Back to Main Entry

Reviews of History of the Caribbean: Plantations, Trade, and War in the Atlantic World

“In this clearly written and comprehensive narrative, Frank Moya Pons provides an alternative to fragmented national histories and monographic local approaches to the Caribbean by presenting an encompassing narrative that treats the region as a unified whole. He is particularly successful in integrating the histories of the Hispanic and non-Hispanic Caribbean, which all too often fall into separate historiographies. Sugar provides the thread that integrates the region’s economic, social, and demographic history across space and over time. However, Moya Pons does not examine either sugar or the Caribbean from a narrowly economic point of view but rather treats them as the focus of international political rivalry, war, and diplomacy. From this perspective, he reconstructs the ways in which the unifying element of the sugar plantation produced the economic, social, and demographic diversity that characterizes the region.

“The book begins with an account of the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean. The early chapters are especially interesting because they put Spanish activities in Hispaniola at the center of Spain’s early colonization efforts, in contrast to more general histories that emphasize the conquest and colonization of Mexico and Peru. Gold, not sugar, was the focus of Spain’s initial efforts in the Caribbean. Sugar production emerged in the 1520s only as an alternative to the rapidly depleted mining industry. However, despite its early appearance, the Spanish experiment with sugar was not the beginning of the Caribbean’s long and fateful association with sugar. The early Spanish sugar industry was relatively successful, but the quantities produced were low. Technology and specialists in sugar refining were imported from the Mediterranean and Atlantic sugar industry, while the workforce was comprised of surviving incomienda Indians, whose diminished numbers were supplemented by imported African slaves. By the 1580s, the Spanish Caribbean sugar was surpassed by the Portuguese colonies of São Tomé and Brazil.

“With the decline of sugar and the breakdown of trade routes, the Spanish Caribbean entered a cycle of economic decline and demographic crisis. The rural population increasingly engaged in contraband in cattle and hides with assorted English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese privateers, traders, and smugglers. In order to suppress this activity, the Spanish authorities removed the population from northern and western Hispaniola. This disastrous policy left not only feral cattle, but also large tracts of domesticated land available to foreign interlopers. Spanish policy also encouraged flight into the interior, creating an impoverished subsistence peasantry of mixed physical and cultural origins anxious to escape control and taxation of the central authority.

“Moya Pons emphasizes the role of pirates, privateers, smugglers, and traders together with interstate conflict in breaking Spain’s monopoly of political power in the Caribbean and establishing English, French, and Dutch sovereignty over the islands of the eastern Caribbean as well as Jamaica and western Hispaniola. Moya Pons carefully analyzes the evolution of these islands from pirate havens to tobacco-planting colonies with dependent European labor forces. Sugar production was definitively established when, upon their expulsion from Brazil, the Dutch brought sugar, slaves, new technologies, credit, and access to markets to Barbados, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. The sugar plantation and large-scale importation of African slaves marginalized or displaced European smallholders and tobacco cultivation in British and French colonies and created the first Caribbean ‘sugar islands’. By the 1740s, the large islands of Saint Domingue and Jamaica became the epicenters of sugar production. Sugar became the most valuable commodity in international trade, and the sugar economies of the British and French Caribbean expanded continuously over the next century, creating slave societies with black majorities.

“Moya Pons draws attention to the importance of war and imperial politics in creating conditions for the expansion of the sugar industry. Britain and France effectively eliminated the Dutch power in the Caribbean through war and the imposition of mercantilist policies. From the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) until the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815), Britain and France contended with one another for imperial domination of the Caribbean and North America. This was the period of most rapid growth of the Caribbean sugar industry, and there was marked tension between unprecedented economic expansion and metropolitan control over the colonial economies. United States independence disrupted the organization of Britain’s mercantilist economy in the Americas while the Haitian Revolution ended France’s colonial ambitions in the New World. The revolution in Haiti abolished slavery, destroyed the plantation system, and created a black peasantry that had to confront the exactions of the newly independent state in the context of isolation from the global economy. In the British Caribbean, abolitionism ended the slave trade. Many of the older colonies declined but new ones were added to the empire. With emancipation, many former slaves established themselves as smallholding peasants, while in the new colonies, especially Trinidad and Guiana, indentured Asian labor was imported to sustain the growth of the sugar industry. Reconstituted peasantries and rural working classes formed the majority in these post-emancipation societies.

