Tomorrow's Sovereignty in the Caribbean: What Comes After the Nation-State?
Mahlea studies Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, while Ethan is a Film and Digital Media student at the American University of Rome. Hailing from Barbados and The Bahamas respectively, Mahlea and Ethan come together to discuss their ideas for the Caribbean region.
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It was mango season and the poincianas were spilling crimson. Damp alcoves of sweat were just beginning to mar my well-starched school uniform – thick, grey, and ill-suited for that late subtropical spring – when, despite much thought on the matter, I failed to make a decision. The choice was between using British or American spellings in English: a decision that would surely impact the rest of my life, albeit in the most insignificant way imaginable. It was merely a choice that, once made, would allow me to get on with the business of language – which, in a region of dialects, creoles, and endless linguistic innovation – was a capricious one to begin with.
In The Bahamas, both options are acceptable. Examiners of the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education will not penalise you either way and all the English teachers I had, whether Bahamian, British, Jamaican, or Ghanaian, were generally indifferent. The only thing that mattered was consistency – pick one and stick to it – but for a while, I didn’t pick, so neither fully stuck. Even as I write now, using the British style, I am finding myself wishing for a third option. Ideally, one which would not simply be another option so much as the altogether obvious choice, a linguistic obligation, where the choice was so decidedly natural that no decision would even have to be made.
Since its independence in 1973, The Bahamas has oscillated between spellings much like I have. In seeking to establish a suitable model for its own national development – a difficult prospect given its unique history of inhabiting the margins (of the British Empire, of North America, of the Caribbean) – The Bahamas has vacillated between emulating the UK and the US, tending more towards the latter in recent decades.
Such textual hybridity, physically inscribed on the Bahamian landscape, speaks to a broader, more complex reality: that the construction of post colonial identity remians a site of precarity and contestation in the Caribbean.
Although government institutions have always employed British English, private businesses throughout the archipelago have maintained no such standard. Driving along Collins Avenue, a busy street just outside Nassau’s central business district, you might observe a dozen private medical offices – half of which will display signs that say “centre” and the other half “center.” Such textual hybridity, physically inscribed on the Bahamian landscape, speaks to a broader, more complex reality: that the construction of post-colonial identity remains a site of precarity and contestation in the Caribbean.
In conversation, my grandmother recalls how Barbados’ endearing reputation as “Little England” served as a point of national pride in the pre-independence period, denoting our privileged position as the “jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.” This was a reputation earned not only through extensive expropriation of Barbadian wealth and slave labour but also by Barbados’ near seanear-seamlessmless replication of British culture and institutions – our “purity” as a British colony.
While both the Bahamas and Barbados maintain a political structure modelled on the British Westminster system and had retained Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State until very recently (Barbados is now a Republic), The Bahamas’ geographical proximity to the US has subjected it to longstanding American geopolitical influence and sociocultural penetration. By contrast, Barbados singularly experienced British rule from the 17th to latter half of the 20th century and is more geographically isolated from US influence, thus resulting in a direct and stable infusion of British identity into Barbados’ national character.
"Britishness" thus came to be positioned as an integral component of Barbadian personhood; Barbadians perceived themselves in relation to the crown, carrying British passports until 1966, and attempting to "santise" their creole to an English accent to ascend the class ladder.
“Britishness” thus came to be positioned as an integral component of Barbadian personhood; Barbadians perceived themselves in relation to the crown, carrying British passports until 1966, and attempting to “sanitise” their creole to an English accent to ascend the class ladder. The transition from the status of colony to nation-state in Barbados is one that holds considerable weight in both political memory and the popular cultural imagination.
The transformation from Barbados as Little England to Barbados as an autonomous agent by no means severed the state from its colonial heritage, but at least made it possible to develop a stand-alone national identity. Indeed, the broken trident of our national flag quite literally embodies the centrality of independence to our idea of what it means to be Barbadian today. Despite its recent rupture with the British monarchy, post-colonial identity in Barbados, as with other former British colonies in the Caribbean, grapples with both this inheritance and a future informed by sovereignty.
While a similar aspiration towards Britishness – and the ensuing socioeconomic benefits such assimilation promised – may have been observed in The Bahamas, certain geographic and historical realities have hindered an easy incorporation of this Britishness into a modern Bahamian consciousness. For a start, The Ba- hamas has historically been constructed as an economically unproductive, law- less colony in the eyes of the British metropole. This was due to agricultural lim- itations which gave rise to a relatively unproductive plantation system, as well as its legacies of piracy and shipwrecking (despite the rigid protocols governing both seafaring practices).
Moreover, the archipelagic makeup of The Bahamas has meant that Out Islands (all those islands besides New Providence, where the capital Nassau is located) have experienced a double estrangement from the “mother country.” This has created certain economic and socio-cultural gaps between Britain and much of the island chain. The Bahamas thus demonstrates less proximity to “Britishness” than Barbados and has consequently incorporated other inputs in charting its national trajectory – such as the tenets of Garveyism and the American-born Civil Rights Movement.
