Peter James Hudson


As a way into thinking about “capitalism” as a keyword in Caribbean studies, one should perhaps turn from political economy to poetry. For, arguably, it is the Caribbean’s poets, songsters, essayists, and novelists – as much as its historians (and certainly more than its economists and statisticians) – who have best described and narrated the violent processes and procedures by which capital has made and remade the region. To give but one example, five centuries after Cristóbal Colón stumbled into the archipelago as part of his “Enterprise of the Indies,” Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén wrote of the Caribbean as the “West Indies, Ltd.”1 The title poem of Guillén’s 1934 collection, “West Indies, Ltd.” provides us with a legalist appellation cast as poetic critique. With droll elegance, Guillén distills the essence of the fraught history of Caribbean commodification, exploitation, and capitalist incorporation. “West Indies, Ltd” was written during the political and economic tumult of the 1930s, during a period when Wall Street greed and Washington geo-strategy were undermining Cuban sovereignty and contributing to the near-starvation of the Cuban people. Guillén wryly recorded a moment when the transformation of the region into “the grotesque headquarters of companies and trusts” was accelerating.1 Though, of course, in West Indies, Ltd., Guillén does more than merely account for the ravishes and displacements of capitalism. His poems also document and celebrate the modes of Black song and Black survival that served as the texts and practices of Caribbean anti-capitalist resistance.

The digital artifacts I have chosen as placeholders for “capitalism” as a keyword of Caribbean studies are inspired by the work of Guillén, as well as many other writers from across the region. Through their literary practices and imaginative representation, they have offered us an implicit methodology for researching and theorizing capitalism in the Caribbean, while generating an unruly, other archive of capitalism itself. Caribbean literature has documented the great historical, social, and political-economic processes through which the Caribbean made capitalism and capitalism remade the Caribbean. This literature has also brought us closer to an understanding of capitalism’s history in the Caribbean, not necessarily as an accumulation of historical facts (though, often times, their detailing and cataloging of capitalism’s ephemera is astounding), but always, as Toni Morrison once wrote, as truth.2

While the digital artifacts presented here are not necessarily of a literary bent as such, I would like to suggest that they enable and support the kinds of critical readings and interpretations of capitalism made possible by literature. The artifacts open up the Caribbean past and present to its contingencies and contradictions, to both the blunt brutalities of colonial power and the insidious governmentalities of the post-colonial era. And they do so without sacrificing the style, grace, élan, and beauty by which Caribbean survival has scuffled with “sufferation.”3 Conceptually, these artifacts were generated by thinking about three inter-related categories: ecology, labor, and finance. These categories obviously do not exhaust the sprawling archive representing the range of approaches to thinking about capitalism in the Caribbean or in Caribbean studies. I would argue, however, that they are able to capture something of the transhistorical and cross-regional dynamics and transformations of the history of capitalism in the Caribbean over more than five centuries.

Ecology provides a natural beginning. Not only has the geomorphic fact and formation of the archipelago engendered the metaphors through which Caribbean writers have thought and written about Caribbean identity, but the Caribbean’s ecology has been critical to the development of capitalism itself. The geographic location and climatic conditions of the Caribbean have made it both the primordial terrain for commercial expansion as well as a strategic theatre for inter-imperial rivalry and conflict. Both commerce and politics would lead to the “repetitive catastrophes,” as Wilson Harris once dubbed them, of Caribbean space, as the continual search for profit and power would devastate the islands’ primeval ecologies.4

“Sugar exterminated the forests,” historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals wrote of Cuba.5 But across the Caribbean, the development and expansion of the market would lay waste to the region’s ancient ecosystems: the old-growth forests of pine, cedar, mahogany, ceiba, and ironwood were clear-cut for sugar, but also for cattle, tobacco, bananas, and other commodities. “Deaf and blind to history, focusing on the present, the sugarocracy destroyed in years what only centuries could replace,” Moreno Fraginals continues, “and at the same time destroyed much of the island’s fertility by soil erosion and the drying-up of thousands of streams.” Both land and water have been assaulted during the incessant, unforgiving expansion of capitalism in the Caribbean. Coast lines and waterways were remade for canals, ports, dykes, and embankments; the sea has been poisoned by caravels and cruise ships; coral reefs have disintegrated and aquatic life decimated; sea levels have risen while tropical storms and hurricanes have intensified as ocean temperatures spike. In short, capitalism has unleashed five hundred years of Caribbean environmental apocalypse.

