Spanish West Indies
OD has spent several months intensely researching the rise and fall of slavery in the British West Indies, the French West Indies, and the Dutch West Indies.
I expect most of our American readers could easily identify Jamaica, Haiti, and the Bahamas on a map. You could also probably easily identify Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
It is all these smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles like Barbados, Guadeloupe, and Aruba – several of which are now sovereign independent black nations in various states of social and economic decline – that are hardest to identify much less remember.
So why have we spent so much time discussing the smaller British and French sugar islands while largely ignoring the much larger Spanish West Indies which dominate the Caribbean in total land area?
It is because the Spanish West Indies have a very different history from the slave societies created by northern Europeans in the Caribbean:
(1) As everyone knows, the New World was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 who began the project of Spanish colonialism in the Caribbean.
(2) The Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal divided the New World between the Iberian powers: Spain got the entire Caribbean and the rest of the Americas while Portugal got Brazil and Africa.
(3) The Spanish soon descended on the Greater Antilles – Hispanolia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica – in search of gold and silver and enslaved the native Tainos there to work in their mines.
The Taino and Carib Indians who lived on the smaller worthless islands (those which lacked precious metals like gold and silver) in the Bahamas and Lesser Antilles were exploited as slaves and sent to the mines in Hispanolia and Puerto Rico.
(4) Within a few decades, the Spanish had conquered the Aztecs and Incas in Mexico and Peru. The mines in what would later become known as the “Spanish Main” contained far more gold and silver than the Caribbean and quickly became the center of Spanish colonialism.
(5) By the 1530s, the Spanish Caribbean had become a backwater: many of the rapacious settlers who had arrived there moved on to Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere in Central and South America.
A few major ports emerged in Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico. Their major purpose was to serve as military way stations for escorting all the American gold and silver back to Spain.
(6) In the early 16th century, the Spanish introduced black slaves to the Hispanolia and the other Greater Antilles to replace the dying Indians in their mines and also to work on the first sugar plantations.
(7) By 1600, Cuba, Hispanolia, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico were majority black, but amazingly, they all became failed slave societies rather than the springboard of race-based plantation slavery in the Caribbean.
The Greater Antilles became dominated by peasant agriculture and vast cattle ranches called hatos. These stagnating failed slave societies became the site of a lot of manumission, miscegenation, and intermarriage.
It was during “the long 17th century” (1570 to 1700) that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans became the racially mixed peoples that we recognize them as today. Western Cuba was a regional exception to this trend due to the importance of Havana as a port in the Spanish colonial system.
(8) In the 17th century, Britain, France, and the Netherlands displaced Spain as the dominant powers in the Caribbean. Denmark would later join the other northern European powers by acquiring the Danish Virgin Islands which are now the American Virgin Islands.
(9) By 1700, Spain had ceded control over the entire Lesser Antilles in the eastern and southern Caribbean, the “worthless islands” in the Bahamas archipelago, the Guianas in northern South America, as well as Jamaica to Britain and Saint-Domingue to France in the Greater Antilles.
The Spanish were cutting their losses: they retained control of the largest and most important islands while ceding control of the mineral poor and Carib-infested islands in the eastern Caribbean.
They would later cede Trinidad to Britain and Louisiana to France under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
(10) Starting in Barbados in the 1640s, the British, French, and Dutch (and later the Danes) created race-based slave societies that grew tropical commodities (sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo, etc.) for export to European metropoles.
These slave societies dominated the entire Lesser Antilles, Jamaica and Saint-Domingue in the Greater Antilles, and also spread to more marginal areas like the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas which grew sea cotton.
Strikingly, the Spanish West Indies (Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico) remained exceptions to the regional trend. These islands were no longer majority “black” or majority “slave.”
(11) At the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British occupied Havana and Spain was forced to cede Florida. The shock of losing Havana led to major changes in Spain’s policy of restricting slave imports to the Spanish Caribbean.
During the Haitian Revolution, Santo Domingo was occupied by Toussaint L’ouverture. Haiti would again occupy Santo Domingo from 1822 to 1844 out of which the Dominican Republic emerged as an independent nation.
In the 1810s and 1820s, Spain lost all its colonies in mainland Central and South America, and retained only Cuba and Puerto Rico which
remained loyal due to the growing importance of race-based plantation slavery there.
(12) The destruction of Saint-Domingue (as well as the temporary abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean) led to a mass exodus of French planters many of whom relocated to Cuba, Jamaica, and Louisiana.
From 1763 to 1868, Cuba emerged as the northern frontier of race-based plantation slavery in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico followed the same trajectory.
By the 1820s, Cuba had become a slave society and the largest producer of sugar in the world. 800,000 slaves were imported to Cuba to work on the expanding and modernized sugar plantations.
The British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 undermined Cuba’s competitors in the British West Indies. The abolition of slavery in the British West Indies (1834 to 1838) and the French West Indies (1848) only intensified Cuba’s prosperity.
Thousands of Spanish immigrants came to Cuba during the early nineteenth century during the sugar boom. This is why Cuba became more of a black/white society like the Antebellum South whereas Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic retained their more mixed character.
(13) While Cuba was becoming an industrialized slave society specializing in sugar with railroads connecting its steam powered sugar mills to the Atlantic coast, cotton had displaced sugar as the most important agricultural commodity in the world.
During the same time period, the Cotton Kingdom was spreading across the Deep South: Mississippi became a state in 1817, Alabama in 1819, Texas in 1845. As the British intensified pressure on Spain to abolish slavery, there was a movement in late 1840s and 1850s in both Cuba and the Deep South to annex Cuba to the United States as a slave state.
The Confederacy would be destroyed in 1865. Cuba would launch two bids for independence from 1868 to 1878 and from 1895 to 1898. Slavery would be abolished in 1886. Cuba would end this period in 1902 as a quasi-independent country and de facto colony of the United States under American hegemony.
As a result of the Spanish-American War, which ended Spain’s career as an imperial power in the Americas, Puerto Rico became a de jure American colony. Now over half of Puerto Ricans live in the United States along with millions of White Cubans who fled Castro’s regime in the 1960s.
The Knights of the Golden Circle had envisioned Havana becoming the permanent capital of a Southern-based Caribbean empire. Many in the South anticipated Havana becoming the Southern version of New York City and the entrepot that would dominate the trade of the entire Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region.
Sadly, as a direct consequence of the War Between the States, Dixie would become an internal colony of the Yankee Empire, whereas Cuba would become a quasi-independent colony, and later in reaction to American imperialism an Africanized communist Third World country.