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Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

Unit 10
Society and Culture in the Caribbean

Learning Objectives
10.1 Caribbean Peasantries
10.1.1 Historical evolution
10.1.2 Peasantry types
10.1.3 Benefits of the peasantry
10.2 Race and Ethnicity
10.3 Language in the Caribbean
10.3.1 Historical perspective
10.3.2 The contemporary period
10.4 Music in the Caribbean
10.4.1 Historical development
10.4.2 Contemporary music

In Unit 9, we acquainted you with the historical antecedents of
contemporary Caribbean society. In geographical terms, the Caribbean
can be defined as "... a set of tropical island societies situated within the
archipelago that curves from the Greater Antilles of the Bahamas in the
north, to Trinidad and the Dutch Leeward Islands off the Venezuelan
coast in the south, along with the continental coastal strip of the Guianas,
which have always been islands in everything except the strictly physical
sense". (Lewis,1983).

However, it has always proved difficult to provide a clearly delineated

cultural and geographical definition of the Caribbean. Though one can
find parallels with other post-colonial societies, the region's history and
its current relationships with other parts of the world make the Caribbean
socially and culturally unique. Furthermore, there are many significant
variations between one territory and another, based on resource
availability, economic fortunes, political climate and ethnic and religious
diversity. It is important, therefore, to recognise the heterogeneity that
characterises the region.

Keeping in view this unity in diversity, this unit attempts to highlight

various sociocultural elements which give the Caribbean its current
distinctive character.

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

After completing this unit, you should be able to:

• outline the development and characteristics of Caribbean

peasantries as an important phenomenon in Caribbean life;
• explain race and ethnicity as important bases of stratification in
Caribbean society;
• discuss the evolution of standard and creole languages as important
aspects of Caribbean culture;
• discuss the evolution of various musical forms in the Caribbean as
aspects of popular culture.


As discussed in Unit 8, the aboriginal populations of the Caribbean

islands were unable to survive the effects of conquest, and their numbers
declined drastically because of war, disease and maltreatment. (The
aboriginal people whose culture survived are the Island Caribs of
Dominica; the Garifuna (“Black Caribs” ) of St. Vincent and the
Grenadines and Belize; and the various aboriginal groups of Guyana and
Surinam.) People were, therefore, imported to the Caribbean from
various regions of the world, notably Africa and Asia, in order to serve
the economic interests of European colonisers. These groups
subsequently interacted physically and culturally to produce the unique
amalgam of peoples and cultures of the Caribbean.

10.1.1 Historical evolution

With the arrival of the Europeans, sugar cane production became a
major economic activity. As mentioned in Unit 8, the European settlers
enslaved the indigenous peoples and brought labourers from outside the
Caribbean, paving a way for the evolution of the Caribbean peasantry.

The plantation system exhibited the following characteristics:

(i) Large estates acquired mainly through mere occupation;

(ii) Production of a monocrop such as tobacco, cotton and sugar to be

exported to a metropolitan centre;

(iii) Forced and enslaved labour.

There were also some traits that typified the plantation system and had
some long-term ramifications on the economic, cultural and political
evolution of Caribbean societies.

These traits, according to Mintz (1985), include:

(i) The polarisation of two groups—one small group of European

masters and a large group of non-European forced labourers. This

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

segregation was reduced to some extent only because of the

emergence of a "mixed" group and the decline of slavery.

(ii) The pervasive nature of the plantation system prevented other

potential economic activities or the emergence of a significant
middle class.

(iii) The colonial system which restricted trade to the colony and its
metropolitan centre.

