A Longue Durée History of Eleven Months


The Siege of Havana, 1762, Dominic Serres the Elder, 1767

by Ernesto Bassi

The Occupation of Havana: War, Trade, and Slavery in the Atlantic World,
by Elena Andrea Schneider, 
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 360 pp.

On a Sunday morning in early June 1762, Cuba’s captain general, Juan de Prado, was summoned to the Morro fortress, at the entrance of Havana’s harbor, to take a look at what his lieutenant interpreted as trouble on the horizon. For Prado, the sight of a large British fleet did not pose a significant enough threat for him to alter his Sunday schedule. Dismissive of his lieutenant’s concerns and convinced that the fleet was simply Jamaica’s mercantile convoy on its way to London, Prado returned to Havana and went to Mass. This decision decisively upended Prado’s life. Since the fleet was in fact an invading British armada on its way to lay siege to Havana, Prado’s dismissive attitude ended up being a colossal military error for which he paid dearly. Following the siege, Spanish capitulation, and British occupation of Havana, Prado was sent to Spain where he was tried for treason and condemned to spend the rest of his life in jail, where he died in 1770.

The British siege and occupation of Havana dramatically transformed the lives of thousands of Havana residents. Imperial bureaucrats, prominent members of the city’s elite, free men and women of African descent, and enslaved individuals were profoundly affected by the six-week-long siege and the subsequent eleven-month occupation of the Spanish Empire’s most important Caribbean city. Elena Schneider’s The Occupation of Havana: War, Trade, and Slavery in the Atlantic World acknowledges the dramatic transformative power of this event. However, pursuing what can be framed as a longue durée history of eleven months, it also cautions against exaggerating the degree to which the occupation inaugurated a new era in the history of Cuba. For Schneider, “the period of British occupation was far too short to have the transformative impact on Cuba’s economy and society for which it has been given credit” (p. 167). Instead of being “the radical rupture in Cuban history that it was once depicted as being,” the siege and occupation of Havana “represents the intensification of existing patterns and processes of interactions between Havana and its British neighbors” (p. 9). In short, more than a dramatic turning point that radically redirected Havana’s historical path, the eleven-month-long occupation was a steep downward slope that accelerated transformations already underway.

Schneider’s argument for intensification over rupture is effectively deployed in her analysis of Havana’s commercial relations before, during, and after the occupation. Refuting the “long-standing assumption that Havana before the siege was primarily a military stronghold awakened to regional commerce only by the arrival of British and British American merchants during the occupation,” Schneider convincingly counters that “this was simply not the case” (p. 67). Her analysis of Havana’s commercial dynamism before and during the occupation actually shows that in certain spheres of trade (i.e., the slave trade), the occupation actually restricted exchange. While before the occupation loopholes in the laws regulating the slave trade to Spanish America effectively made Havana an open port for slaves, flour, and textiles imported by British and British American merchants, during the occupation diplomatic priorities forced the governor of British Havana to curtail some of this trading practices. Somewhat ironically, therefore, early eighteenth-century wars like the War of Jenkins’ Ear constituted “a boom time for Havana” that “brought many foreign goods, merchants, sailors, and enslaved blacks into the city.” From a commercial perspective, war, as a Spanish resident of Havana put it, was “the happiest time” (p. 95).

Schneider’s argument against rupture does not imply denying the transformative nature of the siege, British occupation, and, critically, Spanish reoccupation of Havana. In agreement with past historians of eighteenth-century Cuba, Schneider interprets “the occupation of Havana as a catalyst to extensive reforms in the Spanish Empire” (p. 221). These reforms, in turn, proved more critical to Cuba’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century development than it has customarily been accepted. Schneider’s focus on the “slaving fever” (p. 270) and the socioeconomic transformations that followed the British occupation allows her to offer a more nuanced interpretation of Cuba’s sugar boom. While acknowledging that “Cuba’s full-fledged boom of sugar plantation slavery did not begin until the 1790s,” her analysis demonstrates that “the industry’s expansion during the postwar period made that later takeoff possible” (p. 284). In other words, while the Haitian Revolution offered Cuban planters a unique opportunity to fill a market void, the reforms introduced in the immediate aftermath of the Seven Years’ War put Cuba and its nascent sacarocracia in the best position to take advantage of this 1790s geopolitical contingency.

Throughout The Occupation of Havana, people of African descent, both free and enslaved, play a critical role. Far from a capricious decision by the author, this critical role stems from the fact that before, during, and after the siege and occupation, people of African descent were key constituents of Havana’s life. After the end of the occupation, they became central components of Cuba’s postwar transformations. Despite their central role, “people of African descent … were written out of the narrative” (p. 316) of the siege and occupation of Havana. Through its focus on people of African descent’s contributions to the defense of Havana, as well as their economic roles before and after the occupation, Schneider’s study not only gives them their rightful place in the history of eighteenth-century Cuba but also offers a compelling argument about the role of the occupation of Havana in the evolution of rights and privileges of Cuba’s black population. The trajectory is one of rise and decline, with the siege of Havana marking the zenith from which rights and privileges for people of African descent began a vertiginous decline toward near extinction. As members of Havana’s black militia, free individuals of African descent were among the most courageous defendants of Havana in the face of the British invading fleet. Enslaved individuals also played a pivotal role in the defense. Through their roles as new recruits, food provisioners, and key participants in military counterattacks, blacks made it possible for Spanish forces to hold off the invaders “long enough … for the siege almost to fail” (p. 119). Their services were duly rewarded, with many enslaved soldiers obtaining manumission. Following the Seven Years’ War, however, “slavery and racial categories in Cuba became less fluid” (p. 294) and protecting the interests of slave-owning creole oligarchs took precedence over defending the rights and privileges of the Crown’s black subjects. Thus, by the end of the eighteenth century, when black soldiers serving the Spanish king became increasingly perceived as a threat to Cuba’s sugar-based growth, the memory of the heroic participation of black militias in the defense of Havana “became a symbol of a lost age that had come before” (p. 310) and was not meant to return.

What about Prado’s decision to dismiss his lieutenant on that Sunday morning of June 1762? By approaching the siege and occupation of Havana from both British and Spanish perspectives, Schneider effectively demonstrates that Prado’s decision was a logical one. His lieutenant’s alarm, however, was equally logical. Their disagreement over the best course of action reveals two conflicting narratives and perceptions of Havana that Schneider’s deep engagement with British and Spanish documents brings to light: Havana was both an obvious target for British aggression and an impossible target. While British documents tell a story of centuries of sustained desire and machinations to capture Havana, Spanish documents reveal a history of increased confidence that the city was simply impossible to capture. Approaching the history of these eleven months from both British and Spanish perspectives, as well as exploring the local and Atlantic dynamics that influenced how black and white habaneros reacted to the occupation and its aftermath, Schneider makes visible a city that was a bit British before the siege and stubbornly Spanish throughout the occupation. The Occupation of Havana also reveals that the British occupation of Havana was both more important than has usually been considered and less cataclysmic than some historians have credited it to have been. Schneider’s longue durée analysis of these eleven months makes clear that the siege and occupation of Havana was not one but all, the end of an era of rights and privileges for people of African descent, a new dawn for creole oligarchs dreaming of sugar and slaves, and a middle point in an eighteenth century of interimperial conflict and collaboration.

Piece first published on H-Net Reviews. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.