Empire’s Crossroads is subtitled A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day. Which is what it is. It’s historian Carrie Gibson‘s first book, built around her long-standing interest in the Caribbean.
It was always going to be a challenge to put together a coherent narrative, given how many islands there are in the Caribbean, how many North, Central and South American countries border it, and how many different empires have fought over it.
Gibson succeeds mainly at the beginning and the end. At the beginning, there’s a single strand of Atlantic exploration, Columbus’s voyages and the early impact of Spanish exploitation in the region. Then there are a couple of big themes—sugar and slavery—dealt with in satisfactory detail.
In the middle, the story (like the Caribbean) dissolves into a confusion of events. The narrative shifts back and forth in time, jumps from location to location, and occasionally feels rushed and skimpy. This sea was fought over by the navies of several powers for many years, but Gibson isn’t really interested in the naval battles—only the Battle of the Saintes is dealt with in any detail, and for that she concentrates mainly on the personality of Admiral Sir Charles Rodney.
I did learn a lot about the American War of Independence, though, in which the revolutionaries were greatly supported by foreign aid from France, Spain and the Netherlands, channelled through their possessions in the Caribbean. Gibson provides one a killer statistic—that 90% of the gunpowder used by the Americans in the early years of the war came from the Caribbean, particularly the Dutch Caribbean.
And I learned that Sweden, of all places, once had a colonial foothold in the Caribbean. Saint Barthélemy, nowadays a Caribbean clone of the French Riviera, was Swedish soil for most of the nineteenth century.
Gibson also writes well about how the end of slavery brought its own problems, in the form of destitute ex-slaves and collapsing colonial economies.
By the time we reach the twentieth century, we’re back to big themes, and the narrative becomes more coherent again—independence movements, the problems of racism, the movement of workers in and out of the area, the advent of tourism, and the advent of drug smuggling. The Cold War looms large, as the USA tries endlessly to adjust the politics and economics of the Caribbean to match its own interests. Gibson is notable impatient about this, and at times loses her historian’s disinterested stance:
US interference perhaps reached its apogee in this period, with the Cold War as a pretext for seemingly incessant meddling.
So I think we know how she feels about that, then.
Although the end of the Cold War saw the disappearance of Soviet intervention, and a damping down of the influence (overt and covert) of the USA, the poor Caribbean is still at the mercy of outside forces. I had no idea that China and Taiwan were conducting an ongoing popularity contest in these waters, pumping money into the area in exchange for voting allegiances in the United Nations. And then of course there’s the International Monetary Fund—some of the islands are servicing crippling debts that exceed their Gross Domestic Product.
And I also learned about Rastafarianism, the Black Power movement, the source of the phrase “banana republic”, and the origins of reggae. In fact, I reached the end of the book with the sense that I had learned a very great deal, but without really being able to gather it together in my head. I’m not sure how much I’ll recall in a month’s time.
Fortunately, the book has an excellent index—it’s easy to assemble the history of a particular island, for instance. There’s also a timeline of the main events, and a compact little gazetteer for the islands and the surrounding coast.
There are just three maps, which isn’t a lot, given the time span and the area covered. But then, I always think books need more maps.