During the era of slavery in the Caribbean, white slave owners typically separated Africans from the same nations to make it more difficult for them to communicate among themselves. Despite this, beginning in the first century of Spanish colonization and slavery of Africans in Cuba, “national councils” were formed. These councils were organizations of slaves or former slaves that were based on their ethnic or national origin. These fraternities or societies, which were called councils, were allowed by the Spaniards in Latin America and consisted of a board or an association of a religious nature. Their origin dates to the 14th century in Seville and from that time the councils were used by the authorities to control diverse ethnic and social groups in the community, in addition to promoting the Catholic religion. The first evidence of a council in Cuba was the Chango council created in 1568.

The official posts in the African councils were established in conformance with the classist social pyramid of the era. Three leaders of each sex were chosen and one of each gender was the top leader, which reflected the importance of the female presence in the ancestral customs. Members of both sexes were elected for their social prestige within the group, for having certain religious rank, and for the stature of their families. At the same time, the position conferred a kind of official recognition from the colonial authorities that they were representatives of their African national origins.

Membership in the national councils was characterized by social and economic plurality. The unifying element was that all had been slaves at one time, which led them to push for the emancipation of other slaves. The councils also collected money for times of need (hunger, illness, death). They also gave the slaves the opportunity to address their deities and ancestors, maintain their African idiosyncrasies in their new environment, including their music, dance, songs and prayers, to the rhythm of their drums.

The Spanish colonial authorities allowed the councils to participate in the Three Kings Day parade. The African organizations played their instruments and danced their traditional dances. Due to complaints from residents about the “unpleasant sounds” of the drums, the councils were located outside the city, which gave them greater autonomy in their actions because they were under less surveillance. Over the course of the 19th century, due to the constant slave revolts, regulations became ever more strict until the councils were abolished in 1888.

In the beginning, the councils grouped together slaves born in Africa and from the same origin, but over time councils were formed that included various nations and island-born slaves. After the turn of the century, the councils were transformed into cultural, political and charitable societies. It was through these organizations that Afro-Cubans defended their rights in the first half of the 20th century. Despite the fact that the councils were originally conceived as a strategy for controlling the slaves, they served as a means of cultural resistance and also contributed to the transculturation of Cuban society.

Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: December 22, 2011.

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