Explosion In A Cathedral*

On a tiny island in the Caribbean, a revolution is brewing. The people are risng against their colonial masters and demanding…. well, that’s the interesting part.

Sound like an old story? It is and it isn’t, or rather, it seems to keep happening. I. Wallerstien keeps us up to date:

Guadeloupe is a tiny island in the Caribbean, the size of greater London or the state of Iowa in the United States. It has a population of about 400,000 persons. The world press hardly ever mentions it. Since January 20, it has been the site of an ongoing general strike, which has managed to get 10% of its population actually marching in the streets, which must be a world record. The strike has been called by Liyannaj Kont Profitasyon (LKP), whose name translates from Creole as “Collective Against `Profitization’ (or outrageous profit).”

The LKP issued a list of 126 demands addressed to four groups – three levels of the French state (the national government, the region, and the department) plus the employers. Most of these demands concerned economic matters. But as the French minister in charge of dealing with overseas zones of France, Yves Jego, said, beyond these economic demands there is a “societal” crisis. This is a polite way of saying that the strike is not merely about bread and butter. It is also a profoundly anticolonial movement. And it is this combination that makes what is going on in this small and obscure part of the world a key to the world crisis in which we all find ourselves.

And what the movement’s broadest demands are tells us a lot about the world today:

One historic mode of pursuing the anticolonial quest for dignity has been to demand formal independence. In Guadeloupe, the popular movements have been reticent to make this demand. They have seen the limited real power of the independent states around the world and above all those nearby. The fate of Haiti is not attractive. But they do want a profound social transformation – the end of the social and economic power of the small White minority, a practical form of equalization.

If one links economic demands with “societal” demands in the midst of a world economic disaster, one is launching a powerful whirlwind. It is one that a few nationalizations of a few banks in a few wealthy countries will do nothing to stop. So far, Guadeloupe (and elsewhere) have been relatively peaceful in their protests. But whirlwinds have a way of becoming far more severe.

Of course, this is only the latest in a long history of social movements in the region:

The French Revolution brought turmoil to France’s possessions in the Caribbean, and notably in Haiti and Guadeloupe. In both territories, there were slave uprisings. In both territories, the French plantation owners panicked, especially once the French ended slavery in 1794. The plantation owners turned to the British to save them. In both territories, the French ousted the British, quashed the rebellions, and in the process reinstated slavery. Unlike Haiti, however, Guadeloupe remained a French colony. Business as usual.

Then came 1848 and another revolution in France. And another end to slavery, whose great protagonist was Victor Schoelcher, a minister of the provisional government. Like Lincoln in 1863 in the United States, Schoelcher abolished slavery by decree, because he knew that he could not win a vote in the legislature. This time, however, the juridical abolition of slavery was not repealed, even though the provisional government of which Schoelcher was a minister was replaced by a much more conservative government.

And I have to mention that that particular colonial squabble was portrayed in a brilliant film by Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Marlon Brando, called Queimada! (Burn!). It tells the story of a British agent sent to a small island to foment a slave rebellion, but only to transfer the country away from French control and into the hands of the English.

It also features one of my favorite beginnings of any movie, with by an amazing optically-printed title sequence and an electric-organ-driven Ennio Morricone soundtrack:

It’s well worth reading the entire Wallerstein essay, which is only one page and you can find here.

And always interesting how these little countries continue to play important and unforseen roles in history.

* The English title of a fascinating book about the coming of the French Revolution to Guadeloupe, written by Alejo Carpentier in 1962 (original title: El Siglo de las Luces).

A film was made from the novel (I haven’t seen it) but I found the trailer.It looks like it would make a good double-feature with Queimada!, actually:


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