“Empire’s Crossroads” Review – ‘A strikingly assured history of the Caribbean’

British colonists served by African slaves at a ball in Spanish Town, Jamaica

Iain Morris (The Guardian) writes a review of Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (2014), in which she explains how sugar and slavery have bankrolled the modern globalized world. [Also see previous post New Book: Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads—A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day.] Here are excerpts with a link to the full review below:

[. . .] But the late 18th century also witnessed the beginning of the end. Just as France experienced its own revolution, slaves on the French colony of Saint-Domingue overthrew the plantation owners and established the independent Republic of Haiti in 1804. Starting with Britain in 1834, Europe’s governments would gradually abolish slavery throughout the 19th century. Yet the legacy of slavery and the racism it bred would persist until the modern day.

For all the common threads running throughout the story of the Caribbean, the experiences of its many countries have been wildly divergent, as anyone travelling from Haiti to the former Spanish colony of Cuba would quickly attest. Carrie Gibson manages to weave 500 years of complex history into a brilliantly coherent and thematic narrative in Empire’s Crossroads, her first book, motivated by a “nagging disquiet” that so much atrocity underpinned the cultivation and sale of a commodity as inessential as sugar. As she recounts in the introduction, a childhood spent in America’s deep south, scarred by its own history of slavery and racial prejudice, also imbued her with an enduring curiosity about the neighbouring region and the different path that discovery, exploitation and, ultimately, emancipation took on its islands.

Unsurprisingly, then, Gibson’s writing is tinged with a sense of indignation at the wrongdoings that were perpetrated in the Caribbean, from the moment the Portuguese and Spanish first arrived until America’s invasion of Grenada as recently as 1983. Slavery was irrevocably bound up with the mercantilist trading system on which Europe grew fat between the 16th and 18th centuries, and it was only when this fell out of favour in the more laissez-faire 19th century that abolition gained momentum. Without necessarily belittling the efforts of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, Gibson makes readers face up to the unsettling likelihood that economic changes – rather than growing public sympathy for the plight of the slaves – brought this form of exploitation to its end.

[. . .] At heart, Gibson may be diametrically opposed to empire apologists like Niall Ferguson, but she can also write about empire with a broad perspective, placing the history of the Caribbean in the context of major global developments. The Protestant Reformation emboldened northern Europeans to disregard papal orders and enter West Indian waters. The French Revolution was an important catalyst for the uprising on Saint-Domingue that led to Haitian independence. And Napoleon’s invasion of Spain helped bring about the collapse of its New World empire, which vanished entirely when Cuba and Puerto Rico fell under American influence in 1898.

That does not mean events in the Caribbean have merely been a sideshow. As its title implies, Empire’s Crossroads puts the region at the centre of clashes between the European powers (although one wonders if it should have been called Empires’ Crossroads), noting the influence it has had – for good or ill – on industrialisation, the concept of human rights and more. As far as Gibson is concerned, “everything was created in the West Indies. The Europe of today, its financial foundations built with sugar money – the factories and mills … the idea of true equality … and even globalisation and migration.”

For full review, see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/30/empires-crossroads-carrie-gibson-caribbean-history-review

For purchasing information, see http://www.amazon.com/Empires-Crossroads-History-Caribbean-Columbus/dp/0802126146

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