Africa Forum

African Studies in the West Indies

Alan Cobley
Senior Lecturer in African History
Dean, Faculty of Humanities
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus

25 February 2001

From the eighteenth century onwards a handful of the millions of Africans who had been caught up in the Transatlantic slave trade and transported to the Americas began to set down their experiences of enslavement, and of the African societies they had left behind. The writings of individuals such as James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano were among the first to attempt to present the western world with a view of the African continent that was not coloured by racial prejudice or avarice. Thus it can be argued that the origins of the modern discipline of African Studies lie in the black Atlantic world. From that time on, products of the African diaspora from the Caribbean have played a key role in developing both a scholarly understanding and a politicised consciousness of the African continent and its peoples. In the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth century up to mid-twentieth century they included, to name but a few, Edward Wilmot Blyden (Danish West Indies), Henry Sylvester Williams (Trinidad), Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), C.L.R.James (Trinidad), George Padmore (Trinidad), Franz Fanon (Martinique) and Aime; Cesaire (Martinque). Issues of black identity, culture and identification with the African 'motherland' were central to the work of all of these figures.

However, the inauguration of African studies as a formal academic discipline in the West Indies had to await the era of decolonisation. In 1948 the University College of the West Indies was established in Jamaica as one of the 'Asquith Colleges'."1 Its curriculum was devised largely in England, and it awarded degrees accredited by the University of London. However, within months of gaining its own charter as a degree-awarding institution in 1962 - finally breaking the colonial link with Britain - steps were being taken at the renamed University of the West Indies (UWI) to develop expertise in African History.

In 1963 a brilliant young Guyanese graduate of the UWI named Walter Rodney travelled from Jamaica to study for a doctorate in African history at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. While at SOAS he completed a doctorate entitled 'A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800', supervised by Richard Gray.2 After gaining his doctorate in 1966 his first teaching job was a temporary post at the University College of Dar es Salaam. In his letter of application to Professor T.O.Ranger, then Head of Department at Dar es Salaam, Rodney described the history programme which he had passed through in Jamaica:

The History courses... were based on the general pattern of the University of London. There were nine final papers, to be written after three years. Two of these were in English History between 1487 and 1945, and there was a similar arrangement for European History. The West Indies and the Americas accounted for two further courses of the usual kind. 'Reconstruction' after the Civil War in the USA was the special topic which introduced the use of source materials, and this comprised two papers. Finally, there was a translation paper, involving two languages. The course in New World history occasioned a very marginal interest in West Africa, so that I have done most of my reading in that subject since my arrival at the School of Oriental and African Studies in October 1963...3
Of his plans for the future, he wrote:
My main commitment is to the University of the West Indies, to which I will return in October 1967 to help start a programme in West African Studies. My interest therefore is in a temporary post ...4
Having completed a year teaching at Dar es Salaam, Rodney duly returned to Jamaica to take up a post at UWI in October 1967. At the same time as he began to develop an academic programme in African history, he also began speaking regularly at public events hosted by members of the Rastafarian community (then in a ferment after the visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica in April 1966) and a variety of other black consciousness groups. He also gave a series of lectures on Black Power at the Student's Union on the Mona Campus.5 Given the long intellectual tradition of the 'Black Atlantic' of which he was part, it was almost inevitable that Rodney's training as an Africanist should launch him directly into the debates about black identity then raging in Jamaica. However, the politically conservative Jamaican Government became alarmed by the spectre of a radical 'Black Power' movement on its doorstep; in October 1968 it took the opportunity of Rodney's attendance at a Black Writers' Conference in Montreal to bar his re-entry. The move led to riots in Jamaica. After this rebuff, Rodney returned to Dar es Salaam, where he stayed until 1974. During this period he published his most famous work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Bogle L'Ouverture Publishers, London,1972). His decision to return to the Caribbean in 1974 had been prompted by an offer of a job as Professor of African History at the University of Guyana. When he arrived in Guyana, however, he found that his appointment had been blocked by the authoritarian Forbes Burnham regime. Rodney stayed on in Guyana to work as a member of the radical opposition to Burnham until he was assassinated by a car bomb in Georgetown, Guyana in 1980.

