Walls on Murphy, 'The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean'

Tessa Murphy. The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean. Early American Studies Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. 320 pp. Illustrations, tables, maps. $45.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8122-9997-7; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-5338-2.

Reviewed by Eric Walls (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Atlantic (May, 2023)
Commissioned by W. Douglas Catterall (Cameron University of Oklahoma)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58139

Insurgent Geographies in the Caribbean Sea

Over the past few decades, the stories and history of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and their place within the wider historiography of the Atlantic world has received considerable attention. This attention seeks to rectify past neglect of the topic and provide a more complete account of the ways in which Indigenous peoples reacted to and dealt with the colonization of their lands and cultures by Europeans. Historians have made much progress in their endeavors to recover these marginalized stories, but much more still needs to be done. The Caribbean isles were the first locations of interaction between Europeans and Indigenous peoples in the Americas and, as such, the first place where the Native American presence dwindled to the point where they all but disappeared as historical actors in any meaningful sense. Most American and Atlantic historians have only cursorily examined the topic of Caribbean Natives, as they were decimated so rapidly due to disease, warfare, and slavery that they fall outside most historians’ field of vision. Instead, historians have devoted their primary attention to the mainland, where the struggle between Native Americans and Europeans quickly shifted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Contrary to the proclivities of much current historiography, however, the Native Americans of the Caribbean did not vanish into the historical ether mere decades into the European colonial experiment. Tessa Murphy’s The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean adds to this burgeoning historiography by shining new light on the story of the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. As Murphy’s work highlights, at least in some areas of the region, they remained vibrant and active historical and political actors centuries after that experiment began.

Murphy’s work focuses on the peripheral areas of the Caribbean, particularly the relatively marginalized (both by the colonial empires of the time period and modern historians) region of the Windward Isles of the Lesser Antilles: the string of small islands such as Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Tobago that comprise the easternmost fringe of the Caribbean isles. Most of the historiography of the Caribbean concentrates on the larger islands of the Greater Antilles—especially Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico—relegating the smaller isles of the Lesser Antilles to a sidenote at best. As Murphy shows, however, it was precisely due to their relative marginality that the Lesser Antilles, particularly the less easily accessible Windward Isles, became a breeding ground for Native American adaptation and resistance. Yet, as Murphy also shows, it was not merely for Native Americans that these islands became such a regenerative space. The specific geography of the region that made much of it difficult for Europeans to access for colonial and imperial endeavors also facilitated a mixing and merging of peoples and cultures, as disaffected peoples of varied ethnic and racial categories found the space and the means to disconnect from imperial control and forge their own communities alongside and amongst Indigenous peoples.

The Native Americans of the Lesser Antilles (known in their own tongue as Kalinagos) took advantage of their knowledge of the region and the technological superiority of their own canaoa (dugout canoes also known to Europeans as “pirogues, periaguas, or pettiaugers”) versus the larger seagoing vessels of Europeans to remove themselves (sometimes by force, sometimes by choice) from areas more easily accessible to colonial ventures and settle on “windy shores and rocky coasts” where they established new communities that “successfully prevented Europeans from establishing sovereignty over Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Tobago and impeded the development of the French colony of Grenada” (p. 2). As the colonial experiment progressed and many peoples—including disaffected European colonists (especially indentured servants) and Africans escaping slavery—became disenchanted with and/or disenfranchised by European authority in those areas under imperial control, they appropriated Indigenous Caribbean seagoing knowledge and technology to join the Kalinagos in those less accessible areas. As such, “these multiracial, multilingual settlers both extended and evaded key features of the societies from which they came, forging an interconnected creolized community that would repeatedly complicate European colonization of the Caribbean: a ‘Creole Archipelago’” (p. 2). This phenomenon blurred the lines of race, ethnicity, and culture and helped to confound imperial efforts to exercise control—social, cultural, and political—over the region.

