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Appreciating the Caribbean

by Professor E. Nigel Harris

The Pelican’s first issue of 2010 deservedly, places the spotlight on the Caribbean’s rich historical, cultural and literary heritage reflected in the treasure trove of collections that exist in The University of the West Indies libraries.

A Caribbean history, built on courage and fortitude, the great sweep of exploration and migration of the past 500 years, the unique cultural identity shaped by the European colonialists, have been preserved in the authentic voices of Trinidad & Tobago’s Williams, Jamaica’s Manley and Mais and others.

At the highest levels of achievement, there are Nobel Peace Prize winners for literature like Derek Walcott of St. Lucia, St. John Perse of Guadeloupe and Sir Vidia S. Naipaul of Trinidad & Tobago, and undoubtedly, the Caribbean has produced some of the world’s most renowned artists, musicians and novelists.

Visitors to our shores have also found great inspiration here giving rise to insightful contributions from people like Gaugin, Hemmingway, Graham Greene and Noel Coward.

Through their combined efforts the small nations of the Caribbean, which once had a disproportionate impact on the world’s economy, now wield a cultural influence that has spread to remote corners of the world.

Jamaican reggae superstar Bob Marley, the Mighty Sparrow, symbolically the permanent “Calypso King” of Trinidad &Tobago, the musical geniuses of Haiti and Cuba, have all made their mark on the musical universe. All of us identify with the literary manuscripts of Barbadian novelist and social critic George Lamming, Martinique’s Franz Fanon, Guyana’s Wilson Harris and Jamaica’s John Hearne.

Equally valuable, have been the contributions of internationally admired painters like Cuba’s Wifredo Lam, Trinidad & Tobago’s Leroy Clarke and others who have taken inspiration from a complex cosmology born from West African religions and Christianity.

The collections within the UWI’s libraries like Mona’s “Dean’s Valley Records” and “Deeds and Papers of Delvin’s Estate”, and Archibald Cooper’s accounts of the Maroons, help us to understand ourselves—where we came from and how we got to this point.

We are one Caribbean, but each island has a unique cultural identity, shaped by its own experiences including its interaction with European colonists, a heritage of African slaves or Indian indentured workers.

This rich history and its lasting influence are well documented in the novels, poems, historical tomes, postcards, drawings and maps—a rich collection held at UWI libraries across the region that promotes a full appreciation not just of individual islands by the natives of those islands but among Caribbean people and others, for the region as a whole.