“The Twilight Years”: Caribbean Social Movements, 1940–1960

Harvey Neptune – Temple University

For the Caribbean, the period between the onset of World War II and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution marked the high age of decolonization. In these two decades the issues that inspired the region’s people to collective public action were framed as part of the larger struggle over their subjection to imperialism. Their mobilization, no doubt, had local variations. Aims, strategies, and personalities differed across a region of republics, commonwealths, and crown colonies with diverse geographic and social character. Thematically, however, the mid-twentieth-century Caribbean comprised a unity of fragments. The currents of conflicts moving individual territories belonged to a tide that swept the entire maritime area, and indeed the globe.

Insofar as nationhood provided the dominant—though not exclusive—rhetorical challenge to empire (both the old European and new postwar superpower versions), Caribbean nationalists could declare considerable success by the sixties. By this time, formal or constitutional independence had become a reality or imminent reality in most of these islands and continental edges. The achievement, however, came fogged with ambiguity. For many, the dawn of a bright new future they had imagined, when it finally came, seemed more like an enduring twilight.

Caribbean decolonization began long before the middle of the twentieth century. In 1804 the mostly enslaved colonial residents of St. Domingue stunningly declared independence from France, exposing the dark, racist limits of Europe’s allegedly enlightened ideas about sovereignty. A century later, nationalists in the Spanish colony of Cuba, too, shocked the dominant expectations of the age by proclaiming themselves citizens of an independent raceless nation.

Still, it was only in the aftermath of World War I (1914–1918) that a majority of Caribbean residents took a principled stand against their imperial subjection. This mode of oppositional politics was a creature of modern times. It appeared in a radically redefined world, one in which historic quakes (from revolution in Russia to surrealism in France to Garveyism across the black Diaspora) legitimized colonial demands for self-determination and leveled Westerners’ faith in the virtue and authority of their “civilizing mission.” By the twenties, indeed, the “civilization” idea upon which empire had been ultimately organized and rationalized lost its universal currency. The neologism decolonize emerged in this fatalist atmosphere. It was meant as a requiem for dying Western hegemony.

From the vantage point of the world’s colonized peoples, however, the concept was ripe for subversive appropriation. During the next three decades Caribbean dissidents joined in the redefinition of “decolonization” as a liberating historical process of reimagining peoplehood. Rejecting the status of imperial subjects, nationalists recast Caribbean populations as unrecognized citizens of repressed nations and, indeed, of an exploited global majority called the “Third World.” On this basis, they argued, Caribbean people were owed the universal right of self-determination.



The struggle to decolonize the region was fundamentally cultural. In arguing their case for sovereignty, Caribbean people cited an authentic history of competence, creativity, and genius. For these advocates of nationalism, the Eurocentric image of “decolonization” as a dark tide of color swamping enlightened “civilization” was an arrogant distortion. In reality, they argued, the process gave birth to a brave new world of multiple “cultures.”

Haiti was a beacon of sorts for this largely intellectual movement. From the twenties onward, a critical layer of the country’s intelligentsia attacked the community’s historical dependence on the French for standards of conduct and creativity and, instead, recommended its replacement with the culture and expressions of ordinary Haitian people. Partly as an anguished reaction to the U.S. military occupation (1915–1934), nationalistic writers—like Jean Price-Mars in articles and especially in his book of folktales, Ainsi parla l’oncle (1928)—promoted the oft-scorned black poor as producers of a sophisticated oppositional culture and a rich source of national renewal. This view, conventional wisdom now, was scandalous at the time.

The “renaissance” mood was hardly restricted to Haiti. In the early thirties Cuba, where Gerardo Machado’s corrupt regime had unleashed broad opposition, artists and intellectuals joined the subversive cause by valorizing practices, imagery, and ideas associated with the island’s nonwhite masses. They proclaimed musical forms like the son and rumba essential expressions of Cubanidad and granted them a privileged place in their critical and artistic presentations. If Cuban patriots once defined national citizenship as colorless, this modernist generation depicted national culture as black.

