April 2018

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In reading this text, I sought to isolate themes which run through the volume and chose two sound-bites which encapsulate the substance of the work. One was Debbie Mc Collin’s description of the period as the “inevitable paradox of war” and the other was my own view that this was a classic case of the subalterns writing back.

With regard to the paradox of war, essay after essay focus on the many benefits of the war and these are followed by the suffering and deprivation which occurred simultaneously. Another constantly repeated theme was the exposure of the deep racial divisions which the war brings to the fore. Caribbean colonial society had been carefully graded on the basis of race, which determined one’s class position in the pyramid of plantation society. By the mid-20th century these divisions had become so institutionalized that even the life or death threat posed by the Axis powers could not break down the ethnic barriers among Allied nations.

And when the USA entered the war after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, the USA joined the war bringing its own brand of racist practice coming out of their slave experience. The picture on the cover of the book shows a column of black soldiers led, of course, by a white officer.

Karen Eccles tells us that lighter-skinned West Indian women were sent for training to Washington whilst black women were despatched to London. Trinidad’s governor was concerned that the local Red Cross was “undesirably mixed” and it was left to black women like Audrey Jeffers to organize the Coterie of Social Workers to cater to black soldiers.

At US bases in St. Lucia, Antigua, Jamaica and Trinidad, white troops were housed and fed separately from black soldiers and no black policeman could arrest a drunken white sailor. The colonial powers were so distrustful of their loyal, doting Caribbean subjects that they created brigades of local whites to stem any black uprising, giving these brigades euphemistic names like Home Guards and Light Infantry Volunteers.

Whilst West Indian men were dying to serve in the war the colonial governments were arresting [Tubal] Butler in Trinidad and Richard Hart and his associates in Jamaica, although these leaders were empire loyalists seeking no more than the widening of the franchise and improving the lot of Caribbean labour.

Ronald Williams, in a well-researched essay describes the displacement of West Indians from the North West peninsula and Carlsen Field and the still-festering sores of that era.

The essays of Geoff Burrows and Eric Jennings give ample testimony to the brave black West Indians who volunteered to work on the convoys escorting merchant ships under constant attack from German U-boats.

This book is a welcome addition to West Indian historiography because it makes a deliberate, refreshing effort to incorporate the total Pan-Caribbean region into one corpus, documenting the common experiences among British, French, Spanish and American colonies. So we learn about Europe’s dependence on the Caribbean for vital supplies of oil and asphalt from Trinidad, bauxite from Jamaica and Guyana, timber from the South American colonies and of course sugar from the traditional sugar colonies.

Lovell Francis provides new information on the calamity caused by the flight from the plantations to the American bases and the united efforts of the plantocracy-dominated governments to urge the Americans to keep wages low so as to stem the exodus of sugar workers.

In a turnaround of Caribbean historiography, Esther Captain and Guno Jones tell of the significant ways in which the Dutch Antilles and Suriname contributed to the welfare of the Netherlands. They sent boxes of blankets, clothing, shoes, knitted vests and woollen underwear, oil and Caribbean soldiers to fight the Japanese in the Far East. In that period of real crisis, the Dutch queen promised greater autonomy to her Caribbean subjects. This resulted in internal self-government for the Dutch Antilles in 1954 whilst Suriname moved onwards to independence in 1975.

One of the major problems of Caribbean historiography has been the linguistic barriers which have divided us for centuries. This volume overcomes that problem by the inclusion of bi-lingual authors who are able to use non-English sources. The essay on the Dutch Caribbean, just cited is one example. So is Danelle Gutara’s piece on Puerto Rico in which she tells us that Puerto Ricans had to prove their American-ness by joining the US army and to present their bodies for experimentation in chemical warfare.

Christian Cwik and Verena Muth delve into the German sources to tell of the sad and triumphant stories of European refugees to this region.

It is heartening to see in a number of essays the use of the pioneering work of our departed colleagues, Fitz Baptiste who carefully documented the warships for bases agreements, and Gaylord Kelshall, who was a participant in the war. Otherwise those valuable inputs would have remained on the bookshelves.

What is equally admirable is the wide range of sources used to complement our dependence on British sources. These essayists delve into American military archives in Alabama and Puerto Rico, German accounts, archives in France and the French Antilles and then contemporary newspapers, oral sources and calypsoes. This extensive sourcing of information, properly cited, gives authenticity to the work and lifts our gaze beyond island histories and onto the wider Caribbean panorama.

This is what Eric Williams sought to do in Columbus to Castro (1970). Now his intellectual descendants are taking us one step closer. The editors took great care in allowing the authors to read each other’s texts before finalization so there is constant cross-referencing among the essays. This is a difficult but useful device which prevents repetition and allows more space for original analysis. There are sub-headings in each chapter which makes the reading easier although the foot-noting numbers in the text are too small for the ordinary eye; one can easily miss them.

The role of Caribbean women in the war has been generally hidden from our history. If a woman did well she could be patronizingly called one of the boys. In this collection that is not the case. Debbie Mc Collin, Karen Eccles and Suzanne Francis-Brown speak of Caribbean women. However, Delea Brown’s essay on bodies in conflict, which focuses on sexual liaisons in Jamaica, marries feminist theory to the experience in the bed. In a section called colonization and sexploitation she delves into the white man’s exoticisation of black and brown women from the time of slavery. This Euro-American fascination was stimulated during the conflict by the “aphrodisiac of war” in which the military man was expected to be sexually rewarded for his bravery on the battlefield. If there is any blame to be laid, then such opprobrium has to be placed on the woman who is the culprit. She is the daughter of Eve whose seduction of Adam has given us the word “evil”. In that narrative the men did not spread VD but rather it was, in the words of the Director of Medical Services, “the domestic servants, half-starved dressmakers and under-paid clerks”. Delea’s description of the degradation of the Caribbean women is paralleled by the other essays which speak to the position of women in this region.

Finally, we should look at the continuing legacies of the issues raised in this volume. Puerto Rico continues to function as an American colony, kept in a state of dependency by the US. In the aftermath of the recent flood and hurricane for example that colony’s low rating in the US table of assistance shows that little has changed since the war. In Trinbago the preference for imported food as described by Rita Pemberton has not changed because of colonial habit and by the control of that trade, now, as in the war, by a small cartel. And Tobago struggles on, being regarded as more of a hindrance than an asset by successive governments. Cuba, whose assistance and sacrifices were most welcome during the War, has now been re-embargoed by trumped-up charges. The more things change the more they remain the same.

The one essay which the volume lacks is one that could have dealt with the socio-cultural effects of the war as seen in the outpouring of West Indian writing which dealt with that experience. Also the manner in which the entertainment sector was changed by American radio stations on the bases and the proliferation of bars and cinemas fuelled by the Yankee dollar. There was also the enrichment of West Indian entrepreneurs from post-war loot left by the Americans. But these are small omissions which hardly detract from the wealth of information and fresh analysis. World War II and the Caribbean is a most useful story of ourselves written by ourselves.

Historian Professor Brinsley Samaroo delivered this review at the launch of World War II and the Caribbean at the Alma Jordan Library, UWI St. Augustine, on February 27, 2018.