History Department
History Department

Graduate Student Spotlight: Ernesto Mercado-Montero and Nicolás González Quintero

Tue, May 15, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Ernesto Mercado-Montero and Nicolás González Quintero
Ph.D. Candidates, Nicolás González Quintero & Ernesto Mercado-Montero

Coordinated this year by Ph.D. Candidate Eyal Weinberg, the Institute for Historical Studies' New Work In Progress (NWP) series showcases some of our current Ph.D. candidates and their research. While this year’s series has recently concluded, we are continuing to highlight our graduate students on this website with a series of Q&A articles. We will feature both their NWP papers and different stages of graduate student life post-comprehensive exams, including archival research, writing, teaching, publications, conference presentation, and job placement. Our first article features Ernesto Mercado-Montero and Nicolás González Quintero as well as their archival research.

You focus on different time periods, but both of you discuss the Spanish Antilles in your New Work In Progress papers. How did you become interested in the history of this region?

Ernesto: I think about the Caribbean beyond national and imperial paradigms. That is one of the more fascinating aspects of this zone. Perhaps my interest in this region started while I was a kid. I grew up in the Colombian Caribbean and those formative years marked my life in many ways. We are people oriented to the sea, with more cultural affinities with Cubans and Puerto Ricans than with our countrymen from the Andes. It makes sense if you see how, for centuries, the Caribbean has been a permeable region where people and ideas crossed imperial and national frontiers. The early modern Antilles were a disputed archipelago, where the Spanish, French, and English claims of possession were more a desire than a tangible reality. Take the cases of Dominica, Saint Lucie, and Saint Vincent: these islands were considered “neutral” until the late 18th century and had a diverse population of Indigenous, African descendants, and European creoles. This cultural complexity always fascinated me.

Nicolás: Well, my interest in the region started because of my sources and my dissertation topic. I am focusing on royalist exiles from the Wars of Independence in Spanish America in the 1810s, and the 1820s and several of them ended in Cuba and Puerto Rico, since both islands stayed under Spanish dominion until the end of the nineteenth century. When I started tracing the travels of these exiles, I realized how important both islands were during and after the War. Exiles as well as royalist officers and agents in the Spanish Antilles and other Caribbean islands such as Curaçao, Saint-Thomas, Trinidad, among others, played a key role during the War in the mainland. In that way, I began to be widely interested in the history of the region and the continuance of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean during the nineteenth-century, a fascinating history that sometimes is overshadowed by the end of Spanish rule in the continent in the 1820s. 

Can you tell us about your papers?

Ernesto: The paper I presented for the Work in Progress Series illustrates how the early imperial occupation of the Antilles was far more intricate than European powers simply competing to dominate this area. What I show is an inverted account of the traditional roles of colonization: Indigenous sea marauders raiding the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch outposts, imposing their spatial notions, and shaping the dynamics of occupation. This is a story of Natives with superior naval power and effective warfare tactics, a story far from the caricature of passive Indians who powerlessly witnessed European colonization. This is a story of a very violent era, but it is also an examination of the ethnogenesis and the emergence of an independent black Indigenous group at the center of the Caribbean plantocracy.

Acción del Castillo de Maracaibo (c.1840), óleo de José María Espinosa.Nicolás: My paper shows how Spanish agents, officers, and exiles built a system of communication that sought to protect slavery in the Antilles and to preserve Cuba and Puerto Rico as Spanish colonies by creating extensive networks of information across the Atlantic World. These networks had agents in the mainland, the Caribbean, and the United States. The primary interests of these networks were to prevent a republican invasion of the Spanish Antilles by collecting information on the new countries and by pumping counterrevolutionary propaganda in order to turn public opinion against the republican governments.

Image above: Acción del Castillo de Maracaibo (c.1840), óleo de José María Espinosa.

My paper also shows how imperial officers and agents mainly relied on republican print culture to acquire information and plan their campaigns. The crisis of Colombia in 1826 and the rise of royalist guerrillas in Venezuela encouraged imperial officers to launch a campaign to delegitimize the new republics. Loyalist officers misunderstood the political discussions of the new republics, especially in Colombia, and believed that the constant struggles among republicans would encourage the population to overthrow the new governments. Then, I show how this strategy was counterproductive. It did not encourage Spanish Americans to seek the return of imperial rule in the former colonies. Moreover, for Spanish officers in the metropolis, it became a threat to the Spanish Empire’s intentions to maintain its presence in the hemisphere.     

