism (which
can resemble a kind of modernism) and modernism (which looks increasingly
like realism) is a suggestive one. For it might be yoked to the dialectical
movement between ecological regimes and revolutions. The provisionally
stabilized structures of ecological relations constitutive of a certain ecological
regime provide the grounds upon which realism can flourish. Conversely,
as already suggested, the instability and disaggregating tendencies of an
ecological revolution are propitious for the emergence of ‘modernist’ forms
and styles. Yet as the new weave of capital, power, and nature instantiated
by the ecological revolution is stabilized in its turn, we might expect to see
a renewed florescence of more ‘realist’ registers; or at least that what had
appeared strange and ‘irreal’ might now increasingly be viewed as realistic.
In his recent study, The Antinomies of Realism, Jameson’s investigation of this
most elusive of categories restages the dialectical relation between realism
and modernism in a slightly different but equally suggestive way. Jameson
argues for an understanding of realism as definitively marked by a tension
between two narrative impulses: storytelling in its ‘pure form’ (exemplified
by the tale or récit) and ‘scenic elaboration, description and above all affective
investment’. The latter impulse encourages realism ‘to develop towards a
scenic present which in reality, but secretly, abhors the other temporalities
which constitute the force of the tale or récit in the first place’ (2013, 11).

Michael Niblett

Thus, the tension between these two impulses can be rewritten as a tension
between two different modes of temporality: the linear chronology of the récit
(its ‘tripartite temporal system of past-present-future’) and the temporality of
the ‘eternal present’, which at its outer limit governs ‘pure scene’, a form of
narrative ‘showing’ that is ‘altogether divorced and separated from telling and
purified of it’ (10, 25). To resolve this opposition either way would be to destroy
realism, which exists precisely at the intersection of the two temporalities.
Jameson associates the tendency towards the scenic present with the forces
of reification and autonomization, which in disaggregating the senses enable
the realm of the visual, say, to separate from that of the verbal and conceptual,
and for the affective intensities of its objects, such as colour, to become the
site of aesthetic elaboration in their own right. To define realism in these
terms, however, is to recall the description we gave a moment ago of the
emergence of modernism. But this is precisely the (dialectical) point. Realism,
on Jameson’s reading, seeks ceaselessly to dissolve reified narrative forms in
order better to penetrate to the reality of a given situation or experience. In
the process, it establishes new narrative forms which gradually congeal into
generic conventions that must be dissolved in their turn. For this reason, realism
drives towards the eternal present of scenic elaboration, responding to what it
identifies as formulaic plots and unrealistic narrative stereotypes by focusing
renewed attention on scene and the present so as to uncover and adequately
register some newly perceptible reality. Yet, as Jameson contends, ‘this is a
drive that will eventually reveal itself as one of the sources of modernism,
insofar as it seeks to arrive at this or that unique phenomenon which bears no
recognizable name and thereby becomes utterly unrecognizable’ (144).
Jameson identifies the eternal present with the realm of affect. For reasons
of space, I will not pursue this connection here. Instead, I want to explore
how realism’s tendency toward the scenic present, which issues in formal and
stylistic mannerisms commonly regarded as ‘modernist’ – a tendency that
is not to be viewed merely in declensionary terms, but rather as a periodic
process inseparable from the spasms of capitalist modernization – how this
tendency might be read in relation to those transformations in ways of seeing
and understanding the world that, I have argued, are central to ecological
The various knowledge practices through which capitalism seeks symbol-
ically to render global nature as ‘a warehouse of free gifts’ should be seen,
in Moore’s terms, as the ‘strategic expressions of the production of abstract
social nature’ (2011, 131; 2014a, 22). Abstract social nature is the relational
counterpart to abstract social labour. As such, it is integral to the production
of value under capitalism. Moore contends that the ‘simplification, ration-
alization, and homogenization of socio-ecological life that occurs through
the disciplines of manifold commodity regimes – from the assembly line to
agro-monocultures – works through a simultaneous process of exploitation
(of paid labour) and appropriation (of unpaid work)’ (2014b, 3). Exploitation,
in these terms, is the realm of socially necessary labour time as the substance

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

and measure of value. Appropriation, meanwhile, is bound up with abstract

social nature: it implicates the various socio-ecological conditions that are
made to work in the interests of capitalist accumulation, but which are
un-valued because reproduced outside the circuit of capital. This unpaid work
is performed by both human and extra-human natures: it includes, for example,
the domestic work (often done by women) required to reproduce labour-power
on a daily basis, but also, say, the production of fossil fuels through the earth’s
biogeological processes. Crucially, such unpaid work and the ‘cheap’ nature
it represents is not just ‘out there’, waiting to be appropriated by capital;
it has to be created – rendered appropriable – through the deployment of
what Moore calls ‘capitalist technics – crystallizations of tools and ideas,
power and nature’ (2014b, 3). Thus, for instance, highly fertile soils are a
boon for capitalist agriculture since they enable an increase in productivity
(more goods produced per average labour hour). However, while the level of
nutrients in the soil might be a basic fact, activating this bounty as unpaid
work in service to accumulation requires that the soil first be identified and
‘produced’ as an exploitable resource. This is done through its incorporation
within a matrix of material and symbolic practices, encompassing not only
certain types of production techniques and labour processes, but also specific
forms of social and technical knowledge (including, for example, the kinds of
surveying techniques Johnson describes, which helped secure for capital the
fertile soils of the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century).
Abstract social nature, then, refers to the way capitalism configures the
world so as to render it visible as a realm of appropriable objects, thereby
enabling the activation of new streams of unpaid work. Such unpaid work,
as the dialectical counterpart to the exploitation of wage-labour, is crucial to
capital because it helps drive down production costs (Moore, 2014b, 36–37).
The identification and activation of new ‘cheap’ natures – ‘cheap’ here insofar
as they are relatively under-capitalized – counteracts capital’s tendency to
exhaust the conditions for extended accumulation. This exhaustion takes the
double form of the undermining of the conditions of production (the depletion
of the soil, say) and the increasing commodification of those relations of
reproduction that had previously been able to deliver a rising stream of
unpaid work to capital (so that, for instance, chemical fertilizers must now be
used to maintain soil fertility).
At this point I want to turn to the work of Schomburgk, whose various
surveying missions in British Guiana can be viewed as contributions to the
production of abstract social nature. Whatever else his expeditions achieved
(in the field of scientific enquiry, for example), his mapping and quantifi-
cation of the colony’s ecological wealth certainly helped to make the world
more legible for capital accumulation. Schomburgk’s travels in Guiana were
undertaken in the context of a downturn in the world-economy, a slackening
in the pace of industrial development following a crisis of overproduction
in the early 1820s (Mandel, 1995, 5–6). This downturn was bound up with
a longer-term transition in the world-system, which had its roots in ‘the

Michael Niblett

progressive exhaustion of England’s agricultural revolution between 1763 and

1815’ and a wider ‘agricultural “deceleration” – marked by stagnating labour
productivity, rising cereal prices and a new polarization of agrarian class
structure – that reached from the Valley of Mexico to Scandinavia’ (Moore,
2010b, 394). The answer to such stagnation was the reorganization of the
world-ecology, as part of which the core capitalist powers sought out new
supplies of ‘cheap’ raw materials, food, energy, and labour. From parliamentary
enclosures in England to the ratcheting up of exploitation on the Caribbean
sugar estates, this period witnessed new rounds of primitive accumulation
and renewed strategies of radical simplification designed to unlock fresh
streams of unpaid work (Mingay, 1990; Watts, 1987, 423). At every turn, of
course, these strategies were met with resistance – from the Captain Swing
riots that swept England in the 1830s to the various slave rebellions that broke
out across the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century.
Schomburgk arrived in Guiana a little over a decade after the colony had
been shaken by its own slave insurrection, the Demerara rising of 1823. One
of the key contributing factors to the rebellion was precisely the effort by
sugar estate owners to squeeze more work out of the enslaved in the context
of a growing financial crisis in the plantation sector. In the late eighteenth
century, Guiana had experienced an economic boom.2 Fleeing increasingly
degraded soils, planters from the insular Caribbean had poured into the colony,
attracted by the fertile alluvium of the Guianese coastal plain (Richardson,
1992, 32). The result was a steep rise in the export of plantation staples.
Between 1789 and 1802, for example, the export of sugar increased by 433 per
cent (Adamson, 1972, 24). ‘For a short period’, notes Alan Adamson, ‘profits
were legendary’ (1972, 24). The boom soon turned to bust, however. By the
early years of the nineteenth century, an ‘atmosphere of gloom and chronic
crisis’ prevailed, with production costs rising even as the price of sugar on the
world market declined (1972, 24). The response from plantation owners was
to ‘intensify labour exploitation and curtail many of the slaves’ “privileges”’, to
which the slaves responded ‘with increasing rebelliousness’ (da Costa, 1994,
40). By the time Schomburgk disembarked in the colony, slavery had been
abolished and many planters were mired in economic difficulties, prompting
a search for new sources of cheap labour and new export opportunities.
Keen to defend ‘the virtue and prudence of manumission and to show
how the colony could be saved from economic ruin’ (Burnett, 2002, 11),
Schomburgk sought to identify suitable sites in the Guianese interior for the
cultivation of cash-crops other than sugar. But his various disquisitions on
the ecological wealth of the colony were not only directed to the colonial
authorities in Guiana. With an eye to securing the continued support of his
metropolitan patrons – principally, the Royal Geographical Society and, later,
the British state – Schomburgk also emphasized the potential significance of

2 At this point, the colony was in fact still three separate colonies: Demerara,
Essequibo, and Berbice; they would be united to form British Guiana in 1831.

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

his explorations to the ‘mother country’. The Guianese interior, he declared in

one request for funding, was ‘almost certain to contain dyes and drugs, useful
species of timber and valuable vegetable products’ (quoted in Burnett, 2002,
10). Schomburgk’s scientific treatises were thus ‘enmeshed in issues of colonial
administration and profitability’ (Burnett, 2002, 14). They contributed directly
to the contemporary reorganization of the world-ecology and the drive to
secure new sources of cheap nature in the interests of capitalist moderni-
zation. To consider in detail how the pressures of this ecological revolution
register in the representational strategies deployed in Schomburgk’s writings,
I want to examine his two-volume tome, The Natural History of the Fishes of
Guiana (1841/43). Typically, Schomburgk’s introduction to the first volume
underscores the ‘economical use’ to which Guiana’s fish might be put (1852,
122–23). The subsequent ichthyology combines the explorer’s field notes and
sketches with various colour plates and commentary by the book’s editors,
William Jardine and Andrew Crichton. By way of this collaboration – in which
the metropolitan editors refine the raw material collected by Schomburgk in
the colony – the fish are rendered up as appropriable objects. Over its pages
of taxonomic description and lush illustrations, the ichthyology produces
these animals as abstract social nature, isolating each species in the textual
equivalent of a museum display case – or a department store window. For as
Walter Benjamin once remarked, ‘there are relations between department
store and museum’: ‘The amassing of artworks in the [latter] brings them
into communication with commodities, which – where they offer themselves
en masse to the passerby – awake in him the notion that some part of this
should fall to him as well’ (1999, 415). Schomburgk’s Natural History might be
grasped as both museum and department store, packaging up the ecological
wealth of Guiana into the display cases of its taxonomic records like so many
commodities to be consumed by the reader.
Certainly the colour renderings of the fish provide much for the eye to
feast on. Alongside the dry cataloguing of fin positions and scale types, these
luminescent plates function as a form of sensory gratification. Could we not
then view the relationship between the taxonomic abstractions of the Natural
History and the visual experience afforded by its illustrations in terms of
the realism-modernism dialectic sketched above? The isolation of each fish
species in the timeless confines of ichthyological description might be read
as akin to that renewed attention to a scenic present periodically pursued by
realism and yet which also announces realism’s passing over into modernism –
something emphasized here by the way the affective intensities of the colour
plates emerge as ends in themselves, as areas of aesthetic experience in their
own right.
There is, in fact, an interesting tension in the Natural History between
two representational strategies, a tension reminiscent of the one Jameson
identifies between the narrative impulses of scenic elaboration and storytelling
(the récit). On the one hand, we have the taxonomic abstractions of scientific
description; on the other, we have a series of stories relating how Schomburgk

Michael Niblett

first encountered this or that fish. Thus, for example, his careful elucidation
of the anatomy of the lau-lau –

The first ray of the first dorsal and of the pectoral fin is strong and spiny,
studded with whitish bony tubercles […]. Four barbules below, those
nearest the mouth smaller, two above; nostrils double, about an inch apart
– is punctuated by a bout of tale-telling marked by the breathless forward
momentum (the linear temporality, we might say, recalling Jameson) of the
adventure story:

While we ascended the river Parime, we encamped one night at the head
of a large cataract, and Sororeng, one of the Indians who accompanied
me afterwards to London, went late in the evening alone in a canoe, to
try whether he could hook some fish. We were all fast asleep, when I was
awakened by some person crying out for help, and we soon ascertained
that it was Sororeng, who had hooked a lau-lau, and having got entangled
in the line, with neither knife nor other sharp instrument at hand, the fish
carried him and canoe at a rapid rate towards the cataract. (Schomburgk,
1852, 194–95)
In the tension between these two narrative registers it is possible to discern
the pressures of the contemporary ecological revolution. Schomburgk’s tale
represents an integrated whole of past-present-future (note how the story is
told in retrospect from a present that also includes a completed future: ‘who
accompanied me afterwards to London’). The subordination of this narrative
mode to the eternal present of the Natural History’s anatomizing abstractions
mediates the simplifications of nature – the disaggregation of existing unities
into increasingly autonomous parts – unfolding in Guiana and elsewhere at
the time Schomburgk was writing. Exemplary of the new ways of seeing and
understanding the world emerging in this period, the Natural History stages at
the level of form the advancing reification of the object world and of the human
senses through its reduction of Schomburgk’s tale to a mere appendage of his
taxonomic gaze (and to the visual pleasures this taxonomy offers the reader in
the form of the colour plates). Schomburgk’s work thus not only contributes to
the conditions making for that crisis of representation in the mid-nineteenth
century of which Harvey speaks, and which is met with literary responses
characterized by styles and techniques conventionally labelled ‘modernist’. It
also illustrates the gravitational pull exerted on narrative by the pole of ‘pure
scene’ as the world is subjected to new levels of abstraction and reification.

Wilson Harris: Unruly Pivots and Abstract Globes

Wilson Harris’s The Eye of the Scarecrow, set predominantly in Guyana between
1929 and 1964, responds to an analogous period of ecological revolution
to that confronted by Schomburgk. As its title implies, the novel is just as

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

concerned with ways of seeing as are Schomburgk’s taxonomic exercises,

albeit, of course, in a far more critically conscious manner. The narrative
features a surveying mission into the Guyanese interior, an expedition in
search of an abandoned mining town thought to contain rich gold deposits.
The leader of the expedition, L—, a childhood friend of the narrator, is an
engineer possessed of a certain kind of scientistic vision and a tendency to
want conceptually to fix the world around him. ‘The self-imposed ratification
of every closed sentence’, is how this tendency is described by the narrator,
for whom ‘every closed sentence’ must rather be ‘prob[ed] in order to uncover
wherein lay the movement of original compassion’ (59).
The novel’s implicit engagement with, and critique of, the kind of abstractive
approach to understanding the world exemplified by Schomburgk’s taxonomy
is more than accidental. Harris, too, was a surveyor in Guyana, working for
the Department of Public Works during the 1940s and 1950s. His experiences
would provide significant inspiration for the highly unorthodox vision of
the world elaborated in his writings. 3 In the late 1940s, for example, as part
of a surveying team carrying out a new reconnaissance of the Demerara
catchment, Harris became aware of ‘an oversight in the construction of the
[water] conservancy’ (Harris, 1992a, 127). The conservancy had been designed
in the nineteenth century by colonial engineers. Assuming that the land
was flat, they had imposed upon it a rectilinear system of canals and dams,
indifferent to ‘the subtle gradients of the topography and to the incremental
buildup of contours higher up the river’ (Harris, 1992a, 127). The abstract
spatial model underpinning the construction of the conservancy might be
regarded as a form of capitalist technics, reducing the specificities of the
landscape to abstract social nature. Harris emphasizes that the layout of the
Demerara conservancy, its rectilinear canal system a paradigm of theoretical
efficiency, ‘constituted an economic model for the needs of industry in the
immediate locality’ (1992a, 127). But he also underscores how, for him, the
new survey with which he was involved – in overturning the misconceptions of
the earlier engineering work – struck at the heart of the Cartesian separation
of human and extra-human nature upon which abstract space is predicated:
‘When we did […] [the] new survey it was as if the whole field tilted and the
boundaries were dislodged. We entered into dialogue with the landscape.
Instead of seeing the landscape as a passive thing to be manipulated, to have
your formulae imposed upon it, we entered into dialogue with it’ (1992b, 75).
The idea of establishing a dialogue with the landscape has become a
keystone of Harris’s work. His narratives do not represent the environment as

3 On Harris’s career as a surveyor, see Cribb, 1993. Harris’s first novel, Palace
of the Peacock (1960), which recounts a journey upriver into the Guyanese
interior, features a character called Schomburgk – an allusion not only to Robert
Schomburgk (and his brother Richard, a botanist), but also to one W. Schomburgh,
a member of the crew on Harris’s first surveying mission into the interior in 1942
(Cribb, 1993, 38).

Michael Niblett

a mere backdrop for the actions of his characters, but rather unfold through
a dialectic between human and extra-human natures. ‘The life of the earth’,
Harris has claimed, ‘needs to be seen in fiction as sensitively woven into the
character that moves upon it’ (2002, 4). Before considering further how this
post-Cartesian perspective informs The Eye of the Scarecrow, I want first to
examine the historical period covered by the novel – a period in which the
world was (as in Schomburgk’s time) subjected to new levels of abstraction
and reification with the advance of capitalist modernization.
The decades over which The Eye of the Scarecrow is set represent years
of crisis and renewal in the capitalist world-economy as various efforts
were made to reorganize faltering accumulation strategies. These efforts
culminated in a thoroughgoing ecological revolution in the post-Second World
War era, paving the way for a global economic boom. Harris’s novel looks back
to the Wall Street Crash and Depression of the late 1920s, while the narrator’s
present of 1963/64 marks the high-tide of Third World decolonization, but
also a time of great social unrest in Guyana. In an author’s note to the novel,
Harris remarks that across this forty-year period ‘there occurred a series of
grave conflicts between capital and labour, between parties and powers,
between institutions and masses that set up a convulsion in the psyche of
ordinary men and women which it is difficult to describe’ (8). The Eye of the
Scarecrow aims precisely to describe this psychic convulsion. The pivot point of
the narrative is the year 1948, during which there occurred a significant strike
by Guyanese sugar workers that lasted four and a half months.
This strike, a repeated reference point in Harris’s work, should be seen in
the context of the contemporary revolution in the world-ecology and its locally
specific articulation in the Caribbean.4 Following the Second World War, large
parts of the region underwent economic modernization, encouraged to an
extent by the colonial powers as they sought to recalibrate their hold over
the area. In Guyana, the 1950s and early 1960s saw the restructuring of the
struggling sugar industry. Transnational corporations intensified the process
of land and capital consolidation, while sugar yields increased in conjunction
with the modernization of factories, transport links, and storage facilities.
These material transformations were tied to various symbolic and scientific
revolutions. Time-and-motion studies were conducted, for example, mapping
and quantifying labourers’ behaviour for the purposes of rationalizing work
routines and increasing output (Thomas, 1984, 145). This ratcheting up of the
exploitation of human and extra-human natures contributed to the post-1945
global boom. However, it was also met with resistance. The 1948 strike in
Guyana, which broke out on sugar estates along the east coast of Demerara,
had as its immediate cause a change in the labourers’ work routine from
the ‘cut-and-drop’ method of harvesting sugarcane to the more demanding
‘cut-and-load’ method (Spinner, 1984, 26–27). The change had been brought

4 On the significance of the 1948 strike to Harris’s work, see Maes-Jelinek, 2006,

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

in on the basis of the aforementioned time-and-motion studies and was

considered a low-cost means of driving up productivity. In the ensuing dispute,
police officers opened fire on protesting workers at Plantation Enmore on 16
June, killing five.
The Eye of the Scarecrow not only explicitly references the strike and the
Enmore shootings. The fragmentary quality of the novel, its decomposition
of the conventional unities of place and character, also bespeaks the radical
simplification of nature then underway in Guyana. The abstraction of the
narrative and its irreal tonalities register the felt experience of a world in flux,
one in which the received contours of social reality are crumbling with the
disaggregation of plantation space and workers’ bodily practices and their
reconstruction along new, more efficient lines’.
Paradoxically, however, the abstractions of the narrative also become
the means by which the novel seeks imaginatively to reverse the separation
of human and extra-human natures imposed by capitalism. One effect of
the non-linear, fragmentary style of the text is that individual words and
images begin to emerge as areas of aesthetic experience in their own right;
repeatedly replayed in different contexts, they become sites of, as it were,
scenic elaboration. A particular motif will be taken up by the narrative and
then ‘mined and modulated to create numerous levels of association and
significance’ (Mitchell, 2011, 15). Take the word ‘depression’, which recurs
throughout the novel, referring at once to an economic downturn, a landform,
an atmospheric condition, and an emotional state. These different meanings
are made to overlap and correspond, such that ‘depression’ ceases to function
as a signifier for a specific signified. Instead, it becomes an ‘unruly pivot’ – in
analogy to what the narrator describes in a moment of psychic upheaval as
‘the unruly pivot around which revolves the abstract globe in one’s head’ (33)
– articulating a system of relations between manifold phenomena. In this way,
the text gestures to a vision of reality as constituted through a web of actively
reproducing relations between human and extra-human natures. At one point,
for example, Harris unites several meanings of depression in a single sentence,
describing ‘the crippled self-deception of beggars – stationed in the shadow
of the commercial houses of Water Street as in a depression in a mental
landscape (that world-wide depression of the 1920s and 1930s)’ (17). Here, the
economic depression is the mental depression is the geographical depression.
This interleaving of meaning exemplifies Harris’s insistence on seeing the ‘life
of man’ as ‘embedded in the life of the earth’ (Maes-Jelinek, 2002, xi). More
specifically in this instance, we might regard it as speaking to the way that
capitalist crises are not merely economic events that impact upon the world
and its peoples, but rather unfold through transformations in landscapes and
psyches just as much as in financial markets.
Harris’s efforts to ‘trespass’ the conventional boundaries between human
and extra-human natures – such that descriptions of people, say, pass over
into descriptions of landscapes or animals or rocks – provide a visionary
counterpoint to the reifying drive associated with the production of abstract

Michael Niblett

social nature, the rendering of the world as a warehouse of fungible ‘free

gifts’.5 Indeed, in weaving together economic crises with psychic states and
geographical and atmospheric conditions, the narrative could be said to point
to capitalism’s dependence upon those streams of unpaid work it secures
from human and extra-human natures and yet ‘backgrounds’ as valueless.6
The trajectory of the text, in fact, is precisely towards foregrounding the
whole web of life through which existence is reproduced. The narrative
exhibits a tripartite structure in which the same incidents are replayed
at different levels of abstraction, moving from the ‘evocation of concrete,
outer-world’ events, through ‘an intermediate approach to them which
combines external with inner perspectives’, and on to ‘a wholly inward,
abstract, or structural reconstruction of experience’ (Maes-Jelinek, 2006,
155). This abstract reconstruction of experience becomes the means by which
the novel presents ‘the environment as a measure of reflection in the person,
a measure of the cosmos in the person’ – by which, that is, it invokes the
totality of relations within which its characters are embedded, this totality
as such being irreducible to individual experience (Harris, 2000, 22). Harris’s
narrative, thus, might be said to reverse the trajectory of the Schomburgkian
taxonomic imperative. Schomburgk ranged concrete phenomena under
abstract categories, isolating each thing in order to be able to reintegrate it
into a totality of interchangeable parts. Harris, by contrast, seeks to construct
a vision of totality for the purposes of exposing the mutually constitutive
nature of all things, and in so doing to restore or preserve the concrete
specificity of each; for ‘what is truly particular’, he has argued, ‘is not isolated
or static but is an association of numerous factors’ (1967, 9).
The abstraction of Harris’s writing, then, serves the evocation of relationality.
Indeed, one might characterize Harris as, to paraphrase Louis Althusser’s
description of the painter Leonardo Cremonini, a writer of relations. Indeed,
what Althusser says of Cremonini could, I think, be applied, mutatis mutandis,
to Harris:
Cremonini ‘paints’ the relations which bind […] objects, places and times.
Cremonini is a painter of abstraction. Not an abstract painter, ‘painting’ an
absent, pure possibility in a new form and matter, but a painter of the real
abstract, ‘painting’ in a sense we have to define, real relations (as relations
they are necessarily abstract) between ‘men’ and their ‘things’, or rather,
to give the term its stronger sense, between ‘things’ and their ‘men’.
(Althusser, 2001, 158)
Harris, too, works ultimately to depict not people or objects but the web of
relations which determine their existence. As Sandra Drake has observed,

5 ‘Trespass’ is a key word in Harris’s intellectual lexicon and one that recurs
throughout The Eye of the Scarecrow (see Mackey, 1993, 210).
6 On capitalism’s ‘backgrounding’ of certain key conditions necessary to its own
reproduction, see Plumwood, 1993 and Fraser, 2014.

‘The Abstract Globe in One’s Head’

‘Harris’s fiction is thought attempting to express linguistically that “set of

relations between the matter in my body and in the rest of the universe”’
(1986, 73).7 If, therefore, the ‘modernism’ of Harris’s elliptical prose can be
viewed as a response to the dynamics of the ecological revolutions through
which capitalist modernization unfolds, then it is necessary to grasp it also
as signalling his commitment to the unmaking of the world of abstract social
nature integral to this modernization process.

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chapter five

Mining and Mastery:

Ethnography and World-Ecology
in the Work of
Charles Barrington Brown
Chris Campbell

Chris Campbell
Mining and Mastery

Guyana, Gold, and the Imperial Imaginary

O n 8 February 1877, the scientific journal Nature printed its review of Charles
Barrington Brown’s Canoe and Camp Life in British Guiana. The literary
reviewer, perhaps hoping to perfect the art of the backhanded compliment,
opened the review by declaring that ‘Mr. Brown is a much better surveyor
and explorer than he is a book-maker’ (311). The review, while impressed by
the extent of the valuable details provided, castigates the author for a lack
of purposeful cataloguing. Moreover, the reviewer despairs of the disservice
done to the ‘general and scientific reader’ in the lack of an appendix or
carefully complied index and is, it would seem, himself a reader at sea in the
uncharted waters of Brown’s mixture of memoir and anecdote.
Despite the singular experience of disorientation, however, Brown’s account
of his travels in Guyana between 1867 and 1872 is a text intimately concerned
with the processes of mapping. Foremost in this regard of course, this text
is an adjunct, a kind of gentleman’s side project, to the official surveying
work that Brown undertook in the interior of British Guiana on behalf of the
Royal Geographical Society. This work was written up, with James Sawkins,
in 1875, as Reports on the Physical, Descriptive, and Economic Geology of British
Guiana. Canoe and Camp Life in British Guiana, by way of contrast, is the fruit of
the expeditioner’s evening musings: in Brown’s own mind, a text ‘apart from
[his] official work’ and a noting of incidents which he felt ‘worthy of perusal’
for his readers in the metropolis (1876, 1). In this sense, Canoe and Camp Life
in British Guiana reads as something of a curious crepuscular companion text,
the journal of a series of navigated routes. Furthermore, it is a text which is,

Mining and Mastery

in essence, unmoored, as the very reason for the author’s presence in British
Guiana is only ever glossed in the lightest detail.
Canoe and Camp Life serves as a forerunner for Brown’s later literary efforts
as it anticipates both the configuration and the authorial tone of Fifteen
Thousand Miles on the Amazon and its Tributaries, which was co-written with
William Lidstone and appeared in print in 1878. This later account of Brown
and his travelling companion lounging on board a river steamer is, frankly, hard
to read and serves as a great early example of the self-indulgent tourist’s tale.
In the closing passages of the text, the authors speculate about the viability
of the Amazon region as a destination for the discerning European traveller
(who may have already tired of the ‘narrower tourist routes’), recommending
the ‘undeniable charm’ of ‘nature, little interfered with’, and its ‘dusky races,
and human life under the simplest and most unsophisticated conditions’
(Brown and Lidstone, 1878, 514–15). (Indeed, it is the case that Brown and
Lidstone’s palpable lack of interest in the people and places they cruise past,
and their constant concern with securing plentiful culinary comforts in their
cabins, mean it wouldn’t have been too much of a publishing misstep to
retitle the volume Fifteen Thousand Meals on the Amazon… .) So moved to ire
was contemporary Herbert H. Smith by this book, that he declared it ‘such a
monument of glaring stupidity as has seldom been found; almost worthless,
almost devoid of information, full of unpardonable errors, and orthography
as bad as can be’ (1879, 601).1 Notwithstanding occasional tonal similarities
with the account of his Amazon trip, there is much more of real substance to
Canoe and Camp Life, and Brown is both more engaged and more earnest. It is,
despite the reservations of his contemporary reviewer, an example of his best
effort as book-maker.
The purpose of this chapter is to look more closely at Brown’s book-making
in order to interrogate the relationship between the narrative provided by
his ‘official work’ in British Guiana (the Reports) and the writing of his diaries
(Canoe and Camp Life): a relationship which lays bare the imbricated processes
of imperialist knowledge-production. It is instructive that the scramble for
natural resources remains under-spoken in Brown’s diaries and I want to
suggest that this fact throws light on the composition of travel writing and
natural history narratives from the core territories of the world-system. Brown’s
work provides a revealing map of the imperial imaginary and underlines both
the artfulness and sophistry, and the displacement and obfuscation, that are
evident in aesthetic disavowals of processes of extraction and development.
However, it is not merely that Brown’s presence in the Guyanese bush is (to

1 Smith’s scathing review is understandable. Arriving in Brazil in 1878 and serving

as ‘special famine correspondent’ for Scribner’s Magazine, he had first-hand
knowledge of the devastating effects of the drought-famine afflicting Brazil at
the time. His interviews with refugees fleeing from across the sertão to Fortaleza
throw Brown and Lidstone’s disengaged gourmandizing of a few years earlier into
especially sharp relief (Smith, 1879, 410–20). See also Davis, 2001, 80–86.