“During the first half of the nineteenth century, sugar production increased in Puerto Rico and especially Cuba. Cuba took advantage of the void created by the destruction of the Saint Domingue sugar industry and emerged as the world’s leading producer by the 1830s. Sugar production was mechanized during this period and Cuba was best able to take advantage of the new technologies. Despite the disruptions of the Ten Years’ War, Cuban sugar production continued to increase. Nonetheless there was mounting pressure from various sources on the illegal slave trade and slavery itself. By emancipating children and the elderly, the Moret Law of 1869 limited the growth of the slave population in the sugar zones. The Patronage Law of 1880 attempted to guarantee the labor supply by instituting a system of apprenticeship and gradual emancipation, but accelerated the dissolution of slavery. The era of independent plantations ended with the abolition of slavery in 1886. Planters throughout the Caribbean began to establish centralized sugar mills and to experiment with new labor arrangements in the face of growing world competition.

“Moya Pons concludes the book by analyzing the construction of the American sugar empire. U.S. intervention in the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 initiated a new cycle of expansion of the Caribbean sugar economy. The United States seized control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic and imposed a different political status on each. Intervention opened the way for massive American investment, unprecedented expansion of production, and the formation of giant sugar centrales across the region. Sugar production in the Spanish Caribbean was integrated into the U.S. market under the control of the American ‘Sugar Trust.’ This restructuring of the Caribbean sugar industry was linked to complex processes of regional and international migration, proletarianization, peasant and middle-class formation, and development of new tropical exports such as bananas, coffee, and tobacco; and contributed to the further development of social, cultural, and political complexity that characterizes the Caribbean region.” — Hispanic American Historical Review

“An alternative title of this book might be ‘A Concise History of Caribbean Plantation Economy.’ Frank Moya Pons, the most widely read historian of the Dominican Republic, set out to write a book that reveals the structural similarities of Caribbean economies of diverse colonial affiliation and the continuities of their experience through historical time. His purpose is to restore balance to a historiography that feeds the perception of the Caribbean as a region of ‘kaleidoscopic fragmentation’; which is, in his opinion, misleading, because when one looks closely at the structural continuities of the plantation system, one can understand the Caribbean only as an organic economic system, as a throbbing heart continuously pumping sugar and other commodities to the world market via the Atlantic, while at the same time consuming millions of lives forcefully extracted from Africa and other parts of the world (pp. x–xi).

“The author’s intellectual debt to plantation theorists is evident, as is the influence of world systems theory. He returns to these themes in the epilogue where he asserts the plantation system [is] the underlying structure that made the Caribbean economies very similar to each other, despite ecological and political variations. … The connections that linked the plantations in the Caribbean with Africa, Europe and North America, both before and after the Industrial Revolution, are crucial to understanding the emergence of capitalism as a world economic system. No other institution played the role that the plantation did in integrating the Caribbean into the world economy (p. 309).

“Moya Pons’s approach is that of the historian, but it is a history that is anchored on analysis of the economic motive for colonization, war and forced migration; the structures that were created; the demographic shifts that came about and the social forces to which these gave rise. Behind the sometimes bewildering succession of changes in colonial ownership, revolutions and restorations and ethnic interactions characteristic of the region’s history, he seeks to show an underlying logic that constitutes the glue of the Caribbean experience. However, this is not a book of simple economic determinism. The particularities and variations that occur from size, topography, metropolitan idiosyncrasy, natural events and subaltern resistance are amply treated. Political developments in the Caribbean colonies form the backdrop—sometimes conditioned, at other times conditioning—to the evolution of Caribbean plantation economy, while social formations assume diverse forms.

“The book is organized into twenty chapters, whose subjects combine temporal sequence with thematic focus. This facilitates exposition of the underlying message. Each chapter is subdivided into sections, which elaborate or nuance the chosen theme; the carefully titled section headings alert the reader to the flow of the narrative. Some chapters treat the rise and fall of the Caribbean sugar economies as they evolved from the 16th to the early 20th centuries; the role played by colonial monopolies, free trade and slave trading; trends in production, exports and prices; and technological change leading to centrales and colonos. Others feature the role of privateers and contraband, trade and wars; the American, French and Haitian Revolutions; abolitionism and crisis; new peasantries; migration and proletarians; and the emergence of sugar corporations. The author does not overlook the role played by other commodities: gold, indigo, ginger, cattle, salt, tobacco, and coffee all appear on stage, even if eventually they become only side shows to sugar. The clarity of the exposition and the ability to maintain a connecting thread to the narrative is a remarkable accomplishment, given the vastness and complexity of the subjects covered. It could only be possible by an author who has total command over his material, as Moya Pons obviously does.

