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The British West Indies is the largest group of colonial possessions in the New World, and in 1958 will become an independent nation with dominion status. Composed of seventeen major islands and approaching a population of three million, there is probably no more interesting combination of peoples and landscape on the globe.
Presently grouped with the British Carribean possessions are British Honduras in Central America and British Guiana in South America. But these will remain crown colonies, and will not join the new federation.
As every tourist folder says, the Caribbean is a land of contrasts. Froude can write of standing on the waterfront at Kingston in Grenada: "The off-shore night breeze had not yet risen. The harbor was as smooth as a looking-glass and the stars shone double in the sky and on the water. The silence was only broken by the whistle of the lizards or the cry of some far-off marsh frog. The air was warmer than we ever feel in the depth of an English summer, yet pure and delicious and charged with the perfume of a thousand flowers."
Yet one prominent English statesman called Jamaica an "imperial slum."
The same element of contrast strikes visitors, at least those who do not patronize the luxury hotels imported from Miami Beach and completely isolated from the life of the islands.
One is first struck by the lushness of the tropics and the tepid warmth of the climate punctuated daily with tropical downpour--until the luxuriance creates a sort of ennui.
The almost universal helpfulness and solicitude of West Indians make the islands a delightful place to visit. Almost everywhere one can find "guest houses" where one will be fed and bedded and regaled with local lore at anywhere from $3.00 to $7.00 a day.
Currency in Jamaica is sterling, other islands use the West Indian dollar, worth about 69 cents US, and known to all as the "BeeWee" dollar. Travel is particularly inexpensive in the summer because the "season" of the big rich is between January and March.
But by night the whole perspective changes. Walking alone, one is confronted with crowds of people standing and, so it would seem, jeering with a mixture of envy and sarcasm. Or one meets a series of full-breasted and gold-toothed women who slither up and ask the perrennial question.
Romance, therefore, stays in the cocktail lounge for the most part. Rather one sees sordid slums, drab barracks in the oil fields, or one senses an incipient brutality at times, and a certain fatalism in the people mixed with an unquenchable joie de vivre.
Part of the problem stems from being in between two worlds. With a history of civilized government as long as our own and with an exposure to the apparatus that developed nations have--automobiles, refrigerators--and yet with chronic over-populations, a lack of marketable natural resources, and a demoralizing lack of opportunity for western-quality education, a natural frustration and discontent is generated. This was best expressed by a native who said bitterly to me, "I'd rather be a lamp-post in New York than the governor of this whole damned island." This sort of ambition can be seen as well in the plaintive glances into shop windows.
This discontent is furthered by by having comparatively the best education in the Caribbean. Having smelt the fruit, they find it unattainable.
The church has many adherents due to the main centuries of missionary activity in the area but one doubts whether it has any value to influence conduct besides being an emotional purge e.g. it is estimated that 70% of all births on the island are illegitimate.
The culture seems very much American-oriented; "hot" jazz, "rock and roll," and American movies dominate. The only calypso one hears outside of the tourist traps comes off of Belafonte records. (This isn't quite true. Calypso is native to Trinidad and is heard at great length at the spring festival there when hundreds of of tents spring up and one master alternates with another in competition in composing these engaging ditties.)
In addition, it must be remembered that these are Latin peoples; no matter how many superficial Anglicisms have been adopted, there is much more correspondence in temperament to the Latin-American peoples who surround them than to the conservative and restrained ways of the British.
Yet, the racial structure is extraordinarily heterogeneous and there is little trouble and tension compared to what there might be, brought about in large part by the happy British acknowledgement that the Indies belong to the people living there. The British want cooperation, not servility.
When Columbus came to these islands in the early sixtenth century, they were virtually uninhabited with the exception of a few hostile stone-age tribes, the Caribs and the Arawaks. So the major part of the Indies' burgeoning population is descended from slaves brought in to work the sugar plantations.
After slavery was abolished in 1833, large numbers of indentured laborers were brought from India until this practice ceased about 1910. About a tenth of the total population are East Indians. They form at least half of the population of Trinidad, whose capital, Port of Spain, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. There are also about 18,000 Chinese and a smaller number of Syrians.
In addition, there are' the descendants of the Spanish, Dutch, French, Portugese and British who have all passed through these islands. The Americans as well have not failed to leave their mark, particularly during the last war. As the calypso that Belefonte popularized goes:
Now the Americans made an invasion.
We thought it was a help to the island
Until they left from here on their vacation.
They left native boy here to mind their children.
Singing brown-skin girl, Stay home and mind baby. Singing brown-skin girl Stay home and mind baby I'm going away in a sailing boat And if I don't come back, Stay home and mind baby.
Now I tell you the story about Milly.
She made nice blue-eyed baby. They say she fancied the mother,
But the blue eyed baby ain't know she father.
Now the Americans all had their pleasure
While the music played to their leisure.
And everyone there they was jumpin'
To hear the sailor boys in our chorus saying
The success of racial intermarriage is one of the most charming and encouraging things about life in the Indies.
The fabled "wealth of the Indies" disappeared with the abolition of slavery and mass production of sugar, and has been replaced by a very unromantic and real complex of problems. The economy of the British West Indies, like almost all of the Caribbean Islands, is a sugar economy.
After a long period of stagnation in the first half of this century, conditions have at least not deteriorated under pressure of burgeoning population (over 2% per annum). This is due to a British agreement negotiated at the beginning of the Second World War to purchase all the sugar that the Indies can produce (6% of the world's production) at a price fixed annually which guarantees a "reasonable" return to the planters. Queried on this point, West Indians say that the price of sugar on the world market is almost completely political, e.g. the United States buys sugar from Cuba, the world's largest producer at artificially high rates.
The other major factor in buoying up the West Indian economy has been a series of United Kingdom grants in the amount of several millions of pounds which have been used to build badly needed schools, hospitals and roads, as well as a number of experimental projects like housing projects. The latter have not proved either attractive to the natives or able to keep pace with the need. The University College, recently moved out of refugee barracks, answers a deep and long-felt need.
Numerous other crops beside sugar are grown in the Indies. Cocoa and citrus are grown; cotton has been grown; but no other crop is able to utilize the combination of cheap and superabundant labor and the tropical climate in so lucrative a way or provide as many jobs. So there seems no so-
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