Chris Campbell

quote Wilson Harris) another example of the ‘cannibal appetite’ of capitalist

imperialism; moreover, his case reveals the full complexity of the development,
entrenchment, and transmission of modes of knowledge that are an integral
part of the production of nature under capitalism. By examining not just
Brown’s geological surveying, but also his hunting aspirations (lofty in intent
if not successful in execution), his treatment of the indigenous communities
he visits, and his wider ethnographic musings, we can better understand the
ways in which imperial epistemology and the production of racial orders are
entwined with – constituted by and constitutive of – environmental history.
Significantly, if Canoe and Camp Life appears at times to be a frothy tale
of expedition life reminiscent of his yarns from the Amazon, the very fact
that it is underwritten by the imperatives of the Royal Geographical Society
provides a reminder that Brown was not in fact at this time on a jolly down the
rivers of the Guyanese interior. Rather, at the behest of the British crown, he,
Sawkins, and their crew were speculating on and scouring out mineral wealth
in the periphery of the world-system at a time when the securing of raw
materials was of prime importance to the development of the core countries.
They were in British Guiana as prosecutors of a process of imperial capital
accumulation taking place on a world scale at the end of the nineteenth
century. Specifically, Brown’s expeditions coincided with the institution of
a new international monetary system – the conversion of world trade to the
universal gold standard. The convulsions of this transition would, by the late
1870s, have further immiserated the major nations outside the hegemonic
gold bloc and contributed in no small part to the ‘making of the third world’
(Davis, 2001, 305).
Royal Geographical Society expeditions to secure natural resources were,
of course, simultaneously processes of knowledge-gathering. The narratives
that they produced were of equal importance to the formation of episte-
mologies of empire. In this regard, the society took its place alongside other
‘knowledge-producing institutions’ such as the British Museum, the Royal
Society, and the India Survey, which were tasked with collecting, classifying,
codifying, and ordering knowledge for the administrative archive of the
British Empire (Richards, 1993, 4). With this task in mind, Brown seemed to
have had all bases covered; as well as the expertise in engineering, surveying,
and geology, his expedition counted among its numbers a specialist natural
historian and a taxidermist.
As they travelled, Brown and Sawkins had in the forefront of their minds,
however, not the connection of their purpose to the tectonic shifts in a world-
economy, but, rather, a fact more closely focused – that they were re-treading
earlier European pathways into the Guyanese interior. In this they were also
participating in a long line of colonial journeymen who were, as D. Graham
Burnett observes, metaleptically remapping old routes and participating
in a process which ‘anchored the empire’ (2000, 53). These long imperial
cartographical rehearsals – Brown tracing Schomburgk tracing von Humboldt
tracing Ralegh – served to inscribe ‘cycles of priority and posteriority on which

Mining and Mastery

the geographical authority of explorers was built’ (39). Burnett describes an

epistemological power-play, a process which saw later travellers scratching
over and redrawing old routes on new maps, thereby paradoxically asserting
their own authority even as they drew on that of their predecessors. Canoe
and Camp Life consciously acknowledges this fact and frequently cites the
Schomburgk expeditions of 1835–44, as well as the others who had gone
before, all depicted through the valorizing yet apparently innocuous epithets
of ‘wanderers’ or ‘naturalists’.2
With the conscious memory of this prior crew of European writers and
explorers, Brown acknowledges and even helps to construct a lineage of
imperial textual mappings of British Guiana which stretches back to Ralegh.
Nevertheless, despite this – and despite Brown’s well-rehearsed role as the first
European to see Kaieteur – Canoe and Camp Life is notable for a lack of direct
reference to Ralegh. There is the odd passing mention of Walter in the land of
waters, but Canoe and Camp Life is relatively free of both the El Dorado dream
itself and the standard accompanying auriferous imagery. One way to read
this absence is to follow the persuasive analysis offered by Neil L. Whitehead,
who notes that in the 1870s the conquest narrative and tone of exploratory
super-heroism that had characterized earlier expeditionary accounts was
replaced by a different form of vainglory. Whitehead describes the turn, after
von Humboldt, towards travel writing in Amazonia which sought to quantify
the ‘great scientific laboratory’ of the nineteenth century and privileged the
ordering of ‘natural and moral phenomena’ (2002b, 131). In the imagination
of the metropolitan world, the fantastic conquistador of the Amazonian
narrative had, to a greater extent, been supplanted by the scientist: another
figure that, it seemed, made ‘History’ happen. But, in both the creation of a
catalogue of heroic precursors and the fact that Ralegh is kept at arm’s length,
there is more to this than just a scripting of epistemological mastery. Given
that Canoe and Camp Life is the offspring of Brown’s prospecting Reports, the
lack of the El Dorado imaginary is on the part of the author disingenuous, or
wilfully perverse, or, at the very least, supremely naive.
It is worth stating at this point that if Brown, even in his metaleptic courses,
does not appear to pay much homage to Ralegh, the same cannot be said of his

2 Brown is conscious here of following, almost literally, in the footsteps of Robert

Schomburgk, and, in its extensive focus on natural history, Brown’s work has
much in common with the equally detailed although considerably more succinct
Botanical Reminiscences in British Guiana authored by Robert’s brother, Richard.
Richard Schomburgk, having accompanied his brother on his expedition in the
1830s, waited until 1876, the same year as Canoe and Camp Life appeared, to
publish his memoirs of the ‘botanical El Dorado’ which he had experienced
decades before. Brown also finds time to mention the ‘great naturalist’ Charles
Waterton and, in its focus on hunting exploits, successful and otherwise, Brown’s
book shares some of the tone of those Wanderings. See also, Michael Niblett,
‘“The Abstract Globe in One’s Head”: Robert Schomburgk, Wilson Harris, and the
Ecology of Modernism’, Chapter 4 in this collection.

Chris Campbell

paymasters. After all, the Royal Geographic Society had emerged in 1830 (then
as the Geological Society of London) out of a union of travellers’ associations,
including one of that very name. The Raleigh Club, a gentleman’s dining group
with an interest in the New World cartography, amongst other exploratory
ventures, had as one of its most influential patrons Roderick Impey Murchison.
Murchison served as longstanding director and was nicknamed ‘gold-finder’
for his ability to identify new zones of extraction across the globe. His
efforts underscored just how enmeshed the work of the Society was with
imperial governance at the time, and he provides the empirical link between
Schomburgk and Brown (Stafford, 1989, 81). As Burnett notes: ‘Schomburgk
addressed the Geological Society on the subject of Guiana gold on 4 December
1844. The decision to send James Sawkins and Charles Brown from the Jamaica
Geological Survey to Guiana was an extension of this interest. Murchison was
instrumental here’ (Burnett, 2002, 53 n. 120). The ‘gold-finder’ sent Brown and
Sawkins to Guyana on the back of its brief gold rush of 1857 in the hope of
identifying and securing ‘the gold district’ and further valuable resources in
the interior, claims to which might then also prove useful in bargaining with
French and American interests in the region (Stafford, 1989, 84). Murchison,
a ‘scientist of empire’ with all that title implies, had been criticized for
valuing the acquisition of mineral resources and promoting the potential of
the Society as agent of capital accumulation and government collusion at the
expense of the pursuit of scientific discovery (in this, and in popularizing the
Royal Geographic Society, Murchison reputedly fell out with those fellow ‘big
beasts’ of the time: Darwin, Hooker, and Wallace. See Stafford, 1989, 22).
And in his pursuit of gold in British Guiana, Murchison found something of a
useful subordinate in Brown, who, from his own curriculum vitae, appears to
be something of a surveyor for empire: a gold seeker, if not always a gold finder.
After his return from British Guiana in 1873, Brown’s prospecting talents
took him to Brazil, North Carolina, Ceylon, and New South Wales looking
for gold and gem-stones, as well as seeing him return to British Guiana and
Suriname on several occasions between 1887 and 1891 (Geological Magazine,
1917, 235–37).
The transcriptions of Brown’s travels, following Schomburgk, et al., work to
formalize the links between cartography and precious commodity in literary
representations of Guyana. This is a connection that has come to characterize
popular conceptions of the nation. Today, several Guyanese banknotes feature
a map of the territory complete with commodity icons designating its primary
natural resources (see, for instance, the $1,000 note with its depiction of
gold, diamonds, and timber). There is, of course, a bitter irony attendant in
encomiums to the wealth of the nation arising from its natural resources when
the identification, control, and extraction of the same resources have played
a primary role in its underdevelopment. As Clive Y. Thomas comments, citing
gold as an ‘upside potential’ in assessments of Guyana’s economic outlook is
as paradoxical as it is painful. He argues that the ‘scramble for gold fuelled
the early European discovery, occupation, plunder and settlement of Guyana’

Mining and Mastery

and that, furthermore, in the twenty-first century, the national development

model that is based on a similar scramble is a deeply flawed one (2012, 13). Any
benefit to the national economy must be weighed against myriad concerns,
not least the disparity between the ‘frantic concentration’ of overseas-based
large-scale gold mining and domestic small- and medium-scale operations
(28). For Thomas, perspectives or policies which overlook distinctions of scale
and of ownership, and that only consider ‘upside potential’, risk replaying
cycles of dispossession. 3
Brown’s work then, as well as underscoring the links between cartography
and precious commodities in the history of Guyana (and, more broadly,
demonstrating capitalism’s thirst for gold over the longue durée), reveals much
about the processes of imperial textuality. For instance, we can see how his
metaleptic inscription of textual authority works paradoxically: on the one
hand, as Burnett demonstrates, it reinforces a sense of imperial mastery; and
yet, on the other, it also serves to occlude long-held imperial interests in the
extraction of mineral wealth. Despite Brown underplaying any connection to
Ralegh in Canoe and Camp Life, the work undertaken by his crew is inextricably
tied to the search for gold, the processes of primitive accumulation, and
the notorious depiction of Amazonian landscapes that were engendered by
Ralegh himself. We might call to mind Ralegh’s descriptions in The Discoverie
of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana of a pleasure-land for colonial
pursuits: ‘There is no country which yeeldeth more pleasures […] for the
common delights of hunting, hawking, fishing, fowling, and the rest, then
Guiana doth’ (Whitehead, 1997, 194). Or, say, the infamous depiction which
now stands as literary embodiment of the rapacious masculinism of colonial
domination: ‘Guiana is a Countrey that hath yet her Maydenhead, never sackt,
turned, nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not beene torne, nor the
virtue and salt of the soyle spent by manurance, the graves have not been
opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges’ (196).
The processes involved in the mining of mineral wealth are paramount
here once again. In world-historical terms, the connections between mining
and the limitless drive to accumulate capital that was the motor for Europe’s
early modern expansion is well recognized. Fernand Braudel, for instance, in
his magisterial The Wheels of Commerce observed the dialectical connection

3 ‘[T]his scramble for Guyana’s minerals is based on a flawed development model.

One which is distinguished by its reliance on (1) extracting natural-resources at
all costs (2) focusing on primary level production with little or no value-added (3)
the preponderance of foreign investment with little or no partnership with local
capital (4) utilizing very capital intensive production methods resulting in low
labour absorption (5) servicing world markets with the attendant demand and
price risks and (6) having to overcome severe environmental/ecological challenges
in areas where there is a poor track record for success. This model contradicts
the very essence of sustainable human development’ (Thomas, 2012, 29). See
also Janette Bulkan, ‘Hegemony in Guyana: REDD-plus and State Control over
Indigenous Peoples and Resources’, Chapter 6 in this collection.

Chris Campbell

between the rise of capitalism and the global expansion of mining and extractive
enterprises (1982). More recently, Jason W. Moore’s has demonstrated how
‘silver mining sheds light on the ways in which environmental transformations
were at once the cause and consequence of the rise of capitalism’ (2007, 123).
The processes of mining in Guyana in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
continued the legacy of accumulation from the early-modern period and
Brown’s texts provide a particularly interesting perspective on the successive
environmental transformations that these processes precipitated.
Canoe and Camp Life, with barely a mention of the mineral mining purpose
of the expedition, is a narrative seemingly structured around the absence
of its primal cause. Reading this text alongside the circumstances of its
production (which are laid bare in Reports) allows us to analyse its ostensible
narrative concerns in light of the economic pretext for Brown’s expedition. In
this way we can more fully appreciate how his writings (in one case overtly,
and in the other through displacement, evasion, and willed absence) reveal
the connections between narrative-making and environment-making in the
capitalist world-ecology.
As Sharae Deckard explains, the capitalist world-ecology can be understood
as ‘a thoroughly differentiated physical environment divided between zones
of production in cores and peripheries, in which peripheral environments
endure intensified resource extraction, waste outsourcing, and environmental
degradation’ (2012, 8). The gold prospecting project which underwrites Canoe
and Camp Life is itself testament to the intensified degradation of peripheral
zones under capitalist imperialism, and it follows that adopting a world-
ecology perspective pulls the writings of Brown into sharper focus. The
geological work undertaken by the crew in the interior – charting, surveying,
prospecting, speculating – can easily be understood as part of a process of
environment-making, ‘the ever-changing, interpenetrating, and interchanging
dialectic of humans and environments in historical change’ (Moore, 2013,
7). But Brown’s textual work, too – his aesthetic practice in the case of both
Reports and Canoe and Camp Life – must also be grasped as constitutively
implicated in this process of environment-making. It too is a part of the
‘interchanging dialectic of humans and environments in historical change’.
The ethnography and epistemology of empire operative in Brown’s texts
are forms of knowledge-production that contribute to transforming human
and extra-human natures into easily quantifiable and accessible ‘resources’
to be exploited in the interests of imperialist expansion. Narrative-making
is as much a process of environment-making as establishing mining camps,
panning rivers, or scouring rocks for gold; and thus understood is an integral
part of the reshaping of ‘global natures in a way favorable to the endless
accumulation of capital’ (2013, 6).

Mining and Mastery

Prospecting and Hunting: Missing the Moment, Missing the Mark

Given his primary role as agent of extractive industry, the timing of his arrival
in British Guiana (and the time-scale of his subsequent work) could hardly have
been less fortuitous for the gold-seeker Brown. The surveys undertaken with
Sawkins, which began in November 1867 and continued until June 1870, neatly
bisect the two gold rushes in British Guiana at the end of the nineteenth
century. Brown and his party arrive too late for the rush of 1863/4 on the
Mazaruni river, and the speculative assessments of his reports fail to predict
the major, nationwide boom which began in the early 1880s and peaked in
1893 (Colchester, 1997, 62).
The sense of missing the moment is palpable in Brown’s accounts of the
lack of gold in the interior. In the ‘General Report on the Economic Geology of
British Guiana’ , which serves as part of the introductory section to Reports on
the Physical, Descriptive, and Economic Geology of British Guiana, the subsection
on gold is, unsurprisingly, the largest single mineral entry (1875, 21–22). This
subsection opens by referencing both Ralegh and Schomburgk and continues
by remarking on the paucity of yield in previous extractive endeavours and the
absence of riches in general:
There is a cataract above Ouropocari bearing the Indian name of Caricurie,
which means gold. It did not receive this name on account of gold being
found at the spot […]. During my travels over all parts of the interior I never
met any Indians wearing gold ornaments, nor ever had any gold shown to
me by them; but whenever I questioned them as to whether it existed in
their neighbourhoods, they always answered in the negative. (Brown and
Sawkins, 1875, 22)
Indeed, as related in the second chapter of Canoe and Camp Life, when Brown’s
crew do stay for several days at ‘Gold Mine’ (a location so named as the
Demerara Gold Mining Company had previously taken up residence), the
ruined shell of dilapidated buildings overgrown with vegetation serve only to
provide the space and opportunity for barbecues and pipe-smoking. In this
episode, one of the very few in Canoe and Camp Life directly to reference gold,
Brown is only able to discern ‘minute lines and specks of gold’ in the rocks
overhead, and obtain, ‘on washing the sand and gravel […] a few minute grains
of gold’ (1876, 13). The emphasis on decay, abandonment, and decline all
speak to the conjuring of a golden age for prospecting, now past, a narrative
move which connects this moment in the diaries to the summary presented
in Reports which emphasizes the inaccessibility of the deposits such as they
are (1875, 36–41).4

4 Brown’s report here of mineral deficiency and the deterioration of mining

conditions, when set alongside the narrative tone of Canoe and Camp Life, which
foregrounds a sense of decline, can be seen as, paradoxically, both myopic and
prognostic. While the report misses the imminent boom of the following decade,

Chris Campbell

The individual reports from expeditions in the following years, compiled

by Sawkins and Brown, continue in the vein of the earliest one, emphasizing
paucity. James Sawkins notes, for instance, how in 1868 at the Pyuca falls
on the Puruni river ‘no gold, could be discovered’ even ‘with the aid of a
strong magnifying power’ (1875, 48). Later still in 1869, in ‘Report No.7’,
which covers the Rewa and Quitaro rivers and the land up to the Rupununi,
Brown concludes: ‘In all this district examined there does not appear to be
any mineral of sufficient value or in such quantities as to be ever turned to
account. I have repeatedly washed in likely-looking spots for gold, but was
never rewarded by finding a single grain’ (107).
Brown and Sawkins palpably missing the golden moment in British Guiana
illuminates another elusive quarry in Canoe and Camp Life. In a compelling
subplot to his diary account, Brown documents a fascination – bordering
on obsession – with the largest cat of the rainforest, the jaguar. It is no real
surprise to see such a thread interwoven into Brown’s account: as John M.
Mackenzie has shown, the connections between hunting, natural history, and
imperialism run deep. Natural history and its taxonomic imperatives were very
much part of an imperial impulse: ‘the colonial frontier was also a hunting
frontier and the animal resource contributed to the expansionist urge […]
while in the high noon of empire hunting became a ritualised and occasionally
spectacular display of white dominance’ (Mackenzie, 1997, 36).
As I have demonstrated, the narrative of Canoe and Camp Life works hard
to obscure the search for gold in the interior, so central to the Reports; and it
does this partly through providing, in its place, textual space for the tale of
Brown’s hunt for the jaguar. What dominates is not the Royal Geographical
Society’s imperative of prospecting for empire, but rather a transcription
of that imperial impulse of the individual hunter in hostile lands. Brown’s
expedition may serve as something of an exercise in wholesale hunting –
numerous beasts and birds are trapped, shot, drugged, and stuffed as the
crew traverse the river-courses – but it is the jaguar that is afforded pride of
place. While the mission as a whole makes much use of its capacity for the
process of natural historical collection (the pot-shots taken at otters, the
killing of an alligator with a geological hammer, and so on), what dominates is
Brown’s account of the heroic struggle (as he casts it) between an expedition
leader and the interior’s dominant feline predator.
However, despite this singular obsession on the part of Brown, it is largely,
and for a long time, only through rumour and slight traces that the beast
itself makes its presence felt in the text. It becomes, in effect, rather like
the gold deposits, a palpable and pivotal absence. Brown is desperate to get
the jaguar in his sights, but it is long after paw-prints are first seen in the

it does appear to register, unwittingly, the swansong of the British regime of

accumulation (its ‘signal crisis’ precipitated by the Great Depression of 1873–96),
the third of four systemic cycles of accumulation in the capitalist world-economy
(Arrighi, 1994, 221).

Mining and Mastery

mud that he gets the chance. This desire forms one of the more absorbing
narrative threads of the book. Before Brown is afforded a glimpse of the cat,
he: mistakenly believes he has heard one; witnesses the playing of the Macusi
bone-flute, crafted from a jaguar’s thigh bone; meets a seriously injured
survivor of an attack; and spends time in the house of a veteran jaguar hunter.
The climax of this artful thread of narrative suspense is Brown’s bathetic
account of the five jaguars he does encounter and his unsuccessful attempts
to hunt them. Here, the account hovers between frustrated despair and a hint
of self-deprecating humour as Brown blames failure on everything from the
rocking of the boat, the poor quality of his firearms, ‘over anxiety’, and the
‘tenacity of life’ displayed by a couple of the cats as they doggedly refuse to
collapse at the water’s edge for his benefit.5
The displaced narrative of the search for auriferous rocks appears, then,
to be merely replaced by the narrative of an equally unsuccessful hunt for
the jaguar. And in this sense Brown’s Canoe and Camp Life seems hardly to
conform to the standards of a spectacular textual display of white dominance.
However, it is possible to see in Brown’s tracking of the jaguar another way
in which the text encodes racial mastery. Rather than scripting the hunter’s
authority through a depiction of the kill, Brown claims affinity with his
quarry. In this neat narrative move, the failure of the hunter becomes a way in
which to praise the guile and superiority of the prey, pointing to its position
as the noble and exalted beast of the bush. Following this gesture, it then
becomes possible, if not entirely plausible, for Brown to elaborate a peculiar
sense of identification with the jaguar in which both the large cat and the
European leader of the colonial expedition appear at the top of the food
chain. This one-sided elective affinity that Brown strikes up with the jaguar
is demonstrated, for instance, as he reflects on hearing the ‘sweet’ song
between two jaguars from his hammock at night. Brown comments: ‘One was
near our camp, but the other far off; and they kept up their conversation for
a long time. The low deep notes of the call of the nearer one seemed to make
the air quiver and vibrate. It was no doubt a grand sound, with a true noble
ring in it’ (1876, 252). Thus, paradoxically, as one predator admiring another,
Brown is able to bask in the reflected glory of the very survival and escape
of the jaguar he had, until this point, been cursing emphatically. Brown’s
imagined affinity with his putative prey throws the ethnographic nature of his
reflections on the human communities he encounters into sharp relief.

5 In 2008, the BBC television series Lost Land of the Jaguar provided another narrative
of expedition into the Guyanese interior; it seemed curiously to mirror the formal
organization of Brown’s Canoe and Camp Life. This series too had Kaieteur as its
centrepiece and utilised, as its underpinning premise, the quest for a sight of the
elusive jaguar. In this instance, the objective was also only fully realised at the
conclusion to the series. This may seem an incidental example, but it is perhaps
illustrative of the continuing power of certain tropes in the documentation of
Guyanese nature.

Chris Campbell

Ethnography, Development, Violence

It is my contention that Brown’s presence in the Guyanese bush is not only

emblematic of the predating hand of British colonialism, but also that his
activities, and the ethnographic representations in Canoe and Camp Life, in
generating and legitimizing systems of knowledge, contribute to processes of
capitalist environment-making. The racialized discourse of Brown’s account –
particularly evident when depicting the Amerindian people of the Guyanese
interior – demonstrates a specific instance whereby the process of accumu-
lation and the production of nature can be seen to also produce racial orders.
It is possible to understand the sense of racial mastery, which underwrites
Brown’s text, as inextricably tied to the process of plunder and the toxifi-
cation of the landscape.
Much important scholarship, focusing on the history of the Caribbean
region, has demonstrated the causal links between capitalist imperialism and
the development of racism (Williams, 1944; Blackburn, 1997). Helen Scott,
moreover, examines the dialectical relationship between the economic and the
ideological roots of racism: the new systems of production (plantation slavery
and the primitive accumulation of capital in the colonies) and the ‘possessive
individualism’ which arose from the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries (2004, 169). Following from this, I want to suggest
that reading Brown’s writing of the 1870s allows us more fully to comprehend
how racial orders and racism can be seen as environmental history. As Moore
observes, ‘“race” and “ecology” are not independent processes that just
happened to interact; they made each other’ (2011, 52). Thus, in seeing ‘race’
and ‘ecology’ as mutually constitutive, and in understanding that race relations
emerge through the transformation of human and extra-human natures, we are
better able to tie those moments of the scripting of racial mastery in Canoe
and Camp Life to the processes and deleterious effects of mineral extraction.
Nowhere in the text is this understanding of systems of knowledge as
environmental history more in evidence than in Brown’s treatment of, and
fascination with, kanaimà, ‘a central ethnographic fact of the lives of the
people of the Guyana Highlands’. This is, as Whitehead elucidates, a profoundly
complex issue operating simultaneously at a number of levels. Kanaimà can
refer ‘to both a mode of ritual mutilation and killing and to its practitioners.
The term can also allude to a more diffuse idea of active spiritual malignancy’
(Whitehead, 2002a, 1). It operates therefore as a multifaceted and pervasive
discourse which incorporates both the practice of assault sorcery and the
dynamics of the spirit world, and which registers familial, local, and regional
rivalries and the ‘suspicions of distant enemies and outsiders’ (2002a, 1).
Whitehead’s study reveals how the exoticization of kanaimà in colonial texts
about Guyana has a long history, of which Brown’s writing is a part. Indeed,
Canoe and Camp Life betrays a peculiar authorial fascination with the discourse
of kanaimà. The narrative includes several descriptions of encounters with
individuals whom appear to be suffering the effects of attacks. The man, who

Mining and Mastery

had been ‘worn away to a mere skeleton, the effects, he said, of some poison
secretly administered by an enemy’, elicits from Brown speculation on the
morality of kanaimà justice: ‘[h]is eyes were large and preternaturally bright,
and it cut one to the heart to see a fine young fellow like that lying patiently
awaiting his early doom at the hand of the most cowardly of all murderers, the
Kanaima or secret poisoner’ (1876, 24). Other encounters with both potential
victims, potential kanaimàs, or those out to hunt them down, occur regularly
through the text, serving as something of a narrative refrain, an organizing
trope upon which Brown’s ethnographic assessments and musings hang.
Whitehead reads Brown’s accounts in Canoe and Camp Life as significant as
they exemplify the tendency to overemphasize the judicial at the expense of
considering the wider cosmological aspects of kanaimà discourse (Whitehead,
2002a, 43). Brown presents kanaimà as a ‘system of poisoning, amongst
people who have no protective laws, prevents the strong from oppressing the
weak, but works badly in every other way’ (Brown, 1876, 97). It becomes then
easy to see how – through limited interaction and partial comprehension of
shamanic practice as much as any willed misinterpretation – the racial mastery
that Brown scripts feeds into a longer narrative history of kanaimà, which was
‘clearly misrepresented in colonial sources in ways which enabled the progress
of colonial administration, primarily through missionary evangelism but also
through the imposition of colonial legal codes’ (45).
However, from a world-ecological perspective, what is most illuminating in
Whitehead’s study is not his textual analysis of Brown’s Canoe and Camp Life,
but rather the profound connection that he draws out between the processes
of kanaimà and those of global capitalism in Guyana. The violent manifes-
tation of kanaimà as a form of cultural expression, he contends, is ‘mimetically
linked to the violence of economic and political “development”’. The repeated
‘florescence’ of kanaimà at peak moments of development in the highlands
runs from the arrival of sixteenth-century colonial agents and missionaries
through to the new prophets of development who, from the 1980s until the
present, have been drawn to the territory by renewed activity in the gold
and diamond mining industries (130–32). The casual violence of the mining
frontier, constellated with bouts of state violence in the interior, serves to
foster the continuing relevance of kanaimà, and works to tie, to some degree
causally, the successive iterations of plunder in the forest to the very cultural
practices its agents are beguiled by, and in turn exoticize and mystify in their
In Brown’s case, the tales of kanaimà or ‘the secret poisoner’ (24) help
to establish a narrative refrain of poisonous imperilment, underscoring the
hostility of the bush. Tales of the inhospitable tropical climate, voracious
insects, and the ever-present spectre of disease are, of course, staples of the
sort of exploration narrative that Brown’s ‘musings’ aspire to, and, as so often
is the case, are deployed primarily to cast light on the heroic endeavours of
those who brave them. Brown’s detailing of the uses of various vegetative
materials, which, under specific circumstances have poisonous properties,

Chris Campbell

works up to something of an authorial fixation with the role of the poisonous

within Akawaoi life. We are provided with a series of vignettes in the text
through which Brown depicts the processes of preparing cassava to render
it ‘innocuous’ and techniques of fishing, which also use the poison acquired
from ‘Haiarie roots’:
Three canoes, containing the juice of six bundles of Haiarie, were taken
to the upper end of the enclosure, and the subtle poison discharged from
them. It was borne down by the slight current, and mingled rapidly with the
pure dark water […] It was the most exciting scene for a time, as the Indians
shot arrow after arrow into the bewildering dying fish […] victims of Indian
prowess and poison. During the whole proceeding I stood on the rocks at
the upper end of the pool and had a fine view of the scene, the finest part
of which was to see the naked savage, in all his glory, drawing his bow with
strength and ease and letting fly his arrows with unerring aim. (42)
The representation of kanaimà attacks, cassava preparation, and fishing
techniques in Canoe and Camp Life operate to signal, reductively, an over-riding
sense of the ubiquitous, everyday deadliness of British Guiana. Brown’s
narrative deploys this sense of quotidian danger in order to make a de facto
case for the necessity and desirability of continued and expanded capitalist
development. By, first, repeatedly emphasizing the dangers of the poisonous,
and then, by following such description with attention to processes of purging
and purifying (for instance, in the subsistence practices and food culture
of the Guyanese highlands), Brown’s narrative articulates a strategy that
advocates the need for ‘cleansing’ and ‘improvement’ (1876, 20). This is linked
to his vision of the role of British mining interests, on the one hand (the
Royal Geographic Society imperative seen as an attempt to turn base rocks
into gold, perhaps), and, on the other – and as the passage above illustrates
through its casual employment of the rhetoric of imperial enlightenment for
the savage – the authority and order brought to bear by the white European
male in the bush.
Turning to another example, we might read Brown’s accounts of further
aspects of Amerindian life in a similar way. On expedition up the Mazaruni in
1868, the same trip on which Brown recounts his witnessing of fishing with
haiarie poison, we again see his interpretation of Amerindian folk culture
underwritten by assumptions of the violence of the non-developed bush.
Returning from the Peaimah fall, Brown’s crew is spooked by noises in the
night, ‘at which some of the men exclaimed in an awed tone of voice, “The
Didi”’. Brown continues by explaining that ‘“The Didi” is said by the Indians
to be a short, thick set, and powerful wild man, whose body is covered with
hair’ and how some years later he encountered a woodcutter who related his
experience of resisting a frenzied attack by two such creatures (1876, 61).
Brown’s disregard for the story which ‘requires to be taken with a very large
grain of salt’ is instructive, providing a telling example of the writer positioning
himself as an ordered mind in the chaotic bush. Such a strange coupling of

Mining and Mastery

authorial fascination and dismissal exemplifies the white mastery embodied

in agents of development. Here, mastery is set against the irrationality and
mendacity of the ‘half-bred woodcutter’: indeed, the distinction, encapsulated
in the ‘half-bred’, is made to bear both racial and civilizational weight by
Brown. Moreover, Brown’s paradoxical fascination with and rejection of the
Didi tales is unconsciously symptomatic of his own role as surveyor and
prospector for British interests. It becomes possible to read the violence
attributed to the Didi in the same way as his preoccupation with the violence
of kanaimà, which, as Michael Niblett has argued, acts as an unconscious
projection of the inherent violence of Brown’s own presence. Such a fascination
stands ‘as a displaced expression of the devastating consequences of colonial
intrusion into the interior, from which [Brown’s] own surveying mission was
inextricable’ (Niblett, n.d.). Read in this way, the violence Brown attributes
to the undeveloped space of the interior, here embodied by the figure of the
frenzied Didi, and which is, of course, a projection of the violence of colonial
intrusion, actually becomes, at a stroke, the very justification for the need for
intrusion and development in the first place.
Brown’s ethnographic musings here demonstrate that processes of
capitalist intrusion into the interior and epistemologies of racial mastery are
mutually constitutive. Such examples, which litter the narrative, provide an
illustration of the emergence of specific race relations through the transfor-
mation of human and extra-human natures. A defining, structuring element in
the author’s account of his time in the interior of British Guiana is the strategic
narration of episodes which enable Brown to portray himself as judicial arbiter
and as a source of social or cultural authority. Brown frequently has recourse
to relate moments where appeals are made to him, as leader of the Royal
Geographical Society expedition, to intervene and pronounce judgement
during local disputes (48). In relating these, emphasizing the figure of the
white male as bearer of reason, deliberation, and executive power, Canoe
and Camp Life offers a narrative counterpoint to the somewhat nebulous
depiction of imperilment that surrounds the expeditions. Brown’s narration
of these episodes, on the one hand, serves to illustrate the importance that
he attributes to his perceived role as master of all he surveys, and yet, on the
other, it also reveals an anxiety about that assumption of domination. Brown
attempts to navigate a series of narrative anchor points, which represent an
attempt to insist that the world around him can be organized as he sees fit,
while the overwhelming current of the rest of his account works to pull his
readers in the opposite direction.
Whatever Brown’s narrative may reveal about the anxiety over his own
position of domination in its structural design, the text quite clearly also
foregrounds the anxiety at his arrival which grips many of the communities
he visits. In relating these episodes we see, once more and most clearly,
the way in which Canoe and Camp Life demonstrates the reciprocally shaping
processes of the discourse of racial mastery and the prosecutions of the Royal
Geographic Society surveyor. Whether it is a fear of enslavement at European

Chris Campbell

hands, or concern that his arrival heralds a reconfiguration of the contours of

the land itself, the arrival of Brown and his crew is frequently read as heralding
catastrophe. For instance, the reaction at the village of Waipah reveals:
it was currently reported amongst the surrounding inhabitants that now
that a white man had come amongst them, their country would sink under
water and other misfortunes would befall them. Geologists have shown
that large areas of country are being depressed, but this is the first time
that a geologist has been accused of being the cause of such a sinking
process. They seemed rather downhearted about the expected loss of their
country, so to cheer them up I got the interpreter to tell them that nothing
of the sort would follow our harmless visit … They admitted the force of my
argument, but nevertheless remained of their own opinion. They said they
had heard of my being at Kaieteur fall; of my going under it and coming out
‘at the other side’, which was really news to me. (194)
Brown’s flippancy in dismissing the fear that he represents a diluvian force
that could carry away the Patamuna may, to us, seem misplaced. While he
uses this instance of fear at his approach to meditate on his own powers of
reason in contradistinction to the irrationality of his hosts, and to comment
on the legendary status granted him as the first white man to see Kaieteur, the
history of the very real and radical transformation of human and extra-human
natures in Guyana goes unremarked upon. The Patamuna villagers’ evocation
of a ‘sinking’ country not only calls to mind the work of that long line of
surveyors in the interior but, also, the racial and class dynamics of the environ-
mental history of Guyana’s coastal plain. As Walter Rodney puts it, under the
whip of Dutch capitalist entrepreneurship, it was slaves who had shifted ‘100
million tons of heavy, water-logged clay with shovel in hand’ in a literal and
littoral remaking of the environment, reclaiming ground from the sea and
mangrove swampland (Rodney, 1981, 3). I quote from Canoe and Camp Life
at some length above not merely to make the point that Brown passes over
the realities of environmental history in favour of cracking a weak profes-
sional joke about causality, superstitious natives, and the power of geological
sciences. But rather, because, I think, it illustrates neatly how his narrative
works to imbricate: the transcription of a sort of discovery discourse (Brown’s
Kaieteur adventure), the ethnographic consolidation of racial hierarchy (the
rational, ironic authorial asides), and the processes of the toxification of the
landscape (surveying, prospecting, and extracting).
The disregard Brown shows for the Patamuna’s fears over the catastrophic
consequences of capitalist development is echoed throughout the course of
Canoe and Camp Life. The book’s opening chapter concludes with a description
of the penal settlement on the Mazaruni which repulses several of Brown’s
crew: ‘most of our Indians would not remain at the Penal Settlement … [they]
are of such timid nature, and have so great a love of freedom, that the very
name of prison sounds terrible in their ears’ (6). Similarly, in the closing pages
of the text, Brown recounts his amusement at the fact that a group of villagers

Mining and Mastery

believe him to be on a slaving mission: ‘after about an hour’s palaver I was

able to do away with all their apprehensions, and show them how foolish
such an idea was’ (272). Brown’s account is bookended in this way by racial
essentialism, which works to obscure the historical memory of two of the
terrible bulwarks of capitalist accumulation – slavery and incarceration, which
between them served to sustain colonial extraction and exploitation in the
New World.

