The Caribbean in the World Gallery


The United Kingdom and the Caribbean have a rich, complex, connected histories, however the interwoven nature of these histories are largely absent form public representations in Britain with the history and culture of contemporary Caribbean rarely represented in Anthropological museums, the Horniman is currently no different. Exploring Caribbean narratives in this scenario must then start from a place of absence. There is no Caribbean section in this World Gallery. Arguably the Caribbean story, as a global story, can be used as a microcosm to discuss the world. It also a centrally important story for Forest Hill, with approximately a quarter of Forest Hill residents noting Caribbean heritage in the 2011, narratives of the movement and connections across the world through the Caribbean is also a local story for the Horniman Museum. Americas

So let us begin by geographically grounding the Caribbean. And perhaps if you’ve had trouble locating the Caribbean in your mind, or if you encounter people who have an inaccurate understanding of the Caribbean this tour may help your recognise why that maybe.

So the Caribbean (also known as the West Indies) is a region of the Americas consisting of the Caribbean Sea, its islands, and the surrounding coasts. There are some disagreement on what countries are included in the Caribbean, but there are recognisable similarities in all the countries considered in having a similar colonial history along with a links to ingenious peoples, where its contested is often where the countries lie in relation to the sea. Geopolitically, the West Indies is usually regarded as a sub-region of North America and is organized into 28 territories including sovereign states, overseas departments, and dependencies. And most countries in the region at some point were, or still are, colonies (today called territories) of America or European nations. History reveals the significant role these islands played in the colonial struggles of the European powers between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. With events like the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 leading to Napoleon's defeat in the region and withdrawal from North America and subsequently leading to the Louisiana Purchase in the United States. As well as in the twentieth century :cold_war era , with events such as the :cuban_missile_crisis_1962, acting as one of the seminal moments in that conflict.

The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean were largely from the :arawak and :carib peoples (these are language groups that incorporated many more defined cultural groups) but these cultural groups largely extended from South American continent and their migration to the islands can be mapped through archaeological findings. There is a display of Waiwai culture, based in Guyana (which is contested as a part of the Caribbean). They are :carib_speaking_peoples. However this section does not address the interconnected nature of the region and the world. However upon European colonisation large groups of these people were killed and their population reduced to such numbers that in many regions they were historically discussed as having not survived, though many today advocate their indigenous heritage through genetic links as well as cultural continuation.


The :st_lucian Poet :derek_walcott in his poem ‘A far Cry from Africa’ written in 1962, he laments the British and Kenyan violence during :the_mau_mau_uprising_1952_1960 and struggles to reconcile his heritage as Caribbean person of both :african and :european decent he asks:

‘How can I turn from Africa and live?’

I wanted to start this tour in this way, because while the Caribbean is largely absent in museums, when it is present it is often placed within the African section. This understandably has lead to some confusion and many believing the Caribbean is a part of Africa. Frustrating as that might be for those from the region it is unsurprising that there is this misunderstanding because Caribbean culture is heavily influenced by African culture and the people share genetic links to African peoples. But this intimate connection is obviously not one that occurred naturally, and in gallery spaces there is often a nervousness of presenting the history of colonialism that has made this transatlantic link. And that is the link of the :transatlantic_slave_trade_1502-_1867. The Transatlantic Slave Trade remains the biggest migration to the Caribbean, and it was through the forced migration of enslaved people from Africa.

Between 1662 and 1807 British and British colonial ships purchased an estimated 3.4 million Africans. Of this number, 2.9 million survived the 'middle passage' and were sold into slavery in the Americas. This gallery commemorates this with Flags you can see hung above the gallery, commissioned for the commemoration of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, as well as an art piece on the balcony called Blue Earth by Tamsin Martin, created at the same time.