“Wisely, in a book of this kind, Moya Pons has chosen not to clutter his text with footnotes or endnotes or with bibliographic references in the body of the text. Instead, he has furnished the reader with an appendix containing a bibliographic guide to each chapter. This guide itself is a resource worth having. The list runs to twenty-six printed pages, or at least 400 entries, mostly of books, in three regional languages. He tells us, perhaps ambitiously, that this is ‘essential reading’! Another pleasing result of this is that data on production, prices and labor flows are woven into the narrative, rather than placed in separate statistical tables. The emphasis is on telling the story, not on proving a case. The drawback is that it is difficult to easily compare data, say, on sugar production from country to country or from time period to time period. In that sense, while this is a book of great scholarship, it is not, strictly speaking, a scholarly book. The researcher can use it as an introduction to the subject and as a guide to further reading on the particular subjects of interest. The student of plantation economy will use it as a concise overview of its evolution through time.

“Historians will, undoubtedly, find specific statements of fact or historical interpretation to take issue with in Moya Pons’s text. My own interest is that of a development economist with a long-standing interest in the theory of plantation economy. From this standpoint it would have been useful to see more discussion of the economic consequences of the plantation system on the local economy in the different permutations highlighted in the book. The subject is discussed in a chapter on Caribbean Sugar Economies in the Eighteenth Century (Ch. 8). The author stresses that at each stage of the cycle in the sugar business, the benefit accrued to the entrepreneur; and that the financing of the sugar colonies, initially coming from European capital, ‘ended up reversing itself.’ The profits helped to finance the development of commercial and industrial capitalism in Europe, and very little was invested in local infrastructure (p. 106). The chapter on Caribbean Trade Circuits in the Eighteenth Century (Ch. 9) also shows how the sugar economies were enmeshed in the evolving world system of capitalist trade and production. Throughout the book, we also see how the collapse of commodity-based export economies leads to prolonged depression and crisis in the local economy. In some cases, especially in the nineteenth century, the rise of ‘new peasantries’ is directly attributable to this. However, the author does not return to the issue of development consequences in the context of the decline of the ‘old’ sugar economies in the British and French West Indies, and the rise of the ‘new’ sugar economies in the Spanish and U.S. Caribbean, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, as elsewhere, the focus is on the associated demographic and social changes.

“One is cautious in suggesting this subject should have been treated, however, for to do so would have imposed an additional burden of content and length on a book whose breadth and depth are already quite considerable. The author is well aware of this book’s limitations, as he tells us that he had to omit important social and cultural subjects including how the slaves lived their lives, the role of families and women, many political events, health and education, and cultural and religious phenomena (p. xi). As he rightly says, to have dealt with all this would have necessitated a multi-volume work: in order to show the structural uniformity of Caribbean economies, he had to restrict himself to some basic variables.

“The story ends with the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The author sees this as great turning point: after this, Caribbean sugar goes into secular decline and the structural uniformity of the regional economies fades away. Theorists of Plantation Economy will argue that the structural uniformities continued, in the form of the new industries established by multinational corporations in the Caribbean in the twentieth century. That is the thesis of the recently published book co-authored by Lloyd Best and Kari Polanyi Levitt. Moya Pons’s book serves as an excellent companion to Best and Levitt, in providing the actual historical contours of the ebb and flow of Caribbean plantation economies over four and a half centuries. Other scholars will see the divergence in Caribbean economic trajectories as starting much earlier in historical time. Diversity of experience is one of the central features of Bulmer-Thomas’s recent book on Caribbean economic development since the Napoleonic Wars, which deals in detail with the evolution of production and trade in individual Caribbean economies. For a book of this kind, Moya Pons’s text acts as both introduction and provider of the ‘Big Picture.’ To this reviewer, therefore, Moya Pons’s book succeeds both as a complement to historically based economic theorising; and as an introduction to detailed history.” — Caribbean Studies

“Frank Moya Pons, the authority on the history of the Dominican Republic, has written a classic. In History of the Caribbean, he uses the development of sugar plantation economies and societies to discuss the shared experiences of the Caribbean islands before 1930. Despite diverse colonialisms and cultures, he considers sugar plantations as central to the Caribbean region and to the development of capitalism in the Atlantic world. Although the sugar economy rose and fell in different islands at different times, a similar pattern developed, involving capital-intensive sugar plantations, exploitation of enslaved and indentured labor, abolition of slavery, the emergence of peasantries and proletarians, and the rise of big American sugar. This is not a new idea but Moya Pons treats us to a thorough survey of developments in the major sugar islands: Spanish, French, and British. Detailed coverage, of the whole Caribbean mosaic, is a great strength. So too is the exhaustive bibliographical essay at the rear of the book.