Lost Worlds and Brown’s Literary Legacy

Recalling Nature magazine’s review of 1877, it is worth noting that Brown’s

work in the interior of British Guiana may have a more varied and significant
literary legacy than we might reasonably expect from a ‘book-maker’ of such
limited talents. Indeed, by way of a conclusion, the textual afterlife of Brown’s
writing deserves some mention. We might, of course, think of how Brown
takes his place in that metaleptic queue of European ethnographers and
natural historians (following, amongst others, Ralegh, Waterton, Schomburgk,
and followed by the likes of Everard im Thurn, Evelyn Waugh, Gerald Durrell).
But, we might consider too how Brown has a claim to be an inadvertent
contributor to the establishment of the ‘lost world’ genre of late-nineteenth-
and early-twentieth-century fiction. After all, it was Brown who, in speculating
on the possibility of scaling Mt Roraima, provided a driving force for im
Thurn’s successful ascent in 1884. Im Thurn, in turn, provided the narrative
impetus for Conan Doyle’s novel of 1912, The Lost World (Dalziell, 2002, 144).
Whatever the extent of Brown’s contribution, certainly his work pre-empts
key characteristics of the ‘lost world’ genre. Canoe and Camp Life in British
Guiana is a narrative which is organized around the notion of absence and
inaccessibility. Formally, it is structured around the textual absence of its
primal cause – the Royal Geographical Society’s search for mineral wealth
in the interior. Thematically, the text dramatizes the notion of absence and
loss, making a virtue of opportunities lost to the hunter in the bush in order
to reinforce a sense of racial mastery. Operating at the level of both form and
content, then, this text, in its privileging of evasion, actually circumlocutes
the connected forms of violence (epistemological and developmental) at the
heart of the plunder of the Guyanese interior. In this way, Brown’s writing
must be understood as a significant contribution to the imperial imaginary,
underscoring the paradox of highlighting the inaccessibility of peripheral
territories whilst simultaneously playing a hand in the exploitative reorgani-
zation of human and extra-human natures in those regions. The case of all
of Brown’s work seen together (surveying, prospecting, writing) provides an
illuminating testament to the ways in which knowledge-producing processes,
racial orders, and symbolic life are constitutively implicated in the forms
of environment-making through which the capitalist world-ecology has

Chris Campbell

Works Cited

Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century. London: Verso.

Blackburn, Robin. 1997. The Making of New World Slavery. London: Verso.
Braudel, Fernand. 1982. The Wheels of Commerce. Trans. Siân Reynolds. London: Collins.
Brown, Charles Barrington. 2010 [1876]. Canoe and Camp Life in British Guiana.
Georgetown: The Caribbean Press.
Brown, Charles Barrington, and William Lidstone. 1878. Fifteen Thousand Miles on the
Amazon and its Tributaries. London: Stanford.
Brown, Charles Barrington, and James Sawkins. 1875 Reports on the Physical, Descriptive,
and Economic Geology of British Guiana. London: Stanford.
Burnett, D. Graham. 2000. Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a
British El Dorado. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Colchester, Marcus. 1997. Guyana, Fragile Frontier: Loggers, Miners and Forest Peoples.
London: Latin American Bureau.
Dalziell, Rosamund. 2002. ‘The Curious Case of Sir Everard im Thurn and Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle: Exploration and the Imperial Adventure Novel, The Lost World’. English
Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 45(2): 131–57.
Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World.
2001. London: Verso.
Deckard, Sharae. 2012. ‘Editorial: Reading the World-Ecology’. Green Letters: Studies in
Ecocriticism 16: 1–14.
‘Dutch Guiana Canoe and Camp Life in British Guiana’. 1877. Nature: A Weekly Illustrated
Journal of Science 380(15): 309–28
Mackenzie, John M. 1997. The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British
Imperialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Moore, Jason W. 2007. ‘Silver, Ecology, and the Origins of the Modern World,
1450–1640’. Rethinking Environmental History: World System History and Global
Environmental Change. Eds J. R. McNeill, Joan Martinez-Alier, and Alf Hornborg.
Berkeley, CA: AltaMira Press.
—. 2011. ‘Wall Street is a Way of Organizing Nature’. Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory
and Action 12: 47–61.
—. 2013. ‘From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology’.
w w /uploads/ Moore_ _From_Object_to_Oikeios_ _for_
website__May_2013.pdf. Accessed 27 January 2016.
Niblett, Michael. n.d. ‘Massacouraman and Fair Maid’. unpublished paper. [AQ _02]
‘Obituary: Charles Barrington Brown, Assoc. R.S.M., F.G.S. C. B. B’. 1917. Geological
Magazine 4(5): 235–37.
Richards, Thomas. 1993. The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire.
London: Verso.
Rodney, Walter. 1981. A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1891–1905. Kingston,
Port of Spain, and London: Heinemann.
Scott, Helen. 2004. ‘Was There a Time Before Race? Capitalist Modernity and
the Origins of Racism’. Marxism, Modernity, and Postcolonial Studies. Eds Crystal
Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 167–82
Smith, Herbert H. 1879. Brazil, the Amazons, and the Coast. New York: Scribners.
Stafford, Robert A. 1989. Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, Scientific Exploration
and Victorian Imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, Clive Y. 2012. Guyana: Economic Performance and Outlook (The Recent Scramble for

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Natural Resources).

guyana-economic-performance-and-outlook.pdf. Accessed 27 January 2016.
Whitehead, Neil L. 1997. The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana
by Sir Walter Ralegh. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
—. 2002a. Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press.
—. 2002b ‘South America/Amazonia: The Forest of Marvels’. The Cambridge Companion
to Travel Writing. Eds Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press: 122–38.
Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. Virginia: University of North Carolina Press.

chapter six

Hegemony in Guyana:
REDD-plus and State Control over
Indigenous Peoples and Resources
Janette Bulkan

Janette Bulkan
Hegemony in Guyana

A Brief Political History of Guyana and Democratic Centralism

A bout 90 per cent of Guyana’s population of 770,000 lives on the coastal

plain (9 per cent of the land mass), which was empoldered from swamps
for sugar cane and other tropical crops by African slave labour during the
Dutch colonial period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the
abolition of slavery in 1833, the sugar plantation owners secured replacement
labour from indentured Indians from the subcontinent. The indigenous
Amerindians, no longer needed as a militia to deter and recapture escaped
slaves, withdrew from the coast into the hinterland. Amerindians were
viewed in much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as nations
doomed to either outright extinction by European diseases or, at best, to
assimilation and cultural obliteration as distinct peoples (Bulkan and Bulkan,
2006). A system of reservations was put in place under the Aboriginal Indians
Protection Ordinance (AIPO) of 1902. Neither the revised AIPO of 1910, nor its
successive replacements (the 1951, 1976, and currently the 2006 Amerindian
Act) acknowledged the pre-existing native title of Amerindians to their lands.1
In contrast, Guyana’s Independence Agreement from Britain required the
independent Government to provide legal ownership or rights of occupancy
for Amerindians over ‘areas and reservations or parts thereof where any tribe
or community of Amerindians is now ordinarily resident or settled and other

1 However, the National Development Strategy (NDS) considered Native Title,

and concluded, ‘In sum, the laws and regulations that continue to exist in
Guyana right now suggest that the Government of Guyana has never explicitly
extinguished Amerindian aboriginal title at Common Law’ (Government of
Guyana, 1996/2000, 6).

Hegemony in Guyana

legal rights, such as rights of passage, in respect of any other lands they now
by tradition or custom de facto enjoy freedoms and permissions corresponding
to rights of that nature. In this context, it is intended that legal ownership
shall comprise all rights normally attaching to such ownership’.2 By 2012, 96
of the estimated 160 Amerindian communities had been awarded communal
tenure under the ex gratia terms of the Amerindian Act, covering about 3.1
million hectares (Mha) or 14 per cent of Guyana (Guyana Forestry Commission,
and Indufor, 2013, 13).
Late colonial, and post-independence politics since 1966, have been
typified by a struggle between African Guyanese and East Indian Guyanese.
Consequent on waves of emigration to Canada and the USA, currently half the
citizens of Guyana live outside the country, mostly for economic reasons. The
2002 national census declared that East Indian Guyanese comprised 44 per
cent, African Guyanese 30 per cent, self-declared Mixed race people3 17 per
cent, and Amerindians 9 per cent of the total population. The Government’s
refusal to release the ethnic breakdown of the 2012 national census was
interpreted as confirmation of a drop in East Indian numbers.
During the pre-independence period, the secret services of the UK and
USA, driven by Cold War paranoia, conspired to thwart the pro-Marxist
East Indian-dominated political party from holding state power (Baber and
Jeffrey, 1986; Palmer, 2010). Early post-independence wealth from natural
resources, particularly bauxite, was dissipated by the African-dominated
government (ideologically socialist), which by 1984 claimed to control more
than 80 per cent of the factors of production (Hope, 1985). Nationalization
by a dictatorship and economic mismanagement by untrained civil servants
led to a siege economy, which collapsed on the death of the dictator (Forbes
Burnham) in 1985 (Hintzen, 1989). An IMF-supervised structural adjustment
programme in the late 1980s, in conjunction with the Highly Indebted Poor
Countries (HIPC) debt forgiveness, stabilized the macro economy but the
legacy of tax avoidance and corruption still persists.
The structural adjustment programme was paralleled by an attempt to
introduce democracy to the country. The Carter Center of Georgia, USA,
facilitated the first free and fair elections in 1992. However, the national
constitution developed in 1980 had installed an executive presidency and
made it almost impossible to achieve the desired constitutional reform: the
necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority required for changes to the
constitution remained elusive with the electorate split substantially along
racial lines and no directly elected geographic constituencies.
The Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) that took office in 1992 and retained
the presidency until 2015 practised ‘democratic centralism’, a philosophy

2 Independence Agreement, 1965, Annex C, sect. L; Menezes, 1988, 361–62;

Letwiniuk, 1996, 51.
3 ‘Mixed’ is an official category in Guyana’s decennial censuses; see www.statistic-

Janette Bulkan

which overrode valid legislation and regulations at the direction of Cabinet

members on the grounds that implementing the law would not be in the
national interest. No criteria were ever provided for what that overriding
national interest might be. Parliament – the small and part-time National
Assembly – has limited capacity for debating policies, promoting strategies,
or supervising government agencies. There is no neutral forum for debating
national development policies or strategies. What is more, the PPP Government
and its ghost-writers were all too quick to label people who questioned its
decisions as anti-development, anti-nationalist, and traitors (Kaieteur News,
2010; Ramjattan, 2012).
The official unemployment figure of 10.7 per cent in 2011 is widely
discounted as being too low.4 High unemployment (and underemployment)
rates are a key driver of African male migration, in particular from the coast
into the uncontrolled and expanding alluvial gold mining sector. There is a
corresponding unregulated influx of Brazilian garimpeiros (miners) from the
south. Unsurprisingly, tensions erupt on occasion between Amerindians and
the incoming miners. The Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association
(GGDMA), in turn, has claimed that Amerindians have disproportionate
ownership of land and are treated more leniently by the regulatory agencies. 5
As electoral support from its East Indian base has declined, the PPP is
increasingly reliant on Amerindian votes to remain in power. Inter-ethnic
tensions between African miners and Amerindians are allowed to foment in
a race-based political system. The larger issue is that Guyana has never had
a participatory settlement process to forestall arguments over locations and
boundaries between those communities with customary or legal land rights
and the holders of concession licences for exploitation of natural resources.
The transfer of US$70 million to the Guyana REDD-plus Investment
Fund by April 2011 from the Norwegian commitment of US$250 million
between 2010 and 2015 for a form of REDD-plus6 (Reducing Emissions from
Deforestation and Forest Degradation) in Guyana was equivalent to an
additional 7 per cent to 9 per cent of the declared annual budget (Bulkan,
2011a).7 That windfall provided international endorsement that effectively
muted any domestic opposition. Only one-fifth of the US$70 million had been
disbursed from the Guyana REDD-plus Investment Fund by December 2012 as
the Government of Guyana had not submitted a set of project proposals to
match the US$70 million. Although ‘REDD-plus’ was a misnomer in the case of
the Norway–Guyana scheme, it served to expand the hegemony of the state.

4 ‘The working age population has grown to two thirds of the total population
and approximately 44 percent of these persons are not economically active’
(International Labour Organisation, n.d., 34).
5 Stabroek News, 30 December 2009.
6 The form ‘REDD-plus’ is used in the Norway–Guyana agreement. Internationally,
‘REDD+’ is more commonly used.
7 In 2010, the declared size of the annual budget was US$700 million.

Hegemony in Guyana

This chapter reviews the background to the Norway–Guyana agreement and

considers the role of the indigenous Amerindians at both procedural and
substantive levels.

The Forest Sector

A UK-assisted Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) reform project (1995–2002)

helped to prevent the large-scale issue of logging concessions to transnational
Asians, but it was unable to change the secret Foreign Direct Investment
arrangements essentially written by the inward investors and approved by
the Cabinet, or to halt the continued under-valuation of natural resources and
weak revenue capture (Palmer and Bulkan, 2007; Bulkan and Palmer, 2009).
Promises of on-shore processing of tropical timber for value-added products
have remained mainly unfulfilled, but foreign investors have continued to
claim large tax concessions and exemptions based on those promises (Bulkan,
2013b). Guyana is notorious for having among the lowest forest tax rates
in the world (Thomson, 1994; Hunter, 2001). Entirely contrary to national
policies (Government of Guyana 1996/2000; NFP 1997/2010 [AQ _03]), a high
proportion of the most desirable species and best quality logs are exported
unprocessed to Asian factories (Bulkan, 2012b; 2012c).
The government has not explained why it places such a low value on the
natural forest, or why it allows free export of prime timber. Corruption is a
major feature of Guyanese society, annually shown by the poor ranking in
the corruption perception index of Transparency International (TI) and by
the daily allegations in the independent press. Guyana ranked 124 out of 175
countries surveyed in TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of 2014.
The inherently infertile and geologically ancient soils of the hinterland of
Guyana are not attractive for commercial agriculture, unlike the neighbouring
Amazon Basin (Hammond, 2005). The Amerindians traditionally practise an
ecologically rational rotational slash-and-burn subsistence-level agriculture,
operating from semi-nomadic villages which shift as land needs to be rested
for natural regeneration after cropping. The need for large areas of these
infertile soils to support the moving villages has been recognized in law since
the Mining Act of 1905, in the ‘quiet enjoyment’ clause to protect areas under
customary use and traditional occupation by Amerindians.8
What protects the tropical rainforests of Guyana from more deforestation
is not the weak national forest service (GFC) but the extreme natural infertility
of the hinterland soils. Unlike Brazil or Indonesia, these soils cannot sustain

8 Article 111 in the current Mining Act (cap. 65:01, 1989) has very similar language:
‘All land occupied or used by the Amerindian communities and all land necessary
for the quiet enjoyment by the Amerindians of any Amerindian settlement, shall
be deemed to be lawfully occupied by them’. The ‘quiet enjoyment’ clause is
repeated in Section 208 of the main Mining Regulations of 1972.

Janette Bulkan

more than the rotational subsistence-level agriculture, which is not a major

threat to the forests.
The lobbying for a new stream of forest wealth, which was perceived in
Guyana to be additional to income from logging, began in 2005. President
Jagdeo made an offer at a conference on Caribbean investment in 2006
to place all or most of Guyana’s natural tropical forests under an interna-
tional protection regime in the service of climate change mitigation (Guyana
Chronicle, 2006). He reiterated the proposal at international meetings from
2007, in essence stating that Guyana was willing to place standing forest
under an international forest preservation regime if the country were given
adequate monetary compensation, development aid, and technical assistance
to change to an (undefined) green economy (Howden and Brown, 2007). The
President’s various offers were vague in that they appeared to cover some of,
or most of, or the entirety of forests on state lands, some 15.9 Mha. Requests
for clarification about the nature of the offers were never answered (Global
Witness, 2009). There had been no public discussions of the President’s
offer prior to his announcement. This announcement was a repeat of the
unilateral offer of 360,000 ha of State Forests to the international community
– later, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and
Development – made by the previous ruling political party in 1989. In short,
the autocratic approach to the country’s patrimony had not varied from one
political party to the other.
President Jagdeo neglected to mention at the international meetings that
over half of the supposedly ‘pristine’ State Forests were subject to legally
awarded concessions for mining and logging (Guyana Chronicle, 2009a). At the
same time, the government assured that logging and mineral mining would
continue in the State Forests being offered for climate change mitigation
(Guyana Chronicle, 2009b). The Guyana proposal did not therefore fit with the
REDD mechanism – the underlying premise of REDD is that forest carbon
emitters would not be permitted to continue with the ‘business as usual’
of deforestation. In the case of Norway and Guyana, the two governments
resorted to various stratagems in order to keep up the pretence that it
was not ‘business as usual’. The baseline reference level of deforestation
was adjusted, as were consultancy reports that claimed that Guyana had
maintained 99.5 per cent of its forests, even as uncontrolled mining and
logging were increasing (Jagdeo, 2012; Norway’s Royal Ministry of the
Environment, 2012).

Hegemony in Guyana

The Nature of the REDD Bargain

The basic bargain of REDD is:

The seller of the ecosystem service reduces emissions of forest carbon from
deforestation and forest degradation.
The buyer of the ecosystem service (in effect, those saved emissions) and
the seller together arrange for independent verification that the claimed
reductions have actually taken place. In addition, the parties check jointly
that the emissions have not leaked to other locations and are relatively
permanent. For REDD-plus, the reduction in emissions is associated with
conservation of biodiversity and sustainable forest management, and
measures to ensure that livelihoods negatively affected by the reductions
are appropriately and justly compensated.
The buyer purchases the saved emissions in the form of credits from the
seller through a transparent and standardized process previously developed
and independently governed and monitored. (Angelsen, et al., 2009)
In spite of the low threat of deforestation, the original proposal developed
for President Jagdeo by the consultants McKinsey & Company was based on
the idea that Guyana could benefit from international funding for Avoided
Deforestation (OP, 2008). This was a ‘straw man’ argument, in the sense that
the proposal developed a fantastical scenario for deforestation which lacked
credibility. This report, which was published without prior public discussion,
proposed two new valuations of the hinterland resources of Guyana. The
first valuation was the Economic Value to the World (EVW), consisting
principally of the ecosystem services derived from the forests of Guyana,
with a focus on carbon. The methodology drew on previous McKinsey work
on the cost-curve for marginal abatement of carbon (McKinsey & Company,
The second estimate was the Economic Value to the Nation (EVN). The
EVN was calculated according to a supposedly ‘economically rational’ use
of Guyana’s forest resources. This scenario would then be used as a baseline
to rate actual progress in avoiding deforestation. However, the scenario
developed by McKinsey was unrealistic, like previous work by McKinsey on
forest carbon (Osborne and Kiker, 2005; Dyer and Counsell, 2010; Greenpeace,
2011). The scenario was based on the destructive logging and mining of 90 per
cent of the natural tropical forests of the country, then estimated as 15.1 Mha,
followed by clearance at a rate of 630,000 ha/year for 25 years. After clearance
the hilly land would be planted to oil palm and the undulating land to rice.
This would equate to a 4.3 per cent annual deforestation rate, when the
actual and historical baseline deforestation rate was believed at that time to
be approximately 0.3 per cent. McKinsey estimated a range of annual national
incomes from such activities with a median value of US$580 million, based
on a 10 per cent annual annuity. That was the figure that President Jagdeo

Janette Bulkan

used at international meetings during 2009 as a target for donor funding to

compensate Guyana for leaving the forest standing.
The McKinsey-derived report failed to mention the extreme infertility of
the hinterland soils of Guyana, the absence of deforestation for agriculture
during the 400 years of European colonization, and the prevalence of shifting
agriculture as the ecologically rational subsistence-level mode for the small
and semi-nomadic Amerindian settlements. McKinsey evidently also failed
to notice that there were no agronomic trials by the National Agriculture
Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) of the cropping systems proposed
in the report.
The President’s 2008 report could be seen as, in effect, a veiled threat
of deforestation: although this was denied by the President (OP, 2008, 1;
2009/2010, 13). In June 2009, Jagdeo used the McKinsey study to develop
a series of coastland-focused conventional development projects which he
labelled collectively as the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) (OP,
2009). The LCDS was developed within the President’s own Office and not
through a public strategy development process.
The proposed LCDS projects, to be funded by the aforementioned annual
US$580 million from external sources, were organized in six sectors: fruits
and vegetables, aquaculture, sustainable forestry and wood processing,
business-process outsourcing (that is, call centre work), eco-tourism, and
bio-ethanol. The minutes of the LCDS multi-stakeholder steering committee
(MSSC) (convened and chaired by the President from June 2009) showed no
discussion of these projects, their justifications or economics, nor discussion
of the priorities between or within the six sectors. The proposed projects
appear to be quite conventional for national development, some of them
appropriate to the natural and human resources of Guyana, but they have no
obvious connection to a low-carbon or de-carbonized economy. As a conven-
tional national development strategy the projects are focused on where the
bulk of the population and the economy is located – on the coastal plain,
far from the forests. The indigenous Amerindians were expected to play no
part in the schemes. In the LCDS drafts, most of the proposed projects were
covered by no more than a single paragraph of justification. Even the US$650
million Amaila Falls hydroelectric dam was described by only a little more
than a page in draft three of the LCDS, dated May 2010. In light of this, it is
possible to contend that the entire process was a pantomime, and the partici-
pating governments and the supporting cast of international bureaucrats and
consultants were all complicit in the performance.

Norway’s Vision for a Global Model for REDD-plus

In April 2007, Norway pledged that it would become carbon neutral by 2050.
Less than a year later, the government of Norway brought forward the date
for achieving carbon neutrality to 2030. Norway’s strategy included the

Hegemony in Guyana

purchasing of carbon credits internationally. There was no lack of multilateral

and bilateral partners, all supported by keen consultancy firms, ready to
help Norway realize its ambition. Norway’s ambition expanded to include
building a global model of how REDD-plus might work across all countries,
with high or low forest cover and high or low rates of deforestation (Jagdeo,
2012). Norway’s Memorandum of Understanding 2009 with Guyana was a
component of that model.
Guyana fits the profile of a highly forested, low-deforesting country, in which
84 per cent of the total forest area (15.5 Mha of 18.39 Mha) are administered
by the state (GFC, and Indufor, 2013, v). However, the monitoring of Guyana’s
compliance with procedural, governance, and substantive conditions of the
Memorandum of Understanding and its associated Joint Concept Note is done
via short-term contracts awarded to external consultancy firms. This model
of auditing, linked securely to the state agencies in Guyana, has not produced
credible results. However, neither the Government of Guyana nor that of
Norway was interested in robust processes. Such a process already existed in
Guyana’s National Development Strategy that had laid the outlines of a social
contract for sustainable development.

The Failure to Implement the National Development Strategy

The most collaborative and arguably most successful policy development

process in Guyana since Independence was the formulation of the National
Development Strategy (NDS) in 1995/96. Moderated by The Carter Center, a
vast amount of recorded and oral knowledge was synthesized into coherent
sectoral strategies. The process had involved over 200 informed persons,
drawn from government, business, indigenous leaders, and civil society, and
was welcomed nationally as providing a non-partisan road map. It is generally
agreed that the NDS process was free from overt political pressures and
represented a real national consensus. President Cheddi Jagan, who had
championed it, died shortly after its launch in 1997, after which it was left to
gather dust. A much-reduced version was issued (without public consultation)
in 2001 and was also ignored.

The NDS and Amerindian Development Priorities

The approximately 78,000 indigenous Amerindians sparsely occupy the

hinterlands, mainly the interior savannas and highlands. Although nucleating
around schools and health posts, the Amerindians still practise a mainly
subsistence level rotational agriculture with a low impact on forests.
Amerindian issues were dealt with comprehensively in the Amerindian
Chapter (22) in the NDS 1996. Foremost was the reiterated call for settlement
of Amerindian land rights that had been a condition of the country’s

Janette Bulkan

Independence Agreement of 1965. The chapter recommended recognition

that untitled Amerindian communities, located on customary lands, were also
on lands ‘lawfully occupied’ as set out in the Mining Act 1989, and therefore
eligible to be covered by the protections for indigenous communities in that
Act. Chapter 22 further recommended that Amerindian communal land title
needed to include the sections of rivers that flowed through their titled lands
in order to forestall and/or regulate the award of river or riverbank mining
licences in those areas. Other recommendations were for improvements in the
delivery of education, health, and other social services in Amerindian areas,
and support for internal governance.
Chapter 22 was shortened to less than one-third of its original length –
from 43 to 13 pages – in the NDS of 2001. The sections detailing Amerindian
rights were excised. The updated version placed more focus on the actions
of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, less on the agency of the Amerindians
themselves, which had been a key feature of the 1996 version. By 2001, the
negative externalities that result from the expanding and uncontrolled logging
and mining sectors were being disproportionately borne by Amerindian
communities. By that date also, the adverse consequences for Amerindians
of the state’s failure to implement a national land use planning process
had intensified and would only worsen. However, the Guyana government’s
strategy was already shifting to favouring political party allegiance as a
precondition of favourable treatment. Amerindians were principally viewed as
potential election fodder by the ruling party, to be rewarded or disciplined in
line with their political choices at the ballot box (Electoral Assistance Bureau,
2007; 2012).

The Monitoring of Land-Use under the Norway–Guyana Agreement

Norway currently insists on annual estimates of current deforestation during

the period of the Memorandum of Understanding (November 2009–15). As
much of Guyana is cloud-covered for a considerable part of the year, and
rainfall is tropical, bi-modal, and heavy, it is difficult to obtain the kind of
public-domain satellite imagery which is suitable for detecting relatively
minute changes in forest cover dispersed across the landscape (as noted
earlier, there is no large-scale clearing for commercial or peasant agriculture,
nor for industrial-scale mining).
Under the Norway–Guyana Memorandum of Understanding, the
monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) consultants deal with the GFC
–a state agency and the designated partner. There was not even the pretence
of a public consultation process about monitoring; only the occasional, terse
minutes from a small steering committee. The first report was compiled
initially by Poyry New Zealand (2010–11) with verifications by Det Norske
Veritas and the University of Durham in 2010–11. The verification reports
were compiled with little or no public consultation about methods, data

Hegemony in Guyana

sources, or the analytical methods needed to avoid the previous problems of

persistent cloud cover and statistical estimation. MRV was principally done
from satellite data sets, with very limited ground truthing.
Assessments for forest/non-forest cover for 2010–11 and 2012 were
contracted to Indufor Pacific (GFC, and Indufor, 2012; 2013 [AQ _04]). The
selected combination of satellite sensor and frequency band did not detect
reliably what is forest and what is non-forest, according to ground checks
in some areas by a community-centred MRV project coordinated by the
Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme.9 Indufor repeated the error of Poyry
New Zealand in 2010 of not using the prime data sources – the maps of logging
concessions and logging blocks, and the mining licences and dredge locations.
Indufor Asia Pacific allowed only a three-week period during June to July 2012
for public comments on 285 technical pages.10 Pilots and regular passengers
on internal airlines have reported notable increases in damage from mining –
deforestation and river turbidity – proportionate to the increases in the gold
price. Declared gold production increased by 68 per cent between 2008 and
2012 (from 260,000 in 2008 to 363,000 in 2011 and to 439,000 Troy oz. in
2012). As nearly all of the mining is carried out using the same crude hydraulic
methods, the amount of gold produced is proportionate to the number of
persons employed. It seems fair to estimate therefore that, by 2012, over
150,000 persons were dependent on the proceeds of gold mining, up from the
90,000 persons or one-seventh of the population estimated in 2008 (Thomas,
2009, 13). In its 2013 report, Indufor reported an increase in deforestation
of 44 per cent attributed to gold mining, reversing its declaration that
deforestation from mining had decreased in 2010 and 2011 (GFC, and Indufor,
2013). There was minimal verification by the consultancy companies of the
information presented by the government agencies.
No summaries of these evaluation reports in culturally appropriate
formats or languages were issued to civil society, indigenous Amerindians,
gold miners, or loggers. This striking disregard for local stakeholders also
runs contrary to the terms and spirit of the Norway–Guyana Memorandum
of Understanding.

