Read a galley of this while vacationing in the Virgin Islands this month Not a typical beach read, but Carrie Gibson s writing is clear, lucid, and engaging, and the wide range of colonial adventures and misadventures in the region make for a fascinating read Much of of the subject matter and episodes were already familiar to me, yet I still learned a great deal Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of this part of the America s and in particular a view into the often overlooked fact that much of previous history was written by and biased toward the European Western perspective. Ever Since Christopher Columbus Stepped Off The Santa Maria Onto What Is Today San Salvador, In The Bahamas, And Announced That He Had Arrived In The Orient, The Caribbean Has Been A Stage For Projected Fantasies And Competition Between World Powers In Empire S Crossroads, British American Historian Carrie Gibson Traces The Story Of This Coveted Area From The Northern Rim Of South America Up To Cuba, And From Discovery Through Colonialism To Today, Offering A Vivid, Panoramic View Of This Complex Region And Its Rich, Important HistoryAfter That Fateful Landing In , The British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, And Even The Swedes, Scots, And Germans Sought Their Fortunes In The Islands For The Next Two Centuries Some Failed Spectacularly A Poorly Executed Settlement In Panama Led The Scots To Lose Their Own Independence To England The Spaniards Were The First To Find Prosperity, In Mexico But Also Along The Islands In Hispaniola, Cuba, And Puerto Rico, They Built Grandiose Cathedrals And Extracted Shipfuls Of Gold And Silver, Which English, French, And Dutch Pirates Were Happy To Seize But Precious Metals Weren T A Sustainable Export The Colonizers Needed Something That Was, And They Would Need Hordes Of Slaves To Cultivate ItThe Caribbean S First Cash Crop, One Indigenous To The New World, Was Tobacco, And It, Along With Sugar, Spurred Expensive New Addictions Back In Europe Gibson Argues That Immaterial Exports Were Just As Important No Other Region Of The World Has Experienced Such A Vibrant Mixing Of Cultures, Religions, And Peoples Africans, Europeans, Asians, And Amerindians Created Amazingly Dynamic Creole Societies That Complicated Traditional Ideas About Class And Race By The End Of The Eighteenth Century, Seventy Thousand Free Blacks And Mulattos Lived In The British Islands Alone, And It Was In The Caribbean That The World S Only Successful Slave Revolt Took Place Sparking The Meteoric Rise Of Napoleon S Black Counterpart, Toussaint L Ouverture, And The Haitian RevolutionThe Caribbean Island Of St Eustatius Had Been The First To Recognize The United States As A Nation, But The Americans Were Soon Vying For Their Own Imperial Stronghold In The West Indies, Attempting To Control Cuba And Backing Influential Corporations, Most Notably United Fruit In The Twentieth Century, Most Of The Islands Broke From The Imperial Traditions That Had Lorded Over Them For Four Centuries This Would Be The Explosive Age Of Decolonization And Banana Republics, Of Racial Riots And N Gritude, Of Cold War Politics And Tourist Crowds At Every Step Of Her Expansive Story, Gibson Wields Fascinating Detail To Combat The Myths That Have Romanticized This Region As One Of Uniform White Sand Beaches Where The Palm Trees Always Sway Evocatively Written And Featuring A Whole Cast Of Cosmopolitan Characters, Empire S Crossroads Reinterprets Five Centuries Of History That Have Been Underappreciated For Far Too Long There are many histories of the Americas that begin with Columbus s landing in what were to become known as the West Indies, but this is perhaps one of the few accessible accounts which focus on the Caribbean itself, and which follow through right to the present day Carrie Gibson s thesis is that the Caribbean was a unique crossroads for global empires, focusing of course on the European empires but showing how power was later conceded to the United States, but without forgetting the minor roles played by other imperial powers such as the Chinese.Her thesis stands up very well and proves an excellent basis for a book which could easily have become a collection of bit parts given the number and diversity of the islands Very sensibly, she extends her coverage to the Caribbean littoral, particularly Central America and Guyana and its neighbours, but not forgetting the influence of Florida, Colombia and Venezuela If she focuses as she concedes on the major islands that were Spanish, British and French colonies, that is excusable as it allows amanageable story.Another challenge is to encapsulatethan 500 years of history in a single text Inevitably Gibson is selective, but still manages to capture well the flow of events and their interconnectedness across the different Caribbean territories not forgetting the very Caribbean nature of the Atlantic coasts of Central America, which until very recently have often had closer relations with Caribbean nations than with their own.Obviously, several cross cutting themes emerge, such as the harsh treatment and in many cases the extinction of indigenous peoples, the prevalence of crops such as sugar, tobacco and bananas and the ways in which their cultivation affected social conditions and political change, and the growth of the slave trade which these crops necessitated Once crop specialisation and the slave trade began, Gibson shows how together they shaped the societies and the politics of the region, not only