In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes her sister’s love of history and place. She says:
In Italian there is a seldom-used tense called the passato remoto, the remote past. You use this tense when you are discussing things in the far, far distant past, things that happened so long ago they have no personal impact whatsoever on you anymore – for example, ancient history. But my sister, if she spoke Italian, would not use this tense to discuss ancient history. In her world, the Roman Forum is not remote, nor is it past. It is exactly as present and close to her as I am.
I love this passage because it is a great description of a historian. At least, it is a great description of how I see myself, the historian, in relation to the thing I study, the past.
The past is present. It is with me. It always has a personal impact on me, the society I live in, the country I call home. I guess you would call me – gasp – a presentist. It’s one of those things you almost never admit to being if you are a historian. Some historians think that being conscious of the impact of history on the present clouds the way that you see the past, that it gets in the way of your objectivity. But whatever. First, I don’t believe in objectivity. Not in science and certainly not in history. Second, if any historian tries to tell you that they don’t think about the present when they are writing about the past they are 1) in denial, 2) lying, or 3) both. Third, I openly admit that I study the past because it helps me understand the present. And I don’t care who knows it. Why even bother looking at the past if it isn’t going to inform the now?
But what if the past can erase itself, or at least greatly blur the picture? What if there are forces so large that they make us blind to the now? The following is what I thought about after coming into contact with some Brits in Barbados who were seemingly clueless about the history of the island and its people. It made me wonder, as a US citizen and, therefore, member of an imperial country, what am I clueless about?
If you have thoughts about any of this, please leave them in the comments section. I would love to know what people think about the US as an imperial agent, what histories you feel are missing from our national narrative that would help inform us in the present, and if you have ever had this kind of experience in your travels or discussions with travelers. And now, read on.
BARBADOS, ENGLAND, AND SLAVERY
When I say I study the past, I need to be more specific. I used to study ancient history and instead of calling myself a historian, I was a classicist. In fact, I was a philologist, those lovers of language. But after a Master’s in Latin Literature and a, let’s say, bumpy go in the world of Classics, I migrated to a different department: History. Now I study the early modern period, the seventeenth-century, 1650 – 1700. It’s not ancient but it’s also not 1940. It is remote to us now, a different world full of strange people, who we might recognize if we met them today but who would still seem completely foreign, as if looking through some sort of distorted mirror.
I am in the middle of my dissertation, working towards my PhD. My work focuses on England and its colony, Barbados. Without going into too much detail (something I am always happy to do if anyone asks), I study the way that the rise of slavery in the English colonies, specifically Barbados, influenced the way that the English thought about their bodies, practiced empirical science, and treated Africans. Or something like that. It’s evolving and changing daily, but those are the big themes: slavery, bodies, science.
So, here’s the background that matters for that which I am about to talk. England founded the colony of Barbados in the mid 1620s. There was no one on the island (the Spanish had been there in the previous century so it is possible that their diseases wiped out whatever native population existed on Barbados at that time). In the late 1630s, the Dutch brought sugar from Brazil to the island and taught the English planters how to grow it. In the 1640s, the English in Barbados started to buy African slaves in huge numbers, unseen anywhere in the English empire up to that point. Within mere decades, the demographic population of the island had shifted so that whites were the minority. By the 1680s, the African/black population greatly outnumbered the English/white population. The closest any colony in America got to such a disparity in numbers between free and slave was South Carolina (which was settled by Barbadians, no less). And the numbers there don’t even compare.
My point here is twofold. First, the embrace of slavery by the English was fast and it was enormous. Second, that it was in Barbados where the English learned to be slave owners, learned how to physically control huge populations of enslaved peoples, and learned how to grow and harvest sugar on a nearly industrial level (the first such industrial production in the English empire). All other English colonies that had slaves looked to Barbados and the Englishmen who settled there to teach them how to run their plantations.
And, of course, Barbados was a cruel place. I think that is a given. But one thing that always strikes me is the fact that once sugar took off as an incredibly lucrative crop, the English learned that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than to sustain the lives of the enslaved and promote reproduction. Clearly, this was a space that was all about profit (and there was a lot of it). The causality of that thinking was the lives of Africans, and the implementation of a new, terrible institution of slavery.
These are things that my work revolves around. Barbados as a space of slavery, violence, intimidation, but also intimacy, close quarters, and cultural fusion.
While the focus of the English/British empire shifted to Jamaica in the eighteenth century, slavery remained on the island of Barbados until 1834, when the English finally ended the institution. There were then four years of apprenticeship, which was just slavery in sheep’s clothing. Finally, in 1838, it was altogether ended. They have been rid of slavery for 150 years.