The Lack of Land-Use Planning and the Impact on Amerindian


In the decade and a half following the launch of the NDS in 1996, Amerindian
development priorities have included settlement of land issues – linked to
reform of the Amerindian Act 2006 – education, governance, and employment
issues, and insistence on the need for application of laws and regulations on the

9 See
and-verification-know-how-sharing-knowledge-from. [AQ _17]
10 See

Janette Bulkan

uncontrolled natural resource extractive sectors that by then dominated the

hinterland. By the time the Norway–Guyana Memorandum of Understanding
was signed in November 2009, of the 12.9 Mha of gazetted State Forests
(GFC, 2010), 6.1 Mha were under logging concession and approximately 5
Mha of forest were under partly overlapping mining licences. Although most
of the logging and mining concessions are located in and around Amerindian
lands, there is still no structured process that brings together these separate
constituencies for discussion or negotiation.
In the case of the resurgent gold mining sector, the Guyana Geology
and Mines Commission (GGMC) continued improperly to award mining
licences, disregarding the legal requirements for prior environmental permits
and environmental impact assessment (EIA) before gold mining.11 Mining
concessions cover land and rivers in close proximity to Amerindian villages,
and in some cases overlap the areas under Amerindian communal title. The
widespread non-compliance with environmental regulations by mining outfits
has resulted in environmental and social devastation: chief among these are
the turbidity and siltation of rivers and mercury methylization leading to
contaminated fish in waters flowing through Amerindian village lands. The
cumulative effects of high- impact hydraulic mining on the rivers that form
the living arteries of community life result in: the increasing transmission of
water-borne diseases including typhoid; increases in malaria; the inflationary
effects of the mining economy; and the weakening of traditional governance
structures. The miners move on when an area is worked out, but the effects
of mercury and other forms of environmental pollution are long and insidious
(Bulkan, 2013a).
At the same time, a significant proportion of Amerindians are also involved
in mining, thereby contributing to the negatives outlined above. Wealth
gained by the few who have struck it rich has led to fissures among families
in many communities. These divisions militate against any shared community
consensus on mining issues. Some other Amerindian communities, located
outside of the mining districts, have taken advantage of the opportunities for
supplying food and services to the mining sector. For example, in the mining
areas there is unfilled demand for farine, a loose-particled cereal made from
cassava and a staple for Brazilian miners in particular. The price of a 100 lb (45
kg) bag of farine more than quadrupled in a five-year period (2008–12), rising
from around US$20 a bag to US$90 a bag. As more and more communities are

11 Article 36 of the National Constitution provides for all citizens the right to a clean
environment. This provision is given effect by Article 11 of the EPA Act 1996,
which requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental
Permit (EP) for any project which may significantly affect the environment. Item
9 of the fourth schedule to the EPA Act lists the ‘extraction and conversion of
mineral resources’ as such a project. In other words, all mining licences should
be associated with Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Environmental
Permits (EPs) because all mining has a significant effect on the environment.

Hegemony in Guyana

drawn into a money economy, the possibility of achieving a common front and
unified response on mining issues becomes increasingly remote.

Recourse to the Judiciary and the Lack of Effective Representation

Confronted by the failures of the regulatory agencies, some Amerindian Village

Councils have taken their cases against miners to the courts. Concomitantly,
some miners have sued other Councils, claiming obstruction of their legal
rights to mine. Seven Amerindian village leaders took the government to court
in 1997, demanding title to customary lands surrounding their titled land
areas. A principal argument of those leaders was that the issuing of mining
licences by the GGMC on those customary lands and river sections located
between community boundaries violated the integrity of their titled areas.
Fifteen years later, that case is still languishing in the court system, subject to
protracted delays. Meanwhile, miners who have taken Amerindians to court
have, in most cases, secured judicial decisions in their favour.
Amerindians have no effective representation at the regional or national
levels of government. Each of the three political parties in the National
Assembly (Parliament) has two Amerindian Members of Parliament. Under
Guyana’s alphabet ‘list system’, the head of each political party chooses the
MPs to fill the number of seats allocated. All MPs vote along party lines, and
therefore no MP is answerable to any geographical constituency.
The National Toshaos Council (NTC) is a statutory body appointed under the
Amerindian Act 2006, consisting of the elected Toshaos (Village leaders) and
some Village Councillors. The NTC does not have an independent secretariat
or budget. The NTC Secretariat was funded only in 2011 (US$60,000 by the
Amerindian Development Fund [ADF]). Its meetings are convened by the
Ministry of Amerindian Affairs (MoAA). In 2012, the government allegedly
spent US$270,000 on the NTC, meetings that extend the reach and influence
of the state (Kaieteur News, 5 January 2013).
The Indigenous Peoples Commission (which had been prescribed in the
2001 amendments to the National Constitution, but was then not constituted
for another decade) is not representative of the nine Amerindian Nations of
Guyana, and has met infrequently. The Regional Representative to the UN
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from January 2011 was an Indigenous
villager from the North Rupununi nominated by the Government, not elected
by the Amerindians themselves. Furthermore, the four national Amerindian
non-governmental organizations seldom unite on any issue and are further
fragmented by the government’s selective promotion of the two single-
person NGOs that claim to be national. Those two government-owned NGOs
(GONGOs) were appointed to every ‘stakeholder’ committee convened by the
Given this background, the many stakeholder consultations in 2009–10
suggested that there might be improved governance under the agreement

Janette Bulkan

with Norway. However, the government closely orchestrated the process of

‘consultation’. The state recorded but did not then answer more than 100
questions on forest carbon trading posed during community consultations
on the LCDS in 2009–10; however, a compiled response was issued to most
of these questions in late 2012. In spite of that inauspicious start, many
stakeholders remained hopeful that external MRV would help to open up a
space for credible engagement and governance. This view over-estimated the
interest of either government in transparent governance and under-estimated
the Government of Guyana’s control over procedural and substantive aspects
of the Memorandum of Understanding with Norway. The Guyana Government,
in power for 17 years by the time of the Norway agreement, was well practised
in its handling of brief Missions and consultants. The government could be
depended on to provide paper trails and geographic information systems (GIS)
maps, and amenable ‘stakeholders’ willing to regurgitate the public transcript.
All the time, it was secure in the knowledge that the majority of consultants
interpreted ‘independent verification’ loosely, and could be persuaded to
modify their consultancy reports in the interest of future contracts. The final
edited consultancy reports would be uploaded in due course to websites, for
consumption elsewhere. None was presented in language which was culturally
appropriate to the Guyanese public, in whose name the performances were
being enacted.

Assessment of the Benefits for Indigenous Peoples under the

Norway–Guyana Agreement

The Norway–Guyana Joint Concept Note (JCN)12 attached to the Norway–

Guyana Memorandum of Understanding was revised four times, most recently
in October 2014. It included language about Amerindian participation in
procedural and substantive actions over the life of the agreement. It committed
Guyana to a:
Continuous multi-stakeholder consultation process:
The LCDS, including the REDD-plus strategy and prioritized LCDS funding
needs, is subject to an institutionalized, systematic and transparent
process of multi-stakeholder consultation, enabling the participation of
all potentially affected and interested stakeholders at all stages of the
REDD-plus/LCDS process. […] Particular attention [will be] given to the full
and effective participation of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent
communities. (Norway’s Royal Ministry of the Environment, 2012)
At the same time, the activities listed in the JCN concerning Amerindian
communities continued to be what the President decided. There was no

12 The JCN was revised in March 2011 and December 2012.

Hegemony in Guyana

provision for a neutral forum at which Amerindians could debate their

own future. As the quotation above shows, information and consultation
routines were to be improved for getting the government message to
those communities, not for communication systems under Amerindian
management. In terms of benefit sharing, the agreement specified the
completion of Amerindian land titling, funding for communities through the
Amerindian Development Fund, and an ‘opt-in mechanism’ to the LCDS for
communities with titled lands.
By December 2012, Norway had transferred US$70 million into the Guyana
REDD-plus Investment Fund (GRIF). Guyana’s Office of Climate Change (OCC)
produced a list of seven projects with a total estimated cost of US$116.5
million, equivalent to the sum that Norway had agreed in principle to pay
at the end of the second audit of the Norway–Guyana agreement (OCC,
2012). Amerindians were the specified beneficiaries of two of those projects
– the Amerindian Development Fund, US$6 million, and Amerindian land
titling, US$7.5 million – representing one-fifth of the monies in the GRIF
account to that date. The big-ticket item remained the scandal-plagued
Amaila Falls hydroelectric project, in which the government proposed to sink
US$80 million of the Norwegian money (Palmer and Bulkan, 2011). The cost
estimates for the project had doubled long before the still-uncompleted road
to the dam site was begun, from Government’s estimate of US$495 million
versus the developer’s estimate of US$650 million in 2010. By September
2012, the projected cost for the dam had gone up to US$840 million, with
the developer, Sithe Global, guaranteed a 19 per cent rate of return on its
investment (Ram, 2010; Kaieteur News, 26 January 2012); the total cost for
this dam, including finance, would then be over US$1.2 billion13 (Stabroek
News, 2013), making it the most expensive hydropower dam in the world
per megawatt. In August 2013, Sithe Global withdrew from the project after
it had failed to garner the endorsement of all the political parties in the
National Assembly.
There has been no open and transparent debate on any LCDS project per
se, including the Amerindian Development Fund. The available documen-
tation confirms that the project proposals were developed without the
promised stakeholder participation, even at the level of the MSSC, and that
the real beneficiaries would continue to be entities (government ministries
and agencies, contractors, indigenous communities) favoured by the ruling

13 ‘Addressing the cost of Amaila over the 20-year term of the power purchase
agreement (PPA), Sithe said the total annual tariff over the period will be US$1.95
billion’ (Stabroek News, 2013b).

Janette Bulkan

Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS)

Multi-Stakeholder Steering Committee (MSSC)

A multi-stakeholder steering committee was created for the LCDS in June

2009, chaired by the President. This committee has a membership invited by
the President, comprised half of Ministers and government agency officials and
half of persons explicitly supportive of the party in power and at worst persons
who could be relied upon not to ask critical questions. The two opposition
political parties represented in the National Assembly (who between them
held one seat more than the governing party after the 2011 national elections)
were not invited. The Government ignored many independent calls for such
inclusion (Henry, 2012), including by the international consultancy firm, LTS,
in its assessment of the first year of the Norway–Guyana Memorandum of
Understanding (LTS International, et al., 2011). Some of the Government
representatives (Ministers or civil servants) were Amerindians14 and therefore
ex officio. The government (President, President’s OCC, and Ministers) argued,
first, that there were five non-government people of Amerindian origin on the
MSSC and, secondly, that the hinterland LCDS presentations/consultations in
2009 had been unprecedented.
There are four national-level NGOs representing Amerindians: the
Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), which is the largest of the four;
the Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP), the oldest; the
Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG), originally funded by
the Malaysian logger Barama; and the National Amerindian Development
Foundation (NADF). Although TAAMOG and NADF have very few members,
each has two representatives on the MSSC. The APA, refusing to be used to
rubber stamp an undemocratic process, declined an invitation to sit on the
MSSC; the other three NGOs are represented on it.
The available 43 sets of minutes issued for the MSSC meetings between
June 2009 and November 2012 (most of them during 2009) present a public
record of the top-down approach to consultative process by a constitutionally
immune Executive President. This forum was not used for strategic discussion
of the selection of the briefly outlined projects in the LCDS, their intended
outcomes, their budgets, details of the component activities, or the priorities
between projects. Nor did the MSSC ever debate options, develop priorities,
or consider alternative plans in case the desired US$580 million per year was
unattainable. The MSSC was instead used by the President to summarize his
evolving intentions for the LCDS expenditure. This spend would not involve
compensation for any lost or reduced livelihoods associated with reductions
in emissions of forest carbon because President Jagdeo said that logging and
mining would continue.
Nevertheless, the geographical extent of the dissemination and consul-
tation processes for the LCDS in 2009–10 was unusual in Guyana. The stacking

14 See

Hegemony in Guyana

of the new committees with persons who were known to be supportive

in general of government practices, even when those differ from endorsed
national policies, was still an advance on the more usual practice of no
non-governmental consultation at all. It is unclear how much was understood
by these silent stakeholders, as little or no attempt was made in either the
MRVS or LCDS to explain the government intentions in language which was
culturally appropriate to the different kinds and backgrounds of stakeholders;
this protest was made several times by individual and associations of
The Rainforest Alliance was commissioned by the Government of
Norway for two years running to evaluate action on the progress indicators
(‘enablers’) prescribed in the revised JCN of March 2011. A main feature of
this Memorandum of Understanding was improvement in forest governance.
Rainforest Alliance’s brief evaluation mission took place during July 2012
with input from stakeholders accepted until mid-August 2012. Rainforest
Alliance noted the near-stoppage of communication about the LCDS project
during the second-year reporting period. The President had not convened
any meeting of the MSSC between July 2011 and May 2012, as he focused his
interests on securing election victory for the ruling party. The government,
however, insisted that LCDS communication had continued, and claimed that
the Amerindian NGOs had been maintaining communication with Amerindian
communities. Rainforest Alliance cited the TAAMOG report on visits to
communities between 5 September 2010 and 30 May 2011, and refers to these
visits (2012, 31, 34). However, the Amerindian communities it checked on did
not recall such visits about the LCDS (2012, 27). Rainforest Alliance apparently
did not realize that Peter Persaud, one of the only two members of TAAMOG,
was also the 2011 presidential candidate of the United Force political party
and was carrying out his election campaigning in the Amerindian communities,
underwritten with LCDS funds.
Assuring the independence of civil society representatives on the MSSC
continued to pose a problem. Government could purchase the silence or the
acquiescence of some of the Amerindian representatives on the committee
who were given monthly ‘stipends’, ostensibly to conduct outreach (pers.
comm., 2012). In late 2012, the government removed two civil society
representatives from the MSSC who had refused to sign a letter in May 2012,
which wrongly condemned the combined Opposition parties for their failure
to pass the national budget (Guyana Chronicle, 2012). In fact, both Khemraj

15 The reports of the 13 sub-national consultations in the hinterland communities

during mid-2009 repeatedly recorded requests for more and better communi-
cations, explanations about the Low Carbon Development Strategy and the
so-called ‘opt-in’ mechanism, all to be presented in culturally appropriate and
simple language. The participants repeatedly mentioned that such careful
processes had been used previously, for example, in the consultations leading to
the revision of the Amerindian Act.

Janette Bulkan

Ramjattan of the Alliance for Change (AFC) party and independent accountant
Chris Ram pointed out the error of the Minister of Finance of the inclusion
of LCDS projects into the main appropriations bill. They should instead have
placed them as conditional appropriations in accordance with Article 21 in
the Financial Management and Accountability Act (Bulkan, 2012a) because the
supply of the Norwegian money could not be guaranteed by Guyana’s Minister
of Finance.
The MSSC then was neither representative nor independent. One of its roles
was to serve as an echo chamber for the government. In addition, in 2012, the
Government mounted a campaign of disinformation to persuade Amerindian
communities that the Opposition parties were denying development projects
to the Amerindians.16

The Opt-In Mechanism

The concept paper for an opt-in mechanism was issued as a draft for discussion
in March 2010, and had not been updated in early 2013. What was still
missing was the long-promised explanation from the OCC about the rights
and responsibilities that would be associated with ‘opting into’ the LCDS by
an Amerindian Village Council (Bulkan, 2012d). Since May 2010, the APA noted
the many uncertainties related to ‘opt-in’ and called on the government to
respect the established principles of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC)
(Colchester and La Rose 2010). Two years later, FPIC was still being ignored
when Amerindian leaders were presented with a resolution to approve the
draft opt-in concept paper at the annual meeting of the NTC on 6–10 August
2012. The majority of the leaders present signed the Resolution (OCC, 2012).
However, since the JCN specifies that implementation of the opt-in mechanism
would begin in July 2015, and since by that date the agreement with Norway
would have ended, it is probable that there would be nothing to ‘opt-into’. The
likely purpose of the signatures was to include Amerindians in the tried and
tested disciplinary modes of authoritarian rule. In addition, the signatures
and accompanying photographs could later be recorded as fulfilment of
governance indicators in the reports of consultants.

The Project Concept Note (PCN) on Amerindian Land Titling

Two concept notes were submitted to the GRIF in relation to Amerindian

development. The land titling and demarcation concept note was submitted

16 The government distributed a flyer with the photographs of the Amerindian

MPs from the two opposition parties, blaming them for the failure to pass the
unconsulted national budget. See also 15 pages on the Government Information
Agency’s website: [AQ _18]

Hegemony in Guyana

by UNDP and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs in January 2011. The concept
note for the Amerindian Development Fund was prepared by the Office of
the President and/or the Meridian Institute, apparently not by the Ministry
of Amerindian Affairs, in March 2012. There was no direct evidence of
Amerindian involvement in the preparation of these project concept notes, in
spite of Government claims (Rainforest Alliance, 2012).
The PCN on land titling is not set within national integrated land use
planning, and is thus contrary to the National Development Strategy 1996–97
and 2001. Integrated land use planning, as noted earlier in this chapter, a
national policy since 1997 but never implemented, is now treated as simply
the provision of a map of licence areas (Norway’s Royal Ministry of the
Environment, 2012, 6). Such a map – or at least the ArcView GINRIS GIS
[AQ _05] – has in principle been available since 1997, although not in practice
because the four government agencies do not share data. There is no mention
of land capability mapping or the use of the outputs of the national soil
mapping and land use planning by a United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) team in the 1960s. Nor is mention made of using best
international practices to resolve land use conflicts, such as the overlapping
claims of miners and loggers and Amerindian traditional usufruct.
No provision was made in this PCN for resolution of problems caused
by inappropriate or incorrect boundary description and cartography by the
GLSC. No reference was made to the many publications issued by the APA on
land issues, including the reports containing corrected descriptions prepared
by Peter Copeland and Craig Forcese of the Canadian Lawyers Association
for International Human Rights in August 1994. That study examined the
recommendations of the Amerindian Lands Commission in 1969 and the land
titling of 1976 and 1991 for 75 communities out of the 128 communities
covered by the ALC during 1967–69 (Copeland and Forcese, 1994).
The claims of neighbouring Amerindian Villages and Communities which
overlap, or conflict, with mining or logging concessions, are to be resolved by
a dispute resolution mechanism yet to be designed (para. 10 in the PCN). The
mode for solving these disputes, offered in line 4 of the ‘risk log’ in Annex 1 of
the PCN, is ‘keep strong engagement with partners and communities’. This is a
naive suggestion, when there is vast international experience on such matters.
No explanation is given in this PCN as to why surveyors are to be restricted
to those of the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GLSC), when dozens
of Amerindian communities have been trained, in some cases more than once,
in community mapping and use of GPS. Moreover, there is no justification in
law for the pointless, often inaccurate, surveys carried out by coastlander
surveyors at very high cost. There is no requirement in the State Lands Act
for expensive physical demarcation ‘if the land is bounded by creeks or other
well defined limits’ (Section 19(2)), as confirmed in a letter to the press by the
Minister of Local Government (Whittaker, 2011).
Chapter 22 of the NDS had recommended: ‘programmes for training
Amerindian land surveyors be drawn up and funded as a matter of priority.

Janette Bulkan

If necessary, an upgrading year should be added to get candidates chosen

by communities up to the required academic level’ (National Development
Strategy, 1996, 25). Instead, Amerindian communities are cast only as expected
‘project beneficiaries’ in the PCN, while, invisibly, behind the paperwork, the
recipients of the tangible benefits would be the government agencies and
their favoured coastlander contractors. In place of the Amerindians, the
designated implementing agencies for this US$7.5 million project are the
Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission
(GLSC), and the Deeds Registry.

The Project Concept Note on UNDP/Amerindian Development Fund

Problems of the same nature are evident in the PCN for the Amerindian
Development Fund (ADF). The Executive Agencies for the US$6 million
project are the Ministries of Finance and Amerindian Affairs, together with
the UNDP. The ‘senior suppliers’ are the Ministries of Amerindian Affairs,
Local Government and Regional Development, and Agriculture, the Project
Management Office of the Office of the President, and the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA). Amerindian communities are relegated to the
beneficiary slot, as in the land titling PCN.
UNDP is the ‘partner entity’ for the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs in
respect of the ADF. There were about 100 stakeholder comments on UNDP’s
project concept note for the ADF in early 2012 but no public response by UNDP
to those comments. The full proposal for the ADF was circulated to ‘affected
stakeholders’ – the Amerindian communities and their representative bodies
– but not to the other people who offered comments. UNDP said that a final
version would be posted on a website for information only. In other words,
UNDP Guyana appeared to be copying the Government of Guyana in restricting
flows of information. The indications in the PCN were that a release of 15 per
cent of the ADF funds from the GRIF as part of the full proposal stage would
be directed principally to villages in which the majority had voted for the
ruling political party in November 2011. None of the Region 7 ‘opposition’
villages was listed among the pilot communities. It is difficult to see how this
approach by UNDP and the acquiescence by Norway represented a model of
improved governance, to which the Norwegians claimed to be striving.

Options for Amerindian Autochthonous Development

It is unlikely that the Norwegian-funded projects will have any developmental

impacts in Amerindian communities. As noted above, most of the allocated
monies would flow to contracted coastlander surveyors (land titling project)
and consultants (both projects). For the ADF project, the budget ought to
be tightly specified in terms of activities in the 27 Amerindian Villages and

Hegemony in Guyana

Communities selected by the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs. Instead, the

majority of the budget is ill-defined, leaving ample scope for discretionary
payments. Evidence to date was that the budget was being used to further the
political campaigns of the governing Party, such as through the appointment
of Community Support Officers (CSOs), allegedly recruited only from persons
holding Party membership cards.
In contrast, there are many successful activities in Amerindian villages,
including the well-known projects that have been carried out in the North
Rupununi District since 1995 in collaboration with the Iwokrama programme.
Those projects were collaboratively developed and transparently executed,
and grounded in the comparative advantages of individual communities. Great
attention was given to the process of project development, using culturally
appropriate methods which fitted with local norms. Based on extensive
participatory consultations, the projects included large components of
training and mentoring. However, the projects to be funded under the ADF
made no reference to those successful examples.

Lessons for REDD-plus from Guyana

The Norwegian and Guyanese governments should consider supporting

Amerindian communities to ‘get ready’ for potential long-term payment for
environmental services contracts in sequestered carbon, and related environ-
mental services like clean water and biodiversity. Instead, this bilateral
agreement copied the international emphasis on high precision and accuracy
of forest carbon measurement, under the control of the Government. This
allowed the GFC to re-centralize control over stakeholders, who were perceived
as recalcitrant, such as small-scale miners and loggers. This disciplinary move
was primarily enacted through the state agencies making technical jargon-
laden presentations to indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities.
The following recommendations to the Norwegian and Guyanese
governments are not exhaustive but relate specifically to the issues covered
in this chapter.
1. The creation and operation of a neutral, independent forum under an
independent chairman and secretariat on strategies for mitigation of
carbon emissions and for adaptation to the effects of climate change.
This would replace the MSSC with a body that is less dominated by
the executive in Guyana, and could follow the successful model of the
National Development Strategy process 1995–97. The MSSC should have
the decision-making powers of a Board of Directors, including oversight
of all projects.
2. The development and implementation of explanatory materials for
forest-dependent communities, including loggers and miners, to explain
in culturally meaningful and transparent language what the LCDS

Janette Bulkan

proposes and the mechanisms available to each constituency group

to participate actively from the project conception stage to project
execution; not only as ‘beneficiaries’.
3. Over the longer term, an open and transparent process on options and
mechanisms for equitable sharing of the costs and benefits of climate
change mitigation and adaptation measures.
4. A more definite route map for the introduction of national integrated
land use planning, building on the NDS and the 1997 demonstration
in Region 10, and including conceptualization of managing increasing
demands for land for subsistence-level agriculture for Amerindian
However, none of the transformative changes outlined in the Norway–
Guyana agreement was put into effect. The evidence up to May 2015, when
the Guyanese Government changed, showed that the outgoing Administration
actively used Norway’s funds and international stature to channel money to
state agencies and selected partners while tightening control over its citizens
and State Forests – mobilizing the discursive tropes of REDD-plus to this
end. In turn, the state set out the parameters through which the pantomime
of REDD was enacted: signed resolutions and votes delivered by Amerindian
leaders in exchange for token payouts to submissive communities; and the
silencing of recalcitrant opposition elements. This was the brave new REDD
world enabled by the Norway–Guyana agreement.

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and Oversights on Maps of Amerindian Lands’. 35 pp. Included as Appendix A in
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Opposition Members and Others’. Letter to the Editor, Stabroek News 1 June.
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and Control of the State in Guyana and Trinidad. Cambridge: Cambridge University
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Jagdeo, Bharrat. 2012. ‘Rediscovering Ambition on Forests: Maintaining One of the
World’s Greatest Assets’. Draft for Review. Bharrat Jagdeo, Roving Ambassador for
the Three Basins Initiative. December.
Kaieteur News. 2010. ‘Govt. Protests Suriname’s Map Showing Guyana’s Territory –
Demands Janette Bulkan’s Removal from Key World Bank Panel’. Kaieteur News 17
—. 2012. ‘US$840M Amaila Falls Hydro-Electric Plant … Contract to be Made Public if
Govt. Agrees CEO Sithe Global’. Kaieteur News 26 January. www.kaieteurnewsonline.
public-if-govt-agrees-ceo-sithe-global/. Accessed 27 January 2016.
—. 2013. ‘Amerindian Land Demarcation Still Awaiting Norway Funds – $76M
Spent to Support National School Uniform Programme’. Kaieteur News 5 January.

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Letwiniuk, T. 1996. The Amerindian Act of Guyana: Discussion and Suggested Revisions.
Toronto: Canadian Lawyers Association for International Human Rights.
LTS International, et al. 2011. ‘Real-time Evaluation of Norway’s International Climate
and Forest Initiative. Contributions to National REDD+ Processes 2007–2010.
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Responds to an Open Letter Outlining Eight Problems with Norway’s REDD
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—. 2009/2010. ‘Transforming Guyana’s Economy While Combating Climate Change.
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Economies of Extraction:
Restructuring and Resistance
chapter seven

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power in

Oonya Kempadoo’s Tide Running
Molly Nichols

Molly Nichols
Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

O ne does not have to look far to find historical and contemporary represen-
tations of the Caribbean as an erogenous zone, a tropical space of
lasciviousness, a sensual paradise of sun, sea, and sex. Since the days of coloni-
zation, both the natural world and Caribbean people have been eroticized
and sexualized, especially for European and North American viewers and
consumers. In Consuming the Caribbean, Mimi Sheller unpacks these prevalent
discourses, situating them historically and discussing their present-day
iterations. Interpreting a British Airways magazine – which describes the
Caribbean as a Garden of Eden, but ‘after Eve tempted Adam with the apple’
– Sheller writes:
Thus the new Eden is a perpetual garden in which sexuality can run
rampant; rather than being expelled from the garden, humanity can
indulge all the temptations of fertile nature and fertile sex, without guilt.
Vandal-proof nature serves as a transparent metonym for sexual access to
the ‘natives’ without consequence; the laws of nature and of morality have
both apparently been temporarily suspended in this fantasy Jamaica, more
vested in Hedonism than in Edenism. (Sheller, 2003, 69)
Sheller describes this ‘view’ of Caribbean bodies as ‘part of the scenery of
tropical landscapes’ which involves ‘various kinds of animalization and objecti-
fication’ (157). She cites Sánchez-Taylor who has shown that ‘sex tourism
packages Caribbean people as ‘embodied commodities’ by turning the long
history of sexual exploitation of women (and men) under colonial rule into a
‘lived colonial fantasy’ available for the mass tourist consumer’ (164).
Authors and critics have negotiated the perceived burden of representing
Caribbean sexuality in various ways. Charting representations of sex and
sexuality in Caribbean literature, Rosamond King offers the following periodi-
zation: literature (usually authored by men) of sexual abuse by those in power,

Molly Nichols

written in the 1930s; representations of women in men’s novels as primarily

sexual partners (often extramarital, non-monogamous, and interracial) in the
1950s to the 1970s; and novels by men and women that portray ‘women’s
sexual maturation, women’s sexuality, and women’s and men’s homosexuality’
in the 1980s (2002, 27). King suggests that critical silences on these topics
may reflect scholars who are ‘wary of re-inscribing myths and stereotypes’
(35) about Caribbean sexuality, but that without these analyses it is more
difficult to challenge and deconstruct such discourses (36).
Alison Donnell points out that many of the ‘sexual silences’ perceived in
Caribbean literature may derive from the large ‘core of childhood narratives’
in which sex is not a central issue (2006, 182). Arguing that national, ethnic,
and even gender identities were more central concerns in the novels than
sexual identity, she explores the ways that representations of sexuality,
especially from the 1980s onwards, alert readers to the historical processes
that have precipitated the intersectionality of these categories. She explicitly
acknowledges Oonya Kempadoo and Robert Antoni for depicting sexual
experience and identity as a ‘pleasurable, vital and natural part of human
experience’ (198). This representation is crucial for the ways it resists being
trapped in the confines of the colonial imaginary or imperial discourse. In
Sexing the Caribbean, Kamala Kempadoo wonders to what extent one can ‘read
the “excesses” or “vulgarity” of Caribbean sexuality not simply as European
inventions … that negate or demean the history and agency of the Other,
but also as sedimented, corporeally inculcated dispositions that are lived and
practiced every day’ (2004, 2). She emphasizes the importance of recognizing
how historical formations have affected lived reality, including sexuality.
In a recent analysis of Caribbean literature and sexuality, Faith Smith
argues: ‘the desire, pleasure and violence that are so forcefully represented are
not always cleanly demarcated from each other, nor clearly either celebrated
or condemned’ (2011, 405–06). Caribbean sexuality can embody the material
and discursive violence – including rape, abuse, and objectification – to which
people were subjected under slavery and colonial rule, and which has also
marked the era of independence. Here, however, I explore how sexuality can
also be a space of pleasure and beauty. King and Donnell similarly highlight
this tension – one that I believe is at work in literary representations of the
environment in Oonya Kempadoo’s novel Tide Running (2001).
Ecocritical studies of Caribbean literature are relatively new. As Elizabeth
DeLoughrey asserts in ‘Ecocriticism: The Politics of Place’, this ‘belatedness
does not reflect a lack of concern about the environment by Caribbean writers
but rather a rise in ecological thinking as a methodology by literary critics
in the 1990s’ (2011, 265). A crucial theme I seek to explore here, as it relates
to sexuality, is what DeLoughrey, Handley, and Gosson call ‘the difficulty in
reconciling the natural aesthetics of a landscape that has been so dramatically
altered with the violence of colonial history’ – a violence that is both material
and discursive (2005, 8). Working with this idea, I ask: is the natural world
positioned as a site laden with colonial legacies, embodying the wounds of

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

history, or as a site of refuge or escape where people might be freed from

dominant cultural influences and systems of power? DeLoughrey and others
have shown how landscape is constituted by and constitutive of human
history. From the perspective of world-ecology, this mutually constitutive
relationship is the nexus through which specific socio-economic systems
develop, such that we can understand capitalist imperialism as an ecological
project. In the Caribbean, especially, it is evident that the landscape has been
created out of conquest, colonialism, and slavery which involved the transplan-
tation of plants, animals, and people; rampant deforestation; development
of plantation agriculture; mass tourism, and so on. Casid’s Sowing Empire
argues that depictions of landscape were often used to idealize plantation
life and obfuscate the intense exploitation and dehumanization of slaves. She
reveals the ways that ‘countercolonial landscaping’ (2005, 191) occurred in
order to resist colonialism and its legacies, while Sarah Casteel acknowledges
the ways the Caribbean ‘language of landscape’ contests the ‘coloniality of
space through its reconfiguration of inherited tropes such as the colonial
picturesque’ (2011, 487). Kempadoo’s novel reveals the landscape as, simulta-
neously, a site of recuperation and exploitation.

