'Empire's Crossroads' offers a rich and thorough history of the Caribbean

From colonialism to the present day, academic Carrie Gibson traces the history of the Caribbean in a highly detailed and very readable narrative.

Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day By Carrie Gibson Grove/Atlantic 448 pp.

Carrie Gibson’s thoughtful and extensively researched Empire’s Crossroads is a revelation. It is both a readable and in-depth study of the machinations of empire building in the so-called New World, as well as an account of the ravages of indigenous and displaced populations at the hands of European and American commercial interests. This account spares no quarter in exposing the sheer cruelty and inhumanity of European explorers and merchants toward the Caribbean’s native Amerindians and more recently arrived African slaves – as well as the legacy of this degradation, which haunts us still.

This book is notable not only for what it includes; but also in what it professes not to include. In an unusual series of admissions in the book’s introduction, Gibson notes with some humility, and not inconsiderable disappointment, that a number of important archives in the Caribbean and Central and South America have been irretrievably lost to natural disasters. She also demonstrates some of her own research shortcomings in focusing more intently on the Spanish Caribbean and the “Anglophone” islands – around which her own doctoral studies were based. She was not able to spend as much time in archives as she wanted, and admits that that trying to find original, unpublished sources can be a “needle-in-a-haystack" activity. Nevertheless, her study features over 40 pages of end notes, including both published and unpublished source material.

One of Gibson’s overarching motivations in enumerating the many deleterious exploits of these New World colonialists is her discomfort over the hunger and greed for sugar. She professes to “a nagging disquiet over the fact that so much of Caribbean history was transformed – deformed by the worthless commodity of sugar ... the human body does not need it to survive.” She then confesses a more personal reason. Having lived much of her adult life in England, Gibson notes that she spent her childhood in the deep American South of the 1980s, moving there less than 20 years after segregation had ended. To her, “the scars from that period were real and visceral.”

The history of the Caribbean in the period following Christopher Columbus was an endless succession of military incursions by the European powers of the day as they sought to control colonial outposts in the region. Cash crops such as sugar and tobacco had found enthusiastic followings back in Europe and the Far East, and competition for control of those resources among the New World’s suitors – the Spanish, English and French primarily – was fierce. Additionally, privateers (or pirates) like England’s Francis Drake and the Welsh-born Henry Morgan, looted and pillaged treasure-laden ships as well as enemy Spanish settlements, and were, respectively, knighted and made governor of Jamaica for their efforts. Smuggling was also prolific at the time, and slaves were often made to be intermediaries for these dangerous transactions. The lack of clearly established nautical laws and of accurate maps further fueled these illicit practices.  

However, Europeans weren’t the only imperial force to be reckoned with in the Americas. In 1823, James Monroe promulgated the “Monroe Doctrine” in an annual address to Congress, in which he declared, “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any European powers.” This declaration was triggered, Gibson suggests, by increasingly hapless and oppressive Spanish rule in Cuba, which threatened a slave revolt and, consequently, instability in the entire region. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams summarized what he believed was the proper US response to this situation: “it is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.”

Toussaint Louverture, the founder of the Republic of Haiti, who was struck down by forces loyal to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte after fomenting a slave rebellion on the island and by declaring its independence from France, summarized the plight of all Africans in the New World when he presciently remarked, “En me renversant, vous avez fait pas plus de réduire le tronc de l'arbre de la liberté noir à St-Domingue – il rebondir à partir des racines, car elles sont nombreuses et profondes” (that by killing him, only the trunk of the tree of liberty in Saint-Domingue will have been cut down – that the roots, numerous and deep, would remain). This regrettable legacy of empire remains with Haiti and other Carribean communities to this day. To reinforce this point, Gibson offers the example of the ascension of President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, later to be succeeded by his equally inhumane son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc.” They each employed a barbarous private security force, the Tonton Macoute, that liberally tortured its victims as Haiti sank deeper and deeper into poverty – the  Duvaliers becoming ever richer in the process from skimming government funds. 