In 1965 Rodney was followed from UWI to SOAS by two other young graduates, Alvin Thompson and Winston McGowan. Both returned to the Caribbean to take up teaching posts at the University of Guyana (in 1969 and 1970 respectively). In 1972 Thompson moved to the Cave Hill Campus of the UWI in Barbados, where he was largely responsible for the development for the undergraduate programme in African history. Building on these foundations, by the end of the 1980s the History Department at Cave Hill included three members with expertise in African History.

Aside from these developments in the discipline of history, Caribbean scholars in a variety of other disciplines were developing an interest in African survivals in Caribbean culture during these years. Studies which arose out of this interest included work on African linguistic survivals and religious practices in the Caribbean, as well as African influences on the creative and performing arts, such as Calypso music. Among the central figures in these developments were Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Mervyn Alleyne, Maureen Warner Lewis and Rex Nettleford.6 A key early vehicle for such studies was the African Studies Association of the West Indies formed in Jamaica in 1967 (Walter Rodney served briefly as its treasurer). The Association had a somewhat chequered existence, but published eight issues of its own Bulletin between December 1967 and December 1976. The Bulletin was reborn as the Caribbean Journal of African Studies in 1978, but this seems to have folded not long afterwards.7 More enduringly, a Major in African Studies was established at the UWI's Mona campus as part of its undergraduate programme in the 1970s. Among the more important research projects begun during these years which sought to incorporate work on African-Caribbean connections was the Caribbean Lexicography Project at Cave Hill, under the direction of Richard Allsopp.8

The controversy which had surrounded Rodney and the development of African Studies in Jamaica was echoed in Trinidad when efforts were made to introduce an African Studies programme at the UWI's St Augustine Campus. The pioneer at St Augustine was Fitzroy Baptiste from Grenada, who arrived in Trinidad to join the staff of a unit established to teach African and Asian Studies in October 1968, at the height of student demonstrations to protest Rodney's exclusion from Jamaica. The Unit had been the brainchild of Dr Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, himself a noted historian.9 Williams hoped that the Unit would engender a spirit of mutual respect among the people of Trinidad and Tobago, the population of which was almost evenly split between people of African and Asian descent. However, in 1970 a 'Black Power Uprising' in Trinidad coincided with a mutiny by members of the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment. In the ensuing State of Emergency, several UWI academics were detained or subjected to harassment, including Baptiste. In the aftermath of these events, according to Baptiste, Williams and his party, The People's National Movement (PNM),

had a concern lest the search for identity by the African and Asian components in newly independent Trinidad and Tobago might end up in what [Williams] termed 'Mother Africa' and 'Mother India' and, thereby, detract from the goal of nation-building. 10
Against this background, Williams established an Education Commission to review the schools curriculum in Trinidad and Tobago, and especially to advise on the future role of 'Afro-Asian Studies'. The Commission recommended the inclusion of 'Afro-Asian Studies' in the curriculum for both Junior and Senior Secondary Schools; however, it specified that the overall aim should be, 'to use Afro-Asian Studies and cultural forms to foster an appreciation for our national unity and not to produce divisions'11. In these circumstances, the teaching of African and Asian Studies at St Augustine was left in an ambiguous position and was starved of resources for much of the next two decades. Eventually, the Unit was broken up in the early 1990s, with the history courses being subsumed into the History Department and other aspects of the programme being taken over by other departments. Subsequently the Asian' component faired somewhat better than the 'African' component because the local Indian community and the Government of India provided funds both for a Visiting Professor of Indian Studies and a lectureship in Hindi. No similar resources were forthcoming for African Studies. Nevertheless, the Campus continues to offer an undergraduate Major in African and Asian Studies.

Nothing has been said in this brief review so far about the state of African Studies in the non-Anglophone Caribbean. This is partly due to a lack of information on my part, but also reflects what appears to be a relative under-development of African Studies in the French and Spanish-speaking parts of the region. Currently, for example, there are no courses in African History offered at the University of Puerto Rico or at the Universite des Antilles et de la Guyane (in Martinique). Cuba, of course, with its history of direct linkages with African states since the Revolution is an outstanding exception to this relative dearth of interest, and could be the subject of an article in its own right.