Tide Running: Complicating the ‘Romance’ of Caribbean Sexualities

and Environments

Kempadoo’s Tide Running is one of several literary texts that reflect,

complicate, and challenge the sexualization and eroticization of Caribbean
bodies and environments. The novel positions the nexus between sexuality
and environment as central – revealing how these sites are saturated with
social relations and offering an alternative erotics of place. How successful
is Kempadoo in this regard? Do the representations of nature and sexuality
in this novel enforce, expose, and/or subvert the colonial and touristic
discourses? How does she find a way to represent beauty and eroticism that
neither reinforces imposed discourses of Caribbean nature nor ignores the
continuing realities of power inequities? I argue that Kempadoo confronts
rather than evades inequalities of class, gender, race, and nation, while still
reclaiming and articulating a language of sexual pleasure. Tide Running is
part of a larger body of contemporary Caribbean writing that reclaims erotic
landscapes from degrading histories and discourses through careful attention
to the multivalent registers of Caribbean sexualities and environments. These
contested sites, as depicted in the novel, are acknowledged as having been
controlled, manipulated, and loaded with colonial, national, and neoliberal
discourses, and their reclamation does not constitute a binary opposition
between degradation and redemption. Instead, the novel carefully navigates,
through its narrative structure and erotic ecopoetics, a more complex vision
that accounts for forms of historical and discursive violence in the region as
well as the ontological and aesthetic possibilities for beauty, pleasure, and

Molly Nichols

self-assertion. The novel opens up such possibilities, but eventually they are
foreclosed by the violence of the state – a violence exercised in a context of
sexual labour and neoliberal reforms in Tobago. The depictions of landscape
and sexuality reveal the ways these sites are produced to facilitate exploi-
tation – both obfuscating the past and maintaining a continuation of power
structures from the days of slavery.
The two main characters and narrators, Cliff and Bella, offer differing
views of sexuality and the environment. Cliff is a poor unemployed young
black man in Tobago, whose perspective throughout is represented in Creole.
He is no romanticized villager; he is part of the late twentieth-century
globalized economy. Tobago in the 1990s was reeling from the effects of
neoliberal structural adjustment: debt, unemployment, poverty, dependence
on tourism and the service industry, and the pervasive influence of American
mass-culture. One glaring example of this impact is the Nike symbol that has
been shaved onto the back of Cliff’s head. From the very beginning of the
novel, however, we recognize his affinity with the natural world, through
scenes of his immersion in the sea – a key trope throughout the text.1 Bella is
an upper-middle-class woman of mixed race from Trinidad, married to a white
European lawyer named Peter; they have recently moved to a beach house in
Tobago. The narrative establishes the possibility for non-normative social and
sexual relations when these three characters meet on the beach, develop a
relationship in which they regularly invite Cliff to their house, and later have
sexual liaisons. However, class disparities push their way to the foreground:
Cliff appears to have stolen from Bella and Peter, and he is subsequently
beaten by the police and thrown in jail.
Formally, this lyrical and sensuous narrative is filled with references
to both an eroticized landscape and eroticized characters. Not only does
this language lure us in, seducing the reader into embracing the scenarios
described; it also flirts dangerously with colonial stereotypes of sexualized
black and mixed-race Caribbean people. Evelyn O’Callaghan argues that the
novel ‘ends up reinforcing stereotypes: the calculating, controlling, powerful
white man […] the passionate, sexually uninhibited, indulged “browning”;
the feckless, if well-endowed black man’ (2006, 336). While there is some
evidence for this claim, I see Kempadoo as ultimately challenging these
stereotypes, especially in the case of Cliff. Kempadoo does not seek to
distance Caribbean men and women from nature, nor to sanitize sexuality, in
order to claim decency or respect for them. In an interview I conducted with
her, Kempadoo stated:
I don’t want to see the Caribbean romanticized and exoticized, but at same
time, when I’m actually writing I don’t want to tailor something to meet the
market, or fill the gap, or do this or that. It has to stay true to the story,

1 The novel does not explicitly take up the damage done to the coral reefs and the
fishing industry by pollution and tourism.

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

true to the characters. It has to flow naturally […] the language, the use
of colloquial language, and then what I’m portraying through the natural
environment has to work in a sensory way. I don’t want to edit it to make
it less stereotypical even if I can look back at Tide Running and think maybe
I’m adding to this image of the Caribbean as hypersexual and eroticized.
But that is the main theme of that story – the central event and characters
which drive the novel. If I try to tone it down, it would start to read strange.
(Kempadoo, 2011)
Kempadoo’s novel participates in the complex vision of ‘romance’ articulated by
Belinda Edmondson, who argues that ‘Caribbean political and social discourse
itself becomes shaped by “romance” tropes that then become integral to the
vision and language the society constructs for itself’ (1999, 6). Edmondson
uses the term ‘romance’ to describe ‘idealized representations of Caribbean
society’ (2) in European and American discourses, as well as intra-Caribbean
discourses. The term encompasses iconic and clichéd tropes such as carnival,
cultural hybridity, sensual paradise, and so forth. This ‘romanticization’ of
Caribbean landscapes and bodies may be seen in Tide Running. Kempadoo does
not reject idealized imagery in the way that, as Lorna Burns argues, many
contemporary Caribbean authors have done (2008, 37), but she infuses it with
a subtle ambivalence. Tide Running thus substantiates Edmondson’s argument
about the ways texts can ‘complicate the idea that radical change and radical
structures bear only an antagonistic or inverse relation to the traditional
paradigms they broke away from’ (10). For example, Kempadoo does not
wholly reject depictions of sexed bodies connected to their landscape, but she
does complicate them with her punctuated and, at times, unreliable narration;
ironic symbols (such as the Black Dallie, a statue of a young black man in Bella
and Peter’s room, which literally embodies the objectification of Cliff); and
parodic characters (such as Bella and Peter’s friend, Small Clit, whose name is
blatantly and transgressively sexualized).
On one hand, Kempadoo ventriloquizes the historical discourse of
eroticized bodies and landscapes, depicting a potentially stereotypical
hedonistic paradise with a young black native ‘at one’ with nature. On the
other, she captures the dynamism of Cliff and Bella’s ecological relationships,
and the complexity of her characters makes it difficult to romanticize or
essentialize any of them. For example, we do see key distinctions between
Bella’s and Cliff’s relationships to the land. Bella perceives the landscape as
erotic, a site for sex with this young man – the environment enables their
sexual relations. Tobago’s landscapes and seascapes have been produced and
advertised as hedonistic island paradises, which invite sexual licentiousness,
and the tourism industry relies on the image of the hypersexualized black
body, both male and female. This obfuscates the history of exploitation
even as it produces a site of exploitation. While Cliff does perceive Bella’s
sexuality as tied to the seascape, especially in two scenes where he describes
her underwater, through most of the novel Cliff’s perception of landscape is
juxtaposed with Bella’s. Cliff’s landscape is a part of his everyday experience;

Molly Nichols

it is not necessary for the sex to happen there, and we never get his perspective
when it actually does occur.
Cliff’s relationship to the landscape transcends demeaning colonialist
discourses and stereotypes, and even challenges Bella’s perspective, as we will
see. However, although he offers a local perspective on the land and seascape,
Kempadoo simultaneously draws attention to the ways American culture has
permeated Cliff’s own sense of self. She complicates the ‘romance’ tropes of
paradise, exposing historical realities of economic and racial inequality that
have often been obscured through idealizations of Caribbean environments.
Class becomes paramount and, rather than exposing sexual violence by the
(typically) male body imposed on the female body, we witness the commodi-
fication of a black male body by a woman, and violence enacted directly by
the state towards Cliff, in the context of his sexual labour. While many other
contemporary Caribbean novels expose explicit forms of sexual violence,2 Tide
Running depicts a sexual encounter that might be understood as exploring the
contexts, constraints, and compulsions behind consent. The damage here is
insidious, and the repercussions of the liaison result in Cliff’s being beaten and
abused by the police and prison system. Bella and Cliff’s relationship may not
be formally recognized as sex tourism within the novel, yet it resembles this
aspect of the informal economy in many ways. 3 The novel suggests that Cliff
is unfairly compensated and implies that his reaction to this inequity, as well
as his poverty, unemployment, and hints of depression, result in the thefts.
Consequently, he is disproportionately punished by the state. Bella, however,
emerges unscathed – apart from her feelings of guilt.
Attention to this state violence asks us to confront not just the actions
of individual characters, but the social systems in which they live. While not
explicit, the effects of neoliberal economic reforms are ever-present in the
novel. CARICOM’s report from 2000 states:
male prostitution in the form of ‘beach boys’ is increasing across the
Caribbean. In many cases economic hardship is the single most important

2 See, for example, Kempadoo’s own Buxton Spice, Robert Antoni’s Blessed is the Fruit,
Jamaica Kincaid’s An Autobiography of my Mother, Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at
Night, and Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory.
3 Other cultural texts have taken up the theme of explicit (or veiled) sex tourism.
The film Heading South (2005), based on Dany Laferrière’s short stories in La Chair
du maître, depicts the experiences of middle-aged white women who visit Haiti in
the 1970s for the purposes of sex tourism with young native men. Interestingly,
this film also juxtaposes erotic romance with the poverty the young men must
confront; the film ends tragically, with Legba’s body being found on the beach
after a conflict with a drug lord in the city. However, Terri McMillan’s novel How
Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), adapted into a feature film of the same name
in 1998, perpetuates images of the pristine and sensual Jamaican paradise and
ignores class inequality entirely. While the film does assert and embrace black
female sexuality, it does so at the expense of acknowledging historical realities in

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

reason given by sex workers for going into sex work. Economic difficulties
in the region and the rigors of structural adjustment over the last two and
a half decades have resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of women and
men seeking work in a market that is less than accommodating. (quoted in
Grenade, 2008, 190)
Some elected representatives, such as Pennelope Beckles, have expressed
concern about Trinidad and Tobago’s reputation for sex tourism, especially
its connection to sex trafficking and the rise of HIV/AIDS (‘TT Known for Sex
Tourism’, 2011). However, as Wendy Grenade asserts, private industries, which
are courted by the state, value sex tourism. Using Christine Barrow’s study,
she cites a former CEO of the Caribbean Hotel Association who was reticent
to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, insisting: ‘sex tourism is simply a
matter of using what sells […] we as an industry will always use the things that
are most attractive, most exciting […] And what’s more attractive and exciting
than sex’ (Grenade, 2008, 193).
Tobago’s environment is constructed to be conducive to the interests
of the elite, at the expense of people like Cliff, in a continuation of the
racial inequality of slavery. In ‘Not Just Any(Body) Can be a Citizen’, Jacqui
Alexander traces this legacy by asserting that the Caribbean state maintains
colonial tropes of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality from independence
to the present day. Amidst the state’s crisis of legitimacy in the context of
neoliberal reform, it paradoxically polices sexuality (favouring it most when
it is procreative, with laws against prostitution, homosexual sex, and sex for
pleasure), while simultaneously relying on the sexualization and commodi-
fication of women’s and men’s bodies for the sake of tourism and economic
growth for the elite (6). I note here how Tide Running explicitly connects the
history of slavery to (1) the landscape, by referring to the ‘bitter taste of
slavery’ as ‘in the earth itself’ and (2) neoliberal tourism (buttressed by the
state), by exposing tourism as ‘the new crop’ which benefits the politicians
whose pockets are ‘fatten[ed]’ by the ‘Yankee dollar’ (116).
Bella’s depictions of the environment are highly eroticized, and while
they may seem consonant with the damaging aforementioned constructions
they also illuminate alternative possibilities. In the novel the non-human
world is often represented as an ‘active participant’ (DeLoughrey, 2007, 257)
challenging dominant discourses. These discourses have perceived nature as
passive brute matter to be conquered and moulded by human agency. One
of the most common tropes in colonial nature writing (as well as in other
traditional forms of the genre) is the metaphorical figure of the land-as-
woman, simultaneously idealized, sexualized, and without agency. In The Lay
of the Land, Annette Kolodny explores the gendered dimensions of landscape
in literature, arguing that the feminization of nature is part of ‘America’s
oldest and most cherished fantasy: a daily reality of harmony between man
and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine – that
is, not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female
principle of gratification’ (1975, 4). Kempadoo, however, depicts a woman who

Molly Nichols

is pleasured both by the landscape and the native young man. Bella describes
herself taking a shower outside, where Cliff sees her: ‘the same soft night
caressing me came to rest on his shoulders, its fingers stroked his nose and
full lips’ (79). Later she describes leaving the beach at sunset: ‘Soon the sun
itself would go and leave us. Leave us with a night breeze coming round the
rocks licking at wet skin, pinching our nipples. Leave the sky with a taste of
light’ (141). These evocative lines capture rising sexual tension and depict
nature not as a setting, but as an erotic actor, or, as Édouard Glissant has put
it, a ‘character’ in the fiction (1989, 105–06).
In the novel, the environment is both setting and participant in Cliff
and Bella’s eroticism. At one moment, a rushing wave literally pushes them
together, serving as a catalyst for their sexual relations: ‘Wind and waves
pushing in bursts, bounced us together, pulled us apart, easy as driftwood.
Clumsy limbs knocking, embarrassing […] in our sealed sea-green dome […]
I bumped against his chest, my back brushed his stomach – stung me living
again. A charge straight through me’ (72–73). This erotic electricity occurs
under the water. The syntax of the first sentence of this passage reflects
the pulsing movement underwater, while the dash at the end of the passage
emphasizes Bella’s sudden jolt, thus inviting us to linger on the last clause
and move into the fragment. Bella reacts by pulling away, based on what she
calls ‘instinct’. The action of the wave is not intentional, but it is an action
that affects what subsequently transpires; it plays a direct role in the plot.
Bella is married, Cliff is a young ‘native’ whom she does not completely trust,
and to whom she is afraid to reveal her own desire. Later that night these
reservations disappear as Peter invites Cliff to join him and Bella in bed:
‘No doubts stopped [Bella] last night, no norms or fears. Didn’t even stop to
think of them’ (86). Bella feels liberated from the confines of her society that
restrict certain kinds of behaviour. The events of this novel take place in a
force-field where various pressures act upon the characters: the ocean wave
and other features of the physical environment, genuine desire, and curiosity.
Bella’s access to the landscape and seascape, the outside shower, and Cliff
are ultimately a function of her wealth. While Bella, Peter, and Cliff may have
sex outside, there is no outside to class and race inequality; all bodies and
sexual relations are marked by it. Ultimately, Bella and Peter have manipulated
the situation to the point where she and her husband can fulfil their needs
through the use of Cliff’s body, and the scenario unflinchingly recognizes

Demystifying the Pastoral

Even before the sombre outcome of the novel, we must confront the ways
the sex scenes appear to reinforce the demeaning discursive construction of
Caribbean bodies and environments that Sheller and others have exposed.
One might argue: of course the Caribbean is a site where bodies come together

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

in an erotic landscape, transgressing typical lines of race, class, age, and so on.
Sheller, citing bell hooks, claims that these moments actually allow the visitor
to affirm his or her dominance at the expense of the Caribbean person (2003,
161). The dynamic Kempadoo sets up, however, is quite different from that
of the white European explorer or tourist who ‘consumes’ the black native
in an act of imperial and race-based dominance, usually male to female. She
makes key changes to the expected scenario, complicating the ‘romance’ by
reversing traditional genre and character expectations. Bella is from Trinidad
(and not the USA or Europe), but there are a variety of ways that she, along
with Peter, is positioned as ‘foreign’ and a ‘tourist’ in this ‘exotic’ land. These
moments give credence to the notion that, from the outset, these charged
sensual and sexual liaisons with Cliff only occur in a context of unequal power
relations – at the combined and contrasted levels of class, race, and nation.
Kempadoo forces us to confront the dynamics not just of neocolonization or
Americanization (through the prevalence of American consumer culture in the
novel and its influence on Cliff) but also internal forms of colonization, or as
Jennifer Rahim puts it, the ‘Trinidadization’ of Tobago (8).
Bella admits that she thinks of Tobago as a paradise: ‘The house, our
holiday haven from Trinidad city life, seduced us into its womb, promising
peace of mind, crime-free living, and the blue Caribbean sea […] [T]he haven
sheltered us from things unknown and deep. Always mothering, giving space
for mistakes and meditation, watching over our sleep’ (64).4 In Tobago, they
feel safe from the ills of their urban lives. The island has been constructed as a
place for outside viewers, including Trinidadians, to lose their inhibitions. If we
consider this moment in the context of the pastoral genre, we recognize how
Kempadoo exposes as constructions the typical depictions of Tobago as an
island paradise, and how they conceal and mystify social relations, especially
those of class. Bella’s idyllic pastoral, her romanticization of the place, is
ultimately undermined by the novel’s paramount attention to class, state
violence, and the history of slavery. Contrary to Raymond Williams’ charge
in The Country and the City that pastoral representations can often obscure
class exploitation, Kempadoo’s use of pastoral makes class exploitation
visible. The novel eventually reveals those ‘things unknown and deep’, as Bella
acknowledges: ‘Bright daylight surface but currents swimming underneath.
Darker than sharks, stronger than anything – pulling. Stronger than me –
sucking’ (172). These undercurrents pervade the book, slowly tugging on the
reader as well, until the strength of the rip tide takes over.
The island invites Bella and Peter in, while Cliff feels the appeal of the
alluring couple; he wants to be part of their ‘flim-style’ [sic] world’. Amidst

4 In the passage above, Bella feminizes the landscape by acknowledging its ‘womb’
and role as a ‘mother’. This recalls the colonial discourse of the land as a woman to
be conquered, but we might also consider a more positive register here, in which
the natural world is seen as a nurturing space, as fundamental to the individual’s

Molly Nichols

their unequal class relations, Kempadoo identifies a key distinction between

the characters’ relationship to place. As they are on the beach together, Bella
asks, ‘It’s a nice view, eh?’ Cliff’s internal response is: ‘I look around. A “view”
they call it. I can’t say if it nice, I been seeing it every day since I born. So I
say nuthing’ (47).5 Cliff perceives the landscape as woven into his everyday
experience, unlike a ‘view’, which is an external perspective often geared
toward modification and consumption. The internal/external line between
Cliff and his surroundings is not so rigid. At one key moment Cliff admits:
‘Could watch them all day, how the colors change and shine, purple, green,
blue. Bella have all kind’a different name for them same sea things. Algy and
annenemy, mussels, mullucks – names she calling from books, names from
Foreign’ (188). While Cliff has many discourses working on him, he creolizes
Bella’s categories, translating the names from the book to his own everyday

Cliff’s Ecopoetics

Some of the richest and most compelling moments in the novel come when
Cliff describes his relationship to the natural world; this is the closest we
come to gaining access to his deepest thoughts. Cliff embodies the landscape
as the landscape embodies him – the relationship is represented by Kempadoo
as elemental and unified, albeit at the risk of activating stereotypes about
the affinity of black people with nature, a stereotype that may be part of the
allure for sex tourists. Along these lines, Mimi Sheller has called attention
to the degrading and disempowering effects of this tendency to naturalize
Caribbean people and see them as ‘scenery’ (2003, 62). However, as Natasha
Tinsley has shown, Caribbean women writers have often chosen to depict
characters as coextensive with the environment, for very different ends
(2010, 23). In Tide Running, Kempadoo’s association of Cliff with the landscape
defies objectification of either one of them. Cliff, like nature itself, is not a
resource to be used. For instance, Cliff will not participate in the service
economy: he refuses to work in construction or hotel jobs, calling it ‘slave
w’ok’ (100), and will not be demeaned at his (former) surf shop position. This
moment asserts the continuity of domination from slavery, with tourism as
the ‘new crop’.
The ocean is a refuge for Cliff; it is where he comes to ‘breathe’. The
Caribbean literary imagination has depicted the sea in a variety of ways – as
a space of liberation and possibility; as the site of the horrors of the Middle
Passage; as manifesting flux and cyclical change; and perhaps most famously,

5 In many Caribbean islands most huts face the road, not the sea, as a way to
encourage and maintain social connections in the community. Only the most
western-influenced households build their homes facing the ‘view’ (Kempadoo

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

in the words of Derek Walcott, as ‘history’ itself (‘The Sea is History’).6 One
of the most interesting things about Kempadoo’s representation is the way it
simultaneously embodies these multiple relationships. Cliff’s interaction with
the sea enacts a central concern of the novel: how a poor unemployed man
from Tobago can find a meaningful place in his environment, while dealing
with the historical legacy and current iterations of imperialism.
We witness the unity between Cliff’s internal and external landscapes7 in
the first few pages of the novel: ‘If I could’a never see [the sea] at all, nowhere
round me, it go be like you lock me up. Drain something out’a me and leave a
hole in me chest’ (5). In this rather prophetic line (since the book ends with him
locked up, awaiting trial and unable to see much of the sea), Cliff correlates
his external landscape and his internal self. Not seeing the sea around him
makes him feel like his insides are being drained out. It is as if the seascape,
the ocean water, constitutes him. This is indeed a very different relationship
to the sea from Bella and Peter’s ‘view’.8 Cliff’s own freedom is dependent on
his closeness to the sea. However, Kempadoo also subtly invokes the sea as a
fraught place for Cliff: ‘In this cold whiteness the sea come like a dead body.
Dark, gray, and swoll’n, rain pocking holes in ’e skin, floating it and sliding it
round’ (162). The way he later describes the sea as a ‘suffering blue’ indicates
his own feelings, frustrations, and anxiety – which can help us understand his
actions later in the novel.
The liquid imagery of filling and emptying continues throughout the novel.
Cliff compares Bella to a mermaid, and to water itself: ‘She is somet’ing else,
boy. Bella. Like a mermaid. Is so she moving like water. Sweetwater. Losing
yuh […] T’ings happening and all I know is feelings. Like I trying to hold
water’ (87). Cliff feels lost in the water-like movements of Bella. His effort to
‘hold water’ recalls the earlier image of his fear of being drained. Also, as he
floats in water he is ‘holding’ it around himself. He cannot grasp the liquid,
but he can somehow unify himself with it, and, by extension, with Bella. The
natural world is both inside him and surrounding him. The sea is so much his
element that one cannot distinguish outside from inside, solid from liquid,
human from nature. He describes himself in the water: ‘I is a island. Legs open
and the blanket still holding me. Like a big cape, spreading me far and wide
but keeping me safe and gentle’ (189). The ‘island’ can connote isolation and
independence but also openness and interdependence. It would be a reduction
indeed to perceive this moment as reinforcing stereotypes of black men’s
affinity to nature. Instead, that dominant framework is overturned, and the
reader glimpses the beauty and pleasure of Cliff’s ecological co-constitution.

6 See Casteel’s characterization of literary representations of the sea (2011,

7 See Barry Lopez’s description of the relationship between the internal and
external landscape in his article, ‘Landscape and Narrative’ (2004).
8 We might note that in the neoliberal economy, the sea is primarily for the tourists
not the residents.

Molly Nichols

Amidst his difficult economic circumstances, Cliff finds refuge in the sea that
is also the site of his exploitation.
In a later scene, Cliff describes his experience with Bella underwater:
‘And is so she was diving wit’ me with she hair fanning seaweed, bright skin
smoothing as mine. We did stay there, white sand swirlsing. Underwata. The
mirror roof reflectioning. Bamboo peeping. Look how t’ings does happen,
eh. And de whole’a God night sky was watching’ (87). The sibilance of Cliff’s
description reflects their experience under the water as we can hear the
movements through the language: the ‘white sand swirlsing’. With the
water surrounding them, Cliff feels protected. In this moment Cliff’s and
Bella’s perceptions of the landscape almost converge. The sea, sky, and trees
catalyse their desire, and while it might seem as if the natural world allows for
this intimacy in ways society does not it is difficult to ignore how the natural
world has been constructed as a space in which potentially exploitative
relations are enabled; the natural world seems to condone such behaviour
because the legacies of colonialism and sexual exploitation are embedded
within it. The novel may offer us this potentially beautiful interlude, but it also
points to how fraught and fleeting it is. As events unfold, the relationship
between Cliff and Bella is compromised, and the novel confronts the class
disparities between them. The exploitative aspects of the relationship return
to the foreground.

The Rip Tide and the Reader

Kempadoo’s depiction of Cliff as a thief runs the risk of confirming stereotypes

of class and race, and readers are put in a difficult position. A little over
halfway through the narrative, Bella’s perspective is the primary one, and
we are distanced from Cliff’s. We learn from her that some money has
gone missing and she suspects Cliff: ‘All through the flight I rummaging my
head, looking for the money. Cliff’s mask flashed for a second, followed by
a guilty shame’ (143). Some readers might share the suspicion and perhaps
the attendant guilt of recognizing their own race and class assumptions.
The text lures in and then implicates the reader. The refusal to offer Cliff’s
perspective, not to give readers access to his thoughts as the thefts happen,
forces readers to make an interpretive choice – an ethical call – and to
confront our own responses.
The suspicions are confirmed when we find out Cliff has stolen money and
taken the car out, but then we must ask more questions. Who is responsible?
Who led whom along? Cliff reflects on Bella and Peter’s family, including
how ‘good’ they have it. He also asks: ‘who knows what feelings I have for
she?’ (189). This question hints at some kind of emotional connection he has
to Bella, beyond the physical intimacy or the claim he made earlier: ‘Since I
ten I been sexing, yuh know. Da ain’ nuthing’ (114). The chapter reveals his
frustration and increasing anger, manifested in the landscape:

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

And this world is a suffering blue and blazing sun. Beating on me face. Blue
juice floating while me face roasting. I dip it but sun dry it in no time, drink
up every drop and start the heat in me head. Heating up me blue juice to
red. Dry up every bit’a feeling, every reason to do nuthing […] Burning a
emptiness in me belly. Boring a silver bullet hole in me chest. (189)
The sun is literally and figuratively heating him up, but it also makes him
indifferent and empty. The ‘hole in me chest’ recalls the line from the first
chapter where he indicates how he would feel if he could not see the sea.
This moment challenges O’Callaghan’s argument that ‘Cliff’s tragedy lies in
breaking his bond with the sea, with nature, for a fantasy foray [with Bella
and Peter] […] The sea has brightened his life; human and sexual intercourse
irrevocably darkens it’ (2006, 339). Cliff is frustrated by the circumstances, but
his very suffering is expressed in terms of the sea. Again, the co-constitution
between Cliff and the sea occurs.
There are, however, other discourses at work on him as well. His lyrical
ecopoetics are unsettled as we hear the influence of American culture, as well
as gangster culture in Tobago, on his language:
Watch me nuh. Reverse, brakes, action. Tupac rapping in yuh fucking face,
a short man stand up over fire in black and white – ‘Top of the world, Ma!’
Fuck chill. You ain’ shit, I ain’ shit, yuh mudda ain’ shit. Fat-boy crying. Red
Juice in me hands, steering the wheel. Not a siren behind me, a flashing blue
light, a snout of a gun. Watch me nuh. (201)
His anger and resentment become palpable as his language shifts. Unlike the
‘blue juice’ of the sea that soothes Cliff’s face in the previous passage, the ‘red
juice’ of anger and adrenalin manifests itself as he grips the steering wheel.
While he is still invoking natural imagery, his particular rhythm, repetition,
and profanity reflect the influence of American rap music, and then film.
He envisions himself as a character in a film, a fugitive running through a
swamp, with a close-up on his face. He then transitions to being in his own
environment, a landscape he knows intimately, which helps him find his way.
He refers to the ‘jumbies’ and ‘mystic-man’, invoking Tobagonian spiritual
beliefs and culture (202), and he later describes leaving himself in bed at night,
an evocation of his multiple selves (203).
This is a complex rendition of self, and most claims that the book is
confirming stereotypes of a black native man, or romanticizing his idealized
connections to the land, cannot quite account for these passages. Cliff is
multifaceted and difficult to characterize. Perhaps he cannot be understood
in the binary terms of O’Callaghan’s question: ‘We do not know Cliff at all:
is he a sensitive victim or a self destructive criminal’ (335)? For her part,
Kempadoo complicates the romance by refusing to make a clear villain, hero,
or victim, with any of the characters. Kempadoo does not offer a sentimental
ending, in which, for example, Cliff is wrongfully accused. Instead, she forces
us to confront his actions and the circumstances in which they took place.
Cliff’s stealing attracts our attention, and we might overlook the position of

Molly Nichols

the state. However, the book invites us to consider not just individual actors,
but to reflect on the wider society and its mechanisms of operation. Cliff is
disproportionately punished for his rather petty crimes: allegedly taking a
t-shirt, 1,000 dollars, and Bella and Peter’s car on joyrides. When he is caught
by the police, we witness the most violent scene in the novel: ‘a lightning
split me head. Baton lash cracking, hands hold me, ketch me. Crunch
’gainst a banana tree […] Back lash, kick, wood pelting pain. A blood-bawl
scatter – come from my mouth? […] Snap me, cold iron. Wring and twist,
faces, van doors ram closed, I land on a mash-up body, head hitting metal’
(203–04). The cold graphic imagery, juxtaposed with the fluidity and warmth
of his time in the sea, is emphasized through the cadence and rhythms of
Cliff’s consciousness. This violence may not directly be connected to Cliff’s
sexuality, but his relationship to Bella and Peter certainly precipitated his
current position.
Kempadoo highlights how state and sexual violence are inextricably
linked, with state violence shown to occur in a context of sexual labour. This
distinguishes Tide Running’s depiction of sexual violence from that found in
many other Caribbean texts, such as Kempadoo’s own Buxton Spice, Danticat’s
Breath, Eyes, Memory, Antoni’s Blessed is the Fruit, Kincaid’s Autobiography of My
Mother, Dabydeen’s Slave Song, and Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, where
direct accounts of rape and sexual assault are central to the narratives.
Kempadoo’s narrative puts pressure on the state apparatus and its exploi-
tation of power, not primarily colonial discourses and the patriarchy. It
thus illustrates Alexander’s argument that the state legitimizes itself in the
context of neoliberal restructuring by regulating sexuality and simultaneously
supporting the commodification of Caribbean bodies. Within the novel, Cliff’s
sexuality is indirectly regulated and disciplined by the state, which punishes
Cliff and protects the ‘tourists’.
The final scenes of the novel demonstrate Cliff’s losses. Whilst in prison,
his connection to the natural world is dulled, even as the sea continues to
occupy his thoughts. He imagines the slaves who pulled the rocks up the hill;
as happens at other moments in the text, this buried history is momentarily
brought to light. The novel thus insists on balancing two claims: that the
landscape is inextricable from the structures of power, but that it also grounds
and sustains Cliff. As he sits in his cell awaiting trial, Cliff describes what he
can see of the sea: ‘And the sea ain’ stirring […] Cat paws ain’ scratching ’e
surface today. Not a current shift on ’e face. Sea stop today’ (215). This last line
helps us register Cliff’s loss, but the ending is not absolute. The sea just stops
‘today’, not indefinitely. Kempadoo holds out some prospect of hope for the
future, which invites us not to interpret this ending as tragic, as some critics
have argued (O’Callaghan, 2006; Rahim, 2004). Tide Running can be seen –
through the lens provided by Donette Francis in Fictions of Feminine Citizenship
– as an ‘antiromance’ for ‘its reluctance to offer grand narrative closure,
settlement, or any satisfaction derived from other genres such as tragedy’s
“catharsis” or romance’s joy of witnessing eventual agonistic triumph’ (2010,

Ecopoetics of Pleasure and Power

8). It refuses to ‘cover over sociopolitical tensions and insist[s] that we not
cover up violence in the form of romance or resign to despair in the mode
of tragedy’ (145). In the end, Kempadoo complicates these romance tropes
in significant ways: the novel’s multifaceted intersecting representations of
the environment and sexuality help us acknowledge that the tendency to
see only degradation in the Caribbean, as some critics are wont to do, is not
much preferable to seeing only paradise. Kempadoo demonstrates that nature
and sexuality are ideologically freighted discourses, yet she creates a space
for depicting the beauty of landscape and the pleasure of sex. She notes the
costs of desire in the context of the prevailing socio-economic and political
relations in Trinidad and Tobago, insisting that beauty and pleasure cannot
exist outside power and history.

