Revolutions in energy and transport


1. The Industrial Revolution takes hold in the region, diminishing mercantilism shaken by the abolition of slavery

1.1. The revolution in energy transforms means of transport

1.1.1. Steam-power revolutionises maritime transport

The use of steam-powered propulsion would transform shipping. From now on the steamship carried an array of complex machinery, necessitating large supplies of fuel and constant maintenance. Rigging was reduced, giving way to funnels which would contribute their own particular profile to the “steamers.”

The new form of propulsion freed the ship from meteorological hazards, as in the case of wind conditions. The screw propeller produced greater speed on routes that now became more direct, quicker, more regular and reliable, given that advances in metallurgy produced metal ships hulls much more robust than those made of timber. The volume of shipping grew rapidly whilst the internal layout of the ship was rationalised. The foremost use of the steamship was for the transport of travellers and carrying mail.1 These ships serviced routes with fixed ports of call, and advertises times and prices. The first transoceanic routes providing services to the Caribbean date from the middle of the century. Their ports of call depended on the ship’s flag, but two main routes became established: the first left the major European ports to service the Greater Antilles, then Mexico and later the Caribbean coast of Central America. The second route had the same European departure point but the ports of call followed the arc of the Lesser Antilles, then the northern coastline of South America. From West to East, the ships conveyed large numbers of immigrants as well as urgently needed and valuable freight for the Caribbean; on the return trip, the latter supplied sought after freight like cotton, coffee, rum, tobacco, and cocoa, depending on the amounts available. Whilst the immigrants travelled with a minimum of comfort, the other passengers represented military and civil servants, merchants, and planters accompanied by their families. The new hygiene regulations at the end of the century included enforced periods of quarantine, which lengthened the voyage and prevented stopovers en route.2

In addition to the direct crossings were the intra-regional links, servicing several islands. Sailing ships would continue in large numbers into the 20th century, if only for the transport of heavy bulk loads, and inter-island connections. Even the steamships themselves retained some partial rigging, allowing them to exploit occasional carrying winds and to economise on fuel.3

Port operations underwent major changes. Many Caribbean colonial ports were just simple beach landings from which lighters assured passage to and fro the ships anchored in the bay. Henceforth, the steamers, bigger in both length and width and drawing much more water, would soon demand the construction of landing quays, built of wood and later dressed stone. The latter would thereby alter the port hierarchy by concentrating the bulk of the essential traffic in the most important, often those of the capitals, which for military reasons were made up of both harbours and dock basins. Much delayed by comparison with European ports, their Caribbean counterparts saw their first quays equipped with crane hoists with the first storage sheds aligned alongside come later. Dockside labour had to adapt to the increases in the volumes of handled stored goods.

Steam-powered propulsion also transformed rives navigation. However, in the Caribbean, the latter was restricted to the lower courses of the great rivers of Central America, of Colombia and the Orinoco, as well as the Guyanese rivers and the lakes of Maracaibo and Nicaragua. Unlike Western Europe and North America, no navigation canals were constructed with the exception of the transisthmic Panama Canal.

Between the islands, sailing ships retained their dominance, but the geopolitical partitioning of the West Indies stimulated very little trade, other than that limited to daily foodstuffs on a few routes restricted by colonial regulations. 

1.1.2. The railway: a means of colonial conquest

During the first third of the century, the construction of the earliest railways in Europe provided one of the most visible symbols of the Industrial Revolution. This new means of transport teemed with innovation. It resulted from a new mastery of the metallurgy of iron for the manufacture of rails, and that of locomotives. The construction of a single railway-line implied heavy and costly, associated infrastructures works: bridges, tunnels,4 which facilitated the carriage of great loads of goods by the new mode of transport.

Running a railway was to manage a complex system, costly to maintain and uni-modal. Regulation of the traffic, upkeep of both track and equipment, demanded a qualified personnel with the necessary ‘know-how’ in respect of the new technology. If the construction of a railway was a far-reaching enterprise, making it function was very much another matter, certainly more complex than the old stagecoach service.