Murphy contends that the story of this “Creole Archipelago” has been neglected primarily due to the lens through which the history of much of the region has previously been viewed. The historiography of the region focuses primarily on individual islands and their own insular histories, which makes sense from a colonial perspective. This approach, however, fails to account for the ways in which the Indigenous themselves viewed the region, “as an interconnected region rather than a set of discrete territories” (p. 4). The Caribbean Natives’ canaoa and the short distances between most of the islands allowed peoples such as the Kalinagos to “approach the sea not as a barrier but as a conduit” (p. 5). As such, they easily and regularly traveled from island to island for trade, diplomacy, and fraternization, thus removing any concept of fixed borders or locales and creating a vast “shared social, economic, and political space in the eastern Caribbean” (p. 5). As disaffected Europeans and Africans began to enter this shared space and utilize the same Indigenous knowledge, technology, and perspectives (geographical, social, economic, and cultural), “the islands come into view as a center of broader contests over Indigenous dominion, racial belonging, economic development, and colonial subjecthood” (p. 5). “By focusing on an interconnected region and the diversity of people who forged lives in the region,” argues Murphy, “The Creole Archipelago reveals a lengthy contest between attempts to establish control and the desire of individuals and groups to evade, undermine, or selectively engage with that control” (p. 16).

The first chapter, “Kalinago Dominion and the Shape of the Eastern Caribbean,” establishes the principal place of the Kalinagos in the history of the region. The interconnected nature of the Windward Isles and the Indigenous peoples who inhabited them was established long before Europeans approached their shores. As European colonial projects and rivalries expanded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, “the people they encountered drew on a wide range of commercial, military, and diplomatic strategies to maintain spaces of autonomy and dominion amid growing European encroachment” (p. 20). The Kalinagos used their knowledge of the geography and navigation of the region “to escape colonial expansion, form alliances with other Indigenous people, launch attacks on Europeans, and continue to engage in established patterns of interisland travel and trade” (p. 21). This, argues Murphy, was the primary reason the Indigenous peoples of the region, “who had less contact with Europeans and whose settlements were smaller and more dispersed, were affected differently than their counterparts in the north,” particularly the Greater Antilles, where Native populations were all but completely wiped out early in the colonial project (p. 21). Utilizing “surviving missionary and travelers accounts, parish records, government correspondence, censuses, and maps,” Murphy’s work “reveals that Indigenous people shaped the imperial geography, economy, and society of the Lesser Antilles until at least the end of the eighteenth century” (p. 21). She details how the Kalinago people retreated from and evaded European colonial encroachment from the beginning, creating a geography of “contested spaces” that “would serve them well in subsequent negotiations with both the French and English” that sought to bring them under their dominion or eliminate them outright (p. 31).

The advance of the plantation complex in the wake of the switch from primarily tobacco to sugar cultivation in the mid-seventeenth century, and its need for increasing amounts of both land and labor, further complicated the Kalinagos’ situation. Despite this, however, as Murphy explains, maps from the time reveal vast swathes of territory with little to no European settlement, and other government and personal correspondence shows that the Kalinago were able to maintain a large degree of their own lands and sovereignty. The sugar plantation complex also brought with it a new demographic into the islanders’ midst—enslaved Africans. As many of these newcomers sought escape from their plight, they increasingly began to intermingle with Indigenous communities outside of the dominion of their plantation overlords. But it was not only escaped slaves who found shelter in Kalinago territory. By the eighteenth century, “growing numbers of poor and middling white planters, free people of color, fugitives from slavery, and others who did not fit into a plantation society rooted in strict economic and racial hierarchies” found their way to Kalinago lands, “giving rise to diverse, creolized communities—ones that officials would subsequently struggle to assimilate into European empires” (p. 46).

Chapter 2, “Creating the Creole Archipelago,” details the rise and proliferation of such diversified and “creolized” communities. Murphy discusses in depth how economics, race, and slavery were key motivating factors in the development of such communities, which gained traction in the first half of the eighteenth century. Kalinagos, escaped slaves, free people of color, and whites disaffected by colonial law and/or socioeconomic hierarchies all utilized the territories carved out by Kalinago resistance and diplomacy to develop communities only nominally under the sway of the colonial metropole. These Creole communities challenged established authority, literally and ideologically, as they established localized relationships and allegiances outside of the imperial regime and the bonds of national and ethnic identity while also providing key economic inputs into the colonial system, particularly in the form of provisions for the sugar plantation complex.

