Spanish Local Elites in Hispaniola 1580-1697


A review of Social and Political Survival at the Edge of Empire: Spanish Local Elites in Hispaniola, 1580–1697, by Juan José Ponce Vázquez.

Juan José Ponce Vázquez’s dissertation examines the social, political and economic life of Spain’s Caribbean colony of Hispaniola. This island – today known as the Dominican Republic – was the site of the first Spanish settlement in the Americas, and the initial contact period after the arrival of Christopher Columbus has received much scholarly attention. However, as Ponce Vázquez points out in his introduction, historians have long ignored the later part of the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth centuries, with Dominican historians sometimes calling it the “Middle Ages of the island” (p. 5). Armed with reams of archival material, Ponce Vázquez issues a firm challenge against this prevailing image of the island’s stagnation and decline.

His work makes significant interventions into a few historiographical areas. To begin with, however, it should be noted that very little of the overall scholarship has been written in English; indeed, only one of the many books written by one of the island’s most prominent historian, Frank Moya Pons, has been translated into English. Historians from outside the island who focus on this period are few and far between, and many people who work on the Caribbean or Atlantic world more widely usually drop Hispaniola from the narrative after about the 1530s. However, new trends are emerging. Indeed, this particular epoch was recently revisited by historian Pedro San Miguel, who argued in his book, The Imagined Island: History, Identity, and Utopia in Hispaniola (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), that there was a “tragic narration” about the seventeenth century, which was crafted by historians of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. This was especially true when discussing the “depopulations” of 1605 – which Ponce Vázquez does in Chapter 2, and where it is evident that his work is very much in conversation with the type of wide-angle vista that San Miguel advocates.

The economic arena is where this dissertation issues a second serious challenge. Ponce Vázquez argues that the slave plantation model of development, as typified in classic Atlantic world works such as Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 (New York: Verso, 1997) or David Eltis’s The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), was not the only economic option in the sixteenth-century Americas. He says that part of the reason Hispaniola trod a different path was its access to the contraband economy. Because the island did not follow the plantation model, it instead found other means of economic survival, much of which was illicit trade. And because the island was heavily involved in this form of commerce, it was not lingering on the periphery of the West Indies, as it has long been depicted, but was an active participant in the Atlantic economy.

Ponce Vázquez is able to put his archival work to good use by discussing the local, or island born “creole” elites – he notes in the introduction that he waded through some 4,000 documents in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. Such a wealth of material facilitates a study of the island’s elites, as the landowners, merchants, administrators, and military officers wrote voluminous correspondence to the crown. He organizes his findings into six areas of examination: the contraband trade, the “depopulations” of 1605, the sale of administrative offices, the power of local officials, piracy, and the rise of French Saint-Domingue. These areas are the basis for the six chapters of the dissertation, and there is an introduction and conclusion as well.

Chapter 1 examines the most crucial component of Hispaniola’s economy during this period: smuggling. Ponce Vázquez asserts that contraband had become “an intrinsic part of Hispaniola’s culture” by the early seventeenth century, and it was a system that affected people at all social levels (p. 18). The contraband, however, was not Castilian but rather Protestant (i.e. English, Dutch or French), though sometimes the Catholic Portuguese participated too. This chapter also gives some background on the island from its settlement to the 1600s. Much of the indigenous population had died by this point, and the slave population was also declining because the island was not developing the intensive, slave-based plantation agriculture later found elsewhere in the Caribbean, nor did Hispaniola have the level of metal wealth found in Mexico or Peru. So it had to rely on commerce – but that was far from straightforward.

Part of the reason that goods were deemed illegal in the first place was because of the control the Spanish crown wanted over trade. Merchants in Seville had an official monopoly on overseas commerce – it was the only port permitted to trade with the colonies in the Americas. Spanish subjects were only supposed to take goods from Spanish ships, thus any items that did not come via Seville or were brought by other ships were “illicit.” By the 1580s, islanders had tried to grow sugar and ginger, but increasingly planters were turning to trade. In addition, the annual Spanish treasure fleet system had begun to bypass the island, making its stopover in other ports, such as Havana. However, when unscheduled ships – Spanish or otherwise – called in, there was an obvious and at times desperate need for European goods, such as cloth and wine.

Ship captains from other countries soon realized that Hispaniola was a ready market. Ponce Vázquez discusses how the quiet harbors on the northern shore of the island such as Montecristi and Puerto Plata – far away from the capital, Santo Domingo, in the south – became the main areas of exchange. Signals such as a cannon shot were fired and launches went back and forth with goods and sometimes slaves. Slaves also were used as intermediaries, running between ship and shore, ferrying goods. Ponce Vázquez also discusses how the church often turned a blind eye, as did the official administrative and judicial body, the audiencia. Indeed, members of both institutions often either had a vested interest or direct involvement in the trade. In this chapter, Ponce Vázquez also untangles some of the more complicated cases that appear in the judicial records, which gives a clear sense of how smuggling operated and how it was policed (or not) on the island.

