Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century

Synopsis

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 much more than a port servicing the Spanish imperial powers. Analyzing how slaves, soldiers, merchants, householders, and transient sailors and workers participated socially, economically, and institutionally in the city, he shows how local ambitions took advantage of the imperial design and how, in the process, Havana was turned into a Caribbean trading center with a distinctly Mediterranean flavor. By situating Havana within the slavery and economic systems of the colonial Atlantic, de la Fuente also contributes to the growing focus on port cities as contexts for understanding the early development of global networks for economic and cultural exchange.

Excerpt

On the morning of 10 July 1555, the guard at El Morro, an observation post at the entrance of Havana’s bay, raised a flag indicating the approach of a vessel. As was customary in these cases, the commander of the town’s small fortress reproduced the message by placing a flag in the fortress tower, where townspeople could see it. Commander Juan de Lobera also ordered artillery to fire. It was the sign for the eight or nine town residents who guarded the fortress to gather and for the populace to know that there was “a sail in the sea.” The colonial governor arrived a few minutes later, accompanied by several residents on horseback. Nobody seemed to know the vessel or where it was coming from, although some residents suggested that it was the caravel of a merchant from Nombre de Dios, Panama, who paid frequent visits to Havana. To everyone’s surprise, however, the ship did not enter the bay. It continued sailing westward, anchoring in a small inlet a quarter of a league to the west of the town, where two hundred men, with “their flags” and “in perfect order,” landed.

Commanding the ship was Jacques de Sorés, no stranger to Cuban waters. A lieutenant of François Le Clerc’s, the French corsair known as Jambe de Bois, Sorés had probably accompanied his boss during the sacking of Santiago de Cuba in 1554. The “most heretic Lutheran,” as local authorities referred to Sorés, had at his service a renegade Portuguese pilot who had lived in Havana for more than a year and who was familiar with the town and its port. Thanks to him, the corsair and his men managed to enter the deserted town undisturbed and to place the small fortress under siege. Inside, Commander Lobera prepared to protect His Catholic Majesty’s artillery and honor with four harquebusiers and ten to fifteen men, including Spaniards, mestizos, and blacks. A few elders, women, and children who had been unable to flee the town were also inside the fort. The governor, Doctor Pérez de Angulo, and most of the residents found refuge in the nearby “Indian” village of Guanabacoa, where they plotted to recover the town.

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