In the anglophone Caribbean, too, anti-establishment thinkers rallied around the idea of indigenous culture authenticated through local communities of unprivileged people of African descent. Illustrative is the sculpture Negro Aroused by Edna Manley, a British artist who was married to Jamaican political leader Norman Manley. Created in 1936, this piece figuratively captured nationalists’ heavy investment in the Afro-Caribbean cultural politics on the eve of World War II.

In Trinidad, this new rebellious imagination manifested itself most dramatically on the pages of the Beacon, a journal that first appeared during the thirties. Mocking the racist “aristocrats” while proclaiming the merits of the island’s black and, less often, “East Indian” masses, the publication attracted gifted young local writers like Cyril Lionel Robert James. James would soon emigrate (first to England, then the United States), but he continued to fight the empire. From abroad, he authored classic cultural histories such as The Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary. Like so many contemporaries—including the Nardal sisters (Martinique), Arturo Schomburg (Puerto Rico,) and Claudia Jones (Trinidad)—James cultivated a cosmopolitan creolized life of the mind. For the region’s intellectuals, identifying with the fictional Caliban (from Shakespeare’s Tempest, which they read as an allegory of colonialism) did not imply resisting Prospero’s magic.

The stakes in culture deepened during the forties and fifties, with creative literature emerging as a particularly fertile field for contemplating and cultivating the character of the region’s people. In these years, Suzanne Césaire and her husband, Aimé, returned to Martinique and, along with René Ménil, also from Martinique, founded the journal Tropiques. Filled with a surrealist spirit, it encouraged and disseminated art that regarded Caribbean reality through the lens of the marvelous. This radically imaginative approach to creativity and knowledge resonated across the region. Among the best known of its subscribers is Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (born in Switzerland, raised in Cuba) whose narratives influenced legions across the hemisphere and beyond.

British Caribbean fiction, too, blossomed during these postwar decades. West Indian authors began winning critical acclaim and rewarding audiences in the metropole. Nurtured by publications whose size belied the magnitude of their featured talents (for example, the journals Kyk-Over-Al in British Guiana and Bim in Barbados), they composed stories that spoke to, and sounded like, the local people. The refreshing confidence of this narrative voice resounded in the works of writers like Samuel Selvon (Trinidad and Tobago) and Louise Bennett (Jamaica). Both lived in London during the fifties and, along with other young hopeful literary peers and enterprising working-class West Indians, helped to transform the city’s landscape. For England, it was, as Bennett cleverly observed, “colonization in reverse.”

Yet not all Caribbean writers sought exile. During the early fifties Derek Walcott, a young dramatist, essayist, poet, and painter born in St. Lucia, set up shop in Trinidad. Often taking history as a troubling guide, Walcott cautioned about the uncertainties that lay beyond colonialism. Against the blithe popular portrayal of islands basking “in the sun,” he soberly drew the postwar West Indies as a region groping in a historical twilight.

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The worry about a merely nominal decolonization reflected the difficulties dissidents encountered in fundamentally transforming a region founded in colonialism. In the decades following the advances of the interwar period, radicals and reformers in the Caribbean came up against the tandem of local autocrats and U.S. Cold War zealots. With the region’s ruling classes opposed to curbing the inequalities that plagued former plantation societies, they found ideological partners in U.S. policymakers anxious about their ability to direct the course of hemispheric history. For Caribbean governments and their superpower allies at midcentury, social movements were practically indistinguishable from subversive menaces. Instead of egalitarian policies, then, these years witnessed regimes that temporized, moralized, and even terrorized.

The period began on a note of cautious optimism for the region’s nationalists. The grinding economic hardship that drove people--the poor especially–to the streets produced gains, forcing rulers to adopt democratic reforms and ameliorate absurdly skewed distributions of wealth. In Haiti, student-led dissent hastened the end of the U.S. occupation (1934.) In nearby Cuba, meanwhile, a coalition of students, workers, and military personnel staged a revolt of far-reaching consequence. This 1933 episode helped to realize a shift in American policymakers toward the rhetoric of Good Neighborliness as well as to replace the dictatorial rule of Gerardo Machado with democratic hopes. By 1940, in fact, Cuba boasted a constitution that extended more effective citizenship to blacks and women. This was no mean step in a region where race and gender long informed the rationing of social rights and responsibilities. Likewise, the Caribbean’s British and French colonies endured a decade of worker-led disturbances. Sweeping and violent, these demonstrations pushed colonial policymakers to accept the principles of trade unions and liberal responsible government.

