In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Spanish Caribbean

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Port Network: The Routes of the Sea
  • Away from the Centers: Interaction in Coastal and Peripheral Territories
  • Imperial Agents, Revolutions, and Dictators
  • The Voice of Women and Men of the Sea
  • The Transformation of Nature
  • Men on the Move: Forced and Voluntary Migration.
  • Representations

Atlantic History The Spanish Caribbean
Antonio Vidal Ortega
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0396


The Spanish Empire’s technological supremacy at sea meant that for most of the sixteenth century the Caribbean Sea was its own domain. The first port settlement was Santo Domingo, from which domination and conquest began. The main administrative institutions that made the process possible were transplanted there. At the same time, the main economic activity of the new Spanish American colonies of the empire for three centuries emerged: the mining of precious metals. Gold and silver then fueled the Atlantic trade and with it a cloud of ships from other nations appeared to dispute it through piracy until the Spanish lost their supremacy at sea and rival colonies of other powers were established. With the conquest of the great original empires during the first half of the sixteenth century, silver became the predominant export metal. Trade flows shifted the center to the Cartagena de Indias-Portobelo port axis, a place of rich trade fairs that became the central hub of Spanish trade in the Caribbean between 1580 and 1650 due to the circulation of silver from the Peruvian viceroyalty. The increase in silver production in the viceroyalty of New Spain drived this commercial center toward the Veracruz-Havana port axis until the first decades of the eighteenth century. The Spanish defense of the Caribbean focused on these port cities from the second half of the seventeenth century, as the abandoned Lesser Antilles were occupied by the rival empires of the Netherlands, England, and France, which asserted their presence with the development of an illegal trade toward Spanish possessions and the creation of an agrarian model of plantation sustained by a slave production model that brought millions of slaves to the region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Traditionally, the Caribbean has been read from its relationship with the empires separately and its commercial relationship with them. However, developments in recent decades show an interconnected region with more vigorous regional trade than even with the metropolises during the Early Modern period and nineteenth century.

General Overviews

Efforts to look at the Caribbean across imperial and national borders, as a region with a common past that unites it rather than divides it, came from the interest in economic history in the 1980s and the study of the region. These studies questioned the limits of national borders and revealed different realities. Some works were pioneers of this approach and allowed new studies to be carried out, among them Sauer 1984 and Sandner 2003. In this context, other works in the present century have strengthened a view that, although they impose new historiographical currents, they still face the opposition of national narratives. In the present century, this historiographic view still faces opposition from national narratives. Gaztambide 2006 synthesizes the categories of analysis of the region and then collective works appeared that strengthened and consolidated the gaze over the nation (von Grafenstein, et al. 2006; Elias Caro and Vallejo 2009; Muñoz 2019; and Shrimpton Masson and Vidal Ortega 2021).

  • Elias Caro, Jorge Enrique, and Fabio Silva Vallejo, eds. Los mil y un caribe. . .16 textos para su (des) entendimiento. Santa Marta, Colombia: Universidad del Magdalena, 2009.

    It is a book that shows the two strands of the debate on how to understand the Caribbean. On the one hand, those who accept its category of analysis as a region, and on the other, those who start from the idea that there is no such condition and that the identities are distinct despite sharing similar historical processes.

  • García de León, Antonio. El mar de los deseos: El Caribe afro andaluz, historia y contrapunto. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2016.

    This work is important because of its global view of the Spanish Caribbean as a historical region. Written from the Mexican Caribbean, it reflects on the “comings and goings” in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the United States, Spain, Santo Domingo, and Venezuela. Far from being limited to the archipelago, this region extends over the continental and peninsular coasts on both sides of the Atlantic, a historical community built on three centuries of exchanges.

  • Gaztambide, Antonio. “La invención del Caribe a partir de 1898 (las definiciones del Caribe, revisitadas).” Revista Jangwa Pana 5 (November 2006): 1–23.

    What is relevant about this work is the historical overview of the different conceptions regarding the region from colonial times to the present day. It starts from the idea that the Caribbean category is an invention forged in the twentieth century.

  • Hoffman, Paul E. The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean, 1535–1585: Precedent, Patrimonialism, and Royal Parsimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

    This is a classic quantitative study that analyzes the Spanish defense system in the Caribbean using the colonial accounts of the Spanish monarchy.

  • Múnera Cavadía, Alfonso. El Fracaso de la Nación: Región, clase y raza en el Caribe Colombiano. Bogotá: El Ancora Editores, 1998.

    This work of Colombian historiography was the first questioning of the nation-building political project, adding two variables of analysis not previously contemplated in the historical processes of Cartagena de Indias. On the one hand, it treats the role of Afro-descendants in the history of the city, and, on the other, the city’s link to the historical processes of the Caribbean Sea.

  • Muñoz, Laura, ed. Narrar el Caribe: Visiones históricas. Mexico City: Instituto Mora, 2019.

    This book lays out four bases on which the Caribbean studies have been built. The first conceives the region as a space shaped by geopolitical forces. The second emphasizes the economic dilemmas central to the region’s imaginaries. The third revolves around identities, color, ethnicity, or national origins and acts as a central element in shaping definitions of the Caribbean, and the last is about resistances and subalternities that develop in opposition to the power structures of colonialism.

  • Sandner, Gerhard. Centroamérica y el Caribe Occidental: Coyuntura, crisis y conflictos, 1503–1984. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2003.

    The author was the first to use the category of the Western Caribbean and is a key reference for studies that look at the eastern slope of Central America and its Caribbean coastline as a single spatial unit.

  • Sauer, Carl O. Descubrimiento y dominación española del Caribe. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1984.

    This book was a pioneer in analyzing the conquest of the Caribbean by connecting the insular and the continental above contemporary political boundaries. It focuses its interest on the environmental and geographical changes triggered by the European presence in the New World. Sauer viewed the region as a whole for the first time.

  • Shrimpton Masson, Margaret, and Antonino Vidal Ortega, eds. Desde otros Caribes: Fronteras, poéticas e identidades. Santa Marta, Colombia: Universidad del Magdalena, 2021.

    The value of this work is its view of the Caribbean beyond the plantation. A transdisciplinary study that brings together historians, anthropologists, writers, and archaeologists to understand the Caribbean from the mainland.

  • Von Grafenstein, Johanna, Laura, Muñoz Mata, and Antoinette Nelken-Terner. Un mar de encuentros y confrontaciones. Mexico City: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México, 2006.

    This is a work that studies the eastern border of Mexico, which is the Caribbean Sea, and, with it, its relations with the neighboring United States, Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Honduras, and Belize.

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