The nineteenth century in the Caribbean

The nineteenth century in the Caribbean was marked by one disaster after another for the European colonial powers. In its opening years, France lost its highly valued sugar colony, Haiti. The end of the first decade brought revolutionary activity against Spain on the mainland, which, before the first quarter of the century came to an end, left her with effective control over only Cuba and Porto Rico, though long after independence was won she continued to refuse to admit the facts and recognize the independence of the new republics. The closing years of the century saw the last remnants of the great American colonial empire of Spain pass out of her possession. Only the British and the Dutch had at the end of the century holdings comparable in extent to those claimed at its beginning.

The Caribbean had come more and more under the control of the local populations. Haiti had proclaimed independence in November, 1803. Later the mainland colonies and the Dominican Republic followed the example. In 1899, steps were being taken to add Cuba to the list of republics and the United States, a new Caribbean power, had come into control of Porto Rico.

From a larger point of view the United States, which from this time on was to play an increasing rôle in its history, had long been a power in the Caribbean. Its interest in the independence of the Latin-American republics had been continuous from the time of their establishment. Possible European encroachments on their territories had at various periods caused anxiety to its statesmen. On a number of occasions it had sought bases in the region to strengthen the position of its navy. Isthmian questions had often claimed its attention, and Cuba, both for economic and strategic reasons, had played an almost continuous part in its foreign policy. But up almost to the close of the century no Caribbean territory had come under the American flag.

From an economic point of view the nineteenth century was on the whole disappointing. In the new republics the old restrictive policies which had held back their development vanished, and they were free to shape their own destinies. The more sanguine of the local leaders and many sympathizers in other countries looked forward to rapid advance in material development and the establishment of stable political conditions. Neither came.

Local capital was unable to undertake extensive exploitation of resources, and the markets for such tropical products as were produced, taken as a whole, did not expand rapidly or yield high profits. Foreign capital did not flow readily into countries in which the personalism characteristic of local politics destroyed the possibility of working under stable conditions.

Disturbances of the public peace discouraged immigration and enterprise and were a drag on social and economic advance. Internal division proved almost as great a handicap to progress as had been the short-sighted policy of Spain.

In the colonial areas also the economic outlook was not bright. The abolition of slavery and the consequent hard times in the sugar industry threw the British colonies into a long decline. The French colonies which were left after the Haitian revolt had an uneventful and, in even the best periods, only a mildly prosperous history. The Dutch possessions for many years were of doubtful value to the home country which found it necessary to contribute grants in aid to the local treasury.

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