New Approaches to the Early Spanish Caribbean, Part I: Interconnected Maritime Worlds

AHA Session 148
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Bowery (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Ida Altman, University of Florida
The Audience

Session Abstract

This multi-session workshop provides a forum to share and discuss new approaches to early Spanish Caribbean history that draw on global, transatlantic, and transimperial perspectives.

Rather than emphasizing "external" factors at the expense of local dynamics, these papers address people and themes that are easily recognizable as integral components of Spanish Caribbean history. With roughly equal attention to islands (such as Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, Curaçao, and La Margarita) and mainland ports (including Cartagena de Indias, Riohacha, Cumaná, and Veracruz), these papers address central themes such as the slave trade, marronage, fluid religious identities and political loyalties, and geographical mobility. They provide insight into daily forms of coercion, negotiation, adaptation, and subterfuge that allowed Spain's administrative apparatus to function in Caribbean settings. They examine regional, inter-American, and transatlantic networks of trade and communication, including exchanges that took place across or beyond imperial borders, or between individuals of ostensibly conflicting origins, beliefs, or political allegiances.

Papers in this session examine the Spanish Caribbean in relation to other maritime Atlantic spaces including São Tomé, Angola, Brazil, the Río de la Plata, and the Canary Islands, among others. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish Caribbean ports often bore a strong resemblance to distant locales that had developed in similar fashion, for example by relying heavily on the labor of enslaved Africans. But the early Spanish Caribbean also maintained direct maritime connections with other Atlantic arenas through the slave trade, Indies fleets, naval patrols, and logistical networks. Many inhabitants of the region were temporary visitors, or long-term residents who regularly spent a great deal of time elsewhere. Gabriel de Avilez Rocha's presentation examines Iberian discourses around the nature of montes in the Caribbean and matos in São Tomé during the early sixteenth century. He demonstrates that on both sides of the ocean, marronage collectively affected the structure of Iberian colonization, and helped shape the relationship between empire and environment. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Luso-Atlantic trade networks linked both the Spanish Caribbean and the Río de la Plata to broader South Atlantic slaving circuits. Kara Schultz traces the contours of this vast trans-imperial system, arguing that Brazilian ports played significant roles as stopovers and transshipment points for slaving voyages and contraband trade to both regions. In his presentation, Marc Eagle analyzes witness testimony gathered during investigations into illicit slave trading in Santo Domingo and San Juan during the 1620s and 1630s. In addition to illustrating the fluidity of slaving nextworks and the long-distance circulation of free individuals around the Atlantic Ocean, these testimonies provide insight into the movements and experiences of enslaved Africans. The final talk, by Leonardo Moreno-Álvarez, examines an extensive investigation into the wreck of a silver galleon in the Bahamas in 1655, and the frauds that were allegedly committed during subsequent salvage expeditions. The episode and the investigation that it produced illustrates Spain's reliance on localized and specialized forms of maritime labor, and on logistical networks that were affected by overlapping Dutch and English networks.

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