In societies recovering from racial slavery, the era’s economic and political turbulence necessarily involved contests over white supremacy. Particular events during the period, moreover, intensified racial consciousness and conflict; of these, none was more momentous than the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, a symbolic capital to many African descendants across the world. For those in the Caribbean who had such Diasporic sympathies, Mussolini’s imperialist adventure was a cause for mobilization. In Jamaica, the popular reaction included the rise of the religious phenomenon of Rastafarianism, an Afro-Christian movement rooted in a reverence of Haile Selassie, the recently crowned emperor of Ethiopia also known as Ras Tafari. Over the next two decades, Rastafarians faithfully and consistently denounced the West as well as forms of “decolonization” complicit with the ways of Western (Babylonian) living. By the sixties, their alternative worldview, despite provoking great dread among the respectable classes, began spreading across the Caribbean and eventually the world.

Disdain for “rastas” was neither the only nor even the most violent expression of white supremacist anxiety in the region. Leading up to the Second World War, in fact, racial worry turned deadly in the Dominican Republic, where President Rafael Trujillo reigned. A not-quite-white military man who came to political power with the support of U.S. military occupiers (1916–1924), Trujillo developed a reputation for a grandiose, insecure ego. This personality, combined with longstanding official concern about the black republic next door and new state-building imperatives, lent an obsessive quality to the goal of whitening the national complexion during the thirties. This racial drama came to a genocidal resolution in 1937, when the government supervised a violent campaign against Haitians who had long lived and worked in the Dominican Republic. This little-studied atrocity cost tens of thousands of lives. It stands as a ghastly reminder of the error of juxtaposing the tragic history of U.S. racism with a romantic narrative of the Caribbean’s racial melting pot.

If anything, in fact, the postwar years witnessed increased collaboration between governments in the region and in the United States. In this cold war period of anti-radical paranoia, Caribbean and American statesmen grew increasingly preoccupied with maintaining law and order. Conveniently indifferent to their own rhetoric about the virtues of development and democracy, these elites combined to organize massive resistance to fundamental social transformation.

For the postwar British West Indies, policymakers’ refusal to undertake the structural reform implied by the interwar epidemic of rebellion is instructive. Managing a bankrupt empire (morally and financially), they chose instead to shift the burden of responsibility onto the ethical backs of its victimized poor. With respect to family policy, for example, colonial advisors fudged traditional answers to modern problems, framing working-class West Indians as “peasants” rather than the cosmopolites they had become. Accordingly, they set out during the midcentury to fabricate the nuclear household and its corresponding gender cast, ignoring the (not unproblematic) alternatives improvised on the ground. Such was the fixation on households in which “mothers fathered” that Jamaica’s colonial administrators went as far as introducing “mass marriages” to the colony. Quickly abandoned, this policy nonetheless had a lasting effect, helping to rationalize portrayals of the Caribbean as a continent of dysfunctional intimate relationships.

While the region’s elites invoked the soft power of sociology to combat mobilization from below, they were quick also to capitalize on the state’s legitimate monopoly of violent hardware. This authoritarian turn had fatal consequences for Caribbean proletarian organizations. Although labor leaders deserve some blame for the movement’s decline, official repression sealed its political fate. Whether in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba, unions endured varying degrees of governmental intimidation and terror during the forties and fifties. For the British territories, the experience of the Caribbean Labor Council (CLC) records this depressing history. The brainchild of committed radicals like Jamaican lawyer Richard Hart, the CLC was founded in 1944 as an omnibus labor organization. It espoused a regional and even global vision of proletarian political and economic power. In the middle of the Cold War, however, West Indian governments and their U.S. allies had little tolerance for the CLC and its egalitarian agenda. By the sixties, it had become a casualty of the period’s repressive atmosphere.

