Slavery in Cuba

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An enslaved Afro-Cuban in the 19th century.

Slavery in Cuba was a portion of the larger Atlantic Slave Trade that primarily supported Spanish plantation owners engaged in the sugarcane trade. It was practiced on the island of Cuba from the 16th century until it was abolished by Spanish royal decree on October 7, 1886.

The first organized system of slavery in Cuba was introduced by the Spanish Empire, which attacked and enslaved the island's indigenous Taíno and Guanahatabey peoples on a grand scale. Cuba's original population was eventually destroyed completely, partly due to this lethal forced labor throughout the course of the 1500s.[citation needed]

Following the native genocide, the Spanish were in need of new slaves to uphold their sugarcane production. They thus brought more than a million African slaves to Cuba. The African slave population grew to outnumber European Cubans, and a large proportion of Cubans today are descended from these slaves - perhaps as much as 36% of the population.[dubious ]

Cuba became one of the world's largest sugarcane producers after the Haitian Revolution and it continued to import African slaves long after the practice was internationally outlawed. Cuba would not end its participation in the slave trade until 1867, nor abolish slave ownership until 1880. Due to growing pressure on the trade throughout the 19th century, it also imported more than 100,000 Chinese indentured workers to replace dwindling African labor.[citation needed]


Chattel slavery of people of African origin was introduced to Cuba by the Spanish in the 16th century, in order to provide free labor to establish and maintain sugarcane plantations on the island. In 1740 the Havana Company was formed to further stimulate the sugar industry by encouraging slave importation into the colony, although it was unsuccessful.[1][dubious ]

In 1762 the British Empire, led by the Earl of Albemarle, captured Havana during the Seven Years' War with Spain.[2] During the year-long occupation of Havana and the surrounding regions, the British expanded the plantation system on the island and imported 4,000 slaves from their other possessions in the West Indies to populate the new plantations. These 4,000 slaves formed nearly 10% of all the slaves imported to the island during the previous 250 years.[2] The British also freed 90 slaves who had sided with them during the invasion, in recognition of their contribution to the Spanish defeat.[2] Spain regained control of the British-held regions of Cuba in 1763 by surrendering Florida to the British in exchange.

Given their role in the Seven Years' War, Spanish colonial official Julián de Arriaga realized that slaves could become partisans of foreign nations which offered them freedom. He thus began to issue cartas de libertad and emancipated some two dozen slaves who had defended Havana against the British.[3] The Spanish Crown increased the imports of slaves in order to ensure the loyalty of European-Cuban planters and to increase revenues from the lucrative sugar trade, as the crop was in high demand in Europe by this time.[4]

In 1792 slaves of the French colony of Saint-Domingue began a revolution on the nearby island of Hispaniola. In 1803, ships carrying both white European and free people of color refugees arrived in Cuba from Saint-Domingue. Though all the passengers on board had been legally free under French law for years, and many of the mixed-race people had been born free, upon their arrival the Cubans classified those of even partial African descent as slaves. The white passengers were allowed entry into Cuba while African and mulatto passengers were restrained on the ships. Some of the white passengers had additionally claimed some of the Black passengers as slaves during the journey. The women of African descent and their children were particularly subject to being pressed into slavery.[5]

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 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.[6]

The Haitians finally gained their independence in 1804. They declared the new Republic of Haiti, making it second Republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first founded by former slaves. Cuban slaveholders watched these events closely, but took comfort in thinking the rebellion was the result of the radical politics of the French Revolution, during which the French government had abolished slavery in the colonies before attempting to reintroduce it shortly afterwards.[7] 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.[8] As sugar expanded to dominate the economy in Cuba, planters greatly expanded their importation of slaves from Africa. As a result, “between 1791 to 1805, 91,211 slaves entered the island through Havana”.[9]

