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Slavery in Cuba

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Title: Slavery in Cuba  
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Slavery in Cuba

Slavery in Cuba was associated with the sugar cane plantations and existed on the territory of the island of Cuba from the 16th century until it was abolished by royal decree on October 7, 1886. More than a million African slaves were brought to Cuba as part of the Atlantic slave trade; Cuba did not end its participation in the slave trade until 1867. As the slaves outnumbered the European Cubans, a large proportion of Cubans are descended from these African slaves, perhaps as many as 60% of the population.

Slavery in Cuba was particularly profitable for its slave owners after the Haitian Revolution; after 1804 the newly independent state of Haiti retreated from the global sugar market as its residents chose to focus on subsistence farming, and Cuba took its place as the largest sugar producer. By the mid-19th century, due to the British pressure to abolish slavery, plantation owners transported more than 100,000 Chinese workers. But they were held in conditions not very different from the ones of the African slaves.


In 1762, the British army led by captured Havana as part of the Seven Years' War with France.[1] During the year-long occupation of Cuba (Spain regained the island in 1763 by exchange of Florida with the British), the British colonists expanded the plantation system on the island and imported 4000 African slaves as laborers, nearly 10% of all the slaves imported to the island during the previous 250 years.[1] The British made other changes to the institution of slavery in Cuba.[1]

During the occupation, the British freed 90 slaves who had sided with them during the invasion.[1] When the island was returned to the Spanish, colonial official Julian de Arriaga realized that slaves could become partisans of enemies who offered them freedom. The Spanish gave cartas de libertad and emancipated some two dozen slaves who had defended Havana against the British.[2] Following the example of the British occupation, the Spanish Crown increased the imports of slaves in order to keep the loyalty of European-Cuban planters and to increase the revenues from the lucrative sugar trade, as the crop was much in demand.[3]

In 1792 slaves of the French Saint-Domingue colony began a revolution on the nearby island of Hispaniola; they finally gained independence in 1804, declaring the new republic of Haiti, the second in the Western Hemisphere and the first founded by former slaves. Cuban slaveholders watched these events, but took comfort in thinking the rebellion was the result of the radical politics in France during the French Revolution, when the government had abolished slavery in the colonies.[4] As the new freedmen set up small subsistence farms in Haiti, Cuba's planters gained much of the sugar market formerly held by Saint-Domingue's large plantations.[5]

In 1803, ships carrying refugees who were white and free people of color from Saint-Domingue reached Cuban shores, fleeing the fierce violence of the revolution. Though all the passengers onboard had been legally free for years, upon their arrival the Cubans classified those of even partial African descent as slaves. The white people on the ship were allowed entry into Cuba, but those who were primarily African or mulatto (of mixed race) were restrained on the ship, which became a type of floating prison. Some of the white passengers had already claimed some of the blacks as slaves, effectively reinstating slavery on board. The refugees had sought safety in Cuba, but some found themselves entrapped by its system. Haitian women of African descent and their children were particularly subject to being impressed into slavery.[6]

“In the long run, Santiago de Cuba proved to be a receptive landing point for men and women who hoped to restore the social relations of slavery, and for their project of redefining others among the refugees as slaves. Authorized since 1789 as a port of arrival for the transatlantic trade in African captives, Santiago served an expanding hinterland of plantations producing sugar and coffee. Ships arrived regularly from the west coast of Africa, delivering bound laborers into the urban and rural economy. Men and women from Saint-Domingue [Haiti] who brought with them both financial resources and the habit of command could make a convincing case that they – and their ‘slaves’ – offered something of value to a developing agricultural export sector. Those with more-modest resources, including men and women designated as mulatos or mulatas libres, could simply point out that they needed the labor of one or two slaves in order to avoid becoming a charge on the Cuban government.”

Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, page 52

In the early 19th century, the Cuban planters, who relied almost exclusively on foreign slave traders to import slaves, closely followed the slave debates in Britain and the newly independent United States. In 1807, both Britain and the US banned the Atlantic slave trade, with the US ban taking effect in 1808.[7] The Cuban elites petitioned the Spanish Crown to create their own slave-trading company, and smugglers continued to ship slaves to the island when they could evade British and American patrols.[7] While slave trade ceased in other parts of the Atlantic, the Cuban slave trade continued until 1867: of the estimated million slaves that were brought from Africa, 85% were brought during the 19th century.[7]

In March 1812, a series of revolts led by freed slave José Antonio Aponte erupted in the plantations of Cuba.[8] After the revolts were suppressed by the local militias armed by the government, hundreds of slaves were arrested and many of the leaders being tried and executed.[9]

Unlike in the rest of the Americas, in Cuba the European-descended elite did not form an anti-colonial movement for most of the 19th century. They worried that such action would encourage the slaves to form their own revolution and were dependent on their labor at the plantations. Cuba did not gain its independence from Spain until 1898.[10]

Condition of the slaves

In 1789 the Spanish Crown led an effort to reform slavery, as the demand for slave labor in Cuba was growing. The Crown issued a decree, Código Negro Español (Spanish Black Codex), that specified food and clothing provisions, put limits on the number of work hours, limited punishments, required religious instruction, and protected marriages, forbidding the sale of young children away from their mothers.[5] But, planters often flouted the laws and protested against them, considering them a threat to their authority[5] and an intrusion into their personal lives.[11]

