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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Cuban Abolitionism in Atlantic Context

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Cuban Abolitionism in Atlantic Context

The gradual demise of slavery in Cuba has been a topic of persistent interest among North American scholars for its early parallels and later divergence from the US experience of slave emancipation. Much of this work has set out to examine a profound paradox in Cuba’s history: at the same time as slavery came under increasing scrutiny in much of the Atlantic world following the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) and the British Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807), Cuban slavery thrived and expanded, just as it did in the United States, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico. Studies of abolition in Cuba initially approached this problem by focusing on the antagonistic roles played by Spain in resisting the end of the trade and Britain in imposing an end to the trade. Arthur F. Corwin’s Spain and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 1817-1886, which offered one of the first English-language monographs on Cuban abolition to use Spanish sources, charted the series of breached treaties signed between Spain and Great Britain to end Cuban slavery. In Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874, Christopher Schmidt-Nowara likewise charts the ways developments in Spain and interactions between Spaniards and Cubans shaped the emergence of abolitionist sentiment in Cuba. Similarly, Odious Commerce: Britain, Spain, and the Abolition of the Cuban Slave Trade by David R. Murray foregrounds British pressure as paramount for the eventual turn toward abolition in Cuba. Luis Martínez-Fernández’s Fighting Slavery in the Caribbean: The Life and Times of a British Family in Nineteenth-Century Havana charts precisely this emerging divergence in sensitivities toward slavery among Cubans and the British.

While much of the work on abolitionism in Cuba has centered on European influences, more recent interest in black Atlantic narratives of freedom and abolitionism have emerged. Rafael Marquese, Tâmis Parron, and Márcia Berbel, for example, compare proslavery arguments in Slavery and Politics: Brazil and Cuba, 1790-1850. In Disease, Resistance, and Lies: The Demise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Brazil and Cuba, Dale T. Graden argues that the threat of resistance from enslaved people combined with the scourge of infectious disease as well as the anti-slaving activities of Great Britain to help bring the slave trade with Cuba and Brazil to an end.

The centrality of the Haitian Revolution to the development and eventual disintegration of slavery in Cuba also offers a powerful counterpoint to conventional European-centered narratives of abolitionism. Even as transnational abolitionism began to take root among some circles in Cuba and the broader Atlantic World in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, powerful forces also clung to slavery with all their might in Cuba. Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, by Ada Ferrer, analyzes the way the Haitian Revolution led to a retrenchment of slavery in Cuba. Sibylle Fischer offers a parallel argument through the analysis of literary production surrounding the Haitian Revolution. In Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, she argues that the literary erasure of Haitian revolutionary anti-slavery efforts helped constitute Western (including Cuban) modernity. In hemispheric context, Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo also charts the impact of the Haitian Revolution on race relations in the Americas in Black Cosmopolitanism: Racial Consciousness and Transnational Identity in the Nineteenth-Century Americas. Through a close reading of black literatures, she argues that black intellectuals in the United States, Cuba, and the British West Indies elaborated their own ideas about the Haitian Revolution in response to the anxieties it caused among their white counterparts.

Other works have highlighted the transnational dimensions of the search for freedom and belonging by families of African descent. Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hebrard’s Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, an excellent example of innovative transnational scholarship, traces multiple generations of a family in their journeys from St. Dominque to Cuba to Louisiana to Europe. Similarly, in “We Are Who We Say We Are”: A Black Family’s Search for Home across the Atlantic World, Mary Frances Berry traces the transnational journeys, including travels from St. Domingue to Cuba, one black family made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cuba’s stubborn preservation of slavery made the island a natural ally of its powerful neighbor to the north, the United States. Indeed, by the 1850s, as slave owners in the US South sought to expand their power in the federal government, they looked to Latin America—particularly Cuba—as a source of that power. Filibustering expeditions seeking to annex slavocratic Cuba to the United States would help southerners bolster slavery in their own country. In No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States, for instance, Stephen Chambers charts the multitude of groups of people who straddled Cuba and the United States during an age of slavery and expansionism. In Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States, Rodrigo Lazo examines the writings of Cuban exiles in the United States to reveal a transnational literary culture undergirding broader debates about the future of Cuba during the tumultuous mid-nineteenth century.

Beginning in 1868 with the outbreak of the first anticolonial war, Cuban independence fighters blazed the trail for abolition. By 1870, the Spanish government inaugurated the Free Womb Law, which spelled the beginning of the end of slavery on that island, culminating in 1886 with the death of the apprenticeship system instituted just six years earlier. This more peaceful approach to abolition has attracted curiosity from North American scholars who implicitly contrast it with the US experience, where the end of slavery was drawn in blood. Rebecca J. Scott’s foundational text on Cuba’s gradual transition from slavery to free labor, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899, distinguished her as one of the field’s leading scholars and forged a path for a newer generation of scholars of abolition and freedom in Cuba. In Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro, Camillia Cowling shows how enslaved women used the courts to vie for freedom for themselves and their children. These studies of abolition demarcate one of the bookends of scholarship on nonwhite peoples in colonial Cuba, highlighting the significance of the end of slavery for the end of Spanish rule in Cuba. Studies of the postemancipation period and the process of decolonization are the focus of the next section.

Works Cited