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October 11, 2017

My daughter survived Hurricane Irma, but the Caribbean civilization has not been as fortunate

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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"You cannot really conceive of how insulting it is to Native Americans to be told they were 'discovered'," said Prof. Ivan Van Sertima testifying on July 7, 1987 before a U.S. Congressional Committee in opposition to recognizing the 500th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas.

This is just one small part of Caribbean history that I researched following my daughter’s survival of the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.

She had messaged me on Monday, September 4 that her island vacation would be cut short due to warnings that a big hurricane was expected to hit. But she was not able to fly out in time and was stranded for more than a week with about 150 other Canadians.

Prof. Van Sertima (1935-2009), author of the best-selling They Came before Columbus was born in the South American country of Guyana, whose coastline shares part of the Caribbean. He did his PhD at Rutgers University and was later appointed professor.

His book presents strong evidence to support the thesis that Africans were in the Americas centuries before Columbus. Together with indigenous peoples on these continents, whom they regarded as equals, they built a thriving cross-cultural civilization.

But Eurocentric academics in the U.S. vigorously opposed Van Sertima’s “claims that Africans had diffused the practices of pyramid building and mummification,” condemning them as false and instead asserting “the independent rise of these in the Americas.” (Italics are my emphasis.)

Sadly, Van Sertima’s efforts to correct even a small part of the colonial history of the Caribbean islands and the Americas is still rejected in academia.

Popular culture has not done any better in telling the true story of Caribbean history. There are no commercial movies, documentaries or songs about the unique human experience of creating an Afro-Native American civilization out of two equally impressive ancient cultures.

I can now thank God that my daughter is now safely back home along with the other Canadians and that the death toll on the island where she stayed was zero.

But this was not the case during the European invasion of the Americas and Caribbean.

Beginning during the late 1400s and lasting for some 500 years, the area was first colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese, who were then succeeded mainly by the British and French.

Millions of indigenous peoples and the early Africans who’d lived in harmony with them were slaughtered – more than have died in all the recorded tropical storms ever since.

A new wave of Africans were brought in as slaves to replace them as plantation workers; it was nothing less than a wholesale genocide of two distinct yet compatible cultures.

Most of that sad history is completely ignored, yet its legacy is part of the present day: millions of indigenous peoples and African Americans live in substandard social and economic conditions throughout the Americas and the Caribbean’s 700 islands.

Ironically, they made possible the greatest economic boom in the history of the world, which in fact gave rise to today’s capitalist global economy, yet they continue to languish in chronic poverty.

Before the arrival of Columbus (whose expeditions were supported by the Spanish monarchy), most of Europe’s gold came from the Gold Coast – now shared by Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Guinea on the western edge of Africa. Every step in the invasion of the Americas was spurred on by a greed for gold so great that it even overshadowed Europe’s parallel quest to convert the so-called New World to Christianity.

Although Spain claimed the entire Caribbean, its colonists settled only the larger islands of Hispaniola (1493), Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509), Cuba (1511) and Trinidad (1530).

Genocide, slavery and rivalry among competing European powers have given Caribbean history an impact disproportionate to the size of this small region.

“By 1600 the Spanish ruled, in name at least, much of what is now the south-western United States, almost all of Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and the coasts of Argentina and Uruguay,” writes J.M. Roberts in The Triumph of the West. “To create this huge structure the Conquistadores overthrew the Aztec and Inca empires.”

“Some [Europeans] soon began to say the Indians were not capable of change. They were stigmatized as creatures lower in the scale of creation than true humans, lacking something which true human beings had in them which made civilization possible.” He adds, “Ferdinand of Aragon ordered … white slave women to the Indies because some Spaniards there were marrying Indians who were ‘far from rational creatures’.”

In fact, it was only well into the 19th century before slavery disappeared from the Caribbean. France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848, but it hung on in Cuba until 1886.

Today the islands of the Caribbean are divided among the U.S., Dutch, French, and British. Very few are independent states.

All of them, however, will need billions in aid money and years of effort to rebuild from Irma’s recent devastation.

But it could take even more time and work to restore the region’s Native-African blended culture and exhibit it to the world. Both efforts need to begin now.

While Canada owns no Caribbean island colonies, our country can still be of great help in both areas.

So, I am doubly thankful at this challenging moment in history: first, that my daughter is safe and unharmed; secondly, that she opened my mind and heart to the struggle of Native and African Americans in the Caribbean.

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