The American Historian
This image is a painting of a village market in the west indies. Some individuals are light skinned and featured in fine white clothing, while darker skinned individuals are in the background wearing less clothing.

Neither a Spanish Nor U.S. Lake: The Caribbean, a Region in Its Own Right

Ernesto Bassi

Magical realism offers a fitting beginning for this Caribbean story. Crushed by foreign debt and under heavy pressure from the U.S. ambassador, the dictator of Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch is forced to sell the Caribbean Sea to the United States. After carefully packing it “in numbered pieces,” a group of U.S. nautical engineers “took the Caribbean” and “plant[ed] it far from the hurricanes in the blood-red dawns of Arizona.”[1] By virtue of this sale, the Caribbean of García Márquez’s novel became, quite literally, a U.S. lake.

The idea of the Caribbean as U.S. lake is one with which U.S. and Caribbean audiences are familiar. U.S. presence in the region, first as a way of preventing European invasion during the nineteenth century, later as an imperial force actively threatening invasion, sometimes actually invading, and almost always intervening economically, politically and otherwise, has been a fact of life for Caribbean peoples since the third decade of the nineteenth century. Haiti, Cuba, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic (among other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America) became workshops “where the United States elaborated tactics of extraterritorial administration and acquired its conception of itself as an empire like no other before.”[2] But empires and foreign interventions had been an element of the Caribbean experience long before U.S. imperialism.

In fact, foreign influence became a feature of Caribbean history about three centuries before the creation of the United States. Long before it was a U.S. lake, the Caribbean was a Spanish lake.[3] From 1492 to the 1550s, the Spanish were the sole European empire with a presence in the Caribbean. With them came diseases that devastated the native population. Spaniards also brought the first African slaves to the Americas. While Spaniards and Africans settled the main islands and founded several towns that still exist today (e.g. Santiago de Cuba in 1515, Havana in 1515, and Santo Domingo in 1496), the Caribbean quickly became what many historians have characterized as a backwater, chiefly important as a launching pad for conquest expeditions to the mainland territories that were to become the main sites of Spanish settlement in the Americas. During this early post-Columbus stage, Spanish activities in the Caribbean centered on a handful of newly founded towns, mainly in Cuba and Hispaniola. Smaller islands, because they “did not possess gold, pearls, or any other marketable products,” were deemed of little value and came to be known as “useless islands.” Consequently, they remained sparsely populated by surviving indigenous groups and largely outside European control.[4] But not for long.

By the end of the 1520s, news of the riches Spanish conquistadors were acquiring in Mexico began spreading through Europe, drawing the attention of wealth-seeking French, English, and Dutch adventurers. From the coasts of Europe (in 1523, French pirate Jean Fleury or Juan Florin stole a portion of the Aztec treasure as the ships transporting it were nearing the Spanish coast), French enemies gradually expanded their range of action to the Caribbean, where they captured ships and raided coastal cities like Cartagena, Santa Marta, Nombre de Dios, Santiago de Cuba, and Havana. During the second half of the sixteenth century, the famous Elizabethan privateers took the lead, shifting from smuggling African slaves in the 1550s and 1560s to waging an undeclared war on Spanish Caribbean territories in the 1560s and 1570s before finally fighting an openly declared war with the official backing of Elizabeth I in the last two decades of the sixteenth century. John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake became feared names in Caribbean port cities. Like them, Dutch merchant and admiral Piet Heyn earned fame and glory by attacking Spanish ships and ports during the early seventeenth century. His capture of the Spanish silver fleet in 1628 earned him global fame and remains to this day an unmatched feat in the history of piracy.[5]

Up until this point the incursions of non-Spanish Europeans in the Caribbean had been of a temporary nature, raiding and fleeing instead of settling. During the 1620s, a shift toward permanent settlement took place. For example, the tiny island of Providence, located in the western Caribbean off the coast of Nicaragua, was an English settlement that resembled New England. The two colonies—Providence and New England—shared a number of features and problems. Both were settled by Puritans fleeing England for religious motives. If New England Puritans had their Mayflower, those in Providence had their Seaflower. Both sets of colonists struggled to find financial backers and to establish a firm economic base for the development of their colonies. Internal conflicts over political power were also common to both early-seventeenth-century settlements. In one key respect, the colonies diverged: while New England survived, Providence island succumbed to Spanish attack. The Puritan experiment in the Caribbean lasted for slightly over a decade, from 1630 to 1641.[6] Other colonies fared better and slowly but steadily chipped away Spanish hegemony in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Looking for permanent bases from which to launch attacks on Spanish cities and vessels, and taking advantage of the inability of Spaniards to establish a firm presence in most of the smaller Caribbean islands, Dutch, English, and French colonists established themselves permanently in the Lesser Antilles, where they at first coexisted with and then displaced most of the remaining indigenous peoples.[7] During the first half of the seventeenth century, the European newcomers settled in tiny islands such as St. Christopher, Barbados, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Curaçao, Sint Eustatius, and Saint Martin. Beginning in the 1650s, they also took over larger islands such as Jamaica and the western half of Hispaniola (which became French Saint-Domingue). In the process, they shifted from raiding and plundering to agriculture. While in most islands tobacco was the first successful and economically viable crop, sugar became the mainstay of the Caribbean’s economy and society.[8] As a result of this process of European settlement, as Franklin Knight rightly put it, the Caribbean ceased to be “an area of marginal importance to the Spanish empire. Instead, until eclipsed by India in the nineteenth century, the Caribbean islands became the most valued possessions in the overseas imperial world.”[9] Thus, European incursions turned the Caribbean into what scholars have called an “imperial crossroads” or even the “crossroads of the world.”[10]