Developing a rail network quickly became a capitalistic enterprise. To pay the costs of construction, the company sought to acquire land adjacent to the railway line, in order to generate new freight to fill its wagons (see 2. The Caribbean ambitions of the United States). The railway became an infrastructural development, in turn structuring surrounding space with its stations, depots and its specialised service zones. It was a pioneering tool opening up new spaces to settlement and colonial exploitation. It became a means of distribution and supply, whether from tropical plantations, or from the mines to the ports for shipment. Accordingly, it often involved just isolated sections of railway line, usually coastal servicing Caribbean spaces whose economic extraversion had become further reinforced. The railway also penetrated the domains of the great sugar plantations.

With the railways bypassing natural obstacles, fluvial traffic could be revitalised along certain tropical rivers, despite the inconvenience of doubling charges over such routes.

Whilst railways would become the regional transport of choice for the export of tropical food products, it would also completely transform personal mobility. Above all, it was within the main Caribbean towns that tramways would be developed (Mexico, Bogota, Havana, Santo Domingo, Port-au-Prince), thereby augmenting the range of public transport available. With the first telephones and occasionally the installation of town gas supply, the Caribbean urban way of life would be transformed along the European and North American models, but almost exclusively for the benefit of the more affluent classes. A much more comfortable standard of living, the beginnings of sewage systems with better-controlled hygiene, rendered urban life just as attractive as the technical innovations that multiplied job opportunities. 

1.2. The second mining cycle of the mainland continent: Anglo-Saxon neo-colonial tutelage regarding non-ferrous metals

The second half of the century proved to the rich in fundamental technological innovations, which necessitated the use of new metallic minerals. The development of the canning industry demanded tin, progress in piped sewage depended on large supplies of lead, the construction industry required zinc and the new electricity circuits, as well as the telephone network, saw the need for copper multiply. Similarly, silver would prove indispensable in the growth of photography.

These non-ferrous minerals were found in abundance in the countries of Central America, in particular in northern Mexico. Their ambitious neighbour to the North and powerful British financial groups competed for privileged access to these subsoil riches. They possessed the capital, the necessary technology, and labour was easily recruited following the collapse of the old colonial system. After the Spanish colonial extraversion of old, there followed a capitalist neo-colonialism over which the young United States would assume control. 

2. The Caribbean ambitions of the United States

2.1. A geopolitical push across their southern frontier

After having finally pushed the British off their lands (1812), the United States would win over vast territories from Mexico (40% of the former territories of New Spain). They would purchase in addition, Louisiana from France, Florida from Spain, installing themselves progressively along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Civil War, followed by the pioneering push westwards, would detract for a time the United States from its ambitions to the South. Having once reached the Pacific, and consolidated its frontier with Canada, the United States viewed its southern border as fragile: Mexico, just coming out of a war against French intervention, and Cuba, the last Spanish Antillean colonial bastion, together with Puerto Rico. 

2.2. Multiple American interests in Mexico

The youthful embryonic capitalism of the United States strove to impose its tutelage over the riches of its neighbour. It supported the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz from 1870 onwards, which would only come to an end with the revolution of 1910. Assured of its neighbour’s political stability, the United States became interested in four major sectors. The first focused on the abundant sources of non-ferrous metals located in northern Mexico. They constructed railways linking these mines to their American clients.

The second domain related to the hydraulic resources of the rivers along the frontier that could feed the expansion of the vast cotton plantations owned by northern capital interests. The latter were also interested in Yucatan, a region poorly controlled by central government. Part of the peninsula was covered by innumerable fields of sisal serviced for export by a railway network centred on the port of Progreso.

The extensive areas of pasture across north-west Mexico were home to huge herds of cattle sold on site for the powerful agro-food industry north of the border.

At the turn of the century would be added a rich resource commanding a great future, the discovery of the Caribbean coast of hydrocarbons. First used for fuelling lamps, this petroleum would quickly find fortune with the development of the heavy fuel diesel engine. 

