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  • The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba
  • Laird W. Bergad
The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba. By Sherry Johnson (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 2001. x plus 239 pp. $55.00).

Cuba in the late 18th century was a society in the throes of multiple transformations. In response to the English seizure of Havana in 1762 administrative reforms were undertaken to bolster defensive capabilities, and these were accompanied by a surge in Crown expenditures on fortifications and infrastructure projects. These, among other factors, stimulated significant growth in a variety of urban and rural economic sectors and led to rapid demographic expansion as well as the spatial dispersion of settlement away from Havana in all directions.

Heretofore, these changes have been examined exclusively through the prism of an expanding sugar economy, the growth of plantation slavery, and the related impact of the 1792 St. Domingue revolt. A principal, and successful, objective in this book is to challenge this paradigm for understanding Cuba’s 18th-century history, and to focus attention upon the defining causative factor for change on the island according to Johnson—the post-1763 military reforms which altered the fundamental structures of Cuban economy and society.

Johnson bases her arguments upon a variety of solid primary-source documentary collections as well as a thoroughly perused secondary literature. Her basic tenets may be summarized as follows: In its well-known and extensively studied reaction to the 1762 English occupation of Havana, the reforming Bourbon monarchs, principally Charles III (1759-88), mandated a fundamental administrative, military and commercial overhaul of the vast Spanish colonial empire with a number of objectives. Among the most important were to guarantee military security, stimulate economic growth, and to assure the administration of relatively efficient fiscal regimes through extensive administrative reforms. For Cuba comercio libre was declared in 1765 and more importantly, according to this book, the fuero militar conferring a series of protections and privileges was extended to both the regular army and the locally recruited militia in 1771.

For Johnson the fuero militar is critical if a series of broader issues are to be understood, of which Cuba’s ongoing and intense loyalty to the Crown is most important. This is because, according to the author, a huge sector of Cuba’s free population was incorporated into the militias irrespective of racial origins. She presents data indicating that over 40% of Havana’s adult white male population [End Page 249] and over two-thirds of the adult free population of color were integrated into militias, and thus protected through the privileges extended by the fuero. Johnson suggests that a large share of the free population, regardless of race, benefited from economic expansion linked to Crown investments in fortifications and construction, and the resulting economic expansion, which was emphatically not connected to the sugar sector.

Loyalty to the colonial system resulted from both widespread rising material well-being, and because of the privileges bestowed by the Crown to a broad swath of the population through the fuero. Johnson explicitly underscores late 18th-century census data revealing that those of European descent, or whites, dominated Cuba’s racial structures—some 85% of the free population. This was the result of large-scale post-1763 immigration of military personnel from the peninsula and ensuing intermarriage with the local population. For Johnson slaves and slavery were much less significant in 18th-century Cuba than previous historical studies have emphasized. One more conclusion ought to be mentioned. Because of all of these benefits for such a large sector of the population due to the militarization of society and economic expansion, Cuba was unique within the Spanish colonial system.

This relative harmony, however, was threatened by the appointment of Luis de Las Casas as Governor-General in 1790 by the inept Charles IV, and the rise of influence by pro-sugar elite groups led by Francisco de Arango y Parreño who had pronounced his famous Discurso Sobre la Agricultura to the Council of the Indies in 1789 advocating the development of a Cuban slave/sugar complex on the British and French models. Governor Las Casas sought to abrogate the fuero militar by attempting to impose labor...

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pp. 249-251
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