Foreign influence on the region is certainly a defining feature of the Caribbean. Historical narratives that emphasize foreign influence, however, can result in interpretations of the region that, by emphasizing its subordination to foreign powers, relegate the Caribbean to the margins of developments that are central to key narratives of economic and political modernity. In addition, interpretations that see the Caribbean from the vantage point of external powers foster the development of narratives that emphasize fragmentation and create boundaries that did not reflect the ways in which Caribbean dwellers experienced a region that I have elsewhere described as an aqueous territory.[11]

Caribbeanists, of course, acknowledge the centrality of foreign influences to the historical development of the Caribbean, but do not take this foreign influence as sign of the region’s marginal nature. In fact, Caribbeanists agree in their understanding of the region as the cradle of two developments that are key to understanding the modern world: capitalism and democracy.

The case for the central role of the Caribbean in the rise of capitalism was made decades ago by Eric Williams, whose book Capitalism and Slavery argued that the institution of slavery, as it developed in the Caribbean, contributed to the rise and development of British and global capitalism. By “providing the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in England,” Williams argued, “the West Indies built up Manchester,” setting it on path to become the industrial capital of the world.[12] But the role of Caribbean slavery, as other Caribbean scholars have demonstrated, was far from limited to providing capital. In the Caribbean, sugar production, despite depending on an enslaved labor force, was fairly capitalist in nature.[13] Especially during the last decades of the seventeenth century, and more intensely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when sugar plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, and Cuba functioned as “slave-based, export-oriented . . . productive units serving a highly competitive international market and driven by a permanent search of efficiency,” the capitalist nature of sugar production in the Caribbean became undeniable.[14]

Given the growing number of excellent new studies on the role of U.S. slavery in the emergence of U.S. and global capitalism, it is important for audiences more attuned to U.S. than to Caribbean history to remember (or learn) the role of the Caribbean in this historical development. When scholars of slavery in the U.S. South rightly argue against the inherently unprofitable and fundamentally premodern nature of slavery, it is important to give the Caribbean its due place in the emerging narrative of slavery as both modern and modernizing, and of enslavers as profit-seeking, fundamentally capitalist individuals.[15]

Just as it was central to the rise and development of capitalism, the Caribbean also played a key (and still largely silenced) role in the history of democracy. Historians of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) have long recognized this, and have made strong inroads toward positioning Haiti at the heart of the history of the universalism behind concepts such as liberty, equality, and human rights.[16] While the French and American revolutions emblazoned their revolutionary slogans with the word liberty, the freedoms they offered were not universal. Large sectors of the population remained excluded from their benefits. Slavery continued to exist in the United States for almost a century after the country’s independence, and France reinstated slavery in its remaining Caribbean colonies in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The Haitian Revolution, however, made freedom a reality for all. When Haitian founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence on January 1, 1804, it was not only the territory that was freed from the French empire. Dessalines’s 1805 imperial constitution and the succeeding republican constitution of 1806 both abolished slavery. The first article of the 1806 constitution stated “There cannot exist slaves within the territory of the Republic: slavery is forever abolished.” In addition to free, all Haitian men (the constitution does not mention women and always uses ‘man’, ‘men’, ‘he’, and ‘his’ when referring to citizens) were now considered equal, with equality understood as “not admit[ting] any distinction of birth, any inheritance of powers.”[17] Therefore, as Laurent Dubois emphatically puts it, “If we live in a world in which democracy is meant to exclude no one, it is in no small part because of the actions of those slaves in Saint-Domingue who insisted that human rights were theirs too.”[18]

In both, the development of capitalism and democracy, slavery and plantation societies played a prominent role. Because of this, the Plantation (with capital P) has been central to the way in which Caribbeanists have understood and defined the region. For scholars like Sidney W. Mintz, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, and Franklin W. Knight, the Caribbean can be defined as a “societal area” characterized by its “lowland, subtropical, insular economy,” a history of European colonialism that resulted in the swift extirpation of the region’s native population, the development of export-oriented agricultural productive units, the massive introduction of foreign populations (mostly African slaves, but also Asian laborers), the persistence of colonialism, and the emergence of what Knight called a “fragmented nationalism.”[19] This definition categorizes the Caribbean as a geographic space that encompasses Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles, Belize, and the Guianas, and excludes the continent’s Caribbean coasts. Others, like Matthew Mulcahy, Stuart B. Schwartz, and J. R. McNeill emphasized environmental factors to create a broader Caribbean, one whose boundaries are marked by natural phenomena such as hurricanes and habitats for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. McNeill’s Caribbean, for instance, comprises “the Atlantic coastal regions of South, Central, and North America, as well as the Caribbean islands themselves, that in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became plantation zones: from Surinam to the Chesapeake.”[20] Both definitions are valid and useful. Their validity proves that there are multiple ways of defining the Caribbean, as well as any other region.

