|Even since before Euro-imperialism emerged from Europe, Europeans have been fascinated with making maps. Indeed, by the fifteenth century the idea of making maps was such an obsession for some European rulers that they dispatched people far outside of their familiar homeland to create maps of new places. Despite their tireless efforts, this ruling class had not succeeded in mapping the entire earth until well into the twentieth century. Today, the gaze of map-making has shifted even further afield, into outer space, as some Europeans, fairly satisfied with the job they have done on this planet, look for others to map.
This 'art' of map-making, it is argued, has given mankind a wealth of knowledge about his environment and his place in the world. It is now impossible for anyone to get lost, so long as he has a map. The city of Toronto is in the province of Ontario, in the country of Canada, which is part of the British Commonwealth, in North America, in the Western Hemisphere, on Earth, in this solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, in this universe, in space. In this respect, I am not lost because a map has told me my place.
However, this European aristocratic practice of making maps has never simply been about drawing lines on paper to measure the characteristics of certain geographical features. It has been about finding one's 'place', but the construction of that place has been done so as to negate the meaningful existence of anyone 'being mapped'. The all-powerful mapper has the ability to create the identity of the others that he has so arrogantly gone about labeling for his map. In this way, imperialism has been the process through which most large-scale maps have been drawn.
The comprehensiveness of European maps often closely reflected the extent of European imperialism. European imperialism's labeling is thus evident on any world map, old or contemporary. Beginning in earnest with the Americas, Euro-imperialism set about applying its own labels to other places and peoples and then proclaiming its dominion over them. The maps drawn by the followers of this imperialism thus give people a specific 'place' within the colonialist order. The identity of a person who happens to live in a certain geographical area in the present day, is thus left with the problematic imperialist identity of 'Caribbean' or 'West Indian'.
In 1492, riding the fervor of expansion after expelling all Jews and Muslims from Iberia, the newly created Spanish monarchy sent out an Italian merchant to 'discover' and apparently conquer India. Believing the earth to be half its actual size, this navigator bumped into an extra couple of continents in a different hemisphere and proclaimed that he had, by his 'discovery' of it, put 'the Indies' under the dominion of Spain. In reality he had discovered nothing since the places he visited were "thickly peopled" according to Columbus himself.i However, Columbus was ignorant of the fact that he lay around nine thousand miles from what to him was 'the Indies', meaning the east.
Yet that bit of this 'discoverer's' ignorance has been incorporated into Euro-America's labeling scheme as evidenced by the names that appear on any European map from 1492 onwards. No matter what their nationality or personal identity, all native peoples of the Western Hemisphere were labeled, and remain, 'Indians'. In America, in referring to a person from India, it is necessary to say, "an Indian, from India" as opposed to just "Indian", meaning an indigenous American. Such terminology still resides in American and Canadian legal codes, school textbooks, and maps.
The way in which people from a certain place label places far away from them is usually relative to themselves. Thus, for Arabs, 'North Africa' is "el-Maghrib", meaning the West. Similarly, to Europeans, the word 'India' was applicable to that sub-continent because it meant 'East', in relation to Europe. By themselves, such labels are useful and logical to the people who create them. However, when certain people conquer others and force the people they have conquered to accept their labels, these once reasonable classifications lose their original meaning and instead become mechanisms of domination. In 'the Maghrib', the term was used to complete the so-called "Arabization" of the region by making the Arabian peninsula the point of reference for the Muslim peoples living there.
In the 'West Indies', however, something even more unsettling was occurring. Rather than seeking the incorporation of indigenous Americans into a European hegemony, Europeans set about enslaving and exterminating them. When this population 'ran out', they turned to Africa to replenish their labour supply. While enslavement, genocide, and repression of African culture continued, no formal European education was forced on this population until the formal period of enslavement had ended. Yet when these people were told their 'place' by European-styled education, they were told that they were "West Indians" - "West Easterners"…?
As Frantz Fanon has noted, "Every colonized people finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is with the culture of the mother country."ii In this language, the person upon whom it has been forced through colonialism will most likely find aspects of it that are utterly incompatible with his or her own world. "To speak," argues Fanon, "means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization."iii Thus, in the act of speech, a person, however unwillingly, is forced to support a certain interpretation of the world. In the Americas, indigenous Americans, Africans and other colonized peoples have had languages forced upon them that represent civilizations responsible for their own colonization and enslavement. Thus, as Fanon has argued, this language forces an identity upon a colonized person that represents the colonizer's vision of them.
