Caribbean Borderlands during the Long 19th Century: Geographic Mobility, Social Experiments, and Radicalism on the Fringes of Empire and Nation-States

AHA Session 8
Conference on Latin American History 1
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Rashauna Johnson, Dartmouth College
Lara E. Putnam, University of Pittsburgh

Session Abstract

Long a site of contested sovereignties, jurisdictional disputes, and of congregating "motley crews," the borderlands of the Greater Caribbean underwent fundamental geopolitical remapping and economic refashioning during the long nineteenth century. The shrinking French and British imperial presence, a protracted and piecemeal dismantling of the institution slavery, and a shifting relationship between investment, empire, and labor prompted new and unprecedented population movements and new patterns of social mixing in this region. From Jacmel to Limón, from Santiago de los Caballeros to Santiago de Cuba, or from Darién to Okeelenta, heterogeneous multilingual populations, whom state or colonial authorities often deemed suspect on account of divided loyalties, crossed paths on plantations, on the docks, and in the antechambers of prominent radical figures. 

This panel engages the 2016 AHA theme through critical analyses of vernacular and elite political geographies that emerged out of fringe spaces of encounter in the Greater Caribbean. Both Sophie Hunt and Rashauna Johnson look at the conflicts at the heart of elite efforts to transform socially diverse hubs belonging to wider cross-imperial/national networks into economically productive and politically subdued regions. Sophie Hunt shows how policy-makers in the U.S. and Mexico imported models of social control developed in the Caribbean sugar plantation belts to borderlands, such as Florida and the Yucatán, in an effort at greater centralization and agricultural extraction. Rashauna Johnson critically interrogates the meaning of “borderland” by showing how the social heterogeneity and multilingualism that we associate with the Gulf’s and the Caribbean’s port cities extended into Louisiana’s interior in the antebellum period. The geographic mobility of free and enslaved people here, while extending their networks of communication into the Atlantic world, was also a source of local conflict and contention over the future of slavery.

Edgardo Pérez-Morales and Adriana Chira approach borderlands as spaces for creative political radicalism. Pérez-Morales explores notions of citizenship that Colombian independence insurgents developed in collaboration with Cuban liberals in Cuba’s Puerto Príncipe during the 1820s; he argues that such visions approached citizenship as a process rather than as an end. Chira’s paper examines shifting patterns of slave ownership among free people of color in Santiago de Cuba and suggests that everyday economic practices, such as ownership, and the conflicts thereof were the foundation of vernacular political cultures that informed the Cuban War of Independence beginning with 1868.

As a whole, the papers suggest that the Greater Caribbean’s borderlands were far from being a thing of the past during the nineteenth century. They were key sites for creative experiments in social mobilization and in the making of political and economic imaginaries, of new domestic arrangements, of new visions of race, both liberatory and constraining in tenor. The panelists will draw on an extensive historiography on borderlands, race, and slavery in the Americas to shed light on the nineteenth-century Greater Caribbean’s idiosyncrasies.

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