The American Historian
This image is an old map of the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf World: A Framework

Dalia Antonia Muller

The Gulf World and Other Frameworks

During the last few decades, scholars from diverse disciplines and fields have boldly and steadily challenged narrow conceptions of the Caribbean, a once marginalized region. By recasting the region as far more than a grouping of islands segmented by imperial, national, and linguistic divisions, these scholars have opened up opportunities for new generations to draw connections that cross borders within the traditionally defined Caribbean and beyond. Far from insular and isolated, the Caribbean has come to be seen as a place, to quote Antonio Benítez Rojo, whose outer limits “may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern of circa 1850…in an old Bristol pub.”[1] Indeed, the Caribbean is at once insular, circum, Atlantic, Pacific and even global. Moreover, the idea that the Caribbean was not a backwater but rather at the very epicenter of western modernity has gained ground and taken root.[2] The Atlantic and transnational turns of the preceding decades have done much to inspire historians and other scholars to develop new formulations and frameworks for understanding the space in between North and South America.

The Gulf World is one such framework.[3] The Gulf World highlights transnational human and political geographies that have shaped the space in between the landmasses of North and South America in important ways but have yet to be fully recognized. These geographies have been overlooked by scholars whose scales of observation have been either too large or too small to capture them.

In recent years, U.S. Americanists, Mexicanists, and Cubanists have reached beyond national borders to explore how their countries histories have been shaped by the Caribbean. For example, inspired by the writing of Caribbean theorist Edouard Glissant, historians of the United States have generated excellent work that takes seriously how the U.S. South and Gulf South have historically formed part of a greater Caribbean.[4] In particular, they have come to use the “American Mediterranean” as a way to describe the gulf-Caribbean space that the United States dominated by the nineteenth century.[5] Mexican and Cuban scholars have also been hard at work thinking about the relationship of their nations to the aqueous spaces that border and surround them. Scholars in Mexico and Cuba have worked together and produced publications that describe a “complejo golfo-caribe,” or Gulf-Caribbean complex.[6] Mexicanists have looked at this space to understand the particular culture and history of Mexico’s gulf and Caribbean port cities, while Cubanists, more accustomed to prioritizing their nation’s relationship to the U.S., have looked to Mexico and other places in the Caribbean to open up new avenues of research.[7] The idea of the Gulf-Caribbean complex has been useful for these scholars because it recognizes the fluid connection between Mexico and Cuba and serves to draw both out into the Americas and the Atlantic in a different way.

As I argue here, the Gulf World does something for scholars that the Gulf-Caribbean complex and the American Mediterranean do not. While the golfo-caribe echoes the efforts of scholars to imagine an expansive and ever-expanding Caribbean, the American Mediterranean remains heavily U.S. centered. The framework of the Gulf World, by contrast, underscores the unique connectedness of the space in and in between Mexico, Cuba, and the United States by centering all three places. While recognizing the connections and overlapping linkages that bind the Gulf World to others, I argue that a smaller and tighter framework linking Mexico, Cuba, and the United States can bring scholars interested in the “Caribbean” elements of these nations’ histories into conversation with each other. What they stand to discover is nothing less than a shared history that remains in the shadow spaces between our bounded national histories and our far-flung transnational explorations. The fascinating history of nineteenth-century Cuban migrants provides a case in point.

Migratory routes: Nineteenth-Century Cuban Migrants in the Gulf World

At its broadest scale, the history of nineteenth-century Cuban migration and exile encompasses the United States, the Caribbean, the Americas, and the Atlantic World. Expelled during Cuba’s long and brutal late nineteenth-century struggle for independence against Spain, Cuban migrants settled throughout the Americas and beyond between 1868 and 1898. There is a robust literature concerning Cubans in Florida and New York during this period.[8] There are also rich studies about Cuban migrant lives in cities across the Atlantic. However, an even greater complexity continues to elude those who insist on examining these migrations from a nation-centered vantage point. Indeed, nineteenth-century Cuban migrants’ politics, like their itineraries, were fundamentally shaped by experiences that exceeded the boundaries of the nation. How their unique political imaginaries were wrought in transnational social and political spaces outside of Cuba, and how these imaginaries were informed by their migrant geographies, remain as obscure to those who plant their intellectual feet on bounded soil as to those who place their faith only in Atlantic or global connections. Working against these trends, and with an eye toward the Gulf, my work explores Cuban migrants as they scattered throughout the Gulf World during independence, paying special attention to Cuban migrants in Mexico and illuminating how their lives and experiences were not only shaped by larger historical currents, but also informed Cuban state making and Mexican politics.

