The Caribbean beyond Sugar: New Approaches to Sinew Populations and Colonialism in the Early Modern Caribbean

AHA Session 245
Conference on Latin American History 58
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Molly A. Warsh, University of Pittsburgh
Kristen Block, University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Session Abstract

In 2014, Jesse Cromwell proposed the term “sinew populations” to refer to those free residents of the greater Caribbean not directly involved in sugar production.[1] He argued that examining these populations, including smugglers, soldiers, and European ethnic minorities during the eighteenth century united the political, economic, and social histories of the Caribbean in new ways. This panel brings together emerging and established scholars to discuss Cromwell’s argument for the first time and the role of sinew populations in a variety of Caribbean contexts. Taken together, these papers demonstrate how sinew populations explain key aspects of the social, political, and economic history of the Caribbean as well as the region’s connections and parallels to colonial processes in the wider Americas.

Schmitt broadens Cromwell’s discussion of sinew populations to include free people of color in the Spanish Caribbean to illuminate their role in creating a regional, trans-imperial economy in the seventeenth century. The livestock trade in Santo Domingo, largely run by former slaves and their descendants, provided power and food crucial for the establishment of plantation agriculture in Jamaica and Saint-Domingue. Reigelsperger highlights how and why St. Augustine, Florida served as a major entrepôt during the eighteenth century, linking the Spanish and British Empires, the Caribbean, and North America. Goods smuggled between Havana, Charleston, Providence, and New York continued to pass through St. Augustine even during moments of warfare. Finally, Taber examines the porous boundaries between “sinew” and “plantation” populations in late Saint-Domingue as artisans moved between urban and rural work and free people of color used town-based profits to buy rural real estates. These semi-urban denizens, white and of color, played crucial roles in the crises of the early Haitian Revolution.

Portraying the greater Caribbean as a complicated and multifaceted world beyond slaves, sugar, and piracy highlights the importance of the Spanish-speaking colonies, populations of free people of color, and urban and rural economies. Furthermore, historical treatments of the Caribbean that revolve around the development of a brutal plantation labor regime or stateless bands of pirates makes the region seem like an anomalous part of the Americas. As a result, Caribbean actors, events, and places remain separated from the wider context of the English, French, or Spanish Empires, a crucial omission as the greater Caribbean served as the crossroads of empires in the Atlantic world. The goal of the panel, therefore, is to connect this more complex vision of the greater Caribbean with early modern histories of the Americas to reveal a more integrated, regional world where individuals experienced a wide range of lifestyles, economic activities, racial constructions, and political transformations not previously appreciated in the historical literature. In addition to scholars of empire, slavery, and/or the Americas, this panel will be of interest to individuals pursuing questions about urban life, trans-imperial movement and migration, and state formation and revolution.

[1] Jesse Cromwell, “More than Slaves and Sugar: Recent Historiography of the Trans-Imperial Caribbean and Its Sinew Populations,” History Compass 12/10 (October 2014), 770-783: 771.

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