Daily Archives: May 16, 2012

‘A Short History of the West Indies’ by J.H.Parry, P.M. Sherlock and A. P. Maingot

1987, 306 p.

One of the things that I love about doing my thesis on the colonial career of a 19th century judge- and yes, I did just (still?) use the word ‘love’- is that it has taken me to three and a half very different colonial settings in my research.  [Three and a half because Port Phillip was officially part of New South Wales, but I see it as a qualitatively different type of society to Sydney.]  The self-imposed need to knuckle down to start to write thematically has prodded me to turn to the West Indian aspect of my judge’s career- and so, where to start other than a Short History of the West Indies?

In 1968 the New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair wrote a cheekily-titled article called “On Writing Shist”.  No, it’s not a typo- ‘Shist’ is an abbreviation for “Short History”: all countries have them (often with “Short History” in the title), and many eminent historians tackle them.  Even though, as Keith Sinclair points out, a short history is written for an “educated non-specialist”, the reality is that often they’re read by people wanting an overview of their own history, and especially by other historians coolly interested to see how their colleagues, already known by their other work, tackle the task.  It’s a quite different readership when the reader is a complete outsider who knows very little about the topic beyond a vague idea of the country being “over there somewhere”.

For this reason, it’s a good thing for a Short History to have a map or two. In this regard A Short History of the West Indies  fails dismally with not one single, solitary clear map beyond a picture of an antique map as artefact that was illegible.  I found myself craving a good series of historical maps showing which European nation owned what, which port towns were important when, and how and when locations changed their names.  Thank heavens for Lord Wikipedia, which provided this fascinating animated map here.  I am embarrassed to confess how long I spent, playing this over and over, watching islands swapping from one nationality to another, and moving in and out of significance. (How clever- it seems to run by itself!)


Keith Sinclair described  Shist as a “summary interpretation of a topic, intended to make it understandable… an extended kind of explanation”.  In such a book, facts form a “very thin hard skeleton…[ selected]… in relation to the pattern of the whole book”.  The tag cloud in the Google books description is quite pertinent here because it emphasizes that the book is largely concerned with places (Jamaica, Cuba etc) rather than people or events.  The book is arranged chronologically, as you might expect, and as the first edition was published in 1956, it would appear to have had extra chapters added as it spawned its second edition in 1963, third in 1971 and this final one in 1987.   Given that the book has been reprinted so many times with 16 reprints and 4 editions, it has been disconcerting and rather confidence-sapping to find so many typographical and date errors in the text.

In a Shist, Sinclair said, the problem is not so much what to include, but what to leave out.  Themes are established, dropped, and picked up again.  Authors have to deal with the twin narrative problems of shape “the over-all pattern of ideas, facts and prose, woven into a unity” and span- “how one chapter, one hill, will roll gently into the next.  How to present, now and again, an unexpected or dramatic vista”.

In this regard, what I gleaned from this book- which may or not be what the authors intended, and may or may not be what someone more familiar with the topic might detect- is first, that West Indian history didn’t really begin until the fifteenth century. The indigenous Arawak people are dispensed with in a couple of pages. Second, that this is very much a sea-based history, both in terms of the geographic sprinkling of islands across the West Indian basin, as well as in the maritime prowess of the European powers that plied their influence there. Third, that the history of the West Indies is completely wound up in the machinations of these European powers- the Dutch, the Spanish, the French and the English- and their wars, treaties and truces.  Fourth, that the monoculture crop of sugar profoundly affected the history of the region as a whole in terms of slavery, social structure and power relationships and the economy.  Fifth, that a history of the West Indies needs to be seen within the context of U.S. history of power. Sixth, that even though the islands tended to see themselves in a closed loop tied to their metropolitan power, it is important to look across these different historical metropolitan affiliations to see the rhythm and pace of change across the region as a whole.

I don’t know enough to detect what is new or different in this short history compared with others that have been written before and since. Nonetheless, it had me thoroughly engrossed, with many ‘aha!’s as the pieces fell into place, especially in regard to the Dutch influence in European history.  I note that the authors describe the slave rebellions in Haiti, Jamaica and St Vincent as “The Second war of American Independence”.  I liked their use of the cassia tree as an emblem for West Indian history following emancipation- the leaves and bark are lost, then suddenly it bursts into golden flower.

I suspect that the maritime emphasis reflected the enthusiasms of the historian J.H. Parry in particular, and that there is a political thread running through the commentary on seeing the region as a whole, and on the relationship with the United States.  It is probably a history of its time in terms of the sidelining of indigenous history and women. This is a history of big powers and big forces, rather than individuals. I’m full of enthusiasm to wade further into the mud flats of British Guiana history!


J. H. Parry, Philip Sherlock and Anthony Maingot  A Short History of the West Indies London, Macmillan, 1987 (4th edition)

Keith Sinclair ‘On writing Shist’ Historical Studies, Vol 13 No. 51, 1968 pp.426-432