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History Workshop Journal 58 (2004) 191-210
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Modernity that Predated the Modern:
Sidney Mintz's Caribbean
In the view espoused here, Caribbean peoples are the first modernised peoples in world history. They were modernised by enslavement and forced transportation; by 'seasoning' and coercion on time-conscious export-oriented enterprises; by the reshuffling, redefinition and reduction of gender-based roles; by racial and status-based oppression; and by the need to reconstitute and maintain cultural forms of their own under implacable pressure. These were people wrenched from societies of a different sort, then thrust into remarkably industrial settings for their time and for their appearance, and kept under circumstances of extreme repression. Caribbean cultures had to develop under these unusual and, indeed, terrible conditions. The argument here is that they have, as a result, a remarkably modern cast for their time.
Alien But Not Exotic
For half a century, Sidney Mintz's historical anthropology has been concerned to conceptualize and delineate the fundamental modernity of the Caribbean, a modernity decidedly coerced as well as coercive in its shaping force, and subordinate in its structural location.1 To be sure there has been much more to his vocation as an anthropologist, but in many ways I think this argument has been his most distinctive contribution to the understanding of the Caribbean.
Mintz has never ceased reminding us that the Caribbean region is the oldest outpost of European overseas colonial expansion. The emergence of 'planetary' empires in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the inauguration of an 'oceanic' trans-Atlantic imperial orientation, begins with the Caribbean. And having had the earliest start in colonial history, some of the longest surviving colonies are still to be found in the region into the twenty-first century. But, as Mintz would insist, it is not age alone that matters here, the mere number of years of colonial rule. It is, more importantly, the distinctive character of the colonial history that unfolded there, both the nature of the initial encounter that forcibly established a European presence, and the nature of the economic project that made that presence viable, indeed enormously profitable. The Caribbean as we know it is, to a very large degree, an outcome of that colonial encounter; but the world made through it (and this is the heart of Mintz's point) was a precociously [End Page 191] and paradoxically modern one—precocious because the modern, as a structuring form, was then still only a glimmer on the European horizon; and paradoxical because it was completely unanticipated and unnoticed that such people, brought in chains from Africa, might embody that coming future. Caribbean peoples, one might say, were the first overseas conscripts of modernity.2
Over the decades, Sidney Mintz has maintained a remarkable fidelity to the Caribbean as a focus of scholarly investigation, not just in the early years of the 1950s and 1960s when Caribbean Studies seemed to be gathering momentum as an innovative field of research, but in the 1980s as well, when it looked exhausted, winded, spent of purpose and direction. He has often lamented that the region has appeared something of an anomaly in the anthropological (not to say in the larger social science) imagination. Not only has it been marginalized or neglected because of its relative geopolitical insignificance and the consequent absence of powerful institutional support in the North Atlantic academy; but more interestingly for Mintz, it has typically been misrecognized and therefore consistently misunderstood. Neither properly 'primitive' nor 'civilized', neither 'non-Western' on the conventional criteria nor unambiguously 'Western' (in short, neither fish nor fowl), the Caribbean has never quite fit securely within any anthropological agenda. 'Whereas New Guinea, Africa, Amazonia offered kinship systems, costumes, coiffures, cuisines, languages, beliefs, and customs of dizzying variety and allure,' Mintz has recently written,
to almost all anthropologists the Caribbean islands and their surrounding shores looked rather too much like a culturally burned-over, secondhand, unpristine world. Whether it was kinship or religion or language or anything else, Caribbean people all seemed culturally midway between there and...