(iv) The political and cultural life of the islands was limited by slavery,
and was constantly under threat by the possibility of revolt and

Although these general traits persisted over generations, different islands

in the Caribbean developed along different paths, and at varying rates.
Some islands were even unsuitable for plantation development and as
such, the "role of slavery in the local economic life varied greatly from
one island to another, as well as from one time period to another" (Lewis,

After the abolition of slavery, a new problem arose, i.e., labour scarcity.
This problem was partially solved by the importation of contracted labour
predominantly from Africa and Asia. However, the planter class was
faced with the following dilemma:

• On the one hand, they needed to import labourers willing to work for
pitiful wages in hostile conditions, at a time when their mother
countries were advocating greater social justice.
• On the other, the unavailability of labour meant modernising the
industries which translated into greater capital outlay by the planters
at a time when enticing investors to the colonies was extremely

This, along with other factors, contributed to the decline of plantation

production. The other factors include:

• sugar production by many other countries in the world;

• use of beet sugar as a substitute for cane sugar;
• the Europeans' declining interest in the colonies.

It is within this context that Caribbean peasantries emerged. According

to Mintz (1985) "...Caribbean peasantries, practically without exception,
have always grown in the crevices of their societies – before slavery, or
after slavery or in places where the plantations failed, or in places where
the plantation never came". Sometimes even when the plantation and
peasantry coexisted, they were still at loggerheads. They were
simultaneously dependent upon each other (as the peasants cultivated
their own land, and sold their labour during harvest time), and were in
conflict (as the plantation acquired the peasants' land through various
means). Even agricultural or infrastructural improvements such as credit
or roadways targeted the plantation sector and ignored the peasant
sector. However, against all these odds, the Caribbean peasantries did

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

10.1.2 Peasantry types

One method of analysing Caribbean peasantries is to classify them into
"types", which reflect the numerous ways in which they historically
emerged. For example:

• In Barbados, cultivation on small farms was conducted by European

settlers themselves and not slave labour. The farmers grew a variety
of crops, but tobacco was the dominant one. The small size of the
farms did not require hired labour so that families usually cultivated
their own lands. Some of the produce was for subsistence, while the
remainder was for export. This realised the cash the peasants
required to purchase goods which they could not produce
themselves. However, the peasant farms were subsumed by the
plantation system which was dominated by sugar and not tobacco.
Slave labour was utilised and land was allocated to the production of
sugar cane. This generation of peasants was unable to compete
with the large-scale production, and as a consequence, the
plantations could purchase their lands. Further, these peasants were
unable to sell their labour to the planter class. As a result, the only
remnants of these peasants are the red-legs and a few impoverished
rural folk of European ancestry". (Lewis, 1985.)
• In Jamaica, Spanish Santo Domingo, Surinam and Brazil, runaway
slaves constituted the peasantry communities. These agriculturally
based "maroons", as they were commonly referred to, traded, often
illegally, with the people in the wider community to obtain items
which they were unable to produce themselves such as guns and
gun powder.
• In some territories, slaves were able to produce some of their own
subsistence. That is to say, on occasion, planters would allocate a
portion of their lands to slaves, allowing them to produce crops for
their own consumption. The slaves were even allowed some time off
the plantations to propagate their own produce. In some cases, the
slaves were able to realise a profit and even acquire enough savings
to buy their own freedom.

Note that we have barely touched upon just three of the various types of
peasantries. In other words, this unit does not purport to give you an
exhaustive list of peasantry types.

10.1.3 Benefits of the peasantry

Caribbean societies benefited from the peasantry in numerous ways. Of
the many, we shall touch upon two benefits:

• Rich cuisine. The peasantry helped carry on food preparation

techniques and traditions, as well as, create new ones. Various
foods were derived from Amerindian traditional foods such as
cassava, sweet potatoes, hot pepper; some from European foods
such as carrots and cabbages and some others from African foods
such as watermelon, bananas and okra. One can add quite a few
items to this list. What is important to note, is that, eventually,

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

various cuisines developed. While retaining their unique

characteristics, they reflected aspects of the region's heritage.
• Social/familial life. The peasantry played a significant role in the
maintenance of social and economic stability, especially in rural
areas. Small-scale rural producers would cultivate crops for
subsistence and sale, using family labour. They provided
supplemental sources of income, as families could not survive solely
on plantation wages. More importantly, they provided stability and
structure to family life.


