One traditional imbalance in the historiography of colonial Spanish America is the emphasis on the political and socioeconomic empire. Consequently, this study of the operation and impact of colonial institutions in a peripheral and relatively neglected area of the empire is welcome. Trinidad possessed neither mineral wealth nor sophisticated aboriginal cultures with which to attract large numbers of Spanish settlers. It was mainly a military base from which expeditions ventured forth in search of the fabled El Dorado. The crown did little to encourage investment in human and financial resources on the island until the administrative reorganization of the empire in the late eighteenth century. This book describes in abundant detail the characteristics of aboriginal culture and the impact of Spanish colonization schemes from 1498 until the island was seized by the British in 1802.

In Trinidad the Spanish encountered an aboriginal Arawak culture of between 20,000 to 30,000 people, who lived in relatively egalitarian sociopolitical and kinship structures. However, military conquest and the introduction of institutions for social control eventually produced demographic and ecological disaster which modified aboriginal lifestyle and culture, and sharply reduced the indigenous population. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Spanish colonial presence accelerated the eradication of the patterns of Indian subsistence economy and stimulated its replacement by the overt exploitation of agricultural and animal resources. Newson, as a geographer, contributes a detailed and valuable perspective on the drastic changes which took place in the island’s ecology and ecosystem.

Newson’s analysis of the culture–contact process permits subtle comparisons with the colonial structure in core areas of the empire. Much of her discussion centers on Spanish institutions that were imposed in Trinidad but which operated differently there than in the highland cultures of Mexico and Peru. One finds here, for example, an opportunity to relate the impact of two different institutions, namely encomiendas and missions, on the same aboriginal culture and in the same spatial environment. In Trinidad, where few organizational structures existed in the aboriginal culture to act as barriers to acculturation, that process was nevertheless restrained by the introduction of both these institutions of social control.

Historians will view with interest the author’s use of archival material in Seville, Caracas, and London as well as the presentation of substantive archaeological and ethnological evidence. She has provided valuable appendixes on aboriginal groupings, Indian settlement patterns, and species of flora and fauna. The importance of the study, however, resides in her interdisciplinary treatment of a topic which would appear to have endless ramifications for the historiography of Spanish colonialism.