A his­tory that still re­ver­ber­ates

Business Day - - BUSINESS LIFE / BOOKS & AUTHORS - Car­rie Gib­son Macmil­lan

CARIBBEAN his­tory, like the seis­mic ge­o­log­i­cal and cli­mac­tic events that rock the ter­ri­tory, is tu­mul­tuous and of­ten ap­palling in its de­struc­tive­ness. Em­pire’s Cross­roads is a vivid, com­pelling nar­ra­tive that con­trib­utes to a wider un­der­stand­ing of the role coun­tries such as Haiti, Cuba, Ja­maica and Venezuela have played in geopol­i­tics.

The sheer scope of dis­sect­ing more than five cen­turies, and span­ning an ex­tended, im­mensely var­ied re­gion, is tes­ta­ment to the au­thor’s knowl­edge, metic­u­lous re­search, and pas­sion. Ad­mirably, Gib­son is gen­er­ally faith­ful to the his­to­rian’s tenets of con­tex­tu­al­is­ing, un­der­stand­ing the times and judg­ing with ref­er­ence to the pe­riod. She yields her voice only around the mo­tif of slav­ery: from the seeds of the first sugar plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean is­lands she con­structs a de­fin­i­tive link to the ex­po­nen­tial growth of the transat­lantic slave trade and the re­sul­tant in­or­di­nate hu­man suf­fer­ing.

This the­matic un­der­pin­ning is one of Em­pire’s Cross­roads strengths, as the au­thor sub­tly but con­vinc­ingly posits that slav­ery still re­ver­ber­ates to­day, man­i­fest in poverty and racism in many parts of the world. South African read­ers will draw par­al­lels with our own his­tory, recog­nis­ing clear sim­i­lar­i­ties to Dutch and Bri­tish south­ern hemi­sphere colo­nial­ism and its se­quence of mar­itime ex­plo­ration, agri­cul­tural and min­eral ex­ploita­tion, wider re­gional ex­pan­sion­ism, and all man­ner of op­pres­sion or abuse as a thread wo­ven across the cen­turies.

Less per­sua­sive is the ar­gu­ment that the Caribbean was at the heart of global con­nec­tions or that it was the heart­beat, the cat­a­lyst, of change. It was an area of sig­nif­i­cant trade and cul­tural crosspol­li­na­tion, but the Caribbean can­not be seen as the tin­der­box for colo­nial dis­in­te­gra­tion; it is surely de­bat­able whether the Caribbean was any more in­flu­en­tial in the weak­en­ing of the im­pe­rial pow­ers than, say, par­al­lel 19th cen­tury events in North Amer­ica, or the two world wars. The 1961-62 Cuban mis­sile cri­sis was a con­se­quence, or man­i­fes­ta­tion, of the Cold War in Europe, not a cause of the era’s geopo­lit­i­cal power strug­gle.

In­deed, as the book shifts into the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, Gib­son is care­ful to un­der­score new his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives. For ex­am­ple, Eric Wil­liams, the first Prime Min­is­ter of Trinidad and Tobago, has ar­gued that the key force be­hind the abol­ish­ment of slav­ery was not hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism. Rather, as in­dus­trial cap­i­tal­ism spread and re­placed mer­can­til­ism, it be­came an eco­nomic im­per­a­tive to elim­i­nate the com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage co­erced through slave labour prac­tices.

The in­flu­ence of the rise of com­mu­nism is ex­plored not only with ref­er­ence to the events in Cuba, but also to its wider ef­fect in fo­ment­ing bru­tal, re­ac­tionary gov­ern­ments in the likes of the Do­mini­can Repub­lic and Nicaragua. As Gib­son un­rav­els the pro­gres­sion of in­creas­ing US hege­mony, the themes of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion­ism and eco­nomic ex­pan­sion­ism en­dure, sub­sti­tut­ing Euro­pean colo­nial­ism with a force just as dam­ag­ing in many re­spects.

In­evitably, it is the anecdo- tal snip­pets which au­then­ti­cate, pro­vid­ing tex­ture and con­trast. Tan­gi­ble courage and desperation seep from para­graphs that de­scribe Jean Louis Poli­naire, or­gan­iser of the first slave re­sis­tance on the is­land of Do­minica, or a priest iden­ti­fied only as Bouk­man, who led the 1791 re­bel­lion which ig­nited the Haitian Revo­lu­tion and set the coun­try on the path to in­de­pen­dence.

This tech­nique — il­lu­mi­nat­ing the sweep­ing themes by fo­cus­ing the lens upon tan­gi­ble hu­man episodes — al­le­vi­ates the weight of the nar­ra­tive and fa­cil­i­tates the reader’s un­der­stand­ing of com­plex and nu­anced is­sues.

Inas­much as there are struc­tural dif­fi­cul­ties in the book, these lie in en­com­pass­ing the full pan­re­gional pic­ture through tan­gen­tial ref­er­ences to the smaller, out­ly­ing is­lands. Some, such as Mar­tinique and Do­minica, are ap­par­ently im­por­tant in their po­si­tion­ing and in­flu­ence, es­pe­cially in the early phases of Span­ish and French con­quest, but the pas­sages are some­times too fleet­ing to con­trib­ute mean­ing­fully to the over­all nar­ra­tive.

The book’s grav­i­tas serves as a per­sua­sive re­minder of mankind’s ca­pa­bil­ity for im­mense leaps of progress, jux­ta­posed with an ap­palling ca­pac­ity for greed, cru­elty and folly.

David Gorin

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