VISIT SANTIAGO, Cuba said black historian Franklin Knight and "you could swear you were in Kingston Jamaica or Port of Spain, Trinidad. The people look the same. The cities look the same." .
The difference, said Knight, a professor of Latin American and Carribean history at Johns Hopkins University, is in the colonial histories that helped shape the islands' cultures up until the 20th century.
February is Black History month, but few of the winter sun-seekers -- either black or white -- heading for the West Indies will go there knowing the colonial and slave histories that helped make the islands what they are today. Efforts, however, are being made to change that.
During the past two decades, folklore societies, both private and government-sponsored, have sprung up in many of the territories. Conservation groups are fighting to save the land. And historians such as Knight and Harold Courlander -- a researcher of African folk traditions for more than 50 years -- have returned again and again to the islands to chart their progress.
One of the major pervasive features they have found, said Courlander, is a mixture of musical idioms that have created a "hodgepodge" of popular music -- music that is not locally distinctive but "purely West Indian." The rural communities have largely kept the old ways, he said.
These are the present-day realities in the Caribbean and here's how they were created.
West Indies. The name itself is a put-down coined by Spanish explorers who mistook the island of Hispanola (now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) for the East Indies. At the time, the islands were inhabited by Arawak and Carib Indians.
The arrival of the colonists and Africans added a new dimension to the 23 islands that span waterways from the heel of Florida to the head of South America. Around 1675, on the island of St. Vincent, a band of shipwrecked Africans were enslaved by the Caribs. But the Indians' thoughts soon changed to murder when the Carib women began bearing hundreds of half-black children. Ninety years later Black Caribs numbered in the thousands, Carib Indians only about 200 or 300.
"If you look at Guiana to Cuba, or even Belize, in ethnic composition, cultural diversity, and even language, they were developed by colonialism," Knight said.
Colonialism was also the factor that kept the European powers squabbling over the islands and afforded the slaves opportunities to revolt. Over the years runaway slaves, called Maroons, escaped into the mountains of Haiti, Puerto Rico, Dutch Guiana (now Surinam), Cuba, St. Vincent and Jamaica.
In Jamaica, Ashanti warriors enslaved by the Spanish fled the plantations around 1655 when Great Britain seized Jamaica from Spain. Eighty-five years of guerrilla warfare between the Africans and the suffering British convinced the Commonwealth to recognize the Maroon lands as a free and separate country immune from all Jamaican law except murder. The rest of Jamaica wasn't freed for another century.
Haitians further used the colonial wars for their own revolutionary gain. By pledging political and military allegiance to whoever offered the greatest promise of freedom, the Haitians fought for, and against, the French, British and Spanish throughout their quest for independence. By the time Haiti had gained recognition as the first black republic, nearly 100,000 Europeans had fallen. Haiti, then the world's richest producer of sugar and indigo, won its freedom only to later fall into poverty and become a dictatorship. Complex political, sociological and economic factors, whose roots lie buried deep in the colonial past, are thought by many to be responsible for the poverty that has accompanied freedom in many areas of the Caribbean.
"In studying Caribbean history, one gets an understanding that black people did not submit to slavery as we thought," said Jonetta Barras, a writer-researcher who is coordinating the Kennedy Center's month-long Black History festival on the Caribbean. "What Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser were doing in the United States was being done at the same time in other places."
Until she began her research, Barras, like most people, had thought of the Caribbean only as a vacation paradise. "Now I'm really interested in making a tour of the whole area," she said excitedly, "walking where the Maroons fought the British and experiencing carnival in Trinidad."
No black history would be complete without music. And from the Greater Antilles to the tail of the Dutch West Indies, "carnival and calypso are the folkways that go across the island," Professor Knight said. In Trinidad the dynamics of colonalism are seen even in the rudiments of carnival. According to Knight, the promoters of the festival are usually white, the spectators are East Indian (the new migrants brought in after slavery ended) and the carnival dancers and costume seamstresses are black.
The calypso music was originally a means of communication, much like the Negro spiritual. Black troubadours improvised songs to spread the news about daily activities, politics, gossip and scandal. Now the music and carnival -- the festival that celebrates it -- have become big business.
According to Knight, in Cuba the festival has been moved from the Lent season to mid-year to give beer distributors more time to recover from the Christmas holidays and replenish their stocks.
"The carnival started out as a sort of slum entertainment" he said, "and fought for recognition."
If calypso music is the heartbeat of the people, then dancing and the drums express the soul and temperament of the Caribbean. Both are used for religious worship as well as entertainment and both have come under attack during various periods.
