gall and gumption

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Shipwrecks and Survivors

This is extremely cool, and it's just about the only good news out of the Turks and Caicos Islands all year. That might not sound like much, but honestly if you want to kill an idle hour with some laughs read the news from there over the past year. Not a week has gone by without scandal. The Premier and his (American actress) wife knocking each other around; the selling off of a designated nature preserve to mysterious Eastern European and Russian developers; the Filipino laborers brought in to build another resort going on strike because of the appalling living conditions to which they are subjected (there's yer globalized workforce in case you were wondering what that looked like), which follows by only a couple of months the Chinese imported laborers taking a bunch of Israelis hostage over their working conditions. And then miscellaneous things like the hands down absolute worst headline a head of government would ever want to read about himself -- even by Caribbean standards this place has been a sideshow and this is only the, you might say, above the fold headlines. The British government has sent people out to investigate corruption and of course stonewalling is occurring. Also there was a Ponzi scheme and two hurricanes, the biggest and the second biggest in the island cluster's history. All this year. Hurricanes notwithstanding, the overall appearance of things is that the islands' present government has been busy trying to sell the place out from under themselves as quickly as they can, and have been so shameless and brazen about it that basically the British government has taken over the finances.

I have an aunt from TCI, and I always had the impression, from observation of her, that it was a very dull and rather stolid place, the way British Caribbean territories tend to be. They tend to be rather conservative places, old-fashioned and big on church which is the main way to pass the time there. But to tell the truth, the luxury-resort building boom has become a mania all over the region to incalculably disastrous effect, out of all proportion to the supposed economic gains, which, in any event, are not guaranteed. This madness is what I think is behind the mess in TCI.

I mean, when these development projects run out of money because the Looter Economy has finally eaten itself can we get our land and beaches back the way they were? No, these bloated architectural abortions will sit and rot there for the next 40 years and whatever was killed to put those resorts there will never come back. What is happening throughout the region for the last five years is nothing less than environmental rape, enthusiastically and recklessly endorsed by governments themselves. It is a farcical version in miniature of the old 19th-century Imperialist scramble for Africa, the mad race to gobble up assets. This is the context in which the story of that beach being stolen in Jamaica has to be understood. Sounds like big laughs, but it wasn't any small operator who stole all the sand off that beach, and it is only one incident in the mad race to buy up the beach lands all over the region in the stupid delusion that luxury tourism is an absolutely sure thing. They steal all that sand off one beach to "make" a beach somewhere else, a beach that is totally disconnected from its environment, so that Europeans can play in a waterfront sandbox in an all-inclusive resort while their shit flows into the sea just outside the fence. Consequently (this link is in Spanish) all sorts of extremely nasty and shady people have been getting into the business (English summary here), and as the due diligence on foreign direct investors never trumps ready money, these investors get to do pretty much whatever they damn well please. This exuberant capitalism that people have been riding so high in the rich nations until the last couple of months? This resort land sell-off, and the monetizing of everything that isn't nailed down -- beach, children, whatever -- is what all that fast-moving money has bought in the Caribbean.

But I digress.

When one speaks of "native" people of TCI (as they are colloquially known), one is not speaking of pre-Columbian indigenous peoples (Carib or Taino); I'm not sure any Caribs or Tainos lived there, and there aren't any there now. By "natives" of the TCI I mean the descendants of the slaves who were shipwrecked there in this ship that's just been discovered. The non-natives are mostly Haitians who have settled there, and some expats from North America and the UK.

You need to stop and think about this for a minute: The British slave trade ended in 1807, and Britain was actually in the business of intercepting slave ships off the coast of West Africa, and thus keeping them out of the Caribbean. Slavery itself (as opposed to the traffic) was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1833, and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; but Spain was still transporting slaves into the Caribbean late into the 19th century and slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886. My grandmother, who is still alive, traveled to Cuba as a teenager after her parents died and lived there for two years with relatives. It is quite possible that she met people who had living memories of slavery. She might even have met people who had memories of slave ships.

The Trouvadore, the ship that sank off the Turks and Caicos Islands, was engaged in human trafficking, and when it sank the thought apparently never occurred to anybody to send the victims back home. No one apparently tried to recapture the escapees of another slave ship that wrecked in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the 1600s. The Africans on that ship stayed long enough to form relationships with the Caribs who were in St. Vincent until well into the 18th century. Their descendants, known as the Black Caribs (they called themselves the Garifuna and they still do) were all shipped off by the British to Central America (Honduras and Belize mainly) where it was expected that they would die off. But they did not die off. The Garifuna flourished, not without struggle, but they've held on to their identity and they keep the memory of their distinct history. They just celebrated the anniversary of their arrival in Belize nearly 200 years ago, and this article, by Garifuna writer Wellington Ramos, explains what that means.

Let us not forget that when we were deported we were expected to die and never to be heard from again. Today, with the determination of our people and the support we continue to receive from our ancestral spirits, our culture is still alive and kicking. I urge every Garifuna not to sit down idly by and wait for the Garifuna culture to die but to do something in his or her lifetime to ensure that day will never come to past in his or her lifetime.

Our forefathers Thomas Vincent Ramos, CJ Benguche, Elijio Beni, Satulle, our late brother Andy Palacio and all the other Garifunas who contributed to make this day a reality and we the living, who continue to work towards the preservation of our rich culture deserve a big round of applause.

Many of our Garifuna brothers and sister have migrated from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize to the United States and other countries throughout the world. No matter where we live, every year around this time there is a special feeling that enters our mind that is inexplicable, and which brings back good memories of celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day in our native countries. Especially in Dangriga, Belize, where it all started in the Culture Capital.


Now, if you know me, you know that I am not a believer in the romance of tribal life. And that's really not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about something that I tried to get in the piece on Havrilesky. There are people who are forced to define themselves in response to consciousness of the power relations of society, as a matter of survival, and that means that they cannot afford to forget history. To forget history is to forget who they are, and that is dangerous to the living as well as unjust to the dead. The Garifuna, shipped away from their home, could not define themselves by their home. They had to remember and renew their sense of identity, in a non-geographical way, and that means remembering their history. It's rather impressive, isn't it, that a people of such accidental and recent origins should have such a strong feeling of their uniqueness as a people? That history isn't in the remote past, it has no cutoff point; it continues through the present moment. It speaks through his language. And history, I must say, has been remarkably consistent with these amazing people; when it finds them at home in a place where history wants something, history just takes it as if they are not there--


Today, in Honduras, we have received reports that the Honduran government is still trying to drive them away from the beachfront properties where they have been living for years. These lands are then sold to foreigners who want to build huge hotels and resorts. Despite their resistance, the Honduran government continues to exercise their right of eminent domain over the Garifuna’s properties.


--as if they had never been.

So you see the shipwreck is good news. Because one of the things it does is remind us that history actually happened and is happening, that it wasn't historical forces that sent that ship to the TCI, but most likely a little group of investors -- a private investment trust, maybe, or a hedge fund -- that put up the money and perhaps that money was leveraged and laundered and leveraged so much by the time it got back to the original owners, with interest, that it wasn't recognizable, and the crime that produced it wasn't anybody's responsibility and really they were very nice people who gave a lot of money to orphans and other charitable causes and enjoyed watching sports.

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7 Comments:

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

This sounds like the world. It's not allowed much presence in mainstream media. These revolts by workers and concerted movements of sleazeballs suggest whole new levels of instability, turbulence, reactive mayhem. Maybe human trafficking is changing the composition of the body "politic" - the news is no longer the preserve of organized governments. Harder to decipher, piece together?

 
At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Caroline said...

Another brilliant piece!

 
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