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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Contraband
  • Environmental History

Latin American Studies The Spanish Caribbean In The Colonial Period
David Wheat
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0099


From the late 15th to the late 19th centuries, Spain controlled extensive territories in and around the Caribbean Sea, including the Greater Antilles, the mainland and islands along the Caribbean’s southern littoral, and the entire Gulf of Mexico. However, unlike the British West Indies, the French Caribbean, or the Dutch Antilles, Spain’s circum-Caribbean colonies have rarely been analyzed as a geographical unit. Jamaica, Trinidad, Saint-Domingue, Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire are generally thought of as English, French, and Dutch colonies, though each was previously colonized by Spain for a century or longer. Although the modern nations of Colombia and Venezuela may be justifiably viewed as Andean, each also contains vast stretches of low-lying, coastal areas that were historically and culturally very much part of the Caribbean. Many historians make a similar argument for former Spanish territories along the Gulf Coast regions of present-day Mexico and the United States. If subsequent European claims in the region and modern national boundaries make the Spanish Caribbean’s geographical expanse somewhat difficult to discern, its chronological parameters are quite clear. Spain’s American empire began and ended in the Caribbean, with the settlement of Española during the 1490s, and the final loss of Cuba and Puerto Rico, four centuries later, in 1898. Relatively few monographs are devoted to the first 250 years of colonial Spanish Caribbean history; while older studies of this period describe Crown policy, imperial rivalries, and the evolution of colonial institutions, recent works emphasize maritime economies and social formations within the region’s major port cities. The vast majority of scholarship on the colonial Spanish Caribbean focuses on the late 18th and 19th centuries, addressing core themes such as the growth of the sugar plantation complex, slave resistance, and abolition, primarily in Cuba. Other studies of the late colonial period examine the end of Spanish colonial rule, the growing influence of the United States, and the rise of national identities, particularly in relation to ideologies of race.

General Overviews

There is no book-length monograph devoted to the history of the Spanish Caribbean during the entire colonial period. A number of studies of present-day nations, or regions within present-day nations, focus on the centuries prior to independence (e.g., del Castillo Mathieu 1981). Scarano 2006 offers a survey of scholarship on 19th-century Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Marrero 1975–1992 provides a unique overview of colonial Cuban history spanning no less than fifteen volumes. The colonial Spanish Caribbean is also well represented in a multivolume collection of scholarly essays addressing the region from the pre-Hispanic era to the 20th century (General History of the Caribbean), and in two textbooks of similar chronological and geographical scope (Knight 2012, Moya Pons 2007).

  • del Castillo Mathieu, Nicolás. La llave de las Indias. Bogotá, Colombia: Ediciones El Tiempo, 1981.

    A classic synthesis of the colonial history of Cartagena de Indias from 1533 to 1810. Emphasizes the port city’s role as a Caribbean hub for maritime transportation and commerce, with special attention to the transatlantic slave trade. Based on published primary and secondary sources.

  • General History of the Caribbean. 6 vols. London Macmillan Caribbean, 1997–2012.

    A number of essays in this collection specifically address the colonial Spanish Caribbean. Includes contributions by Alfredo Castillero-Calvo, Franklin W. Knight, Francisco Moscoso, Frank Moya Pons, Jalil Sued-Badillo, and Enriqueta Vila Vilar. Volumes 1–4 focus on autochthonous societies, the 16th century, slave societies, and the 19th century, respectively.

  • Knight, Franklin W. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism. 3d ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    A holistic survey of Caribbean history. First published in 1978. Spanish Caribbean colonies play an important part within the broader narrative, and are well represented in six chapters devoted to the colonial period. Each chapter provides a list of suggested readings, rather than footnotes. Accessible for undergraduates and general audiences.

  • Marrero, Leví. Cuba: Economía y sociedad. 15 vols. Madrid: Editorial Playor, 1975–1992.

    This monumental historical geography provides a comprehensive overview of colonial Cuban history. Also valuable as a guide to archival sources. Volumes 1–5 focus on the 16th and 17th centuries. Volumes 6–8 cover the years 1701–1763, and the remaining volumes address the period from 1763 to 1868.

  • Moya Pons, Frank. History of the Caribbean: Plantations, Trade, and War in the Atlantic World. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2007.

    A synthetical survey of Caribbean history emphasizing the formative role played by sugar plantations up through the early 20th century. Discusses all the major European powers in the Caribbean, but the Spanish Caribbean is foregrounded throughout. Includes a bibliographical guide for each chapter in lieu of footnotes; appropriate for undergraduates.

  • Scarano, Francisco A. “Slavery, Race, and Power: A Half-Century of Spanish Caribbean Scholarship.” In Beyond Fragmentation: Perspectives on Caribbean History. Edited by Juanita De Barros, Audra Diptee, and David V. Trotman, 35–67. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2006.

    A concise overview of influential scholarly works that laid the foundations for historical interpretations of 19th-century Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, with emphasis on slavery and race.

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