Ernesto, you highlight the Carib Indians' sovereignty in parts of the region and the many ways they employed (such as sea marauding and warfare) to protect their sovereignty among the presence of European colonial powers. How does understanding this "Carib polity," as you put it, shape our understanding of the early modern world?

That is a great question. It took me a while and a meticulous analysis of my sources to understand the political structure of this indigenous group. For example, the term “Carib” was a European-coined word, a political label to designate a constellation of autonomous and belligerent chiefdoms dispersed throughout the Antilles. They were not organized under a unique central figure of power, such as a king, but responded to particular leaders related to each other through kinship and trade networks. Their idea of a “Carib” or “Kalinago” polity emerged after the first century of contact with the Europeans. But it does not mean that these people did not have an understanding of the implication of maintaining their sovereignty in the face of European invasion. The Spanish enslaved thousands of Natives in the circum-Caribbean to work in the gold mines of the Greater Antilles and the pearl fisheries of Cubagua Island and Margarita. Inter-chiefdom alliances played a critical role in preserving the Carib liberty and autonomy. Acknowledging that these forms of political organization coexisted, and sometimes determined imperial rules, definitely raises new questions about our understanding of the early modern world.

Source: Manioc Guyana  http://www.manioc.org/  (online collection) You suggest that slavery was one way for the Caribs to establish their hegemony. Some Caribs were slave traders and some were planters. During this time, Caribs also shifted their targets from Amerindians to Africans. Can you tell us what this means to the global history and impact of slavery?

As in many other Indigenous societies in the Americas, slavery had existed for a long time before Columbus arrived at the Antilles. What we witness in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a Native engagement of colonial practices and Native slave labor to produce a surplus in staple commodities. The Caribs also targeted Europeans. Their raids on Puerto Rico, Antigua, and the Spanish missions in the Orinoco River resulted in hundreds of African descendants, Indigenous, and European captives. But slavery among the Caribs was neither immutable, nor inherited. The captives’ descendants were considered free members of the Indigenous community. Their engagement of African slavery responded more to the demographic transformation of the Caribbean with colonial dependence on the African enslaved force than any other factor. Carib slavery also integrated wider circuits of slave distribution. For example, the Dutch and the French employed Carib raiders as slave dealers to gain access to enslaved people, especially in wartime, when the Atlantic slave trade was disrupted.

Image above: Source: Manioc Guyana. (online collection)

Nicolás, in your framework on the trans-Atlantic network on communication in the nineteenth century, you included not only Europe and Latin America but also the United States as a young nation. How do you understand these connections between the Spanish empire and the new republics? How does your framework influence our understanding of the entanglement of the Americas in the midst of monumental political changes in the region?

This is an excellent question. I think that it is important to understand these connections within a historical framework of war and geopolitical interests. Imperial officers both in the metropolis and the Caribbean were widely interested in receiving information from the new republics. However, after the defeat of imperial armies in the continent, the Empire lost their most important channels of communication with the continent. This situation was not entirely new, but it got worse after the end of the War in the mainland. In this framework, the United States acquired a significant role. Merchants, both Americans and non-American, as well as exiles from the former colonies, traveled with newspapers and information from the continent to the United States. Spanish representatives in this country desperately sought information in American newspapers. Moreover, Spanish communities in the United States were also interested in publishing this information in order to defend the legitimacy of the Spanish Empire in the Americas.

