- Making Space: The Caribbean in Transnational American Studies
There is a strong argument for making space for the Caribbean in transnational American studies. The region features prominently in archipelagic American studies, which connects the Caribbean to the Americas, decentering North American dominance, and to islands and continents over ocean space.1 The literary critics Belinda Edmondson and Donette Francis and the historian Harvey Neptune have recently argued that the study of the Caribbean disturbs the Cold War chronologies and ideas that set the United States apart from the American hemisphere, particularly the First-World/Third-World divide and US exceptionalism.2 These paradigms have illuminated the role of the Caribbean as a critical part of the American hemisphere and as central to plural rather than bounded understandings of sovereignty. But questions remain about the formation of the Caribbean as a space of geographic and intellectual inquiry. [End Page 1019]
Making space, then, is also related to “place making” in the Caribbean—where land ownership and contemporary dwellings are an archive of modernity.3 Settlers and English liberal thinkers such as John Locke understood land throughout the Americas and the British Empire to be terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.4 The enclosure of the commons in England and Wales saw the progressive division and privatization of natural resources and raw materials. The landscape idea that developed alongside enclosure was a precursor to imperial surveying and cultivation.5 In the British Empire, administrators and surveyors made tropical lands both “continuous” and controlled: they fenced land in adjacent sections while maintaining the appearance of an undisturbed, whole countryside.6
These landscaping methods were intimately tied to race and to sexuality. Ideas about race coursed through cultivation and landscaping, as botanists described the introduction of “foreign” plant life into West Indian countrysides.7 British colonial administrators also sought to reproduce enslaved and indentured labor forces. The Caribbean plantation (and its monocrop, sugar) was a laboratory of these improvement projects. These eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses recurred in the twentieth century around plans for slum clearance and suburban development—that the West Indian family would flourish in private, single-family houses rather than in open-air barrack yards.
The books under consideration here inquire into how the Caribbean was forged through the intimacies of indigenous dispossession, African chattel slavery, Asian indenture, and European settlement. While these five books have a wide scope, they create a conversation about only the English-speaking Caribbean (with the exception of Island Bodies) and do not discuss indigenous populations of the Caribbean at length. Lisa Lowe’s Intimacies of Four Continents links two processes of import to the region, racial slavery and Asian indenture, in evaluating European liberalism. Caribbean literature and humanities and social sciences scholarship have conceptualized the region as the product of these historical processes. But at times these works have also reproduced the division of knowledge—of slavery or indenture and their legacies—in the archives, the university, and other official, classificatory spaces.
Because Intimacies refers to but does not focus on the Caribbean, I want to place Intimacies in conversation with four other works to illuminate the interplay between labor, freedom, and place in the region. In Freedom as Marronage, Neil Roberts examines the slave practice of flight as a theory of freedom that affirms slave agency. Natasha Lightfoot’s Troubling Freedom illuminates how freedpeople acted on their newly conferred freedom. Coolie Woman attempts to excavate the figure of the “coolie,” or indentured Indian woman, [End Page 1020...