Of course, it was not an abstract, immaterial capitalism that cleared the forests, harvested the sugar cane, dredged the canals, and impoldered the coasts. Human labor did this work and there can be no accounting for capitalism in the Caribbean without an account of Caribbean labor and the forms of bondage, regulation, and social control it has been subjected to. The history of capitalism in the Caribbean is the history of the Caribbean working classes and peasantries, of the enslaved and the indentured, as they struggle against alienation and exploitation and for dignity, freedom, and autonomy. It is the history of serving tourists and of sex workers.6 It is also the history of Caribbean diaspora: of the populating of the islands by Africans and Indians after the near-total annihilation of the indigenous populations, of intra-Caribbean migration to Cuba and Panama, of the journeys to Brooklyn and Brixton, and to Miami and Montreal. Again, literature provides an important archive for these migrations, as demonstrated through the novels of Eric Walrond, Paule Marshall, Austin Clarke, Samuel Selvon, Edwidge Danticat, and others.

The story of labor is also about labor’s antagonists: of the Caribbean middle classes and elites as they assume the seemingly paradoxical positions as both anti-colonial nationalists and transnational compradors – and as they consolidate the fusion of class with color, often while promoting national myths of multiracialism, mestizaje and ethnic mixing, unity in diversity. On the other hand, there are also those who exist on the margins of the official story of labor and are surplus to the productive regimes of capital: hustlers, higglers, idlers, scammers. The permanently unemployed. An Antillean lumpenproletariat who reject incorporation by capitalism and distain the valorization of work as salvation.

Yet if the history of capitalism in the Caribbean is a story of labor, the story of labor is invariably a history of gender: we must consider the doubled experience of labor experienced by Caribbean women. That is, in the history of capital accumulation in the Caribbean, profit was only possible because women have not only worked in the fields and factories, but because they have been responsible for the biological reproduction of the population necessary to expand and continue the work force.7 The story of women and women’s bodies in the history of capitalism in the Caribbean remind us that the categories and social functioning of gender, as well as race,8 are not merely ancillary byproducts of capitalism’s social relations. They are part of the primordial social orders from which capitalism emerged, providing the necessary conditions for the extraction of surplus value and the possibilities of profit.

The question of finance is arguably the most difficult term to grasp – largely because of its lack of physicality, its abstract and occult forms, and its spectral, placeless, ageographic presence. Certainly, finance remains in the shadow of the more typical keywords or metaphors through which we have understood the history of capitalism in the Caribbean. Finance is less understood than the plantation, that meta-historical, pan-Caribbean complex put forward as a kind of archetypal model and metaphor for Caribbean political economy.9 Or of the commodity – sugar, especially – in which the history and social relations of the Caribbean can be interpreted and unraveled.10 Or in the physical body of labor itself. Yet it is arguably finance and financialization – of rendering the material into the immaterial for the purposes of exchange and profit – that has provided the ghostly sinews for the expansion of capitalism in the Caribbean. The financing of the first voyages of exploration and conquest, to the birth of the mercantilist era of capitalism and slavery,11 to the rise of international banking in the region,12 to the era of offshore banking and cryptocurrencies13 – all demonstrate the long-term historical and conceptual importance of finance to capitalism in Caribbean. Moreover, from Haiti’s “double debt” of 1823, to Cuba’s “odious debts” of the 1930s, to the IMF debts of the Jamaican 1980s, to the present-day $74 billion “national” debt of Puerto Rico – finance has been critical to the imperial governance and control of the Caribbean. It has provided the means by which Caribbean sovereignty has been repeatedly undermined.

Title: Online Guide to Early Map Images of the Caribbean
Creator: Research Institute for the Study of Man
Steward: The Reed Foundation

Curatorial Note: Cartography has been central to the production of knowledge about the geography of the Caribbean and to its exploitation. While there are a number of different historical collections of Caribbean maps on the internet, the Research Institute for the Study of Man has compiled them together, creating a wonderful clearinghouse for other map collections while uploading many maps of their own.

Title: Los ingenios: colección de vistas de los principales ingenios de azúcar de la isla de Cuba las láminas dibujadas del natural y litografiadas por Eduardo Laplante
Creators: Eduardo Laplante and Justo G. Cantero
Steward: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica

Curatorial Note: With, its twenty-eight stunning lithographic plates by Eduardo Laplante, Justo G. Cantero’s El Ingenio is both a classic document for the study of Cuba’s nineteenth-century history, but also a visual archive of the plantation in the greater Caribbean’s history of capitalism.

Title: Digital Library of the Caribbean
Creators: Multiple
Stewards: Florida International University, in partnership with the University of Virgin Islands, and University of Florida

Curatorial Note: The importance of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) to both the history of capitalism in the Caribbean, and to Caribbean studies in general, cannot be overstated. As a portal to the digital collections of a range of libraries representing the region, it offers a public-facing repository that serves both experts and amateurs interested in Caribbean research, for all aspects of the region, and from any number of disciplinary perspectives. While the dLOC’s collections of oral histories of Caribbean labor are significant, it is also uniquely important as a digital archive of the representation of Caribbean ecologies. Its sub-collections of lithographs, gelatin silver prints, stereographs, postcards, and photographs offer an incredible documentation of Caribbean space, much of it already destroyed by the expansion of capitalism.

