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Beyond the Walled City
Colonial Exclusion in Havana
By Guadalupe García
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Colonialism and Governance in the Early Modern Caribbean
And the Admiral [Christopher Columbus] went ashore in the armed launch, and Martín Alonso Pinzón and his brother Vicente Anes, who was captain of the Niña. The Admiral brought out the royal banner and the captains [sic] two flags with the green cross, which the Admiral carried on all the ships as a standard, with an F and a Y [Ferdinand and Ysabela], and over each letter a crown. ... The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others who had jumped ashore ... and he said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords, making the declarations that were required, and which at more length are contained in the testimonials made there in writing.
— Christopher Columbus, The Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America, 1492–1493
But such cities as lie to the west, and which are sheltered from winds blowing from the east, and which the hot winds and the cold winds of the north scarcely touch, must necessarily be in a very unhealthy situation.
— Hippocrates, On Air, Waters, and Places, 400 B.C.E.
The first recorded drawing of Cuba appears in the navigational map that Juan de la Cosa reputedly drew ca. 1500. The navigational map is drawn on a roughly three-by-six-foot parchment, where Cuba forms the largest island in an archipelago that is distinctly separated from the rest of the world by the vast expanse of the Atlantic ocean. The most prominent features of the Antilles are the nuances of the coast, a royal flag superimposed over one of the islands, and their exaggerated position within the lines of latitude that seamen used to navigate west. The islands are bereft of the symbols that the Spanish cartographer used to mark the presence of sovereignty and rule in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Instead, the emphasis on exploration, trade, and conquest that La Cosa drew onto the portolan map organized European understandings of physical environment. It would go on to produce the early modern geography of Cuba. The island emerged as a space excluded from the rest of the world but capable of inclusion through the extension of commerce, trade, and urban government. Establishment of the latter would become one of the focal points of Spain's early trans-oceanic voyages and settlement claims in the Caribbean.
In late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Europe, the economic importance of trade and commerce gave mariners and seamen privileged access to scientific and geographic knowledge. At sea, mariners relied heavily on navigation instruments to plot the direction of their voyage, but they had limited experience sailing as far west as they were now venturing. On these new voyages they would have noticed the inexplicable jump of the compass needle as they made the journey west, but they would not have known that the pull of the earth's magnetic core was distorting their compass readings and causing them to record the coordinates of new lands incorrectly. While magnetic declination was thus the cause of the physical distortions of American spaces visible in the early modern work of mapmakers, mariners and their patrons were also influenced by the scientific ideas of the period. Some of these ideas asserted that sailing west would ensure trade with India just as surely as navigating south, as Nicolás Wey Gómez argues, would offer the greatest possibility of encountering a place where geographical position and climate had converged to produce lands and peoples that were "bound to possess a nature ... that seemed to justify rendering them Europe's subjects or slaves." Early modern ideas converged with the science of geography to organize European understandings of the Antilles as a landscape already excluded from the early modern world familiar to Europeans. This was the case even as men like La Cosa underscored the rich potential of the island to serve the purposes of empire and ensure Spain's political position by securing trade routes for the Spanish crown.
The founding of Havana occurred over a decade after Juan de la Cosa first depicted the island of Cuba but it was nonetheless marked by the scientific and legal discourse of the period. In 1508, Hispaniola governor Nicolás de Ovando dispatched Sebastián de Ocampo and a reserve of men to explore Cuba. The island was familiar to the men as a source of indigenous labor for the encomienda, the system of forced labor that Ovando expanded during his tenure in Hispaniola, where the decline of the indigenous population was already under way. Ocampo, however, was sent not on a military expedition but to explore the island for reserves of gold. As they circumvented the island, the men noted the extensive harbor on the northwest coast of Cuba and named it the Puerto de Carenas. They had just "discovered" Havana's port, though the extent of its importance would not become fully clear until the town of Havana was established and moved to the northern coast in 1519. In these early years, however, the crown's attention, like that of the officials who arrived with Columbus on his second voyage, was fixed on maintaining a stable presence in the Americas. The first audiencia (court) was established in Santo Domingo in 1511 and incorporated Cuba.
