Friday, December 12, 2014

What We're Reading: New History

Empire’s Crossroads:
A History of the Caribbean
from Columbus to the Present Day,
by Carrie Gibson.

How do you cover in any coherent and syncretic way 500 years of history in a geography composed of innumerable islands and coastal regions, each with a unique history of colonization and economic development? The Caribbean is an area with many countries that have each developed an idiosyncratic pastiche of cultural traditions and experienced their own individual course of political development. And yet, Gibson manages to give us an overview that identifies shared experiences of the region and convince us of the importance of the centrality of the Caribbean region to the history of major Western European colonial and financial development. She takes on the ambition of recovering this history for a region that in our own time, for a complex of reasons both historical and cultural, we seem to value for the very reason that we have placed it outside of history.

The Caribbean, to whatever scant degree we consider it historically, has become in our modern imaginations a place that was populated by whimsical and endearing pirates, not the outlaws who murdered, raped, and sacked cities. We don’t think of what life was like on the islands at all. Instead of the long history of savage colonial exploitation by major powers, of brutal slavery, demographic displacement, disease, and political turmoil, a history that has bequeathed to the region continued instability and grinding poverty, the islands of the Caribbean are in our popular culture the destination of luxury cruise liners that give largely white and wealthy tourists a chance to visit a putative tropical paradise. You can win a trip there on a game show. Tourism takes visitors to a make- believe world, to paradisiacal theme parks built as sequestered enclaves in areas of the islands away from the poverty, corruption, and endemic crime. Most of the impoverished islanders share little in this revenue, which is funneled to foreign-owned corporations.

A map of the Caribbean by Herman Moll, 1736

Henry Morgan was one of the
most ruthless pirates (privateers)
of the Caribbean, and built
his reputation on his predation
on Spanish ships and ports in
the late 17th century.
Gibson’s major achievement here is to restore to our consciousness the actual history of the Caribbean, to make us understand how that history serves as a microcosm of the brutality and exploitation of Western colonial powers over a long period of time, and to show us how the various islands, claimed by England, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, became embroiled in a region where conflicts between the great powers were played out in microcosm. After the early years of initial contact, in which the Spanish had taken whatever wealth in gold and silver the islands contained, for hundreds of years the islands of the West Indies were valued by European powers for the great wealth they brought each nation from the growing market in sugar. In early forays into the Atlantic, Spain and Portugal had developed models for slave-worked sugar plantations on the Cape Verde, Azores, and Canary islands. On the Caribbean islands, sugar was grown by slaves brought from Africa, who replaced native populations that were decimated by war and by diseases brought to the region by Europeans (and also by Africans--malaria and yellow fever, so associated in our minds with tropical regions of the Caribbean and Central America, were not native diseases but are thought to have come to the region from Africa, where most of the native populations there had developed immunities to them). The West Indies fueled the growth of the international slave trade, and its victims were enslaved in a particularly onerous and brutal regime of cultivating and processing sugar. The European exploitation of the West Indies produced massive demographic shifts, along with racism that resulted in stratifications and political violence that persist in the area to this day. The islands included populations of natives, of Europeans, of creole island native Europeans, of enslaved (and eventually emancipated) Africans, of workers imported from other parts of the British Empire, such as India and China, and people who were mixtures of every combination of these races.

Work and punishment on Caribbean sugar plantations

There were frequent shifts in imperial ownership, as the islands of the Caribbean were often trading pawns in the settlement of wars between the great European powers. The wealth that came to the imperial powers from the revenues of slave labor on the islands was a significant source of capital that helped finance their economic and early industrial development.

The islands were economically and politically important to the American Colonies as well. They were a source of smuggled goods, and many New Englanders also grew wealthy from participation in the rum and slave trade. During the American Revolution, the fact that rival powers owned various islands in the Caribbean made it possible for certain Caribbean islands to be used as conduits for smuggling arms to the American Colonists. An argument can be made that the absence of a British naval fleet (which had left the Atlantic coast bent on exploiting the opportunity of raiding Dutch islands in the Caribbean) resulted in the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown and the loss of the British North American colonies. And the uprising of slaves on Saint-Domingue at the close of the century, which struck terror into the hearts of slave owners everywhere, was ultimately responsible for Napoleon’s decision to sell to the young republic the Louisiana Territory after the French were unsuccessful in reclaiming the island.

The battle of Vertières in 1803, at which French forces were defeated,
ended the successful Haitian Revolution on the island of Saint-Domingue.
Gibson traces the shift through the 19th century from European dominance to the growing hegemony of the United States in the region, its interest in Cuba (many Southerners before the Civil War were keen to annex Cuba), the insistence on American control of the Panama Canal, and the economic imperialism that developed through major corporate entities like the United Fruit Company. And of course the Caribbean became the focus once again of major power rivalry during the Cold War during the Cuban missile crisis.

Gibson’s treatment of some events in this history may feel cursory or incomplete, but that comes, understandably, with trying to cover 500 years of history over so vast a territory. The important accomplishment of Empire’s Crossroads is that major themes emerge in this history: the brutality of European exploitation of both native and slave populations and its lasting legacy; the once huge economic and strategic importance of the Caribbean in the rivalry between these great powers (and later the importance of control of the Caribbean to the United States); and the sad story of what is left when history moves on from the scene of a great crime, when a region once fought over shifts into the shadow of international neglect. In a moving conclusion to her survey, Gibson sees some hope of these nations of displaced persons forging together some shared culture and history, that it might have something to teach us all as the globe becomes smaller and as our polities become more racially mixed and diverse. Perhaps. But one cannot help but think that this vast region with its violence, frequent governmental corruption, and terrible poverty, with its natural disasters of volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes, this area that was Columbus’s first landing and what we first came to recognize as a New World, is but a hapless victim of our own prosperity that we have left outside our door.

No comments: