Book Review: A Traveller’s History Of The Caribbean

A Traveller’s History Of The Caribbean, by James Ferguson

One of the notable aspects of many histories is that they compress a great deal of the past and then go into far more detail about more recent information, showing a presentist bias that either reflects the knowledge of the writer (often more knowledgeable about current events than past history) as well as the assumed interests of the reader.  In a book like this one, where the subject matter is so deeply complicated because the scope of the area covered and the lack of knowledge of the history for the vast majority of mankind’s time on the Caribbean islands, this problem is especially acute.  And so it is that in this particular volume whole centuries of pre-colonial and colonial history are blown by in a hurry while the author takes the time to talk about minute details of late colonial and post-colonial history that are not very interesting and that are ultimately not going to be very important once people are no longer alive who remember the various Prime Ministers of small Caribbean nation-states who are ultimately no more important to history than the colonial governors of long-forgotten empires which have long since vanished into the past.

This book of about 350 or so pages is divided into ten chapters and various other materials.  The author begins with a preface and then moves and then spends the entire discussion of Columbus’ explorations and the pre-history of the Caribbean in the first chapter of the book (1).  After that the period of Spanish domination of the Caribbean takes up the next chapter (2) before the author moves to the period where the area served as a battlefield between rival empires until the end of the 17th century (3).  After that the author explores the impact of sugar and slavery on the Caribbean (4) and then moves to the period of revolution and self-emancipation in the period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (5).  The author then discusses the period of abolition (6) and afterwards as well as the period starting in the late 19th century when the Caribbean became an American-dominated sea (7).  The author then explores the unrest and reform that took place during the period of the Great Depression (8) as well as the period of independence and Cold War politics during the 1960’s and 70’s (9).  The book ends with a discussion about the modern Caribbean (10) as well as a chronology, list of heads of government since independence in Caribbean nations, suggestions for further reading, a historical gazetteer, and an index.

What does one gain from an understanding of Caribbean history?  For one, it is notable that Caribbean nations have found themselves trapped in an export-oriented paradox since their colonial days where they made what they did not consume and consumed what they did not make, leaving them vulnerable to the vicissitudes of foreign trade and focused on external rather than internal development.  Moreover, Caribbean areas have been unable to build cohesion within their societies given the rivalries that exist between islands as well as between ethnic and class divisions within various cultures, and have thus struggled to defend the legitimacy of their political orders.  When Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are among the most powerful regimes in a given area, as is the case for the Lesser Antilles, an area is really lacking in powerful states.  This lack of power and legitimacy is all the more striking when one considers just how much the author wants to write about the political leaders of these nations, who are about as important in the grand scheme of things as the mayors of mid-sized American cities or Chinese suburbs.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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