Slavery in Cuba

Slavery in Cuba

The African culture is deeply embedded in the modern history of the Caribbean and began with the adoption of an economy based on sugar cane production and modeled after the system implemented by the Portuguese in Brazil, known as the plantation system. Under this system, enslaved black Africans were used as labor. It is estimated that some 12 million enslaved Africans came to the Caribbean between 1650 and 1850.

It was a traumatic experience. Although there is some debate about the treatment the slaves received from the British, French, Spanish and Dutch, or about how some empires were more “benevolent” in their treatment of slaves than others, the reality is that it was a totalitarian system in which the most common way blacks escaped their oppression was through suicide. More slaves committed suicide than escaped or rebelled. The only slave revolt that proved successful in the more than 200 years that slavery lasted in the Caribbean was the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. Slavery was an experience that also left an imprint on the collective consciousness of the descendants of slaves that continues today.

In the period following the abolition of slavery, the populations of African descent in the Caribbeanislands faced many problems. In general terms, the former slaves and their descendents refused to accept work on the plantations (even when paid) or any other kind of work that resembled the power structures of the plantation, which were characterized by servility by blacks toward whites. The plantation owners were therefore forced to import workers from other parts of the world, especiallyChina, India, Indonesia, and even Africa, to meet the labor needs that the blacks refused to fill. This created an economic problem (as shown by the high rates of unemployment) that many territories with large African populations had to face. Even today, with the growth of the tourism industry, the role of blacks in work that involves serving the tourist population, which is mainly white, has been problematic. In fact, this is one of the reasons that some scholars who study tourism have called the industry the “new plantation.”

Meanwhile, many territories faced a dilemma: How to achieve a national reconciliation between blacks and non-blacks, or how to integrate the African heritage into the construction of a national identity? The black experience was also traumatic because slavery had erased any hint of cultural ties to Africa. During the slavery era, Africans were prohibited from speaking their first languages, practicing their religion or staying in communication with their families in Africa. In the post-slavery era, the African descendants found it was impossible to construct a family genealogy or determine which African region or tribe they were descended from, or establish any ties of identity to Africa beyond the mere color of their skin. This deep sense of emptiness did not allow them to establish the basis for a native identity. It was a situation in which black history was, as writer Derek Walcott described it, a “shipwreck in ruins.” Beyond skin color, the few vestiges of ties to the ancestral African cultures that survived, almost miraculously and inexplicably, were related to musical and religious heritage, although they had been altered by syncretism through the experiences of the diaspora and contact with other cultures. Religions such as Vodou in Haiti or Santeria in Cuba and Puerto Rico survived this way. They are syncretic religions that mix Christianity with elements of African religions. Musical traditions, mainly those related to the playing of drums, also survived by fusing with European dances that were in style in the era, such as the quadrille, contredanse, waltz or the mazurka, which the slaves integrated into their musical traditions. Thus emerged a range of syncretic musical and dance genres: the danzónsonguaguancómambo, cha-cha-cha, merenguebachata, calypso and even reggaeton.

Meanwhile, with the abolition of slavery, many of these territories (even those that had not achieved independence) began to build national identities in which it was essential (there was no way around it) to incorporate the African cultural heritage. In the Greater Antilles, the contributions of the African culture to the national imaginary were perceived in limited terms and almost exclusively as contributions to the national music. The important exception in this case was the Dominican Republic, due to its struggle for independence from Haiti, which developed a national identity that denied its African heritage. The region known today as the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti) remained part of Haiti after the Haitian Revolution in 1803 but it became involved in a war against the Haitian government that led to its independence in 1844. In the war of 1844, the pro-independence Dominicans tried to gain the support of European nations and the United States with the argument that it was a war of whites against blacks, or of civilization against barbarism. From this experience emerged a national imaginary in which the African element on the island was located exclusively in Haiti and the region that we know today as the Dominican Republic consisted mainly of people of mixed race whose dark skin was due to their indigenous heritage, not African heritage. This led Haitian historian Jean Price-Mars to declare that the pro-independence Dominicans suffered from “collective bovarism” (“bovarism” referred to the character of Madame Bovary in the novel by Gustave Flaubert of the same name) for believing they were not black. In the Lesser Antilles, on the contrary, the vast majority of the population is of African descent, so the national imaginary was built on a strong African base. The only exceptions are the territories such as Trinidad and Tobago or Suriname, where immigration from India after the abolition of slavery created a different racial balance in the population that significantly reduced the African percentage.