I think it is important to understand that, after the Wars of Independence, the Spanish Empire maintained important ties and connections with its former colonies. Spanish officers in the metropolis and the Caribbean constantly followed the political situation of the new countries. Moreover, some exiles’ families stayed in these territories, preserving the bonds between the peninsula, the Caribbean, and the continent. In that way, I think that introducing the United States into this equation allows us to understand the entanglement of the Americas from a different perspective. Caitlin Fitz recently shows how the American public fervently followed the Spanish American Wars of Independence. The entanglement of the Americas at this moment was in part related to the constant circulation of news within the continent as well as the arrival of this information to the United States. My point is that this entanglement went beyond the War and that the American public also followed what was happening in the new republics after the defeat of imperial troops in the continent. In that way, I want to emphasize how the formation of the new republics and the extensive circulation of people and newspapers during this time expanded the connections among the Americas and the entire hemisphere. 

Can you tell us about your dissertation? How does the New Work in Progress paper fit into your dissertation?

Ernesto: The New Work in Progress Series was a great opportunity to develop some main ideas of the first two chapters of my dissertation, which is a journey in the role of the Carib people in pivotal moments of colonial Caribbean history. I examine how their intervention was critical in the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolutionary War in the Lesser Antilles, as well as how they forged independent networks of slave trade and smuggling. After decades of warfare and failed attempts at conquest, the British decided to forcefully relocate the Caribs to Spanish Honduras in 1797. Think about that. Putting some 2,600 individuals in ships and dropping them in the territory of your imperial foes. This incident is an opportunity to explore other aspects of the circum-Caribbean space, such as the smuggling networks between Honduras, the United States, and Jamaica, where Caribs and other collectives of indigenous and African descendants were active agents. This is also a story of how the late Spanish Empire incorporated foreign individuals in their militias and societies, creating new notions of citizenship and loyalty. Today, the Carib descendants are known as Garifunas. They live mainly in Central America and still maintain their corporate identity.

Nicolás: My dissertation traces an Atlantic Diaspora of loyalists that fled Spanish America during and after the Independence Wars during the 1810s and the 1820s. Running away from revolutionary violence or expelled by the new Colombian and Mexican governments, this diaspora helped to extend imperial war efforts and to strengthen Spanish power in the Caribbean during the first half of the nineteenth century. By drawing on exiles’ petitions, newspapers, letters, and political pamphlets, my dissertation seeks to reconstruct how this loyalist-anti-Republican diaspora planned recovery plans of the continent, rethought new imperial models for the Spanish Monarchy, and shaped discourses of Anti-Americanism in cities such as Havana, San Juan, New Orleans, and New York. My New Work in Progress paper fits into the first part of my dissertation, where I explore the expansion of the War in the Caribbean and the role of exiles communities building network of support and information in this area. 

You are fresh from conducting archival research. Where did you do your research last year and how long did you spend at each archive?  

Ernesto: The generous funding of the UT History Department and external fellowships allowed me to conduct research in the main imperial repositories of England, Spain, and France. I also visited archives in Guatemala, Belize, New England, and Virginia. The average in each archive was two months or more, depending on each archive’s collections. It was about a year and a half total.

Nicolás: I went to different archives during my research year. First, I traveled to Seville, where I spent three months working at the General Archive of Indies. After that, I spent two months in Madrid at the National Archive of Spain. After that, I went for two months to Havana, where I conducted research at the National Archive of Cuba and the National Library. Then, I went to New Orleans for a couple of weeks. In New Orleans, I worked at the Historical Society of the city as well as at The Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University. Next, I went to New York, where I did research at the New York Public Library for a couple of weeks. Afterward, I traveled to Puerto Rico, where I worked at the General Archive of the island. Finally, I spent three months at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. 

How did your research determine which archives to visit? How did the research and new discoveries of materials in turn shape your dissertation project? Did you discover any surprises along the way?

Ernesto: Archives are places of exploration and discovery, but also places that shape historiographies. You might have great ideas, but if you have no substantial sources to demonstrate your hypothesis you should formulate new hypothesis and questions. For me, historical research is a sweet mixture of creativity and academic precision. What started as a project examining the Caribs in the eighteenth-century Antilles and early nineteenth-century Gulf of Honduras, evolved into something more broad and complex. While in London, I noticed that most of the dynamics between Indigenous, African descendants, and Europeans were somehow present in the seventeenth century: slave trade, marronage, political alliances, etc. You need to be flexible to incorporate or discard materials. So I had another century to explore. Gladly, this occurred early on, so I was able to make some adjustments in my research itinerary.

