Sustaining an Empire
I followed an unconventional path to Venezuelan history while a graduate student at the College of William and Mary, where I benefitted from a small PhD program linked to a rigorous community promoting scholarly innovation at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. I was immersed in comparative and transnational histories of colonialism in the Americas. Most importantly, I came by incredible faculty support and mentorship and received a Fulbright to Venezuela where I conducted my research while auditing courses at the Universidad Católica Andres Bello in Caracas. My timing was fortunate.
I'm particularly drawn to history at the end of the eighteenth century because the period marked the transition from colonialism to the age of emancipation and abolition in the Americas. My interest in cross-cultural interactions and trans-local connections initially led me to investigate what trading with the early United States brought about in Iberian America during the Age of Revolutions.. I knew that commerce was the origin of Latin America’s earliest relations with Anglo-America. I also knew that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had dramatically increased the Spanish Empire’s reliance on neutral US traders to maintain its seaborne commerce. So I embarked on a study of neutral trade and pursued an examination of the economic, social, and political functions it served through a Venezuelan case study.
I was impressed by decades of historical scholarship that, over the last century, had examined Pan-American and Inter-American relations. I was also influenced by the “transnational turn” and struck by the resurgence of Pan-American history in the early 2000s. As I began my research in 2009, I learned how the Pan-American intellectual project had been wedded to US diplomacy and deeply influenced by Latin America’s foreign relations. It was easy to detect the political purposes and ideological biases behind much of that scholarship. Knowing just how intertwined the Pan-American historians had been with the US State Department, I was skeptical that they had examined the whole story of early “hemispheric relations.” Moreover, I questioned why certain regions like Chile and Argentina had received significant attention while Venezuela had been ignored. Early US newspapers showed clearly that the Caribbean was the site of the most frequent, extensive, and intense trade between Spanish America and the United States. I saw that new scholarship was appropriately focusing on Cuba while Venezuela, the next busiest site of inter-American trade remained inexplicably overlooked.
Researching in the Venezuelan archives was especially illuminating. Not only did I learn more about how colonial Venezuelans had relied on neutral trade to export tropical staples. I also discovered that neutral US traders had imported prime necessities that literally fed urban populations experiencing food insecurity during political tumults. Shipping interruptions and food shortages worsened an already difficult situation during which Spanish colonial and imperial rule in Venezuela was endangered by slave rebellion, foreign invasion, and republican revolution. The papers of the Caracas Intendancy revealed that neutral US traders were literally sustaining Spanish colonialism and imperialism in Venezuela.
That slave trading was among the special privileges and monopolies that US merchants received in Venezuela was most surprising to me, however. I discovered details about the asiento or slave trade in Venezuela that received little or no mention at all in the scholarship. It was illegal for US citizens to participate in the slave trade and the most interesting US merchant in Venezuela, a Philadelphia named William Davis Robinson, hid that fact about himself. My book shows how the slave trade in Venezuela ended abruptly because of an internal conflict within the colonial administration that resulted from Venezuelan elites’ vigorous opposition to Robinson’s monopoly and their demands for a free slave trade. Robinson became a prolific author and authority on the Spanish American revolutions after 1810 while he pressed claims with the Spanish Crown for the financial losses he suffered upon the termination of his commercial monopolies. He never mentioned in his writings that he had bought and sold hundreds of enslaved Africans, however.
My book’s principal takeaway is that trading with the United States could be used to preserve imperial rule and maintain colonialism during the Age of Revolutions. And yet I hope readers also see that transnationalism is not just a scholarly hermeneutic but a historical force. The inhabitants of capital cities, port towns, and coastal hinterlands inhabited a world that was simultaneously local and trans-local in the late-eighteenth century. This was a fact of life for them. They experienced historical events and developments that pushed previously unconnected regions together in unforeseen ways. People commonly identified as cosmopolitans and provincials all reacted to historical forces that were not proximate to them in either time or space and sought to control and influence the consequences.