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Writing a comprehensive and accessible account of more than five hundred years of Caribbean history is no easy task. Completing such a project by weaving together thirty-nine essays by forty different experts in Caribbean studies (including historians, anthropologists, geographers, political scientists, and sociologists) is even more difficult to do well. Stephen Palmié and Francisco A. Scarano, the editors of The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples, should be commended for doing so successfully.
In covering the history of the Caribbean from pre-Columbian times to the present, the editors and their contributors present a number of important concepts with two main arguments standing out. First, the Caribbean was and is an important site of destruction and creation in both a material and a cultural sense. Materially speaking, colonialism led to the virtual elimination of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples and the subsequent development of plantation slavery with imported African labor. Slavery was a destructive force that ripped people away from their homes and cultures and worked many to death, but it also allowed Europeans to produce unprecedented amounts of wealth through sugar and other commodities. Out of the dislocation and destruction caused by colonialism and plantation society emerged new cultural formations. As this book makes evident, a process of creolization (i.e., massive cultural transformation through the creation of new and blended cultural traditions from the remnants of older destroyed ones) has been a definitive characteristic of the Caribbean. Indigenous and African traditions (especially the latter) merged with European ways to create vibrant creole Caribbean cultures (in terms of language, religion, social relationships, farming techniques, food, and more). During the long nineteenth century, Asians migrated to this region, as did a new wave of Europeans (particularly Spaniards to Cuba), both [End Page 437] of whom further contributed to the creation of hybrid cultures in the Caribbean. The cultures of different societies have constantly come into contact with each other and changed through these interactions, but the Caribbean was particularly a hotbed of cultural blending and new cultural formation.
The second main argument is that the Caribbean has played a crucial role in world history and processes of globalization. The book makes this clear in a number of ways. The Caribbean was central to the making of the “Atlantic World.” The region linked Africa to both Europe and the New World more directly through the slave trade. The Haitian Revolution had reverberations throughout the Americas and in Europe, inspiring some and terrifying others. Caribbean colonial slave societies and plantation agriculture (especially sugar which originated in the Old World) allowed European nations to gain massive amounts of wealth and have the capital and markets needed for industrialization and modernization. In fact, the Caribbean sugar plantation, despite (and in part due to) slavery, served as the world’s first modern industry. Abolitionism linked transnational actors. The islands of the Caribbean became important sites of competition among European powers in their battles over the balance of power in Europe. The region loomed large in the U.S. imagination and U.S. intervention contributed to the rise of the United States as a global power. During the twentieth century, the Caribbean may have seemed to have lost much of its global importance, but in reality it continued to play an important role in world developments, particularly through the impact of Garveyism, the Cuban Revolution, and the large-scale migration of many residents of the region to the United States, Canada, and Europe.
In making these arguments about creolization and the connection between the Caribbean and global history, the book is right to suggest that the history of this region is one filled with “triumphs and tragedies” (p. 4). Examples abound. Europeans succeeded in dominating the Caribbean, but this “triumph” led to the decimation of the indigenous population, the development of the horrors of plantation slavery, and war between European rivals. Slaves succeeded in destroying the institution of slavery in St...