2.3. The United States and Cuba: from one tutelage to the other

The thirteen British colonies in America enjoyed close links with Cuba. They provided the greater part of the island’s needs and, in return, bought tobacco, sugar, and rum. During the 19th century, American investment in the island would greatly increase; it financed the mechanisation of the sugar industry, and stimulated the growth in production of cigars. The wars of independence that destabilised the island during the second half of the century found approval with the northern neighbour. The war with Spain in 1898 served only to provide an organ finale to a conflict already lost in advance by the colonial power. There the United States would put to the test their future gunboat policy exacted against the troops of marines of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. They would re-possess the last vestiges of the empire of Charles V: the Philippines in Asia, and Puerto Rico. The latter island gave them control of a major access route into the Caribbean Sea. The Platt amendment in Cuba’s new constitution (1903) afforded them tutelage over the island and the dey to the Florida Strait. In agriculture, Cuba would increase its dual ‘tobacco-sugar’ specialisation funded with North American capital, whilst the latter was also used to invest in Puerto Rican sugar. 

2.4. United States growing tutelage over Central America by developing the railway network and banana production

In the countries of Central America, strong leaders who successively assumed the reins of power would often have to impose their authority on the plantocracy of which they were not necessarily members, and which might otherwise contest their power in the name of a parliamentary system, little more than a facade. As a new leader in a new state, the ‘Caudillo’ prided himself on his modern outlook, sense of progress and openness to offers of foreign capital in return for security and the possibility of ready profit in which he himself and his loyal followers. Such a personage craved for glory and power inscribed in history. What more lasting than a railway, which from its mountain capital was linked by stint of numerous great feats of engineering design to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, ensuring his strategic sway5 over a national space without proper routes, poorly controlled and threatened by regional despotic regimes (‘caciques’).

During this period, the building of railways was the prerogative of just a few countries who possessed the necessary capital, industrial power, relevant technology and technical support. Britain enjoyed the best reputation, but the nearby United States, possessing immediate experience of their own territory, would make application to the Central American governments to undertake these lucrative contracts. Starting on the Caribbean coast, the railway headed in the direction of the capital city, whether of Guatemala, Costa Rica, or Honduras. The railway companies used the same strategy as in the westward rush in the United States. They obtained the land concession rights bordering the route of the railway. Across the hot and humid Caribbean coastal plain, they planted banana trees. Each completed section of the railway became the means of transport of a new tropical agricultural product for export to the European and North American markets.6 Thus the foundations were laid for the success of the future United Fruit Corporation, a transnational company with its American headquarters, producing bananas on its own land, on its own terms, and transported in its own rail wagons,7 then in its own company ships from Caribbean ports to those of New England where it controlled the onward trade of this fruit.

Thus these fruit companies established banana producing enclaves on the Caribbean coast with a dominantly Antillean labour force (see 2.3. The call for new immigrants - Freedom and new mobilities).These enclaves played a major role in the economies of these countries. The company directors were in every sense “kings,” but without a crown, of states that became known as “banana republics.” By establishing themselves along thinly populated and unhealthy coasts, they in part shifted the centre of economic gravity of these states by integrating them within the neo-colonial trading orbit of the Caribbean Sea.

As a tropical fruit with a fragile skin and locally consumed, the banana would become an export product involving a very long and integrated logistical chain, from the banana tree to its final ripening at its destination in the consumer state. The fruit companies owned the totality of this costly chain, which necessitated picking the fruit when still green, shipping it at a constant temperature (12 to 13° C), specialised premises in the destination port following a long sea crossing. These companies had in effect known how to create a consumer market in western countries for a fresh tropical fruit sold at a moderate price to low income families who appreciated its calorific value. Such a logistical, capitalistic supply chain could not be controlled by regional operators: it introduced a new form of economic extraversion in countries barely freed from the colonial yoke.

In parallel to this coastal neo-colonization, the interior plateaux and valleys of these countries were attracting thousands of European emigrants arriving by sea. They were at the origin of the growth of a new export crop: coffee. These “cafeteros,” peasant owners of medium-sized holdings, were distinct from the Creole plantocracy inherited from colonial times, and which it still promoted. In addition to the transport of bananas, the Mesoamerican railway companies charged for the carriage of sacs of coffee, and became in turn the vital logistical arteries of these countries, albeit remaining foreign owned. 

