Electric Archipelago: Power Politics in the Caribbean

Chelsea Schields

Chelsea Schields is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. She is a 2023–24 Consortium NEH Fellow.



In recent years, overlapping crises have beset Caribbean electrical systems. In 2017, Hurricane Maria downed over half of Puerto Rico’s transmission line towers, resulting in the longest blackout in US history. In 2023, protesters stormed Suriname’s parliament after the government ended utility subsidies to address a mounting sovereign debt crisis and sent electricity costs soaring. While seeming to appear suddenly and dramatically, these calamities instead reveal deep-rooted problems bequeathed by aging colonial-era infrastructure and abiding economic dependence. What then is the history behind the fragile electrical systems in the Caribbean? And how has their endurance impacted life on the front lines of a changing climate?


My current book project, Electric Archipelago, charts the electrification of the region from the patchy expansion of power in the late-nineteenth century to the climate and debt crises imperiling energy provision in the present. With histories of the Caribbean often cleaved by imperial and linguistic divides, Electric Archipelago instead offers an account of electricity that bridges nations and languages. The region’s shared confrontations with colonialism, capitalism, and climate change necessitate such a transnational approach, revealing how racial and colonial governance and international finance capitalism have circumscribed the region’s energetic and ecological futures.


The book follows electricity as it flowed through power lines—first from centers of colonial governance and industry into public streets and homes. Along the way, it attends to the unique ecological and social impact of energy infrastructure. Research in Consortium member institutions, including the Library of Congress and the Rockefeller Archives Center, allowed me to trace the technological, environmental, and social dimensions of expanding electrical systems from the equatorial jungles of Suriname to the coastlines of Puerto Rico.


Though today the region’s energy mix derives primarily from costly and toxic oil-fired generation, this outcome was not yet clear in the mid-twentieth century. At the Library of Congress, I utilized the Library’s extraordinary holding in international scientific reports to study the creation and consequences of a massive hydroelectric dam in Suriname. Constructed in 1958 by the Aluminum Company of America to power an aluminum smelter, this putatively clean energy project produced extraordinary and largely unforeseen consequences: from the release of high quantities of methane gas owing to rotting primeval rainforest to pervasive water hyacinth treated by prolonged aerial spraying of toxic chemicals. Although providing ostensibly cheap energy to Alcoa and the Dutch colony’s coastal capital, it came at a profound social cost. Some forty-three villages occupied by Maroons—the descendants of individuals who escaped from slavery—were inundated when the dam gates closed.  


US government reports in the Library of Congress likewise showed how the legacies of slavery shaped the provisioning of energy in Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth since 1898. In the twilight of Spanish rule, it was sugar plantations that were the first to electrify, with many planters installing their own generating plants to mechanize production. After the US takeover of the archipelago, authorities held fast to the plantation economy. In an effort to channel rainfall to sugar plantations in the island’s southeast, in 1908 the legislature approved the construction of a public irrigation dam system. Electricity generation was a secondary but lucrative outcome of this project and served as the start of the island’s eventually integrated public utility.


As Puerto Rico and other islands turned to the construction of oil-burning plants in the 1960s to entice heavy industry, connections between homes and the expanding electricity network increased in turn. At the Rockefeller Archive Center, I gained insight into development projects in Puerto Rico and early conservationist movements that sought alternative fuel sources across the region. In the records of the International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC), which supported numerous low-cost housing projects and industrial development initiatives in Puerto Rico, one can see how residents of IBEC homes enthused over electrified lifestyles and the aspirational class status that came with home ownership. Optimism quickly diminished, however, as the homes proved to be shoddily constructed. And as oil prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, the preponderance of oil-burning plants now also appeared to be a profound liability—criticisms also levelled by the coastal communities living in their toxic wake.


The records of the Rockefeller Records Group and Island Resources Foundation (IRF) reveal a range of attempts to secure alternative fuel sources amidst the rippling effects of the 1970s “oil shocks.” From Guyana to Jamaica, scientists and conservationists appealed to external funders to experiment with different forms of biomass and wind, solar, and geothermal technologies to strengthen economic development untethered from costly fuel oil. Many projects delivered promising results but limited funding constrained their reach.


In sum, my time at Consortium institutions allowed me to explore the histories behind sensational headlines, revealing how legacies of racial-colonial governance and structural underdevelopment exacerbate the effects of anthropogenic climate change today. These sources have also provided me with incredible leads to continue the next phase of my research in the Caribbean, where I will be especially concerned with examining the social experience of imported technologies.