Business Day

A history that still reverberat­es

- 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

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa