The best books on the Spanish Caribbean in the early colonial period

Juan José Ponce Vázquez Author Of Islanders and Empire: Smuggling and Political Defiance in Hispaniola, 1580–1690
By Juan José Ponce Vázquez

Who am I?

I was born and raised in Sevilla, Spain, a city with profound ties to Spain’s colonial past in the Americas. Since college I've been fascinated by colonial history. Being a little contrarian, while most Latin American colonial scholars I knew focused on Mexico and Peru (the richest Spanish colonies in the so-called “New World”) I decided to focus my attention on their polar opposite: less prosperous colonies (from the perspective of the crown anyway), island societies, and places that were relegated to the margins. I love learning about the men and women in these colonial societies and trying to tell their stories to the best of my abilities.


I wrote...

Islanders and Empire: Smuggling and Political Defiance in Hispaniola, 1580–1690

By Juan José Ponce Vázquez,

Book cover of Islanders and Empire: Smuggling and Political Defiance in Hispaniola, 1580–1690

What is my book about?

I trace the cultural, economic, and sociopolitical transformation of Hispaniola through the practice of smuggling for approximately 120 years. Focusing on local communities, I analyze how residents of Hispaniola actively negotiated and transformed the meaning and reach of imperial bureaucracies and institutions for their benefit. People in Hispaniola practice contraband trade with complete abandon, they made smuggling an important part of their culture, created powerful local and regional networks, and often took complete control of the local institutions and even the institutions of the Spanish colonial estate. One of the things we learn by listening to their stories is that small and even marginal places in these imperial settings can also be centers of power and influence, but we need to pay attention to these communities first.

The books I picked & why

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Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

By Samuel M. Wilson,

Book cover of Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Why this book?

This is an oldie but a goodie. There are not many accessible books about the earliest years of Spanish colonization, but this is probably one of the best. With a terrific narrative style, Wilson showcases the years of Columbus's leadership at the head of the earliest colonizing efforts, and the increasing dissatisfaction of Spanish colonists towards Columbus, who was seen by many as a tyrant. In addition to this, Wilson reads between the lines of Spanish documents, and with the help of archaeological evidence, provides the reader with insightful interpretations of indigenous life, actions, and motivations.

Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

By Samuel M. Wilson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hispaniola as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1492 Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taino, an Indian group whose ancestors had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from lowland South America. This book examines the early years of the contact period in the Caribbean and reconstructs the social and political organization of the Taino.


Life and Society in the Early Spanish Caribbean: The Greater Antilles, 1493-1550

By Ida Altman,

Book cover of Life and Society in the Early Spanish Caribbean: The Greater Antilles, 1493-1550

Why this book?

The historical evidence for the first 50 years of Spanish colonization (and beyond) is fragmentary and difficult, but Altman’s book is a feat of readability and thoroughness. If you want to learn the contours of early Spanish colonial society, this is probably the most comprehensive look at the topic we have had for many years.

Life and Society in the Early Spanish Caribbean: The Greater Antilles, 1493-1550

By Ida Altman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life and Society in the Early Spanish Caribbean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The half century of European activity in the Caribbean that followed Columbus's first voyages brought enormous demographic, economic, and social change to the region as Europeans, Indigenous people, and Africans whom Spaniards imported to provide skilled and unskilled labor came into extended contact for the first time. In Life and Society in the Early Spanish Caribbean, Ida Altman examines the interactions of these diverse groups and individuals and the transformation of the islands of the Greater Antilles (Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica). She addresses the impact of disease and ongoing conflict; the Spanish monarchy's efforts to establish a functioning…


Captives of Conquest: Slavery in the Early Modern Spanish Caribbean

By Erin Woodruff Stone,

Book cover of Captives of Conquest: Slavery in the Early Modern Spanish Caribbean

Why this book?

Historians in the past have celebrated the myths of European “discovery” and “exploration” in the Americas. What these historians never actually said in those accounts that pretty much every one of those discoverers and explorers funded those trips through the capture and sale of Indigenous people both in the Spanish colonies and Spain. Stone situates the Indian slave trade at the heart of the early Spanish colonizing project in the Americas, with more than 500,000 people bought and sold before 1542, when the Indigenous slave trade was prohibited by the Spanish crown (it never disappeared completely though) and was replaced by an already buoyant transatlantic slave trade from Africa.

Captives of Conquest: Slavery in the Early Modern Spanish Caribbean

By Erin Woodruff Stone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Captives of Conquest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Captives of Conquest is one of the first books to examine the earliest indigenous slave trade in the Spanish Caribbean. Erin Woodruff Stone shows that the indigenous population of the region did not simply collapse from disease or warfare. Rather, upwards of 250,000 people were removed through slavery, a lucrative business sustained over centuries that formed the foundation of economic, legal, and religious policies in the Spanish colonies. The enslavement of and trade in indigenous peoples was central to the processes of conquest, as the search for new sources of Indian slaves propelled much of the early Spanish exploration into…


Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

By Alejandro de la Fuente,

Book cover of Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

Why this book?

Just like the United States has been fixated in Cuba since its creation as a nation, American historians have obsessed with the history of Cuba for decades, but most have focused on the 20th century, or gone back as far as the 18th century. Alejandro de la Fuente and his collaborators take the reader back to the first century of the Spanish colonization of the island and describes the transformation of Havana from a sleepy port town in the northwest of the island into one of the most important ports in the Spanish empire and the Atlantic world. The book combines great narrative history with abundant tables and graphs about trade, naval traffic, and urban expansion.

Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

By Alejandro de la Fuente,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Havana in the 1550s was a small coastal village with a very limited population that was vulnerable to attack. By 1610, however, under Spanish rule it had become one of the best-fortified port cities in the world and an Atlantic center of shipping, commerce, and shipbuilding. Using all available local Cuban sources, including parish registries and notary, town council, and treasury records, Alejandro de la Fuente provides the first examination of the transformation of Havana into a vibrant Atlantic port city and the fastest-growing urban center in the Americas in the late sixteenth century.De la Fuente argues that Havana was…


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?

A multiple award-winning book that has given new wings to the field of early Caribbean history. Wheat’s insightful book forces to reckon with the extraordinarily close links between the Spanish Caribbean and the African slave trade in which Portuguese merchants played a crucial role. Even though local and peninsular Spaniards ruled, Afrodescendant men and women did most of the labor, cultivated most of the land, defended the colonies against other European powers, and constituted an overwhelming majority of the population, both enslaved and free. The early Spanish colonization of the region started a pattern of profound African cultural influence in the Caribbean that endures until today.

Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640

By David Wheat,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work resituates the Spanish Caribbean as an extension of the Luso-African Atlantic world from the late sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, when the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns facilitated a surge in the transatlantic slave trade. After the catastrophic decline of Amerindian populations on the islands, two major African provenance zones, first Upper Guinea and then Angola, contributed forced migrant populations with distinct experiences to the Caribbean. They played a dynamic role in the social formation of early Spanish colonial society in the fortified port cities of Cartagena de Indias, Havana, Santo Domingo, and Panama City and…


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