The Caribbean and the Canal

Most books purchased in anticipation of a Caribbean cruise probably belong in the category of “Romance novels I have been trying to find the time to read”. At Cruisereader.com, we remain dedicated to those intrepid cruise aficionados who have a real and probably warped need to understand something about the destination towards which they are headed. This short chapter is for you!

Caribbean Cruise Pirates

Shiver me timbers! Blackbeard and his friends were a tough lot! Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, via Wikimedia Commons

The islands we are talking about form an arc from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago, with a few other outliers sprinkled around. To keep them straight, and to figure out how far east you are cruising, check out pages 102-103 in your National Geographic Visual Atlas of the World. You may be traveling in directions you were not suspecting.

The Caribbean is, in fact, a very complex and fascinating conglomeration of global influences. Like much of the rest of the New World, thanks to the colonial legacy and the introduction of slavery, there are very few “natives” left. If gold and spices were the original enticements for exploration, sugar turned out to be the addiction that kept them coming back. When France gave up its unexplored immense Louisiana Territory at the end of the Seven Years’ War, they did so to preserve their claim to their sugar, in Martinique and Guadalupe.

If there is one book that does justice to the many-faceted influences of the islands, it is James Michener’s Caribbean. If you know Michener, you know what to expect. It is his classic treatment of fictional characters threading their lineage through history and place. Though written in 1990, it is still relevant. The biggest changes since then relate to the size of the cruise ships and the sophistication of the jewelry shops.

For those looking for history by a real historian, check out A Concise History of the Caribbean (Cambridge Concise Histories), by B.W. Higman, an Aussie historian transplanted for the last thirty years in Jamaica. If your sweet tooth compels you, pick up Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. You’ll be very surprised by its influence in global politics.

Panama Canal Cruise Locks

Cruise ship entering the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Stan Shebs, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to think of the Caribbean without thinking of pirates. Indeed the movie set, Pirates of Caribbean 1-4 Blu-ray Quadrilogy (The Curse of Black Pearl / Dead Man’s Chest / At World’s End / On Stranger Tides), is a fun way to prep for your trip, particularly if St. Thomas, Jamaica, or the Bahamas are on your itinerary. These were certainly colorful rebels to their respective crowns, as well as any other authority. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down and Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates each give different accounts of the golden decade of swashbucklers, 1715-25.

Finally, if you are headed coast to coast, or just tucking into the Panama Canal and back, you’ll want to snag The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by master historian, David McCullough. It’s all here. From the gold-plated urgency of Forty-niners to the implications for the current global trade network, McCullough tells the whole story.

While the infectious beat of “Don’t worry. Be happy!” relaxes your smile reflex and your funny bone, surrender to the urge to order another margarita and enjoy that stunning sunset. Don’t forget to look for the Green Flash!