Guest Post: Teaching the Caribbean in the Age of Vast Early America

Guest Post: Teaching the Caribbean in the Age of Vast Early America

In today’s guest post, R. Grant Kleiser, a PhD candidate at Columbia University discusses his experience with teaching the Caribbean as a part of Vast Early America. Kleiser studies the early modern Atlantic world and his proposed dissertation examines the establishment of free ports in eighteenth-century British, Spanish, French, Danish, and Dutch Caribbean islands, investigating their promulgation within various political-economic philosophies and measuring their effect on “free trade” economic philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith, American Revolutionaries, Spanish Bourbon reformers, and British politicians. He has been a Teaching Assistant for the course, “The Modern Caribbean,” this semester under the direction of Dr. Natasha Lightfoot. 

“Draw the Caribbean.”

That was the first in-class assignment I gave my students as a Teaching Assistant in the course, The Modern Caribbean, taught by Dr. Natasha Lightfoot at Columbia University. I am incredibly indebted to Molly Perry of the University of the Virgin Islands for providing me with the inspiration for this activity. Perry, a Ph.D. graduate of William and Mary and a professor of Caribbean history told me that she always invites her students to “draw the Caribbean” on the first day of class. Some people would detail a couple of the “bigger” islands (the Greater Antilles), others would include the outlines of Central, South and North America along with various “dots” signifying the Lesser Antilles, while some took the assignment as an invitation to produce a picture of people relaxing on a sand beach with palm trees swaying in the wind.

I thought that all these potential drawings could occasion a teaching moment for reflection on geography, various understandings of what the Caribbean is perceived to be, and the need for defining terms (such as the Caribbean) based on legitimate and well-stated criteria. A perfect assignment to start of the semester, I assured myself. What I did not expect was for it to be thrown back in my face.

While my students were busy putting pen to paper, I decided to complete the assignment for myself. I started by (very crudely) drawing the borders of Northern South America, of Colombia and Venezuela, of Central America and Mexico, and then Florida and the Eastern Coast of the United States. I then made some circles of various sizes denoting the Greater and (most of the) Lesser Antilles, as well as the Bahamas. Before I finished, I added three dots on the Eastern Coast of the US: roughly where Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston are located.

“Alright, time’s up. Let’s see what you got!”

My students had created mostly maps, showing many of the Caribbean islands, South America, Central America, and Florida. I had everyone explain their justifications for their drawings. “These places all are part of the same tropical climate that is associated with the Caribbean.” “I included these areas because they all have a similar Caribbean culture.” “I just did the islands because those are the ‘Caribbean’ as I understood it, but I put Florida in as a geographical reference.”

One student raised her hand and said: “Grant, why did you include most of North America in your map?” I told her I would wait for everyone to share their reasoning before I explained mine. A few more students spoke up, but the original student still seemed concerned. Eventually, she raised her hand again. “I’m sorry, but I’d really like to hear your reasoning. I think that including what is now the United States might be a little bit offensive, to be honest. I mean, that’s a little bit Western-centric putting the US in there, no? Why does the US have to be involved here? It also links people to the Caribbean who don’t have the identity as being from the region, and that map is not really attune to the distinctive identity of the Caribbean region in my opinion.”

Well, I definitely didn’t expect that response. In a bit of a panic, I finally detailed my map’s justification: I study eighteenth-century commerce and so I included the three dots of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York because those were key ports that traded with the Caribbean in the 1700s and provided many of these places with essential lumber, cod, wheat, and other supplies. I noted that some scholars, for instance, have argued that New England was a hinterland for Jamaica.[1]Thus the “Caribbean” region, in my commercially-focused mind, has changed over time based on different trading connections, and the region looks different based on the varying experiences, concerns, and perspectives of the authors defining it. I tried to explain the concept of “Vast Early America,” that North America has been intimately connected via migrations and trade to South and Central America and the Caribbean. I tried to encourage them to think more broadly about the fluidity of regions, how they change over time and perspective. I thanked the student for her perspective and encouraged her to keep speaking up and challenging even (and especially) my ideas.

But after the class I thought to myself: was I being offensive? Was I adopting a “Western-centric” mindset? How do people from the Caribbean today feel about being lumped into the concept of “Vast Early America?” Does that category deprive them of their unique identity? Would a better term, based on the center of economic gravity in the early modern period, be the “Vast Early Caribbean?”

While I appreciate and admire the Omohundro Institute’s emphasis on making America “vast,” a lesson to be learned here is that categories are not always innocuous. Not only do regions change over time based on migratory patterns and trading connections, as scholars such as Ernesto Bassi argue, but regions also carry pride and meaning for those who identify with and define them.[2]Some may see the incorporation of North America into maps of the “Caribbean” as merely reinforcing notions of US political, economic, and military interventions and exploitation of the region. We might lose some of the richness, uniqueness, and defiant identity of the region today if we only emphasize connections to the mainland. In certain contexts and certain classes, maybe the Caribbean should just be the narrowly-defined Caribbean. Or we could shift the perspective, telling stories of the “Vast Early Caribbean” that centers the contributions of the people who labored, lived, and died there to histories that went far beyond their sandy shores.

At the very least we can strive to have these debates in our classrooms and encourage our students to think deeply about the terms they use, the places they privilege, and their own perspectives and reasoning in the making of history and the making of regions.

Maybe we can even start here. What are the implications of Vast Early America for the Caribbean as a region? How would you conduct such an assignment? What would you draw? I’m curious to hear your answers.

[1]See, for instance, Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Mark Peterson, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019); Peter Pellizzari, “Supplying Slavery: Jamaica, North America, and British Intra-Imperial Trade, 1752-1769,” Slavery & Abolition.

[2]See Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016).

One response

  1. Love the idea of asking students to draw a map! Sounds like a great icebreaker to get people thinking about what they know (or don’t know yet). As for perceived Western- or US-centrism, though, I find this reaction troubling and evidence for why encouraging a “vast” perspective is so important, if only to avoid anachronisms. That your student immediately went to equating most, if not all, of North America with the United States seems part of a wider challenge in terms of teaching “American” history and fostering broader historical consciousness (to say nothing of geography), no matter the era in question. From an early American perspective, and even if we are talking about Anglo-America specifically and between, say, 1600-1800, the period in which the US figures on any map only occupies a quarter-century. Also worth noting that the US still doesn’t even comprise the entirety of mainland Anglo-America (ahem, Canada…which I think has a lot more in common with the Caribbean here than perhaps meets the eye). 

    I do think that language is important, and opt for a framework that casts the Americas as plural, colonial or otherwise. Likewise, I make a point to discuss with students how definitions of “America” and “American” remain contested depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, and when we’re talking. Keeping things fluid and open seems key to understanding both local and global phenomena, especially in a region as volatile as the Caribbean Basin that also has so many historical connections and ties to the North, Central, and South American mainland and beyond. Using or centering the US as a barometer for anything in North America is of course fraught, but I’m really keen on a model like Vast Early America that encourages more inclusive, holistic narratives that eschew isolation and can also help to ground inquiries into more modern topics. 

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