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the Gulf became home to the vast majority of Cuban migrants displaced by Cuba’s independence wars. Traditional imperial, regional, or national frames cannot capture the full complexity or unique characteristics of these migrations. Take the case of Ignacio Martín Arbona y Domínguez, a Cuban man who circumvented the Gulf in the last years of the century.[9] Arbona y Dominguez’s case is exemplary of the kinds of complex itineraries that linked the Gulf World. After serving in the Cuban insurgent army for about a year after war broke out in 1895, Ignacio was imprisoned and held by Spanish forces for four months. His sentence was commuted to exile in 1896 due to influential family connections, connections that also helped him avoid banishment to Spanish West African penal colonies. Ignacio was sent to the nearby Spanish colony of Puerto Rico where he remained under relatively loose vigilance for several more months. Easily fooling his captors, Ignacio boarded a Danish ship in disguise and disembarked in the Dominican Republic. There he tapped into a network of Cuban émigrés who provided him with a new identity and a passport with which he passed undetected back into Cuba. However, fearing for his life as the war intensified in 1896 and the early months of 1897, and unable to reconnect with his former insurgent company, Ignacio fled Cuba a second time hoping to make his way to Florida.

Why Florida? Ignacio knew that Tampa was a hotbed of revolutionary activity and his best bet for finding a way back into the war. This move seems counterintuitive unless we take Florida seriously as a space of revolutionary organizing equal to, if not greater than key revolutionary centers in Cuba. What Ignacio did not count on was that Spanish authorities began to monitor traffic to Florida very closely in 1896 and 1897. The risk of traveling to Tampa was too great and Ignacio set course for Veracruz instead. More confident about their spy networks in Mexico and the strength and influence of their immigrant community there, Spaniards turned a blind eye to Veracruz. This allowed Ignacio and other insurgents to take refuge there, biding their time until they could depart for Florida.

Why didn’t Ignacio try other destinations in the Caribbean, or other ports of entry in the United States? He took advantage of the well-established transit connections between Veracruz and Havana and the fact that the lack of Spanish concern for the threat posed by Veracruz Cubans offered him a certain cover. In fact, Ignacio made it successfully to Veracruz and immediately joined an expedition that was being organized and would take men, arms, and munitions to Cuba. The ship departed Veracruz under the cover of night at some point in December of 1897.

This is when misfortune befell him. Ignacio’s ship, which was manned by a U.S. ship captain, was marooned off of Round Island, Mississippi, several days into his journey. The men on the ship were taken in by the U.S. Coastguard and quarantined. When they made it to Scranton (today Pasacagoula), the Cuban revolutionary center in New York City was alerted and the men were sent to New Orleans to join the soldiers training with the ninth volunteers to invade Santiago de Cuba in what would become one of the first military action of the Spanish American War in Cuba. The story concludes when Ignacio and his friend and shipmate abandoned the volunteers to make their way on foot back to the city of New Orleans, from where they ultimately made it to Tampa by train and eventually to Cuba.

Ignacio’s journey speaks to a networked nineteenth-century Gulf World where Cubans, Mexicans and U.S. citizens alike facilitated his legal and illegal movement throughout Gulf space along preexisting routes that connected key ports such Havana, Veracruz, New Orleans and Tampa. But Ignacio was not exceptional. He was just one of the tens of thousands of black and white, rich and poor Cuban men, women and children who traveled through the Gulf World during the last three decades of the nineteenth century as Cuba was convulsed by war. Ignacio’s story and those of men and women like him reveal to us that the Wars of Cuban Independence were fought outside of the island as well as within it, and that the Gulf World was the critical extra-national space in which the war unfolded. At first, existing trade, travel and transportation networks shaped the way Cuban insurgents moved through the Gulf World. However, over time, insurgents, exiles, refugees, and Cuban migrants of other kinds created alterative geographies that complicated or subverted established ones and elaborated new revolutionary strategies that challenged easy correlations between nations and borders.

Geopolitics of the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World:

In addition to reframing the history of late nineteenth-century Cuban migrations in important ways, the Gulf World also helps us understand political, intellectual, and diplomatic history of the era of the growth and expansion of U.S. power overseas differently. Indeed, the Gulf World shaped the political thinking of Cuban migrants as much as it shaped their travels. Gulf World geopolitics impacted not just Cubans, however, but also Mexican, Spanish, and U.S. citizens and statesmen concerned about the effects and implications of Cuban independence in their own countries and beyond.

Whether they were for or against Cuban independence, men and women living in and attuned to the Gulf World understood that the fate of Cuba would affect Cubans, Spaniards, Mexicans, and U.S. citizens and have implications for the Americas as a whole. Those in favor of Cuban Independence argued that Cubans and Mexicans needed to come together to impede the expansion of the United States. They were convinced that strong Latin American support for Cuban independence would help insulate Cuba from U.S. annexation and hold the line against the further spread of imperialism. These anti-imperialists reasoned that the United States would be forced to respect Latin America if the republics spoke with one voice in favor of Cuba’s independence. Experiencing an era of unprecedented stability and modernization under Porfirio Díaz, Mexicans were confident that Mexico’s leadership in this matter would carry weight across the Americas.

