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

Tessa Murphy
Jack Bouchard

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

Reviewed by Jack Bouchard (Rutgers University) Published on H-Early-America (June, 2022) Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)

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The University of Pennsylvania Press has an unfortunate tendency to undersell its books in their subtitles. The rather vague “Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean” does not do justice for the remarkable study Tessa Murphy offers in The Creole Archipelago. Murphy has found, in one of the most trafficked (by ships and historians alike) corners of the Americas, what feels like a new world. Through her active reframing of space in the eastern Caribbean, and by paying attention to Indigenous geographies and interimperial borderlands, Murphy has written a timely and important study.

Murphy’s new book provides a study of what she calls the Creole Archipelago, the island chain “that stretches 280 miles from Guadeloupe in the north to Grenada in the south.” Most of us would know these as some of the smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles. Murphy, however, makes a compelling case for treating them as a distinct historic space between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. “The Creole Archipelago thus refers to both a physical space ... and a hybrid community that emerged as people who were born there and spent their lives in this space engaged in exchange, interaction, accommodation, and contestation” (p. 6). This chain of islands was more slowly settled by Europeans, often lay outside clear imperial boundaries, and was only in the mid-eighteenth century subjected to the sugar plantation complex. In sketching this separate trajectory, Murphy shows the significance of this divergence not just for the islands and their human populations but also for the Lesser Antilles as a whole within Caribbean and Atlantic imperial histories. Creole Archipelago, then, represents a new spatial history of the Caribbean as much as a human history. In writing such a history, Murphy is contributing to the growing scholarship on rethinking the Caribbean as a historic space. The Creole Archipelago joins Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (2017) and Sharika Crawford’s The Last Turlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (2020) to show the multiplicity of spaces created through colonization.

To resurrect the Creole Archipelago, Murphy stresses three concepts: mobility, Indigenous geographies, and imperial borderlands. She shows the enduring role of Kalinago peoples from the turn of the seventeenth to the turn of the nineteenth century in driving the history of the Creole Archipelago. The mobility and adaptability of Kalinago were a persistent thorn in the side of would-be European colonizers. They “continued to exercise diplomatic and military power long after they were supposedly exterminated, expelled, or enslaved” (pp. 46-47). She specifically roots the Creole Archipelago in the Kalinago “aqueous geography” borne of their ability to harness wooden craft to sail the sea (p. 47). This is an important contribution to the effort to expand our understanding of Indigenous communities as maritime actors in the Atlantic world.

In addition, Murphy argues that we should not see the Lesser Antilles as a series of separate islands. Instead, this is an interconnected archipelago marked by high inter-island mobility: “Throughout the colonial era, the aqueous geography that allowed Kalinago to evade and attack Europeans continued to facilitate the independent movement of people, goods, and information across porous maritime borders” (p. 48). That mobility was a problem for emerging European emperies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The result was a complex borderland, one that acted as a site of “wide-ranging experiments in creating and administering plantation colonies, ruling over a diversity of colonial subjects, and maximizing productivity” (p. 81). Tracing these experiments, often in quite fine detail, is the focus of much of the book.

The Creole Archipelago covers around two centuries in seven chapters, with a thorough introduction and conclusion. The book is richly illustrated with both modern maps and archival images, and Murphy has made good use of the John Carter Brown Library’s collection of maps and artwork. Murphy also includes several tables to make sense of the detailed statistic work she often employs to explore demographic changes and imperial policies on the islands. The blend of narrative, imagery, and statistics is part of what makes the book so compelling and contributes to the feeling of the Creole Archipelago as a fully realized world.

The first two chapters provide a refreshing and captivating account of the Creole Archipelago in the seventeenth century, with an emphasis on Kalinago lifeways and early European settlement. The first chapter, on Kalinago seafaring and place-making, is particularly striking. Murphy uncovers the rich history of how Kalinago moved between islands and linked the Lesser Antilles into a shared space. In the second chapter , she crucially shows how early Europeans followed this lead, creating an interimperial borderland.

Chapters 3 and 4 trace the slowly mounting changes in the Creole Archipelago as it moved from a borderland between empires to a set of British territories. Chapter 4 explains how the Seven Years' War played out in this corner of the Caribbean and discusses the eventual triumph of British claims. These are important chapters that allow Murphy to explore what interimperial spaces look like in practice and what forcible integration with wider imperial systems looks like on the ground.

Chapter 5 is the turning point in the book. Here Murphy explores the sudden turn to sugar production, and with it a surge in the number of enslaved peoples present on the islands of the Creole Archipelago. She demonstrates how this reconfigured the demography of the islands, along with their ecologies. In this chapter, she traces the British turn against the Kalinago and the increased representation of Kalinago as "black caribes" and maroons.

The last chapters trace the consequences of the turn to sugar and Britain’s newfound dominance of the Creole Archipelago. After the spatial reconfiguration of the first two chapters and dramatic upheaval of the fifth, they are somewhat anticlimactic. The final chapter on revolutions is an interesting contribution that furthers the growing work on how the French Revolution rebounded in colonial spaces like the Caribbean.

If there is an issue with The Creole Archipelago it is that the work as a whole, despite its novelty, ultimately feels like an intervention within Caribbean historiography rather than a bigger contribution to Atlantic and early American studies. Murphy’s work assumes a familiarity with broader Caribbean history. This can be off-putting at times, and the text introduces terms and events assuming they are already known. Murphy gestures to bigger claims, especially about borderland studies, but these feel underdeveloped next to the careful reconstruction of Caribbean history. The conclusion is emblematic of this. Instead of exploring the longer legacies of the Creole Archipelago and its broader historiographical significance, it is effectively a second introduction. It restates methodologies and narrow interventions, trying to sell the reader on a book they have already read.

For historians of the Caribbean of any period, The Creole Archipelago will be a must-read. For historians of early America and the Atlantic more broadly, many parts of this study will prove theoretically and methodologically useful. The first two chapters especially offer a guide to integrating maritime Indigenous histories, spatial history, and the histories of early colonial settlements. Murphy’s argument about historical space should prompt us to find Creole Archipelagos elsewhere.

Citation: Jack Bouchard. Review of Murphy, Tessa, The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL:

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