Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“Iron In The Soul” Portrait of the Caribbean

The video “Iron In The Soul” Portrait of the Caribbean explores the history and the legacy of slavery in the British Caribbean. Several people are interviewed by the narrator Stuart Hall as he speaks of the past, present and future of the Caribbean. In his native Jamaica Hall speaks with Professor Rex Nettleford and several Sixth Form (Grade 12) students at a prestigious all-male secondary school who are all beneficiaries of a British education system. It is mentioned that during the British colonial system, Nettleford, Hall and the students who are all Africans would not have been permitted to enter certain spaces on the island, including the club and the exclusive boys only secondary school.

A dramatisation of Douglas Hall’s book In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86 illustrates the lives of enslaved Africans. Thomas Thistlewood, was a British slave holder who lived in Jamaica in the 18th century. His diary documents his rise from overseer on a sugar plantation to owning his own plantation where he enjoyed moderate success depending on the unpaid coerced labour of enslaved Africans. Thistlewood’s diary also documented his physical, sexual and emotional abuse of the Africans enslaved on his property.
In the dramatisation of Thistlewood’s diary, an enslaved African woman identified as Phibba is referred to as his “slave wife.” This is a misnomer since Phibba did not live in Thistlewood’s house and their only relationship was a sexual one. Thistlewood documents his systemic rape of the enslaved African women on his plantation and Phibba was one of many with whom he engaged in sex. The fact that these enslaved women did not have much choice in who used their bodies for sexual gratification or in an exercise of power, makes the term "slave wife" in regards to Phibba unusual and mistaken. The only thing that sets Phibba apart from the other enslaved women on the plantation is that Thistlewood acknowledges the child that is born of his sexual relationship with Phibba.

In Barbados, Hall interviews the descendant of a slave owning and plantation owning family. After retiring from his job in Britain the interviewee moved to Barbados in a seeming bid to recapture the glory days of his slave owning ancestors as he entertains visitors at his family’s plantation house and grounds. The Goddard family is a white family which has a different history from the slave owning descendant who lives on his family’s former plantation. The Goddards are the descendants of the poverty stricken Europeans from Britain who went to Barbados as indentured servants. However, it was easier for some members of the Goddard family to rise above poverty because of the colour of their skin as white people. Those descendants of enslaved Africans in Barbados and Jamaica who have managed to rise above their ancestor’s impoverished condition have done so through education and also through sports.

The documentary explores the influence of both the European and African cultures on the people of the Caribbean. Cricket, a game imported from Britain and played by the white expatriates who colonized Barbados and Jamaica has become a game played by the descendants of the Africans who were enslaved on those islands. Ironically cricket has become one of the means of escaping poverty. Barbadian Wesley Hall, a world famous cricketer whose family was interviewed in this documentary is an example of Africans using sport as a way out of poverty.

The documentary shows that the legacy, culture and traditions of the former enslavers and colonizers have been integrated into attitudes and culture of Jamaica and Barbados. That legacy is seen not only in the games and the education system but also in the dress of the people and their names. In the documentary none of the Africans bear African names. The members of the judiciary in Barbados dress in clothes unsuitable for the hot climate as they mimic the former colonizers.

In this documentary there is not much evidence of an African influence in the culture of the descendants of the enslaved Africans. The language has been lost, the names have been lost and much of the culture is missing. Some African influence is evident in the worship style of the members of the Spiritual Baptist church that is featured. There is some syncretism of the European and African style of worship. The Christian religion which was forced on the enslaved Africans is seen as a way to alleviate the feelings of desperation that come with living in poverty that many of their descendants experience as they remain at the bottom of the economic ladder in the Caribbean even though they are the majority and have political power.

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