The Repeating Island – Representations of the Francophone Caribbean
With close reference to Benitez-Rojo’s notion of the ‘repeating island’, discuss how the Francophone Caribbean has been represented by writers, travellers and artists.
This essay shall focus on how various writers, travellers and artists have represented the Francophone Caribbean. The Islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti shall serve as the focus as these are the locations in the Caribbean where a Francophone culture dominates. From the art of Agostino Brunias, to depictions of Haitian revolutionary hero, Toussaint Louverture. From Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire’s, Le Cahier du Retour au Pays Natale to how film director Euzhan Palcy depicts Plantation culture in Rue Case Nègres. Of course, Benitez-Rojo’s notion of the ‘repeating island’ shall never be far from our minds and in order to utilise his ideas to full effect it shall be essential to firstly summarise exactly what this Cuban author refers to in his conceptualisation of Caribbean culture.
Antonio Benítez-Rojo sees in the Caribbean a meta-archipelago that is affected by elements of Chaos that repeat across the different islands, incorporating a polyrhythmic essence that reverberates across the multilingual cultures that comprise the Antilles. In the postmodern, post-colonialist environment, the remnants of slavery cannot be escaped in that Plantation culture remains embedded, a core component of cultural discourses, resistance and a division along racial lines, more so than in other geographical regions of the world which adapt more readily to the global environment as they haven’t the same inherent difficulties as having to constantly define history, the oft suppressed history of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, the undocumented creolization, an oral history of African traces or eradicated Carib races or of illiterate Maroon communities who struggled against their Béké masters. The repeating island is a polyrhythmic syncretic agglomeration of different cultures that unites Africa with Europe and Asia with the Americas.
Agostino Brunias was a London-based Italian painter from Rome, whose travels to the West Indies have bequeathed us with a rich vein of material of a not only escapist, but also romantic nature.
Agostino Brunias ‘The Linen Market Santo Domingo’, ca. 1775
Agostino Brunias ‘Mujer criolla y criadas’, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), painted between 1773-1796
Agostino Brunias ‘Dancing Scene in the West Indies’, 1764-1796
In the first of the three paintings Brunias depicts a market scene. There is a stark contrast in the painting between the use of black and white, with the women mainly wearing white clothes. The dark-skinned people stand out and the colours of the colonial French flag can be seen in the umbrellas. The picture postcard setting with the blue skies and the colonial style town buildings offer us a Caribbean that is at once European, African and the mélange of these stylistics bring us the Americas. This scene could be repeated across the Caribbean, where European styles are mixed with African slaves.
The second painting has three women; a black slave, a mulattress and a white woman. They are sitting in a triangular formation, one perhaps representing Africa in the French Atlantic Slave Triangle, one European and the mulattress, the local Caribbean. There is a hierarchy in the height of each of their headpieces, demonstrating their relevant social importance. The sensuality of the mulattress, her voluptuous bosom, her staring across in deference to the white lady, represents a vibrant island. The dark woman is totally obedient towards her mistress, offering refreshments as the White woman looks on, her luxurious fan cooling her in the decadent heat. Again, the tropical background with palm trees depicts a paradise, a romantic notion in an island where Plantation culture thrives.
The third painting, again has a picture postcard backing, and plantations are visible on the hillside. This painting delineates the sensual African rhythms. The dancing, the thrusting of hips is reminiscent of African culture and we could quite easily be up in the hills in a secret Vodou meeting of Maroons.
‘… a public in search of a carnivalesque catharsis that proposes to divert excesses of violence…’ (Benitez-Rojo 1992:22)
The way the Caribbean expresses itself in dance represents the inherent violence in island culture. The slaves were first instructed to dance as the ships left the Gambian coast and in a society that struggles to define itself with typical histories there is a struggle for cultural representation and this manifests itself in African-style rhythmic dancing. This violence emerges from the plantations, perhaps not as romantic a setting to satisfy the tastes of our Italian painter, Brunias, but the underlying brutality of the slaves as they submit to Code Noir discipline and torture is a consistent part of cultural representations across the meta-archipelago.
