Franklin W. Knight’s Slave Society in Cuba During the Nineteenth Century tells the story of the rise and fall of Cuba as a race-based plantation slave society from 1763 to 1886.
Unlike the other Caribbean islands we have studied in the British and French West Indies, Cuba was a three hundred year old Spanish settler society with a strong 60 percent White majority until the late eighteenth century.
In Cuba, Whites succeeded in colonizing a tropical island because Barbados-style “sugar and slavery” didn’t arrive until centuries into the colonization process. The island remained heavily forested until the mid-nineteenth century and this provided a habitat for the birds which fed on malaria and yellow fever carrying mosquitos.
The Spanish Backwater, 1513-1763
Spanish neglect was singularly responsible for preserving Cuba’s White majority.
Until 1763, Cuba was an underpopulated backwater of the Spanish Empire. The island was dominated by huge cattle haciendas, tobacco vegas, and small towns. Neither ranchers or small tobacco farmers required huge numbers of African slaves to work on their estates.
In the sixteenth century, the Spanish had experimented with sugar plantations in Cuba and African slaves (a total of 40,000 from 1513 to 1763) had been imported to work on them. The Cuban sugar plantations of this period grew sugarcane only for domestic consumption because Brazil and the Spanish islands in the eastern Atlantic were able to satisfy European demand.
In Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, the plantation system failed to take root and ranching became the dominant economic activity – slavery persisted, but it lost its previous importance, and racial mores loosened as a consequence.
During the seventeenth century, the English, French, and Dutch challenged Spanish hegemony in the Caribbean and created the first slave societies in Barbados and the Leeward Islands. By 1700, Spain had ceded the Guianas, Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, the Bahamas archipelago and the eastern Caribbean to retain control of Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico.
Spain lacked access to large numbers of cheap slaves due to its exclusion from Africa. It was also focused on extracting bullion from its colonies in Mexico and South America and Cuba’s role in the Spanish Empire was due to its geopolitical position astride the currents of the Gulf Stream which the Spanish fleets used to sail back to Europe.
If Cuba had been seized by Britain or France like Jamaica or Saint-Domingue, it would have been transformed into a slave society much sooner. Instead, Cuba’s poverty and backwardness had kept the sugar plantations at bay for a hundred years, but not for long.
The Emergence of Cuba, 1763-1838
In 1762, the British shocked Spain by seizing Florida and occupying Havana during the Seven Years’ War. During the British occupation, 10,000 slaves were imported into Cuba. The British also poured slaves into Guadeloupe and Martinique which were seized from France in the eastern Caribbean.
The British occupation left a huge impression on Havana’s commercial elite and Charles III as well as his successors which led to a series of reforms that laid the foundation for Cuba’s emergence as a slave society in the nineteenth century:
– Cuba’s ports were opened to “free trade” in slaves.
– A royal cedula cleared the legal obstacles to real estate speculation and created a real estate market in Cuba.
– The Spanish crown sold off much of its land in Cuba to willing buyers.
– A royal cedula finally allowed private landowners to start cutting down the Cuban forests. They had been forbidden to do this because the Spanish crown owned all the timber on the island which was used to construct new ships for the Spanish fleet.
Fortuitous international events also fueled the growth of Cuban slavery:
– From 1791 to 1894, Saint-Domingue which was then the world’s largest producer of sugar and coffee was annihilated during the Haitian Revolution – many of the French planters moved their operations to Cuba.
– Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States and many of the French planters there also moved to Cuba.
– In the 1810s and 1820s, Spain lost control of its vast empire in Central and South America, which transformed Cuba into Spain’s most valuable colonial possession.
– In 1807, the British banned the slave trade and undermined the competitive advantage of their own colonies in the Caribbean which were already suffering from soil exhaustion.
From 1762 to 1838, 400,000 slaves were imported into Cuba to work on sugar and coffee plantations – the cane fields swept out west from Havana and east across the central plain, the coffee plantations colonized the eastern mountains, and the small tobacco farms were pushed back to the far west and far east.
By 1828, Cuba had been transformed into a slave society and had surpassed its competition in the British West Indies to become the largest sugar producer in the world.
The Golden Age, 1838-1866
In the 1830s, the railroad was introduced to Cuba and proved to be an instant success. In fact, the first railroad was built in Cuba before it arrived in Spain or anywhere else in Latin America.
Soon, the island of Cuba was covered in railroads weaving through the cane fields which allowed the ingenios (sugar estates) to dramatically expand their production. The railroad forced a consolidation of the already notoriously capital intensive sugar industry to the point where the optimal plantation required thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves.
By 1861, 71 percent of Cuban ingenios were also using steam powered mills to crush their sugarcane. The industrial refining process was done by a workforce of slaves (377,000 more were imported from 1838 to 1866), indentured workers, and wage laborers on Cuban plantations using the latest European technology.
Cuba soon came to be dominated by a typical West Indian-style planter oligarchy. Unlike Jamaica or Barbados though, the Cubans presided over a settler society whose demographics more closely resembled Louisiana.
