Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640 by David Wheat
The historiography of Spanish colonization in the early modern Carib- bean has emphasized the importance of two moments in the region’s history. First, it served as the linchpin for the initial Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas in the years after Christopher Columbus’s voyages. After the conquest of the land empires of mainland America in Mexico and Peru, however, the focus of Spanish colonization shifted west of the Caribbean, drawing with it the attention of modern historians. The late eighteenth-century sugar boom and fast-paced development of plantation economies returned the Caribbean to global significance and to modern historians’ interest, as its commodities and plantations became crucial to the development of European capitalism. As this pattern suggests, historical examination of the Caribbean has been driven by the themes of European expansionism and capitalism. And as a collateral effect, the period intervening between the two moments of concentrated attention has been ignored in most English-language studies of the region or dismissed as a moment of economic crisis and stagnation.1
David Wheat aims to address this lacuna by shifting focus away from early colonial- and sugar-centered narratives of the Caribbean and toward the understudied period of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wheat’s beautifully written and thoroughly researched Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean not only alters the perception that the Caribbean was an abandoned periphery of the Spanish Empire during the period but also highlights the importance of transimperial dynamics connecting the Spanish and Portuguese territories in the Atlantic basin for the success of Spanish colonialism. Furthermore, the book reveals the diversity of social agents crossing the Atlantic as enslaved and free migrants. Though Spanish political and military efforts were centered in the mainland Americas, Wheat shows that lively regional economies developed in the Caribbean and [End Page 351] that, in the absence of Spanish immigrants, Afro-Caribbean peoples became the empire’s “surrogate colonists” (255), for Africans and their descendants provided the labor force and defensive resources that made possible the colonization of the Spanish Caribbean.
With the decline of the mining, sugar, and pearl-fishing industries that characterized the early Spanish Caribbean, localized industries of farming, ranching, and food production gained centrality as economic activities. But the region remained connected to larger global economic forces, serving as a point of passage for a large number of new Spanish settlers and as a hub within slave trade routes headed for destinations in Peru and Mexico. Though it lacked the mining and plantation economies most associated with enslaved labor in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a significant percentage of the almost half million enslaved Africans brought to the Americas during this period via Caribbean routes stayed in the region. Wheat demonstrates that Africans and their descendants soon became vital to urban and rural societies. By the last decades of the sixteenth century, Spanish settlements throughout the region were dependent on the Afro-Caribbean population to perform the labor of ordinary peasants and townspeople. They labored as ranchers, agricultural workers, stevedores, domestic servants, artisans, and musicians; they were even armed for employment as guardsmen and enjoyed relative autonomy to work on boats as fishermen. By the turn of the 1600s, Africans and their descendants comprised roughly two-thirds of the population in cities such as Havana, while in Española and Cartagena they represented more than 70 percent of the populace. Under such conditions, Spanish Caribbean colonies relied on a majority African-descended population to perform tasks that in Spain or other colonial settings were done by Spaniards or indigenous peoples. As Wheat puts it, the Afro-Caribbean population became the de facto “colonists, or settlers” (14) of the empire, inviting the reader to reconsider traditional ideas about the relationship between racial categories and the juridical status of the migrants usually associated with Iberian immigrants in the Americas and Europe.
The growing influx of Africans into Spanish America in general and the Caribbean in particular was due to the connections that linked Portuguese and Spanish domains, especially during the union of the Iberian crowns (1580–1640). During this period, the slave trade to the Caribbean relied heavily on Upper Guinean and West-Central African captives. As a result of the Portuguese expansion into West-Central Africa, Angolans become the majority of the new coerced migrants arriving in the Caribbean by the end of the sixteenth century. Their cultural and social backgrounds, shaped by the long-standing Portuguese presence in Africa, facilitated their absorption into the Iberian Americas; for example, many Angolans arrived in the Caribbean already converted to Catholicism. Wheat argues that, notwithstanding the inherent violence and oppression involved in this process, [End Page 352] previous exposure to individuals fluent in both societies enabled many West and West-Central Africans to adapt relatively quickly to Spanish values and customs in the Americas, becoming ladinos, or latinized.
This swift assimilation was thanks in part to preexisting connections to the Portuguese, but it was also enhanced by Luso-African cultural brokers who participated in commercial routes both in Africa and in the Americas. The ships carrying enslaved Africans also transported free individuals who were familiar with African and Iberian worlds and provided a critical population of non-Spanish individuals who acted as cultural go-betweens in the Caribbean. Wheat introduces the reader to a number of diverse historical agents who served in roles ranging from interpreters to godparents. These included merchants of Portuguese and Cape Verdean origin who had spent decades among Africans and understood and acquired African customs and values. The tangomãos, as they were known, crossed the Atlantic as passengers and resided in Spanish port cities, facilitating the integration of Africans into Spanish societal norms, including language, religion, and social practices. Pilots, sailors, and slave ships’ guardians of African origin—known as grumetes—provide another example of free black agents facilitating the transportation, sale, and adaptation of captives, thus shaping the Spanish Caribbean societies. Luso-African women also participated in these processes of cultural adaptation in Spanish America. Free women of color, known as morenas horras, played essential roles in port cities as inn-keepers, property owners, petty traders, and partners of Iberian men. Such figures have been hitherto ignored by the traditional historiography of the Caribbean. But by bridging the Portuguese and Spanish Empires in Africa and the Americas, Wheat contends, they made possible the Spanish colonial enterprise in the Caribbean at the margins of mainland plantation societies, before the crystallization of racial categories.
By focusing on the crucial role of diverse social types as central agents in the making of the Spanish Caribbean, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean reveals a much more heterogenous population and more complex social dynamics than historians previously imagined. The book also showcases the analytic advantages of transimperial and Atlantic approaches that have developed in the past decades. Wheat uses historical data drawn from quantitative sources and methodologies as a springboard to examine the social dynamics and practices that spanned Portuguese and Spanish territories. Based on a wealth of historical sources from archives in Spain, Portugal, Cuba, Colombia, and Mexico, the book exemplifies the necessity of breaking away from nationalistic historiographies when examining the early modern Atlantic. Furthermore, this volume debunks the economic and politically driven narratives of the Caribbean that reproduced imperial and European preoccupations and values by focusing solely on conquest, mining, and plantations as the principal motors of Caribbean history. In doing so, it reveals that, despite being at the margins of the main political and [End Page 353] economic centers of empire in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish Caribbean colonies were not isolated backwaters—they were socially dynamic and culturally diverse communities that were in fact representative of imperial societies in the early modern period. The book thus invites scholars to consider new avenues of investigation by weighing the further social and economic consequences of the demographic prevalence of Afro-Caribbean populations in the region’s colonial societies. Finally, Wheat convincingly demonstrates the importance of transatlantic dynamics in shaping the emergence of very diverse colonial societies that were not simply centered around sugar and other commodities cherished by European empires. Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean will certainly alter the way in which historians think and teach about the history of the Atlantic world. [End Page 354]
1. This trend is exemplified by Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969 (New York, 1970), and reproduced in more recent works, including B. W. Higman, A Concise History of the Caribbean (New York, 2011). For works utilizing the Atlantic framework, see Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (New York, 2009). For a comprehensive critique of this historiography, see Jesse Cromwell, “More than Slaves and Sugar: Recent Historiography of the Trans-imperial Caribbean and Its Sinew Populations,” History Compass 12, no. 10 (October 2014): 770–83.