Describe the historical development of
peasantries in the Caribbean.

a) Space is given below for your answer.
b) Check the answer with your tutor.


West Indian societies were mercantilist-based capitalist societies. The

unit of production was the sugar estate with the profit motive being
uppermost on the agenda. Foreign investors and West Indian planters
provided massive capital investments, while the cheap labour was
acquired initially through African slaves, and later, through, contracted
Asian immigrants.

The society was also deeply divided by race. Typically, this multiracial
society had its own associated skirmishes, inflicting indelible scars on the
people of the region. At the same time, all the European masters left
their ideas of racial superiority and Eurocentrism in the various colonies:
the English in Barbados, the Dutch in Surinam, the French in Saint
Dominique, the Spanish in Cuba, and so on.

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

One marked feature of the Caribbean is the fact that for about three
centuries these societies were based on slavery. The impact of this
persisted even after the abolition of slavery. According to Lewis (1983),
for example, the following were the two notable long-term consequences
of slavery in the Caribbean:

(i) The colonies developed into "breeding grounds of racist ideas

imported into the metropolitan centres".

(ii) The residual effect on the social psychology of two Caribbean

peoples was "feelings of dependency, inadequacy and low
self-esteem aggravated by poor national identity…”

We shall now study the racial composition of the Caribbean society, with
reference to a few territories of the region.


Slave imports into Cuba continued into the nineteenth century, creating a
tremendous impact on the racial composition of the society. Before the
abolition of slavery, there were other sources of labour such as Chinese
and Amerindian. After abolition, with an expanding sugar industry, Cuba
obtained labour from other British West Indian islands and Haiti. Race
relations in Cuba remained tense, and culminated in 1912 when
approximately 3,000 Afro-Cubans were killed by the Government
because they were advocating economic and political equality.
However, the Cuban Revolution brought benefits to the lower and
darker-skinned sections of society. For example, there were expanded
educational facilities, which opened up various opportunities for social
mobility among the lower classes. Nevertheless, the Revolution also
resulted in the migration of middle class professionals and bureaucrats
out of Cuba.

Puerto Rico

The population size and poverty situation in rural areas of Puerto Rico
was such that they allowed the demand for sugar cane workers to be
filled by the internal workforce. There was the introduction to slaves who
worked together with the local plantation labourers to create an
interracial workforce.

After abolition, the number of ex-slaves was relatively small and

consequently, easily absorbed into the wider society. Thus, there was a
numerically significant group of free coloured persons for whom social
mobility was possible "for most people who suffered from no practical
inequalities and were not visually and culturally distinct from the elite"
(Hoetink, 1985; Knight, 1970).

The Lesser Antilles

These islands were reflective of a basic pattern: a minority of Whites at

the top of the social strata, a poor mixed group at the middle and the
slaves at the bottom.
Owners or overseers of plantations, technical and bureaucratic staff,
small and large traders, etc., constituted the Whites. Even within this
'highest social group' there were internal divisions based on wealth,

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

occupation and education. The mixed 'coloured' group, which occupied

the middle of the social structure, was often poor, yet received
preferential treatment from the upper class for jobs, which no whites
could or would take. Over a period of time, some coloureds attained
prestigious positions and decent remuneration, but were never accepted
as equals by the white upper class. At the bottom of the social ladder
were the slaves.

After an incredibly long spell of slavery and contract labour, territories in

the Lesser Antilles got political independence. Improved educational
opportunities, among other factors, allowed mobility among the black and
coloured sections of the population. Members of these groups are now
being promoted into areas previously monopolised by white elites. Even
after living in the region for generations, the white group maintains
institutions reflective of their parental elite centres. Attempts to retain
their language and culture generally, however, did not prevent them from
being creolised, having acquired different manners, beliefs and


The social anthropologist, R. T. Smith, suggests that the Jamaican

society is a three-tiered class structure comprising:

• Upper Class: consisting mostly of local Whites, and some Syrian

and Chinese;
• Middle Class: consisting of coloured merchants, bureaucrats and an
upwardly mobile group of Blacks; and
• Lower Class: consisting of predominantly Blacks.

