How 500 years of European rule in the Caribbean helped determine the patterns of “human malfeasance” repeated globally to the present day.
In an ambitious work bringing together fragmented histories of more than 20 different islands across an area of 3,000 miles, journalist Gibson, a scholar of the Spanish Caribbean trained at Cambridge University, finds in the unifying theme of a colonial heritage the sobering legacy of exploitation, greed and inequality. A drive for “grain, gold and God” seized the first Portuguese explorers, while Christopher Columbus, infused in the work of Marco Polo, was so certain that he could navigate a passage to the East that when he landed at “San Salvador,” he was sure he had struck Polo’s Cipango—Japan. Yet this was not a land of Oriental splendor but rather islands occupied by humble indigenous peoples; nonetheless, “desire would triumph over reason,” which became a recurrent theme for hundreds of years. Sugar production—rendered profitable by the Portuguese and Genoese on the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Canaries—was quickly established in these new colonies of the West Indies, along with tobacco, salt, coffee, cacao and, later, cotton. The distinctive and organized indigenous people were enslaved, killed by new diseases or converted, and new plants and animals were introduced, including farm animals, grapes and wheat (in addition to all manner of insects and microbes). A globalized factory system was thus put into place on Hispaniola, Cuba, Barbados and elsewhere, and the use of indentured servants was discarded in favor of African slaves. The hunger for luxury goods created a “growing global commodity chain” that would define the region, spurring world warfare and revolution once inequality between the haves and have-nots grew unsustainable. Bolstered by her travel experiences in St. Martin, Trinidad, Guyana and other places, Gibson delivers a useful, manageable history of the region.
Judicious chronicles of individual islands (Haiti, Cuba) emerge from a larger, bleak picture of an “invented paradise.”