In the early 19th century, the Cuban planters, who relied almost exclusively on foreign slave traders to import slaves, closely followed debates on abolishing slavery in Britain and the newly-independent United States. In 1807, both Britain and the United States banned the Atlantic slave trade, with the British ban taking effect in 1807 and the American ban taking effect in 1808.[10] Unlike in the rest of the Americas, the 19th century European-descended Cuban elite did not form an anti-colonial movement. They worried that such action would encourage their slaves to revolt.[11] Cuban elites petitioned the Spanish Crown to create an independent Cuban slave-trading company, and smugglers continued to ship slaves to the island when they could evade British and American anti-slavery patrols around West Africa.[10]

In March 1812, a series of revolts led by freed slave José Antonio Aponte erupted in the plantations of Cuba.[12] After the revolts were suppressed by the local militias armed by the government, hundreds of slaves were arrested, with many of the leaders being tried and executed.[13]

By 1817, Britain and Spain were making a concerted effort to reform their diplomatic ties and negotiate the legal status of the Atlantic slave trade. An Anglo-Spanish treaty in 1817 formally gained Spanish agreement to immediately end the slave trade north of the Equator and expand enforcement against illegal slave ships. But, as recorded by legal trade documents of the era, 372,449 slaves were imported to Cuba before the slave trade legally ended, and at least 123,775 were imported between 1821 and 1853.[14]

Even as the slave trade ceased in other parts of the Atlantic, the Cuban slave trade continued on until 1867. The ownership of human beings as chattel slaves remained legal in Cuba until 1880. The slave trade in Cuba would not systematically end until chattel Cuban slavery was abolished by Spanish royal decree in 1886, making it one of the last countries in the Western Hemisphere (preceding only Brazil) to formally abolish slavery.[10].[1]

Condition of the slaves[edit]

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 Code), 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.[8] But planters often flouted the laws and protested against them. They considered the code a threat to their authority[8] and an intrusion into their personal lives.[15]

The slave owners did not protest against all the measures of the code, 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 Code limited whippings to 25 and required the whippings "not to cause serious bruises or bleeding".[15] The slaveholders thought that the slaves would interpret these limits as weaknesses, ultimately leading to resistance.[15] Another contested issue was the restriction of work hours "from sunrise to sunset." Planters said that during the harvest season, the rapid cutting and processing of cane required 20-hour days.[16]

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.[17]

“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[edit]

Cuba's slavery system was gendered in 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 were also forced to serve as sex slaves in the towns. (General History of the Caribbean, Vol III, p. 141).

The society was patriarchal, which provided a framework for projecting gender roles on enslaved peoples. Just as the concept of male domination through ‘machismo’ solidified, the concept of 'marianismo'[18] was associated with the position of free white women. Machismo and marianismo are two sides of the same coin: the white Cuban male was expected to express dominance in ventures within public spaces. Marianismo embraces the notion of private space for a woman's nature, such as through motherhood and elevating the honor of the householder. During this period of time white women dealt with submissive tools to use “modesty (or virtue)” in their favor.[18][page needed] Though gender roles predominated in enslaved peoples' labor, historical narratives have been interpreted in traditional ways to highlight the role of male slave resistance while occluding that of enslaved women. Further studies show us that the relationship between gender and slave revolt was complex. For instance, the spark for the La Escalera conspiracy—though marked in the historical record as due to an enslaved woman's betrayal—reveals more about the lived realities of machismo:

As December 1843 drew to a close, an enslaved woman in the Sabanilla district named Polonia Gangá shocked her master with the information that his prized sugar property was about to be engulfed in open rebellion… But commencing the story of 1844 at the moment of Polonia’s declaration also necessarily equates a woman’s betrayal.[19]

Machismo remembers this betrayal as the only possible reality for enslaved women's participation in insurrection. This is due to the association of rebellion with aggression and aggression with masculinity. But despite enslaved women being viewed through this limiting lens, these women were known to have played a key role in resistance. One of the most famous women slave resistance leaders was Carlota from 1843, who led a rebellion in the Triunvirate plantation in Matanzas, Cuba.[20] She is considered one of the pioneers in women's fight against slavery. There is an incident which was portrayed and occurring in the public eye nearly a hundred years later since Pepe Antonio[21] in addition to the other slave resistances led by men. This gendered perspective is also seen not only in rebellions, but in resistance, such as through oral histories and newspaper advertisements about female runaway slaves.[22]

