- Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century
In Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century, Alejandro de la Fuente has encapsulated the colonial world of Latin America. In a style that Luis Fernández y Fernández would approve of, Havana becomes a microcosm that explains the importance of port cities for the development of the Atlantic world.1 Through the ports of Havana passed the annual Spanish Galleon flotilla, carrying impressive amounts of gold and silver that overflowed Europe. This is a story of pirates, commerce and trade, slavery, imperial defense, and the creation of the Atlantic world.
The book focuses on what the author calls the "golden age of the fleets" (10), between 1550 and 1610. In fact, the study analyzes the story of the day-to-day logistics, transactions, problems, and solutions of imperial development during the sixteenth century. The author explains the galleon system, or Carrera de Indias, as he calls it, on three levels. First, there is an intercontinental stage, in which Havana becomes the rendezvous point at which all New World wealth and products were stowed for their final destination in Spain. The second level is intracontinental trade, that is, the shipping of goods from Veracruz, Cartagena, and other Spanish American cities to Havana, some of them to support the activities there, and most of them, as gold and silver, to be reshipped later. And finally, the third layer, the internal one, is defined by the products and goods Havana provided to the rest of the island, as well as the Cuban sources that supported the members of the flotilla while they waited for the repairs that boats had to endure before venturing to the Atlantic—all of this, of course, before hurricane season.
The book inverts the traditionally held idea that Havana was the gate of the Americas. The assumption that Cuba was a strategic port from which Spain could control the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean may not have been Spain's original plan. For that, Havana should have been on the southern shore of the island. In fact, the author explains that Havana was established on the northern shore and came to substitute for the early settlement of San Cristóbal, which was located in the south. In that way, Havana looked to Spain, not to the Americas. Instead of an entrance gate, Havana became a service station for all boats directed to Spain. [End Page 239]
For this reviewer at least, the most important feature of the book is that it creates a microcosm of colonial Latin America. Havana, a port city, was essential for the trade between Spain and its American colonies. By focusing on all events connected with the trade process, the author allows us a window onto this important period of Atlantic history. Throughout the book, we can follow how the locals received the Spanish flotilla, as well as other not-so-desired visitors, like pirates. As soon as a boat was observed, the whole town of Havana came to life, which shows the transcendental importance of the shipping industry for the survival of the Cuban port. At the same time, the author shows how the city had to create a defense system to prevent its occupation by corsairs and pirates. Larger and stronger fortifications, together with a growing military regiment, were developed thanks to the assistance of the crown. This tells us of the importance that Havana had for the empire as the direct source of all the wealth coming from America.
The author gives us also a glimpse into how the town council and local authorities regulated the relationship between the Atlantic trade passing through the port of Havana and the local population. After all, the crew of the flotilla had to stay on land while boats were supplied and repaired. The tendency was for prices to rise astronomically during the prehurricane season, when it was obvious that the flotilla was to arrive. Local authorities made sure that there was no cheating on the weight of bread...