during the long history of slavery itself but also in its aftermath in which conditions for black and other poor workers were generally only slightly improved In particular, she shows how this interaction influenced the development of dictatorships in the larger Caribbean islands and was also crucial to the United States growing and later determinant role in the region, as it took over from the waning European colonial powers and sought to maintain its growing control over trade and also over political developments which might threaten its commercial dominance As I read Gibson s book, in Cuba, the Cuban Five who had been imprisoned by the US since 1998, were released Gibson wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian on reactions in Havana, while my own impressions came from rural Cuba see Also in the Guardian, Martin Kettle made the point that the warming of US Cuba relations doesn t mean that Cuba is coming in from the cold as it was described in much of the media Rather it is part of the process by which the US rejoins the modern world, by perhaps starting to give up the imperial ambitions that Britain, Spain and France largely renounced in the last century Nowhere have these different empires interactedthan in the Caribbean, and Carrie Gibson s book does justice to the complex history that has resulted, right up to the present day. This is an excellent account I m no expert, but this year I read Slavery by Another Name, The Half Has Never Been Told, and The New Jim Crow This book provides a broader picture, but an important one, on how we came to be where we are today As with any good book of history, I want to ask Gibson a million questions about the present This is really well done, an illuminating overview of a large tumultuous story. The story starts with Columbus who grew up in Genoa when exploration is a new trend Under the Papal backing of converting non believers, Portugal started exploring first Madeira for indigenous people as slaves Later, the frontier moved to the Caribbeans The European conflict between Catholics and Protestants also extended to the sea Private citizens are encouraged by the crown to attack Spanish ship They like to consider themselves loyal citizens as opposed to lawless pirates These people move around islands when not attacking ships They hunt wild pigs and sell meat and hides The jerky meat is call viande boucanee , and these people are hence known as Buccaneers That explains the people are European decedents.The indigenous people are believed to come from South America some 6000 years ago There are different tribes such as the Caribs and the Tainos Some are fierce people that fought the Spaniards, others are believed to practice cannibalism Some became friends with the English as the enemy of the enemy.A third group of people are slaves brought to the region by the Europeans to cultivate sugar Sugar is not native to the region Some enterprise Dutch Jew brought it due to the perfect condition The sugar trade needed slaves Unlike the 1500s when the Spaniards and Portuguese brought slaves to Europe, the new slave trade route is from Africa to West Indies and America Apart from the ethnic background, the political control is also complicated due to the changing alliances among the European empires and later the US The French and the Brits are fighting Then the US with Brits Territories were exchanged, ceded Gradually, controlling the slave population becomeschallenging Different regions started their own route to independence The history is complicated with stories of the likes of Castro and Duvalier Under their own control, the economy of the region also changed Instead of just sugar, the region starts to export banana, drugs, boos, and the images of paradise The Caribbean and central America lay in the backyard of the US, which makes them great destinations for field trips during the cloudy and wintry time of the year when kids have a few week long breaks I like to find outabout their culture and nature This book came in handy to give an overview of the region in general However, the book is too comprehensive to my liking and not synoptic enough. Had a hard time getting into this one The history of the Caribbean has no great narrative arc as the author admits and the parts on Slavery and the Slave trade are certainly depressing but the Caribbean doesn t have a single direction to its history but instead a mix of light and dark and much tragedy but without a clear moral The story was not a history I enjoyed but I picked up some good nuggets here and there. As Carrie Gibson notes in the conclusion to her superb history of the Caribbean, it is much easier to imagine a West Indies without history The prevailing view of Americans and Europeans of the Caribbean is one seen through the eyes of tourism a paradise of exquisite beaches and rum drinks with little umbrellas But as Ms Gibson so aptly demonstrates, the Caribbean is not a mere footnote of history it has been a geographic vortex of superpower entanglement and a crossroad of globalism for over half a millennium Ms Gibson creates a lively narrative supercharged with facts, but none offered gratuitously I knew I was in for a treat as the introduction began with an anecdote about a decapitated statute still standing in a park in Fort de France, Martinique We learn that the statute was of Napoleon Buonaparte s first wife, who was born on the island Many islanders believed that it was she who convinced Napoleon to reinstate slavery on this island