Like the Deep South, Cuba was a wealthy race-based plantation slave society and a settler society. It had the same values and racial caste system as Louisiana. In Cuba, the plantation system had sharply polarized the social order along racial lines, unlike Mexico, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic.
In the late 1840s, the majority of Cubans even favored annexation to the United States as a slave state. Spanish opposition and Northern opposition to the extension of slavery defeated James K. Polk’s attempt to purchase Cuba in 1848.
As we have already seen, no Caribbean territory was more ardently desired in the Deep South in the 1840s and 1850s than the acquisition of Cuba, a society which shared our racial values, interests, and domestic institutions, unlike Vermont or Massachusetts.
The Downfall of Cuba, 1866-1886
Slavery was a success in Cuba. By 1856, Cuba was producing 4x as much sugar as Brazil, its closest competitor.
In 1861, Cuba was a wealthy island with a booming economy engaged in modern industrial agriculture. The same had been true of Barbados and Jamaica in their heyday, Saint-Domingue at its apex, as well as the American South and Brazil which were still slave societies at that time.
In stark contrast, Haiti had collapsed into an abyss of poverty after independence in 1804. By the 1860s, Jamaicans had been reduced to starvation after twenty years of free society. The sugar industry had similarly collapsed elsewhere in the British West Indies after abolition.
From 1807 to 1866, Britain waged an unrelenting war against the African slave trade. In 1817 and 1835, Spain had been forced by British diplomatic pressure to abolish the slave trade, but illegal imports to Cuba continued until the mid-1860s.
After the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain emerged as the hegemon in Western Europe, and the British forced France, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands to abolish the slave trade. The British stationed ships off the coast of Africa and Cuba to interdict slave traders.
By 1860, this form of “prohibition” had tripled the price of slaves in Cuba. The death blow to the slave trade and slavery itself though only came after the Confederacy lost the War Between the States and the Anglo-American Treaty of 1862 ended American participation in the slave trade.
Cuba was cut off from its last reliable supplier of slaves – Yankee slave traders. The Cuban planters were internationally isolated and left only in the company of Brazil among surviving slave states. The destruction of Louisiana in particular convinced Cuban planters that slavery was a sinking ship and to accept some form of compensated gradual emancipation before something worse happened to them.
In 1868, Queen Isabel II was overthrown in Spain during the “Glorious Revolution” by a coalition of Spanish liberals, republicans, and moderates. That same year – the so-called “Grito de Yara” – a liberal republican revolution broke out in eastern Cuba based on freemasonry cells.
Western Cuba was the richer section and was dominated by the sugar plantations and contained the bulk of the slave population. Eastern Cuba was a mountainous land of coffee plantations and small tobacco farms. If there is an American equivalent, it would be similar to the difference between West Tennessee and East Tennessee during slavery.
The Ten Years’ War accelerated the demise of slavery in Cuba by drawing free negroes into the conflict. Partially in order to defeat the rebel bid for British or American support, the Spanish Cortes – now under the control of liberal republicans – passed the Moret Law of 1870 which was a gradual emancipation plan that offered freedom to blacks who fought for Spain and freedom to elderly slaves and those born since 1868.
The war ended in a Spanish victory in the Pact of Zanjón which freed the slaves who had fought on both sides of the conflict. The end of the slave trade, the course of the war, and the Moret Law of 1870 cut Cuba’s slave population from 363,000 in 1869 to 227,000 by 1878.
Back in Spain, the 1870s were a time of political chaos with the creation of the First Spanish Republic which lasted from 1873 to 1874, which was followed by the restoration of the Kingdom of Spain and the creation of a two party parliamentary system that would occupy the bourgeoisie by alternating power between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party under the teenage King Alfonso XII.
In 1879, the Spanish government passed an abolition law that turned all the remaining slaves in Cuba into British-style apprentices for eight years. A subsequent royal decree in 1886 cut short the patronage system and freed the remaining 30,000 blacks.
Slavery was dead in Cuba.
The greatest flaw of this book is that it gets incredibly vague on what happened next and closes on what is obviously the most fascinating part of the story – the social and economic consequences of abolition.
Franklin W. Knight does say though that abolition “coincided with the first phase of the taking over of the Cuban sugar industry by American interests” and that some form of economic decline followed in Cuba as the price of sugar fell to new lows.
It sounds to me like abolition ruined the Cuban planters who lost their lands to their American creditors. In 1877, 82 percent of Cuban exports were going toward the United States shortly before the abolition of slavery. Regardless, I will continue my research until I have a definitive answer.
The best thing that can be said about the abolition of slavery in Cuba is that the White population rose from 41 percent in 1841 to 67 percent of the population in 1887. The black population declined in relative and absolute terms mainly due to unbalanced sex ratios on the plantations.
Cuba, the last major slave society in the Caribbean, which like all the other slave societies in the Golden Circle (Dixie, Saint-Domingue, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, Guadeloupe, etc.) was destroyed by metropolitan Whites in the name of liberal republican ideology, at least came through the process in better demographic shape than any of its neighbors.