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  • Igniting the Caribbean’s Past: Fire in British West Indian History by Bonham C. Richardson
  • Polly Pattullo
Igniting the Caribbean’s Past: Fire in British West Indian History. By Bonham C. Richardson. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Fan the Flame was a column written at the end of the twentieth century by the Caribbean radical Tim Hector in his Antiguan newspaper Outlet. It was an outpouring of enraged analysis against complacency, greed, corruption and self-delusion; it called for the people of the Caribbean to reject neo-colonialism and to claim sovereignty over their own development. Its name was no accident; for, as Richardson illustrates, the concept of fire as a weapon of protest comes from deep within the Caribbean psyche.

Richardson’s book concentrates on the years 1885–1910 in the islands of the eastern Caribbean, stretching from the British Virgin Islands in the north to Trinidad & Tobago in the south. He examines the way that humans “used, modified, and contemplated fire” (xi).

Richardson has chosen fire to unravel the society of these impoverished and marginalized island societies pointing out that “man-made” fire as a cause of socio-political change has been ignored in studies of the region. It is a big subject and Richardson makes the most of it, giving room to such phenomena as the introduction of matches in the urban Caribbean, the development of local fire brigades, the water content of sugar cane.

He doesn’t make it clear why he has chosen this period but what he does explain is that this was a time of colonial crisis. The price of sugar, still the dominant crop, had dropped; wages of the black majority were painfully low. It was an era of change – unrest in the cane fields, the emergence of an urban Caribbean class and the stirrings of what would become an anti-colonial movement.

Fire, Richardson argues, played an important role in that process. Planters and officials, both in the Caribbean and London, could hardly ignore cane-fields going up in flames or town centres (such as the great fire of Port of Spain in 1895) destroyed, either by accident or design. In fact, as newspaper reports of the time showed, fires, whatever the cause, frightened and antagonised the white elite.

What Frantz Fanon, some decades later, called the “terrified consciousness” of the whites as they foresaw their power slipping away, is articulated here in the face of arson. The local newspapers (articulating the interests of the elite as Richardson points out) invoked the notion of “African savagery” in its fearfulness. In his sometimes cluttered dependency on newspaper reports, Richardson ignores literature. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, is perhaps the greatest fictional description of white fear in the face of black rage as the estate house (based on the actual burning of Rhys’ own family home at Geneva, in Dominica) goes up in flames.

Fire and protest came together in the Caribbean most symbolically with the cannes brulées (burning cane) processions. Since the 1860s, carnival celebrations - - dating from slavery - - had been dominated by parades of flaming torches, drumming, songs, noise. When, in Trinidad, in 1881, the authorities banned torches from the processions, the result was the carnival riots of that year. Commissioners were sent from London to investigate. What was clear, says Richardson, was that “fire, history and realizations of freedom itself thereby all converged in the canne brulées processions” (51).

Over and above fears around social unrest, there was also, in the official mind, a real worry about fire damage, especially in the fast-growing urban areas. The poor used kerosene; matches were newly introduced - - accidental fires were a regular feature of town life. Some decimated commercial centres, notably in Port of Spain in 1895 and in Fort-de-France, Martinique in 1890. This led to technological responses and Richardson dwells at some length on the evolution of fire engines, local fire brigades, water pipes and fire hoses.

Richardson finds a place in this entertaining and fact-filled book for an exploration of the problems associated with the use of fire to clear forests (much of the Caribbean’s forests had first...

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