Cowboys of the Caribbean

Disney recently announced that it is looking for two “ethnic” pirates to star in its fifth installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.  According to a casting call, Pirates 1 and 2 must be of “Hispanic, Asian, or African descent”, be able to speak with a British accent (http://www.examiner.com/article/pirates-of-the-caribbean-casting-call-seeking-ethnic-pirates), and be ready to head to Queensland, Australia, as early as next week.  It is just possible that the Disney Corporation is responding to accusations that its “Pirates” movies are racist by trying to increase the diversity of the films; whether or not these new “ethnic” pirates will help remains to be seen (other “ethnic” characters in the films have previously been portrayed as cannibals, among other things—not exactly a positive role model for today’s youth).  But, to give Disney credit, pirate stories and pirate movies are not particularly known for their positive non-white characters.  This is because the majority of the pirate stories concern neither “natives” nor “ethnic” characters, but Europeans.  Niall Ferguson pointed out in his book on Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) that Britain’s empire “was a transition from piracy to political power that would change the world forever” (12), a British theft of Spanish gold and territory.  “Ethnic” people such as natives were at best peripheral to this piratical world expansion.  Children’s literature about pirates endorses this view of pirates as Europeans interested in the Caribbean only as financial resource and base for their true interests in Europe; Long John Silver, from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is probably the most famous example of this fantasy of Europe-in-the-Caribbean

Not a native to be seen.

Children’s literature from the Caribbean tends to present different kinds of fantasy, however.  It is rare to read about pirates in Caribbean children’s literature, except occasionally in time travel fiction.  In the 1950s and 1960s, when publishing for children in the Caribbean began in earnest, it was cowboys and not pirates that predominated.  Cowboy westerns from Hollywood were shown throughout the Caribbean during this time period, indicating the global reach of American culture.  The influence of the western can be seen in both educational and trade children’s literature from the Caribbean of this time.  Longmans Blue Water Readers from 1961, for example, include a story where the main boy protagonist receives a parcel from his Aunt Mary.  It contains a book about cowboys and “Red Indians” with which the boy and his sister are delighted.

In terms of trade fiction, Andrew Salkey’s Hurricane (1964) shows the clearest influence of cowboy culture.  Salkey’s protagonist in this story, Joe Brown, lives for Saturdays when he can go down to the Carib Theatre and see a cowboy film with his friends.  The boys play at cowboy adventures; the Kingston Race Course is “like a real fabulous prairie” (24) where shoot-outs can be re-enacted.  When they watch cowboy movies, they “help out the soundtrack” (27) by providing extra shooting and background music.  When a hurricane is predicted, it is the cowboy film that leads Joe out of the safety of his home to the Race Course to play sheriff; after the hurricane has passed, the Carib Theatre is one of the few things left standing.  Joe is nearly swept up in the hurricane because of his desire to be like the American cowboys, but after the hurricane is past, the simulacra of the Hollywood cowboy remains unscathed.

Salkey's Hurricane.  Illustration by William Papas.

Salkey’s Hurricane. Illustration by William Papas.

The Caribbean children who grew up under the influence of American westerns would go on to incorporate cowboy themes into their creative work.  Probably the two most familiar examples of this are Perry Henzell’s 1972 film, The Harder they Come, and Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (1973) and “Buffalo Soldier” (written 1980; not released until 1983). None of these works are cowboy stories, but they all incorporate the theme of a lone gunman facing insupportable odds.  The conclusions of both Marley songs and Henzell’s film suggest, as Salkey’s novel also did, that the seductive fantasy of the American cowboy was a dangerous delusion for the Caribbean subject.

Henzell’s film contains an early scene of the main character Ivan watching Django (1966), a violent spaghetti western about a drifter who carries a coffin around everywhere he goes.  Like Joe Brown in Salkey’s Hurricane, Ivan imagines himself as a lone gunman in a western when he is in a shootout with police at the end of the film.  Both Ivan and Joe Brown realize their cowboy fantasy can put them in danger; Joe has to race to escape the hurricane when his imagination gets the better of him, and Ivan is killed by the police.

The connection between the cowboy theme and gun battles with the police can also be seen in Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” which appeared on his Burnin’ album a year after the release of The Harder they Come.  The song is not specifically connected to cowboys, but it mirrors the plot of countless western films from “The Fighting Deputy” (1937) to any of the Hollywood versions of the shootout at the OK Corral.  (As an aside, Michael Jackson sung the song on his variety show in 1977 dressed in a fringed western shirt and cowboy hat. Very bizarre.)  Unlike Henzell’s film, Marley’s song is open-ended; despite admitting to shooting the sheriff, he says only, “If I am guilty, I will pay.”  The sheriff is gone, but the deputy still lurks to enact “justice.”

Here comes the deputy . . .

Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” is not about the fantasy version of “cowboys and Indians” but about the historical 10th Cavalry Division of the US Army who were made up of African-American soldiers after the Civil War.  Although they were soldiers and not cowboys, they fought in the Indian Wars (against the Native Americans), and also in the Spanish-American War. In short, they looked like cowboys, they fought Indians, but they were tools of an empire that cared little for their rights.  Buffalo soldiers are forced to act out an American desire to expand the west, just as those “stolen from Africa” (as Marley puts it) were forced to act in the Caribbean in the interest of British expansion.  Marley, like Salkey and Henzell, were raised on the Empire next door; and though they were attracted to the image of themselves as Cowboys of the Caribbean, they knew that Americans were really just pirates in disguise.

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