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Le planteur et le roi

Dominique Goncalvès



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1There have been various attempts to account for the fact that Cuba did not swing towards independence like most of the other Spanish colonies in the 1820s. This book proposes a new explanation, namely the exceptionally close ties linking the Creole elite to the Spanish Crown. An examination of these ties, whose existence has been identified but always from an economic perspective, shows that they were equally composed of strong political and identitary strands which rendered them exceptionally solid. The subject of this book is then the ties linking the Creole aristocracy of Havana with the monarchs and the ministries in Madrid, from the time of their formation in 1763 up to an event which demonstrates their survival well into the 19th century.

2The first part of the book is devoted to identifying this elite and describing its values and behaviour. It commences by setting the context, citing the peculiar form of the port of Havana which lent it particular military value and the suitability of the land first for the provisioning of fleets and later for sugar cane, and recalling the turbulent history of the Caribbean islands. This aristocratic elite, viewed for the entire period in terms of families rather than individuals, is then defined according to criteria of power, meaning the occupation of positions in the municipal government or the royal consulate and the bearing of Castilian titles. This analysis then reveals that in all cases the possessors of such attributes owned at least one sugar plantation. The elite can thus be identified within a roll of less than forty families, confirming the aptness of the nickname of « saccharocracy » with which they were dubbed. This aristocratic dimension is an essential aspect whose importance has hitherto been ignored. And yet it marked an identity, as such marking political choices and influencing standards of economic behaviour like marital strategies. In this connection the book highlights the endogamy practised by the saccharocracy, which thus cut itself off from even the most prosperous of the Creole bourgeoisie. Such identities, modes of behaviour and strategies eventually led to a singular relationship with the Spanish monarchy and set this elite apart from those of other colonies.

3The second part retraces the history of relations between the elite and the Crown from 1763 to 1808. The taking of Havana by the British and its occupation until July 1763 made it clear to the Spanish Crown that it could no longer assure the defence of the lynchpin of its empire. It was thus forced to rethink its colonial policy and enlist certain Creoles. Actual negotiations were entered into between the missi dominici and an elite by now structured but not yet identifiable as a saccharocracy. It was agreed that new taxes would be levied on com mercial transactions to pay for rebuilding and expanding the defensive works. In return, the elite gained three fundamental benefits. First of all, the means of very rapid enrichment through encouragement for the development of large sugar plantations. Restrictions on putting land under the plough, and most particularly on the acquisition of slaves, were lifted. Then, the elite’s aspirations regarding the formation and command of militias were likewise accepted. And finally, aspirations to noble status were fully satisfied by the distribution of Castilian titles on a scale without precedent in the history of Spain and its empire. These choices made by Charles III served a coherent purpose: increased taxes on transactions, accompanied by the development of imports and exports, generated very large profits for the State and provided the effective basis for a notable upgrading of the Cuban capital’s defences. The risk entailed in arming colonists in a fortified city was counterbalanced by the Castilian titles: pride in being an aristocrat could only blossom fully when related to a monarch whom one could call a « relative ».

4However, the practical application of these general principles was much more complex. The planters wanted to be able to procure slaves and sell their sugar outside the system of taxes imposed by the king. At the same time they were anxious to keep extending their influence in decision-making bodies and on the society of Havana. While encouraging enrichment, the monarchy sought to rein in elite political power and channel their social power. To the Captain-General fell the delicate task of controlling this elite while encouraging their aristocratic leanings, but at the same time furthering the interests of the monarchy. In acknowledgement that directives from Madrid could collide with realities on the ground, the Captain-General was allowed some latitude in the execution of orders and thus was susceptible of being influenced by the elite. He consequently sometimes earned the enmity of the financial comptroller, whose primary concern was to ensure that money reached the State’s coffers.

5The closing decades of the 18th century saw a rapid rise of Havana planters in various spheres. In Havana, families vied with one another in luxury, thus endowing the city with an unmatched architectural wealth. From Madrid they secured the creation of a Royal Consulate, an economic development body which enabled them to extend their power throughout the island. Scions of good families were to be found engaged in most conflicts of the time: against rebellious Louisiana, in the American War of Independence and in the war against republican France. Besides glory, this earned them contacts in the highest spheres and helped them to further their business ambitions. Although not involved in the destruction of Santo Domingo, they nonetheless helped to keep up the ensuing confusion and successfully profited from the disappearance of that competitor. They accumulated such immense financial power that they were able to maintain a lobby at the Court, small in numbers but very well organised, which had the ear of Charles IV and of Godoy. This explains the granting of many licences, especially regarding the importation of slaves and the exportation of sugar.

6The third part of the books focuses in the attitude of the Creole elite to the crises that shook the Spanish monarchy and were felt in Havana. In Havana in 1808, the decision not to proclaim a Junta was made by Creole militiamen and soldiers, too satisfied with the old order to wish to take the first steps towards independence. They had no difficulty in preserving the local power structure in 1812 despite the new liberal laws promulgated under the Constitution, and at the Cortes of Cadiz threats of a move for independence sufficed to enable them to carry on living in accordance with the old order.

7When he returned to Spain in 1814, Ferdinand VII rewarded the loyalty of Havana with new grants of titles and the appointment of Creoles to key positions in the civil and military administration, both in Spain and the colonies. The saccharocrats were favoured by a number of laws, particularly concerning landowning, official protection of trade until 1817, and authorisation of free trade in 1818. The taxes levied on sugar production in return were sufficient to persuade the king that he would have the wherewithal to crush his liberal enemies and control the other colonies by force. The Trienio Liberal did more harm to Ferdinand VII than to the elites of Havana: although superficially appearing to be overwhelmed to some extent, a prosopographic analysis (also taking masonic allegiances into consideration) and a study of the action of the Captain-General show that they retained the essence of their political power and their social influence. From the 1820s on, however, the group of families began to show the first signs of fragility as extremes of endogamy began to compromise generational renewal. Furthermore, sumptuary spending and the exclusive investment in the large plantations (economically delicate entities) that underwrote noble identity began to render the planters dependent on their adversaries: metropolitan traders. The latter, who controlled subsequent clandestine trade—a large proportion of the circuits of supply coming from an island that specialised in the economy of desserts (sugar, coffee, tobacco)—found their power constantly growing. It also appears that as early as the 1770s the monarchy had begun preparing for the growth of Creole power by encouraging metropolitans (who were easier to control) to take over the reins of trade, which lends some perspective to the apparent trust placed in the Havana elites.

8But for all that, Cuban money continued to fuel Ferdinand VII’s ambitions of reconquering the American territories which had taken advantage of the Trienio Liberal to set themselves free. The king’s death in 1833 and the advent of a new liberal government brought no change in the order of things. The Constitution did not apply to Cuba, and the repatriation of the Cuban liberal deputies in 1837, often viewed as a mark of authority on the part of the metropolitan power, was here interpreted as a sign of weakness given that the act was applauded by the traditional aristocracy. It is also the reason why the study stops at 1838, the year in which the Captain-General who sought to bring the saccharocracy to heel was recalled to the metropolis. These events demonstrate the strength—well into the contemporary age—of the ties between Creole power and the metropolitan power as defined under the Ancien Regime, even while the old aristocracy was losing ground and the absolute monarchy was becoming a thing of the past.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2008

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