Fanon has dealt with the psychic torture caused by this labeling and Arnold Itwaru has examined how many contemporary labels work to negate the identity of the person being identified.iv However, 'standard' terms concerning geography, such as 'West Indies' and 'Caribbean', work in the same way as any other European imperialist label. Aside from the very fact that these terms are European in origin, they also, even to Europeans, describe places that, in reality, do not exist.
As I noted earlier, the term 'West Indies' is the result of one European imperialist's geographical and navigational miscalculation. The true meaning of the term could be represented as "the West East of Europe." To the east of Europe is India (the east). But what is to the west of Europe? Even for a European, the 'West East' does not in any way accurately describe any part of the globe. Thus, for a person of the region that the term is meant to describe, 'the West Indies' is a foreign word that, in any context, is completely nonsensical. Yet that person is expected to accept and be proud of this identity. Even if the idea behind the identity works toward self-empowerment, the very phrasing of the identity as "West Indian" works to recreate European cultural imperialism and domination.
However, the name of the sea from which this region is named in the English and many other languages is filled with a different kind of problem. When Europeans first crashed into this hemisphere, they were met by people who were friendly to them and whose resistance to their exploitation, enslavement and genocide of them was viewed to be ineffective. These people, the Taíno, were in conflict with the Kallinago. When the Kallinago acted with hostility from the outset against European imperialism and managed to remain the most powerful military force in the region into the eighteenth century, Europeans adopted the label given to the Kallinago by the Taíno, Carib, which the Spanish used to mean 'cannibal'. The Spanish and other Europeans soon adopted this term as a slur to refer to any indigenous American people who were hostile to their imperialist destruction.v
From this derogatory and racist term emerged the word 'Caribbean' to describe the entire region. Does this mean that this region is full of cannibals? Are the islands of the Cannibal Sea really populated with savage man-eaters as the name suggests? Of course not, and they never have been (unless one counts imperialist European occupiers). However, the term has been almost universally adopted to describe a particular region of the Americas. Indeed, the people who are from this region today refer to themselves as 'Caribbean'.
What effects does the acceptance of such labels have? As can be seen from the origins of the terms 'West Indian' and 'Caribbean', these are terms that were used by the colonizing power to map the identity and existence of people from that region. In the use of this terminology, this colonial view of this region is indirectly being perpetuated. The very fact that 'West Indian' or 'Caribbean' identity results from the imposition of a foreigner's perception, coupled with the fact that these phrases are nonsensical and racist, makes this identity problematic.
The fundamental issue behind the problems with 'West Indies' and 'Caribbean' is that they have prevented the people of this region from defining and identifying themselves. The idea behind the labels used by European mapmakers was to define other people, label them under colonialism, and thus prevent them from asserting an identity outside of the European imperialist order. The terms 'West Indian' and 'Caribbean' are merely the linguistic manifestations of this form of control. As Arnold Itwaru has described it, it is "the making of me into other than I am which I have to resist… if I am to have any dignity of self."vi
Thus, imperialist map-making has a totalizing interest in defining those it wishes to dominate. It seeks to invalidate any identity other than what it has created. The names of so many parts of the globe originated from European conquest. There are still several African cities called 'Livingstone' or 'Stanley', just as there are many cities in the Western Hemisphere named 'Columbus'. Geography itself is victim to what Arnold Itwaru has called, "The Imperialization of Vision."vii When a person refers to the city or region of his or her birth, he or she is identifying him or herself to the world outside of that region. Thus when identifying oneself as 'West Indian' or 'Caribbean', what meaning does it have? Is it possible to eliminate the literal meaning of these words in order to create a new self-empowering meaning? There is no simple answer to this question, but as long as these words continue to be used, it is necessary to examine what they mean.
i Columbus, Christopher. "The Journal of Columbus (1492-1493)", in Peter Hulme and Neil L. Whitehead (eds.), Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
ii Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks
. New York: Grove Press, 1967 (1952). p. 18
iii Ibid., p. 17-18.
iv Ibid., chapter 1, and Itwaru, Arnold Harrichand & Natasha Ksonzek. Closed Entrances: Canadian Culture and Imperialism. Toronto: TSAR, 1994., p. 54-70.
v Boucher, Philip P. "First Impressions: Europeans and Island Caribs in the Pre-Colonial Era, 1492-1623" in Caribbean Slavery In The Atlantic World
. Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2000. (chapter 8)
vi Itwaru, op. cit., p. 54.
vii Ibid., p. 5.