An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World

An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World

by Ernesto Bassi


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An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World by Ernesto Bassi

In An Aqueous Territory Ernesto Bassi traces the configuration of a geographic space he calls the transimperial Greater Caribbean between 1760 and 1860. Focusing on the Caribbean coast of New Granada (present-day Colombia), Bassi shows that the region's residents did not live their lives bounded by geopolitical borders. Rather, the cross-border activities of sailors, traders, revolutionaries, indigenous peoples, and others reflected their perceptions of the Caribbean as a transimperial space where trade, information, and people circulated, both conforming to and in defiance of imperial regulations. Bassi demonstrates that the islands, continental coasts, and open waters of the transimperial Greater Caribbean constituted a space that was simultaneously Spanish, British, French, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-American, African, and indigenous. Exploring the "lived geographies" of the region's dwellers, Bassi challenges preconceived notions of the existence of discrete imperial spheres and the inevitable emergence of independent nation-states while providing insights into how people envision their own futures and make sense of their place in the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822362203
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ernesto Bassi is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University.

Read an Excerpt

An Aqueous Territory

Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World

By Ernesto Bassi

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7373-5



Routes, Size, and Frequency

De La Habana a Portobelo,
de Jamaica a Trinidad,
anda y anda el barco barco,
sin capitán.

— NICOLÁS GUILLÉN, "Un son para niños antillanos"

On October 19, 1806, after a long and eventful journey, the Spanish brig Concepción entered the port of Maracaibo in the captaincy general of Venezuela. Scheduled to travel from Veracruz to Maracaibo, the Concepción reached its final destination after unplanned stopovers in Sabanilla (sixty miles northeast of Cartagena) and Jamaica. According to its captain, Domingo Negrón, the brig was forced off its original route in the first days of August, when it was "captured off the coast of Cartagena by the Veteran, [a] British ship of seventy canons, and two Spanish merchant schooners, [which the Veteran] was convoying." After spending three days in Sabanilla, the Concepción was taken to Jamaica, where Negrón and his crew "were detained [for] thirty-five days." Negrón's description of British commercial relations with Sabanilla — during his stay in Jamaica he witnessed the departure of "eight Spanish ships to said Sabanilla" — greatly alarmed Spanish authorities, for whom commercial exchanges with a warring foreign power taking place at an unauthorized port were, even in a climate of increased openness to interimperial trade, still illegal.

In sharp contrast with the Concepción, the Spanish schooner Esperanza (captains Domingo Pisco and Josef Borregio) enjoyed nothing but calm and friendly seas during the multiple times in 1814 that it sailed between Kingston and the minor port of Riohacha — a port benefiting from royal permits authorizing it to trade with foreign neutrals. Neither enemies nor the oft-cited "winds and currents" seemed to have affected any of the seven recorded Kingston-Riohacha round trips that the Esperanza completed that year. Its pattern of navigation, based on what can be gathered from Kingston's shipping returns, was pretty regular: After entering Kingston, the Esperanza stayed in port between five and eleven days before sailing back to Riohacha; between three and four weeks later it once again appeared entering Kingston. Relatively short stays in port were followed by short navigations to a nearby port. Since no shipping returns are available for Riohacha, however, it is impossible to know with certainty the path the Esperanza took in those three- to four-week intervals between departure from and arrival to Kingston.

The eventful journey of the Concepción and the apparently eventless one of the Esperanza contain key elements to understanding the commercial networks that linked New Granada to the wider world. Both the Concepción and the Esperanza were among the myriad brigs, schooners, and sloops that, like the ship of Nicolás Guillén's poem (see epigraph), "roam[ed] and roam[ed]" Caribbean waters connecting imperial spheres often thought of as disconnected. Their journeys speak of both the dangers and promise of interimperial trade in a period marked by almost constant warfare in Atlantic coasts and waters. Their journeys also make visible two of a handful of Neogranadan ports that, despite their commercial dynamism, have generally remained at the margins of historical accounts of New Granada's foreign trade.

