There are many histories of the Americas that begin with Columbus’s landing in what were to become known as the West Indies, but this is perhaps one of the few accessible accounts which focus on the Caribbean itself, and which follow through right to the present day. Carrie Gibson’s thesis is that the Caribbean was a unique crossroads for global empires, focusing of course on the European empires but showing how power was later conceded to the United States, but without forgetting the minor roles played by other imperial powers such as the Chinese.
Her thesis stands up very well and proves an excellent basis for a book which could easily have become a collection of bit parts given the number and diversity of the islands. Very sensibly, she extends her coverage to the Caribbean littoral, particularly Central America and Guyana and its neighbours, but not forgetting the influence of Florida, Colombia and Venezuela. If she focuses (as she concedes) on the major islands that were Spanish, British and French colonies, that is excusable as it allows a more manageable story.
Another challenge is to encapsulate more than 500 years of history in a single text. Inevitably Gibson is selective, but still manages to capture well the flow of events and their interconnectedness across the different Caribbean territories (not forgetting the very Caribbean nature of the Atlantic coasts of Central America, which until very recently have often had closer relations with Caribbean nations than with their own).
Obviously, several cross-cutting themes emerge, such as the harsh treatment and in many cases the extinction of indigenous peoples, the prevalence of crops such as sugar, tobacco and bananas and the ways in which their cultivation affected social conditions and political change, and the growth of the slave trade which these crops necessitated. Once crop specialisation and the slave trade began, Gibson shows how together they shaped the societies and the politics of the region, not only during the long history of slavery itself but also in its aftermath – in which conditions for black and other poor workers were generally only slightly improved. (Gibson has a telling statistic: Mississippi is the poorest US state, with 26% of the population living below the poverty line; however, the US colony in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, has 46% below the poverty line.)
This is the inevitable background to the development of the various dictatorships in the larger Caribbean islands. In parallel came the United States’ growing and later determinant role in the region, as it took over from the waning European colonial powers and sought to maintain its growing control over trade and also over political developments which might threaten its commercial dominance.
As I read Gibson’s book, in Cuba, the ‘Cuban Five’ who had been imprisoned by the US since 1998, were released. Gibson wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian on reactions in Havana, while my own impressions came from rural Cuba. Also in the Guardian, Martin Kettle made the point that the warming of US-Cuba relations doesn’t mean that Cuba is ‘coming in from the cold’ (as it was described in much of the media). Rather it is part of the process by which the US rejoins the modern world, by perhaps starting to give up the imperial ambitions that Britain, Spain and France largely renounced in the last century. Nowhere have these different empires interacted more than in the Caribbean, and Carrie Gibson’s book does justice to the complex history that has resulted, right up to the present day.