Barbados negotiated their independence from Britain in 1966. They have been an independent country, then, for only 45 years. According to Wikipedia, today,
Barbados has a population of about 281,968 and a population growth rate of 0.33% (Mid-2005 estimates). Close to 90% of all Barbadians (also known colloquially as Bajan) are of African descent (“Afro-Bajans”). The remainder of the population includes groups of Europeans (“Anglo-Bajans” / “Euro-Bajans”) mainly from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Chinese, Bajan Muslims from India. Other groups in Barbados include people from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. […] Barbados is a chief destination for emigrants from the South American nation of Guyana.
ON PRESENT-DAY BARBADOS and ENGLISH IMPERIAL MEMORY
While visiting the island recently, my husband and I stayed in a beautiful place on the east side of the island (the Atlantic side). The set-up of the hotel encourages meeting and talking to the other guests. It was there that we had a conversation with two English people about their experiences in Barbados (the island, even in the off-season, is flooded with British tourists, much more than American).
The couple are farmers from about 20 miles outside of London. They clearly had the means to travel (it was them and their two children, spending two weeks in Barbados, paying for two hotel rooms, a rental car, and whatever food they were eating). I don’t know anything else about them except that they are both blond-haired, white, and really, really enjoy boogie-boarding. Plus, their son loves to text.
On our final morning at the hotel, while eating breakfast, we were discussing with them the British-ness of the island of Barbados. And I was so struck by their complete shock at how British Barbados is. They just couldn’t believe how many place names are the same as over in England. “Even the small towns”, he said. It was as if they had no idea that there was such a long, twisted, and intertwined history between the island they were visiting (which they had never been to before) and the country where they live. They asked me to repeat the fact that Barbados was called “Little England” because it was not something that they had ever heard before. And when I said to them that the English who originally lived in Barbados during the seventeenth century tried desperately to recreate (or at least claim that they recreated) England, the mother country, the wife looked at me, laughed, and said, “Why would they have ever wanted to do that?”
Obviously I did not grow up in England. I have no idea how they teach the history of the English/British empire, their role in slavery (though I imagine it’s a lot about Wilberforce and abolition), or if Barbados is even a topic that they cover. It certainly isn’t one here in America. But that is really mind-blowing once you know that Barbados was the beginning and the engine of the early English Atlantic empire (they were also in India in the 17th century and we know that that becomes an incredibly important and influential colonial space for the English – hence midday tea. Of course, the Brits enjoy that tea with sugar).
ENGLISH COLONIALISM IN THE CARIBBEAN
I was going to write about the working of colonialism, analyzing how power, violence, and oppression are all wrapped up in each other in such a way that, for the colonial or the imperial people back at home, you can easily ignore the consequences of empire. But I think Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, is much more powerful and more cutting. She is Antiguan and A Small Place is all about Antigua, England, tourism, colonialism, injustice, etc. Read it if you get a chance. It’s short. But it’s amazing. So, here now, is Jamaica Kincaid:
The Antigua that I knew, the Antigua in which I grew up, is not the Antigua you, a tourist, would see now. That Antigua no longer exists. That Antigua no longer exists partly for the usual reason, the passing of time, and partly because the bad-minded people who used to rule over it, the English, no longer do so. (But the English have become such a pitiful lot these days, with hardly any idea what to do with themselves now that they no longer have one quarter of the earth’s human population bowing and scraping before them. They don’t seem to know that this empire business was all wrong and they should, at least, be wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their bad deeds, for no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did. Actual death might have been better. And so all this fuss over empire – what went wrong here, what went wrong there – always makes me quite crazy, for I can say to them what went wrong: they should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English. But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so you can imagine the destruction of people and land that came from that. The English hate each other and they have England, and the reason they are so miserable now is that they have no place else to go and nobody else to feel better than). [pages 23 – 24]
I cannot tell you how angry it makes me to hear people from North America tell me how much they love England… But what I see [when I look at England] is the millions of people, of whom I am just one, made orphans: no motherland, no fatherland, no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground, no excess of love which might lead to the things that an excess of love sometimes brings, and worst and most painful of all, no tongue. (For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?) [page 31]
Have I given you the impression that the Antigua I grew up in revolved almost completely around England? Well, that was so. I met the world through England, and if the world wanted to meet me it would have to do so through England. [page 33]
Let me just show you how you looked to us. You came. You took things that were not yours, and you did not even, for appearances’ sake, ask first…. You murdered people. You imprisoned people. You robbed people. You opened your own banks and you put our money in them. The accounts were in your name. The banks were in your name. There must have been some good people among you, but they stayed home. And that is the point. That is why they are good. They stayed home….The people like me, finally, after years and years of agitation,… you say to me, “Well, I wash my hands of all of you, I am leaving now,” and you leave, and from afar you watch as we do to ourselves they very things you used to do to us…. But then again, perhaps as you observe the debacle in which I now exist, the utter ruin that I say is my life, perhaps you are remembering that you had always felt people like me cannot run things, people like me will never grasp the idea of Gross National Product, people like me will never be able to take command of the thing the most simpleminded among you can master, people like me will never understand the notion of rule by law, people like me cannot realy think in abstractions, people like me cannot be objective, we make everything so personal. You will forget your part in the whole setup, that bureaucracy is one of your inventions, that Gross National Product is one of your inventions, and all the laws that you know mysteriously favour you. Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists, and the memory of this is so strong, the experience so recent, that we can’t quite bring ourselves to embrace this idea that you think so much of. [pages 35 – 37]
[Side note: This last bit reminded me of the other Englishman that we talked to in a bar on the west side (Caribbean side). He is contractor of some sort who builds houses or buildings in the Caribbean. He has been in Barbados the last four years. He bee-lined for us at the bar, the only other white people in the area. He wanted to commiserate about the laid-back way of living life in Barbados, to complain about how it interferes with his ability to build things. I think he said that in the Caribbean (unlike other places he has worked), his job is more of a “babysitter” than anything else.]
