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Tough Call: The Americas That Might Have Been

By LARRY SMITH

Counterfactual history is an attempt to answer hypothetical questions by considering what would have happened if certain key historical events had not occurred. Such speculation has spawned an entire book genre, which seeks to understand the relative importance of the event in question.

Science fiction writers are very fond of counterfactual themes, but serious historians have also been unable to resist the temptation to ask ‘what if?’ In 1931, for example, Winston Churchill contributed to an anthology called If It Had Happened Otherwise. His essay examined the course of events if Robert E Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War.

Julian Granberry, the veteran Florida anthropologist and linguist who contributed decades of scholarship on the extinct Lucayan Taino inhabitants of the Bahamian archipelago, has produced his own alternate history titled The Americas That Might Have Been: “a book I expect practically everyone to find some fault with” as he says in the preface. “My hope is that everyone will also find a great deal that is new, interesting and useful.”

In this 2005 work, Granberry attempts to answer the question: What would the Americas be like today—politically, economically, culturally — if Columbus and the Europeans had never found them, and how would these American peoples interact with the world’s other societies?

It assumes that Columbus did not embark from Spain in 1492 and that no Europeans found or settled the New World afterward, leaving the peoples of the two American continents free to follow the natural course of their native lives.

Granberry is eminently qualified to explore this subject. He studied anthropology at the urging of Franz Boas, a pioneer in the field, and was mentored by Mary Haas, a specialist in North American indian languages, Charles Hockett, who wrote extensively on the theory of languages, and Ben Rouse, a leader in Caribbean archaeology. Granberry’s own heritage is part American Indian (Choctaw).

“It is particularly the input of these four individuals…that ultimately prompted me to address the student-generated question ‘what would the New World be like today if Columbus and the Europeans had never found it?”

More specifically, “What if the glories of Aztec Mexico, Maya Middle Americas and Inca Peru had survived intact? What would an Iroquois Confederacy in the American northeast, powerful city-states all along the Mississippi River…a Navajo nation and Pueblo city-states in the southwest, an Eskimo nation in the far north, or a Taino Arawak state in the Caribbean play in American and world politics of the 21st century?”

The book begins with an examination of the archaeological, linguistic and ethnohistorical data followed by “a reasoned and compelling discussion of native cultures and the paths they would have logically taken over the past five centuries,” as one reviewer noted. Granberry then reveals the spectacular futures these brilliant pre-Columbian societies might have had.

From a cultural point of view, Granberry says, the European conquest of the Americas was likely the most amazing event in human history, akin to the disappearance of the dinosaurs. “The Americas that might have been are truly that, part of a past to be appreciated, marvelled at, and hopefully understood, but part of a world no more.”

So now that Columbus has finally disappeared from the official calendar of the archipelago that he unfortunately “discovered” on October 12 1492, this is a good time to pick up a copy of this unusual, fascinating and challenging book.

Dis me, Sammie Swain…

A spectacular revival of E Clement Bethel’s The Legend of Sammie Swain was the highlight of this year’s Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival that just ended at the Dundas. Bethel added music and dance to the framework of a Cat Island folktale for a truly Bahamian experience. And congratulations are in order for a superb performance by the entire cast and crew.

This classic Bahamian folk opera has not been seen since 1985 and last week’s performances were considered a “once in a lifetime event” by SIP director Nicolette Bethel, who is the late Clement Bethel’s daughter. It was first performed in 1968, I last saw it in the 1970s when it was the talk of the town, and the matinee performance I attended on Saturday was gratifyingly sold out.

“There are two whole generations who have never seen, or even perhaps heard about Sammie Swain,” Nicolette Bethel told The Tribune before the festival, “and they may not know that this part of Bahamian culture even exists. We want to perform it, record it, publish it, and preserve it for future generations.”

The four performances of Sammie Swain in this year’s Shakespeare in Paradise Festival were 90 per cent full, according to director Philip Burrows, while the remaining performances (The Shrew, The Sankofa Trilogy and Speak the Speech 2) enjoyed 75 per cent occupancy. The Dundas’ 330-seat theatre gave a total of 5,870 seats, but some performances were staged at smaller venues.

Most of the music and songs in this production are traditional, but were arranged by Clement Bethel. One of the highlights of the show was the full cast performance of the wake song, I Bid You Goodnight, which became world-famous following the 1966 release of an album called The Real Bahamas, featuring Joseph Spence.

This familiar anthem derives from the 19th century English funeral hymn, Sleep On Beloved. A 1960s group called the Incredible String Band picked up the song from the Bahamian recording, and it went on to become a folk standard – most notably performed by the Grateful Dead.

One of the finest performances of this rhyming anthem was in the 2002 production of Music of The Bahamas, by Nicolette Bethel and Philip Burrows. It is easily found on YouTube.

This year’s production of Sammie Swain involved over 65 people, while about 130 people took part in the festival as a whole. Some 2300 students attended the festival productions, which cost a total of $110,000 to stage – not including hundreds of volunteer hours. But revenue for the entire event totalled about $70,000, producing a $40,000 shortfall.

“Our costs were almost doubled by the production of Sammie Swain, for which the government, through the National Independence Committee, asked in January, and for which the government indicated it would give support,” Nicolette told me. “However, that support was halved this year, to a total of $8,000. Private sponsors and advertisers contributed about $25,000 while ticket sales amounted to $37,000.”

It’s all about economies of scale – and there are no facilities in the country that can support such economies by tapping into the tourist market and making it feasible for Bahamian artists to make a living from their creativity and talent. The Shirley Street Theatre (converted by the government into a so-called performing arts centre years ago) is a joke – or at the very least a lost opportunity.

Clement Bethel was a musicologist who died in 1987 at the age of 49 from kidney disease. He was trained as a classical pianist in London, but dedicated his life to the development of culture in the Bahamas. In addition to Sammie Swain, he co-wrote and directed the Independence Pageant, a survey of Bahamian history from pre-Columbian days to July 10, 1973.

In this year’s revival of Sammie Swain, Adrian Archer was musical director and Robert Bain was choreographer.

• What do you think? Send comments to larry@tribunemedia.net or visit www.

bahamapundit.com.

Comments

banker 7 years, 11 months ago

Regarding the counterfactual history, I think that I will pick up that book. What amazes me is that the Inca, Maya, Taino, Lucayan, and North American Indians never developed the wheel until the Europeans came. They were behind in metallurgy and at one point or another there would have been clashes of culture and technology. Fascinating topic and thank you for bringing it up in an intellectually-starved Bahamas.

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