[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Gibson on Martínez-Fernández, 'Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Apr 29 11:20:57 MDT 2019

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Mon, Apr 29, 2019 at 1:15 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Gibson on Martínez-Fernández, 'Key to
the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

Luis Martínez-Fernández.  Key to the New World: A History of
Early Colonial Cuba.  Gainesville  University of Florida Press, 2018.
 236 pp.  $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68340-032-5.

Reviewed by Carrie Gibson (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

A large part of Cuban history gravitates toward two periods: sugar
and slavery in the nineteenth century and the revolution of the
twentieth. Luis Martínez-Fernández, a historian at the University
of Central Florida, admits in the introduction to his admirable _Key
to the New World _that most of his own work falls into these two
camps, making him all the more eager to "get out of my
historiographical comfort zones" (p. 1). His aim in this book is to
provide a wide-ranging overview that includes major developments, key
themes, and a discussion of the historiography of this
often-overlooked period of Cuba's history, and he manages this with
great success. This work provides a concise narrative that covers a
great deal of ground concerning precolonial and early colonial Cuba.
Martínez-Fernández also makes a point of shifting the reader's gaze
away from the ever-present Havana to the equally important Santiago
de Cuba, offering a more balanced picture of the island's history.

_Key to the New World _unfolds across eight succinct chapters.
Drawing from the Annales school's idea of a "total history," the
first chapter is devoted to the physical structure of Cuba. While
geography may not necessarily be destiny, the island's position
between the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic, as
well as its location at the crossroads of North, Central, and South
America was fortuitous. Martínez-Fernández begins, however, with a
time when Cuba had periods of not being an island at all. During the
Miocene epoch, some 23 to 5.3 million years ago, Cuba was connected
by land to the Bahamas and the southeastern United States. Although
today the island is surrounded by rising sea levels, this period of
connection is a poetic starting point for its history, especially as
later Cuba's insularity "strongly influenced the course of its
history and culture" (p. 13).

The next three chapters examine arrival and settlement of humans,
with the earliest people coming around 5000-4500 BCE, possibly from
Central America, and later with the Arawak-speaking people, in at
least five distinct waves. Chapter 2 moves through these early years,
discussing what is known about the earliest people and the lives of
their ancestors, the Tainos, who would encounter the Spanish. Chapter
3 turns to the Columbian exchange. Much of this chapter is devoted to
a summary of the world of Christopher Columbus and the social and
scientific developments that led to his voyage. Martínez-Fernández
also draws from the work of Edmundo O'Gorman in reflecting on the
question of the invention--rather than "discovery"--of America. From
there, chapter 4 moves into Spanish ideas about "conquest," with
Martínez-Fernández explaining the _reconquista _and the
implementation of the _encomienda_. He also engages with the ideas of
Ángel Rama, who has argued that the conquerors were only able to
perceive of the Americas as a sort of _tabula rasa_. As with the
previous chapter, this one also gives a helpful explanation of the
foundations and mechanism of Spain's nascent empire, while weaving in
and out of Cuba's history.

Chapter 5 discusses the development of creole society, or, in this
case, societies, with one orbiting Havana and the other around
Santiago. Alongside this, two economies developed. The cattle
ranching and tobacco farming around Havana was augmented by serving
the Spanish fleet by the 1540s. Santiago, meanwhile, turned to
smuggling, taking advantage of its proximity to Saint-Domingue and
Jamaica, which also brought French, Dutch, and British contrabandists
in contact with the island. These traders came into contact--and at
times joined--a diverse society, with the surviving indigenous
people, free and enslaved black people, and Spaniards from many
regions of Spain, including the Canary Islands. The resulting mix is
what Martínez-Fernández calls in chapter 6 the Cuban _ajiaco_,
borrowing the metaphor first coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando
Ortiz. The _ajiaco _is both a traditional stew and a way of
describing the long-simmering blend of indigenous, African, and
European peoples in Cuba. Martínez-Fernández goes a step further,
offering it as "an allegory for Cuba's conquest and early
colonization," given that the dish includes an Amerindian yucabase,
the pork and beef brought by the Spanish, and the plantains and yams
added by Africans (pp. 110-11).

The book then turns to the issue of defense in chapter 7, a growing
concern throughout the seventeenth century. As well as defending the
fleet, the island faced its own security challenges in the form of
attacks on its cities. Martínenz-Fernández helpfully outlines four
rough phases of this period: the French corsairs from 1521 to 1559;
English smugglers around 1558-67; English piracy in 1568-84 and
privateering around 1585-1603; and two rounds of Dutch privateering
in 1594-1609 and again in 1620-48. Spain responded with a flurry of
fort-building, including the construction of El Morro, La Real
Fuerza, and La Punta around Havana's harbor.

Sugar, Cuba's best-known export, is the focus of the eighth and final
chapter, and in some ways, this brings the book full circle to the
first chapter's geological explanation for the rich soil that would
allow the crop to thrive. In this period, sugar was mostly grown
alongside other plants, and most land was devoted to rearing
livestock. However, sugar's appearance in the seventeenth century
demanded the existence of enslaved labor and racialized social
hierarchies. By the 1590s sugar mills were in place, and by 1603
there were some thirty-one active plantations. Martínez-Fernández
proposes the idea of the "sugar revolt" to describe these "early
plantations" in the seventeenth century, highlighting the differences
in scale to the sugar "boom" in other places, such as Barbados,
around the same time (p. 152).

>From the earliest geology to the beginnings of the sugar economy that
would go on to dominate the island, Martínez-Fernández paints a
comprehensive picture in just over two hundred pages, making it ideal
both for the general reader interested in Cuba and as a resource for
teaching this period of Cuban history. It is a welcome addition to
what can be hoped will be a growing body of work on early colonial

_Carrie Gibson is author of_ El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story
of Hispanic North America_ __(2019)._

Citation: Carrie Gibson. Review of Martínez-Fernández, Luis, _Key
to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba_. H-LatAm, H-Net
Reviews. April, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53819

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

More information about the Marxism mailing list