LAH 3470 – History of the Caribbean
Luis Martínez-Fernández, Pegasus Professor of history and member of the Puerto Rico Research Hub
When is it offered?
Spring, summer and fall semesters
How many students are in a class?
EUH 2000 and EUH 2001
From the Professor
How would you describe this course?
This course is a multidisciplinary introduction to the historical trajectory of the Caribbean. The word multidisciplinary is key because even though it is a history course we read works from literature, anthropology and other fields.
For example, many people have a perception of the Caribbean as an island paradise, beaches and rum. So when I start the course I show students a video from the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority and it presents a perfect view of everything. Then I ask them to read A Small Place by Jamaica Kinkaid and they get a completely different view of Antigua, where the legacy of slavery and colonialism is still pretty much alive.
The course begins with the pre-Columbian era and ends with the present and it covers topics such as the Amerindian societies, European colonialism, the struggle for freedom and nationhood. More contemporary topics such as U.S. expansionism, dictatorships, revolution and challenges to socio-economic development are also discussed.
Why should students take this course?
I start this course talking about why the Caribbean matters. If you measure the areas of the various islands and continental components of the Caribbean it’s not enormous, but this is a [region] where so many first events happened that relate to modernity.
Slavery goes back to antiquity, but in the Caribbean, there was a new form of slavery that was closely related to race, particularly Africans. We also see the beginnings of modern colonialism. Some of the islands, Puerto Rico and maybe a couple more are still colonies. That’s where we find the development of the plantation system, things that were later repeated in the colonies of the U.S. South. So for being a relatively small area of the world it has played a significant role in what we call globalization, colonialism, the exchange of staple products and modern slavery.
This course is part of the Africana Studies program. How does African history and culture relate to what is taught in this course?
The Caribbean is not monolithic, but every island has been touched to some level by the experiences of slavery, resistance, and emancipation and we study common experiences, for example, the slave trade. I like to teach cultural history, so we see the impact of West African culture is still alive in the islands. Haiti is the biggest example of that kind of influence. Haiti can be seen as an African country that was chipped off the coast of Africa and moved to the Caribbean because it has a much stronger African influence. An island like Puerto Rico has that influence but to a smaller level.
What do you hope students learn?
I have three major objectives. The first, that students learn about the developments and the very rich history and cultures of the Caribbean. The second is to learn the historiography of the Caribbean. That means they don’t just learn what happened [through readings] but they also study the people who wrote about it and therefore understand [what they’ve read] is a particular individual’s point of view and they need to be critical of those sources. And the last one is they learn skills that they will use later in life, whether they pursue a career in history or not. For example, reflective reading, not just reading to get done with the reading but actually think in-depth about it, and the ability to put together ideas and arguments in written form.
What does the coursework entail?
There are several course readings and class discussions. Every student also needs to make an oral presentation on some subject related to the Caribbean. They also need to identify a primary document about the Caribbean and analyze it. There are two essay exams, I’m a strong believer in essay questions. Lastly, there is a final discussion paper that’s about 5-6 pages where students must select one writing from the course and they need to connect it and contrast it with another writing they find on their own. Over the years, students have come up with some very creative selections and sources, such as songs sung by slaves in Jamaica.
From the Student
Janine Galindo, public history master’s student
Why did you take this course?
I’ve always been into history, but specifically public history because I think that the main point of knowing history is to teach it to others. It’s really important for people in general to understand history, where we come from, where we are now and where we are going.
I want to become a museum curator and Caribbean history is one of my areas of interest. I’m interested on Caribbean history because my family is from Puerto Rico and I feel like the Caribbean is kind of marginalized. Many people [in the U.S.] don’t really know much about it even though it’s right there next to the U.S. They have a lot of strong ties historically, so I really wanted to know more.
What did you enjoy most about the course?
I liked the readings and learning about the many close ties between the United States and the Caribbean. They have a lot of shared history and it was really interesting to read more about that. But I really liked an assignment we had that required us to look at a painting, analyze its symbolism and elements, and write about it. We wrote about our feelings, contextualized the painting, and applied it to historical events and culture.
What was the most challenging aspect of the course?
I earned a bachelor’s degree in animation at another university in 2008. So getting used to being a student again — especially in 2020 — was my biggest challenge. Not only are things done differently now because of COVID, just getting use to digital learning and meeting on Zoom. It was a little difficult, but once I got the hang of it, it was fine.
What were some of the lessons you took away from this course?
There was a god named Ogun from the Yoruba culture in West Africa and he, like many other gods and goddesses from that region, were transferred over to the Caribbean and transformed in a way that slaves could still worship them under the guise of Catholicism. To this day there are celebrations, rituals and paintings in his honor.
The process these African gods underwent is called syncretism, which is the blending of certain characteristics of different cultures to create something new — in this case, Santeria and Voodoo. It was interesting to see how African slaves living in the Caribbean had to be creative so they could hold onto certain aspects of their culture.
As someone whose family is from the Caribbean, having a country of origin that is a tiny island feels pretty insignificant compared to someone from France, Scotland or [other European countries]. Being in this class made me realize that not only is Caribbean culture very rich and diverse, but it does have an impact and significance to the world even to this day.