High marks for originality. The year is 1799, though it feels like the period is 150 years earlier than that, and the location is just outside Nagasaki, Japan. A Dutch trading ship has just deposited its crew and cargo for a five year stint. Japan remains one of the most impenetrable societies encountered by Western traders who must negotiate strict cultural isolation in a blisteringly hot and humid, remote outpost. We meet Japanese shoguns and interpreters, regional magistrates and physicians and from the West clerks and ship captains, doctors, deckhands, and a multitude of slaves mostly acquired from Indonesia. A love affair blossoms between the Dutch clerk, Jacob de Zoet, who appears to be the only honest man in the Pacific and a Japanese midwife, who may just be the only female medical professional in Japan. Japanese custom forbids their open interaction. My one irritation is the frequency with with the author begins chapters mid-scene, requiring his readers to tangle with disorientation for many pages, probably as a technique to reinforce the feelings of his subjects. You’ll have to read the book to learn the outcome of Jacob’s and Orita the midwife’s mutual affections.
This book covers Haiti’s history from the first importation of enslaved Africans to the months immediately following the devastating 2010 earthquake. It is as thorough as a textbook and just about as readable, which is to say every paragraph carries a topic sentence followed by a dense recounting of data and information. There is a big reward for bulling through, but honestly, I found myself reading a lot of topic sentences and skipping the meat. The meat, Dubois points out most emphatically, is quite rancid. Haiti is the only place in the world to undergo a successful slave revolt (1803). Ever thereafter Haitian blacks refused to be dominated and the rest of the world did everything in its racist power to penalize, marginalize, and overwhelm Haiti for the better part of two centuries. France would only recognize Haiti’s independence, for example, in exchange for crushingly large indemnity payments for lost property. That property, of course, consisted of enslaved human beings. The debt was so enormous that Haitian governments embarked on a borrowing treadmill it never escaped. It took any income it made and paid off debt, never having anything left for infrastructure. Economic and political instability led the United States to support the needs of its large multinational corporations desire for a stable workforce. The marines invaded and ran the island as a fiefdom for 35 years at the beginning of the twentieth century (around the same time it was invading and running the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Nicaragua). Dubois’ account is unflinchingly pro-Haitian, but leaves the reader wondering why there is the continuous backdrop of political instability inside Haiti. No blame is ever really placed within the island. In this account Haitians, from their first days of slavery to the present, have never had agency over their own destinies.