Cuban Trees for the Atlantic: Ship Construction and Environmental Change in Cuba under the Early Spanish Bourbons, 170062

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Jason Daniel, Florida International University
My research is situated contextually within the Western European maritime powers’ need for increased access to quality timber for use in ship construction. Cuba already had a long history of shipbuilding when a series of reforms coincided with the accession of the Bourbon family to the Spanish throne in 1700, and Havana became a major shipbuilding center after 1714. In addition to building smaller vessels, the shipyard began constructing large naval warships after 1740 and became the only royally-sanctioned facility of its size in the Spanish American colonies. These initiatives were carried out under the auspices of the newly formed Real Compañía de Comercio de la Habana (Royal Havana Company), and led to significant and irreversible changes in the political, social, economic, and, most importantly, environmental landscape. Laborers and skilled tradesmen arrived on the island, putting pressure on the Cuban environment to support a rapidly growing population. The demand for natural resources to build large vessels led to early deforestation on the island and strict regulation of the timber supply as the Royal Havana Company and the navy maintained a monopoly on timber for the shipyard. This increased naval construction had significant consequences that included demographic change and, particularly, environmental degradation.

Theoretically grounded in revisionist environmental and Atlantic world history, my project argues that Cuba’s maritime industries in the first half of the eighteenth century were the product of deliberate and centralized Spanish reforms that had demonstrable and measurable consequences. The high importance placed on timber as a natural resource is indicative of the urgency Spaniards placed upon access to quality woods, but which also began the process that led to irreversible deforestation in the nineteenth century. My study establishes the involvement of private subjects in the newly-created royal monopoly company that controlled colonial shipbuilding far from the metropole. It further identifies the interests that competed for precious Cuban lumber, who were responsible for implementing the policies that led to the early destruction of large tracts of timber. Harvesting crews moved farther and farther out from Havana into the virgin-timber forests, which in turn, altered the spatial organization of the landscape by changing the ratio of human population to natural forest.

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