Documentary sources dating to the beginning of colonization in the 16th century show the arrival of black slaves in the Caribbean, and specifically in Cuba. The Indians and the blacks faced the same misfortune, and it is believed that the first escaped slaves were not blacks, but Indians. The archaeological record of these peoples is unquestionably valuable and useful and has made possible landmark findings and information of incalculable value, such as, for example, the living patterns of the slaves, funeral rituals in the 19th century, and the personal objects that people were accustomed to having with them daily and were used at the time of death.

When the colonizers settled in the New World, they first used the encomienda system, which gave colonizers control over certain numbers of indigenous people. This system worked well at first, but later the indigenous inhabitants were concentrated in what were called experiencias indias, which over time became towns such as Jiguaní, in what is today the province of Gramma, Caney, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, and Guanabacoa, in the province of Havana.

In Holguin province, there is an archaeological site called Yayal, of which only the anthropogenic layer remains. In the many excavations of the site, a series of objects from the daily lives of the inhabitants (both indigenous and Spanish) have been uncovered that show the symbiosis that must have originated with the coexistence of the two groups.

The vast majority of the black slaves from Africa that began arriving from the early 16th century on were placed in servitude, living with their owners in urban or rural houses, or sometimes in adjacent areas. It also makes sense to believe that they lived in the indigenous peoples’ housing of the era, since those sites had been previously used for the same habitation arrangements.

In later years, as the black population grew, slaves were allotted in small parcels or conuncos within the rural properties where they could place their huts, maybe plant some crops for their own consumption and raise some animals. These parcels sometimes formed hamlets that took on similarities to the indigenous settlements. The slaves’ huts were called bohíos and the central area was called a batey.

In the late 18th century, with the rise of sugar, there were three stages in the habitation patterns of the black slaves, reflected in the archaeological record, both on the coffee estates and sugar plantations. In the beginning, the owner located the slaves in a specific area of the farm and the housing was generally grouped around a plaza. The surveillance system was effective. This pattern can be seen at the reconstructed coffee estate La Isabelica in Gran Piedra, in Santiago de Cuba.

Another stage in the settlement of slaves on the haciendas during the height of the sugar era in the late 18th and 19th centuries occurred due to the increased number of workers. As a result, more surveillance was needed and the housing was redistributed based on the work patterns of the sugar plantation. The slaves’ huts were placed in a U-shaped form around a rectangular plaza with the largest hut at one end, from which the slaves, referred to disparagingly as the negrada, were controlled.

After 1830, the slaves’ housing status changed again. In the western part of the island, closed barracks with an interior patio, built of stone and lime, were constructed in rectangular form around the central patio with rooms, which were also called bohíos, on all sides. These barracks made surveillance easier. Cuban historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals calls the barracks the most extreme symbol of the barbarism of slavery – stone fortresses that became veritable jails.

There were several issues that determined the dimensions and characteristics of these buildings. The slave regulations promulgated in 1842 set defined proportions for the size of the interior slave accommodations. There were also precise rules for building this type of housing, especially in terms of securing the property they contained, or in other words, controlling the workers who lived inside. It was suggested that the barracks have just one main entrance (although the barracks at the Ingenio Taoro did not follow that advice, as it had two doors, the main one and a rear door, one for the slaves’ entrance and another for moving carts and personnel who lived there). These buildings had between 60 and 100 rooms, plus interior divisions. Inside, they were uniform and resembled a large box, with smooth stucco walls the color of lime. There was usually a second floor on the facade that was generally built of wood and was the housing for the foreman.

According to research by Pérez de la Riva, the barracks built on the sugar plantations of western Cuba may have been unique, because there are no others like them in the rest of the Caribbean, Venezuela or the United States. In those sites, housing consisted of a complex of huts or small dwellings where the slaves slept at night. One example that is similar to the barracks was the senzala brasilera, a building for slaves in Brazil, but it never had the same size as the Cuban barracks.

Even in western Cuba, where the barracks were more common, not all sugar plantations had barracks. From the archaeological work done at the Juragua barracks we can infer that the building had about 60 rooms that were approximately two meters by three meters. There was an interior latrine situated at the southeast side that was approximately four meters by five meters, putting it outside the line of the construction of the rooms. On the northeast side was the cistern, which had a capacity of approximately 14,000 gallons of potable water and was filled by a system that collected rainwater.

Archaeological work at the site was done in several stages. Initially, an exhaustive exploration was done to delimit the spaces based on the foundations. Then test wells and excavations were done in specific areas of the structure. A significant number of objects related to daily life of the inhabitants of the barracks were exhumed in these excavations, including 19th century smoking pipes, necklace beads, cooking pots, industrial pottery from the 19th century that was possibly European, glass, glass bottles and other materials.

The slave cemetery was generally near the sugar industrial setting. In 1970, for the first time in Cuba and possibly in the Caribbean, systematic and controlled archaeological excavations were done at a slave cemetery at the Ingenio Taoro, as part of a series of works done by the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. A large number of bones were exhumed and dozens of human teeth were found, including many that were filed into conical shapes, which is typical of sub-Saharan Africa. Other findings include ten skeletons that were placed in no particular order. From this evidence it was deduced that burials were done arbitrarily, with bodies placed in graves randomly. One person was buried in a space at one time, and another later buried on top of or within the same place. The graves were very shallow, indicating that the area had not been subsequently disturbed.

It was obvious that the large majority of the burials were done without coffins, with the bodies perhaps wrapped in their own blankets. In many cases, they were buried in the clothing typical of slaves and in some cases they were buried with glass beads and religious objects. Many of the artifacts found show that almost all of those buried there were African. One Asian was found.

Through archaeology, the settlements of escaped slaves have also been studied. These were sites hidden in the mountains where the ranchers and their dogs could not find them. These sites were studied mainly by Gabino La Rosa in western Cuba and by Enrique Alonso in the órganos Mountains in western Cuba. This research has uncovered metal cooking pots, rough clay pots and ritualistic beads of various kinds, objects that were undoubtedly part of the precarious lives of escaped slaves.

Archaeology shines a light on the daily lives of slaves and especially their living patterns, both in the early stages of colonization and at the peak of slavery in the 19th century, especially in the barracks and cemeteries of the Cuban sugar plantations. The information compiled and the study of personal items, which in some cases are associated with religious beliefs, is valuable and relevant information and is testimony to the cultural diversity of these peoples, both past and present.

Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: March 02, 2012.

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