I find these passages so interesting, especially in juxtaposition to what the English farmers said to us. Kincaid is so incredibly aware of England. It is everywhere in her text. And she is so aware of the impact that empire has had on her island, the people of Antigua, and herself. That final paragraph, where she shows how the things that us Westerners hold so dear (capitalism, GNP, laws) are the same things that cause problems when empire leaves a place, nearly knocks the wind out of me.
She also acknowledges that in the process of colonizing, the English created a “Little England” wherever they went. That is how colonialism and empire work, and she knows it.
And beyond all of that, she is so aware of how the English forget what they have done. Because empire is really, really good at erasing itself. That is why it can be so hard to locate, to pinpoint, to define. And why it is so easy to paint over it, to deny its effects, and to push its problems onto the colonized and off of the colonial.
WHAT THIS BRINGS ME TO, MY ULTIMATE POINT
Of course, this is all fascinating to me as a historian of England and Barbados. But I think it all had such an impact on me because I am a US citizen. We are the empire that isn’t an empire, maybe. Here are some quotes I found about American imperialism on these here interwebs (they are presented in the order I found them, not in any other way).
First, Paul Schroeder, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (from Feb 2003):
They illuminate the choice for America today. It is not an empire–not yet. But it is at this moment a wannabe empire, poised on the brink. The Bush Doctrine proclaims unquestionably imperialist ambitions and goals, and its armed forces are poised for war for empire–formal empire in Iraq through conquest, occupation, and indefinite political control, and informal empire over the whole Middle East through exclusive paramountcy. [The first part of the article outlines what he thinks constitutes an “empire” and how empire is different from “hegemony”.]
The term imperialism was coined in the mid-1800s. It was first widely applied to the US by the American Anti-Imperialist League, founded in 1898 to oppose the Spanish-American War and the subsequent post-war military occupation and brutalities committed by US forces in the Philippines. […]
Identifying the United States as an empire by its international behavior is controversial. Those Americans who wish to see their nation as a positive influence on the world strongly resist accusations of behaving in an imperialistic manner. Others who are anti-American refuse to see that the sheer size and diversity of America will produce imperialistic effects even without any overt policy from its government. Stuart Creighton Miller posits that the public’s sense of innocence about Realpolitik impairs popular recognition of US imperial conduct. The resistance to actively occupying foreign territory has led to policies of exerting influence via other means, including governing other countries via surrogates, where domestically unpopular governments survive only through U.S. support.
Third, Jim Garrison, co-founder of the State of the World Forum (with Mikhail Gorbachev, no less) (from Jan 2004):
America has made the transition from republic to empire. It is no longer what it was. It was founded to be a beacon of light unto the nations, a democratic and egalitarian haven to which those seeking freedom could come. It has now become an unrivalled empire among the nations, exercising dominion over them. How it behaves and what it represents have fundamentally changed. It used to represent freedom. Now it represents power. […]
This means that America should acknowledge, even celebrate, its transition to empire and acquisition of global mastery. What began as a motley band of colonies 225 years ago is now not only the strongest nation in the world but the strongest nation in the history of the world. Americans should be justly proud of this achievement. It has been attained with enormous effort and at great cost.
The world, too, should modulate its antipathy against America with the consideration that America has become so powerful in part because it has been so benign.