For captains and sailors sailing the Caribbean and for Spanish authorities following the movement of vessels from the Caribbean coast of New Granada, neither Sabanilla nor Riohacha were invisible. Nor were they the only hidden ports trading with Jamaica in a manner that defied straightforward classification as licit or illicit. In a report submitted to New Granada's viceroy in November 1803, Manuel Hernández, the Spanish Crown's royal treasurer at Portobelo, described the commercial dynamism of the western Caribbean island of San Andrés (120 miles off Nicaragua's coast). At this island, Hernández explained, Spanish and foreign vessels docked to exchange "our colonial produce" for "all the clothes and [other] effects needed for the consumption of the Viceroyalty [of New Granada] and ... that of Peru through Panama." Concealed coves and tiny islands in the Guajira Peninsula (e.g., Bahia Honda and Portete) and the vicinities of Santa Marta (e.g., Gayra), Portobelo (e.g., Chagres and San Blas), and Cartagena completed Hernández's inventory of hidden ports ideally suited "for the undertaking of such [illegal] negotiations."

Despite their recurrent appearances in the historical record, these hidden ports have not been able to secure a place in the historiography of New Granada's trade during the late colonial period. Making these ports visible and illustrating the ways in which they participated in interimperial commercial networks challenges two long-standing assumptions about trade relations in New Granada and the Atlantic world. First, that the major port of Cartagena dominated New Granada's trade with both Spain and foreign colonies. Second, that by the end of the eighteenth century European empires, as dictated by mercantilist principles, continued to operate "within autarkic commercial systems" that deemed illegal any commercial interaction with foreigners. My interpretation, largely based on the inclusion of New Granada's minor and hidden ports in the Caribbean and Atlantic commercial landscape, brings to life a Caribbean world of everyday transimperial interactions made possible by the increased willingness of Atlantic empires to legalize (and regulate) interimperial commercial exchanges. In this transformed commercial landscape, contraband ceased to be statically defined by the mere fact of commercial contact with foreigners and acquired a more dynamic definition in which a combination of goods traded, ports of origins and destination, and geopolitical circumstances determined the legality of commercial transactions.

The term "hidden ports" requires further clarification. Spanish commercial legislation ranked American ports according to their centrality to the Spanish transatlantic commercial system. In New Granada, Cartagena was the only major port. The ports of Santa Marta, Riohacha, and Portobelo were classified as minor ports. To these two official terms I add a third one — hidden ports — to refer to ports frequently mentioned in Spanish reports as sites used by Spanish, British, Dutch, French, and Danish subjects to engage in illicit commercial exchanges. In British reports and port records, hidden ports like Sabanilla, San Andrés, and Chagres were not hidden at all. Given the fragmentary nature of shipping returns for New Granada's Caribbean ports (information on arrivals and departures is only available for Cartagena and Santa Marta for selected years), British records make visible not only hidden ports but also minor ports like Riohacha and Portobelo. Thus, while minor ports also tend to be hidden in the Spanish archives (no shipping returns are available for Riohacha and Portobelo), much of the trade conducted in these ports was legal by late eighteenth-century standards. Hidden ports (Sabanilla, San Andrés, and Chagres, among others), on the other hand, are hidden both because their commercial dynamism is hard to see in Spanish archives and because, when they do appear, these ports do so as sites where hidden or illicit activities took place.

In this chapter I study interimperial trade from the vantage point of New Granada's Caribbean ports from the effective instauration of comercio libre y protegido (free and protected trade) in the mid-1780s to the final years of the independence wars that led to the creation of the Republic of Colombia. While not new — transimperial exchanges had been a feature of the Caribbean's commercial landscape since the sixteenth century, when British, Dutch, and French buccaneers and privateers first broke Spain's exclusive access to Caribbean waters — these commercial exchanges across political borders grew in intensity during the second half of the eighteenth century. By following the paths of ships that frequently crisscrossed imperial political borders connecting New Granada's Caribbean coasts to foreign colonies, this chapter argues that from the 1760s, and with more intensity after the American Revolution, the Caribbean was turning into a de facto free trade area largely, but not exclusively, controlled by Great Britain from the Caribbean commercial center of Kingston, Jamaica.

