- The Jumbies’ Playing Ground: Old World Influences on Afro-Creole Masquerades in the Eastern Caribbean by Robert Wyndham Nicholls
Robert Wyndham Nicholls. The University of Mississippi Press, Oxford, Mississippi. 2012. 337 pp. Maps, illustrated plates, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 cloth. (ISBN: 978-1-61703-611-8)
If considering the sheer Euclidean location of the Eastern Caribbean region in relation to the U.S. Southeast, then the inclusion of the above book in the Southeastern Geographer appears to be a considerable extension of its regional focus. This rings especially true when considering geography’s current shifting back towards such positivist (at times simplistic) constructions of space. In spite of this trend, geography offers more relative conceptualizations of space that allow its practitioners to easily connect the Eastern Caribbean to the U.S. Southeast through their cultural-historical relations to West Africa and Western Europe through European colonization, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and plantation agriculture. Ideas like Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” and its promotion of hybridity also push the Eastern Caribbean into Mississippi and both into Senegambia and other parts of West Africa. Thus, the tradition of mas’ or masquerading in the Eastern Caribbean that author Robert Wyndham Nicholls so precisely situates in West African and European culture may hold some appeal to readers of this journal.
The Jumbies’ Playing Ground examines popular masquerade tropes in the Eastern Caribbean, which is defined here as the chain of islands starting from the U.S. and British Virgin Islands in the north arcing southward to Trinidad and Tobago. Although I am a native of Mobile, Alabama with its status as having the oldest substantive Mardi Gras tradition in the US, I knew little of the importance of the masquerading tradition in the Eastern Caribbean prior to reading this book. My first peek into its importance actually occurred as this book sat spine unbroken on my desk awaiting this belated review, when an introductory geography student from the USVI spied it during an office hours meeting and said something along the lines of, “Cool! A book about the Mocko Jumbies, huh? That’s a big deal where I come from.” The Jumbies’ Playing Ground’s goes far beyond that quick assessment on masquerading with its stated intent of “explor[ing] cross-cultural knowledge transfer relating to trans-atlantic art influences . . . [by] examin[ing] how Afro-Creole masquerades evolved and look[ing] for possible [End Page 252] precursors from which Caribbean populations were drawn.”
In its seven chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion, Nicholls provides an extremely well-researched and detailed exploration of the masquerade tradition in the Eastern Caribbean. Nicholls first excavates the lineage of the masquerades themselves, positing that the masquerades are indeed hybrid manifestations that are something more and different than its components. As a geographer, interested in cultural diffusion, ethnicity, and hybridity I found this the most interesting chapter. In it, Nicholls’ makes a compelling parsimonious case on the geographic origins of the masquerade by meticulously identifying the source regions in West Africa where the tradition originates and describing the European analog customs that gave it broader acceptance, while placing masquerade within the colonial social conditions through which it evolved. This chapter is a wonderfully rich cultural-historical geography of Caribbean colonialism.
Subsequent chapters investigate the aesthetics of masquerading, the socio-economics of it across the study region, and the origins of the Eastern Caribbean tropes. Following this, Nicholls’ broadens the scope of the book by analyzing masquerading through an anthropological lens in Africa, Europe, and Anglo North America, while tying them together in a summary chapter. If they were not as enlightening as I found them, the latter three chapters of the book would appear to look a little appended and tangential to the broader message of the project. However, in a more positive light, Nicholls’ intensive treatment on masquerades speaks to the text’s broader appeal to experts and other disciplinary foci.
This is a dense text and the author has packed in considerable research, through fieldwork in the Eastern Caribbean and West Africa to understand...