Note that Smith's classification of the Jamaican social structure does not
vary much from other classificatory schemes employed by other writers
to describe the wider Caribbean social structure.

Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname

In these three Caribbean territories, East Indians constitute a significant

proportion of the population. In Trinidad and Guyana, there is often
tension between the major ethnic groups (of African and East Indian
origins). Although much has improved over the last three decades, there
is still a lack of appreciation for each other's culture. In Surinam, the
class-colour hierarchy seems to override the culture-ethnicity variable.
For several generations, East Indians continued to engage in agricultural
activities. They preserved their cohesive extended family structure,
language and religious beliefs, while the African segments migrated from
rural to urban areas to move into non-agricultural pursuits. As a result,
cultural, racial and economic
differences were amplified by both geographical separation and
ignorance. It was only during the 1940s that the Asian groups started to
migrate to urban centres, becoming shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. In
Trinidad, they took advantage of educational opportunities made
possible by the Canadian Mission. They viewed education as a vehicle
for upward social mobility, thus their offspring formed an emergent group
of upwardly-mobile professionals. Although most East Indians became

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

assimilated into the wider society in varying degrees, they retained many
of their ancestral traditions, often in a modified form.

The region also includes many ethnic groups in smaller proportions such
as Portuguese, Chinese, Italians, Javanese, Syrians and Lebanese.
Though many of these groups have become assimilated over time into
the culture of the wider society, they have all contributed in different
ways in shaping the rich cultural landscape that exists in the region.
Conversely, West Indians have also migrated out of the Caribbean. For
instance, there are Afro- Caribbean in England, New York and Toronto;
Indo-Caribbean people in Toronto, Miami and New York; Cuban migrants
in Tampa and Key West, Florida, and Hispanic communities in New

In sum, the race and ethnic composition of the Caribbean make the
region one of the most heterogenous in the world. Most of the present
population was not indigenous to the region, but came either voluntarily
or by coercion from Europe, Africa, Asia and later on, North America.
Many of the islands exhibit their earlier social structure of upper white,
middle brown and lower black classes, but have since undergone
significant changes due to the arrival of several new ethnic groups and
the increased incidence of social mobility after several territories
achieved political independence from the colonial powers.


Give an account of the multi-ethnic and multi-
racial character of the Caribbean.

a) Space is given below for your answer.
b) Check the answer with your tutor.

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean


As a manifestation of their respective colonial powers, the Caribbean

territories are often referred to with a qualifier, i.e., English-speaking,
French-speaking, Spanish-speaking or Dutch-speaking. The
English-speaking islands have designated English as the only official
language, while in the French-speaking islands, comprising Haiti,
Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana, French is the official
language. In these islands, however, a majority of people do not speak
French in their everyday interactions. In Haiti, for example, people use
Haitian Creole, Haitian/French Creole and/or Creole/patois. The
Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands are Cuba, Puerto Rico and the
Dominican Republic, where Spanish is the official language. However,
they also have a dialect/variation of Spanish. The Dutch-speaking
portion of the region includes Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles
(Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten) and all
share Dutch as the official language.

Quite apart from this simple classificatory schema, one can discern
language situations which are very complex. In other words, these
qualifiers conceal the linguistic complexity that is the reality of Caribbean
languages. According to Alleyne (1985), "… trade and contact jargons,
creole languages and dialects, ethnic vernaculars and regional and
non-standard dialects are all spoken. There are also ancestral
languages used for religious purposes (Latin, Yoruba, Kikongo), regional
standards and international standards. And there is multilingualism,
bilingualism, monolingualism, dialossia and a post creole continuum".
Further, there is also a difference between the "… official norm of English
and the nonstandard colloquial variety of English which is strongly
influenced by the French Creole language".

10.3.1 Historical perspective

The diversity and complexity of the language situation existing in the
Caribbean is a direct result of the contact among immigrant groups of
diverse origins. Thus, the language pattern is reflective of this cultural
diversity. You should note that even within Africa and India, for example,
regional differentiation with regard to language and culture is significant.

