Where are we?

Here we stand, on islands and mainlands of the blue Caribbean Sea; Caribbean peoples, wrestling in our so-called independence. With joy and dread we seek to write our own narrative. But will it have a happy ending?

We are worried, because, looking over our shoulders, we are glimpsing the phantoms of our past - not just slavery or indentureship (those harassing spirits are forces to which we have grown accustomed). No, the terrors today, are more ghoulish and disguised.

We are poor - or so we think, and so we are eager to make alliances with the rich. But we buy projects for energy only to find we have befouled our land with toxic wastes. We are tormented by the fear of hunger and some of us already are starving, so with eager, humble hands we buy foreign technology to re-school ourselves in the planting and reaping and storing of things. We seek security from famine; but the very agents of progress cause our demise.

We drench needless pesticides and when the our fertile furrows with rains come, death courses downstream as rivers carry the heavy burden of the pesticides to the sea, down to the bays where we used to scamper and fish. And life in our waters dies.

As the rains pummel our hillsides, another murky phantom rises and rushes to the ocean. We stripped the hills of innocence, tore off their trees of virgin green, laughed, proud of our technology that we thrust and drove, down into the timid soil. Now, the mountains are sighing, disbanding, stumbling down, down to the sea. There, the ravished soils murder the reefs, sitting astride soft corals and strangling them... And the seas mourn.

Catching a future vision from our past

All of us who live in the wider Caribbean have inherited a mixed legacy from the past. Most of our lands have been homes to ancient indigenous peoples, but to these shores, many others have come. For some the Spanish conquistadores were once their masters, for others, French colonisateurs.

In the 1950s, when several Caribbean territories sought to gain political independence from the ruling colonial power of Britain, there was much enthusiastic discussion about a West Indian Federation. A flag was designed, a capital appointed and Caribbean leaders contested to see who would be the region's new Prime Minister. Even an anthem with lyrics and music was written!

Seeing the many as one

The Federation was short lived and the regional anthem became instead a national anthem for Trinidad and Tobago; but tucked way in its music is a phrase that still calls to mind the truer, lasting statement of our shared heritage:

'... Side by side we stand,
     Islands of the blue Caribbean sea...'

Our neighbours who inhabit much larger mainland areas, have this in common with the islands: we all indeed are touched, by the blue Caribbean Sea. In our world, it is our ocean. The Caribbean Sea has the potential for being a mighty symbol of our possible unity, as the late Tobagonian poet E.M. Roach describes

"........ So from my private hillock
    In Atlantic I join cry:
       Come, seine the archipelago;
          Disdain the sea; gather the islands-' hills
            Into the blue horizons of our love."

Beyond our blue waters . . .

The Caribbean Sea, is at once unique but also ci vital part of a far larger whole. All oceans of the earth are connected, even while they exist in such different states of temperature, turbulence and salinity.

Paleoentolologists - scientists who study the records of the earth's ancient history from the story told in rocks and other land forms, now believe that once, all the land on the planet was joined, forming a region referred to as Pangaea and alI the seas were one.

Fiery Earth Currents

Before the existence of at ancient sea and land, they speculate that the planet had its origins in violent and explosive movements of rocks, water and matter. But the powerful underground currents that fuelled such majestic beginnings have not ended. Within this century most scientists have come to believe that convectional currents driving molten material still operate within the heart of the earth.

Living on a plate

Scientists now understand that the crust of the earth itself comprises a series of plates which move constantly, though often at infinitesimally slow speeds. Where they move faster and the underground action is most violent, earthquakes, volcanoes and faulting of the landscape are felt and seen. This theory which has practically gained full consensus within this century, is known as Plate Tectonics. Central America and most of the insular Caribbean have been established on the Caribbean Plate. Cuba, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands are on the North American Plate.

From The Sweltering Latitudes

While molten magma churns below the earth's crust, within the wide oceans and also up above them, another harmony of movement takes place. And the earth itself, is revolving. Circled by the moon while orbiting the sun, earth turns on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. The earth rotates, setting the oceans in motion, their waters swirling clockwise, north of the equator and anti-clockwise to the south. The sun's rays are nearest and most direct at the equator but at the north and south poles they reach the earth obliquely. This makes the oceans close to the equator heat up fastest, causing air above them to rise and move outwards, to the north and south. Global wind belts are in this way generated. These winds that blow around the world, set in motion by the ocean's temperatures, are named for the directions from which they blow. The cool prevailing winds that fan the Caribbean are known as the North-east Trades. it was these winds that propelled the sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Sailors of centuries past made their way to trade here - whether in food or animals or human cargo!

"The Trade winds blow over emerald seas
And the sun splashes white on the wall
Where the red poinsettia blazes and blows
And the dust flies up where the red road goes
And the cheerful keskidee calls..."
Caribbean Christmas carol. Jennifer Mitchell Als.

