- Early Caribbean Society Symposium
When fires and earthquakes ravaged European cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Caribbean prosperity rebuilt the imperial centers. Money garnered from plantations and trade similarly funded European arts, literature, and music. Even though centuries later cold-war politics would enshrine New England at the epicenter of the colonial American literary canon, Barbados and other sugar colonies were central to the economic and cultural life of modern and Enlightenment Englishmen. Today transnational and Atlantic world studies have once again made early Caribbean studies vital to understanding the colonial project. The recent Early Caribbean Society (ECS) Symposium at Kingston University investigated what makes early Caribbean literature distinctively “Caribbean,” as well as the common threads that tied together colonial worlds. The third symposium sponsored by ECS, the Kingston gathering was an important reminder of how nascent the field of early Caribbean studies still is, and the exciting work that remains to be done.
Like previous Early Caribbean Society symposia, the one-day symposium piggybacked on another major conference of a relevant organization, in this case the three-day Society of Early Americanists conference on “London and the Americas, 1492–1812.” While many members of ECS also participated in some way in the SEA conference, the format of the two [End Page 632]gatherings differed substantially. One of the most useful aspects of the ESC symposium was that all attendees exchanged papers ahead of time and hence panels were primarily discussions of the papers with only brief presentations. This allowed for much greater exchange of ideas than is often possible at typical conferences.
The popularity of the third ECS symposium highlights the Caribbean’s increased presence in the field of early American studies. The London symposium was the largest of the ECS symposia to date, with papers given by twenty-four scholars and almost as many additional scholars in attendance. The event raised several key questions that come from working in a subfield that was largely ignored when the canon of early American literature was being created. Since there is no canon of early Caribbean literature, scholars must ask: what would a literary or cultural history of the early Caribbean look like? Is some aspect of Caribbean literature more “authentically” Caribbean? For example, is the literature of the oppressed the most important part of the Caribbean literary heritage, or is the literature of the oppressor equally crucial to understanding the Caribbean legacy? What differentiates early literature about the Caribbean from later Caribbean literature? Finally if we insist on claiming that the Caribbean changed the literature and history of European metropoles like London, does something distinctive about Caribbean literature remain?
Marginalized by both Caribbean and early American studies, early Caribbean literary history continues to struggle to create an overarching sense of the field in an era in which canons are often being debunked and devalued. Because of this quandary, the conference grappled with how to create a cohesive literary history in the absence of master narratives and major literary movements. There was an astonishingly wide range of literature discussed at the conference. Genres ranged from poetry to drama, to novels, to nonfiction narratives. Texts varied from more familiar narratives such as those by Olaudah Equiano and the various authors of the Inkle and Yarico stories to less commonly studied works by Johann Peter Oettinger and Paul François Roos. Participants sometimes seemed to struggle with how to define the significance of lesser known texts in the absence of a central narrative. Presenters often remarked that their texts were “obscure” and unlikely to have been read even by other specialists in early Caribbean studies. Lacking recourse to a common story that has previously been told and known about early Caribbean literature, scholars at the conference [End Page 633]often toiled to explain what their new “obscure” author would add to a more general understanding of the Caribbean.
Several conference members came up with the following solution to the struggle for significance: think about the literary history thematically rather than in terms of a hierarchical canon of worth. Some of the best papers...