What do hurricanes, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, and the Cold War have in common? The question is probably a stumper for most people, but for Ernesto E. Bassi Arevalo, History, the answer is obvious: They are the catalysts for breaking the world into regions. “In the case of hurricanes, natural phenomena created regions we can call hurricane zones,” he says. “With NAFTA, governments signed papers and created a regional space defined by a specific set of variables. With the Cold War, two superpowers divided the world according to their areas of influence. And history is full of many similar examples. Regional configurations like these can become naturalized, and people can end up thinking that they’ve always existed.”
A Region That Didn’t Make the History Books
Bassi is focusing his research on the history of one specific region, which he calls the Transimperial Greater Caribbean. It is a region that existed, as a lived experience, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And it is not on any map. “This region didn’t make it into our history books,” says Bassi. “People did not defend it or argue for it like they do for nations, but it was definitely an influential space of social interaction.”
Until Bassi began piecing together evidence of its existence, the Transimperial Greater Caribbean had faded from human memory. Some of the nations whose citizens had originally helped create the region worked to officially forget it. How and why they did this is also part of the story Bassi is uncovering.
The trail he follows was laid down by sailors. The trail is as wide as the Caribbean Sea, and it requires Bassi to visit historical maritime archives throughout Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. “I follow different vessels as they crisscross political boundaries,” Bassi says. To do that, he uses a process he likens to a traveler in an airport looking at the arrival and departure screen. “That pretty much describes what I do in the archives,” he explains. “I take shipping returns—the books of arrivals and departures of ships—and I identify specific vessels. I look at the date a ship sailed from a port, the name of the ship’s captain, the ship’s nationality, its port of origin or destination, and a brief description of its cargo.” Sometimes there may also be a note about special circumstances surrounding the ship’s journey.
Using this information, Bassi tries to sketch each specific journey, mapping out a Caribbean region that is crisscrossed by hundreds of ships and thousands of journeys. Often ships sailed the same routes over and over. For example, a ship might travel round trip from Cartagena, which was part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada at the time (now the country of Colombia), to Kingston, Jamaica, a total of 10 times in a year. The frequency is even more notable when taken in the context of the times: The Viceroyalty of New Granada was a Spanish possession and Jamaica was British; the two colonial powers were enemies and yet, clearly, trade was taking place between their colonies.
Transimperial Greater Caribbean, a Trail Laid Down by Sailors
“These vessels and their captains and crews were actually creating the Transimperial Greater Caribbean region,” Bassi says. “It was primarily economic, but it functioned as many other things: news and rumors and goods traveled through this region. The sailors created it, but the people who stayed on land also inhabited it.”
The Transimperial Greater Caribbean, as seen from the vantage point of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, covered the Caribbean islands and parts of South America and Central America. From other vantage points, say, for instance, Mexico, Bassi believes further research may bring to light many other unsuspected connections and, in so doing, reshape the region. He’s already uncovered little-known stories of the interactions between groups of people who lived there.
The Indigenous Wayuu people . . . of northern Colombia and British colonial authorities . . . lived in an area that was part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada.
The unexpected link between the Indigenous Wayuu people of northern Colombia and British colonial authorities is one such story. The Wayuu lived in an area that was part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada. According to the Spaniards, they were subjects of the Spanish crown. Yet they freely traded with the Dutch and the British—especially for weapons, which they then used against the Spanish to maintain their autonomy. The Wayuu even engaged in what looks like a study abroad program with Jamaica, Bassi says. “They sent their kids to Jamaica to learn how to use the weapons they’d bought from the British and to learn English.” In fact, there’s evidence suggesting the Wayuu and other indigenous groups were more fluent in English than in Spanish.
Then there are the Jamaican planters who were cut off from the 13 Colonies after the American Revolution. They had depended on the Colonies to provide much-needed supplies for their plantations. They began to reassess their place in the world and reached out to Spanish authorities in New Granada, who surprisingly also found the idea of an economic exchange with British Jamaica desirable. “Both sides thought that this economic partnership was going to be the key to the development of Jamaica and the northern provinces of New Granada,” Bassi says. “This shows that in the minds of these people both areas were part of a region that spanned both empires.”
After its heyday around the turn of the 19th century, the Transimperial Greater Caribbean slowly faded in the minds of those who lived within its borders until it essentially ceased to exist. This shift was caused by the rise of a new European and American interpretation of the world in which civilization was seen as European and white, while barbarism was seen as non-white and especially associated with black populations, Bassi explains. The leaders of Latin American independence movements wanted to create fledgling nations that were perceived as European and thus “white.” In pursuit of this ideal, they turned away from the “black” Caribbean.
“When you look at the history of the Transimperial Greater Caribbean region you begin to understand that world-regionalization schemes that include regions like ‘Southeast Asia’ or ‘Latin America’ are based on divisions that are comprehensible and serve a purpose,” Bassi says, “but they are not the only way to divide the world. Throughout history, people have not been confined to these boxes that make sense to us today. It’s important for people today to come up with alternative, more creative, ways of breaking up the world, while also recognizing that any world-regionalization scheme we come up with has limitations.”