The examination of contraband in the first chapter sets the stage for what is discussed in Chapter 2: the “depopulations” of 1605. More than four hundred years later, this particular event continues to cast a long shadow over Dominican historiography. Ponce-Vázquez tackles this modern problem first of all in this chapter as he examines the treatment of this critical moment in the historiography before looking at the events and the actors who were involved. The crown decided to forcibly remove the people who lived near the northern and western coasts, where most of the illegal trading was done, to stop the contraband trade. Ponce Vázquez explains in great and illuminating detail how this decision had come to be taken, and the key actors involved on the ground – especially Baltasar López de Castro and the later vilified governor Antonio Osorio, who were charged with enforcing the policy. It took three years of revolts by and fighting against the local people in these areas to finally enact the policy, and once done, the resentment simmered for centuries. Ponce Vázquez examines the heroes and villains in this episode, and considers why they passed into historical account as such. He also presents both sides of the conflict, giving a voice to the local people on the ground, challenging the depiction of them as merely victims of a misguided imperial policy.

Chapter 3 turns to the sale of administrative offices. This practice began because the crown was searching for new sources of revenue. As Ponce Vázquez explains, the cabildo – the local governing body, or council – was also “a select club where friendships were established, profitable deals were struck, but also where members could become life-long enemies” (p. 149). He uses the office of regidor as a way of examining this question, and in doing so traces how the relationship between elites and the cabildo was transformed in this period. He even includes very useful graphs, one of which tracks the value of the office of regidor of Santo Domingo from 1580-1700 (p. 158), though the full price was not always paid, which is illustrated by another chart illustrating the gap between the value and the price paid for the office (p. 161). Indeed, the posts did not have large salaries – it was the access to power that made them attractive – and most office-holders needed to be wealthy. What was created, then, was an internal island commodity, as Ponce Vázquez points out, when there was “a new market in which all offices in the local administration could be privately bought, sold, and transferred to relatives, clients or simply the best bidder” (p. 167). It is no surprise that some purchasers of this or other offices made their money through contraband trade; these roles were especially attractive because they offered an air of legitimacy, or allowed them to continue their trade with impunity. Ponce Vázquez also uses this chapter to discuss how an already small elite became smaller and more powerful during this time as their families intermarried.

Building on the previous section, Chapter 4 examines the case of one such powerful local elite: Rodrigo Pimentel. Wealthy and politically connected, Pimentel was a force to be reckoned with. However, he had many detractors, which included officials who wrote to the crown about his alleged abuses and monopoly on Santo Domingo’s resources. Ponce Vázquez uses this chapter to look at the strategies Pimentel employed to get to this level of influence. Pimentel was a creole, born on the island around 1609 to an elite family that already had money and connections. He was shrewd in shoring up control in local and government institutions, such as the cabildo and the audiencia, though networks and alliances. This also allowed him to keep healthy profits coming in from his smuggling operation, which in turn allowed him to use his money to iron out any political problems. One governor noted: “I hear constantly that whoever is on Pimentel’s side, he always obtains his justice” (p. 197). Ponce Vázquez is able to draw from the extensive records about Pimentel in the archives to paint a very detailed picture. Eventually, the law and his enemies caught up with Pimentel, and he was imprisoned, then put under house arrest, and later sent to Spain. But en route, during a stop in Puerto Rico, he heard that his nemesis, the governor, had died, and he quickly returned to Santo Domingo and resumed his place in society there.

Ponce Vázquez also discusses in this chapter how a 1655 attack by the English on Santo Domingo – ordered by Oliver Cromwell as part of his Western Design – was influential in reconfiguring the relationships among the island’s elites in relation to the defense of the island. Here too Pimentel managed to turn the situation to his advantage, the result of which was to have access to ports for his illicit trade. However, once again he fell out of favor and was jailed. But Pimentel, like a mafia don, was able to put his patronage networks to use. He was shipped to Spain in 1661, but a few months after his arrival he received a full pardon – this could be related to the 7,000 silver pesos he paid the cash-strapped crown. He returned to the island by December 1661, and later joined the clergy and continued with his economic activities without further problems until his death in 1683. The detail about Pimentel in this chapter shows how the mechanics and networks of power operated on the island during this period.