In the voodoo religious services held on the isle of Haiti, Courlander said, one can still hear the ceremonial songs that were sung on the island 50 years ago. But in Trinidad all observances of Shango -- an ancient African religion worshiping the deity of lightning in song and dance -- have been banned.
At one point in the history of the British West Indies, the government banned the sale and use of drums on the islands. Black islanders responded by creating a new art form. They stole garbage cans to replace the instruments and when the garbage drums could not fulfill their needs they replaced these with steel drums. In time the steel band became so popular that Trinidad sent a steel band to the coronation of Elizabeth II to represent the island.
Today every island in the Caribbean has its own version of a waltz, mazurka, or quadrille stolen from the European colonists. In Martinique "The Beguine" is the national dance. In Cuba, it's the rumba, an updated version of a traditional Afro-Cuban folk dance.
More than 300 years old, the rumba originated as a part of the slave marriage ceremony. Its movements symbolize the barnyard dance of the cock and the hen. The long ruffled train on the woman's costume represents the tail feathers of the hen and the ruffled front on the man's shirt represent the hackle feathers of the cock.
Endowed with their own distinctive folkways and beauty, the islands offer a potpourri of natural and manmade wonders that are monuments dedicated to the individuality of the islands. Puerto Rico has El Morro, a fort that was two centuries in the making. On St. Vincent the cannon at Fort Charlotte still faces landward, a grim reminder of the Black Carib and British wars.
A mural enshrined in a Vincentian church records the last battle between British militiamen, led by Col. Alexander Leith, and the Black Caribs, led by chief Chattawar.
The war ended with Chattawar's death (Leith's tombstone states he died of "fatigue endured during the Carib War") and the deportation of more than 5,000 Black Caribs to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. Today more than 50,000 of their descendants, known as Garifunas, flourish in 46 Honduran settlements they founded along the Caribbean seacoast. Among the St. Vincentians, Chattawar is a folk hero.
The Danish colony of St. John also had its rebellion. In 1733, when slaves there outnumbered whites by a ratio of 5 to 1, a group of slave rebels did more than deliver bundles of firewood to Fort Fredriksvaern (formerly Fort Berg). Whipping out knives and cutlasses hidden in the wood, they slaughtered the outnumbered soldiers. All white colonists who didn't escape also died.
Slaves held the island for six months. Twice British naval forces attacked. Twice they met defeat. Finally 400 French soldiers were hired to help the Danes invade the island. Some rebels were captured, but more than 300 slaves cornered at Annaberg Plantation either shot themselves or leaped over a rocky ravine at Mary Point rather than surrender.
Today Caneel Bay Plantation and the ruins of Annaberg Plantation remain, but not much else of that bygone era. The island was never completely resettled. More than two-thirds of St. John makes up the U.S. Virgin Island National Park -- the largest national park in the Caribbean. Ironically, Caneel Bay has become one of the most popular vacation spots of the "Beautiful People."
On July 3, 1848, the day after a slave uprising on St. Croix, the Virgin Islands were freed. July 3 is still celebrated as U.S. Virgin Islands Emancipation Day.
But of all the monuments in the Caribbean, perhaps none is a more ambitious symbol of black architecture's contribution to the western hemisphere, and the struggle of blacks for freedom, than Haiti's superfort: the Citadel.
There was a time after independence in 1804 when Haiti's King Henry Christophe tried to create a nation of hope for all oppressed blacks. It was Christophe, the illiterate native from St. Kitts, who rose from worker to emperor in 1807 and rebuilt the plantations, roads and towns that were destroyed by the revolution. He added schools that increased yearly and a civil order that still distinguishes the people of Cap Haitien.
King Henry also courted the European powers (save France) for recognition and respect. To defend his budding civilization, Christophe built his mountaintop fortress. The Citadel symbolized his Olympus. The fort caps a 3,000-foot precipice and boasts 13-story walls, mammoth mahogany gates and window frames, and dozens of cannon battlements. Every boulder, every brick was carried up the steep incline by thousands of Haitians who gave their lives to build the structure over a l6-year period.
Today it stands like a giant, white elephant -- mute and menacing as it overlooks the city. But if Haitian architect Albert Mangones has his way, the Citadel will become a breathing symbol of Haitian artistry.
Mangones is director of ISPAN, a government-financed agency seeking to restore the Citadel and reclaim some of Christophe's glory.
"What he did is part of the human drama of the tremendous push and will for affirmation of a people," Mangones says of Christophe. "It's a work now that's really revealing the inner meaning of the mystery of the man."
Since 1977, ISPAN has received an annual budget of $300,000 to work on the restoration and other historical projects. The Organization of American States funded earlier Citadel restoration studies and UNESCO is lobbying other nations to help with the project.