The slaveowners did not protest against all the measures of the codex, many of which they argued were already common practices. They objected to efforts to set limits on their ability to apply physical punishment. For instance, the Black Codex limited whippings to 25 and required the whippings "not to cause serious bruises or bleeding".[11] The slave-owners thought that the slaves would interpret these limits as weaknesses, ultimately leading to resistance.[11] Another contested issue was the work hours that were restricted "from sunrise to sunset"; plantation owners responded by explaining that cutting and processing of cane needed 20-hour days during the harvest season.[12]

Those slaves who worked on sugar plantations and in sugar mills were often subject to the harshest of conditions. The field work was rigorous manual labor which the slaves began at an early age. The work days lasted close to 20 hours during harvest and processing, including cultivating and cutting the crops, hauling wagons, and processing sugarcane with dangerous machinery. The slaves were forced to reside in barracoons, where they were crammed in and locked in by a padlock at night, getting about three and four hours of sleep. The conditions of the barracoons were harsh; they were highly unsanitary and extremely hot. Typically there was no ventilation; the only window was a small barred hole in the wall.[13]

“So the place swarmed with fleas and ticks that gave the entire work force infections and diseases”

Biography of a Runaway Slave, page 23

Gendered slavery

Gender is a lens through which slavery can be studied and understood. Cuba’s slavery system was gendered in a way that some duties were performed only by male slaves, some only by female slaves. Female slaves in the city of Havana, from the sixteenth century onwards, performed duties such as operating the town taverns, eating houses, and lodges, as well as being laundresses and domestic laborers and servants. Female slaves also served as the town prostitutes. (General History of the Caribbean, Vol III, p. 141).

Some Cuban women could gain freedom by having children with white men. As in other Latin cultures, there were looser borders with the mulatto or mixed-race population. Sometimes men who took slaves as wives or concubines freed both them and their children. As in New Orleans and Saint-Domingue, mulattos began to be classified as a third group between the European colonists and African slaves. Freedmen, generally of mixed race, came to represent 20% of the total Cuban population and 41% of the non-white Cuban population (General History of the Caribbean, Vol III, pp. 144–5).[14]

But, planters encouraged Afro-Cuban slaves to have children in order to reproduce their work force. The masters wanted to pair strong and large-built black men with healthy black women. They were placed in the barracoons and forced to have sex and create offspring of “breed stock” children, who would sell for around 500 pesos. The planters needed children to be born to replace slaves who died under the harsh regime. Sometimes if the overseers did not like the quality of children, they separate the parents and sent the mother back to working in the fields.[15]

Both women and men were subject to the punishments of violence and humiliating abuse. Slaves who misbehaved or disobeyed their masters were often placed in stocks in the depths of the boiler houses where they were abandoned for days at a time, and oftentimes two to three months. These wooden stocks were made in two types: lying-down or stand-up types. women were punished, even when pregnant. They were subjected to whippings: they had to lay "face down over a scooped-out piece of round [earth] to protect their bellies." [16] Some masters reportedly whipped pregnant women in the belly, often causing miscarriages. The wounds were treated with “compresses of tobacco leaves, urine and salt." [17]

Literary legacy

Caña (Sugarcane)

El negro
junto al cañaveral.

El yanqui
sobre el cañaveral.

La tierra
bajo el cañaveral.

que se nos va!

~Nicolás Guillén [18]

Click "show" to see the English translation for the poem "Caña."

Slavery left a long-lasting mark on Cuba and has affected current society. The Cuban literary canon, most famously in the works of Nicolás Guillén and Lydia Cabrera, has dealt with the history of slavery. Both writers were a part of the negrista or negrismo literary movement of the 20th century. This was a Hispanophone effort to reclaim Cuban blackness and connections to African culture, while expressing a new sensibility (similar to the flowering of the American Harlem Renaissance). In this effort, Guillén, Cabrera, and their contemporaries revisited and tried to make sense of slavery and the crimes against the Afro-Cuban people.


  1. ^ a b c d Childs, p. 24
  2. ^ Childs, p. 25
  3. ^ Childs, p. 26
  4. ^ Childs, p. 30
  5. ^ a b c Childs, p. 35
  6. ^ Freedom Papers, pp. 48–51
  7. ^ a b c Childs, p. 29
  8. ^ Childs, p. 120
  9. ^ Childs, p. 121
  10. ^ Childs, pp. 177–178
  11. ^ a b c Childs, p. 36
  12. ^ Childs, p. 37
  13. ^ Montejo pp. 80–82
  14. ^ Knight pp. 144–5
  15. ^ Montejo p. 39
  16. ^ Montejo p. 40
  17. ^ Montejo pp. 39–40
  18. ^ Nicolas Guillen pp. 22–23


  • Childs, Matt D. 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, ISBN 9780807857724
  • Guillén, Nicolás. “Sugarcane,” in Yoruba from Cuba, Trans. Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres. London: Peepal Tree Pres, 2005. 22–23. Print.
  • Scott, Rebecca J. and Jean M. Hebrard. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.
  • Montejo, Esteban. Biography of a Runaway Slave. Ed. Miguel Barnet. Trans. W. Nick Hill. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1994. Print.
  • Knight, Franklin W., ed. General History of the Caribbean: Volume III: The Slave Societies of the Caribbean. London: UNESCO, 1997. Print.
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