One characteristic feature of the Caribbean linguistic pattern is the

existence of forms of speech referred to as "creole". Creole is
sometimes used to refer to the people, culture and society, but according
to M. Alleyne (1985), "… its reference is both imprecise and different in
the Spanish Caribbean from the British and French Caribbean". In the
Spanish-speaking regions of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto
Rico, a non-standard dialect of Spanish is spoken.

However, the languages of the Africans and their descendents that

emerged in the colonies were considered to be inaccurate derivatives of
some European language. They were compared to "baby talk" that
mirrored the assumed inherent biological inferiority of Africans. Creole
was considered appropriate for use in folklore, folk music, swearing and
the like, but was unsuitable for intellectual purposes.

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

These factors created a bias against the use of creole languages

throughout the region. It is very important to realise that, according to M.
Alleyne, "language not only is correlated with social class differences and
generally used as the most widely recognised index of social class, but
also has become associated with backwardness and lack of "culture",
whereas the use of the standard form of European languages is
associated with intelligence, enlightenment and "culture". The use of a
creole language of dialect is seen not only as socially restrictive,
prohibiting the social mobility of the user, but also as intellectually
restrictive, leading to bad or inadequate habit of thought".

10.3.2 The contemporary period

In the contemporary period, two main factors have led to a reduction in
the negative ways in which creole languages were previously viewed.
These are:

(i) new insights into the nature and historical evolution of creole
languages. Linguists now have a clearer understanding of the
effect of social and cultural factors on language development; and

(ii) political and cultural developments which have contributed to the

Caribbean gaining political and cultural independence.

Nevertheless, there are still some segments of Caribbean society that

perceive creole languages as not "real" languages and argue that they
hamper national growth and development.

In some situations, where there is limited contact between people whose

native languages cannot be mutually understood, there is the
development of trade and contact jargons. Further, they have a
tendency to disappear when the contact between the parties stops. If
these jargons become well recognised, they are referred to as pidgin.
When different populations begin to socialise, they use the pidgin as the
common language and their offspring may learn it as their first language.
At this point, the pidgin is now referred to as creole.

This creole form of language exists throughout the Caribbean and is now
gradually being used in "… scientific discourse and as a medium of
instruction at different levels of the educational structure" (M. Alleyne,
1985). Creole languages are being used in spheres that were previously
taboo. It is not uncommon now to hear this form of language being
utilised on television, radio and newspaper advertisements and public
service announcements.

In sum, the importance of creole languages as an extremely effective

tool, which can be utilised to mobilise and educate the masses, is being

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean


Explain the process of language creolisation
in the Caribbean.

a) Space is given below for your answer.
b) Check the answer with your tutor.


Caribbean music has been a resounding success on the regional and

international scene. Trinidadian calypso, Afro-Cuban music, and
Jamaican reggae, to name a few, have received airplay not only in North
America and England, but also in countries such as Sweden, Germany
and Japan. Similar to other cultural elements in the West Indian society,
the music of the region is very diverse, and varies from one area to the

10.4.1 Historical development

The majority of West Indian music has undergone the process known as
creolisation. These musical forms are relatively new products which
have emerged out of a combination of older forms which were similar in
many ways. This can be attributed to the fact that the creolisation
process brought together two major musical forms: European and

These European musical forms included Spanish, French, British, and to

a lesser extent Dutch, Danish and Portuguese influence. The African
influence included West, Central and to a lesser extent, East African.
Background information on the slavery-era influence on the musical
heritage of the Caribbean is vague and influenced by Eurocentrism and
other distortions. The creolisation process started as early as the
passage from Africa to the Caribbean. Slaves danced on the ships to

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

music from the concertina or fiddle which was a European instrument,

African percussion instruments and even combinations of the two.
Creolisation also occurred between the various ethnic African groups
where cultures and languages differed significantly from each other—a
process referred to as "inter-African syncretism".