Works Cited

Antoni, Robert. 1997. Blessed is the Fruit. New York: Henry Holt.
Bucknor, Michael A., and Alison Donnell. Eds. 2011. The Routledge Companion to
Anglophone Caribbean Literature. London: Routledge.
Burns, Lorna. 2008. ‘Landscape and Genre in the Caribbean Canon: A Poetics of Place
and Paradise’. Journal of West Indian Literature 17(1): 20–41.
Casid, Jill. 2005. Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Casteel, Sara. 2011. ‘The Language of Landscape: A Lexicon of the Caribbean Spatial
Imaginary’. In Bucknor and Donnell, The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean
Literature: 480–89.
Dabydeen, David. 1984. Slave Song. Mundelstrup: Dangaroo.
Danticat, Edwidge. 1994. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. 2007. Routes and Roots: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island
Literatures. Honololu: University of Hawai’i Press.
—. 2011. ‘Ecocriticism: The Politics of Place’. In Bucknor and Donnell, The Routledge
Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature: 265–75.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth, Renée K. Gosson, and George B. Handley. Eds. 2005. Caribbean
Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture. Charlottesville: University
of Virginia Press.
Donnell, Alison. 2006. Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature: Critical Moments in
Anglophone Literary History. London: Routledge.
Edmondson, Belinda. Ed. 1999. Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Representation.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Francis, Donette. 2010. Fictions of Feminine Citizenship: Sexuality and the Nation in
Contemporary Caribbean Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Glissant, Édouard. 1989. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. J. Michael Dash.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Grenade, Wendy. 2008. ‘An Unwelcome Guest: Unpacking the Tourism and HIV/AIDS
Dilemma in the Caribbean: A Case Study of Grenada’. New Perspectives in Caribbean
Tourism. Eds. Marcella Day, Donna Chambers, and Sherma Roberts. New York:

Molly Nichols

Kempadoo, Kamala. 1999. Sun, Sex, and Gold: Tourism and Sex Work in the Caribbean.
Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.
—. 2004. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labour. New York: Routledge.
Kempadoo, Oonya. 1998. Buxton Spice. Boston: Beacon.
—. Tide Running. 2001. Boston: Beacon.
—. 2011. Personal Interview. Warwick University. 25 Sept. Publication forthcoming in
collection of interviews edited by Michael Mitchell and David Dabydeen.
Kincaid, Jamaica. 1996. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Farrar, Straus, and
King, Rosamond. 2002. ‘Sex and Sexuality in the English Caribbean Novel: A Survey’.
Journal of West Indian Literature 11(1): 24–38.
Kolodny, Annette. 1975. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in
American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Lopez, Barry. 2004. ‘Landscape and Narrative’. Vintage Lopez. New York: Vintage.
McMillan, Terri. 1996. How Stella Got Her Groove Back. New York: Viking.
O’Callaghan, Evelyn. 2006. ‘Women Writing Male Marginalization’. Torre: Revista de la
Universidad de Puerto Rico 11(41–42): 329–44.
Pattullo, Polly. 1996. Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. London: Cassell.
Rahim, Jennifer. 2004. ‘Electronic Fictions and Tourist Currents: Constructing the
Island Body in Kempadoo’s Tide Running’. Anthurium 2.2.
Sheller, Mimi. 2003. Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies. London and New
York: Routledge.
Smith, Faith. 2011. ‘Caribbean Literature and Sexuality’. In Bucknor and Donnell, The
Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature: 403–11.
Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. 2010. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean
Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
‘TT Known for Sex Tourism’. 2011. Trinidad and Tobago Newsday 24 May. www.newsday.,140985.html. Accessed 4 February 2016.
Walcott, Derek. 1987. ‘The Sea is History’. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus,
and Giroux.
Williams, Raymond. 1973. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press.

chapter eight

Jamaica and the Beast:

Negril and the Tourist Landscape
Brian Hudson

Brian Hudson
Jamaica and the Beast

Jamaica is often referred to as an island paradise […] Among its

main attractions are its stunning natural beauty – Litvin and
Fyffe (2008, 161)

I have never returned home without marvelling at the

fundamental beauty of our island or at the horrible things we
are doing to that beauty’ – Priestley (1938).

T he island to which J. B. Priestley refers in the epigraph above is not the

same one as that named by Litvin and Fyffe. Priestley continues, ‘Unless
we realize at once what is happening and make up our minds to put an end to
these horrors, beautiful England will soon be no more than a ghost haunting
libraries and art galleries’. The celebrated novelist wrote those words in a
message commending the publication of the book Britain and the Beast, a
collection of essays by distinguished writers concerned about the spoliation
of Britain’s landscape. For decades, many writers have expressed similar
concerns about Jamaica, partly because, like their British counterparts, they
felt a genuine love for the landscape, and also because they recognized the
value of a beautiful environment as an economic resource.
This chapter is a study of landscape beauty as a resource for the
tourist industry (Hudson, 1986). Using a wide range of sources, it traces
the development of one particular tourist resort area, Negril, in Jamaica,
which has been promoted largely for its natural beauty and pristine tropical
environment. It demonstrates how those qualities have been affected by the
tourist industry and questions how far landscape is valued by promoters of
tourism and even by the tourists themselves.

Brian Hudson

Jamaica’s Tourism Landscape and the Media

Jamaica’s reputation for landscape beauty is centuries old. As Barry Floyd

The record of the first European sighting of Jamaica on 5 May 1494,
would not seem out of place in a contemporary tourist brochure: ‘... there
silhouetted against the evening sky, arose sheer and darkly green Xamayca.
It is the fairest island that eyes have beheld: mountainous and the land
seems to touch the sky; very large, bigger than Sicily, and full of valleys and
fields and plains’. (Floyd, 1979, 25)
These words, attributed to Christopher Columbus, reflect the explorer’s
delight in beautiful landscapes, and it is evident from the records of the
Columbian voyages that green-forested mountains with cascading streams
were among the landscape features that appealed to the aesthetic sense of
the European voyagers (Cohen, 1969).
In the eighteenth century, writers such as Edward Long and William Beckford
described in detail what they saw as the picturesque and sublime landscapes
of the island, which were later recorded by artists including James Hakewell
and Joseph Kidd in the early nineteenth century. It was in the late nineteenth
century, however, that Jamaica acquired its now popular image as a tropical
paradise island where beautiful palm-fringed white sand beaches are lapped by
the blue Caribbean Sea. From the 1880s, tourism promoters, backed by British
colonial administrators, began to market the island, emphasizing its picturesque
scenery and pleasant climate as major attractions. To this end, photographers
and artists were hired to create suitable images that were then circulated in
illustrated guides, on postcards, and by lectures (Thompson, 2006).
Recently, scholars have given attention to the tourist experience as
represented in the media (Crouch, Jackson and Thompson, 2005). In a study
of tourism in the Caribbean region, Marcella Daye used textual analysis
of the travel sections of two British Sunday newspapers to ‘identify the
main features and characteristics used to construct the tourist experience in
representations of the region’s landscape (Daye, 2005, 14). Newspaper articles
were also the subject of a content analysis undertaken by Soren C. Larsen
who examined over 700 articles from Caribbean, US, and Canadian papers
in his study of Negril, a coastal tourist resort in Jamaica (Larsen, 2008). The
following discussion of Negril’s development and its impact on the landscape
and natural environment draws on newspaper articles, guide books, published
survey data, and other sources. Focusing on a part of the Jamaican coast
known to the author since 1969, this chapter examines the views of a range
of men and women concerned with the Jamaican environment, and assesses
how far development in Negril meets or falls short of their hopes for the
area. Central to the discussion is the widely held view that Negril’s landscape
beauty and unspoiled natural environment were important factors in the
development of the tourist industry there.

Jamaica and the Beast

Negril: A Tropical Paradise Discovered and Exploited

Located at the extreme western tip of Jamaica, Negril was not a place that
received much attention from writers until the late 1950s when Premier
Norman Manley initiated road construction and swamp drainage works
intended to stimulate tourism development there. Before then, even tourist
guide books had little to say about Negril’s beautiful white sand beach
in its unspoiled tropical setting. This was probably because of its relative
isolation and inaccessibility, partly due to the Great Morass which lies
immediately inland from the beach of Long Bay. Published by the Tourist Trade
Development Board in 1937, Philip Olley’s Guide to Jamaica makes only the
briefest passing reference to Negril, saying nothing about its possible interest
to the tourist (Olley, 1937, 256). Over thirty years later, another guidebook
mentions recent government investment in Negril, the establishment of a
Negril Area Land Authority, and the enactment of legislation ‘to control
land speculation and stimulate development’. However, the authors add, ‘up
to the present […] development by private investors has fallen a great deal
short of expectation’ (Wright and White, 1969, 133). Government funding
had provided a good access road and a drainage canal system for the morass,
but private investment was mainly limited to a small hotel and a few tourist
cottages. It was about then that Negril was discovered by ‘young foreigners,
college kids, draft dodgers, [and] Vietnam veterans’ (Morris, 1995, 139).
These were commonly referred to locally as ‘hippies’. Generally unwelcome
to land owners and business people with interests in beachfront properties
beside Long Bay, these newcomers found accommodation among the local
population, mainly along the cliffs of the West End beside the road leading
to the lighthouse.
I witnessed this early phase of Negril’s development during my period
of service with the Jamaican Government Town Planning Department. On
completion of my contract, I joined the academic staff of the University of
the West Indies as a lecturer in geography. There I continued my interest in
Jamaica’s tourism development, particularly its impact on the landscape and
natural environment. I became involved in the conservation movement that
was now growing in Jamaica where many people were becoming increasingly
concerned about the harmful impacts of poorly designed and inadequately
controlled development. Prepared by members of the Town and Country
Planning Association of Jamaica in 1975, is an unpublished report which
Negril is fabled for its natural beauty and has a special place in the hearts
and minds of Jamaicans. Much thought and effort by many people over
many years have been put into its conservation and proper development.
This report has been written by some 20 members of the Town and
Country Planning Association of Jamaica and their associates, all profes-
sionals who have worked on aspects of Negril development, their collective

Brian Hudson

experience covering more than 20 years. (Town and Country Planning

Association of Jamaica, 1978, 1)
Most of the men and women involved in this exercise were Jamaicans, with
a few expatriates, including a former Government Town planner. As one of
the contributors to the report, I brought the experience of two years on the
staff of the Jamaican Government Town Planning Department where part of
my duties was development control in the Negril area. This narrow coastal
strip at the extreme western tip of Jamaica extended into two local authority
districts, the parishes of Hanover and Westmoreland. It was because of this
division of the area between two local authorities normally responsible for
planning control that the Negril Green Island Development Order, 1959 was
promulgated and the Negril Area Land Authority (NALA) appointed as the
local planning authority. The failure of these and subsequent measures to
achieve their stated aims is described by Pauline McHardy who was President
of Jamaica’s Town and Country Planning Association at the time of the Negril
Survey (McHardy, 2002).
During the years 1970 to 1972, my attempts to control development along
the coast between Green Island and Negril Point were guided by the limited
provisions of the 1959 Provisional Development Order and the advice of the
NALA, on which I sat as representative of the Jamaican Government Town
planner. Prompted by the prospect of a new Development Order, the 1978
Negril report was the initiative of concerned planning and environmental
professionals who wanted to ensure that the almost pristine coastlands at the
extreme west of Jamaica were developed in a way that brought the benefits of
tourism to that part of the island while preserving its landscape beauty and
rich ecosystems for future generations. The document was tabled by me at a
meeting of Jamaica’s Town Planning Advisory Committee which had little to
say in response to the recommendations it contained.
By that time, I was no longer directly employed by the Jamaican
Government. As an academic, I now had greater freedom to express my
professional opinions in public, and, in 1974, I wrote a series of three articles
on Jamaican coastal development that were published in the Daily Gleaner,
Jamaica’s leading newspaper (Hudson, 1974a; 1974b; 1974c). I followed this
with other articles critical of recent development in Jamaica, particularly
in coastal areas, and, later, that part of the Negril report written by me
was published in a US journal (Hudson, 1979). My concern, shared by many
others in Jamaica, was that continued haphazard and weakly controlled
development along the island’s coast would lead to the destruction of much
that Jamaicans loved about their tropical island environment and which
attracted tourists who contribute greatly to the national economy. Stretches
of strip development along the coast road between Ocho Rios and Montego
Bay provided an indication of the kind of built environment that threatened

Jamaica and the Beast

Negril: ‘Beauty Defiled’

There can be no doubt that at least some of the promoters of Jamaica’s

tourism believed that the island’s landscape beauty and unspoiled natural
environment were important factors in the appeal of Jamaica as a holiday
destination. Produced for the NALA by the Urban Development Corporation
(UDC) and the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) sometime in the 1970s, a pamphlet
entitled Negril Jamaica declares, ‘Negril is beauty. It is the contrast between the
wide and tranquil bays of the beachlands and the wild tropical beauty of the
West End’. Elsewhere, the pamphlet claims that Negril ‘has long been noted as
one of Jamaica’s most beautiful and scenic areas’ (NALA, UDC, and JTB, n.d.).
The emphasis in this tourism promotion pamphlet is on the unspoiled beauty
of the tropical environment, with its white sand beaches, clear aquamarine
sea, limestone cliffs and caves, and relaxing, peaceful atmosphere. Before
the arrival of the all-inclusive resorts that now dot the coast, accommo-
dation in villagers’ homes, guest houses, holiday cottages and small hotels
encouraged ‘a free and easy camaraderie between local and visitor’. Since that
time, Negril has changed greatly. Its transformation from a ‘unique vacation
paradise’ renowned for its beauty (NALA, UDC, and JTB, n.d.) to ‘a rather
nasty little township’ beside a beach lined with ‘hotels, clubs and so-called
villages’ (Robertson, 1981a, 50) and ‘today’s overdeveloped strip’ (Thomas and
Vaitlingam, 2007, 308) has been recorded and discussed in the print media,
remaining a topic of national and international concern to this day.
Robertson’s article was first published in London’s Sunday Times newspaper.
It later appeared under the heading ‘As Others See Us’, in Jamaica’s Daily
Gleaner (Robertson, 1981b, 12). Despite his adverse comments on Negril’s
development, the journalist was still happy to discover that, ‘the old resort
Jamaica is still there with all its charm’ (12). Jamaican readers might have felt
relieved by that, while perhaps rather worried about the way in which one of
its most promising new tourist areas was developing. By the 1980s, serious
concerns about Negril’s development were being expressed by hoteliers and
residents of the area. A ‘concerned resident’ of Negril wrote to the Editor
of the Sunday Gleaner in 1984, expressing dissatisfaction with the Town
Planning Department for not exercising proper control over development,
and complaining that ‘Negril is now reduced to a veritable slum’. This writer’s
main concern appears to be ‘sub-standard’ buildings and ‘shacks’ which were
erected on land ‘earmarked for residences, hotels, cottages, etc.’ (‘Concerned
Resident’, 1984, 25). On a visit in 1987, Gleaner reporter Ian Spenser was
told by hoteliers that ‘over the past ten years, since Negril came into the
limelight as a prime tourist destination, scores of hotel facilities had been
constructed along the beach strip and West End without any systematic plans
and many without permission’. One hotel operator expressed the view that
the area needed ‘a comprehensive development plan’, which, if not prepared
and implemented quickly would mean that ‘Negril faces impending disaster’
(Spenser, 1987, 4).

Brian Hudson

It was during the 1980s that another form of development threatened

Negril with what many regarded as a potential environmental disaster. At
this time the peat deposits of the Great Morass behind the Long Bay beach
were being investigated for possible extraction and use as fuel for electricity
generation. Jamaican novelist John Hearne was among those who expressed
his views on this proposal in the national press. He was cautiously optimistic
about the benefits of carefully managed peat extraction and burning for
power generation at Negril where the morass was already being damaged by
agriculture, including the illegal cultivation of marijuana. While there were
many who doubted the wisdom of proceeding with the peat project, even they
would have agreed with Hearne when he wrote, ‘I am dead sure that – mining
or no mining – Negril will be a wasted country in ten years if it does not now
come under the most imaginative national care’ (Hearne, 1984, 17). The peat
project was eventually abandoned, but the ‘imaginative national care’ that
Hearne and others hoped for was not to be.

The Threat of Paradise Lost

Unrestrained hotel and associated tourism development along the coast

at Negril continued to attract criticism in the Jamaican press, journalists
Margaret Morris and Janice Ansine being amongst the most vocal. Reporting
a public forum hosted by the Negril Chamber of Commerce to discuss a
proposed beachfront hotel development, Ansine noted local residents’ fears of
a ‘concrete jungle’ that would replace ‘one of the last stands of trees in Negril’
(Ansine, 1992, 1). Writing about the spread of tourist development to Jamaica’s
south coast, Morris revealed one potential investor’s unflattering views of the
way that the industry was growing, quoting him as saying, ‘God forbid that we
should create another Ocho Rios or even another Negril’ (Morris, 1991, 7A).
Ocho Rios and Negril are two of several coastal areas where the UDC has
played a major role. Established by the Jamaica Labour Party government in
1956, the UDC was created as an implementation agency to act as a developer
in the public interest. Its main function was defined as the planning and
promotion of urban development in areas designated in accordance with
the overall policy for the island (Knight, 1976, 71). Responsible for Kingston’s
waterfront redevelopment in the 1970s, the UDC soon became involved in
other developments around Jamaica. The Corporation has powers that enable
it to bypass some local authority controls, and it has often been criticized
for promoting development which many regard as inappropriate. Among its
most vociferous critics was the late John Maxwell, journalist and broadcaster
(1934–2010), ‘widely known as a courageous defender of basic human rights
and the natural environment’ ( Jamaica Observer, 14 December 2010). Maxwell
summarized his opinion of the UDC as follows:
The UDC, known to some of us as the Universal Devastation Consortium,

Jamaica and the Beast

has become a private enterprise style property developer, as well as being

itself a local planning authority answerable to no one but itself. (Maxwell,
Maxwell was critical of what he saw as the UDC’s role in degrading the
Jamaican environment, including the island’s landscape beauty. He told his
The wanton destruction of the Jamaican landscape, an integral component
of the Jamaican ‘tourism product’, has made the pages of the New York
Times, the National Geographic, countless internet blogs and lots of other
places. (Maxwell, 2008)
Negril is one of the places which Maxwell believed had suffered partly because
of the UDC. Maxwell claimed that the UDC ignored the warnings of the
Natural Resources Conservation Authority on which he served as Chairman,
and proceeded with development that had harmful consequences for the
beach. As a result of the effect of hotel sewage disposal on the morass and the
construction of an ‘illegal’ groyne, ‘Negril’s famous beaches are now reduced
to thin, mostly muddy strips’ (Maxwell, 2008). Maxwell’s denunciation of
Jamaica’s ‘uglificators’ was clearly a reflection of his own passionate love of
the island’s beauty and cultural heritage, as well as his concern for its future
environmental well-being and economic development (Maxwell, 2006b).
Fellow Jamaican journalist Margaret Morris is also the author of an authori-
tative guidebook, Tour Jamaica, in which she says of Negril, ‘The pristine
beauty that brought it fame is only a memory, but’, she adds, ‘the magic
persists’ (Morris, 1988, 138). Written by authors from outside the country, The
Rough Guide to Jamaica also acknowledges the loss of Negril’s former unspoiled
beauty, ‘a virgin paradise of palms and pristine sand’, which, in three decades,
became a ‘full-blown resort town’ (Thomas and Vaitlingam, 2007, 308).
Like Morris, these writers claim that Negril still has its own special appeal:
‘Nevertheless, despite new expansion, it is still possible to find the laid-back
charm and gorgeous scenery that first brought tourists to Negril’ (311).

Pleasures of the Flesh

The scenic attractions of Negril include Negril Point Lighthouse and the
diminishing strip of undeveloped cliff top nearby, and the Royal Palm Reserve,
a protected area within the Great Morass. Today, however, Negril’s attractions
are associated more with the uninhibited indulgence in carnal pleasures,
including sex and drugs, than with the enjoyment of beautiful landscapes
which are readily sacrificed for tourism development:
The traditional menu of ganja and reggae (Negril has a deserved reputation
for its live music) draws a young crowd, but the north coast resort ethic
has muscled in, too. All-inclusives pepper the coast and, even though

Brian Hudson

undeveloped beachfront land is now extremely limited, are still being built
(Thomas and Vaitlingam, 2007, 308–09).
Negril’s reputation for drugs and sex dates back to the start of its development
as a tourist resort, when the enjoyment of its famed glorious sunsets was often
‘chemically enhanced’ (Thomas and Vaitlingam, 2007, 308). The concerned
Negril resident who wrote to the editor of the Sunday Gleaner in January 1984
deplored the ‘drug pushers and prostitutes who molest and abuse decent
tourists’ (‘Concerned Resident’, 1984), but today sex and drugs are what many
of Negril’s visitors seek on their Jamaican holiday. Hoteliers have cashed in
on Negril’s reputation as a resort where ‘inhibitions are lost and pleasures
of the flesh rule’ (Thomas and Vaitlingam, 2007, 309). The appropriately
named Hedonism II resort began as a UDC development, Negril Beach Village,
operated by Issa Hotels, becoming internationally famous, or infamous, for
its ‘tales of bacchanalia and nude beaches [that] shocked Jamaica, lured the
tourists, and launched Negril’ (Morris, 1995, 141).
While it is true that landscape beauty has a strong appeal for many
tourists, there are many other things that attract them, and there are plenty
who prefer to use landscape features as playgrounds rather than as objects of
aesthetic contemplation. Mountains become rock masses to climb or slopes
for skiing, tumbling rivers channels for white-water canoeing and rafting, for
example. Negril’s fretted limestone cliffs are now perhaps better known for
jumping and diving into the sea below than for their rugged beauty, which
has been largely spoiled by development. Watersports are popular at Negril,
and for many it is the enjoyment of these activities rather than of the scenery
that attracts them here. Indeed, we should remember that, despite convincing
evidence that there are some important universal factors in the human
response to landscape, culture plays a significant role and personal tastes
differ (Appleton, 1996; Bourassa, 1991; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). There are
those who feel that beauty spots can be greatly improved by the provision of
food and drink outlets, accommodation and amusement facilities of various
kinds, while others deplore what they regard as unnecessary intrusions into
scenic landscapes (Hudson, 1987).

What the Tourist Wants

Published results of Jamaica Tourist Board visitor opinion surveys undertaken

between December 2005 and December 2007 throw some light on tourist
preferences (Jamaica Tourist Board). A table recording ‘Impressions of Jamaica
before and after Visit’ includes ‘scenery’ as one of the categories listed. The
others are: ‘attitude of people, beaches, music, safe place to visit, accommo-
dation facilities, attractions, culture, entertainment and watersport activities’.
Interestingly, ‘scenery’ is the category that appears at the top of the JTB’s list,
although the results of the surveys suggest that this aspect of the country

Jamaica and the Beast

as a vacation environment is of no more importance than most of the other

characteristics listed. The record indicates that in every category average
visitor impressions of the country slightly improved after the trip. Nowhere
else in the survey results is scenery mentioned, but some visitor interests
that emerge are relevant. It is clear that beaches are by far Jamaica’s greatest
attraction, with 76 per cent to 81 per cent of respondents being ‘very
interested’ in these. About 40 per cent were ‘very interested’ in watersports,
an activity mainly associated with the seaside, slightly more than the number
very interested in visiting ‘nature areas’, places where the scenery is usually an
important part of the attraction. The 20 per cent to 28 per cent who were very
interested in ‘guided tours’ probably included some who enjoyed beautiful
Most of the attractions specifically named in the surveys were places
of scenic interest, although activities such as horse riding and encounters
with dolphins were commonly important parts of the experience. Dunns
River, which cascades spectacularly into the sea at a popular bathing beach,
remains Jamaica’s most popular tourist attraction with up to 36 per cent of
survey respondents visiting this much advertised place. Climbing the falls and
bathing from the beach below compete with, and possibly detract from, the
enjoyment of the beauty of Dunns River Falls. For some, this famous beauty
spot has been spoiled by commercial development and the large crowds of
visitors it receives (Hudson, 1999). Significantly, the JTB surveys indicate that
slightly less than half of the respondents visited any of Jamaica’s attractions,
suggesting that most tourists are content to stay at or near their hotels or
resorts while on holiday.

Implications for Negril

What do these tourist attitudes imply for Negril? Perhaps the loss of landscape
beauty there makes little difference to the success of a resort that continues
to attract visitors more interested in the beach, water sports and a ‘good
time’ in a permissive, laid-back environment. The increase in all-inclusive
resorts has raised concern among attraction owners because guests who stay
at these hotel complexes are often hesitant to explore the environs, partly
because of concerns about personal safety (Dunn, 1999, 26). The problem is
summarized as follows: ‘All-inclusive resorts dominate Jamaican tourism. […]
It would seem that more than any other major destination that [sic] Jamaica
relies upon the all-inclusive market […] Rarely, it is noted, do visitors emerge
from these enclaves, with the exception of planned tours, hosted by the
resort itself’ (Litvin and Fyffe, 2008, 167). It is, perhaps, ironic, in a case study
of two of these resorts, one of them Hedonism II in Negril, that we find the
following statement: ‘The tropical climate and varied but magnificent scenery
have made Jamaica a popular tourist destination’ (Winston, 1985: 450). The
study has very little to say about excursions, giving much more attention

Brian Hudson

to ‘free’ hotel-based activities, ‘like tennis, crafts, horseback riding, sailing,

cycling, and live evening entertainers plus dancing and piano bar’ (Winston,
1985, 457). Guests generally enjoyed their holiday experience, including ‘a
wide range of free activities’, complaints being mainly related to problems
with staff and equipment associated with this aspect of their stay (463).
Interestingly, ‘some guests booked ocean view rooms but found these had
been oversold on arrival, and they had to take a mountain view room or a villa
until an ocean view was vacated’ (462).
While scenic beauty may not be necessary, some aspects of environmental
quality remain important, however. Degradation of the beach and pollution
of the sea, for example, can seriously threaten the continued attraction of
a seaside destination. Negril has suffered considerably in this way. Beach
degradation there has already been mentioned, but the sea itself and the fish
and corals that are among its attractions are also being harmed by pollution
associated with tourism. Describing a development in Negril’s West End,
Olsen (1997, 288) records, ‘At least four toilets flush directly into the sea from
that property alone. Most of the properties along the Lighthouse Road still
use this outmoded, irresponsible system. Consequently, coral life all along
the cliffs to the Lighthouse is dying’. Subsequent construction of a central
sewage system was estimated to handle the sewage there until 2015, but local
authorities expressed doubts about this in the light of rapid development in
Negril. ‘Sea water testing since 1990 confirms escalating pollution, a dying
reef, fewer fish and tourists who do not return’ (Olsen, 1997, 287). Among the
reasons for tourist disillusionment were sea floor litter, surface scum, and ear
and vaginal infections derived from sea bathing.
Jamaican NGOs such as the Negril Coral Reef Preservation Society campaign
strongly to stop the continued degradation of the natural environment, and
the tourist industry itself is now concerned about growing environmental
problems that threaten its future. Jamaican hoteliers have blamed foreign,
particularly Spanish, resort developers for some of the recent problems.
Complaints include breaches of the Environmental Act by the disposal of
toxic wastewater into the sea, causing skin irritation to bathers, and the
construction of ‘monstrosities with little attention paid to the environment
[…] which have damaged the coastline of Jamaica irreparably’ (,


The Jamaican tourist industry has long been promoted on the basis of
the island’s beautiful landscape and pristine natural environment. With its
unspoiled white sand beaches washed by the clear, blue Caribbean Sea in a
setting of gorgeous tropical scenery, Jamaica has been portrayed as a paradise
for holidaymakers. While tourism was transforming more accessible parts
of Jamaica’s coast, Negril remained relatively untouched until government

Jamaica and the Beast

intervention began to encourage tourism development there. Again, it was

the image of the tropical paradise that was used to promote the previously
neglected coastal location which had all the advantages of pristine white
sand beaches in a beautiful landscape. As the pace of development increased,
there was growing concern about the impact of tourism on the landscape
and natural environment which were beginning to show signs of degradation.
Jamaican and overseas journalists, guidebook writers and others reported
the transformation of Negril from a tranquil seaside holiday place renowned
for the beauty and pristine quality of its varied coast to a bustling resort
town which had lost much of its original attractive character through
insensitive overdevelopment and various kinds of environmental damage,
including pollution. Increasingly dependent on visitors seeking ‘pleasures
of the flesh’, many staying in all-inclusive beach resorts, the importance of
landscape beauty as a major tourist attraction appears to have declined. As
long as the environment within the resort or close to the hotel is sufficiently
attractive to the guests, the visitors are likely to be unconcerned about what
is happening to the surrounding landscape. Degraded beaches, polluted seas,
dying coral and depleted fish stocks are another matter, however. Already
these are problems that threaten the future success of Negril as a tourist
resort area.
Jamaica continues to be promoted as a beautiful tropical island, and the
country still contains varied landscapes of remarkable beauty. While, for some
tourists, the spoliation of the landscape may be of little concern, for others
it is likely to discourage them from holidaying in Jamaica, or in those parts of
the country that are seen to be spoiled. For Jamaicans who love the beauty
of their country, the ‘uglification’ of the landscape is a tragedy. They are also
concerned about the negative effect of this and the wider aspects of environ-
mental degradation on the national economy, particularly tourism. Landscape
beauty is both a cultural and an economic resource, and it makes good sense
to exploit it in a sustainable manner. The case of Negril can inform those who
make the decisions on how future tourism development should proceed.

Works Cited

Ansine, J. 1992. ‘Proposed $500m Hotel in Trouble. Negril Doesn’t Want “Concrete
Jungle”’. Daily Gleaner 23 January.
Appleton, J. 1996. The Experience of Landscape. Rev. edn. Chichester: John Wiley and
Bourassa, S. C. 1991. The Aesthetics of Landscape. London and New York: Belhaven Press.
Britton, S. and W. C. Clarke. Eds. 1987. Ambiguous Alternative: Tourism in Small Developing
Countries. Suva: University of the South Pacific.
Cohen, J. M. Ed. and trans. 1969. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being His
Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives. Harmondsworth:
‘Concerned Resident’. 1984. ‘Negril Development’, Sunday Gleaner 22 January: 25.