But perhaps the most problematic legacy of slavery, or at least the one highlighted by intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century, is the psychological legacy. The 1950s saw the emergence of intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, both from Martinique, who were interested in the psychological effects of the experience of slavery some one hundred years after its abolition. Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks, presents a highly critical and pathological view of the colonized subject, especially Caribbean blacks. Fanon, a psychiatrist by profession, talked of inferiority complexes, a predilection for whitening measures and a desire by black men to become white. “What the black man desires,” Fanon told us, “is to be white.” The very title of the book reveals its intention, the black man disguised by a white mask because he wants to be white. In the introduction to the book, Fanon wrote that the black man needs to freed, but freed from himself. The debate spread from Martinique to the intellectual circles in Paris, as his work coincided with another related work that came out five years after Fanon’s: The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) by Tunisian writer Albert Memmi. Similar to Fanon, although based on the experience of his native Tunisia, which became independent in 1957, and on the other wars of independence that occurred in that era, Memmi also offered a pathological view of the colonized subject and identified as a central pathology a kind of suffering he called “dolorism,” the tendency to exaggerate pain. The colonial experience was traumatic and unjust. The whites were to blame, or history. But the end of the colony required that the colonized subject, now independent, put the experience behind him and look toward the future. And that, according to Memmi, was not what was happening in Tunisia or in any other independent Arab country. On the contrary, the political experience following independence was the appearance of tyrannical and corrupt governments that impoverished the people, and anarchy. The colonized subject remained anchored to a relationship of psychological interdependence with the colonizer. Once freed, the man who had been exploited under the colonial system, Memmi concluded, became the exploiter himself. This position was very controversial, clearly conservative and reflected a great disappointment with the direction the anti-colonial movements of the left had taken. This critical view of the colonized subject has always remained, in one form or another, as a legacy in all of the subsequent academic writing in the Caribbean.

Tun tun de pasa y grifería

Tun tun de pasa y grifería

In the 1930s and 1940s, the first movements to reassess and value African culture emerged in the Caribbean, though they were mainly literary movements, specifically in poetry. Curiously, it was poets from the Greater Antilles, the islands where the African race was more diluted, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, who were the leaders of this movement in the Caribbean. Nicolás Guillen emerged in Cuba with his books of poems such as Motivos de son (1930), Sóngoro cosongo (1931) and Poemas mulatos (1931), all of which were part of what came to be known as “negroide” poetry. In Puerto Rico, Luis Palés Matos emerged onto the scene with books of poems in the same genre such as Tuntún de pasa y grifería (1937). In the French Antilles, the “negritude” movement emerged in the same era as a reaction to cultural imperialism from Paris, led by poet Aimé Césaire of Martinique and León Damas of Guyana. Although not often recognized as direct influences, these Afro-Caribbean literary movements were a historical antecedent to the poetic and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, which was also conceived as a literary movement to revalue black literature in the United States. This movement originated in the late 1920s and was also led by poets such as Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson.

The movements revaluing black culture in the Caribbean took a political turn with the appearance of Marcus Garvey. In 1914, Garvey, who was Jamaican by origin, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a pan-Africanist movement that proposed uniting all blacks in the Americas under one country in Africa. This repatriation of blacks to the African continent would come to be known as the Back to Africa movement. In 1916, Garvey moved to the United States, where he played a leading role in the Harlem renaissance and what was generally known as the “new awakening.” There he founded the first chapter of UNIA outside of Jamaica. In the United States, Garvey also founded the Black Star Line, a shipping company for the purpose of providing transportation to Africa for all blacks that voluntarily wanted to go. UNIA identified the Republic of Liberia in southwestern Africa as the site for founding the new country consisting of former slaves and their descendants. The site was ideal because since the 19th century, the American Colonization Society had promoted repatriation of freed slaves to Africa, which began to take form in 1822 with the founding of the Republic of Liberia in Africa. From its name, Liberia (which means land of the free), to the flag and the form of government, the new country reflected the American experience of its inhabitants and of the diaspora. From the beginning, there was friction between the native population and the recently arrived former slaves, which considered the former to be uncivilized and ignorant. The country has had a tumultuous history from the beginning, mainly marked by conflict between the Liberian-Americans who settled along the coast and the native Africans, who lived in the country’s interior. In recent times, the country experienced government coups in 1980 and 1985, a high level of governmental corruption, rigged elections, and more recently, two civil wars, from 1989 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2003, all of which have taken a toll of some 200,000 people dead and many people displaced.

In any event, Garvey’s project was carried on by a strong Rastafarian movement that emerged inJamaica during the 1930s, which was also based on a philosophy of returning to Africa. This movement rapidly spread throughout the Caribbean until it became the most representative effort to revalue the African heritage in the greater Caribbean region today.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: June 10, 2012.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.