I will end this part by quoting my one-time teacher, Dr. Ann Stoler. Her 2006 piece in Public Culture (v. 18, n.1, pp. 125 – 46) titled “On Degrees of Imperial Sovereignty” says this,
imperial states by definition operate as states of exception that vigilantly produce exceptions to their principles and exceptions to their laws. From this vantage point, the United States is not an aberrant empire but a quintessential one, a consummate producer of excepted populations, excepted spaces, and its own exception from international and domestic law. [pages 140 – 141] […]
Students of imperial history depend on having a solid archival trail to track…. We are less skilled at identifying the scope of empire when the contracts are not in written form, when policies are not signaled as classified, nor spelled out as confidential, secreted matters of state. The absence of a “scrap of paper being signed that might involve the United States in legal obligation to the world at large or to any part of it” has a long history that runs through the earliest alienation of indigenous rights written into the Declaration of Independence. Being an effective empire has long been contingent on partial visibility – sustaining the ability to remain an unaccountable one. [page 142] […]
This notion that “society must be defended” condones the moral right to murder those “outside,” as it produces not only state-sanctioned disenfranchisements, persecutions, and internments, but a dangerous overproduction of popular seat-of-the-pants profiling by “good citizens.” [page 144] […]
Fear of an omnipresent, invisible “hidden force” and the desire for a secret intelligence apparatus to combat it are standard features of imperial administration. [page 145]
Stoler’s words are important to me now, at this exact time in US history. Just yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about, “the top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, [that] has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.” (Melissa at Shakesville points out why this article is bs, given that people have been pointing out for years the many, many imperialist things that the US has been doing in its fight against terrorism. I think it’s clear that Stoler is referring to such things in the quotes above.)
But beyond that, for me, as a US citizen, I could very well be those English farmers one day. Shit, I’ll just say that I AM those English farmers.
I don’t know the extent of American domination, cultural oppression, or use of violence in the places that the US occupies. I can’t even begin to list those places. I mean, what is going on in Guam? What did we actually do in Philippines? Lord knows that we dropped Agent Orange all over Vietnam. And more to the point, what have we irrevocably changed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would I, a US citizen, be able to see what we have done to these countries if I went to visit? Of course, in Iraq and Afghanistan right now it would be obivous. But what happens twenty or fifty years from now? Will it be ruin, chaos, and poverty? Will we look to ourselves as the cause or will we blame the people in those countries that we gave the tools to but who just didn’t listen?
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, in explaining a specific word in his narrative, footnotes it thus:
The pejorative pariguayo, Watchers agree, is a corruption of the English neologism “party watcher.” The word came into common usage during the First American Occupation of the DR [Dominican Republic], which ran from 1916 to 1924. (You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either.) [page 19]
And he’s right. As an American historian, I have NO knowledge of the US having ever occupied the DR. And it is very possible that my son will know that we fought in Iraq but will he actually understand or be taught the extent to which we occupied it?
This all leads me to uncomfortable questions that I just keep asking myself. How much don’t I know of the past? How much of the present? What will be blind to my eyes in the future? What is the history of this country and what does it mean today? I can’t answer these things when it comes to the US abroad. I am sad to know these limits in my knowledge when that knowledge is so incredibly important. I want to push myself to learn more.
Our presence in places, it has consequences. Just because we don’t want to see them, we don’t acknowledge them, or we lie about them doesn’t make them go away. And, at the same time, we MUST finally see all that we gain from our ever-expanding cultural, martial, and physical presence around the world. We get so much that we can’t even recognize in our daily lives simply because we are US citizens (and me, probably more so than others because I am white, cisgendered, heterosexual, upper-middle/low-upper class, married, etc.).
Those English farmers were able to go to Barbados and vacation for two weeks. They have a global market within which to sell their goods and to make money because England has ties throughout the world and power to force people to do what it wants (thanks, empire!). For all I know, they have money to travel because they have inherited it, it is part of their family, having been made from some imperial venture (or just a venture that was possible because England was an empire). I don’t deny that these farmers work hard (it is clear from their crazy fit bodies) but that doesn’t take away from the advantages they receive because of who they are, the country the live in, and the empire that England once controlled.
Jamaica Kincaid reminds us that the same British empire has left a different legacy in Antigua and Barbados:
Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go. [page 18 – 19]
This trip to Barbados, the conversations with these British people, and my own knowledge of colonialism, history, and empire make me want to continue to at least tell the story of Barbados and England. I want to show that the English institution of slavery that spread throughout the Atlantic and came to play such a long, terrible role in US history, was a powerful historical force that still has consequences for so many people today. Just because you are white and you can’t see your privilege (or, as Stephen Colbert says, you can’t see your race), doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
To study this past, I can say something important about the present.
The past is not remote to me. It surrounds me, it motivates me, and forces me to examine the things I take for granted in the here and now. Thank goodness for history.