Between a Wall and the Sea: A New Book on Colonial Havana

Guadalupe García, Beyond the Walled City: Colonial Exclusion in Havana, Oakland: University of California Press, 2016,  296 pp., $34.95, £24.95 ISBN: 9780520286047

Reviewed by Cecilia T. Fernández, Freie Universität Berlin

Strolling through Havana’s so-called “casco histórico,” its colonial center, can be a bizarre experience: Tidy cobblestones line the streets, freshly painted facades look onto the spacious “plazas.” Amidst restaurants, cafés, and hotels, stores have emerged that sell designer fashion to no one really knows who. And yet, if one were to take a wrong turn and end up in one of the smaller side streets, the painted facades would quickly give way to crumbling walls and the famous Cuban “baches” – potholes of unpredictable dimensions.

9780520286047Since approximately the 1980s, Havana’s Oficina del Historiador has made extensive efforts to restore what is considered the core of the city’s colonial identity. However, the politics of the “city proper” are contested and the size of the funds invested in certain parts of the city is controversial given the desolate state of other areas.

In her book, Beyond the Walled City: Colonial Exclusion in Havana, Guadalupe García of Tulane University argues that these politics are influenced by the categories of intramuro and extramuro. That is to say that the part of the city that from the eighteenth until the late nineteenth century was surrounded by city walls is considered the genuine core of colonial Havana.

García traces the history of the city walls from the first discussions about their necessity in the seventeenth century to the period after their demolition. Although the walls are her study’s leitmotif, they are only a physical manifestation of García’s wider arguments. As she puts it, the walls are a “metaphor for the ways in which Spanish dominion unfolded in the region” (p. 7).

García’s main interest, then, is to examine how Spanish colonial rule inscribed itself on Havana. She seeks to add a “distinctly physical component” (p. 11) into the study of colonialism, which she considers to be more than “the institutions, disciplines, and discourses of the empire” (p. 11), but also a concrete spatial organization. According to García, the city walls and in a broader sense the city itself, were constantly transformed by changing colonial interests and preoccupations.

And the colonizers’ preoccupations were varied. Colonial existence, as García convincingly points out, was precarious. The newly arrived white residents perpetually feared for their survival, as did the Spanish Empire for its own. Thus, the construction of the wall was at least partly driven by preoccupations around the dangers of racial revolts, disease, and attacks by either other colonial forces or pirates.


One of the main streets of Havana’s colonial core, Obispo Street.

Already in the early sixteenth century, slaves began to be brought to Cuba to allow for economic expansion. Together with the small remainders of the local Amerindian population, these slaves and their criollo descendants formed a sizable and quickly growing non-white population that was soon perceived as threatening by the city’s white residents. The construction of the walls was one way to differentiate between the living areas of white colonizers and non-white residents. The mind of the early colonial settlers, so García argues, was preoccupied by “the notion that survival and civilization depended upon the exclusion of black bodies and spaces from […] urban life” (p. 41).

Concerns over hygiene and health aggravated racialized worries. Spanish incomers conceived of the land as threatening and unwelcoming to the European body. Havana in particular was vulnerable to the spread of disease due to its swamp areas and the constant flux of people from other cities, given its regional status as a port city. Black inhabitants by contrast were thought to be less likely to die from the diseases that threatened the white population. Thus, the fear of disease was linked to the fear of a racial upheaval. The walls were intended to create a space in which the colonial enterprise could be secured, separated from racial threats and the dangers of disease.

However, these preoccupations shifted throughout time. In the nineteenth century, colonial authorities felt that it became necessary to extend colonial rule to the extramuros area, which was largely populated by free inhabitants of African descent. As unrest emerged in Cuba’s Eastern provinces, the rulers feared that it would spread to the extramuros area and engulf the colony’s capital. Through policing and city planning, authorities sought to bring the area into control.

On the other hand, in the course of the nineteenth century, overcrowding in the intramuros area gradually forced the middle-class population to take up residence outside the city walls. New neighborhoods, such as El Vedado, were created to make room for wealthy criollo residents. By then, so García argues, the walls only held symbolical value, albeit one significant in determining the way in which the city was shaped in the subsequent years.

Havana 1853

The book’s argument rests on a variety of sources of both quantitative (e.g. censuses) and qualitative (e.g. novels, maps) nature. García’s extensive work in the archives of Havana certainly enriches the book, lending credence to her argument. The numerous city maps and plans included in the book as illustrations also help fulfil García’s goal of looking at the colonial city as a physical experience.

Overall, García presents a coherent and convincing narrative of the relationship between urban planning and the Spanish Empire’s political, social, and economic interests. The discourses around the construction or demolition of the city walls emerge as points of crystallization for diffusive notions of race, health/hygiene, and civilization. García’s portrayal of colonial life as perpetually precarious, while not groundbreaking, certainly does much to reframe common narratives of the colonial enterprise as one exercising complete dominion over the land. In some ways, García’s arguments feel unsurprising and common-sense. However, this might speak more to the significant gaps in Cuban urban history than to a fault in the author’s work.

Cecilia T. Fernández is a student in the MA Global History program at the Freie Universität Berlin. She specializes in Latin American history and the history of dictatorships.

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1 Response to Between a Wall and the Sea: A New Book on Colonial Havana

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

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