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Jewish World Review / May 5, 1998 / 9 Iyar, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Racial, ethnic, national barriers disappearing

LES TROIS-ILETS, Martinique -- On April 27th, the former pirate islands of the French Caribbean celebrated the 150th anniversary of slavery's second abolition, in 1848.

Slavery's first abolition in the French Antilles was at the height of the French revolution in 1794. The half-million slaves who had made San Domingo the richest colony in the world rebelled under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture. They succeeded against all odds, creating independent Haiti -- in its splendor and misery -- while the revolutionary government in Paris proclaimed emancipation throughout the rest of the French West Indies.

In Guadeloupe, the dominant white "Messieurs," frightened by L'Ouverture, handed their island over to British rule in 1794 (which lasted eight years). But while Haiti remained chaotically and even tragically free, slavery was reinstituted in the other French colonies under Napoleon in 1802, and lasted for another 46 years, until the bourgeois European revolutions of 1848.

Today the West Indian islands have lost the economic rationales which made their colonization, and population with plantation slaves and indentured Indian laborers, so profitable. The labor-intensive sugar-cane plantation, devoted to export production, was the first modern factory farm.

The slaves had been imported from the mid-17th century onward. The white population -- today less than 5 percent in the French West Indies -- was originally composed of buccaneers and filibusters converted to commerce, followed by officials of the newly formed European trading companies, plus redundant aristocratic second sons, persecuted French Protestants, poor whites -- and, under government sponsorship, orphans and indigent women.

They all lived off sugar. But cane sugar succumbed to beet sugar, and the islands turned to growing bananas, and to diversification into cotton, indigo, and coffee. Cane sugar production in the French Antilles now is less than a quarter of what it was even in the 1960s. Banana production is doomed by U.S. exports of industrially grown fruit from Hawaii. Other tropical fruits face Israeli and African competition.

The globalizing economy has mostly condemned the West Indies' attempts to diversify, although cocaine for the booming North American market has yet to be tried on a serious scale. That seems the logical next step for some of the area's islands, a product uninhibited by World Trade Organization rules.

There is always rum, but the international market is limited, and nearly half the production is consumed at home. In Martinique, surviving plantation owners admit -- over that lime-and-rum, followed by the more or less straight rum, with which proper lunches begin -- that the island lives beyond its means. This is quite true. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, more than a quarter of the population is unemployed.

A majority benefit from one or another subsidy from the generous French social security system. GNP per capita (at current exchange) is around $6,500, less than a quarter of the French national average, although Martinique and Guadeloupe both legally are part of metropolitan France, the equivalents of U.S. states.

The French support their ex-colonies out of a sense of obligation and the national conviction that France must behave as a world power. This involves some sound reasoning as well as pride, since these islands in the Caribbean, plus French possessions in the north Atlantic (off Newfoundland), the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, and the Antarctic, give it one of the largest claims on seabed territorial rights and resources of any nation in the world.

There nonetheless is something sad about the islands, for all the style and originality of West Indian music and popular culture. The slave past oppresses, and threatens cultural identity and political ambition.

In April the press was recalling the intellectual and cultural movement called "Negritude," an influential reassertion in the 1930s of West Indian identification with Africa by the poet (and political figure) Aime Cesaire. However there are many members of an older generation who still do not want to hear about slave origins or Africa.

A younger West Indian intellectual, Patrick Chamoiseau, says that the African identification leaves everyone else out, and promotes a lack of national assurance. He says that the ordinary person in the islands believes that "we are a bastard people, too small, undefinable, with no real culture, an empty thing which has to be filled from elsewhere."

"We lack interior authority" he says, "based on what we really are and what we can do." He says that it is necessary to acknowledge the Creole identity, the racial mixture, and go on from there. "What we are is that. It's based on diversity. It's a result of mixture. It's a necessary way for us to live, to expand."

It is in fact the modern condition, not only that of the Creole Caribbean. It is the condition of a Creole world in which, for better or for worse, the racial, ethnic, and national borders all are being torn down, and people mixed up, no longer sure about who they are, or should be.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.