eight years after its abolition The book is replete with such wonderful stories of human interest and intrigue Ms Gibson s history is not one written in a vacuum, but is a comprehensive worldview of nations that meddled in and forged the complex fabric of the West Indies After covering what little is know about the native inhabitants, who were all but obliterated by Europeans, her narrative takes full swing with the struggles of the European powers The relative might of these powers ebbed and flowed like the tides, with the flux of fortunes reflected in the changing control of various islands and coastal regions in the West Indies A generation of explorers beginning in the late fifteenth century, aided by new sailing technologies, advances in astronomy, and, imperatively, royal and private investment, set forth on a westward quest for gold, exotic spices, and other riches that eventually led them to the Caribbean The fascinating twists and turns of geography, climate, and history, including the influx of many peoples, all so well documented by Ms Gibson, set off a chain of events that Henry the Navigator could never have imagined The history of the Caribbean is marred by violence and shameful disregard for human dignity Ms Gibson spares us no detail But the details force the reader to acknowledge the horrific reality that marked the struggles of slaves, indentured servants, and others who have been exploited by those in search of fortune Perhaps the greatest irony of Caribbean history is that the quixotic search for riches eventually gave way to the harvesting of sugar cane This useless by product of a breed of grass, as Ms Gibson calls it, became the virtual gold of the Caribbean It is fascinating to discover the roster of notables throughout history who left their fingerprints on the Caribbean From Queen Elizabeth to Oliver Cromwell Louis XIV to Napoleon, and the latter s nemesis in the fight for Haitian independence, Toussaint Louverture, their stories are varied and fascinating Virtually every US president left his mark on the region, starting with George Washington who fought for the British in Barbados As Ms Gibson sardonically remarks, British generals probably wished the future first US President would have died of the smallpox he contracted in Barbados instead of developing immunity to the disease that may have spared his life during the fight for American independence Perhaps missing from Ms Gibson s discussion of great historic individuals with connections to the islands is Alexander Hamilton Born in Nevis and raised in the Caribbean, he would go on to become the primary architect of the American financial system He was indisputably one of the most influential world figures ever born in the West Indies, and therefore, I believe would have been worthy of mention We learn about the intertwined relations of the Caribbean, the American British colonies, and England, and how clandestine commerce with the islands weighed heavily in the outcome of events leading to American independence The relationship between the Caribbean and the fledgling Republic altered drastically over time as US influence in the region and the world grew exponentially Armed with the Monroe Doctrine, the pretext of defending American national interests, and supposedly, the islanders right to freedom from foreign interference, was a thin disguise for what the US wanted geographic positioning, the exploitation of natural and human resources, and trade policies that favored American interests In other words, the prize of dominance in the region had changed little from the days of European hegemony Imperialism in the West Indies takes an interesting twist in the twenty first century Trade wars that once centered around mercantilism and piracy primarily involving the age old commodities of sugar and rumrecently have triggered WTO actions, as private and public entities fight in international courts for lucrative shares of these and other commodity markets, particularly bananas Of evenrecent interest, Ms Gibson discusses the posturing of the United States and China in the West Indies On this development she notes, As the axis of global power begins to tilt to the east, The Caribbean islands still find themselves in a strategic position The islands share common themes, such as slavery, disease, corruption and natural disasters, but Ms Gibson describes meticulously the individual trajectories that the islands and Caribbean coastal regions followed, giving each a distinctive history Not surprisingly, the circumstances and prosperity of islands vary significantly today From what Ms Gibson calls the relative egalitarianism, albeit impoverished circumstances, of Cuba, to the extreme poverty of Haiti with its man made buffer zone for cruise ships, she covers the uniqueness of history and culture that lead to the present day individuality of the territories and countries of the West Indies Ms Gibson deals extensively with the histories of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica But many other islands, even the small and seemingly insignificant, warrant her mention, rendering her perspective particularly comprehensive Thus we learn of the heyday of gangsters and nightclubs in Havana, and of the slave uprisings and brutal reprisals in Hispaniola, but we also discover the story of the violent volcanic eruptions that rocked the tiny island of Saint Vincent in the Lesser Antilles The scope of this book is breathtaking Ms Gibson does not seem to miss a single beat From