The best books on the early modern global Caribbean

Carla Gardina Pestana Author Of English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire
By Carla Gardina Pestana

Who am I?

I am a historian of the early English Atlantic who began studying New England but soon turned to the Atlantic more generally and the Caribbean in particular. All the aspects of 17th century Atlantic history that most intrigue me played out in the Caribbean. A fascinating and complicated place, the West Indies—although claimed by the Spanish as their exclusive purview—became diverse, witness to a variety of interactions. I’m particularly interested in works that allow us to see these changes in the period when the region was a global meeting place undergoing vast shifts. Much excellent scholarship explores the later era of sugar and slaves, of major imperial wars, of movements for independence and emancipation. What interests me most is the period before that, when the region was being transformed into a crucible of global transformation.


I wrote...

English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

By Carla Gardina Pestana,

Book cover of English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire

What is my book about?

In 1655, England attempted to conquer Spanish America. Believing that Spain was weak and that the African and Native residents of its American lands longed to be liberated from Spanish oppression, the English expected to conquer vast lands. They failed in this ambitious agenda for many reasons, not the least because of the unrealistic nature of their expectations.

This book chronicles those expectations, the preparations that went into the campaign, its humiliating failure on the poorly defended island of Hispaniola, and its limited but nonetheless significant results. Jamaica, taken as a place where the demoralized and sickly force could regroup, proved difficult to conquer; it was five years before the Spanish residents ended their resistance to the English invasion. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Jamaica emerged as Britain’s most valuable colony. 

The books I picked & why

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Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640

By David Wheat,

Book cover of Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640

Why this book?

David Wheat integrates Africa and Africans into the history of the Spanish Caribbean. Before I read this book, I knew that the Spanish relied more on native laborers than on Africans initially, and that their policies limited migration from Spain to Castilians of Roman Catholic heritage. Yet Wheat reveals how diverse and complex the early Spanish islands became, with Spanish from other regions not to mention Portuguese, Africans, and conversos (Catholics of Jewish heritage) intermixed with the approved migrants and the long-time indigenous residents.


American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

By Molly A. Warsh,

Book cover of American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

Why this book?

Molly Warsh’s American Baroque perhaps best captures my point about the Caribbean as a global space. The book follows pearls harvested off the coast of Venezuela from the beds that produced them, through the enslaved divers who harvested them, the imperial officials who taxed them, the merchants who traded them, all the way to the consumers who valued them. It is a commodity history—a sort of history that often features the Caribbean region prominently—while at the same time offering a rich evocation of the many cultural aspects of the pearl’s role. Laborers who secreted pearls on their person to gain some of the wealth they produced and artisans who created lavish objects featuring pearls are as important to this account as the wealthy and powerful who displayed them in portraits of this era. 


Creolization and Contraband: Curaçao in the Early Modern Atlantic World

By Linda M. Rupert,

Book cover of Creolization and Contraband: Curaçao in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Why this book?

The Dutch were a force to be reckoned with in the early modern Caribbean, trading with everyone and insinuating themselves everywhere. Rupert’s book shows how the small desert island of Curaçao became a trading entrepôt and in particular how Dutch suppliers, enslaved Africans, and Spanish consumers became entangled. One amazing aspect of this history that Rupert uncovered is the fact that the Protestant Dutch on Curaçao allowed the slaves there to be catechized by Spanish priests from the mainland (today’s Venezuela), working across not only imperial boundaries but also those of religion.


The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean (Early American Studies)

By Tessa Murphy,

Book cover of The Creole Archipelago: Race and Borders in the Colonial Caribbean (Early American Studies)

Why this book?

This new book realizes much of my wish to see histories of the Caribbean take seriously its importance as a site of diverse groups and unexpected exchanges. The Creole Archipelago focuses on five little-studied islands—Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Tobago. Tessa Murphy reveals an interconnected maritime world, shaped by the use of canoes that allowed mobility free of the prevailing winds. Alongside consideration of the space itself and movement within it, Murphy explores the region’s diversity, its indigenous peoples, African, and Europeans of various stripes. She gives special attention to the indigenous peoples whose traditions, presence, and legacy determined much about these islands. In this watery borderland—a region within the larger Caribbean—interisland, intercolonial, and interimperial interactions were everyday occurrences.


Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763

By Philip P. Boucher,

Book cover of Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763

Why this book?

Boucher contributes to our understanding of two aspects of Caribbean history, the activities of French colonizers and the history of the Carib (or Kalinago) native peoples of the eastern Caribbean. Although Cannibal Encounters addresses imperial policies and warfare (in line with an older scholarship), it also reveals the importance of the indigenous peoples to the early interactions in the Caribbean basin. In particular, the rivalries between the French and the English played out in the context of confrontations, alliances, and betrayals involving the Kalinago.


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