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Why do people associate the Caribbean with paradise?

Palm trees on a beach Image copyright Thinkstock

The islands of the Caribbean haven't always been described as "paradise". What does this tell us about both the region and the Eden of people's imagination, asks Carrie Gibson.

Blue seas, warm sun, endless white sand. I was in Antigua, but I wasn't enjoying the balmy loveliness under a swaying palm tree - rather, I was lying in bed under an air conditioning unit set on "arctic", fighting off the strangest virus I ever had. Welcome, I thought while lying in a pool of feverish sweat, to paradise.

As my joints ached, and my head pounded, it occurred to me that I was having a historical re-enactment of sorts, but with one crucial difference. In the 18th Century a European would have most certainly found herself here in the West Indies sweating out a strange bug - but it would not be during a holiday and it would not be with any thoughts of paradise in mind.

In thinking about this complicated relationship, a friend better versed in religious matters than I am reminded me of the obvious point that Christian biblical paradise, and one which persisted for many centuries, was in a garden, not the beach.

But over time more elements were added to paradise. In addition to a sin-free prelapsarian splendour, it also became associated with the more secular matter of finding riches, so where this paradise was located became a serious question in the Middle Ages.

This haziness is part of the allure - paradise has to be within and just beyond reach. It is somewhere and yet not mappable at the same time. The Book of Genesis describes the garden as being planted "eastward in Eden" and early Christian thinkers like St Augustine believed this to be true. By the medieval period, this began to vex cartographers. Where was paradise? Where should it be placed on a map?

As navigation techniques improved in the 15th Century and Portuguese and Spanish ships began to slowly penetrate the mysterious waters so far away to the West they were considered to be in the East, it became clear that there were no monsters. Indeed, what they did find was not so far removed from the lush landscape described in Genesis - trees and flowers, running streams and balmy air. Christopher Columbus and many who followed him remarked on the natural beauty of the islands.

But they soon learned it was no paradise. There were no riches and strange ailments did not take long to set in. Native peoples and Africans forced to work in the Caribbean suffered from a variety of unfamiliar ailments brought across the Atlantic.

And there was a moral dimension to this combination of ailment and tropical latitudes, as early edenic writings gave way to debates about the moral character of the native people and, eventually, of "creoles" born in the West Indies.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Caribbean was far from paradise for the many slaves forced to work there

However, by the 19th Century the sea had been recast by the Romantics and later Victorians. The ocean no longer harboured sea monsters, but instead served as an allegory for internal emotional states.

Byron rhapsodised about the "rapture on the lonely shore" and Melville's Moby Dick was not a monster so much as a symbol of the struggle to understand faith and mortality.

Attitudes to the beach and ocean were changing, too. Overseas steam ship travel was less dangerous, and closer to home the local seaside was becoming a source of sensual pleasure.

In the West Indies, improving public health made the islands safer. Sea air now took on a medicinal quality - people believed it could alleviate the symptoms of illnesses such as tuberculosis. Soon the West Indies had been transformed into a place for rest and long-term recuperation from disease.

All of a sudden, the places where death had long been feared were now considered life-giving, certainly compared to polluted industrialised cities of Britain or the US. One ailing American who had passed some time in the city of Trinidad in Cuba wrote in 1860 of "the restorative influences of her delightful climate".

Image copyright Getty Images

As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, steam ships began bringing tourists from Europe, the US, and even South America to take in the air, and to relax, forging the link with the nascent holiday industry.

And in time the jet age meant wealthy Americans and Europeans could easily cross the Atlantic, or fly from New York to hide away in the West Indies. All-inclusive resorts began to mushroom around the islands from the 1960s onwards, allowing people to have their week in the sun, being waited on hand and foot, and tasting perhaps their sample of what they imagined to be the high life. And from this point onward, resorts have had to keep up with these demands.

The West Indies, it seems, had a complete transformation - from fear and death, to relaxation and rejuvenation. From hell to heaven. But it is paradise? For in the way that the idea of the West Indies has changed, so too has the concept of paradise.

Instead of the redemption promised by religion, people are now looking to a more secular one, where spiritual or even material riches are no longer found in the possibility of returning to the garden of Eden, but, these days anyway, in the opportunity to switch off your smartphone. So the continued use of the word paradise is a puzzling one.

Unmoored from its original, spiritual docking, it floats about, bumping into different ports of meaning.

We don't really mean it when we say our week in Antigua was "paradise". We mean that we saw the sun, we lounged about, we didn't check our emails, we got bitten by sand flies, we had a squabble with our partner, we drank some rum, we made up with said partner, and we found that the week went by too quickly.


Image copyright ALAMY

A brief history of paradise

  • "Paradise" thought to derive from ancient Iranian "pairadaeza" meaning "walled enclosure", used to describe enclosed gardens or parks
  • Hebrew equivalent, "pardes" took on more divine meaning, and association with Adam and Eve's original home
  • In New Testament, Jesus tells one of the thieves crucified alongside him "today you will be with me in paradise"
  • Representations of paradise include paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (detail, above), and John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost

Distraction, yes. Relaxation, sure. Paradise, no.

There are two reasons that this idea of paradise poses a problem. The first is that such clich├ęs obscure deeper realities.

The idea that the Caribbean is a tropical paradise is only a recent one - it was source of fear and death for centuries, not only for Europeans paradise but for the indigenous people killed by strange diseases and the enslaved Africans who worked until they dropped.

Second, the search for paradise is an allegory of our own search for meaning, and our attempts to make spiritual and moral sense of the world. It can't be found in a holiday brochure.

And the idea that is can be bought simply turns paradise into a commodity. No longer is it a spiritual quest, but a financial one - and it often comes with a high price, not only in human terms but in environmental ones too. An earthly paradise has to be built.

This is not to say holidays or trips to the Caribbean are bad. But like those map-makers from the Middle Ages, we too are trying to pinpoint where paradise is.

Image copyright Getty Images

Perhaps that is the wrong approach. Within the idea of paradise being lost is also the possibility of it being found again.

The idea that we can buy our way into a modern Eden prevents us from looking for a different kind of paradise in our own back gardens, rather than projecting it on to islands half a world away.

Four Thought: The Trouble With Paradise, is broadcast on 3 September, on BBC Radio 4 at 20:45 BST- or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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