“The story begins with the Spanish occupation of the Antilles and the demographic collapse of Native American peoples. Shortages of indigenous labor led to the introduction of enslaved Africans first for gold mining, then for sugar cane cultivation. Experiments with sugar production began in Hispaniola as early as 1506; the first sugar shipment went to Spain in 1521. The age of Caribbean sugar and slavery had begun. From the outset enslaved peoples resisted with insurrection and marronage.

“Sugar exports from Hispaniola and Puerto Rico declined sharply after about 1584 due to Brazilian competition. Ginger, a high-value crop characterized by relative ease of production and shipping, became favored. Cattle were also important for fresh meat, jerky, and hides.

“Despite Spanish efforts to retain a trade monopoly with the Antilles, Dutch, French, and English vessels traded with Spanish settlers. North Europeans occupied islands in the Lesser Antilles and soon switched from tobacco to sugar. A ‘sugar revolution’ began. Barbados, first off the mark, was by 1655 ‘the most densely populated area in the New World’ (p. 59) with 23,000 Europeans and 20,000 slaves. Moya Pons details the significance of Dutch expertise in this transformation. Jamaica (taken from Spain in the 1650s) outperformed Barbados after 1720. During the 1700s sugar production in the French colonies of St. Domingue, Martinique, and Guadeloupe expanded. French sugar dominated the continental European market.

“Eighteenth-century wars transformed the economic and political map of the Caribbean. Neutral ports of the Dutch and Danes thrived during wartime. At the end of the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War (1763), Britain gained the ‘ceded islands’ of Grenada, Dominica, St. Vincent, and Tobago where new sugar frontiers developed. The American Revolutionary Wars, which saw Britain face American colonists (1776), France (1778), Spain (1779), and the Netherlands (1780), were hard on the Anglo Caribbean, where supply costs increased, shortages followed, and mortality rose. The Haitian Revolution is covered in Chapter 11, ‘The French Revolution in the Antilles.’ In just over twenty pages, Moya Pons unravels the complex story succinctly. His deep knowledge of the interconnected histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a great asset here and throughout the book.

“Partly inspired by events in Haiti, the British government moved to prohibit the slave trade (1807-1808) and later abolish slavery (1833–1834). British planters (and later the French) had to grow sugar without slaves. The sugar industry was saved by indentured labor (mainly from India and China) and modernization. The French planters, facing competition from beet growers in France, were the first to introduce steam-powered centrales. Moya Pons details this technological shift as a regional process, something not done elsewhere in the literature.

“Meanwhile, during the early nineteenth century, new sugar revolutions in Cuba and Puerto Rico saw plantations grow and slave numbers increase. Cuba mechanized, using steam power and modern machinery, and had the first rail line in 1837. By 1860 Cuba was the world’s leading sugar producer and Puerto Rico was second. Sugar developed later in the Dominican Republic.

“Abolition of slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico was complicated because of connections to the independence movement. Using Spanish sources, Moya Pons analyzes the turbulent history of rebellion and abolition, including the Ten Years’ War in Cuba (1868–1878), and later the Spanish-American War. A fine chapter details the rise of the American sugar empire in most of the Greater Antilles between 1880 and 1930. We learn how U.S. companies and banks took over land and centrales in a belligerent fashion, especially after World War I, despite peasant resistance in such countries as the Dominican Republic. Workers from Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles migrated to Spanish speaking areas for jobs in sugar. The story ends with the Great Depression and World War II when sugar declined or disappeared throughout the Caribbean except Cuba. Ironically, socialist Cuba retained sugar as a key economic sector, trading it for petroleum with the Soviet Union. Perhaps Caribbean sugar will be refashioned as fuel (ethanol), not food, as is happening in Brazil.

