Michael Morris, Scotland and the Caribbean, c. 1740–1833: Atlantic Archipelagos. London: Routledge, 2015. 256 pp. (Paper US$ 35.00) — Alison Donnell, Maria McGarrity & Evelyn O’Callaghan (eds.), Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2015. 341 pp. (Paper US$ 35.00)
These two books seek to shift the study of the British presence in the Caribbean away from its focus on England. Beyond telling us more about the Irish and Scots in the Caribbean, they also examine general transatlantic cultural connections. Indeed, both of them see the Caribbean, and especially its tradition of creolization, as a paradigm in which to better understand historical and contemporary Scottish and Irish culture.
Michael Morris explicitly argues that the best way to understand Scotland historically (and perhaps currently) is to examine it as part of a series of “Atlantic archipelagos.” He believes that going beyond the view of Scotland simply as part of the United Kingdom, the British Isles, and/or the British Empire will help the country, as it flirts with thoughts of independence, “to engage with methods that might overcome [its] abject, imperial legacies” (p. 226). Despite the recent focus on British imperialism in the Caribbean around the transatlantic slave trade, Scotland has, it seems, maintained “various national narratives from noble, bourgeois, proletarian, gendered, religious, unionist or nationalist, [which] have shared, to a greater or a lesser degree, in excluding Caribbean slavery from the collective memory” (p. 6). To restore this memory Morris briefly mentions the commercial links between Scotland, especially Glasgow, and the slavery-based commodities trade with the British West Indies. He concentrates, however, on the way the Caribbean and its connections with Scotland worked on the Scottish imagination. In four chapters, spanning material from the eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, he focuses on Scottish eighteenth-century pastoral poets/writers who drew on images and stories of the Caribbean, specifically James Grainger and James Ramsay, Robert Burns, nineteenth-century antislavery literature from “Scottish Creoles,” and finally, the novel Joseph Knight, written and published by James Robertson in 2003. Throughout, Morris highlights the significance of the Caribbean in the Scottish national imagery. For example, he argues convincingly that Robert Burns’s critique of aristocracy, in his native Ayrshire and in Scotland as a whole, was infused with his thoughts about slavery. Though a critic of the institution and a writer of strong pro-liberty and pro-equality rhetoric, Burns privileged the plight of the white apprentice, indentured servant, and so on, over that of “the coward slave” (p. 126). This is an example of what Irish historian Liam Kennedy has described (in his 1996 book, Colonialism, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland) as the “most oppressed people ever” syndrome, in other words, the exultation of one’s own national suffering over that of others. Morris notes in his introduction some of the popular calls for Scotland to apologize for its involvement in Atlantic slavery during the Glasgow-hosted 2014 Commonwealth Games. Many criticized these calls because, among other things, “it certainly wasn’t the [Scottish] common man who reaped the benefit of slavery” (quoted on p. 28). Here, then, was an explicit link between cultural forgetting and current affairs.
Morris ends on a positive note, however, with his analysis of James Robertson’s Joseph Knight, which focuses on the first black man to appear in a Scottish Civil Court case, suing for his freedom against a renowned Jacobite family. He argues that Robertson presents an alternative version of the classic Jacobite story as told by Sir Walter Scott in Waverley (1814), one that helps to pave the way for a “modern recovery of the memory of Scottish Caribbean relations” (p. 226). This book does indeed show the way, though one wishes that Morris had got to the heart of his story faster, dropping more of the trappings of the doctoral thesis on which the book is based. In places, the book feels like a number of articles just joined together. Nonetheless, Morris presents an interesting analysis here that could prove useful to understanding the creation of a modern Scotland, independent or not.