Brian Hudson

Crouch, D., R. Jackson and F. Thompson. Eds. 2005, The Media and the Tourist Imagination:
Converging Cultures. London: Routledge.
Daye, M. 2005. ‘Mediating Tourism: An Analysis of the Caribbean Holiday Experience
in the UK National Press’. In Crouch, Jackson, and Thompson, The Media and the
Tourist Imagination: Converging Cultures: 14–26.
Dunn, L. 1999. Tourism Attractions: A Critical Analysis of the Subsector in Jamaica. Kingston:
Canoe Press. 2008, ‘Spanish Hotels Do More Harm than Good to Jamaica’s Tourism
Product’. http.//
Accessed 24 February 2011.
Floyd, B. 1979. Jamaica: An Island Microcosm. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Hearne, J. 1984. ‘More on Peat Mining’. Sunday Gleaner 15 July: 14, 17.
Hudson, B. J. 1974a. ‘Development on the Jamaican Coast’. Daily Gleaner 22 January: 3.
—. 1974b. ‘Solution to the Development Problem’. Daily Gleaner 23 January: 3.
—. 1974c. ‘Protecting the Coast’. Daily Gleaner 24 January: 3.
—. 1979. ‘The End of Paradise: What Kind of Development for Negril?’ Caribbean Review
8(3): 32–33.
—. 1986. ‘Landscape as Resource for National Development: A Caribbean View’.
Geography 71: 116–21.
—. 1987. ‘Tourism and Landscape in Jamaica and Grenada’. In Britton and Clarke,
Ambiguous Alternative: Tourism in Small Developing Countries: 46–60.
—. 1999. ‘Fall of Beauty: The Story of a Jamaican Waterfall: A Tragedy in Three Acts’.
Tourism Geographies 1(3): 343–57.
Jamaica Observer. 2010. ‘Journalists Remember “Fearless Warrior” John Maxwell’. 11
warrior--John-Maxwell-. Accessed 27 January 2016. [AQ _14]
Jamaica Tourist Board.
AllItems.aspx. Accessed 24 March 2011.
Kaplan, R., and S. Kaplan. 1989. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knight, G. 1976. The Jamaican Urban Development Corporation, Report of Proceedings,
Town and Country Planning School 5–16 September, 1975, University College of
Wales, Aberystwyth, Royal Town Planning Institute, London: 71.
Larsen, S.C. 2008. ‘Negril in the News: Content Analysis of a Contested Paradise’.
Caribbean Geography 15(1): 35–58.
Litvin, S. W., and K. Fyffe. 2008. ‘Tourism: A View from the Fray; a Jamaican Case
Study’. International Journal of Business and Globalisation 2(2): 160–72.
McHardy, P. 2002. Urban and Regional Planning in Jamaica. 2nd edn. Leicester: Upfront
Maxwell, J. 2006a. ‘Whatever Lola Wants’. Maxwell’s House 22 January. http://johnmax- Accessed 15
March 2011.
—. 2006b. ‘Laughing Water and the Uglificators’. Maxwell’s House 31 December. http://
html. Accessed 10 March 2011.
—. 2008. ‘Jamaica for Sale’. Black Agenda Report 16 November. http://www.blackagen- Accessed 24 March 2011.
Morris, M. 1991. ‘Tourism Expansion and the Environment’. Sunday Gleaner 29
December: 7A.

Jamaica and the Beast

—. 1995. Tour Jamaica. Rev. edn. Kingston: The Gleaner Company Ltd.
NALA, UDC, and JTB. n.d. ‘Negril Jamaica’, pamphlet.
Olley, P. 1937, Guide to Jamaica, British West Indies. Kingston: Tourist Trade Development
Olsen, B. 1997. ‘Environmentally Sustainable Development and Tourism: Lessons from
Negril, Jamaica’. Human Organization 56(3): 285–93.
Priestley, J. B. 1938. ‘Message’. Britain and the Beast. Ed. Clough Williams-Ellis. London:
Readers Union, by arrangement with J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd.: viii.
Robertson, A. 1981a. ‘Sunshine Island Back on the Map’. Sunday Times 1 February: 50.
—. 1981b. ‘As Others See Us. Sunshine Island Back on the Map’. Daily Gleaner 29 May:
Spenser, I, 1987. ‘Hoteliers, Residents Concerned Over Future of Negril’s Tourism’.
Jamaican Weekly Gleaner 14 September: 4.
Thomas, P., and A. Vaitlingam. 2007. The Rough Guide to Jamaica, 4th edn. New York,
London, and Delhi: Rough Guides.
Thompson, K. A. 2006. An Eye for the Tropics: Photography and Framing the Caribbean
Picturesque. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Town and Country Planning Association of Jamaica. 1978. ‘A Report on Negril’.
unpublished document. Kingston.
Winston, R. 1985. ‘Couples’. Entrepreneurship: Text, Cases and Notes. Ed. Robert Ronstadt.
Dover, MA: Lord Publishing: 449–67.
Wright, P., and P. White. 1969. Exploring Jamaica: A Guide for Motorists. London: Andre

chapter nine

Ecology, Identity,
and Colonialism in Martinique:
The Discourse of an
Environmental NGO (1980–2011)
Malcom Ferdinand

Malcom Ferdinand
Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique
Pour le peuple colonisé la valeur la plus essentielle, parce que la
plus concrète, c’est d’abord la terre: la terre qui doit assurer le
pain et, bien sûr, la dignité1 – Frantz Fanon (2002, 47–48)

A ll ecologies have their stories. In this chapter, I investigate the stories and
histories through which ecology and ecological claims have come to light
on the Caribbean island of Martinique. This so-called ‘overseas department of
France’ since 1946 harbours an under-sea colonial history that surfaces from
time to time. The numerous monuments to commemorate the abolition of
slavery, the contemporary social tensions between the descendants of the
enslaved and the descendants of slave owners (the békés), and the much
discussed political relations between Martinique and the metropolis ‘France’
(evident in the general strike of early 2009), bring to life stories of slavery and
It is in this context that, for the past 40 years, numerous conflicts have
taken place regarding the preservation of the forests, mangroves, and natural
resources of the island. The first of such ‘ecological conflicts’ dates back
to the summer of 1974 in the southern town of Saint-Anne and concerns a
tourist project called Asathama. A 11,500-bed hotel complex that not only
required the draining of a swamp but also involved the privatization of one
of the island’s most cherished beaches, the project was blocked by a number
of demonstrations led by the local inhabitants. Since then, more than thirty
explicitly ecological conflicts have occurred on the island. In 1975, in the

1 ‘For a colonized people, the most essential value because the most concrete one,
is first the land: the land that must provide bread and, of course, dignity’.

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

town of Rivière-Salée, demonstrations were held against the construction of

a private port that required the destruction of part of the local mangrove.
More recently, in 2005, a heated struggle over the construction of a mall right
inside the mangrove of the central part of the island led to confrontations
between demonstrators and police forces. Finally, perhaps the most famous
of such conflicts unfolded in 2007 and involved the contamination of the
water and soils of Martinique by the carcinogenic molecule called chlordecone
(chlordécone), heavily used in the banana industry (Confiant and Boutrin, 2007).
The presence of these ecological conflicts reflects a rise in environ-
mental concerns in Martinique, as in many other parts of the world. My
interest in this chapter does not lie in the historical documentation of these
conflicts but rather in a study of their epistemology: the terms and meanings
of such environmental concerns in this postcolonial society. Among the
various different actors and institutions involved, this chapter focuses on the
actions and discourse of a major local ecological NGO named ASSAUPAMAR
(Association pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine martiniquais [Organization for
the Preservation of the Martinican Heritage]).
ASSAUPAMAR was founded in 1981 by a group of activists from political
parties advocating independence, who had taken part in the environmental
demonstrations of the 1970s. Since then, ASSAUPAMAR has led demonstrations
and published numerous articles on their website ( and
in local newspapers arguing for the preservation of the mangroves and of
agricultural land on the 1,100 square kilometres of Martinique, as well as for
free access to the seashore. They also take matters to court, bringing many
cases against the authorities for illegally sanctioning development projects,
or against individuals who either seek to claim ownership of public land (as
is frequently the case along the coast) or whose actions induce ecological
This organization of around 100 members represents the backbone of the
green movement in Martinique. Indeed, through its systematic presence on
the public scene for the past 35 years, this NGO has become widely popular,
attracting at times hundreds of people to their demonstrations. It has acted
as a reference point for the population on ecological matters.2 Every week,
local inhabitants come to ASSAUPAMAR’s office to seek advice or to express
their concerns regarding a particular development on the island. Interestingly,
renowned Martinican intellectuals such as Raphaël Confiant, Patrick
Chamoiseau, Guy Cabort-Masson, and Édouard Glissant have all at some point
either supported or contributed to the actions of this organization. 3

2 For instance, in November 2011, in a debate during a plenary session of the

Regional Council of Martinique regarding the use of spraying in the plantations of
Banana, the president, Serge Letchimy, requested the advice of this NGO.
3 For example, Chamoiseau and Confiant contributed to Écrire pour la terre et écrire
pour l’ASSAUPAMAR (1989); Guy Cabort-Masson published ‘L’Assaupamar et le
devoir de reflexion’ in Antilla; perhaps most notably, the chapter ‘Distancing,

Malcom Ferdinand

However, the most salient and controversial aspects of this NGO lie in the
claims and discourses associated with their actions. While militating for the
ecological preservation of the environment they claim a certain ownership of
the land by the Martinican people, asserting a ‘Martinican identity’. Moreover,
through their direct and heated criticism of numerous construction projects
they also denounce the continuation of colonial domination over the island
by the French State, as is demonstrated by the following statement from one
The State was responsible for the poisoning of our agricultural land […]
And so as not to leave the times of the colonization, the State made this
choice to satisfy the greed and financial appetite of the descendants of
slave owners who unfortunately found accomplices in the political class of
Martinique. (Malsa, 2010)
The intersection in such discourses of the themes of ecology, identity, and the
legacy of colonial history in Martinique constitute the basis of my enquiry:
how do the activists of ASSAUPAMAR relate their ecological concerns to the
colonial history of the island and to the social tensions between descendants
of the enslaved and the descendants of the colons? Furthermore, how do these
activists narrate their rights and legitimacy to preserve a land whose indigenous
population was all but wiped out 400 years ago and which has since been
mainly managed and owned by ‘others’, including the French colonial state, the
colons, and their descendants? What practical and theoretical consequences
follow from the association of ecology, identity, and colonialism?
Here, drawing upon a field study of ASSAUPAMAR that includes interviews,
observations, and literature reviews, I will examine their main arguments,
exploring the narrative through which they connect the issues of ecology,
identity, and colonialism and analysing its problematic points, including the
association of a particular identity discourse with their demands for environ-
mental justice. Subsequently, I will discuss the theoretical criticisms that this
narrative proffers in relation to both a particular first-worldist environmental
discourse and to the socio-political colonial structures still at play in the
Martinican society.

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism: A Narrative

Throughout the literature of ASSAUPAMAR and during my interviews with

activists, three key arguments are repeatedly used to legitimize and explain
their actions: the preservation of life, the concern for future generations,
and the preservation of a particular relationship between the ‘Martinican
people’ and the land. Take, for example, the pronouncements of Garcin Malsa,

Determining’ of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation was first presented at a meeting of

the NGO in August 1989.

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

arguably the main figure in the organization. He was one of its founders,
a former president, and is now the honorary president.4 Malsa criticized a
shopping mall project in these terms: ‘The project threatened the survival of
the mangrove, a remarkable ecosystem that is vital for the plain of Lamentin
[…] This new centre, increasing the amount of concrete, was signing the
death warrant of the mangrove’ (2008, 220).5 The mangrove is presented as a
life-bearing entity that can be killed by the shopping mall, so that the struggle
against the construction project becomes a fight for the preservation of the
‘living’. The concern for future generations, meanwhile, is exemplified by
the discourse of Mrs S., a member of ASSAUPAMAR, when she talks about
the contamination of the Martinican land by the chloredécone: ‘I lived in
Basse-pointe, one of the towns where the chloredécone was used. I was afraid.
[…] Especially, the fact that I lived in Basse-pointe meant that when I was
breastfeeding my children, although I had left Basse-pointe and since then
I live in Lamentin, in fact I was poisoning my children!’ (‘Interview with Mrs.
S’., 2011). The imperative to preserve the land and resources to sustain the
lives of future generations is taken to justify the need for ASSAUPAMAR’s
political actions and demonstrations. These two arguments have at their core
the preservation of human and non-human life and are well illustrated by the
organization’s motto: ‘earth is forest, forest is water, water is life’.6 We have
to preserve life in the soil, the forests, and rivers so that all life – including
the human species – can survive. Although members offer different ethics
and hierarchies regarding the relations between humans, animals, land, and
future generations, their common concern for life follows closely the lines
of a common ecological discourse showing, at this point, nothing specific
to Martinique.
However, the political and social contexts of Martinique are clearly
registered in the third argument that ASSAUPAMAR often elaborates, here
expressed by Mr P.,7 one of the members of the organization. In an interview, Mr
P. described his opposition to the construction of a port in 1975 that required
the felling of the mangrove, in the following terms: ‘We do this because we
think it must be done, because this is our country, our country, our country!
[…] All the legitimacy comes from the fact that we are Martinican. This is

4 Garcin Malsa is a major political figure in Martinique as the mayor of Saint-Anne

since 1989 and president of the ecological party MODEMAS (movement of
democrats and ecologists for a sovereign Martinique). He has also published many
books addressing the political questions of Martinique, clearly stating his favour
for a sovereign Martinique.
5 Original: ‘Le projet attentait à la survie de la mangrove, écosystème remarquable
et vital pour la plaine du Lamentin […] Ce nouveau centre, en accentuant le
bétonnage, signait la mort de la mangrove’ (all translations by the author unless
otherwise stated).
6 ‘tè sé bwa, bwa sé dlo, dlo sé lavi’.
7 This person, here named Mr. P. to ensure anonymity, has held positions of high
responsibility in ASSAUPAMAR for over 15 years.

Malcom Ferdinand

what I think’ (2011).8 This third argument raises a number of critical questions.
First, it calls upon a putative group, ‘the Martinicans’, which is the subject of
the action. Exactly who are the ‘Martinicans’ referred to by the members of
this NGO? Secondly, this argument states that the country, including the land,
‘belongs’ to the aforementioned ‘Martinicans’. What do the members mean
when they say a ‘land belongs to’ and how is this ‘belonging’ manifested? One
might ask in what way, in today’s Martinique, would the land not belong to the
‘Martinicans’? What narrative does ASSAUPAMAR put forward to claim the
legitimacy of the ‘Martinicans’ to this land? Finally, why is this claim essential
in their struggle for the ecological preservation of the island?
The Martinican identity and the ownership of the land by the Martinican
people appear essential to these activists in their explanation for their actions.
For instance, in article seven of ASSAUPAMAR’s charter, written in 1989, it is
stated that ‘as Martinicans’ they have the right to protect the island’s various
ecosystems and also to decide on the way the land should be managed.9 One
might then ask who are the Martinicans to which ASSAUPAMAR refers?
Perhaps as a reminder of the limits of any attempt to rationalize the logics
of identity, Mr. P., when asked about Martinican identity, replied: ‘I don’t have
to justify or prove that I am Martinican, I simply am Martinican’ (Interview
with Mr. P., 2011). It is important, however, for the purpose of our analysis,
to provide some indication as to what members of ASSAUPAMAR mean when
they say: ‘Martinican identity’. The ‘Martinican’, according to the organi-
zation, is not simply a person who inhabits Martinique, even if s/he and her/
his ancestors have been living there for a long time. Many members refer to
the ‘Martinicans’ in opposition to the ‘békés’.10 As a result, ‘Martinican people’
include, mainly, but not only, the descendants of the slaves and plantation
workers. Whereas no one has ventured as far as to give a definition of what
makes a Martinican, all would agree, for instance, that the prefect of the island
appointed by mainland France is not Martinican. This understanding of the
contours of ‘Martinican’ identity thus includes racial, ethnic, social, historical,
and geographical elements. It separates the whites from the non-whites, the
owners of the majority of the lands from the non-owners, the colonists and
their descendants from the enslaved and their descendants, and the local
inhabitants from those of the metropolis. It is this conception of identity that
ASSAUPAMAR mobilizes as a means to legitimate their ecological claims.
Nonetheless, aside from the problematic aspect of such a mode of identi-
fication in the Caribbean (addressed in the second part of this chapter), this

8 ‘Nou ka fey pas’ que nou ka pensé fok nous fey, pas que sé PAYS-NOUS, PAYS-NOUS,
PAYS-NOUS […] Toute la légitimité vient que nous sommes Martiniquais. Man ka
pensé ça’.
9 Charter of Assaupamar, available at
content&task=view&id=23&Itemid=18&lang=en. [AQ _19]
10 See, for example, Malsa, 2009: ‘Le peuple martiniquais duquel j’exclus les
descendants des esclavagistes que sont les békés’.

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

discourse raises further questions. Indeed, assuming that the Martinican

people are the descendants of the plantation and sugar mill workers, one
might ask why the land should be theirs, or why they should have any more
legitimate claim to it than any another group. Édouard Glissant pointed out
to ASSAUPAMAR that ‘the massacre of the Amerindians has uprooted the
sacred’ (1990, 161). As neither the Europeans nor the enslaved Africans nor
the indentured Indian and African workers of the late nineteenth century
nor any other persons and groups whose descendants live on Martinique
today were the first settlers on the island, no one can claim the land based
on the assertion of original ownership so often expressed by indigenous
peoples around the world. What narrative, then, does the organization use
to establish ‘the Martinican’ as the legitimate possessor of the land? Malsa
provides some answers when he states: ‘This [ecological] conscience was all
the more acute as I realised that the Martinican land did not belong to the
Martinican people, although they sowed it in pain, enriched it with their blood,
and their sweat, and still continue to suffer for it and by it’ (2008, 27).11 Aware
of the massacre of the Amerindians and the impossibility of Martinicans
basing their claim to ownership of the land on an originary occupation, Malsa
chooses instead to ground the legitimacy of the Martinicans’ claim on two
alternative interrelated points: an original ownership associated with the act
of cultivating the land and a genealogical narrative in which the Martinican
would be the descendant of a particular group – the enslaved Africans.
The first part of Malsa’s claim appears initially very close to John Locke’s
theory of property (1977, 91). Indeed, Malsa suggests that the act of cultivating
the land, performed by the enslaved and their descendants, should give rise
to a claim of ownership over it. Historically, by sowing the land with sugar
canes, the unfree labourer forcibly transported to Martinique adds something
to the land – s/he ‘enriches it’. Locke would call that something ‘value’ (98).
For Malsa, this act of cultivation points in two intrinsically related directions.
As the piece of land that is cultivated becomes ‘Martinican land’, the labourer
(and not necessarily the overseer) becomes ‘Martinican’. This labour, the
adding of blood and sweat, is what makes that land the land of the Martinican
people. Not only does the labourer take some kind of ownership of the land,
but he or she is changed by this action. He or she acquires an identity and is no
longer a migrant, no longer an African, or, as Kamau Brathwaite would say, an
‘arrivant’,12 but a ‘Martinican’. If Locke derives from the act of cultivation the
rights of property, Malsa derives the roots of a Martinican identity.
In this narrative, sowing the sugarcane field, digging its earth and
ploughing it with the cries, the blood, and the sweat, the pain, and the

11 ‘Cette conscience m’était d’autant plus aiguë que je me rendais compte que cette
terre martiniquaise n’appartenait pas au peuple martiniquais, qui l’avait pourtant
ensemencée dans la douleur, enrichie de son sang, de sa sueur, et qui continuait
à souffrir pour elle et par elle’.
12 See Brathwaite, 1988.

Malcom Ferdinand

machete is depicted as a way to root an umbilical cord into this land, the
womb of the newly found(ed) motherland, and the praxis by which one claims
an identity. The land, for Malsa, appears as the necessary place in which an
identity can be anchored: ‘To lead with success the struggle for the identity
of a people born out of the hell of slavery and colonialism, it was important to
anchor it in their land, their history, their symbols and their great men’.13 This
perspective provides Malsa with a normative point from which to criticize
the plantation system in Martinique. Aside from the inhumane conditions and
treatment of the enslaved, they were also prevented from making the land
they cultivated and the goods they produced their own. Malsa points then to
a double injustice inherent in the slave-based plantation system: the denial of
ownership of the land and the resulting denial of an identity, of a self, of an
existence in the world.
In the second part of his argument Malsa threads this ‘cultivation
paradigm’ into the contemporary issues of ecological preservation and
identity politics, presenting a particular genealogy in which Martinicans
are the descendants of the enslaved and plantation workers. In this view,
the country belongs to the Martinicans because they are deemed to be the
descendants of the enslaved African labourers who were denied ownership of
the land. Let us recall that the abolition of slavery in 1848 under the Second
Republic of France came with a number of decrees, including the right to
suffrage for formerly enslaved males. Nonetheless, in 1852, under the Second
French Empire, most of the decrees were overturned, depriving the formerly
enslaved of these fundamental rights until 1871.14 During this process, the
ownership of the land by the colons was not questioned and the newly freed
could only acquire less accessible and sometimes less fertile land on the
higher ground of the sloping hills of Martinique, which remained fenced off
from the land of the plantations (Moutoussamy, 2000, 221).15 It follows that
this genealogical narrative suggests that the original injustice of enslavement
and dispossession continues to reverberate to this day in the form of certain
environmental injustices.

13 Garcin Malsa, L’écologie ou la passion du vivant (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008), p. 69:

‘Pour mener avec succès le combat pour l’identité d’un peuple né de l’enfer de
l’esclavage et de la colonisation, il était important de l’ancrer dans sa terre, son
histoire, ses symboles et ses grands hommes. Je concentrai donc mon action sur
la revendication et la (ré) appropriation de ce qui avait façonné les Martiniquais
au fil des siècles: son patrimoine naturel et culturel, ses racines, sa mémoire et
son histoire’.
14 Women were denied the vote until the end of the Second World War. See
Haudrère and Vergès, 1998, 161.
15 For more information on the Martinican peasantry, see Chivallon, 1998.

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

Environmental Injustice and ASSAUPAMAR’s Discourse

ASSAUPAMAR’s discourse, as outlined above, is one which draws links

between the history of colonial oppression on the island and environmental
issues, thus providing a framework in which environmental injustices can be
highlighted. For instance, in 2004, in the northern town of Grand-Rivière, an
association of béké farmers had planned to use 80 percent of the flow of the
river of the same name to start a banana plantation. The Grand-Rivière river
is one of the few rivers in Martinique not polluted by carcinogenic pesticides
and acts as a reservoir of potable water in case of a severe drought in the
south of the island. The béké organization obtained both authorization and
complete funding from the French state for this project by the prefect of
the island without either consulting or informing the local inhabitants. One
morning, the inhabitants discovered that work had commenced on the river.
Supported by ASSAUPMAR, the inhabitants led numerous demonstrations and
undertook a legal battle through the courts for over two years to block the
project. Eventually, the administrative court issued a final statement declaring
the project illegal.
Such struggles are unfortunately fairly common in today’s Martinique.
Colonialism bequeathed a legacy of a land primarily owned by a small group of
people, including ten major families of the békés (Cabort-Masson, 1992). Since
colonial times, this elite has been able to manage the land largely in its own
interests and with little regard for the impact its practices have on the people,
as demonstrated by the chloredécone scandal.16 This pesticide, used on the
island in the banana industry between 1973 and 1993, was banned in France
in 1990 because of its carcinogenicity. However, following the demands of
the major agricultural békés, twice the Ministry of Agriculture authorized
these cultivators to continue using this pesticide in Martinique, regardless of
the risks to the health of the people. The inhabitants’ anger was heightened
when Professor Belpomme posited that this contamination may potentially
be responsible for the unusually high prostate cancer rate in Martinique
(Belpomme et al., 2009). In 2008, Martinique had the highest prostate cancer
rate in the world.17 In 2011, another conflict arose on the island over the aerial
spreading of pesticide. The European Union Directive of 21 October 2009
and the Grennelle law II of 13 July 2010 prohibited aerial spraying throughout
French territory because of the health risks associated. However, certain
exemptions were granted, which gave rise to considerable controversy. The
derogation issued by the Martinican prefect to use this technique on the
island, despite strong opposition from local inhabitants, drew even more

16 See Raphael Confiant and Louis Boutrin, Chronique d’un empoisonnement annoncé: le
scandale du chloredécone aux Antilles françaises 1972–2002 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007).
17 See

Malcom Ferdinand

anger from people still concerned by the chloredécone scandal, confirming the
belief that the administration cared little about their health. The actions of
ASSAUPAMAR have helped to highlight these blatant environmental injustices.
The group has emphasized how the authorization for such ecologically and
socially destructive actions is granted by a Ministry of Agriculture located
7,000 kilometres away in mainland France, or from a prefect appointed by the
French government.
However, analysing these environmental injustices as the continuation of
colonial domination from the standpoint of a form of identity politics (the
struggle for a ‘Martinican’ identity) poses a series of pitfalls. First, presenting
the struggle for the ecological preservation of the land as an ancestral
conflict between, on the one side, the former colonial power and their
descendants and, on the other, the former enslaved and their descendants,
may oversimplify a complex, multifaceted issue. The framing of the conflict
in terms of a struggle between ‘genuine’ Martinicans and those deemed
non-Martinican (the békés) fails to take into account the manifold interests
and pressures at play. For instance, regarding the conflict at Grand-Rivière,
the actions of ASSAUPAMAR were opposed by some who saw the economic
benefit of a new banana plantation and the added employment it would
create on an island with a high unemployment rate, and yet who would
be deemed ‘Martinicans’ according to the organization’s own discourse. In
addition, the picture of a homogeneous béké group driven by financial gain
and out to exploit the land in the face of the ecologically minded Martinican
is somewhat reductive and inaccurate. More disturbingly, such framing
leads to a form of essentialism whereby ‘the Martinican’ would be ecolog-
ically minded, whereas the ‘non-Martinican’, the stranger, would be set on
destructively exploiting the island. One must then realize that although the
members of ASSAUPAMAR express a real felt experience, the forces opposing
one another in current ecological conflicts are not precisely the same as
those during the colonial era. The béké can no longer be made a scapegoat
for ecological oppression, nor can the Martinican be portrayed as the one
ecological saviour.
Secondly, the intensity of the cultural and political claims of ASSAUPAMAR
may overlook crucial economic questions. Of course, the group has been
one of the most consistent critics of the island’s economic dependency
upon a banana monoculture, not only because of the enormous quantities
of water and of dangerous pesticides used by the industry, but also
because the benefits from this cash-crop do not trickle down to local
inhabitants, remaining instead in the hands of a few. Some of ASSAUPAMAR’s
actions, moreover, have sought to intervene practically in such issues as
agricultural production. Production, and especially agricultural production,
is fundamentally a relation to extra-human nature. Where a group controls
this production, it also controls a mode of relation to nature. For that
reason, any effort to establish a more sustainable form of the production
of nature must explore the possibility of establishing an alternative mode

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

of production. ASSAUPAMAR has made some moves in this direction. In

the 1980s, the group initiated alternative systems for the production of
crops, notably yams, oriented to local consumption. In their struggle to
prevent urbanization from destroying viable arable land (which has been
reduced in area by 40 per cent in the last 30 years), they organized land
occupations.18 They also put in place a banking system that would support
local farmers in purchasing the necessary tools to produce food crops for a
local market. The initiative aimed at reducing the shocking dependence of
Martinicans on imports to feed the population.19 However, these endeavours
had limited results and such collective agricultural projects are no longer on
the agenda of ASSAUPAMAR (although many of the project’s participants, now
retired, remain farmers in their own right, cultivating ‘creole gardens’ and
engaged in numerous local market initiatives). The subsequent positioning of
ASSAUPAMAR solely in terms of the cultural and political issues associated
with ecological preservation hints at the group’s difficulty in articulating a
vision of an ecologically sustainable economic dispensation, which may in
turn explain why their discourse today does not have the same appeal to a
youth population faced with an unemployment rate of some 50 per cent.20
Indeed, most of the activists in ASSAUPAMAR are adults at the end of their
career, and very few are under 30 years old.
The third problematic point of ASSAUPAMAR’s discourse is the way in
which the question of Martinican identity is expressed and formulated in the
context of the group’s activism. ASSAUPAMAR’s legitimation of their ecological
actions and demonstrations on the narrow basis of belonging to a particular
group, namely the descendants of African slaves, is exclusive and leaves out
of account the claims of other groups, not least the descendants of Indian and
other indentured labourers. Linking and rooting the Martinican to the land in
this way, as Malsa does in his discourse, may well symbolize the ‘root-identity’
that Glissant warned against and may be seen as an attempt to (re)root the
uprooted Sacred and the self to the land, leading to an essentialism of the self
and to the intolerant exclusivity associated with the sacralisation of a land
(Glissant, 1990, 157).