During the mid-eighteenth century these Creole communities operated just outside of colonial control and were nominally left alone by the metropole, which did not have the resources or the incentive to bring marginalized areas fully under its direct authority and valued the commodities they provided. The aftermath of the Seven Years’ War upended that dynamic. Murphy’s third chapter, “Colonizing the Caribbean Frontier,” details the changes to colonial policy in the wake of that conflict, and the attempts to disrupt Creole communities and bring their lands and resources fully into the metropole’s orbit. This included surveying and selling previously marginalized lands (especially areas previously set aside for the Kalinagos), incentivizing more white settlement from Europe into those areas, and a significant increase in the rate and volume of slave trafficking to maximize economic output. Such efforts naturally inspired backlash from existing Native and Creole communities. Both the British and French “soon discovered that even the best informed attempts to transform the eastern Caribbean archipelago into a center of plantation production would not be readily accepted by people who had settled in the islands precisely to avoid such transformations” (pp. 111-112). “Instead,” she continues, "the imperial reforms and experiments of the post-Seven Years’ War era sowed the seeds of contests that would later explode into war” (p. 112).

The ability of residents and settlers of the eastern Caribbean to easily move and trade between islands shaped the nature of British and French policy and the responses to those policies. “In the wake of the Seven Years’ War,” writes Murphy in her fourth chapter, “Seeking a Place as Colonial Subjects,” “the eastern Caribbean became a center of broader contests over the rights and privileges of colonial subjects, as efforts to win the allegiance of existing residents of the Creole Archipelago coincided with wide-ranging debates about the basis and nature of subjecthood” (p. 114). As both metropoles sought to fully integrate the land and its peoples into their dominions, they were forced to attempt to ameliorate and accommodate the grievances of their subjects. Residents and settlers could simply just pick up and move to another island under the authority of a different metropole if they were dissatisfied with policies. Such movements undermined colonial authority; existing economic, social, cultural, and racial dynamics; and the ability of the metropole to fully exploit the territories to its economic advantage. Residents and settlers of the Creole Archipelago were therefore able to carve out concessions, rights, and privileges as each metropole competed to retain colonists and their economic output. French colonists became attracted to British domains due to promises of political participation and freedoms not available in French colonies despite their Catholicism, which was heavily discriminated against in most other British dominions. On the other hand, free people of color were attracted to French domains to escape discrimination under British rule and take advantage of the rights and privileges afforded them under French law. The debates over such issues forced radical changes in colonial structures, law, and enforcement, and allowed residents and settlers of the Creole Archipelago to “preserve and perpetuate the Creole society they and their families built before the Seven Years’ War” (p. 140).

Not all residents of the Creole Archipelago, however, were able to navigate new imperial policies and practices through political means. This was especially true for the Kalinagos and the enslaved. One of the most profound changes that affected the peoples of the Creole Archipelago after the Seven Years’ War was the rapid transition on many islands from “ small, mixed-agriculture plantations to sprawling sugar estates” (p. 143). Sugar production was only one part of the economy of the region prior to the war, but it quickly rose to dominance in its aftermath. Murphy explores the causes and effects of this transition in the fifth chapter, “Surviving the Turn to Sugar.” The spread of the sugar plantation complex invariably pushed the Kalinago further off their lands and significantly increased the volume of slave traffic and the enslaved population, while it correspondingly intensified tensions between the enslaved and an increasingly outnumbered free population. The preexisting Kalinago, maroon, and other creolized communities encouraged further marronage and creolization, especially between Kalinago and maroons. This, in turn, helped to foster the legend of the “Black Carib,” which colonial authorities seized upon to cast all Kalinago as “descendants of shipwrecked or fugitive enslaved Africans,” which “transformed a practical and ideological dilemma rarely found elsewhere in the colonial Caribbean—the question of Indigenous dominion—into a problem common across slave societies: how to deal with maroons” (p. 143).

