“Caliban and the Yankees”

Most times when I see that a book is by an academic, I tend to expect the text to be dry and boring. This kind of work tends to be full of obscure details, footnotes, and endnotes sure to put me to sleep just as quickly as a second-year course of statistics did back in my university years. Such was my expectation when I encountered “Caliban and the Yankees”, a book by the academic Harvey R. Neptune about Trinidad. Instead, I received a pleasant surprise.

“Caliban and the Yankees” is a book depicting the American occupation of Trinidad in the mid part of the twentieth century. Invited by the British to the territory during the Second World War, the Americans created a military base as a lookout post against Nazi invaders. Neptune’s book is a description of how first the British, and then the Americans, affected the life and the culture of this West Indian Caribbean nation.

History has been full of anecdotes of how the colonized is affected by its colonizer. But many times, particularly in the twentieth century, when the United States is involved, the relationship of colonizer seems less clear cut, at least in the classic sense of the European powers. In the case of Trinidad, this strange hybrid showed itself when the United States had the power to appropriate land for a military base in Trinidad, but yet had no direct ability to appoint anyone in Trinidad’s government as the United Kingdom did. Neptune describes this ambivalent relationship to power the United States wields in relation to Trinidad, and how this weird dynamic affected the culture and populace of the territory.

From culture to social dynamics, Neptune covers the gamut with how the affair between American expatriates and other Yankee settlers to the island affected the nation of Trinidad. Neptune’s perspective takes the tack that the territory, in seeking independence from the imperial master of the United Kingdom, saw in the United States a partner in freedom. Cultural appropriations such as the zoot suit, local women hooking up with the American male arrivals, and jazz affecting local calypso music are just some of the ways the Neptune describes this tag-along relationship that Trinidad adopts with its powerful neighbor to the north.

Though Neptune’s voice in “Caliban” is scholarly, and the book is outlined in a clear academic format, the style he writes in is engaging and entertaining while being informative. Neptune is able to convey this historical account in a descriptive manner that is more approachable than many travel narratives. I came away with a better general understanding of Trinidad without feeling like I went to cram school. In short, while academic, “Caliban and the Yankees” is an interesting book that doesn’t seem to try too hard. It deftly conveys its point of how the colonized are affected by more powerful countries, and what they do to survive in this disadvantaged position.