Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Quest for Identity

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Quest for Identity

Article excerpt

The Quest for identity THE emergence of the countries of the Third World on the international scene has enabled islands to assert themselves as economically, socially and geo-climatically distinct. The legitimacy of their claims is now acknowledged, but they have by no means won full practical recognition. furthermore, the specific cultural characteristics of islands have not yet been given sufficient consideration.

Most islands have been affected by changing fortunes and the upheavals of history. They have been the targets of historical rivalry and of maritime greed on the part of nations which have sought to explit their strategic value or have attempted to impose trade monopolies.

As regards the people who live on islands, we are talking in some cases about human settlements so ancient that they can be traced back to pre-history or to the earliest historical times. Alternatively, we can say that settlements are relatively recent in the case of islands which had no indigenous population. Between these two extremes, there has been an unending flow of emigrants through the ages. The broad miscegenation of island peoples, both biological and cultural, may be traced to chance encounters at ports of call or to the deliberate settlement of groups brought in as slaves.

As stopping-places for expeditions which were often hostile and bent on plunder, and as ports of destination for ships whose holds and steerage had been converted into "Negro pens", islands took in the slaves who had survived disease and ill-treatment, and with them their skills, knowledge, beliefs and dreams.

After the abolition of the maritime slave trade and the consequent emancipation of slaves, the need to find substitute labour in the form of hired workers soon brought about a return to slavery. Thereafter, conflicts began to break out, sparked by religious, ethnic, linguistic and legal contentions in the various societies.

The replacement of traditional systems by new systems of values introduced by missionaries in the name of Christian morality caused cultural confrontations and turmoil. So-called "racist colonial" forms of prejudice laid the foundations of laws, decrees and new institutions which showed scant respect for local beliefs and value systems. Initially, all this brought about a cultural breakdown. Then, by degrees, islands achieved a vigorous and original synthesis of their own cultural resources and those imported from outside.

Traces of original cultures have survived not only in the sphere of tangible assets which are, moreover, threatened by changes, not to say in danger of vanishing altogether (architecture is a typical example), but also in the domain of intangible values, which neither imported new religions nor imported models of rational thought have ever been able to obliterate. …

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