“Where the Mosquitoes Reign and Even The Negros”: The African Characteristics of Early Colonial Veracruz

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Joseph Michael Hopper Clark, Johns Hopkins University
When the Spanish priest Antonio de Ciudad Real arrived in Veracruz in 1580, he described it as a "very hot and sick land; a land where the mosquitoes reign, and even the negros, because, of all the people here, they are the greatest in number and have almost all of the freedom that they want." He went on to describe the port in more bleak terms as a "city of boards," in which the buildings were made with the wood of ruined ships. In spite of this desolation and the prominence of the port's black population, however, Ciudad Real finally classified Veracruz in no uncertain terms as a "pueblo de españoles.”

Descriptions like this are rife throughout accounts of European travelers to Caribbean port cities during the early modern period. Their perfunctory remarks painted a colorful portrait of ports as pest-ridden tropical miasmas while their descriptions of the sizable black populations, slave and free, that lived and worked in port cities often used a language that codes a city's "blackness" with its "backwardness," equating African residents with extreme climate and disease.

Many historians have used these early accounts to support their assessment of the early modern Caribbean as a regional and chronological "backwater." Others have argued that the urban characteristics of Caribbean cities were the product of European planning, often citing the same narratives. This paper challenges both characterizations, arguing that Caribbean ports were primarily black spaces, shaped as much by the cultural imports of slavery as by Iberian design.

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