The indispensability of former West African people to the Caribbean culture

Interpretation of two of Brathwaite's poems in "The Arrivants"

Term Paper, 2014

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background of the Caribbean
2.1 Cultural and Social History
2.2 Language in the Caribbean

3. Interpretation of Brathwaite’s Poems
3.1 Brief Overview of The Arrivants
3.2New World A-Comin’

4. Conclusion

Works Cited


A central theme in Caribbean literature is the absence of regional or national identity (Povey 275). Also Edward Kamau Brathwaite, one of the major voices in the Caribbean literary canon, focuses on transcending and healing the fragmented culture of the dispossessed people, mainly the descendants of West African slaves, living in the Caribbean region. In his poetry, he reexamines the history of the black diaspora in search for cultural wholeness in present-day Caribbean life. Brathwaite’s aim thereby is to offer a corrective to these people’s problems of dispossession of history and of language.

In his first major work The Arrivants, Brathwaite’s overall goal is to enact a trajectory from the slave experience in the Caribbean colonies to Africa and back again to the islands, and thereby explore the African roots as well as the contemporary situation of the African diaspora in the Caribbean. Thus, he is able to illustrate some important African values, considered to be long-lost, in today’s Caribbean society and moreover, he is able to portray the affiliation of these black people to the Caribbean culture.

Accordingly, based on Edward Brathwaite’s poetry volume The Arrivants, the importance of West African people to the Caribbean culture and especially their imported African elements, such as language, dance, song, and ritual-artistic expressions, will be outlined in this paper to depict their strong influence in the Caribbean and to support their strong survival identities. Therefore, first of all, the social and cultural history as well as the languages of the Caribbean are described to help the reader better understand the contemporary historical background to which Brathwaite’s poetry refers. Subsequently, a brief overview of The Arrivants is given, to later on go into more detail by interpreting two of its poems, namely New World A-Coming and Caliban. In these poems, Brathwaite points out the brutal reality of historical deprivation in the New World and thus, the search of identity of African slaves for almost 300 years. But against this background, he later on emphasizes the desire for self-determination and the resistance of these black people, their newly developed African rituals and hence, their great influence on all aspects of Caribbean culture.

2. Historical Background of the Caribbean

2.1 Cultural and Social History

To understand what Brathwaite’s work is about, it is important to briefly consider the cultural and social history of the Caribbean, which is clearly reflected throughout his poems. The Caribbean comprises the islands and coastal countries of the central American region between Florida and the South American mainland (Döring 145). The name refers to the Caribs, immigrants from South America, who used to live on the Caribbean Islands with other Arawak and Ciboney peoples (Rogozinski 14). But with the arrival of the Europeans, after Columbus’ discovery of San Salvador in 1492, these peoples became almost extinct due to imported diseases, enslavement, and genocidal policy (Eckstein 224). Since then, the history of the Caribbean has been dominated by English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Dutch colonial projects (Döring 146).

When the foreign sailors arrived in the Caribbean, in the beginning, the principal bounty was gold. Later on, tobacco, sugar, cocoa, coffee, and bananas became the main products of the new plantation economy (Döring 149). However, in the New World, no one worked voluntarily in mines or plantations, therefore, predominantly indigenous peoples of the Americas were enslaved to work for the Europeans, spearheaded by the Spanish (“Americanists”). As the plantation economy spread, the European colonists came to realize that “such sources of lab[or] were climatically, culturally[,] and technically unsuited and inefficient – the machine could perhaps function better if its moving party were African slaves” (Eckstein 227). Thus, in the beginning of the 16th century, the Atlantic Slave Trade emerged and soon everyone was trading in slaves to manage and run the plantations of the New World (Eckstein 227).

The Atlantic Slave Trade can be pictured as a triangle between Europe, Africa, and the New World (Döring 150). In the beginning, the Portuguese slavers had a near monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa until countries such as Britain joined the Atlantic Slave Trade on a large scale in the 1620s (Boddy-Evans). During that time, ships would sail down from Europe to the West African coast laden with manufactured goods like textiles, ironware, or glass beads which they traded in for slaves who would then be shipped across the Atlantic to be sold at Caribbean slave markets in exchange for their plantation products, e.g. sugar (Eckstein 227). These goods were finally shipped back to Europe; important ports were Liverpool, Bristol, London, and Nantes. The middle section of this triangle is termed Middle Passage; this is where more than ten million African slaves were shipped in inhumane conditions across the Atlantic, “stored like spoons in a drawer” (Sharp 44). During this journey, which could last up to fourteen weeks, many captives died due to illness, misery, mistreatment or even starving themselves to escape their torment (Sharp 45). An extreme example showing the brutality on these slave ships happened on board of the British slave ship Zong; in 1781 its crew received orders to throw 133 dead and sick African slaves over board to keep them from infecting the rest of the ship (Sharp 45). Following these events, the Atlantic Ocean became a gigantic graveyard.

Nevertheless, most traumatic of this husbandry of the human traffic was the depersonalization of the African slaves: “family groups were split up at the African source; the identity of families was acknowledged as little as the solidarity of the tribal or ‘national’ groupings, so that those who reached the Americas were irrevocably cut off not only from their homeland but also from their group and even individual identity” (Eckstein 228). Any spiritual and social practices like music or religious rituals were forbidden or performed under supervision in order to support the European minority to maintain control. Therefore, every single African was isolated, worked and lived in anonymity without any authority; one could state that a real reification of African slaves took place.

Thus, in many cases, when there was the possibility to escape European rule and find an effective protection for example in a mountainous region, slaves formed their own communities. In addition to the fights over the territories of European nations present in the Caribbean region, these communities undertook unrest and resistance against colonial structures (Döring 150). Furthermore, these fugitive communities, formed by African slaves, are said to be a cornerstone of the New World History and mark the black political resistance under slavery (Eckstein 230). Clearly, the advantage of these African communities was to freely practice and preserve the ‘deeper’ African elements, such as language, religion, cuisine, housing styles, dress, and ritual-artistic expressions.

A whole century of revolts and changes followed. Stimulated by the French Revolution in 1789, the idea of equality, freedom, and human rights spread throughout Europe, its colonies, and the rest of the world (Froese). The desire for forming a free republic expanded, therefore, a slavery uprising in 1791 quickly became the Haitian Revolution under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture, where the former slaves defeated the Spanish, French and British armies before they finally became the world's first black republic (Rogozinski 160). Thus, the first Caribbean nation to gain independence from European powers was the republic of Haiti in 1804 (Döring 151). At the same time, this is notable as being the only successful slave uprising in history. Of course, a wave of slave rebellions followed and the white men suppressed the uprisings with force (Froese). The main decolonization did not commence before the 1960s, firstly larger Caribbean countries won their independence and in the 1970s most other countries followed (Döring 153).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The indispensability of former West African people to the Caribbean culture
Interpretation of two of Brathwaite's poems in "The Arrivants"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Caribbean, culture, arrivants, brathwaite, west, african, caliban, deprivation, historical, slaves, atlantic, slave, trade, diaspora, africa
Quote paper
B.Ed. Lena Groß (Author), 2014, The indispensability of former West African people to the Caribbean culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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