Political conflict in Hispaniola, however, continued to delay further exploration of Cuba until Diego de Velázquez, a soldier and conquistador and the future governor of Cuba, was chosen to launch a military expedition from Baracoa in 1511. Velázquez made his way from the easternmost areas of Cuba and traveled west along various routes with a contingency of men, engaging and subduing the indigenous population and establishing Cuba's villas along the way.Velázquez had witnessed the Spanish campaigns against Amerindian populations in Hispaniola, as had the Taino peoples, who moved between Hispaniola and Cuba in an attempt to elude officials bent on enslaving them for the encomienda. Velázquez was prepared for war. He enlisted the help of Pánfilo de Narvaez, who arrived from Jamaica and waged a brutal campaign that along with disease resulted in the dwindling numbers of Amerindian people. By 1514, some five hundred Spaniards had traveled west and established Cuba's first six villas. Those Amerindian people who survived fled inland or into the hills, away from Spanish towns and cities, to establish the first palenques, which centuries later would become associated with cimarrones(runaway slaves). The processes of conquest, settlement, and urban rule were inextricably linked; unlike exploration, the military expedition to establish a Spanish presence on the island required that Velázquez subdue the population and mark the territory with towns by way of the legal and military rites that extended Spanish governance across the island and incorporated Amerindian people as forced laborers. In the process, the town became the principal instrument through which the expedition claimed the entirety of Cuba as a Spanish possession.
Much like La Cosa, Velázquez recognized the constitution of place as a separate process from the production of space that European cartographers were actively engaged in. The focus on place as an outcome "of interactions and interrelations" marks its distinction from the regions represented in maps, plans, and documents and the physical, built environment that materialized as a result. Europeans founded over one hundred towns and cities in the early modern Caribbean during the first half of the sixteenth century. Between 1580 and 1620, that number almost doubled. A total of 150,000 Europeans resided in these early American spaces. The legal rites that Columbus exercised on the shores of Hispaniola were likely repeated in expeditions that mirrored those of Velázquez and legally claimed the region for the Spanish crown. Yet despite the presence of colonists and the extension of laws, none of these early towns and cities achieved and maintained the prominence of Havana. In fact, unless they were port cities, most were relocated or abandoned altogether as residents either moved the physical location of towns to ensure survival or moved on themselves in search of the economic opportunities that encomienda and mining provided settlers on the mainland. Havana's endurance and its early success — it had developed into a transatlantic shipping hub by the end of the sixteenth century — was both the product of the town's emergence as a site advantageous to residents' needs and a place able to spatially reflect and produce imperial goals, even before a classic urban model based on the principles of mercantilism had emerged.
While Havana's original founding by Diego de Velázquez had established the town on the southern shores of Cuba and off of the navigable waters of the Mayabeque (western Cuba's largest river system), residents eventually abandoned this original site and moved the town to the north coast at the mouth of the Almendares River some seven kilometers west of the city's present location. In 1519 they migrated the town again toward the Puerto de Carenas, where the present city of Havana still stands. This final relocation would later bring Havana into compliance with King Philip II's as-yet-unissued 1573 Ordenanzas de descubrimiento, nueva población y pacificación de las Indias, which would mandate that all coastal towns have access to a port to facilitate Spanish trade. The purpose was to ensure the circulation of colonial goods in accordance with mercantilism. In the decades that followed its legal founding, the town gave material form to the royal directives that embodied the geographic, scientific, and mercantile knowledge of early modern Europe. Its physical location accounted for the discrepancy between a region that geography and modern science dictated was servile and inhospitable to Europeans, and the laudatory comments that Bartolomé de las Casas and Columbus bestowed upon the environment of Cuba. Both men noted its "temperate" climate and las Casas even found the island to have a cooler and more agreeable climate than did Hispaniola, thus rendering it a healthier place for Europeans by comparison.
However strong the correlation between place and empire, however, the internal organization of Havana and its built environment did not simply reflect imperial design. As Alejandro De la Fuente notes, to only think of early modern Havana as a protected outpost of the crown "conflates lived experience with design." Instead, the city emerged a colonial urban place shaped by its distinctly Caribbean location but attuned to the needs of town residents. In its physical environment as in its social organization, Havana responded to local concerns even as vecinos leveraged the royal desires and the economic and other uncertainties of the European Atlantic world.
