“A splendid work of historical craftsmanship. In tone and content it offers a generally balanced survey of Cuban history through the end of the seventeenth century, and in this regard it promises to offer a very usable introductory text. The writing is accessible and thoughtful, organized around an informative and engaging narrative.”—Louis A. Pérez Jr., author of On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture
“This comprehensive synthesis fills an important gap in the literature on early colonial Cuba.”—Jane G. Landers, author of Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida
“A commendable and important achievement.”—Jason M. Yaremko, author of Indigenous Passages to Cuba, 1515–1900
Scholarly and popular attention tends to focus heavily on Cuba’s recent history: its notoriety as the world’s largest exporter of sugar and the Western hemisphere’s first socialist nation. Key to the New World is the first comprehensive history of early colonial Cuba written in English and fills the gap in our knowledge of the island before 1700.
Luis Martínez-Fernández presents a holistic portrait of the island nation that interrelates geography, economy, society, politics, and culture and weaves these threads into a narrative that begins with the first arrival of indigenous people around 7,000 years ago. He chronicles the conquest and establishment of colonial rule and how the island’s geographic uniqueness made it an ideal launching pad for Spanish conquests into Central America, Mexico, and Florida. While considering the role of Cuba and the Caribbean as a theater for European power struggles, he focuses intimately on the people who both influenced and were influenced by these larger, impersonal forces.
Developing the theme of “Two Cubas,” Martínez-Fernández explores the differences between the urban, official, and mercantilist Havana and the eastern frontier, which is rural, remote, relaxed, and rebellious. As colonial society emerges on the island, he highlights the asymmetrical interactions among whites, blacks, mulattos, Amerindians, and mestizos; the people who challenged the conflicting and overlapping social structures and hierarchies; and the cultural by-products of multiethnicity. He brings to life the different characters in the story of Cuba that are emblematic of creolization and transculturation in religion, food and diet, and music. He also discusses the rise of the sugar plantation as a socioeconomic engine and its reliance on the expansion of African slavery, as well as slave and free black resistance to the system.
In these often-overlooked centuries, Martínez-Fernández finds the roots of many of Cuba’s enduring economic, political, social, and cultural complexities. The result is a sweeping history, a seminal text that makes clear that to fully grasp revolutionary or contemporary Cuba we must first understand what came before.
Luis Martínez-Fernández, professor of history at the University of Central Florida, is the author of Revolutionary Cuba: A History.
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