"Wind goes rippling the face of the deep..."

As the sun shines and the winds blow and the climates of earth's regions change subtly with the day to day weather, warm and cold currents mix the waters of the planet's mighty oceans. Within these oceans a multitude of interchanges is constantly occurring.

Bands of warm water move westerly from the coast of Africa, through the Atlantic towards the Caribbean. The Canary Current off north west Africa meets the major system of the North Equatorial Current flowing westwards to the Caribbean. Within the Caribbean Sea, the Guiana Current and the Florida Current are the major oceanic influences. These carry waters into the strong northerly moving Gulf Stream.

The flowing of this warm Gulf Stream to the colder northern climes has a profound effect on climate, as do all the currents of the ocean. Seasonal weather patterns as well as seasonal abnormalities like "El Niño" are all precisely linked to the activities of winds, currents and the ocean. Behind all these though, more than 93 million miles away, powering the whole circuit, is the sun.

At much deeper ocean levels, currents and crosscurrents are constantly interacting though undetectable at the surface. Cold water at the Poles sinks and is replaced by the inflow of warmer surface water that comes from equatorial regions. Moving deep down within the oceans, this colder, denser water starts currents that move away from the Poles. Beginning in both the Arctic and Antarctic, the waters head towards the equator and continue past it. From the warm equatorial regions they then flow to opposite Poles, forever circling on what has been called a conveyor belt system. The voyage of one water molecule to so circumnavigates the globe, may actually take centuries.

"Author Jean Rhys, sailed from her home in Dominica, catching the Gulf Stream, to cross the Atlantic and settle in England; but always she remembered the beauty of her truer home, with nostalgia. She immortalized the unique North Atlantic Ocean region that circles slowly in a mesmerising calm, off this Gulf Stream Current, in her book, The Wide Sargasso Sea."

Seasonal storms of the Caribbean Sea

Earlier generations of Caribbean children may well have gone to bed with classical English stories like The Wind in the Willows, echoing through their heads. Yet, both the type of wind and perhaps the willows, would have seemed foreign in our Caribbean landscape. So while anyone can enjoy a good story, it has also been a step in the right direction, as Caribbean writers since the mid-century, have been writing novels with Caribbean weather and climate - and even disasters - as part of their stories' natural landscapes.

The Caribbean Sea, close as it lies to the equator and almost directly beneath the sun, becomes exceedingly hot by the middle of the year. As barometric pressure falls, and temperatures rise and a stillness settles over the sea, inhabitants of this region know to be on guard for hurricanes. As scientists note trends of possible global warming, they predict that hurricanes are likely to get stronger.

Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey, who lived for a time in England, evoked the oceaninfluenced weather of his Caribbean home. One of his unforgettable children's stories is called Hurricane. Caribbean children know the vital refrain as they see the coming of the "hurricane months": June too soon, July stand by; August come it must; September remember; October all over.

Though not necessarily meaning to teach the technicalities of plate tectonic theory, Andrew Salkey also created a sense of excitement and adventure in a companion novel, Earthquake.

Celestial bodies and the swirling earth

While catastrophic events have happened throughout Caribbean history, especially in the forms of hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes; at the cosmic level a daily drama happens, heeded perhaps only by fishermen and meteorologists. This is the turning of the tides. Linked inextricably to the relative positions of earth, sun and moon, the waters of the entire planet, are continually in motion. Depending on the position of the moon, these diurnal ranges of water are either strong or weak. The resulting effects are called spring tides and neap tides. Spring tides are in effect at full moon and at new moon when the moon, earth and sun are in alignment. Neap tides are experienced during quarter moon phases when the moon is at right angles to the sun and gravitational forces are not as strong, so tidal variations are lessened.

Quite astoundingly, scientists have also discovered that the surface of the earth also swings and bulges, as gravitational pulls are exerted by the moon and sun as the earth spins on its axis through space. Thus, not just the waters bulge with the changing of the tides, but the earth's crust itself, but by gradations, which are far smaller than the unaided human eye, could see.

Boiling seas and angry mountains

Giant waves set off by earthquakes on the ocean floor are called tsunamis. These monstrous waves can roar across the oceans in a very short time, rushing catastrophe. Some people fear such outcomes from the ongoing volcanic upheavals associated with Soufriere in Montserrat.

The waters between Grenada and Carriacou are always choppy due to the effects of an active underwater volcano called "Kick 'em jenny". Oceanographers have been amazed at how quickly its underwater volcanic cone has been growing, due to continuing eruptions. They expect a new island to soon break the surface of this part of the Caribbean Sea. Here too, currents collide between the islands; with the rumblings of the watery volcano and the boiling up of the waters, seagoers in this part of the Caribbean, know to always expect a rough crossing.

You take it from here...

Natural disasters: Hurricanes

Tagging the tides Renaming El Niño