Cabildos de nación were African ethnic associations created in Cuba in the late 16th century based on the Spanish cofradías (guilds or fraternities) that were organized in Seville for the first time around the 14th century. The Sevillian cofradías had the tutelage of a Catholic saint and were held in the saint’s chapel.
The first cabildo in Cuba, called Cabildo Shango was created in Havana in 1568. The first cabildo on Compostela street in Havana was built in a lot purchased in 1691 by the Arará family. The same lot is still known as el solar de los Arará (the Arará’s lot). At the time the African population in Cuba was not as significant as it was after the 19th century with the sugar boom. Cabildos were organized by slaves belonging to the same ethnic group and became very popular in the urban areas.
Benefits brought by the cabildos
Spanish legislation supported the cabildos as means of entertainment for the slave population, and as social control alleviating the tensions between the masters and the slaves. Slaves were allowed to gather on holidays so that they could dance according to the customs of their African nations...
For the slaves, the cabildo had many uses. They were able to collect money or pool resources to assist members in times of illness or death. Cabildos also had a religious purpose, they were the place where slaves could consult their deities and ancestors. For those slaves who clung to the religious traditions of Africa, a cabildo was one of the few means of succor at their disposal. The cabildo represented Africa in foreign territory that would help slaves keep alive their faith. Cabildos were institutions that made possible the conservation of the idiosyncrasy, religion and culture of the African nations in Cuba. The songs, dances, and drum rhythms that were played for African deities in a land that was so hostile to the Africans slaves were the mechanism by which slaves were able to keep alive their Africanness and resist Spanish cultural hegemony.
Tensions caused by the cabildos
White Spanish and Cuban criollos saw cabildos as an evil necessity. By the 18th century, black slaves began to worry their white masters. Articles of the 1792 Bando de Buen Gobierno y Policia address the necessity of controlling the cabildos and their members. Neighbors often complained about the discomfort occasioned by unpleasant sounds of African instruments. By the 19th century all cabildos were re-located outside of the walls of the city of Havana so that whites would not have to hear the resulting sounds from the African celebrations. For the Africans, this expulsion was an added benefit with the added degree of privacy they did not previously have. Outside the city walls, the cabildos were free, and their members had more opportunities to preserve their culture.
The decline of the cabildos
By the 19th century cabildos were practically extinct after failed rebellions by the African slaves. In 1884, the Cuban government outlawed the Epiphany, a celebration cabildos practiced for decades. In 1887, new laws required cabildos to obtain prior official recognition and licenses even though the practice of slavery had already ended. In 1888 the government forbade cabildos to be organized as they were during the colonial times and instead they had to be organized as societies following the established laws for white Cuban societies.
Names and origins of Cabildos
Slaves were differentiated by their white owners according to their place of origin, with a variety of different names that identified distinct ethnicities from Africa. The names were corruptions of traditional tribal names devised by the slave owners, but they were soon used by the slaves themselves.
|Name of Cabildo||African region of origin||Ethnic group of origin|
|Lucumi||Benin and Nigeria||Yoruba|
|Carabalis||Biafra||Igbo - Efik|
- Gott, Richard : Cuba a New History. p 47-48