- The Occupation of Havana: War, Trade, and Slavery in the Atlantic World by Elena A. Schneider
In June 1762, as European powers were already negotiating the agreements that would end the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), more than twenty thousand British soldiers and sailors arrived in Spanish-held Havana and began a six-week siege that resulted in British victory. Havana was described by contemporaries as the key to the West Indies because of its strategic location and great wealth. Its final capitulation on August 11, 1762, represented for the British not only a triumphant amphibious campaign in the disease-ridden Caribbean but also a crucial financial and geopolitical victory in the last year of a global war fought against its national and imperial rivals France and Spain.
For the Spanish, the defeat underlined the need for imperial and military reform. Although peace negotiations soon returned Havana to Spanish control, its capture was a staggering blow to morale, national pride, and imperial confidence. Contemporaries faulted inadequate defensive structures and military forces in particular, but the defeat also galvanized more widespread changes. In what became known as the “Bourbon reforms,” the Spanish government remodeled its administration, seeking to modernize and optimize its domestic and overseas territories. The economic activity of Cuba was reshaped, with the island becoming a major slaving and sugar colony by the end of the eighteenth century. Militarily, the Spanish Empire incorporated the regular use of local militias—including black militias— which provided social and political opportunities to a remarkable number of people of African descent.
Conquest and defeat, when framed by narratives of decay and corruption, can be catalysts for reform. But narratives of conquest and defeat can also continue to be adapted and refashioned to meet changing needs. Elena A. Schneider’s The Occupation of Havana reframes the siege of Havana, tracing it both backward and forward through a variety of perspectives, incorporating recent historiographical attention to race, agency, individual narratives, and local viewpoints. Schneider marshals research drawn from an impressive range of archives to contextualize the siege and the eleven-month British occupation that followed. The result is a rich account of a relatively short military campaign that also portrays the vibrant and cosmopolitan nature of a colonial port, as well as the long-term economic, political, military, and social implications of the conquest. [End Page 346]
Schneider’s history of the siege, accordingly, opens with its pre-history. Arguing against the common assumption that Cuba was economically stagnant until reshaped by the 1762 British occupation and consequent Spanish reforms, Schneider convincingly portrays Havana prior to British conquest as a bustling space that absorbed waves of short-term commercial and military visitors. Like port cities all over the globe, Havana faced outward toward the world rather than adhering to strict national allegiance and imperial protectionism. This cosmopolitan orientation continued during the eleven months of British occupation that followed the 1762 conquest; Schneider describes Spanish-British soirees and officer sociability that helped to enhance “a shared transimperial culture of elite consumption and exchange” (198). As in other European wars, military officers in occupied Havana likely had more in common with the elite of their conquered hosts than with the rank and file troops they commanded. Officers were billeted in the homes of local elites and occasionally even married into these families, which were often already heavily involved in networks of global commerce that transcended national and denominational divisions. Divisions and national loyalties, however, did not entirely disappear. Once Havana returned to Spanish rule in July 1763, accusations and counter-accusations of disloyalty freely circulated; Schneider deftly captures this swirl of post-occupation recrimination.
The counterpart to post-war allegations were reports of steadfast Spanish loyalty and assertions of Cuban bravery during Havana’s defense. These claims, as Schneider highlights, above all praised Cuba’s black troops. Cuba had been poorly prepared for large-scale invasion. When besieged, the...