the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the modern sounds of reggae, she covers the array of culture, peoples, and events, both natural and man made, that have molded the texture of this region She captures admirably how the tides of fortune vacillated as wars, disease, natural calamities, and money continually changed the balance of power in the region and on individual islands.Most who visit the West Indies may have little interest in knowing anything about the region other than where to find the most exquisite beaches and best hotels But I believe everyone who enjoys the natural beauty and man made comforts of this region would be well served to learnabout the complex culture, people, geography, and history of the region Perhaps Caribbean cruise ships should consider leaving a copy of Ms Gibson s masterful history in every cabin Even a mere perusal of this book could be a significant eye opener for the less informed into the broader vistas of the West Indies. If you need to study Caribbean History, this is the book lots of useful information that is hard to find The US base for Navy destroyers at Chaguaramas, Trinidad was placed smack dab in a favorite bathing beach, which suddenly became off limits Then eviction notices came Sound like Okinawa s story, anyone From the comical Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, the two exiles of Aristide in Haiti, to the theft of Guantanamo Bay the last remnant of the Platt Amendment , Ms Gibson, much her credit, does not shy away from pointing out the US s detrimental involvement with the Caribbean My favorite line in the book comes from Maurice Bishop, Most of the tourists who come to our country are white, and this clear association of whiteness and privilege is a major problem for Caribbean people just emerging out of a racist colonial history I loved the fact that this book also mentions how most of the visitors to the Caribbean have little to no engagement with the locals beyond those in the tourist industry Unlike Thailand, there is no backpacker culture in the Caribbean, so there no low carbon green way to meet locals cheaply on foot and interact with them as equals Assume that 80% of tourist revenue leaves the island and you see another problem for locals People go to the Caribbean to escape and when they leave, the money escapes Another concern is that Americans walk around in shorts and flip flops there on a permanent party oblivious to the fact that the locals wear shoes, proper shirts and trousers respectably doing their daily routine I love Jamaica Kincaid s line at the end, Every native would like a rest Bravo, terrific book A once over lightly treatment breaks no new ground that I can see. When discussing the history of the developing world, places like Africa, India, and Latin America come easily to mind Sadly, the Caribbean islands do not come so easily However, in this dense, but important, work of history, Carrie Gibson tries to fill that hole in the historical record and remind the world of the importance this region has played in world events.Starting with Christopher Columbus s discovery of the Caribbean in 1492, Ms Gibson deftly weaves through this regions often volatile history From discovery, to colonization, to independence, the Caribbean s history shines through Ms Gibson also reminds in some places and reveals in others just how important this region was, and still is, to many Westerners and locals alike The history of the region is not just pirates, sugar cane, and slavery, but also the place where escaped slaves hid in the jungles and fought for their freedom, sometimes even holding great empires at bay They are also islands that gave us such figures as Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, whose Black Power and Rastafarian influences can still be felt across the world today Through it all, she points out how the islands have always been a place of imposed luxury, from Europeans growing sugar crops to tourists visiting on cruise ships Yet, this luxury was and still is tainted by unseen exploitation of the locals.As someone who lived in the Caribbean for a time, I am very appreciative of a book like this and I do hope that people will read it and learnabout the region That said, this is not an easy book to get through Despite it s relatively short length, for a history book, of 350 narrative pages, this is an incredibly dense read Because the region is so spread out and each island has its own particular nuances, some chapters just feel so jammed with facts and figures it can be difficult to keep track or even keep your attention up I feel as though 50 100pages would have given this history a chance to breathe a little.The Caribbean is a critical place filled with beauty and inequity alike Ms Gibson s history of the region is important to read and even illuminating at parts Just know that this book is dense and you might want to start with individual island histories first before plunging into this regional history.
Carrie Gibson is the author of the acclaimed Empire s Crossroads A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day She received a PhD from Cambridge University, focusing on the Spanish Caribbean in the era of the Haitian Revolution, and has worked as a journalist for the Guardian and contributed to other publications, as well as the BBC She has done research across Mexico, the West In
- 448 pages
- Empire's Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day
- Carrie Gibson
- 24 August 2019 Carrie Gibson