Title: The Caribbean Review of Gender Studies
Editors: Patricia Mohammed and Gabrielle Hosein
Steward: The University of the West Indies

Curatorial Note: The Caribbean Review of Gender Studies is not specifically devoted to labor, but its commitment to examining gender in all its manifestation and forms in the Caribbean makes it is a critical source for understanding the doubled form of labor, and with it the role and status of Caribbean women, in the accumulation and reproduction of capitalism.

Title: George Padmore Archive
Creator: Unknown
Steward: Marxists Internet Archive

Curatorial Note: The writings of the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist George Padmore provide an incredible window into the global world of colonialism, anti-imperialism, and Black labor in the twentieth century. His 1929 monograph, The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, is a neglected, but unprecedented and unsurpassed, study of Black labor and insurgency in Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean. A growing collection of Padmore’s texts, including The Life and Struggles, is available via the Marxist Internet Archive, an incredible repository of texts and journals from the vast historical archive of Marxist thought and radical anti-capitalist movements.

Title: Legacies of British Slave-ownership
Creator: The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership
Steward: University College London

Curatorial Note: Based in the archival records of the compensation payments distributed to British investors in slavery in the Caribbean and other British territories, the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project documents the pervasiveness and persistence of slavery to modern Britain. The records of the project serve to verify Eric Williams’ once-controversial claims concerning the importance of slavery to the rise of capitalism while also bolstering the claim for Caribbean reparations.

Title: Puerto Rico Syllabus
Creators: Yarimar Bonilla, Marisol LeBrón, Sarah Molinari, Isabel Guzzardo Tamargo, and Kimberly Roa
Steward: Unpayable Debt

Curatorial Note: A smart and sprawling site on Puerto Rico’s culture, society, and history, the Puerto Rico Syllabus contains an incredible set of resources on the origins of the island’s current economic crisis and the attempts by various levels of government to relieve and restructure its $72 billion debt. The Puerto Rico Syllabus is invaluable resource for both academics and activists.

Title: The Panama Papers: Exposing the Rogue Offshore Finance Industry
Editors: Michael Hudson, Martha M. Hamilton, Gerard Ryle, Marina Walker Guevara, and Tom Stites Steward: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Curatorial Note: Attempts to investigate the contemporary history of capitalism in the Caribbean are often thwarted by corporate secrecy, private archives, and attorney-client privilege. The Panama Papers has the potential to change this. Based on the leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records generated by the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossak Foneseca, The Panama Papers are a gold mine for researchers. This archive exposes a system that enables financial crime, corruption and wrongdoing, hidden by secretive offshore companies, offering a rare and unprecedented level of access to the shady world of front companies and shell corporations that use the Caribbean as their base.

Title: West Indies LTD.
Author: Nicolás Guillén
Steward: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes

Curatorial Note: In West Indies, Ltd., Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén poetically documents the cultural and political upheavals American capitalism brought to the Caribbean in the 1930s, and the forms of Black song that provided the soundtrack to Caribbean anti-capitalist resistance

Peter James Hudson is associate professor of African American Studies and History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (2017).

Beckford, George L. Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World. London: Zed Books, 1983.

Best, Lloyd. “Outlines of a Model of a Pure Plantation Economy,” Social and Economic Studies 17, (Sept. 1968): 283-326.

Girvan, Norman. Aspects of the Political Economy of Race in the Caribbean and the Americas: A Preliminary Interpretation. Atlanta: Institute of the Black World, 1975.

Guillén, Nicolás. West Indies, Ltd. Havana: Uca García y Cía, 1934.

Harris, Wilson. Jonestown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Hudson, Peter James. Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labour. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Klein, Naomi. The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018.

Lewis, Jovan Scott. Scammer’s Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

Moreno Fraginals, Manuel. The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760-1860. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.

Morgan, Jennifer. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Morrison, Toni. “The Site of Memory.” In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 2nd ed., edited by William Zinsser, 83-102. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Turner, Sasha. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

Image used under a Pixabay license

  1. Guillén, West Indies, Ltd.  2

  2. Morisson, “The Site of Memory.” 

  3. Lewis, Scammer’s Yard

  4. Harris, Jonestown

  5. Moreno Fraginals, The Sugarmill

  6. Kempadoo, Sexing the Caribbean

  7. See Morgan, Laboring Women and Turner, Contested Bodies, among others. 

  8. Girvan, Aspects of the Political Economy of Race

  9. See Best, “Outlines of a Model” and Beckford, Persistent Poverty

  10. Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint

  11. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

  12. Hudson, Bankers and Empire

  13. Naomi Klein, The Battle For Paradise