Kalinago, maroon, and the enslaved all instigated resistance to the expanding sugar plantation complex both passively and actively. Slave conspiracies and revolts were greatly feared, as in all other slave societies, and snuffed out or crushed wherever detected. The conflation of Kalinago and maroon identity into the legend of the Black Carib undermined the Kalinago’s Indigenous status and lent credence—if only fictious—to colonial claims to their lands, which intensified the contests for those lands between the Kalinago and the encroaching plantation complex. These increasingly violent contests, and the failures of the same sort of diplomacy that was so successful for the Kalinago in securing territorial claims in the previous century, led to the Carib War from 1772 to 1773. Taking place mostly on the island of St. Vincent, the war ended with a treaty that shrank Kalinago territory on that island, forced them to swear fealty to the British king, required that the Kalinago return any runaway slaves, and made harboring enslaved fugitives a capital offense. “The treaty starkly illustrates,” argues Murphy, “how the shift to sugar limited Indigenous autonomy in the Caribbean: standing in the way of slavery was now a crime punishable by death” (p. 166).

The Carib War did not end Kalinago or Creole resistance, however. Only a few years after the tense conclusion to that war, the American War of Independence in Britain’s North American colonies once again upended the political and economic dynamic in the Creole Archipelago, a story Murphy describes in chapter 6, “An Empire Disordered.” As the American war quickly transformed into a global contest between France and Britain for colonial and imperial hegemony, the proximity of French and British possessions in the Creole Archipelago made the region a locus point of the conflict. Murphy explains the ways that marginalized peoples of the archipelago utilized the chaos of the conflict to attempt to undermine imperial ambitions, disrupt economic output, reassert territorial claims, and retrench their rights and autonomy. The Kalinago remained thorns in the side of the British as they assisted and harbored American privateers, smuggled arms between French and British islands, and utilized French occupation of British territory to reclaim lands lost in the Carib War, which the French supported in return for Kalinago assistance. Marronage and slave resistance increased, which further undermined the plantation complex already under pressure from disruptions in trade. The elites also got into the act, particularly French planters on islands ceded to the British after the Seven Years’ War and recaptured by the French during the American War of Independence. They used the opportunity the moment afforded to “ally with French forces, reassert title to land, and assume positions of authority” that “frustrated several elements of Britain’s attempt to transform the islands in the decade and a half prior” (p. 191).

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 led to a return to the status quo antebellum, at least territorially, as all but the island of Tobago was restored to its previous imperial master. Particularly for the British, however, the chaos of the war and the actions of the Kalinago, maroons, Creole, and French subjects testified to a need for more stringent controls over all of these groups and signaled the beginning of the end of the last vestiges of Kalinago and Creole autonomy as Britain “grew more assertive in their efforts to create productive plantation colonies” free of their worrisome presence" (p. 200). For the Kalinago and many Creoles, however, the “promise of revolution” engendered by the American example and French support and assurances during the war only increased their hope and efforts to fulfill that promise (p. 200).

Murphy’s closing chapter, “Revolution and the End of Accommodation,” details how the Kalinago and Creoles once again utilized inter-imperial conflict in their attempts to fulfill that promise and maintain their long-fought-for autonomy. It is well documented how the French Revolution influenced events in major Caribbean islands such as Haiti. Precious little, however, has been written about the ways in which this epoch-defining event influenced the fringes of the Caribbean sphere and how the effects of that influence, and its repercussions, guided later imperial and colonial policies. The chapter focuses on two distinct but intimately related events, known as Fedon’s Rebellion and the Second Carib War. Although each of these conflicts was spearheaded by different subsets of the ethnically and culturally diverse Creole Archipelago, Fedon’s Rebellion by mixed-raced Creoles and their free and enslaved allies and the Second Carib War by the Kalinago, Murphy successfully demonstrates the ways these actors and events intertwined, both literally and materially as well as ideologically and philosophically. In doing so, she reveals how a nexus of local, regional, and intercontinental forces echoed at the micro and macro levels. “Understanding the deep local and regional roots of these insurgencies,” argues Murphy, “expands current understandings of the origins and extent of late eighteenth-century Atlantic revolutions” (p. 203). Murphy’s work here not only highlights the broader reach of French revolutionary rhetoric and action in the 1790s, but also showcases the ways in which local actors with local grievances within the Creole Archipelago utilized revolutionary rhetoric toward their own ends while simultaneously participating in a transatlantic and trans-imperial phenomenon with far wider implications and ramifications. She contends that the significance of these local events in the broader history of the region and of the Revolutionary Era has been previously overlooked primarily because descriptions of them focused on “disaffected nonwhites,” which “deliberately sought to minimize the broader stakes of these conflicts, ignoring the cross-racial, cross-class responses to long-simmering tensions brought about by attempts to transform the eastern Caribbean into a center of plantation production” (p. 203). Ultimately, neither of these insurgencies were successful and the imperial blowback against the participants—especially those of mixed race, free people of color, the enslaved, and the Kalinago—extinguished all hopes of the independence and autonomy many had fought so long to establish and maintain. Especially in the case of the Kalinago, it also led to their permanent removal from the lands over which they had shed several centuries’ worth of blood, sweat, and tears. This discrimination and relocation, in turn, paved the way for the final takeover of the region by the plantation complex, which imperial forces had long attempted to impose and which was increasingly becoming the central goal of economic and colonial policy.