Curiously, those who opposed Cuban independence, including Spaniards from Cuba and their Mexicans allies, shared an identical understanding of Gulf World geopolitics. They also recognized that Cuba and Mexico together might serve to buffer Latin America against U.S. expansion. However, they saw Cuban independence as a liability. They argued that an independent Cuba, unfit to govern itself, would be easy prey for the United States. Thus, the best way to protect Latin America was to preserve Spanish rule in Cuba. Only a strong pan-Hispanic solidarity could protect Latin America from a voracious “Anglo race.”[10] That Cubans, Spaniards and Mexicans built their solidarities and justified their actions for and against Cuban independence on the basis of a shared understanding of Gulf World geopolitics demonstrates the degree to which the connections of the Gulf World shaped their concerns about the fate and futures of the countries/colonies that composed it.

U.S. statesmen were also keenly aware of Gulf World geopolitics and had been for nearly a century. In the 1820s, John Quincy Adams argued that Cuba was but a territorial extension of the United States. He poetically envisioned Cuba and Florida reaching toward the other as if desiring a union. Between 1840 and 1890s, the United States would make its weight felt in Mexico and Cuba drawing both into its orbit though open war, through covert deals, and through trade agreements. During the Cuban independence conflict, neutralizing Mexico was a key aim of the Grover Cleveland and William McKinley administrations, both of which worked to ensure that the United States would become the only option as Cubans reached for international support to end the grueling war on their soil. The efforts made by Mexicans, Cubans, and Spaniards to keep the United States out failed completely. Masterfully playing the role of “sister republic,” the United States shouldered Mexico and the rest of Latin America aside coming to the aid of “ailing” Cuba and “freeing” her from the clutches of a “decrepit” Spanish monarchy. With Cuba securely in hand and plans for intervention in Panama laid, the domination of the Caribbean was all but assured.

Examining topics such as the Cuban independence struggle, Mexico’s late nineteenth-century modernization project, as well as the Spanish American War and U.S. overseas imperialism from a Gulf World perspective offers a whole new vantage point on historical subjects usually tackled from a nation-state standpoint.[11] A simple shift in perspective reveals that statesmen and everyday citizens understood that the fates of their nations were fundamentally bound up with each other, if not totally co-dependent. These binds had much to do with geography, but were also determined by the actions of individuals who moving through the space, coming together and actively endeavoring to shape the history that formed them. Indeed, whether the Gulf World of the nineteenth-century was seen as a place of refuge, a space of connections, a new imperial horizon, or a first line of defense against colonialism, it was always seen. The space in and in between Cuba, Mexico and the United States meant something to the people who inhabited it and the polities that surrounded it. Though never hermetically sealed—the Gulf World has always existed in a dynamic relationship to the greater Caribbean and the Atlantic via its loop current which becomes the Gulf Stream—the Gulf World has always been also a place unto itself.

Conclusions: The Potential of the Gulf World Framework for U.S. Latin American and Caribbean History

What other hidden histories might a Gulf World framework illuminate? The list is long. A Gulf World framework can shed new light on indigenous patterns of trade and travel through the Florida straits and those of Yucatan from the fifteenth century forward.[12] It would help us better understand how the Spanish colonial state imagined the “ Mediterráneo Americano” it dominated from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, as well as how that imaginary (and domination) was challenged by European rivals and eventually usurped by the United States. A Gulf World framework would reveal how pirates, privateers, and contraband traders used strategic hide-a-ways and the complex and perilous geography of the Gulf to shield their activities from diverse states and empires during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. It would also underscore the importance of trade and transportation networks connecting major port cities in the region while exposing the unexpected travelers who traveled along them.[13] The Gulf World framework could further illuminate how Chinese indentured workers and others involved in the “coolie trade” saw Cuba and Mexico as another way into the United States.[14] Finally, the Gulf World framework would give us a new vantage point on the Mexican Revolution by allowing us to trace the circulation of the hundreds of Mexican revolutionary exiles of all political stripes who moved through gulf space in the 1910s and 1920s.[15]

The invitation to engage and explore the trans-colonial and transnational Gulf World is one that I hope historians in and beyond the United States will take up in the coming years. I am already greatly encouraged by the way the Gulf is beginning to structure the work of my colleagues and students in the United States. Yet, some key boundaries remain within academia, divisions and inequities between scholars writing from North America and those writing from the South that affect the production of knowledge about the Gulf World and beyond. I would be remiss if I did not issue the following cautionary note and gentle reminder: In our efforts to reach across fields within our discipline of history and to question the importance of borders for the historical subjects who circulated in the space between North and South America, let us not forget to recognize the work of historians living and working in our Global south. If the worlds and spaces we share were, in part, co-created by historical subjects who were unencumbered by borders, should not the histories we construct be as well?


