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  • Key to the Indies:Port Towns in the Spanish Caribbean: 1493–1550
  • Ida Altman (bio)

Seaborne commerce, communication, and transportation to a great extent defined and enabled the Spanish enterprise in the Caribbean from the time Europeans first arrived in the islands. With the exception of a minority of towns such as Concepción de la Vega in Española that were established in the interiors of the islands to provide access to gold mines and the indigenous labor to exploit them, the majority of new towns and cities were located on the coasts. Although Santo Domingo, San Juan, and eventually Havana emerged as the principal ports and administrative capitals of the large islands of the northern Caribbean in the first half of the sixteenth century, many secondary and small port towns played essential roles in the rapid development of systems of local and regional exchange, indigenous slave raiding, and transatlantic commerce that linked the islands to Seville, the Canaries and other islands of the Atlantic and the southern Caribbean. Allowing island residents to take advantage of waterborne transportation often via indigenous-built canoes, linking the islands to one another and the circum-Caribbean mainland, and serving as staging grounds for slave-raiding and other expeditions that radiated out from the islands, these towns helped to forge a diverse and dynamic region that was closely tied both to Spain and later to the developing societies of Spanish America.1

This study focuses on the port towns and cities of Española, Cuba, and Puerto Rico (with a glance at Jamaica) to around 1550, emphasizing the ways in which they reflected the distinctive context of the islands and their multiethnic milieus [End Page 5] as they participated in an increasingly complex Atlantic system. Very little scholarly attention has been paid to Caribbean ports of the early years, especially the smaller port towns which both participated in the rapid growth of early systems of exchange and transportation and reflected the ambitions and hopes of officials and island residents.2 Looking at these ports shows us much about the range of opportunities and possibilities that Europeans perceived in the Caribbean, as well as their understandings of the challenges posed by distance, scarcity, and environmental and human threats for which they sought solutions. The decades considered here were a time of accelerating experimentation fueled not only by novelty, risk, and ambition but also by the rapid demographic and socioeconomic changes that the arrival and establishment of Europeans in the region fostered. The island ports, whether large or small, witnessed, facilitated and reflected these changes and challenges and were integral to the Spaniards’ quest to address and assimilate them and to mitigate their impact.

Beginnings: Española, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica

Most of the port towns of the islands were founded early, within the first decade of European occupation, and underwent a variety of changes—growing, shrinking, relocating, acquiring new names, or even disappearing. Perhaps the best-known example of rapid construction and swift abandonment was Isabela, the first functioning European settlement in the Caribbean, located on the north coast of Española.

When Columbus returned on his second transatlantic voyage to discover the destruction of the fort of Navidad and the deaths of the men he had left behind, he decided to build a new town at the mouth of the Río Bahabonico in January 1494. His choice to found Isabela in an area where the indigenous population was sparse proved not to be the norm for Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas; Spaniards quickly came to prefer to build their towns in proximity to indigenous communities. Nonetheless, the common assumption that the site of Isabela was not viable no longer seems sustainable; [End Page 6] indeed contemporary observers noted the fertility of the land and availability of fish as well as the town’s access to rivers and good building materials, advantages that have been borne out by extensive archaeological work at the site.3

Columbus initiated an ambitious program of construction at Isabela following a grueling voyage that left many of the people who traveled with him exhausted and weak...


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