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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 201-203

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Book Review

Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies 1657-1777

Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies 1657-1777, ed. and with intro. by Thomas W. Krise. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. xiv+358 pp. ISBN 0-226-45392-8 paper.

In a certain sense, the extracts collected in Caribbeana fill a considerable literary and historical gap. For while there has always been a large body of work describing day-to-day conditions in the region, written, in [End Page 201] large part, by itinerant colonials as well as planters and settlers, it has until now not been brought together in a way that sheds light on the variety of attitudes held by the metropolitan classes toward the Caribbean colonies. By concentrating his interest on the first century of Caribbean colonization--literally, from just after the conquest of Jamaica to just before the American Declaration of Independence--Thomas Krise--whose youth in St. Thomas occasioned his "passion for the history and culture of the West Indies" (ix)--has been able to draw profitably on the discourses accompanying the overwhelming contemporary profitability that made the West Indian colonies arguably the jewel in the British imperial crown.

The thirteen extracts that make up this collection range from histories and travel literature through slave monologues and anti-slavery tracts to poetry and morality tales. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive, if mainly metropolitan overview of the attitudes, alliances, and tensions that made up the complexities of the colonial encounter in the Caribbean. Krise's useful introduction charts the historical rationale for conquest, cites travel and slavery as the "two central concerns of the writing that arises from the British West Indies" (5), and seeks to show the importance of these accounts to the fields of postcolonial studies, ethnocriticism, and ethnohistory. But despite his claim that "the techniques used in these cross-disciplines can be useful to the interpretation of early West Indian texts--particularly [. . .] when the entire archive is mediated through European languages and discourses" (12), his introduction fails to clarify the methodological means by which the racial, cultural, and geographical biases inherent in many of these discourses may be profitably contested.

Be that as it may, useful insights into the colonial Caribbean condition may be had by reading "through" this selection of European reports; by and large, however, the relative absence of a colonized voice that truly speaks, rather than being spoken for, is not addressed. Interestingly, while Krise demonstrates considerable awareness of English discourses that took the Caribbean as their subject, the multiple readings and resonances inscribed in the word creole, and whose cultural ambiguities have been shown to play a determining role in framing Caribbean identity, do not feature prominently in his methodology. Most useful are such pieces as Richard Ligon's "True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados," published in 1657. Long a standard historical reference, Ligon's text provides a fairly objective portrait of the various groups that made up Caribbean society. Perhaps most interesting here are his accounts of slave prices and the varying social practices that governed both the settler and the slave classes. Thomas Tryon's "Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen Planters" (1684) exploits the dialogic form to put into place a critique of slavery, one both mouthed by a slave and predicated on slavery's flouting of Christian principles. On the other hand, Edward Ward's "A Trip to Jamaica" (1698) provides such an extreme example of metropolitan negativity toward the region and its inhabitants, terming the island "the Dunghill of the Universe, the Refuse of the whole Creation" (88), and excoriating its food, architecture, fruit, and natural elements, that its principal importance [End Page 202] may lie in the extent to which it summed up colonial convictions of the implicit superiority of the metropole.

Alternately, the "Speech Made by a Black at Guardaloupe" (1709) derives its principal importance from its point of view. Its critique provides an opening...


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