“The Wealth of Planters and the Seed of Plantations: Expertise and Supply in the 17th-Century Caribbean

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:50 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Casey Schmitt, College of William and Mary
Recent scholarship on the early modern Caribbean has called for research that traces the connections between Caribbean island populations of different empires. Focusing on these regional connections, moreover, exposes the ways in which Spanish-held islands normally seen as peripheral to the seventeenth-century sugar revolution—Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Cuba—were, in fact, intimately tied to the development of plantation agriculture. The Spanish-speaking islands of the greater Caribbean served as illicit economic partners to the English and French, supplying expertise, livestock, provisions, and lumber to their European counterparts. Enslaved and free people of African descent exploited, and were exploited by, those economic partnerships, forcing Europeans in the Caribbean to engage in transnational conversations about the legal parameters of forced labor.

I explore the livestock trade that made Santo Domingo a critical production center for the development of plantation agriculture in both Saint-Domingue and Jamaica. I argue that the trade in cattle by former and escaped slaves demonstrates the essential connections between European and non-European populations across empires. This trade defies the historiographic tendency to think of the seventeenth-century Caribbean within a single imperial framework or as a society composed simply of white masters and their enslaved Africans. Often, the individuals conducting mule and cattle trains across Santo Domingo profited directly from a system of plantation agriculture that they themselves had escaped. The English and French who purchased these livestock tacitly supported this underground economy controlled largely by people of African descent while the Spanish enacted various unsuccessful policies to end the trade.