Postwar Caribbean regimes, sidestepping demands for genuine democratic change, promoted instead “development.” Promising guided improvement in standard of living and quality of life, the project rarely panned out, at least for ordinary people. The dominant developmental model, conceived in Puerto Rico and dubbed Operation Bootstrap (or Industrialization by Invitation), strengthened the forces of capital. Designed to attract foreign entrepreneurs, it principally provided industrial companies with favorable terms of operation, like tax holidays, reduced tariffs, and low-cost labor. The model’s success, however, was hard to substantiate; meanwhile, the rapid exodus of working-class people from places like Puerto Rico offered compelling evidence of its failures. Migrating to cities like New York, London, and Montreal, Caribbean people increasingly pursued transnational means of social transformation.

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The pursuit of change involved not only voting with feet, but also the more combative politics of ballots and bullets. Absorbing the strategic wisdom of Pan-African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah, future president of Ghana, Caribbean dissidents moved during the postwar years to “secure the political kingdom.” In formally colonized areas, this entailed unprecedented mobilization for responsible government, or, in a few instances, for full citizenship within the empire. Both demands proved well timed; the emergence of the United Nations, the Cold War, and the “third world” bloc during these decades left colonialism indefensible and inexpedient. In the nominally independent Caribbean nations, meanwhile, advocates of democracy came up against some of the most authoritarian regimes of the age. These tyrannical rulers, virtually guaranteed U.S. support for waving anticommunist bona fides, almost always triumphed. The exception, however, came in Cuba, where a “strongman” government fell in the face of a military insurgency.

For the British Caribbean, the midcentury was a period of prolific party formation. Dedicated to constitutional reform and electoral contests, organizations drew on working-class men and women for membership and on educated middle-class males for leadership. The most effective of these leaders embodied the transformative hopes of “the masses” as well as the conservative faith of imperial officials. Men like Grantley Adams in Barbados, Eric Gairy in Grenada, and George Price in British Honduras coupled charisma with moderate programs. Even Eric Williams, scholarly hero to Trinidadian crowds and caustic critic of empire, proved a compromising tactician once elected to the legislature in 1956. Despite putting his Oxford historical training to acerbic anti-colonial use (Capitalism and Slavery is perhaps the best-known published example), Williams governed with pragmatism. By the end of the fifties, most notoriously, he assuaged anxious American anticommunists by renouncing his radical mentor, C. L. R. James. For James, who had returned to the region for the first time since the thirties, the anticipated rendezvous with anti-colonial victory turned into disappointing postcolonial exile.

The moderating reins imposed on West Indian self-government came into tragically sharp relief in the colony of British Guiana. Following the 1953 election of avowed socialist Cheddi Jagan to legislative leadership, alarmed British officials (with the encouragement of U.S. counterparts) flouted the very democratic principles they claimed to teach. They staged a coup, suspending the colony’s constitution and sending in the navy. French policymakers took a different tack with their regional possessions. Instead of gradually devolving power, they extended their historical preference for a policy of assimilation, making Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana overseas departments in 1946. Constitution-wise, France’s possessions joined U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and anticipated the Dutch Antillean colonies. People in these Caribbean polities shared essential aspects of their sovereignty with metropolitan officials.

This ambiguous, pattern of political decolonization exploded in Cuba at the end of the fifties. A couple of years into the decade, Fulgencio Batista, a powerful veteran soldier and politician, installed himself as president. Corrupt from the start, Batista’s government grew repressive over the years, provoking widespread discontent. For some dissenters, armed struggle was the most effective answer: among those holding this view was a young student named Fidel Castro. After surviving a near suicidal insurrectionary fiasco in 1953, Castro joined up with other young revolutionaries to wage guerrilla warfare against the Batista government. From Cuba’s eastern hills, his military successes and media savvy made him an international icon of radicalism. When, by the end of 1958, Batista lost U.S. support and flew into exile, Castro rode into Havana on January 3, 1959, as the guarantor of insurgent triumph.

By the sixties, radical decolonization again reared its head in the Caribbean. As with nineteenth-century Haitians, though, twentieth-century Cubans did not escape the cost of openly renouncing the assumptions that ordered the globe. For them, preserving any meaningful sense of victory entailed coping with the precariousness of existence, braving, in other words, the twilight of twentieth-century Caribbean history.

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