2.5. Foreign appetite for transisthmic projects and the victory of the United States in Panama

After the great crisis of the 1890s, capitalism would enter a new economic conjuncture. Liberal ‘free trade’ was replaced by ‘fair trade’ which reflected new imperialist frictions.8 This return of protectionism would be accompanied by a colonialist imperialism towards the Asian and African continents (Congress of Berlin, 1885), or neo-colonialist in the case of territories recently decolonized in the Americas.

Marine steam-power gave this imperialism a new naval weapon: the admirals dreamt of strategic control of the oceans based on the gunship, from now on to become an instrument of foreign maritime policy, whether British, German, Russian, French, or American. As such, the American isthmus conjured up the dream of a passage between the two oceans separated by only 80 km of land. If the strategic dimension was as old as the Spanish conquest, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution now rendered it possible. Which mode of transport should be favoured? The four “narrows’ along the isthmus (Tehuantepec, Nicaragua, Panama, and Atrato) would compete for attention during the whole of the 19th century.9 Anglo-American antagonism was settled by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850) guaranteeing the neutrality of any future passage. In 1855, the Americans built the transpanamanian railway, which would be used by the migrants ‘en route’ for the western coast of the United States. The growth of California10 implied the need for links between the two facades of what had become a ‘continental’ state. The war against Spain in 1898 demonstrated the slowness of such routes using the passage around the southern tip of the continent.11

1869 would prove a key date regarding two major events in the history of transport. Firstly, there was the inauguration of the first United States railway linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. For admirals of the fleet, this dual exposure to two oceans opened up an era of naval geostrategic ambitions as much across the Atlantic as the Pacific.

Furthermore, 1869 would see the opening of the Suez Canal, which transformed global maritime strategies by opening up a much shortened route through to the Far East, from which Britain counted on being the greatest beneficiary. This new canal also conferred great prestige onto its construction engineer, François de Lesseps, and to French technical expertise, thereby prioritising the canal option over all other modes of transport for the transisthmic route. In 1878, F. de Lesseps’ company is granted the concession by Colombia to construct a staged canal across the Panamanian isthmus. This decision is met with alarm by the United States, which supported the Nicaraguan project.

The United States would profit from the Boer War in South Africa to demand from Britain a revised Hay-Pauncefote Treaty in 1901, which awarded them the privilege of building, controlling, and maintaining all inter-oceanic canal construction in Central America without British participation. The failure of F. de Lesseps in Panama eased the way forward for the United States, who abandoned the Nicaraguan project, and bought up ‘dirt cheap’ the equipment on the French construction site. The creation of the new state of Panama coinciding with the latter’s concession of the “Canal Zone” to the United States demonstrated the importance they attached to what would become one of the world’s great infrastructural projects in maritime transport.

In August 1914, the inauguration of the Canal12 would coincide with the start of the First World War, which witnesses the tearing apart of the European powers. It symbolised the ascendency of the new conqueror of America in illustration of the old Monroe doctrine. At last, it gave the United States the final strategic key to Caribbean space resurrecting the overall Spanish approach of the 16th century. On the maritime front, only the arc of the Lesser Antilles escaped their grasp, old European colonies which given the decline in influence of their metropoles, could hardly contest the plans of their powerful neighbour to the North. 

3. Conclusion

The duration of the 19th century which for the Caribbean stretches from 1791 (Haiti) to the opening of the Panama Canal in August 1914, constitutes one of the long periods of Caribbean history, marking the entry of the latter into world history, or at least that of the western world.

