Slavery, a system that played a leading role in the Caribbean, led to one of the largest migratory movements in history. The existing documentary evidence indicates that the first shipment of black Africans to the Americas occurred in 1518, while the final one took place some 355 years later, in 1873. During those 355 years, the forced movement and trade in slaves took place. It is estimated that over that period, around nine and a half million black Africans arrived to be used as manual labor in the main agricultural industries of the Caribbean islands: sugar, coffee, tobacco, indigo, cotton and cocoa.

Among these industries, however, it was sugar that was responsible for 65 of every 100 black Africans who were imported. The setting for this was the plantation, a site destined to be the starting point for growing, processing and exporting sugar cane, as well as the scene of the interwoven relationships between slave owners and slaves. The plantation was a site where exploitation of humans and exploitation of the land were paramount.

In fact, the plantation is the scene that characterizes the historical past of the Caribbean islands. Therefore, most of the shipments of slaves landed on the Caribbean islands, and not on the continents. The interests of landowners in the two parts of the region were considerably different. Those differences began in the 16th century when the mineral resources of the Caribbean islands and the indigenous population that could be used as labor were used up. These were the only two possible exports from the Antilles. This led to the Antillean economy based on monoculture, primarily sugar. An example can be found in the text Grandeza mexicana by Bernardo de Balbuena. In it, Balbuena details the situation and needs of his viceroyalty, which, unlike the Caribbean islands, did not lack labor because in the continental areas the indigenous communities had not been exterminated. Additionally, his business was not focused on exporting sugar, as in the Caribbean islands, but rather on mining precious metals. For this work, a system similar to slavery, called mita, was used.

Through mita, the Spaniards forced the indigenous people into a rotating system of forced labor. The work, like that of the slaves, did not have an ending date. However, an important factor differentiated the two systems: mita depended on the labor of the indigenous people that already lived in the region when the Spanish arrived, while slavery depended on the importation of huge numbers of workers from Africa.

By the end of the 18th century, dependence on slave labor by the large landowners in the Antilles was solidified with the growing demand from new European consumers for the products produced by the plantations. From that time on, a distinction could be made – as Benítez Rojo would say – between the plantation and the Plantation. The plantation was smaller in size and its production was much more modest than the enormous Plantation, which tried to meet the needs of a growing market. The demands of the world market created the need to provide the Caribbean plantations with huge numbers of slaves. The colony of Saint-Domingue (called Haiti since its independence in 1804) under French control was the best example of this decisive moment in the history of the Caribbean. In La isla que se repite, Antonio Benítez Rojo describes numbers such as “792 sugar mills, 197 million coffee trees, 24 million cotton plants, nearly 3 million cacao plants and 2,587 indigo factories.” It took 63% of France’s ships to transport the merchandise generated by this impressive battery of plantations to the home country.

Statistics from the 1789 census of Saint-Domingue show the direct relationship between the merchandise exported and the slaves imported. While the population of whites, mixed-race people and free blacks barely reached 70,000, the slave population rose to 452,000, or in other words, 90% of the total population. Development of the sugar industry clearly depended on the slave trade. The English colonists clearly understood from early on how this interdependence worked, as stated in The Present State of the Sugar Plantations consider’d: but more especially that of the Island of Barbadoes (1714) : “These two forms of trade — are cause and effect, and one cannot subsist without the other. If the colonists lack a supply of blacks, they cannot produce sugar […]” The scene in Cuba, one of the leading islands in sugar cane production, gives a clearer idea of the situation. According to historian Hugh Thomas, in 1748 the English South Sea Co. of Jamaica, a slave trade business, sold 3,700 blacks in Havana in just 18 months.

These statistics do not provide a clear picture, however, of the living conditions of the slaves on the plantations. Slavery created a social class structure whose contradictions and arbitrariness were carried to their most basic expression: an enormous mass of unpaid, abused, forced laborers, with a deplorable quality of life, with unmet food and health care needs, without access to education, homes or family, went out into the fields to work in the sun to meet the demands of a small group of owners with unlimited power. For the owner, a slave was nothing more than production machinery and, in the case of the women, reproductive machinery that could create more slaves. The minimum amount possible was invested in slaves to make the business more profitable.

The productivity and stability of the business depended on the owners keeping the slaves in prison-like conditions, unable to communicate. These measures were intended to prevent the Africans from forming emotional, cultural or identifying ties. When slaves were purchased, the owners were careful not to buy slaves from the same family or tribal origin. It was also unacceptable for slaves to marry without the prior consent of the owner. At the same time, the few slave families that formed under the system of slavery were under the constant threat of being permanently separated and they could not form family hierarchies.