The rise of bananas as an economic juggernaut produced another despicable, yet predictable, chapter in Western colonial exploitation. During the 1950s, the United Fruit Company, with a board member (C.I.A. Director Allen Dulles) and its former lawyer (US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) having powerful ties to the Eisenhower administration in Washington, was active in the overthrow of the Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, whom the US government had branded a communist . In fact, this was a widespread practice, with countries such as British Guiana, Costa Rica, and Honduras enduring much overt and covert US interference out of fear that they might turn to communism and align themselves with the Soviet Union. Again, the political complications that arose from this period have repeatedly festered in succeeding decades.

The beauty of the Caribbean islands, as Gibson points out, is often just a veneer under which a beehive of commercial exploits – some more illicit than others – is constantly buzzing. In addressing the drug trade, Gibson explains, “The Caribbean as a drugs transshipment point – or indeed a place to indulge – is not a recent phenomenon.” Drugs such as opium, morphine, cocaine and marijuana, despite the passage of legislation in the 1930s to control and restrict them, flourished with smugglers. And for the worldwide financial sector flocking en masse to the islands in the last 70 years, Gibson emphasizes that the Cayman Islands, as a tax haven, have become the sixth largest financial center in the world, with $1.6 trillion in assets on their books. And with regard to so-called “offshoring” of US corporations, the Caymans, with a collective population of only 56,000 people, now host more than 92,000 companies – also dodging corporate taxes as a result.

But just as there has been centuries of hardship for the people of these islands, they also possess a rich artistic and literary culture. Music, such as rocksteady, reggae, and ska, originated in Jamaica; the Spanish islands created salsa, as well as the “more modern (and often controversial) hip hop style reggaeton.” Novelists, such as Dominica’s Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Trinidad’s V.S. Naipaul, and Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat, “have a global readership.” And numerous Hollywood films that have made Voodoo and zombies central themes continue to fascinate audiences.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naipaul wrote in his 1962 travelogue "The Middle Passage," that “history is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” This was then, and still is to many, an inflammatory statement; but Gibson very poignantly observes that in the context of the tourism industry, maybe he was right: “Virgin beaches, ‘unspoilt’ paradise. It is much easier to imagine a West Indies without history. Then you don’t have to understand why there is poverty or inequality, but rather it is easy to think the palm trees have always swayed in the breeze, and that there has always been someone to refresh your glass of rum punch.” As a tourist, it’s always easier to notice the palm tree swaying than the homeless person who may be lying beneath it.

But if there were a phrase that most movingly represents the inner strength and resiliency of the Caribbean people in the face of such unrelenting assaults from more cynical and destructive external forces, it would be, as Gibson argues, “the genius of adaptation.” She adds, “This is what the clash of worlds – as violent as any force of nature – demanded. Adaptation – to disease, to slavery, to racism, to earthquakes, to poverty, to tourism – was the response to an exhausting series of events.”

But even with this “adaptation,” the antipathy Caribbean islanders have expressed toward their European colonizers is still very much in evidence today. In the book’s opening passages, Gibson recounts seeing a statue of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine on Martinique: On the mountainous island of Martinique, at the edge of La Savane park, in the capital, Fort-de-France, there is a statue of a headless woman.… In her right hand she holds a rose to her chest, her left is resting on top of a large cameo, on it carved the profile of Napoleon Bonaparte.… Lashings of red paint now adorn her body.… [M]any islanders now believe she convinced him to reinstate slavery in the French colonies eight years after its abolition in 1794 to protect her family’s fortunes. There is no evidence that she said anything to Napoleon about slavery, but the myth lives on.”

Gibson, who received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University, and who’s been a journalist for London’s Guardian and other publications, has, in Empire’s Crossroads, produced a valuable work that is required reading for scholars and students of the Age of Exploration, as well as the subsequent eras it impacted. It is a compact yet thorough study – an impassioned and anecdotally rich tapestry of some of the more reviled episodes in the history of the colonial Americas.

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