The carmaker Henry Ford once informed us that "History is bunk." Had Ford read Carrie Gibson’s excellent “Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day,” he might have changed his tune. Gibson’s book, which ends in the present, reinforces William Faulkner’s memorable quote: "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."
History has many valuable uses. It also has misuses. In the United States, there is a sense that history should be positive, a source of optimism and a unifying force. This can be a tricky business when that history includes slavery, genocide, racism and state sponsored oppression.
And when group identity is involved, the digging for evidence and search for facts can present real problems. For example, in the era of reaction in the United States, a new version of our racial history has taken root on the political right. It is that, yes, slavery was bad, but it did provide employment; the Civil War was not about slavery, but about "state’s rights”; Reconstruction was a failure; a century of violent segregation merely involved separate water fountains; the civil rights acts "leveled the playing field," but then it all went too far, leading to affirmative action, which was as bad as slavery; and, in the latest chapter, white people became the real victims of racism.
Author Carrie Gibson is having none of this. (Spoiler alert: if you believe that white people are the No. 1 race, that European civilization is the gold standard, and that the United States is a beacon of freedom and justice, Empire’s Crossroads may not be the book for you.)
In Gibson’s Caribbean, the legacy of slavery is everywhere to be found. Europeans have typically seen themselves playing a civilizing mission. In the early period of European exploration and conquest, Gibson describes behaviors that could have served as a training manual for ISIS. These behaviors even had a similar religious wraparound with Pope Eugene IV declaring that Africans were "enemies of God."
Then came the major turning point: the cultivation of what Gibson refers to as a "worthless commodity." That commodity was sugar, and with the growth of sugar cultivation came the rapid expansion of barbarous slavery. In his brilliant history of 20th century Europe (To Hell and Back, 2015), Ian Kershaw describes the eastern front in World War II as the low point in human civilization going back to the time that humans began to walk upright. Slavery in the Western hemisphere would give it a run for its money.
Gibson does an excellent job of helping the reader keep track of changing conditions in different parts of the region over five centuries. Slavery, oppression and resilience are the threads that drive the narrative. We understand the seminal importance of the Haitian revolution and the long and torturous path to emancipation throughout the region. Haiti was the incubator of that drive for freedom.
In an example of how crooked the path was, the Danes granted freedom to all children born after 1847 but with a 12-year "grace period" for other slaves. In response, 2,000-armed slaves on St. Croix marched on the fort in Frederiksted demanding immediate freedom. They succeeded. But, with the dawn of the 20th century, as Gibson says, "Slavery was gone, but its inequities remained."
In the 20th century, as Europe destroyed itself in war and genocide, a rising United States filled the vacuum. One result was the United States’ purchase of the Virgin Islands from Denmark. As Gibson tells us, "When the U.S. sent inspectors to see what they had bought, the report was not encouraging."
The last sections of the book describe the path to independence across the region and the economic transformation that has occurred, including the rise of tourism in a chapter titled "Invented Paradise." It ends with a sobering assessment of the future and the challenges that the region faces. These challenges will all be familiar to Virgin Islanders.
As for the region’s place in a changing world, Gibson ends by saying, "whichever way the axis of power tilts for the foreseeable future, the Caribbean remains in the middle of it all, a crossroads connecting the world as it has done for more than five hundred years."
A terrific book.
Frank Schneiger is a regular columnist for The Source.