‘There is not a single country in the Caribbean that has ever been able to break away completely from the repetitive Plantation mechanism.’ (Benitez-Rojo 1992:203)
Turning to literary representations of the Caribbean, Martinican Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal is an extended poem that introduces the concept of Négritude. This movement empowers black people and is a nostalgic feeling for the African roots of the islands’ inhabitants. Benitez-Rojo says of Césaire’s work:
‘…they presumed that the Caribbean white – white by self-definition – wore his skin colour on the outside, as though it weren’t a flag to be suspected always of showing black bloodstains spattered there by some deliberately forgotten encounter or by the planter’s or slavedriver’s whip. In reality, every Caribbean person…feels his skin as a territory in perpetual conflict, as a trench that he must take and claim for his Self, or else surrender unconditionally to the Other.’ (Benitez-Rojo 1992:236)
There is in the Caribbean, due to the colonial nature, even in a post-abolition environment, a certain dependence on skin colour, the exterior. Césaire has a longing to reverse the Middle Passage, a situation that was not possible, as the slave ships never returned from the Caribbean back across the Atlantic to Africa. The French Atlantic Triangle operated in one direction and, once embarked upon, there was no return of the Middle Passage. The Cahier seeks to discover and to be proud of the African heritage. It recognises Benitez’Rojo’s meta archipelago and it draws up a syncretism of different continental identities:
‘Ce qui est à moi, ces quelques milliers de mortiférés qui tournent en rond dans la calebasse d’une île et ce qui est à moi aussi, l’archipel arqué comme le désir inquiet de se nier, on dirait une anxiété maternelle pour protéger la ténuité plus delicate qui sépare l’une de l’autre Amérique; et ses flancs qui secrètent pour l’Europe la bonne liqueur d’un Gulf Stream, et l’un des deux versants d’incandescence entre quoi l’Equateur funambule vers l’Afrique.’ (Césaire 1995:89)
Césaire maintains a violence in his writings, an underlying struggle for the Caribbean’s inhabitants. The Plantation culture is inherent, the sound of the slavedriver’s whip still reverberates. The whole structure of the poem is polyrhythmic in essence, a testament of true Caribbean cultural spirit. It meanders and repeats like the island chain itself. There are disjunctive repetitions, ruptures and breaks throughout. It is par excellence the literary culmination of Caribbeaness and the essence of what it is to be a former slave inhabitant of the islands. Christopher Miller recognises Césaire’s cultural contribution:
‘No one is a prophet in his own land, but Césaire’s poem is a touchstone of African culture.’ (Miller 2008:339)
For Négritude to be realised there needs to be a true black hero from the Caribbean and nobody matches this identity more so than the hero of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint Louverture.
‘Toussaint Louverture’ by Jean de Beauvais 1802
‘Toussaint’ by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin, 1832
Edouard Duval-Carrié ‘ Toussaint blue’ 2014
Jimmy Jean-Louis in the role of Toussaint L’Ouverture in the France 2 téléfilm 2012
Statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, east bank of Garonne River, Bordeaux (2005)
Toussaint is represented by artists in different ways as is demonstrated above. The importance of visual representations of Toussaint cannot be underestimated:
‘Images of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution were an inspiration to people of African descent throughout the Americas.’ (Dubois 2004:305)
Toussaint can be Napoleonesque, as Jean de Beauvais sees him, an African who has transcended his roots and sits high on his horse, a proud general, European in essence. Celebrated Trinidadian author C.L.R. James attests to the importance of Toussaint:
‘The writer believes, and is confident the narrative will prove, that between 1789 and 1815, with the single exception of Bonaparte himself, no single figure appeared on the historical stage more greatly gifted than this Negro, a slave till he was forty-five.’ (James 2001:xix)
Maurin focuses on the African, highlighting the deep blackness of Toussaint, over-exaggerating the lips and cranial features. Carrié brings us a more modern Toussaint in blue, a celebration of the tropical Caribbean. The general’s uniform is the epitome of how Toussaint has defeated the colonial masters. He has risen from his servitude and can address the Béké overlords on their own terms. The importance of the success of the Haitian revolution cannot be underestimated for its impact on the Caribbean.