The crown's economic future in the region was inextricably connected to its ability to safeguard its key colonial possessions, much as the survival of Cuban towns was linked to residents' ability to force the crown's attention. As early as 1515, Velázquez and other royal officials composed the first petition for enslaved Africans to Cuba. They asked for "doce negros" who had labored in public works to help outfit the eastern towns. In 1518, residents and officials petitioned for the importation of slaves from Africa, and the crown authorized Pánfilo de Narváez, Bernardino Velázquez (a relation of the conquistador-turned-governor), Bernardino Quesada, and Gonzalo de Guzman to traffic in slaves. Slavery was understood as an integral component of the conquest, claiming, and protection of new lands. The slave trade (legal and illicit) brought an increasing number of enslaved people to Cuba as laborers to replace the declining Amerindian population. At this early juncture of Cuba's history, the indigenous population and enslaved Africans were understood by both vecinos and the crown as necessary components of the town's survival (encomienda) and the island's safety (labor, fortification, and legitimation). The title of vassal, however, was not conferred on Amerindians until 1542 as an extension of an earlier, 1503, decree. Their position as royal subjects along with that of enslaved Africans allowed the crown to further claim the island as its own.
In order to neutralize the threat of piracy and European competition, "fortification" emerged as the central concern behind the survival and success of Havana, and this was especially the case following the 1555 attack by Jacques de Sores. Local officials and residents, however, already understood the importance of living in a protected city. In 1544, almost ten years before Sores sacked the town, Governor Juan de Ávila arrived in Cuba to find Havana "mal trazada y ordenada" (poorly drawn and disorganized).Disorder in the built environment was a concern for the safety of the town that also implicated sovereign authority. A poorly built town that lacked an urban defense plan increased its susceptibility to attack. It would also jeopardize the safety of residents should an invasion occur, as these would be unable to repel an invasion in a poorly planned environment. In order to protect Havana, the governor ordered the roads leading to and from the Cuban countryside blocked. The dense forest to the west of the town provided some protection, but it also allowed access to Havana from land, a concern over location that worried town administrators as early as the sixteenth century and foreshadowed the reason behind the disastrous English attack of 1762. The Sores attack elicited a response from the crown in line with local concerns over the need to outfit the town, although the concerns of officials, unlike those of town residents, were focused decidedly on the Atlantic. The crown had lost relatively little in terms of the devastation that Havana suffered in 1555 (in part because it had invested little), and thus its concern stemmed only from the belief that the location of Havana was one worth protecting. Residents, on the other hand, had witnessed almost every home go up in flames. The hospital, jail, and barracks — symbols of urban and civilized living — were also destroyed. To rebuild the town and ensure both the livelihood of residents and the location of the port, the crown needed to fortify Havana.
Before the Sores invasion, protection of Havana had been left to the fort of La Fuerza (built 1539–1540), the first military structure located on the western entrance to the bay. After it proved unable to repel the 1555 attack, residents let it fall into such a state of disrepair that by 1565, when Governor Francisco García Osorio arrived in Havana, he found it overrun by vegetation and the grazing area of livestock. In 1575, in anticipation of the construction of a new fort, Governor Gabriel Montalvo asked for and received royal orders approving demolition of the old structures. The crown-commissioned work on the new Castillo de la Real Fuerza (built 1558–1577) began under the direction of Bartolomé Sánchez and culminated under the direction of Francisco de Calona with a fort placed well inside the mouth of the bay. Havana's Plaza de Armas, up until this moment the center of political and military life in Havana and adjacent to the south side of the fort, was cleared and incorporated into the grounds of the new structure. The marriage between government, fortification, and militarization was also evident in the prominence that this ideology took over areas of civil life. The fort's alcalde(commander), Diego Fernandez de Quiñones, would write the crown asking permission to demolish the church and hospital next to the fort in order to clear more land and provide ever more strategic protection (the crown turned down the petition, though the next time Havana faced imminent danger it would willingly plunder church lands).
In 1589, construction on two more forts was begun, this time under Juan Bautista Antonelli, who first studied Havana's topography before deciding on the locations of the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (El Morro Castle, built 1589–1630) and the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta (built 1589–1600) on either side of the bay, allowing its entrance to be closed with a heavy chain of cedarwood beams and iron links and making the city virtually impregnable by sea. Other constructions followed to counter the threat that Dutch, French, and British forces posed. Torreones (towers), for example, shaped the uninterrupted northwest coast of Cuba. The Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (built 1763–1774), and the city walls (built 1674–1797, approval of which came under the government of Governor Francisco Rodríguez de Ledesma) were similarly planned to prevent penetration of the town.
Excerpted from Beyond the Walled City by Guadalupe García. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Introduction: The Walled City,
1. Producing Place: Colonialism and Governance in the Early Modern Caribbean,
PART ONE. INTRAMUROS AND EXTRAMUROS,
3. Modern Space,
PART TWO. COLONIALISM'S AFTERMATH,
5. Empire's End,
6. North Americans in Havana,
Conclusion: Across the Atlantic and Back,