“Frank Moya Pons has produced a most valuable account of the crucial role sugar played in Atlantic history, leading to economic, demographic, social, and political changes of monumental significance. His work will be consulted for many years to come.” — Olwyn M. Blouet, New West Indian Guide, vol. 83 no. 1 & 2

“Moya Pons, Dominican Republic historian, argues that the European demand for primary products such as ginger, salt, cacao, tobacco, and especially sugar brought the Caribbean islands into the Atlantic world and the global system as a ‘homogeneous economic unit.’ Like other economic historians, he stresses the functional unity of the region because the islands shared the experience of plantation economies and slave labor. However, a social or political historian might argue that while the sugar revolution did give the islands similar ties to the Atlantic world, it did not integrate the region or its population. The book concludes in 1930, when the devastating effects of the Great Depression shattered what was left of the centuries-old plantation economy. Except for Cuba, however, the rise of sugar beets and the demise of slavery had already weakened the sugar islands and their Atlantic trade a century earlier. Moya Pons’s clear, cogent summary of Caribbean economic history, with an outstanding bibliographic essay, is no small achievement, but it will hardly be the last word for those who seek to understand the region. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.” — Choice

“This is a scholarly but, thank goodness, an extremely well-written book. Its author, Professor Frank Moya Pons, is recognized as the ‘most widely read historian of the Dominican Republic.’ Deeply steeped in the history of the Caribbean, his love for the region is quite evident.

“This comprehensive book covers more than 400 years of Caribbean adventures and misadventures, from Columbus’ first trip to the region to the 1930s. Moya Pons stops his analysis at the Great Depression because he feels the economy and realities of the area changed forever at that time.

“Moya Pons captures the excitement and anguish of those centuries while providing his readers unusual insight. His Caribbean encompasses all the myriad islands that so many bathe in romanticism. Given their present relative well-being, it is hard to fathom how harsh life was—first for slaves and later for indentured servants and strapped emigrants. Fortunes made off their backs were enjoyed by a small European elite.

“Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean while seeking a waterway to the Far East. He thought he was near India and thus dubbed the natives of the Caribbean ‘Indians’. Unfortunately, these gentle people were quickly enslaved by the Spanish and forced to work in existing gold mines. Within a very few decades, virtually all of them had died.

“The Spanish weren’t about to allow that to end their profitable exploitation. So they turned the Caribbean into a thriving home base for the African slave trade. Trade in human flesh would continue for hundreds of years in the Caribbean. It was an extended enterprise, with some large plantations harboring upwards of 900 Black slaves. Later slavery was extended to other parts of Latin America and the United States.

“Given cheap labor and a fertile natural world, the Caribbean blossomed, creating gargantuan profits. The millions of slaves who made that possible did not benefit from the prosperity their labor produced. Further, they and their descendants suffered inordinately during the bad times.

“The Spanish were joined and abetted by English, Dutch, French and other interests. They were motivated by financial profit tinged with national pride. The stage was set for the international intrigue and competing European nationalistic ambitions so well covered in this book. Further European wars, the American and the French revolutions thousands of miles away—all had significant repercussions in the Caribbean and its development.

“An underlying theme of this book is the importance of ‘the evolution of sugar plantations as the dominant integrating force of Caribbean economic history.’ The economies of ever so many islands became very similar, despite linguistic, political and ecological variations. Sugar plantations, established in most islands, dominated the region’s economy. The Caribbean became, as Moya Pons artfully writes, ‘the most important supplier of sucrose, an efficient source of calories that, once tasted, the modern world could not live without.’

“Ironically, the New World, which gave the old so many new products such as tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco, to name a few, did not give it sugar. Sugar was introduced to the Caribbean by Columbus during his second trip in 1493. Those shoots from the Canary Islands would lay the foundation for an industry, a lifestyle that would spread out and permeate the entire Caribbean. Dutch investors provided much of the financing to establish the early sugar plantations while Great Britain and France became the principal purveyors of slaves.

“Later, tobacco would become a large cash crop as well. Once again, those labor-intensive plantations would have never succeeded without a massive slave population. The British became involved in the tobacco business in the early 1600s. First cultivated to provide snuff, by the 1700s the British and the Dutch had made smoking tobacco, typically in pipes, fashionable throughout Europe.

“We cannot read of the Caribbean without remembering boyhood tales of pirates, buccaneers and swashbuckling adventurers. Moya Pons provides us with a more accurate historical reality of those characters than the one churned out by Hollywood. Fascinating, nonetheless, particularly as one appreciates the important role they played in the area’s economies.

“Detailed vignettes of each island’s local history and how they all melded together make this book different from other treatments. One senses Moya Pons sees the Caribbean as a single pulsating organism. The book’s references are excellent. Chapter citations together with an extensive Caribbean bibliography are a testament to Moya Pons’ scholarship and erudition. They not only strengthen and enhance this book they also remain viable and sound reference points for further study.

“In short, a very good read, historically sound, fact-laden and well written. I literally could not put it down until I finished it.” — Hispanic Outlook