Empire’s Crossroads

GibsonThe Caribbean is, and has been, a crossroads in human history. It has been a site of convergence – where people have met, fought, exploited one another, and created new cultures. The incorporation of Caribbean colonies into Western European economies created another sort of crossroads in world history, helping to prompt a ‘great divergence’ in which nations with access to New World colonies and their slave-produced exports were put on a faster path to economic growth than other regions of the globe.

Carrie Gibson’s new book takes a sweeping view of this complicated Caribbean intersection, beginning with its so-called ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and taking us up to the present day. It is a bold narrative history of a part of the world that, in many ways, defies synthesis. Precisely because the Caribbean was at a crossroads between various European empires (not to mention the involvement of the USA and, more recently, China) its history criss-crosses with those of Britain, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and others. Caribbean people speak English, French, Spanish, Dutch and many varieties of Caribbean Creole. Simply defining the region is difficult: are we talking about the whole of the Caribbean littoral, only the islands, or just those parts most affected by the defining experiences of slavery and plantation agriculture?

Gibson takes us on a very readable journey through Caribbean history, although it is in some ways surprising that we begin in Western Europe and with Columbus. This is a traditional sort of opening for a book that might well have started in the Caribbean before the arrival of Europeans, or with West Africans – millions of whom were trafficked as slaves to turn the Caribbean into a huge source of wealth and power, not only for individual colonial planters and transatlantic merchants, but for whole European nations. The book goes on to tell the story of the rise and fall of West Indian sugar plantations, slavery and emancipation, nation-building, pan-Africanism, the devastating impact of a Cold War that was not so cold in the Caribbean, different types of migration, and the rise of mass tourism.

This account brings life to its subjects through bold writing and makes use of illuminating quotes and examples. The chapters are divided into subsections that tend to deal with particular regions and events – for instance the chapter on the ending of slavery has sections on the decline of Spain, independent Haiti, slave resistance in the British Caribbean, and American filibustering expeditions. This approach helps bring together the fragmented stories of several different Caribbeans, principally the Hispanic, Francophone and Anglophone, although in places more might have been done to segue between the sections. Gibson’s privileging of narration over explanation left me wishing for a bit more discussion to tease out the wider implications of events and connections between them.

The main strength of Empire’s Crossroads is in its wide vision of Caribbean history. Places like Jamaica, Martinique and the Dominican Republic are dealt with side by side. The Cuban Revolution is presented as a pan-Caribbean event. We also learn about the Caribbean in regional context – about revolutionary relations between Haiti and Venezuela, Martiniquans on the Panama Canal, Jamaicans labouring on Costa Rican banana plantations, as well as the wider Caribbean diasporas of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This type of transnational approach is the mark of an exciting young author whose PhD was about the Haitian Revolution in the Hispanic Caribbean. It certainly helps make this into an original introduction to one of the world’s most complex and fascinating regions.