18 The area of arable land in Martinique went from 41,060 hectares in 1981 to 24,975
hectares in 2010. See Agreste Martinique 7 (September 2011).
19 In 2005, local food production could only cover 15 per cent of the internal Market.
That same year Martinique imported 96 per cent of its milk for consumption. See
20 According to INSEE (the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), the
unemployment rate of the under 30s in Martinique in 2010 was at 48 per cent. See

Malcom Ferdinand

Postcolonial Ecology: Voices

Despite the shortcomings of this identitarian element to ASSAUPAMAR’s

discourse and its failure to account for the complex interplay of competing
interests at work in contemporary environmental conflicts in Martinique, the
very presence of this identity discourse demonstrates an effort to grapple with
a question crucial in postcolonial societies. Indeed, in addition to the issue of
the ecological preservation of the land, ASSAUPAMAR’s discourse and actions
ultimately raise a question which the widespread injunction to ‘protect the
environment’ can obscure – a question that becomes all the more pertinent
given Martinique’s non-independent status: the question of the self. Who
speaks, decides, and acts on the issue of the protection of the environment?
To this question ASSAUPAMAR answers ‘the Martinicans’. In my interview with
Mr P., he recounts how important it is for him that at the end of each letter
sent to the French administration they sign themselves ‘Martinican ecologists’.
The strength of the ASSAUPAMAR discourse has been to raise the question of
the self at the intersections of ecological issues and postcolonial problems on
this Caribbean island. Its theoretical importance lies in the statement that the
protection of the environment should be thought of in relation to the people
that inhabit the island and to their political, cultural, and existential concerns.
Leaving aside for a moment some of the problems with ASSAUPAMAR’s
discourse, the relational stance adopted by its narrative serves, above all, as
a means to interrogate both certain first-worldist environmental discourses
and the particular postcolonial situation of the Martinican society within
the French Republic. With their actions and discourse the members of
ASSAUPAMAR express this relational philosophy in terms of the dialectical
interconnection between the ecological, cultural, and political. From this
position, they are able to elaborate three different theoretical criticisms.
First, the answer that it is ‘the Martinicans’ who speak and act on the
issue of the environment can be understood in biological terms: that is,
with reference to the species-being of humanity. On this view, the issue is
the general one of, say, pointing out the health effects on the population
of pollutants such as chloredécone, highlighting the ecological and sanitary
relations between the people inhabiting the island and the environment. The
Martinican is here presented as a living organism organically related to the
ecosystem and as such must be taken into account in any effort at ecological
preservation. Stressing these relations as a justification for preservation
in Martinique offers a corrective to certain iterations of the ‘deep ecology’
discourse which posits a nature without man – a wilderness – at the centre of
ecological issues. ASSAUPAMAR members are not necessarily ‘nature’ lovers
or ‘wilderness’ worshipers. They are rather concerned with ensuring that
the biological relations between the people and their environment are not
neglected for financial gain.
Secondly, the answer ‘the Martinicans’ illustrates the historical and cultural
relations that a particular group of people, who call themselves ‘Martinicans’,

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

entertain with this land, its landscapes and ecosystems, moving beyond the
Cartesian discourse of a nature/culture divide. The narrative of ASSAUPAMAR
discussed above is precisely one that weaves the environment, memory,
political actions, and cultural identity into a differentiated unity. It is precisely
the connection between human and extra-human nature that is emphasized in
the name of ASSAUPAMAR, which stands for ‘Organisation for the Preservation
of the Heritage of Martinican People’.21 Unlike ‘nature’, the word ‘heritage’
implies a relation to the people. This relational stance of ASSAUPAMAR
serves as a corrective to conservationist discourses that would erect the
environment as an independent object dissociated from the symbolic and
cultural claims made to it by the people who live within it. Although exclusive
in some respects, the identitarian elements of ASSAUPAMAR’s discourse
underscore that what is to be preserved is a relation rather than an object
independent of culture and people.
Further to the diverse theoretical criticism of the Cartesian paradigm
often to be found in contemporary environmental studies – see, for example,
the work of Bruno Latour (1999), Jason Moore (2011), and Philippe Descola
(2006) – ASSAUPAMAR has demonstrated over the years a praxis informed by
the dynamic co-production of human and non-human natures. The heritage
that ASSAUPAMAR aims to preserve is not given, nor does it exist in itself
as something simply in need of fencing off or cleansing. Both ‘heritage’ and
the ‘Martinican people’ are not objects that merely need to be picked up,
polished, and put behind a glass door of a museum. They did not stumble
upon a heritage. Obviously, the land was there but it is the political and
ecological actions of the people that suddenly made this swamp, this land,
this spread of clay, basalt, and granite over a sea, part of a heritage. Moreover,
it is these contemporary ecological actions that provide a view of the history
of the island in which the land, since slavery, is perceived as the heritage
of the Martinicans. So the actions of these activists in claiming the land as
theirs result in the recognition of the mangroves, of the rivers and the land
of the island as a heritage of the Martinican. Likewise, as they demonstrate
their ecological concern for the land, as the members claim a land as theirs
and create a heritage, so they also create a political subject they call ‘the
Martinican’. Consequently, and paradoxically, in preserving the heritage they
create the heritage; they also create this relationship between the Martinicans
and the land. The actions of these activists reveal simultaneously a political
subject that takes responsibility for a land and a land that is no longer just soil
but becomes part of a heritage.
Thirdly, and following on from the above, the answer ‘the Martinicans’
points to the unfolding of the Martinican as a political subject, and particularly
the relations between ecology, identity, and democracy in this postcolonial
society. The actions of ASSAUPAMAR affirm political subjects that have the
right to participate and claim a responsibility in the management of the land

21 Association pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine martiniquais.

Malcom Ferdinand

and its ecological preservation. From this perspective, the way in which the
activists sign themselves ‘Martinican ecologists’ when writing to the French
administration underlines that the question of ecological preservation cannot
be separated from the issue of democratic rights and the participation of the
inhabitants of the island in the management of this territory. It is precisely
the appearance of the Martinican here as a political subject which allows
ASSAUPAMAR to illustrate the numerous environmental injustices cited
above. Such political subjectivation serves as a corrective to first-worldist
environmental discourses that would present formerly colonized people as
devoid of ecological interests (in this regard, ASSAUPAMAR’s critique echoes
the ‘environmentalism of the poor’ argument expressed by Ramachandra
Guha and Juan Martinez-Allier [1997]). But, more importantly, it opposes
environmental discourses that ignore political agents and helps lessen the
danger of overlooking the new relations of power and, potentially, forms of
oppression instantiated by environmental policies. Asserting the need to take
into account the presence of the political subjects associated with ecological
preservation is precisely what allows ASSAUPAMAR to point out the environ-
mental injustices at play on this island. Similar to the criticism that Murray
Bookchin made against deep ecology (Bookchin and Foreman, 1991, 98),
ASSAUPAMAR narratives emphasize the need to consider ecology and politics
In addition, the answer the ‘Martinicans’ opens up a space for political
subjects who are not required to forsake their history or identity in order to
exert their rights as citizens. Such actions are particularly subversive in the
political context of the French Republic in which citizenship is subordinated
to a particular form of belonging to the national community. The historian
Myriam Cottias reminds us that the emancipation of the enslaved in 1848
and the prospect of access to French citizenship was tied to a political
framework that encouraged the former slaves to ‘forget their past’ and adopt
civil practices that would legitimize their right to citizenship (1998, 293–313).
One had to forget one’s past to be free and equal. Contrary to this, the
members of ASSAUPAMAR acknowledge the history of slavery and colonialism
on this island in their correspondence with the administration, and yet claim
their rights as French citizens during their legal actions against ecologically
destructive projects. Such actions serve to critique the insidious French
Republican mode of thought, inherited from the colonial empire, according
to which one must relinquish his or her past and negate his or her identity
to exert his or her rights as a citizen. Here, the colonial legacy – which not
only tended to negate the agency of the formerly colonized but also his

22 ‘But when these [ecological] demands are not set clearly within the context of a
struggle for a non-hierarchical society, appeals for “limits to growth” are almost
inevitably turned into racist and draconian measures by the powers-that-be
to ensure the sustainability of hierarchical First World people’ (Bookchin and
Foreman, 1991, 98).

Ecology, Identity, and Colonialism in Martinique

or her heritage, history, and identity – and a naive first-worldist environ-

mental discourse – which overlooks the agency and cultural ties of the
local inhabitants to their surrounding environment – combine to produce
the estrangement of a people from their environment and their history. By
revealing the voices of political subjects who both care for their environment
and their history, and who criticize the estrangement at play in both colonial
and first-worldist environmental discourses, ASSAUPAMAR presents a true
example of a postcolonial ecology.
Ultimately, bearing out Frantz Fanon’s assertion of the value of land for
the colonized, the actions of ASSAUPAMAR demonstrate the significance of
the political and cultural stakes surrounding environmental protection in
Martinique. Their narrative and political efforts reveal voices whose echoes
have demonstrated how any struggle for ecological preservation must not
simply be concerned with the preservation of ‘nature’ and ecosystems, as if no
people lived on these islands, as if the enslaved Africans never stepped out of
the slave ships, as if they never landed. They reveal an ecology of creation that,
in preserving the land, tackles the question of the birth of these societies and
their colonial foundations, and demands justice. Highlighting the imbrication
of environmental, cultural, and political relations to the land, while revealing
the voices of the Martinicans who have lived and laboured in this land,
becomes a way for the activists of ASSAUPAMAR to leave the ancestral
wrecks of the slave ships, to claim responsibility for the land, and finally to
demonstrate the unyielding effort and aspirations of ‘those without whom the
earth would not be the earth’ (Césaire, 1983, 46).23

Works Cited

Belpomme, D., et al. 2009. ‘Prostate Cancer as an Environmental Disease: An Ecological

Study in the French Caribbean Islands, Martinique and Guadeloupe’. International
Journal of Oncology: A Journal Devoted to Oncology Research and Cancer Treatment April:
1037–44. Accessed 27 January
Bookchin, Murray, and Dave Foreman. 1991. Defending the Earth. Montreal and New
York: Black Rose Books.
Brathwaite, Kamau. 1988. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford: Oxford University
Cabort-Masson, Guy. 1992. Les Puissances d’argent en Martinique: le nouveau leadership
béké 1981–1991. Saint-Joseph: Édition de la V.d.P.
Césaire, Aimé. 1983. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Paris: Présence Africaine.
Chamoiseau, Patrick, et al. 1989. Écrire pour la terre et écrire pour l’ASSAUPAMAR.
Lamentin: Éditions ASSAUPAMAR.
Chivallon, Christine. 1998. Espace et identité à la Martinique: paysannerie des mornes et
reconquête collective 1840–1960. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

23 ‘Ceux sans qui la terre ne serait pas la terre’.

Malcom Ferdinand

Confiant, Raphaël, and Louis Boutrin. 2007. Chronique d’un empoisonnement annoncé: le
scandale du chlordécone aux Antilles françaises 1972–2002. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Cottias, Myriam. 1998. ‘“L’oubli du passé” contre la “citoyenneté”: troc et ressen-
timent à la Martinique (1848–1946)’. Cinquante ans de départementalisation. Eds. Fred
Constant and Justin Daniel. Paris: L’Harmattan: 293–313.
Descola, Philippe. 2006. Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.
Fanon, Frantz. 2002. Les Damnés de la terre. Paris: Éditions La Découverte poche.
Glissant, Édouard. 1990. Poétique de la relation. Paris: Gallimard.
Guha, Ramachandra, and Juan Martinez-Allier. 1997. Varieties of Environmentalism.
London: Earthscan.
Haudrère, Philippe, and Françoise Vergès. 1998. De l’esclave au Citoyen. Paris: Gallimard.
‘Interview with Mr. P.’. 2011.
‘Interview with Mrs. S.’. 2011.
Latour, Bruno. 1999. Politique de la nature: comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie.
Paris: La Découverte.
Locke, John. 1977. Deuxième traité du Gouvernement Civil. Paris: J. Vrin.
Malsa, Garcin. 2008. Écologie ou la passion du vivant, quarante ans d’écrits écologiques.
Paris: L’Harmattan.
—. 2009. Lyannaj pour le changement. Paris: Menaibuc.
—. 2010. Mourir pour la terre, c’est mourir pour la vie. 17 October. www.assaupamar.
org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=209&Itemid=19. Accessed 5
June 2011. [AQ _15]
Moore, Jason W. 2011. ‘Transcending the Metabolic Rift: A Theory of Crises in the
Capitalist World-ecology’. Journal of Peasant Studies 38(1): 1–46
Moutoussamy, V. 2000. ‘Peut-on réparer le préjudice du non partage des terres, cent
cinquante ans après l’abolition de l’esclavage: l’exemple des 50 pas géométriques
en Martinique’. La Question de la terre dans les colonies et départements français
d’Amérique 1848–1998. Eds. M. Burac and A. Calmont. Paris: Karthala.

Epilogue: Tingaling
Oonya Kempadoo

Oonya Kempadoo

T ingaling, aling, aling, ling – bram bram bram! The rhythm section set off three
hundred steel drums, shaking and glittering Panorama night alive. Silver
metallic notes clutter and hustle the crowd. Herds of wheeled band frames,
thousands of feet and hands pushing, down the street-corral to the Savannah
stage. This Saturday night finals is the biggest, the excitest, mixest set of
people and action. More important than Carnival Monday or Tuesday itself,
this is the people’s spine of the bacchanal.
Ata and Pierre had met Vernon, Fraser and Alan among the parked cars.
Helen and the others were arriving too. They step from the red glow of dust
and parking lights, into the stream of people flowing to the little food stalls
enclosing the corral. Fraser’s gait is loose, awkward, with his shrinking size,
his long arms flapping at his sides. Alan bumbles along close by, broader now
than his friend. He almost stumbles forward to touch and feel Trinidad again.
This is the exception for Pierre, and for many others who don’t partake in
the madness. Young and old, visitors, country, town – all kinds come to see,
and play in the bands. Despers – the strongest, from wajang Laventille, holds
the legacy tuned and tight, pinging and pounding traditions high on their hill
all night.
The oil-drum segments crawl like a massive centipede, electric black and
shiny. Ripples of floating legs slide it forward, adrenalin anticipates the bite.
Hair raising.
The small group of friends fall in with the chipping, buddoom boom bam,
buddoom boom bam … melody, it’s only a melody … Renegades, Catelli All Stars,
Exodus, Invaders, Solo Harmonites, Carib Tokyo and Phase II Pan Groove – the
big bands and little straggler Panberi tuning and rehearsing in the queue.
Ata, Fraser and Alan push up between the canopied frames of Despers,
inching closer to the iron section.
The others stay on the edge, moving along with the band.

Oonya Kempadoo

In a break, when only the shuffling of feet and the muted jangling of
empty drums fall on their steel-deafened ears, they got right up to the rhythm
Rum and heat stoke this engine of men and old steel. Car rims and
angle iron, metal-rod drumsticks in gnarled hands, wait. Sweat drips from
crows-feet, soaking head-ties, pours salt drops into their drinks. And they
tapping. The happiest, sweetest, start-up count …

Alan pretends he’s carried away, but is here to see his friend in his home
element, for the last time. There would be no other time like this, not at the
rate he’s losing weight. He secretly watches Fraser gripping the pole close
to the iron man, bobbing in time with everyone pressed close, stamping the
heralding beat. Tenor pans join in, lightly, then the mass of chafing drums
crash into action. The onslaught of nerve-timed rhythm always made Alan
marvel, at the perfect synchronicity and power of this music, played without
a written score. The conviction of a self-furnaced orchestra, tyre-tube rubber
tips on steel.
He had tried to capture all this in photos and paintings – a young girl’s
braids lashing like whips as she snaps between six drums; three boys bouncing
in unison, heads back and hands flying identically; old rasta bending, crimping
himself over his pan, squeezing it out; a Chinese woman, straightbacked and
solemnly ruling a bass. This was the kind of richness Alan knew Fraser missed,
when he had been in England. A mixed-up, crashing sound in his heart. It
travels now, from his grip on the rail, through his weakening bones, jarring
his very core.

They didn’t stay to see Despers onto the stage. Two hours was plenty and
the crowds jammed-up down there. From a distance, they had seen the blue
and red of Catelli All Stars ramping up, clawing wildly and raising the head of
the centipede to the floodlit sky. Banners waving mad, flag-girls frenzy – Ata
could feel the board bleachers of North Stand bouncing as she watched it
shake and thunder.

Sammy was coming round the Queen’s Park Savannah when he hear North
Stand roar. His boys in there, making theyself hoarse with they whistles and
thing. The ole fellas always on one side and the football fellas, with one’r
two of they girls, down below on the next side, closer to the stage. They
go have they coolers and drinks and pot’a pilau. He uses to bring goat roti
to start them off, cause they there since early o’clock. This is the part now
when the soloist bring down the volume, reining everybody listening tight.
People pressing on one ears, closing they eyes, ketching the scale. And
that master climbing higher, higher, heights – up! Up, everybody standing,
jumping, pitching screams as the rest’a the band buss loose. Creshendo in yuh
skin. Sam swing into the parking lot with a flourish, in time.


‘It’s a wonder more people don’t get injured. That stand is just waiting for a
stampede, or to collapse or something.’
‘Don’t say that, nuh.’
Vernon had melted away in the crowd. Alan would take Fraser home. Helen
headed back into the crowd after kissing him and Ata was ready for the mas
camp. They waited with her for Sammy, in the safety of cars and light on the
edge of the old horse-racing track.
‘Be careful please.’ Pierre held Ata close as he kissed her.
‘I wouldn’t be able to sleep at home anyway.’
‘And you think I will?’ He closed Sammy’s car door after her.
‘I go take care’a she, don’ worry,’ Sam said.
Pierre glanced out at the dark, raping and mugging centre of the park.
‘Ah go safeguard she,’ Sam repeated, as they drove off and Ata looked back,
to see Pierre get into their car.

Sam turns back up the radio volume. The Panorama commentator shouts the
score above the racket, and then Renegades start up. The tinny version of the
steel orchestra screeches along with them till Ata feels she’s riding inside an
incessant cicada. There is no way of recording pan on this scale, and nothing
does it justice. She couldn’t ask Sam to turn it down.
Sam listening carefully, a Renegades man himself for years. He already
had speechify to her, long before now, about Despers being a ‘government
band’, cause anything they play they win, even one year when they come with
electric pan. Even though now they are very good pan beatist. And about how
he respect Exodus, from the day Jit Sameroo direct them to win and Rudder
say is time for the East, with Dust in yuh Face. Sam can’t talk now, for a change.
Serious in his Renegades red and gold t-shirt, ears cock, almost trembling, he
driving with the screeching.

Fraser sat in the jeep, and asked Alan not to start the engine for a moment. ‘I’m
okay.’ He exhaled hard, realizing he was unconsciously holding his breath with
the startup of the next band in the background. He sat, still shaking inside,
and Alan lit up a Silkcut Mild. ‘Give me one of those, please.’
His friend hesitates for a second then hands him the pack. ‘You said
Fraser drags gratefully on the long filter. He groans, releasing the smoke,
and again before taking the next pull.
‘Fucking Christ, don’t start that up again.’
‘I groan whenever I like now. I’m allowed. And besides, it’s supposed to be
A couple had walked up to the car opposite them, deep in argument.
Instead of getting in, the woman went over and chucked the man in the chest,
cussing his nasty backside. She kept flicking her wrists back onto her thick

Oonya Kempadoo

waist, punctuating. The lights of the cars on the road behind flash between
them like a music video set.
‘These mild ones are too mild,’ Fraser complains, sucking harder on the
filter and dragging air through his teeth like it’s weed.
‘My gesture to doctor’s orders, for my cough,’ Alan drawls.
Two policewomen stroll past on the pavement, noticing but ignoring the
lovers’ fight.
‘Yuh bitch!’ the woman screams and pushes the man back against the car.
‘You fuck she, yuh lying, fucking, bitch!’ She hits the car and the man stiffens,
and grabs her face.
‘We better get going Alan, let’s go.’
Alan turns on the headlights but that only makes the man bellow at them.
As they hustle out of the car park, Fraser tries to at least inform the officers.
‘We know,’ they say. ‘We see dem. Is a lovers t’ing, nuh.’
Fraser starts questioning them, but Alan drives off. ‘I thought, living here,
you’d know by now when you’re wasting your time.’


Instead of a hive of activity at the mas camp, to complete the unfinished

costumes, there were only a few people working on the queen costume.
‘What happen to everybody?’ Ata demands of the dog-tired manager.
‘As usual, they can’t miss the finals, and then they never come back.’
‘So why say they’ll be here? I took a taxi to come here and …’
The old wire-bender moves his little transistor closer to him on the bench
and continues wrapping the elaborate headpiece. The table, where Ata was
supposed to join the team to finish the men’s pants, is loaded and waiting.
She snatches up the stupid cut-out gold shapes and starts stapling them onto
the flared legs of white sailor pants. The piles on the table were just a start
– bags of pants for the entire section were under the table too. Steups. Ten
workers. Workers, not volunteers, supposed to see this through. This is what
drove Fireago away. And if she can’t take it, who is Ata, or any newcomer for
that matter?
Ata looks over at the manager fussing round the free-standing queen
costume. The artist-returnee girl, her foreign friend and two British designers,
friends of God of Design who came every year, were the only ones working on
the thing. In the far corners of the hangar, at a table here or between stacks
there, one or two local faithfuls were still at it. But these are the ones, Ata
presumes, who have no interest in the crowdy part of all of this, only in doing
their little part, then going home and watching the parade on TV. There would
be no theatrical performance, preceding and enhancing the band, this year.
‘What a t’ing.’ One of the performers’ favourite words. The Queen was out
of words to threaten everybody with. She had gone to the semi-finals stage
with a costume, she knew, wasn’t near done. But the waiting fans and judges


didn’t have a clue. When she swept up there with her bare white wings, wands
and long-long dress, head-tie instead of headpiece, Amen resounded, as if
people were in a church. Queen rippled and soaked in the praise with the
soft rhythm of the song, until every bit of vex blood and anxiousness flew out
of the very tips of her sails. She became pure and shining, and beamed that
angel form at them with her biggest smile. Waltzed off easy into the finals.
Tomorrow. Dimanche Gras, The Kings and Queens and Calypso Monarch
competition. The beginning of the end, of this mas camp life.
The plain-looking artist-girl pulls out one of the feather-wings from the
backpack frame, lays it on the long table nearby, and considers it carefully.
The manager comes up behind her and stares at it like mad. The way this
man would be worrying and growing beard and losing weight every year – Ata
doesn’t know how he doesn’t just break down like the finance figures he could
never balance, like Design God and Fireago, the band, some costumes, and old
equipment in the camp. The actors were always ready to tell her why a foreign
nobody like him could take it, but they weren’t here tonight.
The manager and the girl keep glancing nervously at the small sketch on
the wall. Then in a flurry, the girl opens a set of paints. She splatters plain
water onto the wing and the others move closer to the table now.
Gently, zenly, she picks up a brush, dips it in red and touches the fabric.
The one paint stroke spreads quickly through watery threads, running red
edges to palest pink.
The girl poises again like a praying mantis, a god-horse. She reaches out
and places a spot of yellow. Violet. Tangerine.
Ata goes over to look closer as the colours seep into each other.
They formed paintings of their own, the colours. As another wing was laid
down for her, and another, the girl wet them and studied them, then touched a
particular spot. The paintings lifted slowly. Off the walls of a gallery in London,
Toronto, New York. Begonias, close up, and irises. Georgia O’Keeffe curling up
to high cool ceilings, soothing Ata. She inhales the still, timeless air. And sits
for a moment in that room, in Tate Modern, opposite the painting. Noiseless,
pale and scentless strangers pass circuitously, pausing to pray or feed on each
image. Stations of an invisible cross. The transparent people look through the
ghost of Ata – she is glad for that. Alone alone, she enters the artist’s flowers
and Palmer flecked English, and blue French fields; slashed bodies, nightmare
portraits; or a line, a square, a streak of contemporary freedom.
This girl, painting here, had gone through scholarship training of the
best, submersed in cold-weather kingdoms, for years. There she was among
select international students and teachers like God of Design. In that strange
creativity of warped time, these artists grew inside-out things and ways, to
show for it. Ata had tried to appreciate the white skinhead girls, plain-naked,
twisting up and contorting themselves on a silent stage, sometimes in a
sheet. They skinned-up their faces, stretched-out pierced tongues at people,
and kept doing alien sign language for bowel movement, over and over again.
When that didn’t work, they tried to fling off their heads, or get rid of their

Oonya Kempadoo

own arms. The music or noises they chose for performances – which willing
people like Ata paid good pounds to attend – was even more curious. A
twang here, a holler there. Recycled garbage as instruments. Borrowed ethnic
recordings and sometimes a real person from Borneo, the Amazon, a Hutsu
tribe – some equally under-used sound.
The thing Ata noticed is that this honing and training of creativity had
become the traditional art of these places. The products that came out of
these unique fiefdoms were the artists, and scholars for that matter too.
Institutional cultural industries. What about such schools in a place like Cuba?
How does the third world choose what to use from the first world? Or are the
means of study so adopted that there is no choice anyway? Writers, poets,
scholarships, still going out …
Ata watches the morpho butterflies, the delicate poui, hearts of bromeliads
and hummingbirds, slide and samba together as they appear from the trained,
skinny hand of the god-horse.


When Ata crawled into bed next to Pierre as it was getting light, she kept
some of the quiet paintings in her chest. She covered them up in the sheets
and stuck some of the large petals under her pillow. She would need them
soon enough, when Pierre was gone to the North Coast till Wednesday. She
would need them to carry her through the dingolay. She found it helps, to
bring something like the undersides of island hills into herself, when she
couldn’t see them. Armpits. Caves full of vulnerable. Tuck. He must go. It must
come. Sleep. Strength.


Fraser turned in Alan’s arms and the nurses changed shifts discreetly. He
snored a little, ever so softly … The perfect nurse had found two young nurses
whom she supervised. They had come together, this early, and Vernon had let
them in. They made suitable noises outside the bedroom, prepping to enter
for his morning ritual. As Fraser let them in with a grunt, they did their best
not to look directly at Alan. Perfect had said they worked best as one.
One nurse touches Fraser’s arm with warm fingers before putting on her
gloves, the other whispers ‘Morning, it’s time.’
He groans, a small objecting noise, but rolls flat onto his back and whispers
in return ‘Morning’, without opening his eyes.
Dark could be day, dialysis filters light into night. Alan stirs, opens his eyes
and sees latex hands swabbing metal and stomach skin. He rises and goes out
onto the veranda and lights up, still in the rumpled clothes he had arrived
in. Fraser listens to Alan’s wracking cough and catches a brief whiff of his


dragon smoke. He breathes in deeply and the nurses fill in better, together.
The four-hand caregiver is connecting, hooking, smoothing. Cool, the chilling
fluids flowing, turning dark into day clear as a glass night. Vanishing dreams
and floating memories, the detail of a mot-mot tail feather, star sharp.


Fan and spread. ‘A “Light in the Dark.” All things pure and beautiful – uplifting!
Make a joyful noise for … Heaven, Qu-e-e-n … of the band … Ay-e-men!’ The
MC’s ringmaster voice echoes her up into the thundering arena. He doesn’t
need to point and raise the audience to their feet. As the coloured tips of her
wings ramp into the sky, people clamour like children at a circus pushing to
The gaudiness gone before her had cracked and popped on stage, and
left its litter floating restlessly between the stands. Tinsel, bead and feather
queens had dragged stiff frames on wheels along to overbearing explanations
by the MC. Awkward overdoneness. The kings to follow would include some
imitation of Slinger’s massive creations, fireworks, smoke bombs, bodybuilder
power and more shine. But now, the sparkler-waving children sigh as Heaven
billows before them. They stay still, sticky faces and eyes glued, as the field
of flowers on wings floats their candy-floss hearts up into the cooling sky.
David Rudder and Charlie’s Roots truck, the manager, the artists,
performers, Slingerites and Ata, creep apace alongside the stage. The praise
song spills words inadequate for the flight, halfway between church song and
street jingle. They hang around mid-air. Some people sing for moments, or
stop mid-clap, to sail with Heaven. Freedom flighting. In the night. Into the
night. In her arms, his arms. Fan and spread. Souls flutter petals taller. Tail of
a kite in the clouds, tall. Fall. Womb-shrinking ovation, heart-shaking elation.
Dilation … dialyzing river, coursing past organs. Washing poisoned bones and
liver-bed clear.

Jab-jab devils, crawling out from homes, from ghetto holes and inky air, gather
on street corners with biscuit tins. Mothers wake their young ones, teenagers
out already and drunk, armed with black oil and whistles. Jouvert morning is
Fete-finished feet change into old sneakers. Hands pull ragged t-shirts and
shorts from car trunks. Ripping. Baby oil slathering, skin greasing. Women
tuck hair under caps, men fix wigs, before waves of footsteps tramp through
sleeping side streets. And the bands of vagabonds, pagans and cursed are
gathering, at four a.m.
They laugh loud and share bottles of spirits. Liquor fires voices and the last
few asleep wake and stare. Independence Square is the deadly magnet, pulling
trucks full of steelpan, sound systems, hoarse singers, and the hordes of devils
– mud, cocoa, paint-covered bodies and lost souls. Jab Molassie. Crude-oil

Oonya Kempadoo

rhythm. A guttural, primal scream is building, coming from pavement cracks,

the bellies of rats, the white-rum spittle of the mad woman, from the city itself
and its demons.

Notes on Contributors


Janette Bulkan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Forest Resources

Management in the Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia, Canada.
For over 20 years she has conducted collaborative research with Indigenous
Peoples and Traditional/Local Communities in the Guiana Shield and more
recently the Pacific Northwest. Her research interests are forest governance
and concession systems, Indigenous and Community Forestry and third-party
forest certification systems. Janette serves on the Editorial Board of the
Journal of Sustainable Forestry and on the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal
Archaeology and Anthropology. She is a member of the Governing Council of the
Commonwealth Forestry Association (CFA) and of the Policy and Standards
Committee of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Chris Campbell is a Research Fellow in the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean
Studies, University of Warwick. He is co-editor, with Erin Somerville, of ‘What
is the Earthly Paradise?’ Ecocritical Responses to the Caribbean (2007) and has
published articles on World Literature, Caribbean writing, and ecocriticism.
He is currently co-investigator on the AHRC-funded research project
‘Decolonizing Voices: World Literature and Broadcast Culture at the End of

Sharae Deckard is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Her current

research interests are concentrated in the intersection between world-
systems and world-ecology approaches to world literature. Her monograph,
Paradise Discourse, Imperialism and Globalization was published in 2010, and
she co-authored a monograph with WReC, Combined and Uneven Development:
Towards a New Theory of World-Literature, for Liverpool University Press in
2015. She has recently edited a special issue of Green Letters on ‘Global and
Postcolonial Ecologies’ and co-edited an issue of the Journal of Postcolonial


Studies on ‘Postcolonial Studies and World Literature’. She has published

numerous articles on postcolonial environments and world literature in edited
collections and in journals, including JPW, Ariel, Interventions, and MLQ.

Malcom Ferdinand was born in Martinique and graduated with a Masters

in Civil Engineering from University College London. He is currently a PhD
candidate in political philosophy at the University of Paris Diderot. A member
of the Laboratory of Social and Political Change (LCPS), his research focuses on
the political and philosophical aspects of ecological conflicts in the Caribbean,
mainly in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti.

Wilson Harris is one of the foremost writers and philosophers of the age. Born
in Guyana and having resided for many years in England, he is the author of
over twenty novels, including his best known Palace of the Peacock (1960). His
most recent novel was The Ghost of Memory (2006). His visionary creative and
nonfiction work has engaged in the broadest terms with questions of cultural
literacy and the imagination, histories of conquest, indigenous and diasporic
artistic production, western esotericism, literatures of the Americas, and
the global necessity of engaging landscapes in the ongoing project of cross-
cultural and ecological sustainability.

Brian Hudson holds degrees in geography and urban and regional planning
from the University of Liverpool, and a PhD from the University of Hong Kong.
He has held planning and academic posts in England, Ghana, Hong Kong,
Jamaica, Grenada, and Australia. His books and academic papers deal with a
wide variety of subjects, including the history of geography, landscape and
tourism, urban development, place names, and literature and education. He is
currently an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Science and Technology at the
Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.

Oonya Kempadoo, a novelist and social development researcher, has worked

for most of her life in various Caribbean islands and currently lives in Grenada.
Her first novel, Buxton Spice (1998), was long-listed for the UK Orange Prize
and translated into six languages. Her second novel, Tide Running, won a
Casa De Las Americas 2002 prize and was well received on both sides of the
Atlantic. Kempadoo was named a ‘Great Talent for the 21st Century’ by the
Orange Prize judges and both Buxton Spice and Tide Running were nominated
for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards. Oonya has worked with
UNICEF and UNAIDS as a consultant and researcher, and in 2011 was awarded
a fellowship for the International Writer’s Program, University of Iowa. Her
most recent novel, All Decent Animals, was published in 2013.

Michael Niblett is a Research Fellow at the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean
Studies at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Caribbean Novel
since 1945 (2012) and co-editor of Perspectives on the ‘Other America’: Comparative


Approaches to Caribbean and Latin American Culture (2009). He is currently

Principal Investigator on an AHRC-funded research project, ‘Decolonizing
Voices: World Literature and Broadcast Culture at the End of Empire’.

Molly Nichols is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University

of Pittsburgh. She is interested in the intersection between postcolonialism
and ecocriticism, and her dissertation analyses the ways vernacular environ-
mentalisms are represented in Anglophone Caribbean literature and culture.

Kerstin Oloff is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Durham,

where she co-directs the MA in Culture and Difference. She is the co-editor of
Perspectives on the Other America (2009).

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert holds the Randolph Distinguished Professor Chair

at Vassar College. She is the author of a number of books, among them Phyllis
Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life (1996), Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion (1999),
Creole Religions of the Caribbean (2003, with Margarite Fernández Olmos), and
Literatures of the Caribbean (2008). She has co-edited a number of volumes,
including Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean (1997),
Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse (2001), and
Displacements and Transformations in Caribbean Cultures (2008). She has recently
completed a manuscript entitled Endangered Species: Ecology and the Discourse
of the Caribbean Nation and is at work on Troubled Sea: Art and Ecology in the
Contemporary Caribbean.