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The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba.

By Sherry Johnson (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 2001. x plus 239 pp. $55.00).

Cuba in the late 18th century was a society in the throes of multiple transformations. In response to the English seizure of Havana in 1762 administrative reforms were undertaken to bolster defensive capabilities, and these were accompanied by a surge in Crown expenditures on fortifications and infrastructure projects. These, among other factors, stimulated significant growth in a variety of urban and rural economic sectors and led to rapid demographic expansion as well as the spatial dispersion of settlement away from Havana in all directions.

Heretofore, these changes have been examined exclusively through the prism of an expanding sugar economy, the growth of plantation slavery, and the related impact of the 1792 St. Domingue revolt. A principal, and successful, objective in this book is to challenge this paradigm for understanding Cuba's 18th-century history, and to focus attention upon the defining causative factor for change on the island according to Johnson--the post-1763 military reforms which altered the fundamental structures of Cuban economy and society.

Johnson bases her arguments upon a variety of solid primary-source documentary collections as well as a thoroughly perused secondary literature. Her basic tenets may be summarized as follows: In its well-known and extensively studied reaction to the 1762 English occupation of Havana, the reforming Bourbon monarchs, principally Charles III (1759-88), mandated a fundamental administrative, military and commercial overhaul of the vast Spanish colonial empire with a number of objectives. Among the most important were to guarantee military security, stimulate economic growth, and to assure the administration of relatively efficient fiscal regimes through extensive administrative reforms. For Cuba comercio libre was declared in 1765 and more importantly, according to this book, the fuero militar conferring a series of protections and privileges was extended to both the regular army and the locally recruited militia in 1771.

For Johnson the fuero militar is critical if a series of broader issues are to be understood, of which Cuba's ongoing and intense loyalty to the Crown is most important. This is because, according to the author, a huge sector of Cuba's free population was incorporated into the militias irrespective of racial origins. She presents data indicating that over 40% of Havana's adult white male population and over two-thirds of the adult free population of color were integrated into militias, and thus protected through the privileges extended by the fuero. Johnson suggests that a large share of the free population, regardless of race, benefited from economic expansion linked to Crown investments in fortifications and construction, and the resulting economic expansion, which was emphatically not connected to the sugar sector.

Loyalty to the colonial system resulted from both widespread rising material well-being, and because of the privileges bestowed by the Crown to a broad swath of the population through the fuero. Johnson explicitly underscores late 18th-century census data revealing that those of European descent, or whites, dominated Cuba's racial structures--some 85% of the free population. This was the result of large-scale post-1763 immigration of military personnel from the peninsula and ensuing intermarriage with the local population. For Johnson slaves and slavery were much less significant in 18th-century Cuba than previous historical studies have emphasized. One more conclusion ought to be mentioned. Because of all of these benefits for such a large sector of the population due to the militarization of society and economic expansion, Cuba was unique within the Spanish colonial system.

This relative harmony, however, was threatened by the appointment of Luis de Las Casas as Governor-General in 1790 by the inept Charles IV, and the rise of influence by pro-sugar elite groups led by Francisco de Arango y Parreno who had pronounced his famous Discurso Sobre la Agricultura to the Council of the Indies in 1789 advocating the development of a Cuban slave/sugar complex on the British and French models. Governor Las Casas sought to abrogate the fuero militar by attempting to impose labor obligations upon the free population, principally to maintain or rebuild roads and bridges, and this produced a crisis of resistance to these measures, as well as to the sugar-expansion project.

Johnson does a fine job of pointing out the important role of military reforms on the island and their impacts on Cuban society in the last four decades of the 18th century. However, late 18th-century Cuba was a society in which there were large numbers of immigrants born on the peninsula; an enslaved population rapidly growing in the 1780s and 1790s because of an upsurge in the slave trade--over 80,000 slaves born in Africa were imported between 1785 and 1800; in which there were extraordinary regional variations in social and economic structures; and where occupational, class, racial, national, and gender differentiations could be extreme among all population sectors including slaves.

It has long been recognized that Cuba in the 18th century was not a classic Caribbean slave/plantation society, and that its economic structures did not in any way revolve exclusively around sugar as would be the case after the 1830s. In 1750 there were 62 ingenios milling cane in the Havana region; 96 in 1761; and 225 ingenios in 1792. In 1762 some 300 caballarias (33.6 acres each) of land were cultivated in cane. Over 5,000 caballarias were cultivated in 1792. As noted above, over 80,000 slaves were imported between 1785 and 1800. The ecological transformation alone, because of extensive deforestation caused by this expansion, was monumental. The social, cultural, and economic impact of sugar and slavery on late 18th-century Cuban society was also quite profound. The shift in demographic structures resulting from large-scale slave imports and the changing parameters of marketing, credit, and labor allocations because of sugar expansion were as important in shaping Cuban society as the military reforms which are the focus of this book. Indeed it may be wrong, as Johnson states, to apply the 19th-century analytical paradigm of a sugar/slave plantation society to 18th-century Cuba. However, the impact of sugar and slavery was of great importance, especially in western Cuba, long before Arango y Parreno's Discurso or the appointment of Las Casas as Governor.

Johnson has pointed out in sophisticated detail the effects of military reforms in helping to shape Cuban society in the late 18th century, and this is a very valuable addition to Cuban historiography.

Laird W. Bergad

Graduate Center, City University of New York
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Author:Bergad, Laird W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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