Dalia Antonia Muller is Associate Professor of History at the University of Buffalo, Director of the University Honors College and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education. She specializes in the history of the Gulf World and the Greater Caribbean of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a particular focus on migration, citizenship and race. Her book, Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World, was published by UNC Press in 2017. She is currently at work on two book projects, one on African political identity and national non-belonging in Cuba at the turn of the twentieth century and another on the long history of the Gulf World.

[1]Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (1996), 4.

[2]See Mimi Sheller, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (2003).

[3]This is a framework I develop in my work to highlight the limits of a nation-based approach to the history of nineteenth-century Cuban migrations. See, Dalia Antonia Muller, Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World (2017).

[4]Edouard Glissant’s unlocated poetics of relations challenges conceptions of the Caribbean segmented along national or colonial lines, which allows him to adopt Faulkner as a Caribbean writer and to posit the connections between the U.S. South and the Caribbean. These connections are something which U.S. Gulf South scholars now take for granted. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (1997); and Édouard Glissant, Faulkner Mississippi, trans. Barbara B. Lewis and Thomas C. Spear (1999).

[5]See Matthew Pratt Guterl, American Mediterranean: Southern Slave Holders in the Age of Emancipation (2008). Another formulation that similarly centers the United States is Frank Guirdy’s “U.S.-Caribbean World.” See Frank Andre Guridy, Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (2010). While she prefers to speak about a circum-Caribbean, Rebecca J. Scott writes about the many connections between Louisiana and Cuba in the nineteenth-century. See Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery (2005).

[6]On Mexico and the Caribbean, see Laura Muñoz Mata, Mar adentro: Espacios y relaciones en la frontera México-Caribe (2008); Johanna von Grafenstein, Laura Muñoz, and Antoinette Nelken, Un mar de encuentros y confrontaciones: El Golfo-Caribe en la historia nacional (2006); and Johanna von Grafenstein and Laura Muñoz Mata, El Caribe: región, frontera y relaciones internacionales (2000). On Cuba, Mexico and the Caribbean, see Arturo Sorhegui D’Mares, La Habana en el Mediterráneo Americano (2007); José Prado Laballós, Cuba: centro del Mediterráneo Americano (1994); Adalberto Santana and Sergio Guerra Vilaboy, Benito Juárez en América Latina y el Caribe (2006); and Sergio Guerra Vilaboy, América Latina y La Independencia de Cuba (1999). On Mexico and Cuba, see Martha López Portillo de Tamayo, Boris Rosen, and Luis Angel Argüelles Espinosa, México y Cuba: dos pueblos unidos en la historia, 2 vols. (1982).

[7]See my recently published book: Dalia Antonia Muller, Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World (2017). Mexicanists in the United States and in Mexico have also been thinking expansively. José David Saldívar’s formulation of Greater Mexico is a good example. See José David Saldívar, Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico (2012).

[8]Examples of works on Cuban migrant communities in the United States include but are not limited to Gerald E. Poyo, Exile and Revolution: José D. Poyo, Key West, and Cuban Independence (2014); Susan D. Greenbaum, More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa (2002); and Louis A. Pérez Jr., On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (1999).

[9]Ignacio Martín Arbona y Domínguez’s incredible story is recorded in his petition to join the National Association of Cuban Revolutionary Émigrés established in Havana in 1909 years after the war. Muller, Cuban Émigrés and Independence (43–44).

[10]There were a few Mexicans who opposed Cuban independence but did entertain the idea of its separation from Spain. They argued avidly for the annexation of Cuba to Mexico as the only viable alternative to Spanish control. See Rafael Rojas, Cuba Mexicana: Historia de una anexión imposible (2001).

[11]For discussions of Gulf World geopolitics and the way it was shaped by and informed debates over Cuban independence, see Muller, Cuban Émigrés and Independence, 132–209.

[12]See an excellent dissertation by Sophie Betsworth Hunt on this topic during the Age of Revolutions. Sophie Betsworth Hunt, “Grasping the Gulf: Conquest and Indigenous Power from Florida to Yucatán in the Age of Revolutions,” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan, 2017).

[13]On Gulf World circuits of trade in a time of war, see Terry Rugeley, The River People in Flood Time: The Civil Wars in Tabasco, Spoiler of Empires (2014).

[14]While he doesn’t circumscribe his work within a Gulf World, Elliott Young highlights the intriguing Gulf World circulations of Chinese men caught up in the coolie trade in the nineteenth century. See Elliott Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (2014).

[15]Some of these connections are visible in recent studies like Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (2014).