T. Murphy: The Creole Archipelago

The Creole Archipelago. Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean

Murphy, Tessa
Early American Studies
352 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Steffen Wöll, SFB 1199, Universität Leipzig

Explicitly or implicitly, historical narratives about the Caribbean often grow out of Eurocentric perceptions. These narratives tend to focus on colonial trade endeavours, placing native and Creole populations either at the centre of natural and human resource flows or on the fringes of Western power. In her debut book, Tessa Murphy challenges these marginalising dynamics. The Creole Archipelago considers Caribbean “peripheries” – in this case the Lesser Antillean islands of St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Vincent, Tobago, and Grenada – as archipelagic spaces structured by the interplay of indigenous, immigrant, and colonial identities and practices. Shifting attention away from the continental centres and lopsided projections of imperial power to the fractal relationality of island worlds and maritime borderlands, Murphy’s book aligns itself with a surge of archipelagic scholarship that has gained considerable momentum in recent years.[1] Set against the background of eighteenth-century British and French endeavours to assimilate eastern Caribbean islands into Atlantic sugar and slave economies, the book reveals a myriad of hidden cultural microcosms that existed outside of major European colonies in the Caribbean. Understanding the historical placemaking trajectories of these places, Murphy proposes, is “central to our understanding of early American and Atlantic history, including European usurpation of Indigenous lands; the rise of slavery and plantation production; and the creation and codification of racial difference” (p. 237).

In her book, Murphy unpacks the fluidity of Creole societies that live through enduring legacies of colonialism. She offers a critical perspective that brings to the fore power dynamics, cultural erasures, and resilience of spatially and discursively marginalised communities. Drawing on meticulous research, The Creole Archipelago provides an instructive analysis of the Lesser Antilles’s obscured cultural heritage. Importantly, it also demonstrates “how thinking with the archipelago shapes the production of knowledge and exposes continuities between continental and extracontinental spaces, [...] colonial violence, racial hierarchies, and differential mobilities.”[2] These mobilities, Murphy argues, do not result from unilateral colonial ambitions but rather from interactions between native Kalinago peoples, free and enslaved Africans, and settlers from various European nations. Through their distinctive agencies, agendas, conflicts, and cooperation, these spatial actors all engaged in imaging, ordering, and transforming the Lesser Antilles and its connections to the Americas and the world. Thus deconstructing “the pervasive misconception that islands constitute discrete economic and political units with clearly defined borders” (p. 5), The Creole Archipelago gives credence to the epistemic pivot point of archipelagic thinking: being aware that “the story of humanity has no center. [...] there are only archipelagos, strings of islands whose proximity enriches their difference.”[3]

Working through this awareness, Murphy firmly grounds her research in a wide range of primary sources, including historical maps, colonial correspondence, demographic data, estate titles, parish records, and an indigenous language dictionary. By bringing these sources into a productive dialog, the book offers a robustly researched, original, and historically disruptive enquiry that breaks away from entrenched patterns of Eurocentric academia. Murphy suggests that archipelagic cultural identities in the region were formatted through a complex network of native and immigrant agencies shaped by historical processes of colonisation and Creolisation. These networks “call attention to the many ways that Indigenous people, technologies, and practices affected the colonial Caribbean” (p. 231). Understanding the Creole archipelago hence requires a nuanced scrutiny of power dynamics, identity negotiations, and legacies of colonialism that have deeply impacted the Creole societies of the Lesser Antilles. While colonial strife over spatial belonging is central to these legacies, the book’s findings also highlight the resilience and resistance of marginalised communities against cultural erasure.

The first chapter introduces the development of the Creole archipelago in the seventeenth century, trailing both Kalinago ways of life and early European settlements. Murphy highlights Kalinago canoe-building and seafaring techniques and their vital role in the linking and scaling of Caribbean waterworlds. The next chapter reveals how Europeans established an interimperial borderland, whereas chapters three and four chart the archipelago’s transition from the margins into the centre of British ambitions during the Seven Years’ War. Chapter five discusses the shift to sugar production and the concomitant influx of enslaved Africans, both of which lastingly transformed the islands’ demographics and ecologies. Murphy also uses this context to address British attitudes towards the Kalinago and their portrayal as maroons or “Black Caribs” (p. 143). The final two chapters explore the influence of the French Revolution in altering colonial spaces in the Caribbean.

The book is also not without its challenges. Murphy’s academic rigour might make it less accessible to general audiences, as some chapters are awash with historical details that assume familiarity with colonial and Caribbean histories. To address this expansiveness and attention to detail, future editions would certainly benefit from a complete bibliography to complement the chapter notes. Additionally, while the book’s prose is dense, it occasionally feels undertheorised, missing opportunities to engage critically with established academic voices and concepts. Incorporating ideas from theorists like Homi Bhabha and his conceptualisation of hybridity could have yielded additional insights into cultural Creolisation. Furthermore, the author’s reflections on the enduring legacies of colonialism could have resonated with the work of post-colonial scholars such as Frantz Fanon and Edward Said and sparked a productive debate about postcolonial theory in the eastern Caribbean context.

Despite these omissions, Murphy succeeds in weaving together historical records, oral traditions, and scholarly literature. Characterised by meticulous research, perspective plurality, and an ultimately transformative vision of the Americas as a relational space, the book manages to break through barriers of continental methodologies, which themselves often represent instruments of colonialism. As a significant contribution to the field of Caribbean studies, the book unravels intricate and often unexpected dynamics of Creolised societies. What particularly stands out is Murphy’s skilful incorporation of archival sources, which she brings into a fruitful dialog with each other. Overall, The Creole Archipelago deepens our understanding of historically submerged vectors of spatial identity and provides a valuable resource and catalyst for future research. In doing so, Murphy’s work adds considerable substance to a new perspective on Caribbean history that, as Édouard Glissant put it, “emerges from a fog of tiny revivals.” [4]

[1] Brian Russell Roberts, Borderwaters. Amid the Archipelagic States of America, Durham 2021; Michelle Stephens / Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel (eds.), Contemporary Archipelagic Thinking. Toward New Comparative Methodologies and Disciplinary Formations, Lanham 2020.
[2] Hans Ulrich Obrist / Édouard Glissant, The Archipelago Conversations, New York 2021, pp. 16–17.
[3] Steffen Wöll et al., Conceptualizing Archipelagic Mobilities, in: Journal of Transnational American Studies 14 (2023), pp. 75–92, at 84.
[4] Obrist / Glissant, Conversations, p. 213.

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