It feels like a month. Fernando Pico, a well-known Puerto Rican historian, gave the keynote address. I bought his book, Historia general de Puerto Rico, on Wednesday, while visiting the Morro fortress.
Morro is a very impressive monument. It used to defend the entrance to the San Juan harbour. Visitors are told how important this particular port was to the development of the New World. The prevailing winds made Puerto Rico and San Juan the gateway to the Americas.
Pico tells a more complex story. The great Spanish fortifications in San Juan, Havana and Cartagena are signs of weakness. British and Dutch settlements from the same period lack these fortresses. Their fleets were strong enough to defend their possessions against pirates and raids from enemy nations. Costly defences on land signal weakness at sea.
Pico also shows that Puerto Rico only served as a major gateway during the first thirty years after Columbus. Commerce with America was tightly controlled by the Spanish Crown, which channeled all “legal” trade through Sevilla, and to a lesser extent Cadiz. Other ports of entry soon became more important – and Pico explains very well the interplay of causal factors – geographic, political and economic – that moved traffic elsewhere.
Puerto Rico became a place of secondary importance in the Caribbean. Less interesting as a tourist story, perhaps, but also something that gave the colony a better change of locally based development.
In this part of his book, Pico draws heavily on “Seville et l’Atlantique”, the famous study by the Chaunu’s – wife and husband – of the Spanish trade with the New World (in seven volumes). Like them Pico belongs to the Annales School of historians, probably the greatest new approach to historiography since WW2.
The Annales school stresses material and cultural causes rather than politics and persons. It does not neglect the role of individuals, but it sees individuals as shaped and entangled by contexts. We are free to act, but not free to choose the conditions under which we act – nor the conditions that shaped our own lives.
The greatest work in the Annales tradition is Braudel’s “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world under Philip II” (1550-1600 appr.). Braudel sees the Mediterranean as a whole. Pico’s book makes it clear that the Caribbean and the Caribbean world can be understood in the same way. His study of Puerto Rico is a study of Puerto Rico in its Caribbean and Atlantic context.
Like Portugal, Greece and Norway, Puerto Rico faces the sea.
- El Morro castle used to defend Puerto Rico against attacks from the sea.