The Catholic Church also participated in cementing the stability of the plantation through “domestication” and Christianization of slaves. The text Explicación de la doctrina cristiana acomodada a la capacidad de los negros bozales (1823) by Nicolás Duque de Estrada shows how the church approached the task of converting to Christianity the African slaves that neither spoke nor understood Spanish and who already had religions of their own that they brought with them across the Atlantic. Explicación de la doctrina cristianaestablished a comparison between God and the slave owner that tried to make the difficult aspects of the Christian faith accessible to the slaves’ level of understanding by using references with which they were familiar. There was a purpose behind the use of the God/owner vocabulary that went beyond promoting the understanding of theological concepts, however. Through strategic use of the language of catechism, the system of slavery centered on the plantation was confirmed and reproduced.

With the inequality of the slaves and free humans, Christian rhetoric defended slavery in the Spanish Americas as part of divine will, while advocating resignation toward their situation by the slaves and offering death as the only possible way to achieve freedom and spiritual salvation. Many slaves, at least those who were lucky enough to receive some monetary remuneration for their work, tried to buy their earthly freedom first, or to buy freedom for their children. Unfortunately, in most cases, the savings from an entire lifetime of sacrifice and work was not enough to pay the high cost of freedom.

Other slaves chose to flee the plantation, but almost all of them were hunted down by the foreman or farm manager – the person who was in charge of the plantation and ensured compliance with the rules that governed the behavior of the slaves – workers, and dogs specially trained for the purpose. When a slave was captured after fleeing, he suffered numerous punishments and tortures specifically designed to dissuade him from trying again. A slave who escaped was called a cimarrón. It is said that communities of cimarrones settled in the mountains of the islands. Of course, escaping the plantation was considered a serious crime, as it was seen as a robbery committed against the landowner: if the slave fled, he stole the body that served as a working tool and that had been legally purchased.

Lacking family, leisure time, private property or the concept of personal wealth, the slave’s view of the world was reduced to the context of the plantation with its cane fields and his hut. But it is precisely this view of the world that we aspire to understand better. This history has always been told from the perspective of the white Europeans while the slaves’ perspectives were repressed because they did not know how to read and write, because they did not have the means to tell their stories, and because their version, under the system of slavery, did not matter. There are few texts that record the historical views of the slaves. As a result, much of the knowledge and many stories were lost forever.

Despite all the above, there are still two essential texts: Autobiografía by Juan Francisco Manzano, which he wrote himself, and Cimarrón, historia de un esclavo, written by Miguel Barnet and based on his conversations with Esteban Montejo. These texts not only serve to bring us closer, in some measure, to the knowledge and stories of Juan Francisco Manzano and Esteban Montejo, but they also serve as a refrain to be used by writers, artists and cinema directors in the Caribbean to imagine or think of the slave through cultural memory. The testimonial novel, closely tied to the genre called slave narratives, records the life of the slave as a protagonist and narrator, instead of a working object.

Autobiografía by the Cuban Juan Francisco Manzano was written at the behest of Cuban intellectual Domingo del Monte, who eventually helped free the slave. Manzano’s text brings the life experience of the slave, described and written by the slave himself. His text surely served as inspiration for Anselmo Suárez y Romero, who wrote Francisco, el ingenio o las delicias del campo, published in 1947. In both books, the historical account by Francisco and the fictional novel of the other Francisco, the memory of suffering plays a very important role. The characters in both books show a sadness and melancholy that cannot be erased because of the memories of the ordeals suffered under the slave owner’s rule.

It is important to remember, after all, that the two texts are essentially different because the slave himself wrote one while the other was an imagined and appropriated version written by a modern-day Cuban. Manzano’s is a text that aims to be a document. A text that does not try to “paint” customs, but rather to tell facts. In contrast, the text by Suárez y Romero seeks the affectation and makeup that are characteristics of fiction. The gap between the two is evidence of how far apart are the experiences of the slave and the white Cuban.

These experiences, of the slave and of the white man, come together in Cimarrón, historia de un esclavo. This testimony is based on an encounter that Barnet had in 1963 with a former slave. Barnet met the last surviving cimarrón in the Americas in Cuba. Esteban Montejo, then 103 years old, had fled to the mountains of Las Villas province. Over the course of more than three years, Barnet wrote down the story of his life in chronological order and wrote it with documentary and literary force while trying to preserve the flavor and color of his subject’s language. A unique and unrepeatable document, Cimarrón tells how hard the life of a slave was, the work on the sugar cane plantations, of the customs and ceremonies of the Afro-Cuban religions prior to the War of Independence from Spain.

While the book represents a contribution of incalculable value to the study of slavery and the plantation, it is also important to remember that in Barnet’s text the voice of the slave is mediated and enhanced at the author’s discretion. Esteban Montejo’s testimony passes through the filter of the values of the ethnologist, essayist and novelist. Perhaps all of that contributes to the richness of the text. In the end, this cultural and racial mix, inherent in Barnet’s text, is that which, undoubtedly, characterizes and enriches the Caribbean.
Author: Thelma Jiménez-Anglada
Published: December 20, 2011.

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