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THE CHIEF CHARACTER IN THIS NARRATIVE IS THE CARIBBEAN Sea, one of the world’s most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east. Although bounded on the south and west by continental land masses, it is the islands that give the Caribbean its unique charm. On the north lies the large and important trio: Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and great Cuba. On the east are those heavenly small islands that so artistically dot the blue waves: Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, All Saints, Trinidad and remote Barbados among them. The southern shore is formed by the South American countries of Venezuela and Colombia and the Central American nation of Panamá. The western shore is often overlooked, but it contains both the exciting republics of Central America—Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras—and the wonderful, mysterious peninsula of Yucatán where the ancient Maya flourished.
The Caribbean, nearly nineteen hundred miles wide from Barbados to Yucatán, does not include either the Bahama Islands or Florida, but does contain near its center an island which at intervals assumed an importance greater than most of the others, Jamaica with its turbulent history.
In the centuries following its discovery by Columbus in 1492, the Caribbean was dominated by European nations fascinated by its wealth, its inviting charm and its strategic importance in naval warfare. Spain, Holland, England, France and, at brief intervals, Denmark and Sweden all became embroiled in Caribbean affairs, until it seemed that the area’s destiny was determined not by actions in the Caribbean but by what transpired in Europe. Conversely, and this became a crucial factor in world history, European destinies were frequently determined by great sea battles in the Caribbean, especially those fought among the fleets of Spain, Holland, England and France.
But one must always keep in mind the salient fact about this sea and its islands: the dominant settlers of the area would become the black slaves who arrived in such droves from Africa that in time they outnumbered and eventually outpowered all other groups combined. Many islands would ultimately become black republics with blacks holding all major offices like governor general, prime minister and chief of police.
In the nineteenth century a heavy influx of Hindus and Muslims from India introduced unique influences, making certain islands and regions even more colorful, while in recent decades businessmen predominantly from Canada and the United States have streamed down to invest their intelligence and money in efforts to make the islands tourist havens and international banking centers.
The Caribbean is often referred to erroneously as the Mediterranean of America. In a strictly geographical sense the comparison is apt: both seas are landbound, they are almost identical in size (Mediterranean, 969,100 square miles; Caribbean, 971,400). Both have been important historically, but there the similarities between the two great seas end. The lands bordering the Mediterranean gave rise to many outstanding civilizations and the three great religions, while the only great indigenous civilization that operated in the Caribbean area was the Maya in Yucatán, and even it was dying out before the explorers arrived from Europe.
But what the Caribbean did provide, and generously, was a sea of heavenly beauty, a cluster of unmatched islands and a varied series of national occupiers; it certainly has never lacked for either variety or excitement. Above all, it was the theater for one of nature’s most violent manifestations, the vast hurricanes that were spawned mysteriously off the shores of Africa and came roaring across the South Atlantic with demonic fury. Each summer a gathering of these monsters rampaged among the islands, sometimes missing land entirely, in other years devastating everything, flattening palm trees, tearing houses apart, and killing thousands. The hurricanes kept to a preordained swath, rarely striking as far south as Trinidad or Cartagena, occasionally as far north as Bermuda, but Barbados and Jamaica could expect to be visited at least once in a decade, and some smaller islands were ravaged with even greater frequency. Sunny beaches of white sand and crystal-blue water were the glory of the Caribbean, hurricanes the hell.
But however magnificent the sea is, the stories of human endeavor must focus on the scattered islands, just as in the larger world, history concentrates on the settled continents. We have neither the time nor space to deal with all the islands, each worthy of its own treatment, but we shall visit in close detail more than a dozen, and in the process observe many diverse civilizations dominated by a wide variety of mother nations: Spain, Holland, England, France, Denmark, the United States, and the societies unrelated to Europe: Arawak, Carib, Maya, African, East Indian. It is a rich tapestry we shall be inspecting.
The story begins in the year 1310 on an island—which would later be named Dominica—lying in the middle of the eastern arc.
Tiwánee suspected there might be trouble as soon as she heard that strangers had settled on the other side of the island. She learned this disturbing news from the most reliable man in the Arawak settlement, her mate Bakámu, who on one of his constant roamings had espied the three strange canoes from the top of a hill where he was digging for an agouti. The canoes were much larger than those familiar to the island, and the people taller and darker-skinned.
Forgetting his pursuit of the agouti, which had burrowed deeper than usual, he ran back across the island, beneath the branches of the tall clustering trees that covered the hills, to shout to his woman: “They have come.”
These words summarized a world of mystery and apprehension, for never before had strangers come to the island, nor was there any conceivable way in which Bakámu could have known that they were coming, or even that they existed elsewhere. But Bakámu was not an ordinary man, as his name testified—it meant he has struggled back—and it was well earned, for as a young fellow, still bearing his birth name Marabul, he had hollowed out a huge log, made himself a stout canoe, and in it had paddled bravely to other islands not seen before. To the north he went over open seas to the island that would centuries after his death be named Guadeloupe and to the south he visited Martinique, discovering that his smaller island lay between two larger ones which seemed to be uninhabited.
He had pondered the mystery of why his small island contained people, while its larger neighbors had none, but could find no answer, and talked with no one about it. He kept his silence even after he took Tiwánee as his wife to live with him in the shelter he had built for them. She has great wisdom, he thought, and someday I will tell her. But now Bakámu was caught up in the discovery that his wife had accumulated rare knowledge, and better than other women, she knew when to plant manioc and sweet potato, how to cultivate corn, and where in the forest she could find star apples, guava and especially the rich, sweet cashew nut. And when her man brought home an iguana, once or twice a year, she knew how to prepare the first joyous feast and then dry the rest of the meat and save it for later.
Tiwánee’s skills were respected by all in the village, and they formed one of the most attractive couples on the sunset side, he a man of robust build and somewhat ponderous, she a darting little brown bird looking into everything. Since he demonstrated unusual ability in whatever physical activity he attempted—running, leaping, swimming, games—he commanded the respect of his fellows and in public his words carried weight, but everyone knew that in the home he listened to and obeyed his wife. Although men did not consider her beautiful, the wonderful animation of her pert little face when she talked or smiled attracted special attention. And when they walked together along the beach or through the village, Tiwánee in her brightly colored garment, Bakámu in a dun-colored breechclout, she invariably stayed in front, as if she with her rapidly scanning eyes and natural inquisitiveness was scouting the way for him. But regardless of where they were or what they were doing, they laughed a lot, and it was clear to all that they were happily mated.
It was easy to determine where Bakámu and his wife lived, for although their round hut built of wooden poles, wattles and mud resembled all others clustered in friendly circles, the plot of land on which it stood was outlined by a remarkable hedge which glowed when sunlight reflected from it.
When planting it, Tiwánee had used only the croton, a tropic plant which produced in its big, broad leaves a variety of colors that was bedazzling. There were reds, yellows, blues, purple, deep brown and four or five other colors, all dusted with iridescent specks of gold. Some plants, for no discernible reason, had leaves of all one color, others displayed the wildest variations, and occasionally, as if to prove its versatility, the same plant would produce one bright color topside of each leaf, a much darker color on the underside.
A hedge of croton was a perpetual bewilderment and joy, because the individual plants were a rowdy lot; they grew in wild profusion, obedient to none of the sensible laws that governed ordinary plants. Had Tiwánee used in her hedge any of the glorious red flowers her village produced—those that would later be called poinsettias, anthuriums or hibiscus—she would have had a known quantity; those flowering shrubs grew to a preordained height, behaved themselves, and clung together as if ruled by only one benelovent spirit: “You were intended to be thus and so you will remain, to gladden men’s eyes.”