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

Tessa Murphy
Lauren MacDonald

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 Lauren MacDonald (Idaho State University) Published on H-LatAm (August, 2022) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

H-LatAm: The Creole Archipelago

The history of the colonial Caribbean is often studied as a theater of imperial competition where far-off European powers clashed over sugar islands. In contrast, in The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean, Tessa Murphy argues that the southeastern corner of the Caribbean contained communities that defiantly cut across political boundaries. The book focuses on the smaller southern islands of the Lesser Antilles—particularly Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada—and the British and French efforts to claim those islands in the eighteenth century. Rather than a chain of terrestrial units cleanly separated by water and politics, these Caribbean islands formed a maritime borderland that stretched across land and sea. The book traces how Indigenous, African, and European inhabitants moved through this borderland and built societies partially outside the control of abutting empires. Their world was made possible by the physical landscape: navigable water routes facilitated human mobility, interisland connections, and the evasion of imperial surveillance.

In Caribbean contexts, the term "Creole" has various overlapping meanings that can refer to language, birthplace, ancestry, dislocation, mixture, and/or creation. The Creole Archipelago chooses a capacious definition: "a hybrid community that emerged as people who were born and spent their lives in this space engaged in exchange, interaction, accommodation, and contestation" (p. 6). The book places its Creole peoples in dialectical opposition to the European colonial officials who scrabbled to exploit them. Borrowing from James C. Scott's conception of state spaces and zones of refuge, The Creole Archipelago seeks to use the archives of European empires to understand people who lived just outside those empires. The book surveys an admirable range of sources: treaties, maps, census counts, ecclesiastical records, missionary reports, land sales, traveler accounts, legal codes, meeting minutes, and administrative correspondence from archives located across Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. This sweep of sources, ranging from highly stylized imperial fantasies to quotidian commercial transactions, allows the book to offer both breadth and depth in its depiction of Caribbean society. In particular, records of island baptisms and marriages reveal the surprising physical mobility and racial fluidity of this borderland society. Throughout, the book remains sensitive to the distortions wrought by the archive itself. The author notes how census data varied in its level of detail as it removed messy complexity to create simple columns of anonymized numbers. To counteract the tendency of social history to drift toward bloodless accounts of faceless masses, each chapter opens with a humanizing anecdote focused on an individual's life story within their wider Caribbean world.

The most striking chapters of The Creole Archipelago deal directly with the Indigenous history of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Caribbean. The Kalinago peoples, who were usually called "Caribs" by colonial observers, have been minimized in histories of the Caribbean. The Creole Archipelago argues that the Indigenous history of the Lesser Antilles has been underestimated by historians because Kalinago leaders so often removed themselves from European control. In the first chapter, the book examines the language used in treaties, maps, and missionary reports to argue that seventeenth-century Kalinago leaders successfully negotiated enduring influence in ways that European officials were either unable or unwilling to perceive. In this methodological approach, the slight archival presence of the Kalinago signals their power.

In its fifth chapter, the book returns to Kalinago communities in the eighteenth century as they defended their sovereignty on St. Vincent, an island claimed by the British after 1763. In previous decades, Kalinago communities had sometimes accepted African or African-descended people fleeing enslavement into their communities. As a result, several European observers proposed that eighteenth-century Kalinago communities no longer were Indigenous but instead were defined by African ancestry. Following the scholarship of Melanie J. Newton, The Creole Archipelago argues that British colonists questioned Kalinago indigeneity as a means of questioning past treaties that guaranteed Kalinago land rights. It also allowed the British to understand Kalinago autonomy in a more comprehensible framework: maroonage. After a period of violent conflict, a 1773 treaty between the Kalinago and the British on St. Vincent echoed the terms of earlier treaties signed between British officials and Jamaican Maroon leaders. Kalinago leaders swore their support to King George III, retained a remnant of their previous territories, and promised not to harbor any future people fleeing enslavement.

In the middle chapters of the book, which cover the early and middle decades of the eighteenth century, the Kalinago recede from the narrative. Instead, the book turns to the European settlers who moved to the islands, the enslaved African people they forcibly brought with them, and the subsequent generations who built a multiethnic society in the eighteenth-century Lesser Antilles. These people often resided in places that imperial officials wished they would not. Despite frequent British and French attempts to control or evacuate illicit island settlement, residents on the smaller islands remained. While racial boundaries were more fluid in this Antillean borderland, the book does not sugarcoat the inequalities of the society that developed therein. Slavery was ubiquitous, and enslaved people labored across fields of cotton, coffee, and manioc. Ultimately, sugar is the hinge on which The Creole Archipelago turns: its relative unimportance on the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles during the first half of the eighteenth century permitted some people to live beyond imperial oversight, while its promotion by colonial officials in the second half of the eighteenth century went hand in hand with greater surveillance, oppression, and suffering.

The Creole Archipelago argues for understanding Antillean political upheaval and rebellion during the Age of Revolutions as motivated by long-simmering but hyperlocal causes rather than dictated by revolutionary movements imported from France or Saint-Domingue. On islands ceded to the British in 1763, French Catholic planters played significant roles in local politics. Fearing exodus, depopulation, and economic ruin, British officials initially offered resident planters numerous privileges to remain. As was also the case in British Quebec, Catholics on Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent were not required to disavow the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. However, after local communities proved alarmingly receptive to French occupation during the American Revolutionary War, British planters became increasingly paranoid of long-resident French-speaking neighbors as a traitorous fifth column. On Grenada, Catholic property holders were abruptly prevented from holding elected office. Simultaneously, free people of color faced growing racial and religious restrictions, enslaved people sought freedom, and Kalinago leaders struggled against British trespasses. The Creole Archipelago examines the Second Carib War and Fedon's Rebellion in the 1790s as responses to intensifying local pressures and argues that such movements "seem less like revolutions and more like attempts to preserve longstanding realities increasingly at risk of being erased by encroaching colonial regimes" (p. 232). The Creole Archipelago portrays its island societies as enduring and persistent as they were tossed between nominal French and British control over many decades. However, in the aftermath of island resistance at the end of the eighteenth century, British officials violently suppressed potential sources of rebellion, physically expelled the Kalinago people, and finally eradicated the cultural conditions that had enabled a Creole archipelago to exist.

The Creole Archipelago argues for continuities rather than ruptures, lumping rather than splitting. While it claims the expanse of the Lesser Antilles "from Guadeloupe in the north to Grenada in the south," its focus remains on the smaller islands of that chain, which were either politically neutral or controlled by the Kalinago for several decades longer than the larger islands (p. 6). Grenada appears in the index sixty times; Guadeloupe appears twenty-seven times. This emphasis dovetails with the book's focus on extra-imperial spaces. Martinique and Guadeloupe were more tightly claimed and managed by imperial administrators, and so they were the oppressive islands from which people fled into watery borderlands. This view of the Caribbean, in which Martinique and Guadeloupe feature infrequently, renders the book's spatial claims about the extent of the Creole Archipelago somewhat geographically selective.

By studying the peripheries of empires in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, The Creole Archipelago joins recent scholarship by Linda M. Rupert, Elena A. Schneider, Jesse Cromwell, and Ernesto Bassi. The book's use of British and French archives will prove invigorating to scholars searching for complementary Atlantic histories captured in the margins of Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch archives. For scholars working on other imperial regions, the book itself calls for more work to link the histories of British empires across the Caribbean and India. Finally, the book's account of eighteenth-century debates over Kalinago indigeneity and authenticity will resonate with anyone studying or participating in current Indigenous Caribbean movements.

Citation: Lauren MacDonald. Review of Murphy, Tessa, The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL:

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