Failed Movements in the Caribbean

We have now seen about a dozen cases of successful wars for independence from Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. Some of the American colonies, however, did not achieve independence in the age of revolution. Some chose not to rebel, or the uprisings were weak and relatively easily crushed. In this outline, we will look at Cuba and Puerto Rico, two cases of colonies in Spanish America that failed to achieve their independence in the age of revolutions. We will also look at the troubled case of the Dominican Republic, a nation that had to fight for its independence several times, against Spain, then Haiti, to achieve its independence. These cases remind us of the contingency of the processes we have been examining, that independence was not inevitable and that despite the general patterns, each case is unique.

We have now seen about a dozen cases of successful wars for independence from Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal.

A. Some of the American colonies, however, did not achieve independence in the age of revolution.

    1. Some chose not to rebel or the uprisings were weak and relatively easily crushed.
    2. In this lecture, we will look at Cuba and Puerto Rico, two cases of colonies in Spanish America that failed to achieve their independence in the age of revolutions.
    3. We will also look at the troubled case of the Dominican Republic, a nation that had to fight for its independence several times, against Spain, then Haiti.
    4. These cases remind us of the contingency of the processes we have been examining, that independence was not inevitable and that despite the general patterns, each case is unique.

B. In all three cases, the delayed process of independence would profoundly shape the creation of these new island nations and would-be nations.

    1. All three would fall under the growing and profound influence of the United States.
    2. In many ways, none of the three colonies was able to emerge as a fully sovereign nation in the century after the other Latin American wars for independence had ended.

Slavery and geography directly contributed to the failure of independence movements in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

A. Much like the U.S. South and Brazil, the elites in the slave societies of the Caribbean were reluctant to pursue wars that might trigger another Haitian Revolution.

    1. Both Cuba and Puerto Rico had emerged as rich sugar and tobacco plantation economies in the 18th century.
    2. Cuba had a population of 170,000 in the 1770s; blacks and mulattos accounted for about 40 percent of the population, and about two-thirds of them were slaves.

B. Geography also shaped the destiny of the main Spanish islands in the Caribbean.

    1. By the mid-16th century, Mexico, Central America, and the Andes had become the wealth-producing heartland of the empire.
    2. Since the 17th century, the West Indian islands had been a battleground for contending imperial powers in the Americas.
    3. Combined with the rise of slavery and slavocracy, the strategic locations of the islands helped keep the three colonies “ever-faithful isles.”

C. The first great shock to the colonial system in Cuba was the British capture of Havana in 1762–1763.

    1. Spain got Cuba back in the Peace of Paris in 1763 but had to give up Florida in exchange.
    2. In the twists and turns of the imperial wars and changing alliances of the late 18th century, foreign shipping, both legal and illegal, expanded dramatically.

D. The few who chose to speak of serious reform or autonomy in Cuba and Puerto Rico were quickly suppressed in the early 19th century.

    1. As in the rest of Latin America, the winds of the Enlightenment also blew through Cuba and Puerto Rico.
    2. The Haitian Revolution shook the elites in the West Indies profoundly.

E. The Napoleonic invasion and the imprisonment of Fernando VII unleashed the same forces in Cuba and Puerto Rico as they did in the rest of Spanish America.

    1. As war raged in Spain, the Cubans and Puerto Ricans discussed options, called councils, and formed juntas.
    2. The young United States had acquired Louisiana in 1803 and Florida in 1819.
    3. The wars on the mainland also produced a steady flow of loyalists seeking refuge in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
    4. At the same time, conspiracies emerged that frightened Creoles and Peninsulars alike.
    5. When the liberals regained power in Spain in 1820, the events touched off yet another intense discussion about the island’s future.
    6. As the mainland colonies of Spain achieved their independence, the government of Fernando VII managed to hold on to Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The Dominican Republic is perhaps the most complex case of all the wars for independence in the Americas in the 19th century.

A. The site of the original Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas, the island of Hispaniola declined soon after the initial conquest.

    1. It was supplanted by Cuba as the great administrative and commercial center in the Caribbean.
    2. Since the late 17th century, Santo Domingo’s history has been forged in a tense relationship with Haiti to the west.

B. The outbreak of the Haitian Revolution initiated a half century of struggle in Santo Domingo.

    1. From 1791–1803, the French, English, and Spanish fought over the entire island.
    2. The junta in Seville reclaimed the territory in the name of Spain when the French left.
    3. The Haitians’ principal concern for many years was regaining control of the entire island to facilitate their defense against another French invasion.
    4. Juan Pablo Duarte led the fight for an independent Dominican Republic and is today recognized as its national hero.
    5. In the aftermath of independence, these caudillos (“dictators”) did not believe that the new nation could survive without foreign protection.

C. The Spanish West Indies—Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo—serve as counter-examples to the successes in the wars for independence across the Americas.

    1. First, they clearly demonstrate that despite the converging forces of intellectual, political, and economic ferment, independence in colonial America in the early 19th century was neither inevitable nor unavoidable.
    2. Second, geography and size matter.
    3. Finally, the absence of charismatic and dynamic political leadership also matters, and the colonies were unable to produce their own liberators in the early 19th century.
    4. In Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, the “man and the hour” would not meet in the 1810s and 1820s.
    5. Unlike the mainland, the island colonies of Spanish America did not fare well in the age of revolution.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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