The earliest known explorer to the Connecticut coastline was a Portuguese captain, Estevam (Estevao) Gomes de Santo (name changed in Spain to Esteban Gomez). Gomes sailed with Ferdinand Magellan and returned on a mutiny ship. Although he was imprisoned in Spain until Magellan’s remaining crew testified to the horrors of the trip, he was given command of an exploratory Spanish voyage to the northeast coast of the New World in 1524.2 Commanding the ship La Anunciada, Gomes produced the most accurate known maps of what became the New England coastlines. Gomes’s descriptions and maps were documented by Diego Ribero,3 and his records were used by Humfray Gylbert (Gilbert). After the initial European territorial disputes4 over the colonization of Native American lands in New England, and specifically Connecticut, British domination prevailed by the 1700s. The circuits of trade between Europe, the Caribbean, and New England, especially at port centers such as New London, New Haven, and Bridgeport, served as important places for interaction for British commerce. The sea trade of rum, molasses, tobacco, sugar, and slaves was an important part of Connecticut’s early history.
Once England declared sovereignty over the Connecticut colony, foreign ships were forbidden to land except in distress. Such was the case in an instance in 1752, when damaged Spanish ships loaded with gold, silver, indigo, and other precious cargo were basically shipwrecked at New London. Although the case surrounding the ship itself is the focus of the pamphlet (Mather Hooker, 1934), the fate of the crew probably the first Spanish-speaking migrants into the New London region and an intriguing unnamed personality referred to as a Spanish Jew who serves as a local translator, represent the first known instances of Spanish-speaking migrants into the Connecticut region.5
The Connecticut colony was deeply engaged with the West Indies trade (over 43 percent of cargo in 1769). Connecticut shipped livestock, packed meat, poultry, flour, wood, and cheese, principally to the ports of Barbados,
Antigua, Turks Island, Saint Kitts, Saint Martin, and Saltanilla. Molasses, tobacco, sugar, and rum were the principal imports. With only a brief decline during the disruptions in trade during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Connecticut continued to strengthen its trade ties with the West Indies during the nineteenth century.6
Because tobacco became an important product in trade and labor involving Connecticut, it receives special treatment here. Tobacco is one of the defining commodities for the history of Connecticut Latino populations. Tobacco was cultivated along the Connecticut River Basin by Native Americans long before European colonization, but the demand for tobacco both within the colony and in England grew quickly during the seventeenth century. It appears that as the tobacco industry grew and consolidated, particularly during the nineteenth century, federal taxes on tobacco became an important source of revenue for the U.S. government. Whereas the southern tobacco industry was directly connected to slave labor, in Connecticut the industry appears to have depended on new migrants and, within this group, on children and women laborers for processing.
A hallmark event in the history of relations between the Caribbean and Connecticut occurred when the Spanish ship Amistad, which, bound for Cuba with illegally procured slaves from Mendeland (Africa), was escorted into the New London harbor by a U.S. ship in 1839. The ensuing trial of the slaves who had rebelled against their Spanish captors engaged and mobilized the abolitionist movement in Connecticut and centered Connecticut within a national debate about slavery.7 Although the slave trade was abolished in England and the British Colonies in 1807 and in Mexico in 1829, the Spanish Caribbean colonies, as well as the United States, continued to depend upon this institution until late in the nineteenth century.8
Despite the relationship between slavery and commodities, trade between Connecticut and the Caribbean continued to flourish. The trade connections between Puerto Rican and Connecticut ports may have involved direct migration from both Mayaguez and Ponce to New Haven, Connecticut. An example of migration is evidenced by the wealthy Puerto Rican family of Jose de Rivera San-jurjo, who established an elegant residence in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1844.9
Connecticut soldiers were directly engaged in the war with Mexico (declared in May, 1846) with recruits in the First and Second Artillery regiments as well as the infantry. The Ninth Regiment (the Irish Brigade) specifically served in the war with Mexico. An important figure in the political history of Connecticut, Major Seymour, was directly involved in the invasion of Mexico City and led one of the charges on the Castillo de Chapultepec. He later returned to Connecticut to become governor in 1850. Later in the nineteenth century (1898), Connecticut soldiers serving in the First Connecticut National Guard were deployed to fight in the Spanish-American War, which resulted in the acquisition of Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States.
Although a few elite Latin American and Caribbean students attended Yale University during the 1800s, it is believed that most migrants to Connecticut were a result of trade relations. It is unclear exactly how many people of Latin American and Caribbean origin lived in Connecticut during its early history, but the 1870 census illustrates that migration had already begun.10 Ship records from Connecticut ports provide a rich record of passengers and trade relations. Several records show transport of Puerto Ricans to New Haven, specifically.11 Perhaps surprisingly, New London County recorded the largest number of people (169) from the Atlantic Islands, presumably the West Indies, in Connecticut.12 The relationship between the Atlantic Islands and Connecticut is perhaps best reflected in the documentation of the importance of trade in rum and sugar. The Connecticut economy in general, and the ports and rivers in particular, focused on the trade in rum, dry goods, tobacco, and sugar.13
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