11 May, 2015Issue 28.2HistoryWorld Politics

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Caribbean Conjunctures

Jake Richards

Empire’s Crossroads: A New History of the Caribbean
By Carrie Gibson
Pan Books, 2015 (paperback)
456 pages
ISBN: 9781447217282


The Caribbean could have been called the Tainean. The Spanish decided not to name it after the Tainos, its eirenic inhabitants, but instead after their supposed cannibalistic counterparts, the Caribs. Ever since, the Caribbean has generated myths, fantasies, and a European assumption that imperialists could create whatever ecologies, economies, and societies they wanted in the region. Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads unpacks those assumptions and locates them alongside the agency of locals in her lucid and wide-ranging account.

Crossroads are points on journeys, where people are on the move and goods are exchanged. But they can also signify zones of decision-making and experimentation. Gibson’s work is more convincing on the first two of these points than the last one. She begins her account with European plans to find a sea route to the East and the presence of slaves in the Mediterranean, before charting the introduction of sugar to the Caribbean, the Haitian Revolution (a key turning point for Gibson), and interventions by the US ranging from the Monroe Doctrine to United Fruit. She ends with sections on independence movements through unionized political activism and the growth of the Caribbean’s tourist industry and cultural outputs.

Gibson’s Caribbean is a region animated by broad continuities regarding exchange and population displacement. Imperialism as an alliance between owners of capital and governing structures—loyalty and tax in return for protection and preferential treatment—began with Spanish encomiendas and continued with British sugar plantations and American fruit firms. The imperialism of free trade often compelled governments to intervene to protect their interests in unexpected ways and areas, and led to the development of Caribbean economies based on extraction rather than industrialization, diversification, and service-based industries. (For Gibson, the tourist trade continues the trend of exploitation of Caribbean peoples and their environments by constructing their homes as an “invented paradise.”)

Population displacement began with the diseases brought by Columbus. Initial contact killed off most of the natives of South and Central America. To replace them, imperial powers turned to West African slaves, then black Americans, and finally indentured Indians, Chinese, Javanese, and ‘Syrians’ (a catch-all term for Lebanese Christians as well as people from Syria). In the Dominican Republic, President Trujillo invited Jewish settlers as a way to whiten his dictatorship after massacring Haitians in 1937. The Caribbean’s crossroads invited extractive economic exchanges with imperial powers and a continual search for new sources of immigrant labour. The crossroads offered economic opportunity for imperialists and little guarantee of a home for migrants. Haiti’s Revolution disrupted these continuities. Gibson’s account perspicaciously explains how Haitians conceived of their independence and how they attempted various land reforms under Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandre Pétion, and Jean-Pierre Boyer. The following chapter examines how Haiti’s example inspired other revolutionary movements, such as Simon Bolívar’s stay in early 1816 for strategic advice and supplies. These two central chapters are the strongest in the work.

Gibson has a remarkable eye for the inventiveness and contingency involved in administering and subverting imperial rule in the Caribbean. She tracks down confidential Home Office reports that first suggested that Marcus Garvey’s UNIA league for black unity and self-improvement had inspired “the first fruits of the doctrine of socialistic equality.” Robert Lansing, US Secretary of State, predicted that UNIA “might repeat the French experience of Haiti.” Both governments betrayed panicked prescience as early as 1919-21. She relates the tale of an immigration official in Barbados in 1970 who was shaken up when handed a landing card by Stokely Carmichael that read: “In order to free OUR land, we have to KILL.” The official’s face must have been a picture. When Jamaica gained independence in 1962, the island’s press celebrated with adverts exhorting housewives to “be independent of housework!” Clearly every revolution needs vacuum cleaners to clear up after the vanguard.

Gibson’s attempts to pack in this detail and cover such a wide range of places, however, occludes a deeper analysis of the Caribbean as a zone of experimentation. There was a chance to demonstrate what C. A. Bayly has called multiple modernities—the idea that empires provided colonized peoples with the opportunity to reflect on their pre-imperial traditions and practices, to combine them with those introduced by empires, and thereby construct their own views of independence, liberalism, and progress. Writers as different as Frantz Fanon and Derek Walcott, as well as activists like Garvey, contributed to these kinds of projects, which would have been borne out by an analysis of their lives and writings. Instead, Gibson settles for a primary-of-origins scenario, in which the Caribbean emerges as the producer of things that made the West “modern”:

The Europe of today, its financial foundations built with sugar money and the factories and mills built as a result of the work of slaves thousands of miles away; the idea of true equality as espoused in 1794 Saint-Domingue; and even globalization and migration, with the ships passing to and fro taking people and goods in all possible directions, hundreds of years before the term ‘globalization’ was coined.

But it is not clear that Haiti or the plantations caused any of these phenomena; more importantly, their merits as historical subjects are not determined by the plausibility of claims that they did so.

In turn, it can be hard to calculate why individuals or empires thought the Caribbean offered such promising opportunities to devise economic or ecological experiments and to play out fantasies. Did the destruction of native populations create a sort of terra nullius for which there were no rules? Did the long voyage without a coastline in sight make the destinations seem otherworldly and its enslaved inhabitants less than human? Problems of historical motivation can perhaps never be resolved except tentatively, but other historians such as Richard Grove in Green Imperialism (1996) have at least attempted to do so.

The continuities Gibson draws out in terms of extractive economic systems and population displacement can also lead her to make some counterintuitive observations. The Caribbean “provided a training ground” for American interventionist policy; the CIA was involved in attempts to remove reformist presidents in Guatemala in order to protect the interests of United Fruit, something Gibson sees repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. But America’s past interventions do not necessarily entail further counterproductive involvement in the Caribbean. Transparent American involvement seems preferable to Chinese investment, which, as Gibson suggests, may just be an attempt to prevent Caribbean support for Taiwan. Similarly, Gibson criticizes the decision by the World Bank and Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to support the construction of the Royal Oasis Hotel whilst more than 300,000 people live in temporary accommodation following the 2010 earthquake. But it is not obvious that redistributing the investment among all people would lead to the kind of economic dynamism required to enable Haiti to recover. Imperialism may loom large in Caribbean history, but it does not lurk behind every US investment and policy, and capital investment by liberal democratic institutions and states is something one can be more optimistic about.

Gibson’s work is impressively wide-ranging in its geographic scope, archival research, and thematic coverage. Her ability to animate her subjects, and her narrative voice, are admirable. This makes her account an illuminating and pleasurable read, even if the deeper points about modernities, motivations of locals and imperialists, and the possible futures open to the Caribbean at a post-imperial crossroads are wide of the mark.

Jake Richards is studying for an M. St. in Modern British and European History at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.