Puerto Rico and the Regional Caribbean

For early Americanists, the past two decades have seen an increase in scholarship connecting the early modern Caribbean to colonial North America. The Caribbean adds significant depth and dimension to discussions of race, slavery, diplomacy, capitalism, gender, and imperial competition by expanding the historiographies and archival resources common to early American scholarship. Yet, when a colleague stopped by my office asking for readings on seventeenth-century Puerto Rico to assign for a class, I drew a blank. Despite the excellent scholarship on colonial Puerto Rico written in Spanish, English-language scholarship focuses primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[1]

What made this worse was that last Thursday was the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. And, while the devastation and continued struggles on the island garner on-going media attention, the anniversary set me thinking about the place of the Caribbean in our scholarship and our teaching. It seems that, despite increased attention to the Caribbean within the field of vast early America, not all Caribbeans are created equal. And that unevenness demands our attention.

Caribbean history tends to be drawn and quartered in early modern scholarship. Historians of Anglo-America emphasize the history of British colonial spaces such as Jamaica or Barbados. Francophone scholars write about places like Martinique and Guadeloupe. While Latin Americanists often focus only on the Spanish-speaking islands of the Greater Antilles. For conversations about how these places fit within wider imperial frameworks, these sorts of divisions make a lot of sense. And, as seen below, the scholarship on the Caribbean in the two flagship journals of early American history—the William and Mary Quarterly and Early American Studies—reflects the tendency among Anglo-American scholars to focus on islands that became part of the British Empire.

But in thinking about the Caribbean as a region composed of individuals from a kaleidoscope of linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, these sorts of divisions are less productive. And, Puerto Rico serves as the perfect example of why. Situated on the northern tip of the Lesser Antillean curve, Puerto Rico emerged as one among several ports used by English, Dutch, and French mariners seeking wood, water, and provisions in the early decades of the seventeenth century. As those empires gained toeholds in the Lesser Antilles and exploited different types of bound labor, Puerto Rico became entangled in that process. In my own research, I explore the repeated complaints from various Spanish governors of Puerto Rico about the number of escaped servants and slaves washing up on their shores from the English and French islands to the south. Residents of Puerto Rico, like many in the seventeenth-century Spanish Caribbean, also engaged in informal trade with their English and French neighbors in ways that shaped the regional economy. For individuals profiting or laboring in places like Martinique or Nevis, Puerto Rico served as one island among many through which they made sense of their world.

Making connections between Puerto Rico and the Anglo-Atlantic requires thinking of the Caribbean as a region rather than as nodes within imperial circuits. And, while what we do as early Americanists rarely ventures beyond the 1850s, situating the Spanish-speaking Caribbean within the broader history of early America can help our students understand how islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico became entangled with U. S. imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Puerto Rico rebuilds and the media covers the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric surrounding the U.S. response to Maria, perhaps it’s also time for us to think about where Puerto Rico sits within the scholarship of vast early America and why[2].


[1] See, for example: Arturo Morales Carrión, Puerto Rico y la lucha por la hegemonía en el Caribe: colonialismo y contrabando, siglos XVI-XVIII (Puerto Rico, 1995). For English-language scholarship about later periods, see, for example: Francisco A. Scarano, Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico: The Plantation Economy of Ponce 1800-1850 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1984) or Pedro Cabán, Constructing a Colonial People: The United States and Puerto Rico, 1898-1932 (Westview Press, 1999).

[2] Lillian Guerra has written quite eloquently about why Caribbean history matters. See: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2014/why-caribbean-history-matters.


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