DORADO, Puerto Rico — When Europeans first invaded the Caribbean beginning in the late-15th century — more by chance than by design — devastation soon followed. Local populations were decimated by diseases from another world, and native people’s doomed attempts to repel the fearsome strangers met with only more death. Within two centuries, the slave trade was flourishing as European ships sailed to the west coast of Africa laden with manufactured goods to be bartered or sold for slaves captured by African traders for transporting to the Caribbean as plantation labor. The fruits of slave labor, including cargoes of rum and sugar, sailed back to Europe, completing the deadly triangle.
Yet the Europeans — Spanish, British, French and Dutch — eventually also brought with them the earliest urban settlements in the region, graced with imposing civic and residential architecture, which endured and became hallmarks of Caribbean island nations. To guard the new towns and military installations, spectacular fortifications were constructed.
It may seem paradoxical, but small Caribbean island states, most of which gained independence (or at least substantial autonomy) in the 20th century, have adopted this landscape as their own and been strong protectors of these historical sites. Given the small scale and populations of the island nations, the region has an impressive number of World Heritage Sites: 19 of 131 of them scattered across Latin America, according to Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The list includes both cultural and natural sites “of outstanding universal value.”
The Caribbean island nations are not alone in their stewardship of the colonial past. In Asia, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have been preserving or restoring colonial-era hotels, even while promoting the construction of new ones. Vietnam brought back French experts to work on once-grand buildings that had deteriorated. The derelict landmarks of Yangon, the old Burmese capital known as Rangoon, are looking for saviors. India’s impressive hilltop government center, the wide Raj Path that leads to it and the residential neighborhoods around it are all British creations that have become symbols of Indian power.
The Caribbean heritage sites have proved to be important to tourism, a major revenue earner in the economically fragile island region, drawing cruise ships on port calls and land-based travelers who spend more time and money. In this context, the opening of more travel to Cuba from the United States after an agreement to upgrade relations between the two countries is bound to bring new attention and income to the Cuban sites. There are nine of them, the largest number in any Caribbean nation.
Cuba’s best-known urban attraction is Old Havana and its fortifications. Constructed by the Spanish beginning in 1519, Old Havana, the historical heart of the modern city, is distinguished by its classical urban plazas and buildings of outstanding merit. “Its overall sense of architectural, historical and environmental continuity makes it the most impressive historical city center in the Caribbean and one of the most notable in the [Americas] as a whole,” a Unesco citation says.
Like Cuba, Puerto Rico was claimed and developed by Spain, which ceded both islands to the US after the Spanish-American War in 1898. (Cuba was given its independence four years later; Puerto Rico remains an autonomous US commonwealth territory, with Puerto Ricans holding American citizenship.) Unesco recognizes the entire area of San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, as an historic zone.
The island was pivotal to the security of the Spanish colonies and, with Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, had the first municipal governments in the hemisphere. It was, and still is, awash in fortifications. The El Morro fortress, on a rocky headland overlooking San Juan Bay, is widely considered to be the best example of Spanish colonial defensive military design.
Puerto Rico is also awash in strip malls with US mainland fast-food franchises, but that’s another story. Old San Juan, however, has retained and protected its historic character, with narrow cobblestone streets and imposing public and residential buildings, many now painted in bright Caribbean colors.
While many of the World Heritage Sites around the Caribbean are linked to Spanish colonial history, there are also British and Dutch historical monuments and exceptional natural areas under protection. In Barbados, a former British colony, the capital, Bridgetown, and its garrison are on the World Heritage list. Belize has its Barrier Reef Reserve System. The picturesque Dutch-style inner city of Willemstad and its harbor in Curaçao, still a Dutch possession, are among the protected historic sites.
The countries that have grown from their colonial beginnings in the Caribbean have changed in many ways over the years. Immigration has brought people from East Asia and troubled parts of Europe. Afro-Caribbean people, most descended from slaves, form major parts of island populations and are integrated into many families. “Here, we are all mix and match,” a Puerto Rican designer said.
Enrique Vivoni-Farage, associate professor of architecture at the University of Puerto Rico and director of its architectural archives, has written extensively about attempts early in the 20th century to “Americanize” Puerto Rico, without great success. For example, there was the misguided effort to introduce the Mission-style architecture of the American Southwest and California on the assumption that since it was also Spanish in cultural origin it would work in Puerto Rico. It didn’t. In the end, what emerged from various ideas tried out in Puerto Rico was “Puerto Ricanness,” Vivoni-Farage wrote.
There are some gaps to be filled in the Caribbean. Memorializing the dark days of slavery could be strengthened, an international review of Caribbean sites found in 2013. Regional nations have been discussing action plans for the decade ahead, linking capacity building for preservation’s sake with the future of sustainable development. At the same time, Unesco is leading a campaign to bring the opinions of more local people into the designation and protection of World Heritage Sites. The ideas they have about what history should be preserved and protected could be surprising, and perhaps more reflective of contemporary thinking about the colonial past.