“…Europe’s initial encounter with the Caribbean was more accident than destiny, and Columbus was a stubborn egotist rather than a navigational genius.” Yet the word “colony” comes from the Spaniard’s surname, Colon; many Americans still celebrate Columbus Day; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Carrie Gibson is a writer for
The Guardian and a student of the Spanish Caribbean who has traveled widely in the area. Her book takes us from first European landfall to conquest to downfall, as so many Caribbean fiefdoms have plummeted into harsh conditions, revolution and dependence in modern times. Though the Europeans soon realized that Columbus had not reached the East Indies, they were already fired up with the ideals of conquest and conversion, and within a few years of first meeting the natives of Cuba, Hispaniola and other likely colonies, had decimated the local populations.
The Indians were not willing to work for these invaders, sometimes committing mass suicide rather than endure extreme cruelty from their supposedly more enlightened subjugators. Poisoning of slaveowners by natives was not unknown, but hardly as widespread as was physical torture of the most horrific sort by the plantation operatives. The history of the islands—a kind of paradise of sunshine, salubrious climate and soil fertility—then became inextricably linked to the saga of the African slave trade and the annals of the exploitation of poor Latin countries by wealthy industrialized nations.
The suppression of native cultures and the adulation of whiteness is part and parcel of the Caribbean legacy; Franz Fanon of Martinique wrote that the colonized person “becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.”
The mandate to white purity among islanders, whose racial characteristics quickly became mixed, was never better illustrated than in the massacres, during five days in 1937, of 25,000 Haitians who crept over the border into the Dominican Republic periodically for work and food. President Trujillo (a dictator openly supported by the United States) ordered that all Haitians in the border areas be killed by any method other than bullets, which would have implicated his army; the orders were to “bayonet, hack with a machete, or simply club the Haitians to death.” To his (perhaps only) credit, in 1938 Trujillo accepted a boatload of Jewish refugees because they were white; those families prospered, and some still live on the northern coast.
Gibson has done well in bringing to attention the checkered past of this internationally significant part of the world, where the heroes are few—Toussaint L’Ouverture being one of a handful—while the scalawags, slavers, rebels, paid pols, and carpetbaggers seem mostly to have prevailed. Yes, we love the rum and the calypso, but apart from the occasional luxury vacation in a resort carefully sheltered from the prevalent poverty, how much are we willing to do to help the ordinary people of the islands? As the author sagely observes, currently, “There is no easy time ahead in paradise.”