Murphy’s multilayered approach teases out many profound revelations with wider implications for the field of Atlantic history. She aptly clarifies these revelations in her conclusion. First, centering the narrative of the region on “maritime connections, rather than on colonial borders, offers new perspectives of the Caribbean and its connections to early America and the Atlantic World,” which “reorients understandings of the region’s entangled past, revealing parallels and connections that remain obscured when individual islands are examined as discrete entities” (pp. 230-31). Second, “by centering Kalinagos as political and military actors,” Murphy adds, “The Creole Archipelago insists that the Caribbean, like the mainland Americas, was indelibly shaped by Indigenous peoples” (p. 231). Third, “by tracing how individuals and families of African descent forged freedom and fought to defend religious and civil rights,” the book “shows how regimes of racial exclusion were challenged even as they were being erected…. The fact that they did so as part of extended networks of real and fictive kin calls attention to families and households as central sites in which the broader Atlantic World was configured” (p. 232). Fourth, it changes the perception of the revolutionary nature of the Age of Revolutions itself, especially in certain local and regional contexts. By insisting on the inclusion of the eastern Caribbean in any analysis of eighteenth-century revolutions and their aftermath, Murphy shows that “diplomatic and violent calls for Indigenous dominion, political inclusion for free people of color and Catholics, and the amelioration or end of the forced labor system associated with sugar production seem less like revolutions and more like attempts to preserve longstanding realities increasingly at risk of being erased by encroaching colonial regimes” (p. 232). Finally, by looking “outward from the eastern Caribbean chain,” Murphy “demonstrates that these small islands served as microcosms of many broader historical processes central to our understanding of early American and Atlantic history, including European usurpation of Indigenous lands; the rise of slavery and plantation production; and the creation and codification of racial difference” (p. 237).

The Creole Archipelago overall is a significant achievement of Atlantic scholarship. Murphy successfully utilizes and expands upon Marisa Fuentes’s pioneering technique of “reading against the bias grain” of the sources to reveal added layers of depth to the story of the Caribbean and the peoples that inhabited the region. Murphy’s use of this technique and her creative sourcing is a “forceful reminder that virtually every colonial artifact—from shipping records, diaries, and travelogues to buildings, pottery, and foodways—bears witness to the presence and experiences” of those “all too often silenced in the correspondence of colonial officials” (p. 236). Although she is specifically talking about the enslaved in the context of the above quote, the same can also be said of the experiences of Indigenous peoples, free people of color, and other poor and disaffected minority groups. With its bold and ambitious interpretive framework, The Creole Archipelago stands as an example of how effective historical scholarship should be done in the twenty-first century. This is true not only for Atlantic history, but other subdisciplines within the wider field of history as well. By reorienting perspectives, geographically and demographically, a much more nuanced, and therefore complete, understanding of history and its implications for the present can be achieved.


[1]. See Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Citation: Eric Walls. Review of Murphy, Tessa, The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58139

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