Largely based on previously unexplored Jamaican shipping returns, this reconstruction of New Granada's commercial networks presents the main routes, ports, types of vessels (by size and nationality), frequency of travel, modes of trade (legal and illegal), and commodities traded (see map 1.1). The reconstruction, while meticulous, is nonetheless still partial. A more complete picture could only be drawn by using shipping returns from other key Caribbean and Atlantic ports engaged in trade with New Granada. Records of arrivals and departures from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Curaçao, Saint Thomas, Les Cayes, and other ports could add further nuances to the picture presented in this chapter. However, Britain's increasing maritime power during the second half of the eighteenth century constitutes a good justification for the choice of Jamaica. As Jamaica's most important and dynamic port, Kingston appears in this chapter as the commercial center of the transimperial Greater Caribbean. Preceded by a brief historical context of the period leading up to the 1780s, the central section of this chapter demonstrates the eighteenth-century progression toward free trade in Caribbean waters and the ways in which the combined effect of war and innovations in commercial regulations made it possible for Great Britain, through its main Caribbean entrepôt, Kingston, to corner most of the benefits to be obtained from interimperial Caribbean trade.

How the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution Transformed Caribbean Trade

The eighteenth century, as one historian characterized it, was a period of "total war" between the British Crown and the French and Spanish monarchies united through the Bourbon Family Compact. From the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714) to the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815), the eighteenth century rarely witnessed periods of peace lasting more than a decade. Eighteenth-century warfare altered the balance of power, reshaping the world's political map and bringing about dramatic transformations in Caribbean commercial policies and practices. In turn, commercial practices, which in the Caribbean were largely characterized by the violation of mercantilist policies, usually provided valid justifications for a European monarch to declare war against a rival power.

War made it difficult to continue commerce as usual. The scarcities associated with warfare often forced imperial authorities to introduce commercial exceptions that legalized trade with foreigners. During the second half of the eighteenth century, these exceptions gave impetus to new economic ideas that favored free trade over traditional mercantilist policies. Peace treaties signed to end wars often included clauses with commercial concessions and territorial transfers that reshaped the world's political map. In the eighteenth-century Caribbean, the combination of wartime exceptions and concessions made at different peace treaties ultimately resulted in a gradual destruction of the barriers to interimperial trade.

Completely forbidden until the first years of the eighteenth century, interimperial commercial exchanges in the Caribbean were first legalized, under exceptional circumstances, in 1701, when France secured the exclusive right to introduce slaves to Spanish America. At the end of the War of Spanish Succession, however, France lost this privilege to the British Crown, which also obtained from Spain an unprecedented "right to send a trading vessel (the 'Annual Ship') to the Spanish American trade fairs held at Portobelo and Veracruz." This concession notwithstanding, official support by any European Crown to trade with foreigners remained tenuous until the 1760s. Ships in distress, regardless of their nationality, were usually allowed to enter foreign ports, but regular interactions were never officially encouraged. The Seven Years' War, a war fought on a global scale and with equally global consequences, inaugurated a new epoch in terms of governmental attitudes toward trade with foreigners in the Caribbean. In the words of a contemporary observer, the war forced European powers, starting with France, to "resort ... to the expedient of relaxing [their] colonial monopoly" and to "admit ... neutral vessels" into their ports.

The British occupation of Havana during the last phase of the Seven Years' War (1762–1763) signaled an immense weakness on the part of Spain to maintain effective control, not only of peripheral areas of its vast empire but, most disturbing to Spanish authorities, of key ports in Spain's transatlantic commercial system. The impact of this traumatic event on Spain went far beyond the cost the Spanish Crown had to pay in order to recover its most valuable Caribbean city: "transfer of west Florida to the English, English control of the Honduras coast and its dyewoods, and abandonment of Spaniards' rights to fish off Newfoundland." Besides transforming the political map of the Americas, the war and the British occupation of Havana greatly influenced the ways in which imperial bureaucrats and ideologues both in Spain and Britain rethought the administration and defense of their overseas territories.

From a Spanish perspective, the problem went beyond the obvious inability to guarantee the defense of Havana and other Caribbean cities from future attacks by Britain or other European rivals. The problem, a group of Spanish policy makers thought, resided in the outdated commercial system — the Cádiz-controlled monopolistic sistema de flotas (convoy system) — that still regulated transatlantic trade between Spain and its Spanish American territories. The solution, advanced by a junta (committee) in charge of "review[ing] ways to address the backwardness of Spain's commerce with its colonies and foreign nations," called for opening more ports in Spain to direct trade with the colonies, eliminating the convoy system, and offering incentives for Spanish traders willing to travel to Africa in search of slaves for the Spanish Caribbean. The junta's recommendations, made available in early 1765, were quickly turned into the Reglamento del comercio libre a las Islas de Barlovento (or the First Reglamento, a new commercial code regulating trade between the Spanish peninsula and the Spanish Caribbean), which not only allowed Cuba to trade directly with multiple Spanish ports but also authorized the island's planters to buy slaves directly from foreign depots in the Caribbean. Beyond Cuba the effects of this new policy were limited, but its passing, by signaling the potential direction of trade legislation, raised the hopes of many both in Spain and the colonies who had long complained about the need to overhaul the outdated commercial legislation and practices.

