Atlantic Empires and Caribbean Ecology

In the way of Nature there can be no evil.

- Marcus Aurelius, The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antonius (C. R. Haines, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987^916])

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 a.d.) liked to take a stoic stance on most matters, and viewed human death with detachment. For the less detached among us, the yellow fever virus and its vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, might easily qualify as evil. Rarely, if ever, did they do as much mischief as in the West Indies between 1647 and 1900. Malaria and its vectors probably did less damage, but quite enough nonetheless. Mosquitoes and pathogens could not make history on their own: human actions set the stage.

This chapter aims to sketch the links between politics and warfare on the one hand and environmental change on the other, within the confines of the Caribbean basin of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. It leaves for later consideration of the theme of environmental change in the southern colonies of British North America (Chapter 6). In the Caribbean, the creation of a plantation system featuring sugar above all other crops fueled an ecological and demographic transformation, making the region conform more fully to the preferences of mosquitoes and requirements ofpathogens. It also helped raise the stakes of imperial geopolitics in the Atlantic world.

Atlantic American Geopolitics, 1620-1820

In the centuries after Christopher Columbus established regular contact between the Americas and the rest of the world, one of the great demographic catastrophes of human history befell the peoples of the Americas. Amerindians may have numbered 40 million to 70 million in 1492, maybe more, but had no prior experience with the crowd diseases of Eurasia and Africa, nor with malaria and yellow fever. After 1492, in addition to suffering relentless rounds of epidemics, their societies were hammered by war, forced migrations, and enslavement.1 By 1650, roughly 10 percent of the Amerindian population of 1492 remained, no powerful Amerindian polity stood intact, and the resources of the Americas were primarily in European hands. The most important resources were the gold and silver mines of the Andes and Mexico, and the fertile soils suitable for growing sugarcane.

In the Caribbean basin - both the islands and surrounding lowlands -the demographic devastation was near total. Proximity to Europe and Africa meant that ships, cargoes, and crews introduced alien diseases more frequently to the Caribbean than to, say, Peru. Whereas in Mexico and Peru Amerindian people, language, and culture survived sufficiently to contribute heavily to the formation of mestizo (mixed) societies, on most Caribbean islands and some mainland shores the indigenous component, both culturally and genetically, dwindled almost to the point of extinction.2 The demography and culture of the Caribbean region became mainly a mixture of Western European and Atlantic African elements, with a much smaller indigenous imprint than in Mexico or the Andes. The demographic catastrophe of the Americas and the destruction of Amerindian polities created a vacuum of power that the states of Atlantic Europe aimed to fill.

Spain, of course, got there first. Thanks to the crowd diseases and conquistadors, Spain quickly acquired a sprawling empire in the Americas. Large parts of it were only loosely held, but the important parts - the mines and the ports through which precious metals flowed - were firmly in Spanish hands by 1650. Spain had only 7-8 million people in 1650 and modest domestic sources of wealth, but large ambitions. The House of Habsburg, Spain's rulers until 1700, fought continually in pursuit of dynastic claims and in support of Catholic populations in Europe. Without the American mines, Spain could not afford to play the great power in Europe or the Atlantic world. From the late sixteenth century on,

Livi Bacci (2005; 2006) reviews the data and emphasizes reduced fertility as well as the toll of epidemics and other disruptions.

The effects of conquest in the Caribbean are reviewed in Whitehead (2000); the role of African diseases is summarized in Curtin (1993).

when the mines of Latin America became the world's most lucrative, the topmost priority of Spanish imperial policy was to defend the wealth of the Indies. That required investment in naval ships and in fortifications, especially in the key ports of Callao, Cartagena, Portobelo, Veracruz, and Havana. The American empire, its silver and its trade, made Spain a great power.3

Portugal acquired an American presence in Brazil beginning in 1500, part of a seaborne empire that soon stretched to outposts in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. There were fewer than 2 million Portuguese in 1650, with no substantial domestic sources of wealth. Nonetheless, its rulers entertained world-girdling ambitions (from 1580 to 1640, Portugal's rulers were the Spanish Habsburgs). Until the 1690s, when diamond and gold mines in central Brazil (Minas Gerais) changed the complexion of Brazil's economy, the important parts of the territory were the plantations of the northeast, where slave labor mainly from Angola raised sugarcane and other crops. Northeastern Brazil was lucrative enough that the Dutch went to considerable effort to seize and hold a good swathe of it early in the seventeenth century, departing only in 1653. The Portuguese had no colonial holdings and little trade in the Caribbean itself.

France, home to some 17 million people in the mid-seventeenth century, had a scattered empire in the Americas.4 It did not depend on its empire financially because France itself contained much rich farmland, which formed the ultimate basis of most state revenues, and a growing textile trade. In the north, France claimed Quebec and parts of what are now the Canadian maritime provinces. In the Caribbean, France took and held a few small islands in the 1620s, and after 1697 added the western third of the large island of Hispaniola, called St. Domingue. By 1700, the French were installing themselves in Louisiana, in the Mississippi, and the Great Lakes heartland of North America, but their imprint remained shallow and their control shaky. Before 1700, the Americas did not command much priority in French policy because they did not add much to the wealth or power of the kingdom, and because civil wars until the 1650s and foreign wars consistently kept the government, its forces, and its finances fully occupied. France both garnered and squandered the lion's share of its resources within Europe,

Of the countless tomes on the early Spanish Empire, an excellent one is Kamen (2003).

A most helpful survey is Boucher (2008).

with scant concern for the Americas. Until St. Domingue became an important plantation colony, French traders became prominent in the Atlantic slave trade, and the northwest Atlantic cod fishery boomed -say, by the 1730s.

The Dutch played a most improbable role in Atlantic and world history in the seventeenth century. They numbered only about 2 million, about the same as the Portuguese, and like them they engaged in trade, war, and colonization wherever ships could sail, from Japan and Taiwan to Java and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and South Africa - and the Americas. But unlike the Portuguese, they were almost constantly embroiled in land wars at home, first against the Spanish Habsburgs and then against the French. In the Americas, the Dutch held New York (until the 1660s), Surinam (after the 1660s), and a dozen or so small Caribbean islands, mainly acquired between 1620 and 1640. None of this produced great wealth but it did provide bases for Dutch traders and raiders, and a source of sea salt for the Dutch herring business, one of the foundations of the Dutch economy. They also held sugar-producing parts of northeastern Brazil from 1624 until 1653. With their trade-based economy and worldwide commitments, the Dutch (both the government and the quasi-governmental private companies entrusted with trade, privateering, and colonization) invested heavily in ships more than fortification in the Americas, although they built many fortresses at home in Europe.5 As a result, they often lost little colonies and settlements, especially around 1650-1670, by which time their economy had begun to lose its remarkable verve. Financial constraints meant the Dutch had to stint on peripheral concerns in the Americas. It did not help that they had few friends and some powerful enemies. But even in the late 1650s they entertained ambitions of taking all of northern South America from Spain.6

England, a nation of about 5 million in 1650 (nearly 8 million counting Scots and Irish),7 was in many ways becoming the most disruptive power in the Atlantic world - a rogue state. As an island kingdom,

Around 1648, the Dutch had more ships than the rest of Europe combined according to Klooster (1997:3). Klooster (1998:38).

The English and Scottish crowns were united in 1603 and their parliaments in 1707. Ireland was gradually brought under English control over the course of the seventeenth century. Both Scots and Irish mounted occasional rebellions, but many also made their careers in the service of the British crown.

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