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Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations by Sidney W. Mintz (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 574-575 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0006

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As a pioneering scholar of the Caribbean over several decades, Mintz is well prepared to reflect on the various cultures and histories of this “geographically modest but historically important region” (p. 2). Three Ancient Colonies, based on a series of lectures given at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Dubois Institute in 2003, is both a searching “personal look back” at the people and places of Mintz’s fieldwork in the 1940s and 1950s and a “meditation” on the legacies of slavery and plantation development in the Caribbean (p. 24).

The three core chapters focus on Jamaica, Haiti (Saint-Domingue), and Puerto Rico. In each chapter, Mintz emphasizes the importance of each place’s “ancient” colonial history, focusing on slavery, sugar, and the plantation complex. These are the keys to understanding the Caribbean, he argues, and the basis for comparing Caribbean societies. Mintz then moves from the time of emancipation to the people he met during his fieldwork, using their voices and stories to reflect on the relationship between history and culture.

In Jamaica and Haiti, Mintz charts “the achievements and tragedy of Caribbean peasant life” from colonial slavery to the twentieth century (p. 132). Despite the dominance of the sugar monoculture and the massive scale of plantation slavery in both colonies, Mintz locates the origins of post-emancipation peasantries in their enslaved ancestors’ traditions of self-sufficient, relatively autonomous subsistence agriculture. Enslaved Jamaicans and Haitians were “proto-peasants,” working provision grounds and lakou (farms) and marketing their surplus at public markets (p. 55). Mintz then follows peasants into the mid twentieth century, focusing in Jamaica on church-created “free villages” like Sturge Town, where peasants struggled to obtain land and provide for themselves, and in Haiti on the central role of women in the country’s complex internal marketing system. Although rural Haitians came closer than Jamaicans to “a genuine reconstituted peasant existence,” Mintz argues, “peasants’ aspirations were frustrated in both societies” by ruling elites (pp. 115, 132).

Puerto Rico, the first Caribbean society Mintz studied, serves as an illuminating counterpoint to Jamaica and Haiti. The distinctive history and culture of Puerto Rico, Mintz argues, centers on the late arrival of large-scale sugar production and on the peripheral nature of slavery there. Though colonized by Spain quite early, Puerto Rico was largely ignored by imperial powers until the United States launched an intensive expansion of sugar production in the twentieth century. This delay had important consequences, not the least of which was that it allowed “the growth of an independent, racially mixed peasantry” in a thinly populated, frontier colony (p. 143). And, even during the early-twentieth-century sugar boom, the fact that large numbers of poor whites, including the landless, “rural proletarians” Mintz studied, toiled in cane fields meant that plantation labor never became stigmatized as suitable only for non-whites (p. 161). As a result, race relations in Puerto Rico remained “less toxic” than in most other Caribbean societies (p. 181).

Mintz’s reflections on Puerto Rico’s “‘deviant’” history also provide an opportunity to revisit one of the major themes of his previous work: creolization as a specific historical phenomenon (p. 206). In a compelling concluding chapter on “Creolization, Culture, and Social Institutions,” Mintz argues that creolization—which he purposely defines more narrowly than many other scholars as “the creative cultural synthesis undertaken primarily by the slaves, interacting with each other and with free people, particularly in the tropical New World sugar plantation colonies”—can serve as another basis for comparing Caribbean societies (p. 190). Creolization, moreover, occurred in colonial Saint- Domingue and Jamaica, but not in Puerto Rico. Using the presence of a creole language as a litmus test for creolization, Mintz argues that the relative homogeneity of Spanish culture in Puerto Rico and the dominance of the Spanish language highlight the extent to which creolization occurred only in societies where slavery was central and widespread—an argument likely to spark much discussion. Such conclusions highlight the extent to which this book succeeds in “build[ing] a picture of the Caribbean region in which the description of local variation rests on a broad historical view” (p. 182). Mintz continues to improve our understanding of...

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