Tag Archives: know your history

Caribbean Voices: a History

Caribbean Voices is a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programme that was critical to the establishment and amplification of Caribbean literature. It didn’t give Caribbean literature a voice (your voice is your own) but it gave it a megaphone.

The programme, initially Calling  the West Indies (1939), emerged first as a way of connecting Caribbean people, fighting for the ‘motherland’ during World War II, to each other and to home. It was rebranded as Caribbean Voices in 1943 with Jamaican Una Marson as the producer.

The programme spotlighted literary works by Caribbean writers.  Through this programme –  and through the contributions of regional literary presses like Barbados’ Bim, started in 1942, and Guyana’s Kyk-Over-Al, started in 1945 – a Caribbean literature was born. Whereas, pre-Caribbean Voices, people largely wrote in isolation from each other. Once the programme got going people got to hear the writing from other islands, moving us from a nation literature to a Caribbean literature and given that Caribbean Voices operated out of the BBC, Caribbean literature was becoming a part of world literature. Scripts were sent up to the UK to be edited and then broadcast back to the Caribbean. This programme also provided opportunity for literary development given the editing and critiquing of the stories. Marson was succeeded in 1946 as programme producer by Irishman Henry Swanzy. It must be noted, as well, that by 1948, the Windrush generation (mass migration of English-speaking Caribbean people i.e. British West Indians to the ‘motherland’ i.e. England) began establishing a formidable and transformative Caribbean presence in the UK. The programme blossomed and the emerging Caribbean voices blossomed through it. It provided a platform for writers and work for them as editors and reviewers etc.; it paid writers (!).

So, through all of this, Caribbean Voices helped lay the foundation for Caribbean literature. Given the reach of the medium of radio (and given that this programme was backed by the BBC), it was critical; one might even say, revolutionary. Jan Carew of Guyana, Andrew Salky of Jamaica, Sam Selvon of Trinidad, George Lamming of Barbados, Derek Walcott of St. Lucia are just some of the early writers – now known as the foundation (and legends) of the Caribbean literary canon – to have come through this programme. To quote the BBC retrospective that inspired this post, “They felt encouraged to keep on writing…they were writers of the Caribbean.” They are today considered to be the classics of Caribbean literature.

V. S. Naipaul was editor for a couple years after Swanzy – and the programme speaks to how his stint helped him to develop his craft to become the Caribbean literary legend that he is. The special explores how the programme, which ran up to 1958, shaped Caribbean literature; in positive ways and in ways that bears some re-examining as the programme touches on, particularly in its framing of the idea of what Caribbean literature ‘should be’.

It’s an interesting listen, if you have the time. This one sort of summarizes in roughly 30 minutes. There is a two parter as well, the first part covering much of the same ground as the previous link, the Caribbean Voices’ impact and the second part looking at what’s happened since up to the early 2000s. The retrospective was produced by Colin Grant and ran in 2009.

Through what platforms do we engage with Caribbean literature today?

As with all content on Wadadli Pen, except otherwise noted, this is written by Wadadli Pen founder and coordinator Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out http://jhohadli.wordpress.com Please note that, except otherwise noted, images on this site also need to be cleared if you wish to use them for any purpose. Thanks.


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“The full has never been told”

Some dates chosen at random from Africans to Antiguans: the Slavery Experience A Historical Index collected by Desmond Nicholson with Overview and Postscript by Edward T. Henry. Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, 2003:

1674-Planters began importing their new slave labour force from Africa. Henry 1983:288.
1684-Governor Johnson’s slave, Philip, had his leg cut off, as he had entertained runaways. Gaspar 1985: 175


Gaspar’s book.




Codrington reported that Coromantees were faithful slaves and born heroes. Oliver lxxii. Coromantees passed through the Dutch Fort of Kormantin on the Gold Coast. They spoke Akan. Laz. 1990:55
1706-30 slave holders owned 1,150 slaves. This was a 346% growth from 1688. Gaspar1985:96


An artist impression of a sugar plantation during slavery.

1715-(On Barbuda) Slaves were allowed to own horses, cows and sheep and grow their peas, maize, squash, potatoes and ground nuts in their small gardens N/Yorker 6Feb89:79
1726-4,633 slaves had been imported in 32 shipments since 1721. That’s an average of 1,148 a year. Gaspar 1985:74
1730-great numbers of runaway slaves hiding near Boggy Peak


Boggy Peak, now Mount Obama.

committed crimes. Gaspar 1985: 201
1739-May 24th. Cuffey and Robin were awarded their freedom and rewarded for discovering the (King Court led 1736) insurrection. BessieH.


King Court being broken on the wheel after their betrayal.

1750-Newly arrived slaves were liable to die during the 3 year seasoning. Tweedy:209
1764-There were over 300 estates of average value 10,000 pounds of average 200 acres with 100 slaves each. Sheridan:S20:343
1787-“Dog-drivers” were black men with whips to maximize labour in the fields. Luffman : L14 #23
1793-(On Barbuda) 178 acres were planted to corn for the Antiguan estate slaves. Beans and oats were also grown. Low & Clark: 514
1799-February. Bat’s Cave was being used by runaway slaves. “You must be armed if you visit it.” Thomas Journal: 232


Read about the taking of Warner’s wife in The Legend of Bat’s Cave.

1809-A Moravian missionary, Mr. Newby, came to Antigua, but he was not allowed to pursue the EDUCATION of the slaves. After a while he kept an evening school “in a secret way”. (T & K: 18)
1827-Elizabeth Thwaites was at the Court House answering charges reference the relief of destitute slaves. Fergusen 1993: 134


Read about Elizabeth and her sister in this book.

1831-March. Martial Law was imposed due to the slaves unrest over the abolition of the Sunday Market. The 86th Regiment was called out form Shirley Heights. Gasp2000: 121.
1832-From 1817 to 1832, 34 young Barbudans and 7 young women were transferred to the Antigua estates for plantation labour. Overseers of slave gangs were young Scotsmen…  Low & Clark 523
1834-Planters regarded the negroes as an inferior race fit only for slaves. They considered them as their rightful property, and that they could never be made to work without the whip. Those persons who favoured emancipation were considered “enemies of their country” and were persecuted. Anti-slavery people in England were considered fanatics, incendiaries, knaves and religious enthusiasts. There was no anti-slavery party in Antigua before emancipation. There were some individuals in St. John’s, and a very few planters, who favoured the anti-slavery views, but they dared not open their mouths, because of the bitter hostility which prevailed.
1835-Emancipation gave the negroes a desire to possess a portion of the soil in perpetuity, thus many VILLAGES were formed over different parts of Antigua. (eg. Liberta, Freetown). (AAI: 267).


Read about the rise of free villages post-emancipation in this book.


To read Africans to Antiguans, and other books by Desmond Nicholson, visit the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda located in the old courthouse building (built circa 1750) located in Long Street, St. John’s City, Antigua, W.I.4463_107936128031_3414431_nClick here for other books by Antiguan and Barbudan writers.

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