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A journey to Guadeloupe

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It was my first visit to one of the French speaking Caribbean islands, albeit an overseas department of France, apart, that is, from an occasional brief airport stop at Martinique on my travels elsewhere. I landed no doubt with the words of Nobel Laureate Vida Naipaul very much in mind.{{more}} He stated that on going from Trinidad to Martinique, it was not like crossing the Caribbean Sea; it was like crossing the English Channel. I suspect he would have made the same comment about Guadeloupe. This is a strong statement that perhaps lies at the essence of Guadeloupean identity, as its people try to define or perhaps assert their blackness and Caribbeanness in the context of their position as an overseas department of France, one of the outcomes of a long historical process.

I am not sure if after a four day visit I am in any position to agree or disagree fundamentally with Mr. Naipaul, but I must say that the implications and the meaning of his assessment are in some way part of the conversation among some people in Guadeloupe. I was never in doubt that I was in the Caribbean – the music, the creole language, the relationships and movement among people, the food, the vegetation defied any simple idea of a metropolitan transplant. Clearly the built up environment, the general infrastructure, the highways and multiplicity of bill boards, perhaps also the general standard of living would remind you of the French relationship and the large subsidies that accrue to the country. There are a lot of French programmes on television but this is no big thing because as independent countries our television is packed with programmes from North America and England.

It might be too that the relationships and contacts during my visit could have coloured my impressions. I was the guest of the Caribbean Media Library whose focus is on the Caribbean. It is only ten years old but has an excellent collection of Caribbean material, most in French but also some in English and Spanish. Their collection of music, too, I found impressive. The Media Library had decided on the implementation of a Caribbean week during which they would focus on a particular Caribbean Island/country. They started off with St.Vincent and the Grenadines which they considered among the less known countries. I was there, along with Dr. Paula Prescod who is based in France. The Harmonite String Band was invited but I believe there were visa problems and so their visit is postponed to another date. A few weeks ago a two person team from the library visited this country to collect information and material for their exhibition. I was quite impressed with their efforts. The exhibition featured different aspects of our life and society- the Grenadines, the Black Caribs, information on our literature, culture and music, Vincy Mas, work of Nzimbu, Hairoun products, Erica’s products, Sunset Rum, photographs, symbols of the country and Information translated into French and prominently exhibited on display stands. There was also a vide documentary done while they were moving around the country.

I was invited to do two presentations, one on the history, society and economy of the country and also to participate in a discussion on English-French West Indian relations, the latter taking place at the University. Paula Prescod, a linguist, made her presentation on Vincentian Creole. I was assisted by an Interpreter since most persons were not aux fait with English and those who had knowledge of it were often not at ease speaking it especially to English speaking people. There was a great deal of interest in the Black Caribs/Garifuna and one person present had actually lived for a year with the Garifuna of Guatemala. The discussion on English -French Caribbean relations generated a tremendous amount of interest since it forced the participants to lay bare their inner souls and come to grips with an issue that lies there but is usually never deeply unravelled. It was interesting to hear the point of view of the Guadeloupeans who were present at the discussion, most of whom would have described themselves as Guadeloupean nationalists and Caribbean rather than French. But it might have been a discussion among the converted, for many others, no doubt, the economic benefits and opportunities from being an overseas department would have stifled any thought of independence and nationalism.

Of particular interest was the presence of a gentleman Victor Reinette who remembers St.Vincent although not fondly. He was one of a group of five persons who were arrested in St.Vincent by French police after being alerted to their presence here. The Vincentian newspaper of July 22, 1987 referred to the arrest of the five whom it claimed were wanted in connection with a series of serious crimes. French police arrived and took them away in a ‘huge army plane’. I don’t know how much investigation the Vincentian did. I suspect none at all. These persons were part of the Independence movement and would have described themselves as nationalists. Reinette explained the circumstances leading to his arrest while his party stayed at the Haddon hotel. Unfortunately I was not able to engage him for further detail on the circumstances that led to them leaving Guadeloupe. They were apparently first offered asylum in Guyana. This did not work out and political troubles in Suriname, I believe it was, prevented them from going there. Clearly the issue appeared to have been a political one and they were handed over without the courtesy of a court hearing, Prime Minister Mitchell then simply bowing to the wishes of the French government. He might even have been the one who alerted them. Reinette, a committed nationalist welcomed the opportunity to speak about this incident, and wondered how on reflection the retired Prime Minister would view the matter.

I found one familiar face in Guadeloupe, David Dominique, who had first come to St.Vincent with the French Mission. He was an agronomist and worked naturally in agriculture. He spent fifteen years, going into private agricultural business after his initial mission was finished and then into the Tour Operations business. He married a Vincentian and now lives and works in Guadeloupe, after a stint in France and in St.Kitts/Nevis where he worked with the FAO. It was good to have spoken to him for as one who lived and worked in two English speaking islands his perspective on the relationships was useful.

Clearly language is one of the inhibiting factors/obstacles but the colonial relationship is another major one. How we overcome these and build relationships is important because Guadeloupe is undoubtedly Caribbean and there are many who want to be seen that way and would welcome deeper contact and certainly greater communication.

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