‘…in the last decade of the eighteenth century there were slave rebellions and massive escapes in literally all of the region’s islands and coasts. One might think that there was a huge conspiracy, of which the Haitian Revolution was only a part, the part that triumphed visibly.’ (Benitez-Rojo 1992:154)
Returning to Benitez-Rojo’s chaotic remembrance of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the fusion of different beliefs, in Toussaint we see a pride in the African Vodou and how it has been used as a core factor in creating the success of the revolution.
‘Immediately, we remember that the Haitian Revolution was mobilized thanks to voodoo, and that Toussaint himself practiced magical medicine before adopting the rationalist ways of the Enlightenment.’ (Benitez-Rojo 1992:303)
The Plantation culture that underpins the islands did not disappear with slavery and the hierarchy of master and slave persisted after abolition. The essence of the plantation is captured by Martinican director Euzhan Palcy in Rue Case Nègres. The protagonist José Hassam is a young boy whose French-thinking grandmother, M’man Tine, is trying to guide his escape from the Plantation via the colonial education system. He crosses ethnic boundaries and revels in the African remembrances of Medouze, an oral recantation of an otherwise suppressed history. We see in Krik-Crac the vibrancy of African traditions. There is a patchwork aesthetic, a meeting of cultures, the creolization of a variety of characters, typical of the Caribbean. The Antilles are a testing ground for the modern capitalist world and nowhere more so is this apparent than on the plantation. The Caribbean is a tabula rasa, emptied out of memory, a laboratory for Europeans to dominate and maintain their capitalist values. Palcy directs the camera to gaze upwards towards the géreurs and commanders. We see through the eyes of the cane cutters themselves. Gone is the picture postcard island, we see the true brutal nature of the plantocracy, a post-abolition maintenance of a strict racial hierarchy. Leopold cannot inherit his dying father’s name as he is but a Mulatto. Never far from view is the true division of the society along strict racial lines, something that predominates thinking in the Caribbean.
‘We are dealing obviously with an unpredictable society that originated in the most violent currents and eddies of modern history where sexual and class differences are overlaid with differences of an ethnographic nature.’ (Benitez-Rojo 1992:27)
Palcy dwells upon these class and sexual differences and her scene of the 1930s Martinique sugar plantation is an idea whose rhythmic echoes unwind across the meta archipelago. Rue Case Nègres neatly defines the essence of the Caribbean and visualises the island Other that non inhabitants and those who are unfamiliar with the area cannot readily discover.
There is a Freudian struggle within the representations of the Caribbean, in art, in literature, in film. The triangle is always apparent and there is a yearning for a reversal of the Middle passage. The mestizo culture that results from the syncretic components of multi-ethnic elements is always is in debt to a capitalist European ‘father’ and love for a forgotten African ‘mother’. Various cultural interpretations of the Francophone Caribbean draw upon this bricolage of different ethnic rhythms and the sociocultural violence of the plantation underpins most of the thinking. Racial divide can be celebrated and in a postmodernist way, the chains of slavery can be resisted yet we are reminded so often in subtle ways of the true (ignored) history of slavery and the notion of skin colour is never far from the surface. One of the best idealisations and capture of the true Caribbean spirit, that reveals the suppressed memories of slavery and the struggle of post colonialism can be seen in Valère’s memorial of slavery in Martinique:
Le mémorial Cap 110, Martinique, by artist Laurent Valère
The white statues of black African slaves gaze out across the ocean, remembering the Middle Passage. The figures stand in an Atlantic triangular formation, attesting to the horrors of slavery and demonstrating a unity. It is a confrontation to the colonial masters and a true reflection of the island cultural spirit.
Benitez-Rojo’s repeating island is a concept that unites the cultural output of all who reflect upon the Caribbean. It is a reminder of the suppressed history and ethnographic violence that underpins all cultural output from these islands. In understanding the syncretic elements that form the meta archipelago, it requires a deeper knowledge of the true histories of slavery and colonialism. All who succeed in portraying the Francophone Caribbean account for the true essence of the repeating island.
Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: the Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Trans. James Maraniss. (Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 1992)
Césaire, Aimé, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books,1995)
Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004)
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London : Penguin Books, 2001)
Miller, Christopher L. The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)