In my recent work, I developed a definition of a geographic space I call the transimperial Greater Caribbean that “stresses the human-made nature of regional configurations, the role of social interactions in the creation of regions, and the dangers associated with projecting twentieth-century world regionalization schemes back onto a past for which they lack explanatory power.” Using these criteria, I used the archive to follow sailors, letting them show me their lived geography, a geography developed through mobility and through constant circulation across political borders established by European powers. As a result, I came up with a region that is loosely bounded, amorphously demarcated, multicultural, geopolitically unstable, and personally threatening, in which both the sea and the land functioned as sites where history happened. In short, the transimperial Greater Caribbean sailors created and inhabited was “a lived but unarticulated geographical space.”[21]

These multiple definitions make clear that the Caribbean, as any other region in the world, has a history that is worth telling from within (just as it is worth telling from the outside looking in, even though these type of historical narratives tend to say more about the history of the place from which the story is being told than about the place whose story is being told). In addition, these multiple definitions also point to the Caribbean as an important site from which commonly used terms like region can be theorized and scrutinized. Had García Márquez’s nautical engineers considered the multiplicity of ways in which the Caribbean could be defined, it would have been interesting to witness their discussions as they decided when to stop filling the boxes in which they transported the numbered pieces they used to shipped the Caribbean Sea to Arizona.

[1] Gabriel García Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch, trans. Gregory Rabassa (1976), 232.

[2] Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006), 2.

[3] The term has typically been used to refer to the Pacific Ocean, but its meaning applies to the Caribbean during the first half of the sixteenth century.

[4] For useless islands, see Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (2016), 41. For new and critical approaches to the histories of disease and depopulation, the idea of the Caribbean as a backwater, and its role as launching ground for expeditions to mainland America, see Reséndez, The Other Slavery; David Wheat, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640 (2016); and Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003).

[5] This paragraph draws on Kris E. Lane, Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750 (1998); and Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (2004).

[6] For a detailed study of Providence’s puritan conquistadors, see Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Providence Island, 1630–1641: The Other Puritan Colony (1993).

[7] For interactions between non-Spanish Europeans and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, see Doris Garraway, The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (2005); and Philip P. Boucher, Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492–1763 (1992).

[8] For the shift from tobacco to sugar in the first English Caribbean colonies, and the shift from white indentured servants to African slaves that accompanied it, see Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (1972).

[9]Franklin W. Knight, The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism (1978), 40.

[10]For imperial crossroads, see Josep M. Fradera, “The Caribbean between Empires: Colonists, Pirates, and Slaves,” in The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples, ed. Stephan Palmié and Francisco A. Scarano (2011), 165–76. For crossroads of the world, see Deborah Cullen and Elvis Fuentes, eds., Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World (2012). For general accounts of the population history of the Caribbean, see Knight, The Caribbean; Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969 (1970); Carrie Gibson, Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (2014); and B. W. Higman, A Concise History of the Caribbean (2011).

[11]Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (2016).

[12]Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944), ix, 128.

[13]The point has been made in classic and recent studies. See for instance, for the Cuban case, Manuel Moreno Fraginals, The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760–1860 (1976); and Daniel B. Rood, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean (2017).

[14]Alejandro de la Fuente, “Sugar and Slavery in Early Colonial Cuba,” in Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (2004), 115–16. For a brief chronology of sugar production in the Caribbean that emphasizes the shift in dominant production centers from Barbados to Jamaica to Saint-Domingue to Cuba, see Ernesto Bassi, “Much More Than the Half Has Never Been Told: Narrating the Rise of Capitalism from New Granada’s Shores,” Latin Americanist, 61 (Dec. 2017), 529–50.

[15]Some of the recent studies that successfully make the case for the modern, modernizing, and capitalist nature of slavery in the nineteenth-century U.S. South are Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014); Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (2015); and Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016).

[16]For some of the most important recent studies of the Haitian Revolution and its Atlantic and global impact, see Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2005); David Patrick Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (2002); David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (2001); David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus, eds., A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (1997); David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering, eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution (2009); Ashli White, Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (2010); Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (2014); and Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (2015).

[17]“Revision of the Haitian Constitution of 1806. At Port-Au-Prince. From the Government Press. (1816.),” Wikipedia.

[18]Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 3.

[19]Sidney W. Mintz, “The Caribbean as Socio-cultural Area,” in Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean, ed. Michael M. Horowitz (1971), 20; Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James E. Maraniss (1992), 33–81; Knight, The Caribbean.

[20]J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914 (2010), 2; Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624–1783 (2006); Stuart B. Schwartz, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (2015).

[21]Bassi, An Aqueous Territory, 10–11, 75–80.