After Captivity: Prisoners of War and Emancipation in Spain's Imperial Crisis, 1808–24

Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:50 AM
Preservation Hall, Studio 8 (New Orleans Marriott)
Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, Tufts University
Between 1808 and the mid-1820s, Spaniards struggled to liberate their country from French rule while also fighting to retain their control over the American colonies, with mixed success. The War of Independence eventually led to France’s retreat and the restoration of the Ferdinand VII in 1814. In the Americas, the monarchy rallied supporters in the early phase of revolutions but Spanish reaction drove a wedge between the metropole and the colonies. By the mid-1820s only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained in the Spanish orbit. However, while territorially minuscule compared to the lost colonies, the two islands, especially Cuba, were undergoing plantation revolutions that paralleled those in the deep south of the US and the Paraíba Valley in Southeastern Brazil. Cuba became the largest slave society in Spanish American history and the source of great wealth for the Spanish state and various economic sectors. Thus, while Spain’s American empire was greatly diminished, it was by no means at an end, as retrenchment around the slave trade and the sugar plantation in the Caribbean provided a new imperial core.

    The complex restructuring of empire involved significant ideological transformations. Spaniards fought to free themselves from foreign domination while also justifying continued rule over millions of American subjects. Moreover, the small but vibrant imperial core that emerged by the 1820s relied on the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African workers forcibly transported across the Atlantic. To gain some perspective on these changes, this paper will address the theme of captivity, specifically the experience of prisoners of war in Europe and the Americas and their accounts of their imprisonment and emancipation. What I believe will emerge is not a coherent ideological project but rather distinct visions on what it meant to be free and unfree during the empire’s contraction and slavery’s expansion.