The Spanish empire had disappeared from view, liberating the whole continental rim and the largest islands from colonization and slavery. The whole American continent would become free in the footsteps of the United States within this New World, the Antillean sub-region would prove the slowest to free itself. Moulded by a slave-based colonization, the islands would take more than 80 years to emancipate themselves from slavery, with the non-Spanish islands remaining as colonies of the European metropoles. However, they now represented by comparison only a small part of the new empires being created by these same metropoles in Asia, Oceania, and Africa, the same lands from which they had drained in their millions human beings to turn into Antillean slaves. The sugar islands that had so enriched their respective metropoles, would now begin their decline in search of an aleatory economic reconversion.

It was from the former Spanish empire that the first movements materialized. These young states could not imitate the federal system established by the United States: the triumph of the Creole bourgeoisies over the Spanish colonial administration, would lead to the rise of hard fought conflicts, which in turn saw the promotion of many war leaders. The latter steered these regimes towards dictatorship, albeit highly unstable socially and politically, a far cry from the system of parliamentary and presidential equilibrium achieved by their big neighbour to the North. Using the pretext of ridding the continent of all European involvement, the latter launched a policy of undisguised imperialism over the last three decades of the century. The former Spanish domain would bear the cost.

In 1914, with the inauguration of their Panama Canal, the United States effectively bolted the gates to the Caribbean basin much more effectively than had been achieved four centuries before by the Catholic kings. There were now no more buccaneers, nor pirates, in the colonial islands of old Europe.

If the colonial period saw the ascendancy of the sailing navy with its decisive sea battles, and the renewed devastation wreaked by the “sea wolves” on the colonial settlements or rich cargoes, the 19th century witnessed the arrival of the steam engine, decoupling its power in the service of human ambitions. From now on, the machine age allowed the transformation of navigation and the conquest of lands by the railway in order to satisfy the insatiable appetites of man. As in the case of the previous colonization, the latter came once again from outside the region, from Europe as immigrants, from the North as specialists and employers. In 1914, the Caribbean had changed in status, but hardly controlled its own destiny. Its ambitious neighbour to the North attempts to improve its own secure and profitable tutelage. All of which leaves the question as to whether it was to strengthen this tutelage that the new technical developments advancing spatial mobilities were introduced? 


1 From where the name ‘packet boat’ or ‘paquebot’ in French, is derived. Assigned to certain ‘lines’ or routes were the “liners.”

2 Towards the end of the century, all travellers coming from French Guiana, and wishing to put in at a port of call in the French Antilles had to undergo the full quarantine procedure.

3 The ports calls to take on coal required a large workforce, which in the Antillean islands was made up mainly of women and ‘coloured.’ For hours on end, hundreds of women trotted with a full basket of coal on their head between the quayside heap of coal and the ship’s cargo door or ‘hopper’ barge. To reach certain ports of call required hundreds of tons of fuel.

4 The tolerance of the rail track in relation to inclines was limited to 3-4% and large shallow bends, which necessitated many additional engineering design features, all the more given the diverse terrain traversed.

5 It is worth noting the major role played by the railway during the wars after 1850: the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the conflicts of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1917.

6 This promotion of the banana, till then an everyday foodstuff was the work of a team which brought together a railway construction engineer (M. Keith), a Boston banana trader (A. Preston), and a naval captain (L. Baker). The latter in 1870 had loaded for the first time a cargo of 160 bunches of bananas in Jamaica, which very quickly ran out on the North American market.

7 The International Railway of Central America (IRCA) owned several thousand km of rail track, whilst United Fruit and its rival Standard Fruit in 1914 possessed more than 36 000 hectares of land.

8 In terms of exchange, bilateral treaties were favoured, as well as any clause listing preferred nation status.

9 See article by J.-P. Chardon: Panama Canal.

10 In the middle of the 19th century, the Vanderbilt family installed a multimode transport link system following the Rio San Juan, then Lake Nicaragua, and finishing by coach as far as the Pacific Ocean to transport gold prospectors and migrants destined for California. This service came to an end in 1869 with the completion of the first transcontinental railway in the United states.

11 During this war, the battleship ‘Oregon’ took 68 days from San Francisco to reach the Antillean combat zone.

12 This canal met Theodore Roosevelt’s central wish that “we need an American canal, in American territory built with American capital.”

Author: Jean-Pierre Chardon
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith