Wednesday’s Book Review: “From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969”

From-Columbus-to-Castro-Williams-Eric-9780394715025From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969. By Eric Williams. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

I visited the Caribbean for the first time in the fall of 2011, and this sparked me to want to learn more about the history of the region. Accordingly, I bought this book in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to help with this process. I have been reading it for the last year, a measure of the dry, sometimes hard-to-follow prose and the obtuse language of the work. No doubt the author, Eric Williams, was an expert in the subject. He was Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from independence in 1962 until his death in 1981. He had written many other books, including a classic study I had first become familiar with in graduate school, Capitalism and Slavery (1944).

What Williams offers here is a broad-stroke overview of the history of the Caribbean, focusing on the colonial sweepstakes pursued by France, England, the Netherlands, Spain, and Denmark, as well as American and Soviet interests. Colonialism and mercantilism dominated the region from the arrival of the first Europeans to the age of independence after World War II.

Two dominant narratives drive his story, the overwhelming importance of sugar production and export as the principal economic enterprise in the region and the establishment, maintenance, and eventual abolition of slavery to support the dominant economic interests. The economic riches to be had led to an enormous greed and cruelty in achieving them. The vestiges of this system have cast a long shadow over the region, the myriad cultures, and the prospects for future equanimity.

Williams narrates the most interesting parts of this story quite well, even though the language is obtuse. For me, his accounting of the revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, patterned after the American Revolution, in the 1790s served as an object lesson in the intense racism present among Europeans and Americans of European origin. The United States did everything possible to side-track the creation of a viable new nation led by ex-slaves; and the U.S. was not alone in that opposition. While the Haitian revolution was far from perfect and its leaders were often less than wise men the ability to overcome intense and sustained pressure from elsewhere would have derailed even the mostly lofty of goals intended by the most honorable of leaders.

Because of his considerable knowledge concerning the economics of slavery, those chapters in this history of the Caribbean were the most well-informed and insightful of anything in From Columbus to Castro. He offers a well-reasoned, sustained critique of imperialism founded on economic exploitation of the other, as well as a condemnation of slavery as cruel and morally bankrupt.

At the same time, Williams makes the case that slavery in the Caribbean went a long way toward financing the Industrial Revolution in Europe, in the process refuting traditional conceptions of economic progress as also leading to greater equality and morality. For him, the Caribbean served as the central test case for his belief that the African slave trade fostered European economic development and hegemony. Not until the maturity of industrialism, he insisted, did Europeans move to destroy the slave system that had nurtured it. Capitalism, racism, and industrialism, according to Williams, were tightly linked, and the best region in which to study those relationships was the Caribbean.

Finally, I was taken with Eric Williams’s lengthy chapter on the Cuban revolution and the place of Castro in it. Written in the latter 1960s, Williams could only comment on a relatively young Cuban transformation, but he found that Castro was making profound inroads in changing a stagnated, racist, and economically stunted society. It would have been interesting to see what Williams would have thought of the Cuban revolution ad Castro’s leadership had he been able to survey it over the broader spectrum of the remainder of the twentieth century.

Overall, this is an important book. It has many significant insights, but it is not an easy read. Admittedly, it took me a long while to get through it. If you are willing to make the investment—and it is not an insignificant investment—the results will be worth it.

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