Cuba’s Prolific Slave Trade
Like other Caribbean Colonial era lands, Cuba participated in prolific slave trading that seemed to expand most dynamically in the 19th century. Every element of Cuban life and culture has been impacted by the more than one million slaves that were brought to and traded in the island nation. Slave trade magnified in the mid-19th century even as debate raged about whether to end the disgraceful practice of slavery. 85 percent of the slaves brought to Cuba arrived in the 19th century.
Slave trade was rooted in the country’s giant sugar industry. But, every nation who ruled Cuba permitted and contributed to the history of slavery. Slavery was finally abolished in Cuba by royal decree on October 7, 1886. The violent, inhumane, subjugation of African slaves scarred Cuba and other colonies that adopted the practice. Today, 60 percent of the current Cuban population are descendants of slaves. Even as slave trade was abolished, greedy plantation owners recruited more than 100,000 Chinese field workers and held them under slave-like conditions.
The British led the cry to end slavery but Britain was as guilty of slave trade atrocities as any other nation. Slavery first arrived on Cuba’s shores during the expansion of sugar trade in the 16th century. It would be 400 years before slavery was outlawed. During that time, there were rebellions and constant flights to freedom by the slave population. Cuba’s mountains and caves became favorite hiding places where entire communities sprung up to shield escaped slaves.
Treatment of the slaves can only be described as brutal. Child labor, prostitution, wretched living conditions, disease, whipping and mental abuse were commonplace. Slave conditions on the plantations around Trinidad were especially severe. The plantation owners benefited from the famous tower overlooking the valley where slaves worked and their escape efforts for miles could be observed.
When Britain’s George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albermarle, captured Havana in the Seven Years War, Britain immediately tried to increase the sugar output. Keppel brought in 4,000 slaves during the one-year occupancy. At the time, the British brought in what amounted to 10 percent of the entire slave population up to that point.
Julian de Arriage a Spanish military office, came to realize that slaves would fight for whoever promised them a path to freedom. About 100 slaves were pardoned and freed after they rebelled and resisted the British in Havana. However, the Crown was under pressure to control the landowners and especially the wealthy white sugar plantation owners.
A revolution by slaves in Haiti in 1791 virtually shut down the sugar industry there. As a result, the Cuban sugar industry exploded as the country became the largest sugar producers in the world, a status it would defend staunchly. The irony was the phenomenal wealth of the plantation owners and the criminal poverty suffered by the field workers.
Santiago de Cuba was a preferred destination for slave traders. The big, protected port was easy to access and as Cuba’s largest city and capital, Santiago de Cuba developed a prolific slave trade industry. Ships arrived from Africa’s coastal water regularly. Many of the slaves died along the way. The ships arriving in Santiago provided field workers for plantations across the country.
The most important slave rebellion was led by Jose Antonio Aponte in March, 1812. Plantation owners began to see the handwriting was on the wall. The government armed local militias to put down the rebellion. The leaders were captured and shot.
In 1789, Spain implemented reforms for improvements to the living and working conditions for slaves. Most sugar plantation owners saw the reforms as weakening their control and ignored the changes. If anything, whippings became more commonplace and the slightest infraction could lead to months in shackles.
The slaves lived in giant barracoons. Workers were only permitted between three and four hours sleep during harvest season. Conditions were disgustingly unsanitary, lacking ventilation, unbearably overcrowded and extremely hot. Slaves on plantations were carefully selected for indiscriminate breeding. If the woman had an unfit child, she was sent back to the fields immediately.
Female slaves were especially prone to physical harm. Females sewed, cooked, tended for plantation owner children, worked the fields, were forced into prostitution, and subjected to the same lashings as men. It was a brutal existence that no person should have to endure.