Last year, while visiting the islands of Nevis and Saint Barthelemy, I read James Michner’s Caribbean, a lengthy novel of historical fiction covering the history of the Caribbean, from the first human occupants through the twentieth century. To be completely honest, I was hoping for a rollicking account of jolly pirates, drunken rum-runners, and kooky natives navigating the most beautiful islands in the world. Instead, I was saddled with a really upsetting thousand-page beach read.
The history of the Caribbean is full of people groups invading the islands and promptly killing and exploiting the previous inhabitants. The Island Caribs fought the indigenous Arawaks, took over many of their islands, and ate them. The Spanish came in and pretty much wiped out the native populations, through disease and murderous rampages. Europeans of all nationalities then arrived, bringing with them slaves from Africa who were treated to exploitation and horrors beyond description. Post-slavery and post-colonialism, the Caribbean is a patchwork of many different nations, most facing some combination of poverty, isolation, corruption, vulnerability, exploitation, and uncertain futures. The difficult histories of its two largest islands, Cuba and Haiti (part of the island of Hispaniola), are legendary, easy examples to cite.
So, how should I, a tourist paying to enjoy the beauty and culture of these islands, respond to this history and its consequent present? As I sat listening to the ocean on the last night of our trip, this question turned over in my mind. In some ways, even asking it was disingenuous. No history is without its unsavory underbelly. Most of us have benefited from the misery of others, knowingly or unwittingly. Tourism handled correctly is one of the most obvious hopes for a brighter future for these islands. Certainly, on Anguilla that process has already begun.
I am not a huge reggae fan, but one of my favorite songs from any genre is Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. Marley, a native of these islands, wrote it after being diagnosed with cancer, at the end of a long and storied career. “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom. ‘Cause all I ever have, redemption songs.” Redemption. It was Marley’s hope for his home. It is a fitting prayer for these islands. Redemption is not denial, and it is not despair. It is making good out of bad. It is the business God is in. It is ultimately the business we all should be in. And I came to believe during my time on Anguilla that it is the business Anguillans are currently in, preserving their culture and values, while working for a better life for their children through promoting tourism carefully.
As for me, I left the islands (it was painfully apparent that I had to) and let my question lie, grateful for the beauty and joy that have survived such a history, grateful to have been part of it for a short while.