RECAP: “The First World War, Reimagining Empire in the British and French Caribbean,” with Corpus Christi College Brock Fellow Michael Joseph

In his January 29 talk at the Kinder Institute, Dr. Michael Joseph, Brock Fellow in Modern History at Corpus Christi College (Oxford), took his listeners to a part of world history that few venture into: the Caribbean during the Great War. While there has been a recent surge amongst historians to discuss the first world war in a more global context, this has mostly meant examining the lives of soldiers brought to Europe from colonial territories. Joseph, on the other hand, keeps his focus in the Caribbean, primarily examining in his scholarship the economic, political, and social impacts that the first world war had on the colonial possessions of the French and British Empires, with particular emphasis on the role these colonies played in providing materials and inputs to European wartime production.

While Joseph mostly highlighted World War I in his presentation, he emphasized that to truly grapple with its historical gravity, one must first have an understanding of the pre-war situation of the French Antilles and British West Indies. These small Caribbean Islands and their booming sugar monoculture were the jewels of the colonial crowns of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, as Britain and France expanded their empires to span the globe, and as ideas of free trade began to be put into imperial practice, the importance and power of islands like Jamaica, Barbados, and Guadeloupe entered a long period of decline. By the final decades of the nineteenth century and the opening of the twentieth, the sugar islands had seen their market share eroded by sugar from Cuba, Java, and Germany, and nearly all citizens of the colonies were living in poverty, with most working small plots of land during the day and as wage laborers for sugar plantations or processing centers at night. While the common man suffered under grinding poverty, the political class became ever more concerned about their colonies’ place within the larger British and French Empires, fearful that they would become afterthoughts, too economically insignificant to the mother country to be helped out of their downslide.

The outbreak of the first world war provided a momentary deus ex machina which lifted the situation of both the common man and the political elite in the British West Indies and the French Antilles. With supplies from Germany cut off, and with demand for sugar to ration to armies and placate civilian populations on the rise, the price for sugar and related goods skyrocketed and the wilting economies of the Caribbean sprang to life once more. The impacts of the war were not only massive but also swift, as deeply impoverished laborers were able to support themselves within 12-18 months solely on the profits from growing sugar on their relatively small farms. Sugar plantations and processors also boomed thanks to wartime demand. Rum distilleries in the French Antilles, for example, grew in number from a handful to several dozen in the opening two years of the war. The war likewise ushered in the return of closed-loop, empire-centric economic policies in Britain and France, given the need to shorten supply lines wherever possible. These conditions were largely responsible for the economic rejuvenation of the sugar islands and brought real change in the lives of the people who lived in the Caribbean. Individuals were now able to pay off debts, and companies were able to grow and modernize.

Joseph showed, though, that the leaders of the British West Indies and the French Antilles all recognized the wartime economy would not last. And if leaders in both cases sought political solutions to this problem of finitude, their respective approaches were decidedly different. In the British West Indies, the primary goal was to establish a preferential position in the empire in order to secure a stable and prosperous future for the islands. However, leaders of islands like Jamaica and Barbados faced the challenge of lacking a significant voice in imperial politics. Many ideas were bandied about to address this issue, perhaps most notably a proposal that the British West Indies form a union with Canada that would eliminate many of the political and economic obstacles in front of them. Specifically, union with Canada would give the islands a closer market for their sugar products and would be a political partnership in which the islands might have a greater say in politics between the metropole and the colonies. In the end, this plan failed to gain enough traction in all of the relevant countries to be a viable option in the interwar years. Also proposed was a West Indian federation that would give the islands a stronger collective voice in the empire and provide a path toward the goal of preferential imperial position. This would come to fruition in 1958.

While the British West Indies searched for a stronger position at the imperial table and perhaps a new political and national unit, the French Antilles hoped to tie themselves even more closely to France. In pursuing this goal, Antillean leaders sought full citizenship and a position as equals with those living in the mother country, but their aim was foiled by a simple reality: Antillean interests and French interests were not the same. This was particularly true among the southern French wine producers, who used their political clout to level restrictions on the Antilles’ sugar industries and push them away from rum production.

In his conclusion, Joseph offered that the significance of his talk was that pragmatism and political economy were the driving factors in Caribbean colonial thought and had a real influence over both how these states behaved in the interwar years and their respective approaches to decolonization. The ultimate takeaway, he added, should be that the desire of the British and French Caribbean colonies to change their relationship with the mother country in the wake of the first world war was firmly grounded in political-economic realities.