[Marxism] Empire’s Crossroads

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 4 12:34:56 MST 2015

Sunday NY Times Book Review, Jan. 4 2015
‘Empire’s Crossroads,’ by Carrie Gibson

To get from the airport on the former British West Indian colony of 
Dominica to the capital, Roseau, the birthplace of the novelist Jean 
Rhys, one has to travel through narrow winding roads with a sheer drop 
to the sea on one side and impenetrable forest on the other. Halfway 
along this road one is suddenly flung backward in time, seeing faces 
that have a startling resemblance to the indigenous people of the 
pre-Columbian era. They are the Kalinago people, or Caribs, as the 
Europeans called them. Carrie Gibson’s readable book, “Empire’s 
Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present 
Day,” tells of the Europeans’ first encounter with these and other 
Amerindians, and she explores the lingering impact of colonization on 
the island territories today.

Gibson’s research is thorough: She studied the history of the Spanish 
and French Caribbean for her Ph.D. at Cambridge University. And there is 
much for the historian and academic to chew on, including 352 pages of 
Caribbean history, eight pages of bibliography (merely some of the 
recent books she consulted), 44 pages of notes and an index covering 27 
pages. But the nonspecialist need not be daunted; Gibson knows how to 
hold the reader’s interest, and before you get too entangled in her 
meticulous research, she offers gems, sometimes poetic prose, often 
fascinating facts. The story of the Caribbean, she writes, is “dappled, 
a ramble with shadows and light rather than a march to triumph under a 
blazing sun.” She also describes the statue of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 
first wife, Josephine, which stands in the capital of Martinique — now 
beheaded, the body smeared with red paint, it faces the tourist beaches 
of Trois-Îlets. Josephine was suspected of persuading Napoleon to 
reinstate slavery in the French colonies as proof of her loyalty to 
France and the purity of her European blood.

The portrayal of Columbus as the discoverer of the Caribbean islands has 
already been debunked, but Gibson goes further, presenting the Europeans 
as ruthless invaders whose only goal was to pillage the Caribbean 
islands for gold and silver; finding little metal, they enslaved the 
Amerindians for forced labor on ­sugar-cane, cocoa and tobacco 
plantations. Slavery, Gibson tells us, was well within the moral codes 
of the Old World, as the Portuguese had been enslaving Africans with the 
approval of the pope. Persuaded that the Amerindians were cannibals, 
Europeans found additional justification to subjugate and, eventually, 
eradicate most of them. It was Columbus and his men, though, who not 
only gave the Amerindians their names, but divided them into peaceful 
and warmongering groups — a division that Gibson contends was a mere 
reflection of the European success or failure in controlling them. 
Although “there is no evidence that anyone on any island” ate human 
flesh, the fearsome Caribs were believed to be cannibals, a myth that 
persists to this day.

Europeans met with resistance in the Caribbean, and Gibson debunks yet 
another myth of the naïve native welcoming the white man. She also 
points out that geography and climate were major forces on the side of 
the natives, deterring the conquest of the islands: volcanoes, 
hurricanes, suffocating weather, swampy terrain, not to mention all 
sorts of insects, like the malaria-carrying mosquito. (Gibson notes that 
the Mosquito Coast got its name from the Miskito people, who early on 
successfully fought the Spanish.) Jamaica is hilly, so many Africans and 
Amerindians were able to escape slavery by hiding in caves in the hills. 
The density of the forest in Dominica, observable on the route from the 
airport to the capital, allowed many Kalinago people to survive, 
undetected among the thick trees. Alas, some terrain proved too 
hospitable; blessed with flat lands, Barbados was the perfect site for 
planting sugar cane, and the proximity of hardwood forests near the 
coast of Honduras made that country ideal for logging.

There are intriguing chapters in this book about the European wars on 
the seas, as the English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch fought 
over territories and trade routes. This was the time when sailors 
attacked ships to plunder their goods. We know them as pirates, but 
there were privateers, too, with letters of marque from their monarchs 
giving them permission to raid enemy ships. One such privateer was Sir 
Francis Drake, whom, as Gibson observes, Spain would have considered a 

The most painful chapters in “Empire’s Crossroads” are Gibson’s accounts 
of the “living death” that was slavery. This brutal system may have 
troubled the consciences of decent men, but they often found reasons to 
justify the practice nonetheless. For Oliver Cromwell, conquering 
Hispaniola would provide England with “the means to take forward its 
Puritan revolution.” For the men of the Enlightenment, a defense of 
slavery reflected a fear that the sugar economy might collapse. As early 
as 1700, sugar in the Caribbean was worth £4 billion in today’s money 
and quadrupled in value over the next 70 years. Britons, Gibson adds, 
had developed “a weakness for sugar” and for luxury goods bought with 
revenues from the crop.

The British ultimately abolished slavery, in 1833, though not without 
pressure from the enslaved Africans who threatened to withhold their 
labor and, in many instances, destroyed plantations. Tracing the history 
of slave revolts in the Caribbean, Gibson focuses on the Haitian 
revolution, which cost the life of its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture; 
she also cites Eric Williams, the historian and first prime minister of 
Trinidad and Tobago, who famously claimed that market economics and the 
Industrial Revolution, not enlightened humanitarianism, ended slavery. 
Given the continuing arguments for reparations, it is interesting to 
note that after Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, slave-owning 
planters shared a £20 million compensation pot.

As it happened, market economics also ushered in the end of colonial 
rule. “After the Second World War,” Gibson writes, “Britain was 
exhausted — bankrupt and bomb-scarred, its commodities still on 
rations,” and so it was more economically feasible to relinquish the 
colonies than resist their demands for political independence. Many from 
the Caribbean islands, though, trusting in the “mother country,” had 
answered the British call for help rebuilding the war-torn country and 
met with hostility because of the color of their skin.

Color discrimination, of course, was not new in the Caribbean; during 
slavery, “mulattos” were treated better than their dark-skinned 
counterparts on the plantations. In his popular book “Outliers,” Malcolm 
Gladwell observes that “the brown-skinned classes of Jamaica came to 
fetishize their lightness. It was their great advantage.” As Black Power 
movements swept through the islands in the second half of the 20th 
century, color distinctions in the political parties were abundantly 
clear, particularly in the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago and in 
Guyana, where there are dense populations of the descendants of South 
Asian Indians who first came to the islands as indentured laborers. 
“Slavery was gone,” Gibson remarks, “but its inequalities remained.”

Acknowledging the contributions of music, literature and art from the 
island nations to present-day America and Europe, Gibson ends on a 
triumphant note. She counters V. S. Naipaul’s oft-quoted contention in 
“The Middle Passage” that “nothing was created in the West Indies,” with 
an assertion of her own: “Everything was created in the West Indies.” 
Her book, a tribute to a place that “remains in the middle of it all,” 
convincingly defends this position.

Elizabeth Nunez is the author of eight novels, including “Prospero’s 
Daughter,” and a recent memoir, “Not for Everyday Use.”

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