Caribbean Irish Connections was also born of a desire to discover deeper links between the British Isles and the Caribbean. Citing Jamaican novelist Erna Brodber’s wish to better understand “what the Irish, the Scottish, the Welsh, gave to the Creole mix” (quoted on p. 1) in the region, the editors have put together seventeen essays in three sections—“Histories of Encounter and Exchange,” “Cultural Performance and Exchange,” and “Comparative Readings and Critical Encounters.” They begin with essays on the historical connections between Ireland and the Caribbean in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. After reading this section, however, one is left with the impression that the Irish encounter with the Caribbean virtually disappeared after the seventeenth century when the convict/indentured servant trade dissipated. After 1700, apart from Montserrat, the odd colonial administrator with Irish roots was all that remained. Trade was of course important, but scholars such as Tom Truxes and Orla Power have covered these topics in depth elsewhere. The Irish seem to have melted into the creole mix or actually left the region, and those who stayed had arrived before the strong redefining of an Irish national identity in the nineteenth century. Ultimately, this section does not live up to the editors’ claim to have demonstrated “both the range and richness of Caribbean Irish historical relations” (p. 11) beyond what we already know from the work of Hilary McD. Beckles, Donald M. Akenson, and Nini Rodgers. The editors hoped to challenge “the dominance of a US diasporic history and a disciplinary preference that privileges displacement and immigration to the United States rather than to the Americas” (p. 11). In some ways the essays do just that, as in Rodgers’s reminder of Irish involvement in slavery and Kevin Whelan’s focus on the use of the Caribbean situation to further the cause of Irish republicanism. But ultimately, because of the sheer scale of Irish emigration (over two million migrants) in the mid-nineteenth century, seriously challenging the dominance of the Irish in the United States in the defining of modern Ireland is a lot to ask for any collection of essays. Far more feasible is an examination of those areas of imaginative connections.
The second section begins with editor Alison Donnell’s attempt to create new ways of “thinking about Irishness” (p. 104), using the Caribbean experience to challenge traditional Irish views of nationality and ethnicity that are overly focused on the “natal” (p. 109) or links of “genetic Irish kinship” (p. 113). The essay by Krysta Ryewski and Laura McAtackney on the image of Ireland and Irishness in Montserrat, this “ ‘Emerald Isle of the Caribbean’ ” (p. 119), is also provocative. They show that while there are Irish roots to this story, the current image of an Irish island in the Caribbean is motivated by tourism. Harvey O’Brien tackles another “Irish” connection with the Caribbean, the claim that the “Redlegs” of Barbados are descendants of Irish servants. Focusing on two documentaries, The Redlegs and The Black Irish of Montserrat, he challenges comfortable notions of these people as just another version of the Irish abroad. The other essays in this section analyze the connections between the performance of Irish culture in the Irish literary renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and West Indian culture through the homage to James Joyce’s work in Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros and the performance of Jamaican folk culture collected by the illustrator Pamela Colman, who had worked closely with W.B. Yeats in illustrating his vision of Irish culture.
The final section is mainly a series of comparative readings of Irish and Caribbean writers. It also includes K. Brisley Brennan’s fascinating comparison of the use of shibboleths to describe “the other” in Northern Ireland and in the Dominican Republic. Leif Schenstead-Harris’s essay compares the use of the “Language of Mourning” in Derek Walcott’s work with that of John Millington Synge, and Lee Jenkins examines W.B. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in Jamaican poetry. Elaine Savory analyzes a poem by Medbh McGuckian and another by Dionne Brand, which have no apparent transnational links, but which have comparable styles. Jean Antoine Dunne explores similar Irish-Caribbean “mutual obsessions” in the writings of Samuel Beckett, Walcott, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Thus, Caribbean writers are similar to Irish writers “not because Walcott and Brathwaite are mimics … but because they walk on the threshold of another world in a manner similar to writers such as W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett” (p. 286).
More direct contacts are explored in Richard Maguire’s essay, “Settler-Colonist Worlds in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark,” and Emily Taylor’s vision of Emily Brontë’s “Heathcliff” as Irish, applying it to the character “Razyé” in Maryse Condé’s Windward Heights to highlight the strengths and pitfalls of comparative analysis. Maguire’s essay is particularly interesting in showing how Bowen and Rhys signify the dichotomy of the colonizer/colonial in their writings, living the colonial experience as they felt the pull of the “metropole” and the “periphery” in their lives. Maguire’s essay makes clear the importance of breaking the often nation-centric focus of Irish studies, while Taylor shows the problems with searching for connections when there may be none, drawing on literary analysis by Terry Eagleton and others to see in Razyé similar traits of assigned “Irishness,” including his “savage character” and the fact that “his origins are unknown … and he is the darkest character in the novel” (p. 298). Taylor nevertheless admits that “we cannot go as far as to claim that Rayzé is Irish,” but only perhaps that “Heathcliff can be read as Irish” (p. 301). One wonders then if this Caribbean Irish connection exists at all. This is not a criticism of Taylor, but rather a reminder of the importance of establishing these links beyond the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The recent explosion of the “Irish slave” myth, encouraged by Sean Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados (2000), shows the need for more study of the Irish in, and Ireland with, the Caribbean. [Ed. note: See Handler article in this issue.]