As in French colonies, some enslaved Cuban women gained freedom through relationships with white men and having their children. As in other Latin cultures, there were looser borders between white men and 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, the free mixed-race people began to constitute another class between the ethnic Europeans and mass of African slaves. Freedmen or free people of color, 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).[23]

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 offspring of “breed stock” children. The children sold for around 500 pesos. The planters needed children to be born to replace slaves who died under the harsh regime, but they also needed to continue importing slaves from Africa, as had been the case in Saint-Domingue. Sometimes if the overseers did not like the quality of children, they separated the parents and sent the mother back to working in the fields.[24]

Both women and men were subject to violence and abuse. Slaves who misbehaved or disobeyed their masters were often placed in stocks in the boiler houses, where they were abandoned for days at a time. Such punishment was documented as long as two to three months. These wooden stocks were made in two types: lying-down or stand-up types. Women were punished even when pregnant. When subjected to whippings, they had to lay "face down over a scooped-out piece of round [earth] to protect their bellies."[25] Some masters reportedly whipped pregnant women in the belly, often causing miscarriages. The wounds were treated with “compresses of tobacco leaves, urine and salt," traditional remedies developed by the slaves.[26]

Literary legacy[edit]

Caña (Sugarcane)

El negro
junto al cañaveral.

El yanqui
sobre el cañaveral.

La tierra
bajo el cañaveral.

que se nos va!

English translation

The Negro
bound to the canefield.

The Yankee
above the canefield.

The earth
beneath the canefield.

seeps out of us!

~Nicolás Guillén[27]

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

Slavery left a long-lasting mark on Cuba and has affected current society. Nicolás Guillén and Lydia Cabrera have dealt with the history of slavery in their literary works. 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 (it was a movement similar to the flowering of the American Harlem Renaissance in New York). Guillén, Cabrera, and their contemporaries revisited and tried to make sense of slavery and the crimes against the Afro-Cuban people, as well as celebrate the people who had survived and created their own culture.


  1. ^ a b "Sugarcane and the growth of slavery". Britannica. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Childs, p. 24
  3. ^ Childs, p. 25
  4. ^ Childs, p. 26
  5. ^ Freedom Papers, pp. 48–51
  6. ^ Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, Harvard University Press, p. 52
  7. ^ Childs, p. 30
  8. ^ a b c Childs, p. 35
  9. ^ Willis Fletcher Johnson. The History of Cuba, Volume IV, B.F. Buck Incorporated, 1920.
  10. ^ a b c Childs, p. 29
  11. ^ Childs, pp. 177–178
  12. ^ Childs, p. 120
  13. ^ Childs, p. 121
  14. ^ Humboldt, Alexander. The Island of Cuba, New York: 1856, p. 221.
  15. ^ a b c Childs, p. 36
  16. ^ Childs, p. 37
  17. ^ Montejo pp. 80–82
  18. ^ a b Franklin, Sarah L. Women and Slavery in Nineteenth-century Colonial Cuba. Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora: 1st Edition. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012
  19. ^ Finch, Aisha K. Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844, Chapel Hill: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
  20. ^ Houser, Myra Ann. “Avenging Carlota in Africa: Angola and the memory of Cuban Slavery,” Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, Feb 13 2015.
  21. ^ Editores de redacción Tiempo21. “Pepe Antonio, el primer guerrillero cubano, a 250 años de su muerte,” Tiempo21. Julio 7 2012.
  22. ^ Lina Rodriguez. “Free Cuba: Runaway Slave Advertisements from Colonial Havana,” The Appendix. July 9, 2013.
  23. ^ Knight pp. 144–5
  24. ^ Montejo p. 39
  25. ^ Montejo p. 40
  26. ^ Montejo pp. 39–40
  27. ^ 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. Hébrard. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.
  • Montejo, Esteban. Biography of a Runaway Slave (1966). Ed. Miguel Barnet. Trans. W. Nick Hill. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1994. Print. (First published in Spanish in Cuba, and in English in the UK in 1966)
  • Knight, Franklin W., ed. General History of the Caribbean: Volume III: The Slave Societies of the Caribbean. London: UNESCO, 1997. Print.