The reason Walcott’s poem is poignant, is that it is essential to talk about slavery when discussing the history of the Caribbean, despite the sadness evoked by the absolute violence of this history. However this section is also a space for reflection on cultural continuity, with the objects here and the video of the market in Lagos, being the most familiar imagery for people from the :black_atlantic. Growing up with similar sayings and using similar :products. Today over two hundred years since the abolition of the trade, there is still a deep Nigerian cultural connection across the region so this encounter will feel familiar and nostalgic to some.

And the cultural connection is not simply mono-directional. Caribbean culture has had a global impact. There are narratives like that of :freetown in :serra_leone and :liberia, which they were established by formerly enslaved peoples from Caribbean and the Americas in the late 1700s, and in fact upon the abolition of slavery many chose to resettle in Africa. The National Archives for example holds a list of 70 African immigrants who claimed return passage from Jamaica to Sierra Leone on board the Clarendon. Jamaica, 21 August 1861.


While African cultures are the most influential upon the Caribbean it is not the only one and by placing Caribbean narratives in Africa there is a tendency to not only confuse people about where the Caribbean is, but also create a reductive understanding of Caribbean culture as a mirror of African cultures.

What is sometimes lesser known is that after the abolition of slavery took full effect in 1838 in British territories (after ordering 6 years of apprenticeship for the enslaved to pay for their own freedom following the :slavery_abolition_act_1833) the industrial infrastructure of the :plantations still required cheap labour to be profitable and so a period of :indentured work began in the region, and mass migration particularly from India, utilised the Colonial links to provide labour that was often criticised as being just short of slave labour due to well documented abuse and dehumanising faced by the indentured .

From 1838 to 1917, over half a million Indians from the former :british_raj, were taken to thirteen mainland and island nations in the Caribbean as indentured workers to address the demand for sugar cane plantation labour. To get to the region they were subjected to a four-month sea journey in terrible conditions, and as with the transatlantic slavery, many died in the process. However this migration also heavily influenced the demographic of the region, as well as the culture that was developing. By some estimates, today over 2.5 million people in the Caribbean are of Indian origin and :indo-caribbeans comprise the largest ethnic group in :guyana and :trinidad_and_tobago and they are the second largest group in :suriname, :jamaica, :grenada, :saint_vincent_and_the_grenadines, :saint_lucia, :martinique and :guadeloupe.

There were other cultural groups involved in indentured work, including the :chinese and some :free_africans. Indentured workers were generally people who were poor, lots of documents show that they were coerced and often entered into an agreement to work in the colonies for a certain period to pay off the costs of getting them there. Unlike slavery however some of those indentured workers were able to accumulate wealth and some managed the rags to riches narrative of the ‘American dream’. Theses success stores should not detract however from the overall injustices of this little-known history .


But of course the narrative of indentured labour is not exclusive to the Caribbean. Indian indentured labourers were also contracted to work for British and other :european_colonies, in :fiji, :guadeloupe, :mauritius, :south_africa and :surinam. Today, a diaspora can be found in :commonwealth_countries including :kenya, :malaysia and :sri_lanka. And so regions in :the_pacific_ocean were similarly populated in a manner that as greatly shifted the demographics and influenced the cultural development.

But for a moment I want to discuss the Caribbean in regards to the Oceania region not in its historical link, but in regards to :decolonial_theory. Some versions of decolonial theory aim to break way from the narrative of :pre-colonial, colonial and :post-colonial linear narratives of the world that centralised or essentialise European agency as the primary agency for history making.

Thinking about the connections of small islands and island culture globally, the most obvious one is the similar relationships to :the_sea or :ocean, including loving and respectful relationships, but also nations that live with constant threat for natural disasters and the impact of rising sea levels.

In the World Gallery there is a video showing :climate_warriors in :australia, making a call to action on climate change and repeating the sentiment: "we are not drowning, we are fighting". A similar display could be made of speeches like that of :prime_minister_roosevelt_skerrit, of :dominica who after :hurricane_maria devastated his nation declared to the United Nations General Assembly that “Eden is broken,” and demanded that world leaders acknowledge climate change. “To deny climate change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks; it is to deny a truth we have just lived.” 2017

In thinking about Caribbean stories for the Horniman Museum, the Caribbean London Table project was created. During which inter-generational conversations were held with members of the Caribbean :diaspora, focusing initially on the impact of :the_windrush_generation within families (the project was run in the lead up to the first national Windrush Day on June, 22 2019) but asked what stories can we tell about the Caribbean in general? Vanes Creavelle one of the project participants, stated that she wished we would have more conversations with people outside our families, race or just people we speak to everyday, because we could build something new together that way rather than hold on to our own stories.