In addition, there existed musical forms which were one hundred percent
European, performed initially by Europeans playing European musical
instruments. However, as slave musicians were introduced to these
musical patterns, new musical styles which were a combination of
African and European elements began to emerge.

Music played a very important role in the daily lives of the slaves. For
example, on days when the slaves were allowed some time off from the
plantations, there would be large musical events. These events usually
bore some religious significance—they were related to slave funerals
and 'spirit possession'. These events were actually viewed by the
colonial masters as one way to release tensions (among the slave
population) before they culminated and incited a rebellion.

During the work day, the field workers toiled to the accompaniment of
songs carried out in a call-and-response style by a leader and chorus.
These songs, sung in the creole language, acted as a mechanism
through which persons, including the European masters, could be
mocked and critiqued.

There were also local carnivals which started as European religious

holidays, but gradually changed as innovations from slaves and free
blacks permeated these observances. Further, Europeans had their own
social dances such as the waltz, polka and reel where slave musicians
provided the accompaniment. The slaves eventually incorporated their
own styles into these dances and made them part of their own

The picture was further enriched after Emancipation. For example, with
the advent of Christian missionaries and Asian indentured labourers,
foreign cultural and musical elements were added to the existing musical

10.4.2 Contemporary music

The idea of contemporary music conjures up images of Trinidadian soca,
Jamaican reggae or the cadence of Haiti and the Creole francophone
islands of the Lesser Antilles. These styles emerged simultaneously with
other social processes—urbanisation, large-scale migration and new
technologies. The creolisation process has been perpetuated to create
new musical forms, which are still evolving into even newer forms.

This can be clearly illustrated in Trinidad's first urban musical form—the

calypso. Calypso emerged primarily within close proximity to the capital
of Port-of-Spain where the rural inhabitants had settled. The calypso
underwent several notable changes over the course of its development.
It was influenced by a number of folk traditions such as bamboula and
belair (bélé), and the drum rhythms of the kalinda stick-fighting tradition.
Soon, even stringed instruments including the guitar and cuatro were
incorporated into the style. Other instruments were added by the 1920s

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

and 1930s. Some of these were bass, trumpets, saxophones, and the
like. The tamboo-bamboo, later replaced by the steel pan, also shaped
the modern-day calypso. Even the drumming rhythms of the shango cult
and hossay traditions were added.

The Jamaican contemporary musical style also went through a similar

evolutionary process. Initially, a local style known as mento developed
and was closely followed by ska in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Ska,
after being influenced by North American "soul" music and other forms,
evolved into "rocksteady". This form again matured into the famous
reggae style.

Another important influence on the region's music is the immigrant

communities in Europe and North America. This constant flow of people
into and out of the region ensures that musical forms are constantly
being enriched. Thus, Caribbean music has transcended strictly regional
boundaries and has been influenced by international "flavours".

In sum, Caribbean musical forms such as the Trinidadian calypso and

Cuban rumba, to the more recent ones such as reggae and chutney,
have successfully penetrated international markets. The music patterns
are constantly changing to incorporate new influences, while at the same
time retaining traditional elements to produce a scintillating music that is
unmistakably West Indian.


Describe the contribution of music in the
shaping up of the Caribbean society.

a) Space is given below for your answer.
b) Check the answer with your tutor.

Unit 10: Society and Culture in the Caribbean

In this unit, we discussed the various socio-cultural elements which give
the Caribbean its current distinctive character. We began this unit with
an outline of the emergence of the Caribbean peasantry, and traced its
historical evolution. We then looked into the contributory factors that
made the Caribbean a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society. In this unit,
we also learnt about the languages and music forms in the Caribbean.

Hoetink, H. (1985). Race and Colour in the Caribbean in Caribbean
Contours by S. Mintz and S. Price (eds.).

Lewis, G. (1983): Main Currents in Caribbean Thought.

Chapter 1.

Mintz, S. From Plantations to Peasantries in the Caribbean in Caribbean

Contours by S. Mintz and S. Price (eds.).