For Britain, victory in the war meant more than the acquisition of Spanish territories. The further acquisition of several French Caribbean islands — Dominica, Grenada, and Saint Vincent — turned Britain into the dominant power in the Caribbean Sea. Victory in the war, however, came at a high cost. To recover financially from the expenditures incurred during the war, the British Parliament proposed a number of legislative acts designed to extract more revenue from its colonies. The passing of the Sugar Act (1764) and the Stamp Act (1765) triggered a crisis in the commercial exchanges between Britain and the North American colonies. The combination of its newly acquired status as main Caribbean power and the North Atlantic commercial crisis provided an opportunity for Kingston's merchants to successfully advance their proposal to legalize (and thus to expand) trade between the British Caribbean and Spanish America. Referred to in Britain as "the Spanish trade," the encouragement of this line of commerce was designed to weather the crisis in North Atlantic trade and, most importantly, to avoid French and Dutch exploitation of the coveted Spanish American markets. Convinced by this argument, the British Parliament passed the first Free Port Act, which received royal consent in June 1766. The act opened four ports in Jamaica and two in Dominica to foreign vessels loaded with bullion and other foreign produce not available in the islands. In exchange, foreigners could buy "all British produce and manufactures ... excepting only a range of strategic naval supplies and iron from British North America." From this moment, it became legal, in British eyes, for Spanish vessels to enter Kingston and other selected British ports in the Caribbean, even if these trips continued to be outlawed in Spanish legislation.

Despite the initial enthusiasm with which Jamaicans and Cubans received the new commercial legislation, both Spanish comercio libre for its Caribbean islands and the first British Free Port Act failed to substantially alter the Caribbean commercial landscape. In Britain, an opponent of the Free Port Act said in 1773 "that the benefits that had arisen from the free port trade were very much outnumbered by the disadvantages." In the Spanish case, the benefits the new commercial code was producing for Cuba and newly added ports in the Spanish Peninsula (in particular Catalonia) became powerful arguments to expand the geographical scope of the First Reglamento. Convinced by the argument to turn trade with the colonies into the engine of peninsular growth, the Crown expanded comercio libre to Louisiana (in 1768), Yucatán (1770), Santa Marta (1776), Riohacha (1777), and, with the passing of the Reglamento y aranceles reales para el comercio libre de España a Indias (the Second Reglamento) in 1778, to all Spanish America with the exception of New Spain. By increasing to twenty-five the number of Spanish American ports allowed to trade directly with thirteen peninsular ports, the Second Reglamento raised expectations about the prospects for colonial development. The expectations of immediate change, however, were quickly curtailed by Spain's entrance into the American Revolution.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: Uncovering Other Possible Worlds  1

Part I. Spatial Configurations

1. Vessels: Routes, Size, and Frequency  23

2. Sailors: Border Crossers and Region Makers  55

Part II. Geopolitics and Geopolitical Imagination

3. Maritime Indians, Cosmopolitan Indians  85

4. Turning South before Swinging East  114

5. Simón Bolivar's Caribbean Adventures  142

6. An Andean-Atlantic Nation  172

Conclusion: Of Alternative Geographies and Pausible Futures  204

Appendixes  213

Notes  243

Bibliography  297

Index  331

What People are Saying About This

Ever Faithful: Race, Loyalty, and the Ends of Empire in Spanish Cuba - David Sartorius

"Ernesto Bassi breaks new ground by revealing alternative, unexplored, and failed political projects during the so-called Age of Revolutions, an era usually associated with anticolonial wars and the creation of modern nation-states. Carefully reconstructing circuits of trade and communication, Bassi subverts the very idea of regional history, making An Aqueous Territory appealing not just to Latin American and Caribbean historians, but to all those interested in transnational, global, and imperial history as well."

The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery - Matt D. Childs

"With captivating biographies of maritime figures and impressive empirical documentation An Aqueous Territory is an innovative, creative, and pioneering book that will find wide audiences among scholars of Caribbean, Atlantic, and Latin American history."

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