WSJ Review: Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads


Howard Schneider reviews Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads for The Wall Street Journal.


By Carrie Gibson

Atlantic Monthly Press, 447 pages, $28

Is there any place on the planet that rivals the Caribbean in the disparity between its popular image and its reality? “Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day” makes that seem unlikely. Carrie Gibson’s book is an exhaustive corrective to those who think merely of splendid beaches, cerulean skies and calypso. For centuries, the Caribbean was forged in blood, slavery and Western realpolitik, and it still bears the scars.

Color, class, caste and colonialism are the legacy of the modern Caribbean, a legacy inherited from European—and, later, American—invaders. (In this book, “Caribbean” encompasses not just islands but the Latin American countries bordering its sea.) Christopher Columbus, the Genoese mariner commissioned by Spain to find a western sea route to the Orient, led the first European expedition to land on a Caribbean island (probably one of the Bahamas)—in 1492, of course. In three subsequent voyages, Columbus established the template for much future Western-Caribbean interaction: Abetted by superior weaponry, he enslaved and killed many native people, and his crew members brought European diseases with them.

By the time of the American Revolution, the Caribbean had been colonized by Spain, France, the Netherlands and Britain. The colonies were frequent bargaining chips in a welter of European wars, traded away to cement alliances and treaties. The region’s value to Europe was economic. There was gold in Latin America; and cacao, tobacco and coffee beans were all grown on the islands. As was sugar, perhaps the most economically, politically—and morally—significant commodity. Europeans had swiftly developed a craving for the stuff after it was brought to the Continent during the Crusades. And so, “Caribbean history,” Ms. Gibson maintains, “was transformed—deformed—by the worthless commodity of sugar. Of course, it wasn’t financially worthless, then or now, but the human body does not need it to survive.”

By the 1570s, sugar was being grown in Brazil, Puerto Rico and what is now the Dominican Republic. Eventually, Spanish, British and French plantation owners throughout the Caribbean were producing sugar cane. Inevitably, they relied on slave labor, particularly enslaved Africans, to grow the crops. Why Africans? Indigenous people had been decimated by Western diseases and warfare, and Europeans were vulnerable to malaria and yellow fever. (One also suspects that, while Europeans were keen to profit from the sugar trade, they were loath to work in the fields.) But “African slaves had a higher survival rate because many were immune to malaria, having already been exposed to it, as well as to yellow fever, another unwelcome arrival in the West Indies.” Plantation owners came to believe that it “became more cost-effective to buy slaves rather than contract with [European] indentured servants.”

It’s dismaying to learn just how many states were involved at one time or another in the slave trade: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain, the United States, and even Denmark, Sweden and the elector of Brandenburg. Between 1700 and the early 1800s, millions of Africans were ruthlessly transported to the Caribbean. The Spanish colonies “allowed for a system of coartación, in which slaves could negotiate the price of their freedom and pay their masters in instalments. . . .However, this is not to say the system was in reality any more benign.” As Ms. Gibson says, by the early 18th century, slavery “was already a living death for millions, and in the course of the 18th century, this brutal trade only got worse.”

Admirers of the Enlightenment will, I think, be appalled to learn from “Empire’s Crossroads” some ugly truths concerning certain Enlightenment eminences: John Locke was “a shareholder in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company,” and Montesquieu, in his 1748 “The Spirit of the Laws,” “went on to argue that in tropical climates the condition of slavery is more ‘natural’ and thus justified. And he showed little compassion to the slaves themselves, arguing that sugar would be too expensive were it not for slave labour.”

From their introduction into the Caribbean, slaves resisted, rebelled and tried to escape, but it would take a sea change in the European mindset, and a concurrent tempering of some of the more pernicious aspects of mercantilism, to eliminate—in stages—the evil phenomenon. Denmark terminated the slave trade in its colonies in 1803 and abolished slavery itself in 1847. British abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce, persuaded Parliament to outlaw the slave trade in 1807. The Royal Navy would also be authorized to intercept the slave ships of all nations in order to thwart the trade. In 1834, Britain abolished slavery altogether in its domains—after a transitional period of four years. The other European slaveholding nations—France, the Netherlands, Sweden—emancipated their slaves in the mid-19th century. Brazil, which gained its freedom from Portugal in 1822, became “the last territory in the Americas to abolish slavery”—in 1888. Of course, the sugar still had to be harvested. Hence the introduction into the Caribbean of large numbers of Indians and Chinese. They weren’t slaves, but their lives were harsh. Their mores would blend with African, European and Native American mores to create new local languages and cultures.

Not every Caribbean island was dependent on European benevolence for the extirpation of slavery. A slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Dominguebegan in 1791 and succeeded in eliminating slavery in 1793. In 1804, after fending off military incursions by the Spanish, French and British, Saint-Domingue became the Republic of Haiti. Toussaint Louverture, a freed slave, the “black Napoleon” and a hero of the Haitian revolution, cuts an ambiguous figure in Ms. Gibson’s chronicle. He comes across as someone as interested in self-aggrandizement as in freeing his fellow Haitians.

Many of the countries in Latin America that abutted the Caribbean gained their freedom from Spain in the 19th century; but the islands, for the most part, had to wait until after World War II. (Some preferred to remain attached in one way or another to European nations or the United States.) The last part of this book covers those events as well as how the evolving new nations have addressed fraught issues like the Cold War, race, drug smuggling, political violence, and the gap between rich and poor.

Anyone who reads “Empire’s Crossroads” in its entirety will acknowledge that the Caribbean endured a grim past and faces formidable challenges today. Such a conscientious reader would also earn my admiration, because reading this book is like reading an almanac from cover to cover. Ms. Gibson was obviously intent on including every single fact that she acquired during her research: The book is crammed to bursting with data and statistics. Jamaica and Bermuda, for instance, are scrutinized in the early 16th century, then the mid-16th century, and on up to the present.

One casualty of Ms. Gibson’s deluge of detail-gathering is her sense of proportion and perspective. She devotes a mere five sentences to the Spanish-American War—a seminal event for modern Cuba. But an American libel case involving the song “Rum and Coca-Cola” garners three pages, and Caribbean airline routes earn two long paragraphs. Race—specifically, categories of race—also falls victim to the book’s piling on of data. Ms. Gibson apparently believed that readers would be able to keep separate in their minds the initial explanations of “creoles,” “mulattos,” “blacks,” “maroons,” “zambos.” This reader couldn’t. One consequential event that isn’t in the book is the 1978 mass suicide and murder of over 900 people at Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, surely one of that nation’s most traumatic incidents. The omission is baffling.

“Empire’s Crossroads” is, overtly, nonideological, but one surmises that Ms. Gibson is somewhere to the left of center. Castro’s Cuba is cited for its “world-famous state-run health-care system, universal education, and housing for all”; moreover, “Cuba is far more egalitarian than other Caribbean societies.” Nowhere does the author indicate that Castro imposed a vicious communist regime on the island. I wish that Ms. Gibson had been explicit about her ideological, or at least her political, beliefs. It might have infused her book with some energy and intensity and turned the eminent personages who populate her history into more than mere words on a page.

“Empire’s Crossroads” is lucidly written. But as an archive of how ravening nations and individuals battened on a vulnerable region, it is so obsessively delineated that its shocking and shameful segments begin to pall on the reader. The Caribbean deserves better.

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