Nevertheless, efforts to consecrate an autonomous national identity within the popular imagination of both The Bahamas and Barbados are apparent in the ritualisation and meaning of Independence Day. In The Bahamas, cultural manifestations can be observed around July 10th: Bahamian flags sprout in front yards and atop cars; locals adorn clothes bearing aquamarine, gold, and black; and a variety of festivals and services are held throughout the archipelago.
In Barbados, the month of November is similarly dedicated to nationalism, as tributes of love to our island take place through festivals and parades, independence songs, and food. School children wear the national colours, and high traffic areas become adorned in Barbadian paraphernalia. As an exercise in bonding and solidarity, and the right to celebrate something that was not always there, Independence Day can be understood as a practice of nation building; in the continual development of what it means to be Barbadian and what it means to be Bahamian, and to have those exist as points of pride.
ILLUSTRATION BY IZY BRYAN
ETHAN & MAHLEA:
Nationalism then, in the post-colonial state, serves a distinct purpose. Barbados and The Bahamas exist within a white world order that systematically deploys cultural amnesia to distract from the domination and plunder responsible for the material superiority of former colonising nations. In addition, Barbados’ and The Bahamas’ time as subjects of empire hugely outweighs their time as nation-states. In this context, nationalism becomes a means through which to regain power and assert one’s equality among an international system of nation-states, despite being vulnerable – or, at the very least, young – sovereign actors. Here, we understand the expression of Barbadian and Bahamian nationalisms, codified in the system of state sovereignty, as a form of collective healing and reconciliation.
Despite this, the promise of the nation-state as a future trajectory is one we should be wary of. The de facto reality of sovereignty reveals how the autonomy of less powerful nation-states can be undermined by institutions of international law, multinational organisations, and the global economy. In light of this reality, federalism, in the form of political and economic links among postcolonial states, has presented a possible route for small countries to exercise their sovereignty more fully. It also presents an opportunity to gradually erode the realities of dependence and domination to which they are subjected in the international sphere.
These ideas for regional collaboration have manifested with limited success. The West Indies Federation was a short-lived attempt to construct a political union in the form of a single state in the 1960s, however, it quickly collapsed due to internal disagreements regarding how it would be governed. More recently, the political network, Caribbean Community (CARICOM), has emerged alongside an economic network, the CARICOM Single Market & Economy (CSME), yet membership remains limited. For instance, The Bahamas, while a full member of CARICOM, has no intention of signing onto the CSME.
We might see this resistance to regional integration as a symptom of the pervasive notion that sovereignty is undermined by such integration. If politicians, under the pressure of election cycles, perceive projects of political integration as unpopular among their voter base, they will not pursue them. Beyond the barrier of the contestations of power intrinsic to the nation-state, regionalism has also been impeded by several other factors including a lack of pro-regional Heads of State, stark socioeconomic differences across territories and the absence of a legal framework to enforce CARICOM policy. Ultimately, insofar as sovereignty is foremost in our self-image, our willingness to compromise that self-image, even for the long-term gains of regional integration, will be limited.
For regional integration to be successful, it is therefore critical that we reconceptualise our notion of sovereignty such that it is clearly in congruence with regional integration. Such an end might be achieved through greater investment in regional media production. Television shows and films produced and distributed across the region not only develop national cultural industries, but contrib- ute to greater regional awareness as well as a uniquely Caribbean consciousness.
To develop a regional political model which surmounts the various barriers to cooperation (namely, contestations of leadership and power) demands both political innovation and the prioritisation of long-term outcomes – with the success of the former as contingent on the latter. For instance, decreasing reliance on foreign exchange (which most islands need for food imports) might come from the development of an interregional trade network. In the short run, larger islands may have to invest in smaller islands to support this, which is where long-term political vision and the development of “regional think” amongst Caribbean nationals is crucial.
We must find a new way to spell out our own sovereignty.
We must find a new way to spell out our own sovereignty. Our current understanding of it was granted on the coloniser’s terms and continues to be compromised; not least by our dependence on volatile sectors like tourism and agriculture, which perpetuate neo-colonial dynamics in an inherently hierarchical global economy.
Caribbean-born postcolonial scholar Frantz Fanon knew all too well the struggle for liberation would not finish with the raising of a flag: that achieving authentic sovereign equality requires Caribbean solidarity and collective action. Out of many nations, only a region united in shared interests can truly attain autonomy at the international level. A reorientation of our conceptual and material spheres of action as Caribbean states could transform our self-understanding, allowing us to move from stand-alone islands to an inter-connected regional actor with common histories and interests.
This is how we spell sovereignty in the Caribbean.
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