Nicolás: Since I am exploring a transnational history, I was interested in visiting different archives in Spain, Cuba, and the United States. Spain was a vital stop. Both the General Archive of Indies at Seville and the National Archive of Spain have a lot of documentation on the Independence Wars in Spanish America and its aftermath in the Caribbean. When I went to do exploratory research in those archives during a couple of summers, I realized that these two places were vital for my research. But I was missing a more local perspective. For that reason, I decided to go to Cuba and Puerto Rico, looking to find more evidence on how local authorities interacted with exiles and how they participated in the local politics of both islands. During the research, I also noticed that exiles and Spanish communities in the United States published royalist and pro-Spanish newspapers in New York and New Orleans, especially during the 1820s. Thus, I decided to go to both cities, looking for copies of them. Moreover, the entire collection of one of these newspapers is at the Huntington Library, and I was lucky to get a fellowship there.

The archival year changed my project. The research widely expanded my scope and helped me to develop new questions about the impact of loyalist exiles not only in Cuba and Puerto Rico but also in a transnational public sphere that was producing texts on the Spanish American Revolutions. On the other hand, for me it was surprising to see royalist population support of the imperial armies as well as their involvement with the political situation of the new republics. Loyalist exiles brought both information and political expertise to the Caribbean. I also focus on how some exiles during the 1850s discussed ideas of anti-Americanism, Hispano-Americanism, and anti-republicanism in the Atlantic World. All those new paths are a consequence of my research year. 

Do you have a story from archival research that you would like to share?

Ernesto: The stories that marked me were those showing the worst and the best of the human condition, some of these aspects are universal. I remember reading episodes of extreme violence such as the British description of their military campaigns against the Caribs of Saint Vincent, the dehumanizing nature of colonial slavery, and the forced captivity and enslavement of children. But there were also histories of survival and hope, instances of solidarity between individuals from different cultures and ethnicities, African descendants fighting for their liberty, and ordinary people making the modern New World.

Nicolás: Actually, yes. I can say that I found myself in the archive. When I was in Cuba, I was checking some documents on the expulsion of non-African blacks from the island after the Escalera conspiracy in 1844. Cuban authorities feared that the presence of Spanish American pardos and blacks would encourage slave populations to organize revolts against the colonial government. In those documents, I found a sailor named Nicolás Gonzales, who abandoned Venezuela in 1801 – before the War – and served in the Spanish navy in Spain and the Americas for more than 20 years. He claimed that he was a loyal vassal of the Crown and that he did not deserve to be expelled from the island. Gonzalez argued that he was not a threat to the colonial government because he abandoned Venezuela long before the beginning of the revolution in the continent. Cuban authorities allowed him to stay on the island after his claim. 

What advice would you give fellow graduate students on doing archival research?

Ernesto: Enjoy your time in the archives. Do not put unnecessary pressure on your shoulders. If you are abroad, meet and merge with the locals, try to speak in their own language, leave your prejudices at home, and learn from the experience.

Nicolás: Be patient and be friendly. Archival research can be an overwhelming and sometimes tedious activity. But most of the time, it is a wonderful and incredible experience. For me, it was terrific to dig into the archives, trying to find new clues about my research. For that reason, it is necessary to be patient and not get frustrated if you don’t find as much as you expect in a couple of days or maybe more. I think it is also important to be open to exploring different paths in your research, even if they were not well established at the beginning. The archive is full of surprises, and it is necessary to have your eyes open to the new and unexpected sources. On the other hand, I recommend being friendly to the Archive’s staff and your colleagues. Archives and libraries are great places not only to network but also to meet new people and friends. Archival research can be a lonely experience, and it is so much better when you have someone to talk about your findings, your research, and your daily life. I made great friends during my research year, and I feel lucky to meet brilliant people who shared ideas, helped me shape my arguments, and drank a couple of beers with me after intense days of archival research.

Interview by Shery Chanis, Ph.D. Candidate, UT History Dept.

Photos at top: Left-Nicolás González Quintero in Seville, Spain, and Right-Ernesto Mercado-Montero at the San Lorenzo del Escorial monastery in Spain.

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