This reflection felt pertinent when considering other regions of the world with similar but distinctive stories and asking what can we learn through sharing?


Windrush day inspired the search for Caribbean stories in the World gallery, as we hoped to speak of the impact of the Windrush generation in :the_united_kingdom, and so it is fitting to quote the opening lines of a poem by :louise_bennett_coverly_miss_lou,

‘Wat a joyful news, miss Mattie, I feel like me heart gwine burs, Jamaican people colonizin Englan in Reverse” 1966

That poem is called colonisation in reverse. Miss Lou came to England from Jamaica on a British Council scholarship to study at Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 1945-1947. While classed as a migrant of the Windrush Generation, :the_hmt_empire_windrush actually arrived 22 June 1948. The date now regarded as the symbolic starting point of a wave of Caribbean migration, with those who migrated between 1948 and 1971 referred to as the "Windrush generation".

There were 1027 passengers on board, of whom just 539 gave Jamaica as their last place of permanent residence, 139 said Bermuda, 73 from Trinidad and 44 from British Guiana. Many came from other countries of the Caribbean. Many of them served Britain in :the_royal_air_force_raf during :wwii and were either returning to their jobs or responding to calls to help rebuild the country after the devastation of the war. As subjects of the British Empire they had the same rights of movement and settlement as all who lived in Britain.

Many of the passengers who disembarked on 22 June 1948 had no place to live and so he suggested to the Colonial Office that the Clapham South Deep Shelter, in :south_london, should be used. The Shelter had been used as a refuge for local people during German bombing raids in WWII and after 1945 to accommodate Italians and German prisoners of war. At least 236 Windrush settlers were housed there from the night of 22 June until they found work (all of them were employed within a month). The decision to open it to them was important in the making of :lambeth as a multi-racial community. The Shelter was about a mile from the centre of :brixton and some of them found work and lodgings in the Borough; others settled in the south London boroughs of :wandsworth, :southwark, :lewisham and Greenwich and in West London.

The other aspect of those 236 migrants sleeping in the former bomb shelter was that they faced extreme :racism upon their migration and found that very few British landlords would rent accommodation to Black migrants. These stores were echoed in those shared by the participants in the London Caribbean table project, where housing was scarce but humour was used to cope with the traumatic reality of life in England as a Caribbean migrant. :religion, :food and :music were all discussed as ways to bring comfort to families and friends who came together to support one another. Creating alternative banks and schools to serve their communities when the established infrastructures would not.

With stories of :the_movement_of_people geographical spaces are shifted in our minds. The space between the Caribbean and Europe was stretched but tethered, with some families living separately for a time before coming together or being separated for life but connected through memories and messages.

Throughout the project the stories of food and games, turns of phrase, traditions of caring for one another showed all the connections and influences from around the world that have made up what we know to be Caribbean culture today.

The region is beautifully blended. It a pace with stories of strife but also survival and celebration. Of things emerging anew, and people fighting for their rights.

However at the time of this project and the time of writing this reflection anew :the_windrush_scandal remained unresolved. Reminding us that the fight is not over. Neither there nor here.

We need to keep :telling_stories of the Caribbean exploring the region as a microcosm for the world not only because it is connected to many continents through :migration, but also because it has been a deeply :multicultural region since the 1500s.

Its multiculturalism has the same roots as Europe’s multiculturalism. And while Europe deals with relatively modern anxiety around this multicultural national :identity, Europe can look to the Caribbean to learn some lesson but also to see the beauty in deep rooted :cultural_diversity.

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