While the battle to develop African Studies as an academic discipline was continuing within the walls of academe in the Anglophone Caribbean during the 1970s and 1980s, popular sentiment on African issues focused primarily on the dramatic struggle against apartheid in South Africa. West Indians were drawn directly into this issue by the international controversy over sanctions, and especially by the question of a cricketing boycott of South Africa. Radical Pan-Africanists throughout the West Indies rallied around their support for a boycott, and waged a vocal campaign in support of sanctions. As a spin off from this campaign, efforts continued to educate the public in the Caribbean about the region's African heritage, and to promote a sense of connection with the African continent. These efforts ranged from lecture series and workshops to cultural events. In the 1990s, after the end of the apartheid era, interest in Africa was sustained in the Caribbean through continuing campaigns by people of African descent to bolster a sense of African identity and to promote African advancement in the face of a global environment that was perceived to be hostile to these goals. In Barbados, for example, the Government has recently established a Pan African Affairs Commission, with a brief to develop practical links with the African continent and educate the Barbadian public about its African heritage. There are also moves afoot in Barbados to develop African Studies in Schools. These wider efforts at consciousness raising have ensured that African Studies options at UWI remain popular among students.

The controversies over African Studies in the West Indies have had at least one lasting effect. It is now widely accepted both at the academic and the popular levels in Caribbean society that an interest in, and study of, aspects of African culture must be embedded in any credible programme of Caribbean Studies. This was not generally so in the 1960s or 1970s. This means that the study of Caribbean literature or Caribbean linguistics, for example, can scarcely proceed without reference to African influences. The result is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify a clear dividing line between African and Caribbean Studies; indeed, many African-Caribbean scholars would probably deny that such a dividing line exists. This convergence is also reflected in the growing interest among Caribbean scholars in the hybrid discipline of 'Diaspora Studies'.

In conclusion, in reviewing the highly charged and politicised debates about African Studies in the Caribbean over the past thirty years, one over-arching theme stands out. When independence came to the Caribbean in the 1960s, key issues of consciousness and identity among Caribbean people remained unresolved. Indeed, it is an open question as to whether they have been resolved even now. Looking to the future, in the current globalised context new approaches, as well as renewed effort, are required if the continuing interest among Caribbean people in the study of Africa is to be developed in meaningful ways.12


1. The 'Asquith Colleges' have been described by John Hargreaves as 'Colonial universities'. They were established after World War Two with sponsorship from the (British) Colonial Development and Welfare Fund to provide training for the rising indigenous elites in various parts of the empire. All of the others were in Africa:- Khartoum University College (1947), the University College of Ibadan (1948), Makerere University College (1949), and the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1955). Return to the Text.

2. It was published as A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545 - 1800 (Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1970). Return to the Text.

3. W.Rodney to T.O.Ranger 30.11.65, quoted in Rupert Charles Lewis, Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought (The University of the West Indies Press, Kingston, Jamaica, and Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1998), pp.43-44. Return to the Text.

4. ibid., pp.44. Return to the Text.

5. Many of Rodney's talks from this time were published in The Groundings With My Brothers (Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, London, 1969). Return to the Text.

6. See, for example, Mervyn Alleyne, Roots of Jamaican Culture (Pluto Press, London, 1988), which builds on a wide range of work on African survivals in Jamaica since the 1960s. Return to the Text.

7. A few copies of the Bulletin and the inaugural issue of the Journal can be found in the Library at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus in Jamaica. Return to the Text.

8. The major product of this project to date is Allsopp's Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Oxford University Press, Oxford and London, 1996). Return to the Text.

9. His most influential work is Capitalism and Slavery (First published in 1944 - Andr‚ Deutsch, London, 1964). Return to the Text.

10. Comments by Fitzroy Baptiste in a public lecture delivered in Barbados in March 1998 entitled, 'Developments in African History and the African Diaspora at the University of the West Indies, 1968-1998', to be published in R.Goodridge (ed.) Thirty Years of African Studies at UWI (Department of History, UWI, forthcoming). Return to the Text.

11. The Valdez Commission on Secondary Education in Trinidad and Tobago, quoted by Fitzroy Baptiste in 'Developments in African History'. Return to the Text.

12. One such approach is proposed in Alan Cobley, 'Forgotten Connections, Unconsidered Parallels: A New Agenda for Comparative Research in Southern Africa and the Caribbean', in African Studies 58, 2 (1999), pp.133-155. Return to the Text.

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First Online Edition: 1 March 2001
Last Revised: 1 March 2001

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