Chapter 5 turns to the matter of piracy and looks at what happened when a Dutch captain, Nicholas Van Hoorn, arrived in Santo Domingo with 200 slaves in need of food and water in 1682. Local elites harbored him while English and Dutch envoys tried to arrest him for earlier transgressions. Here, Ponce Vázquez challenges the stereotype that the island was inútil, or useless. Rather, it was part of a wider network of European colonies by this point, and thus was well positioned. Indeed, it was in Hispaniola’s interest to foster good relations with the English and Dutch, who were claiming and settling their own islands in the West Indies. Many of the ships that arrived in Hispaniola around 1670-80 were from the United Provinces (which by 1648 had successfully extricated itself from Spanish Habsburg rule). These ships brought goods for trade, such as textiles. The English presented more of a problem, in that English troops captured neighboring Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 after their failure to seize Santo Domingo. Jamaica was perfectly located to be a regional center for contraband trade and a useful port for piracy. The English could use it to mount attacks, and they did so – sacking cities in the 1660s all around the Spanish territories from Portobello (Panama) to Veracruz (Mexico). Yet at the same time they became trading partners with people in Hispaniola too.

Ponce Vázquez then brings together this and the previous chapter in relating the meeting between Pimentel and the pirate Van Hoorn, with Pimentel becoming the Dutchman’s intermediary. Some of Van Hoorn’s crew escaped the ship and complained about him to the Spanish authorities. He was briefly imprisoned and after paying bail and a bribe he left the island and later got his revenge by sacking Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. In relating this episode, Ponce Vázquez shows the relationship between local elites and captains and administrators of other islands and countries, and how the interests of the creoles could influence people on the ground. Rather than being at the whims of foreign traders or officials, Ponce Vázquez argues that the local elites in Hispaniola were active negotiators and collaborators when it served their interests.

The final chapter looks at the rise of the French in neighboring Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti). The western third of the island, which would later become one of the most valuable sugar plantation colonies in the Caribbean, was ceded to France under the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. During this time many French people arrived to try their luck in the colony, although others had been settling there informally for decades, including the infamous buccaneers. These men hunted feral cattle and sold the hides, while also sometimes participating in pirate raids, basing themselves on the nearby islet of Tortuga. Later on, as settlement grew, there was a great deal of commercial activity between the two colonies – the creoles from the Spanish side sold hides to the French and it became a valuable relationship for both parties. In this chapter, Ponce Vázquez also discusses the other foreigners, such as the Dutch or Portuguese, who settled in Santo Domingo. He uses as an example the life of Antonio Cuello, who was born in Madeira and arrived in Santo Domingo in 1617, to illustrate the pitfalls of and negotiations necessary for life on the island (p. 277). For instance, Cuello became a merchant, but later aroused the concern of local officials because, in building a ship for trade, some officials thought he might have hidden his Portuguese background in order to secure the necessary permits. Ponce Vázquez also finds in the archives traces of the English and Irish in Santo Domingo, such as Juan Morfa, possibly John Murphy, who had apparently escaped an attack on Tortuga (p. 284). Although, in theory, because the Irish were mainly Catholic, they should not have been a significant concern, in practice, Spanish officials often could not tell the difference between the English and the Irish, and were worried that Englishmen were posing as Irish Catholics in order to act as spies. With regard to the growing number of French residents, there were problems and intermittent periods of hostility borne out of conflicts taking place in Europe between France and Spain, yet, as Ponce Vázquez points out, “competition gave way to collaboration” between the two sides of the island (p. 290).

This dissertation is incredibly rich in detail, which has allowed Ponce Vázquez to paint portraits of many of people who lived on Hispaniola – and not just the local elites – making their stories come to life while also addressing a glaring gap in the historiography. His critical arguments about the nature of social and economic development in the sixteenth-century Caribbean are a firm challenge to the overarching narratives of the plantation complex, and Hispaniola’s supposed years of decline. Instead, he shows that local people on the island had a grasp of their fortunes, and took advantage of their opportunities, even if they were not strictly legal. As he points out, “instead of the unambiguous triumph that imperial projects strived for, the residents of Hispaniola opted for accommodation to the uneasy, but more profitable, balance that this developing Caribbean world offered them” (p. 325). Ponce Vázquez also clearly describes how local power functioned on the island, often in the face of hostile colonial authorities, as exemplified by Rodrigo Pimentel, among others. This dissertation is a significant contribution to the often-neglected world of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Hispaniola, and an important addition to the work being done on the Caribbean and Atlantic worlds more widely.

Dr. Carrie Gibson
Independent writer/historian (PhD Cambridge, 2010)
Author, Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (Pan Macmillan/Grove Atlantic, 2014)

Primary Sources

Archivo General de Indias, Seville Spain:
Section Escribanía de Cámara de Justicia
Section Gobierno: Santo Domingo
Section Gobierno: Indiferente General
John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 335 pp. Primary Advisor: Kathleen Brown.

Image: Johannes Vingboons, Nautical chart of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Ink and watercolor with pictorial relief, circa 1639. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.



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