A history that still reverberates
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.