Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean

Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean

Cuba was one of the first American colonies to which African slaves arrived due to the early extinction of the indigenous population, submitted to a brutal exploitation by the colonizers in their search for gold; and the growing necessity of conquering new lands in the continent.

Slaves from Africa began to be introduced towards the end of the 16th century. The colonizers brought small groups of African slaves through the Real Compañía de Comercio de las Indias, while making sporadic purchases from English slave traders. However, soon these amounts became insufficient due to the development of large sugar and coffee plantations.

The demand for labour grew, and slaves became necessary in hundreds of sugar mills and coffee plantations that had begun to emerge throughout the entire island. The largest concentration of slaves occurred in the sugar-growing areas of the Havana-Matanzas plains and the coffee-growing mountain ranges of Sierra del Rosario in Pinar del Río, and in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in the eastern area. Slave labour was used not only in plantations, but also in the construction of roadways and railroads, warehouses; and in domestic chores, among many other occupations.

It is rather an impossible task to determine how many slaves came to our shores in a period of almost four centuries, taking into account that the sources are not always very reliable, and also that it was impossible to register the practice of slave contraband, above all after 1820, when an Anglo-Spanish treaty put an end to the slave trade. To give an idea of the extent of such trade in Cuba, we may say that between 1817 and 1820 more than 90 thousand slaves[1] were imported. Slavery is held to have been officially abolished in Cuba in 1886, one of the last territories to do so in the region.

This great amount of slaves from various ethnic origins had a massive impact on the colonial society, to which they contributed their labour in the plantations but also their language, religious beliefs, music and temperament. And this is how we arrive at the complex transcultural process that gave birth to the Cuban nationality, a blend of the Spanish and the African mainly.

Apart from the work in plantations and mining, slaves were essential in construction; bearing in mind the shortage of colonists during most of the colonial period, the building of a system of military fortifications that protected the island against the attacks of corsairs, pirates and enemy states for centuries would have been impossible without the presence of African slaves. Their labour was also crucial in the construction of roads, aqueducts, the patching up of city streets, in port activities and even in animal husbandry.

The accurate assertion by Cuban anthropologist and historian Fernando Ortiz that Cuba would not be Cuba without the negro, apart from acknowledging the African cultural heritage as a vital share to our identity, evidenced his early dedication to the research of such legacy and its undeniable contribution to Latin American and Caribbean historiography and ethnology, through an insightful assessment of our national reality.

Taking one of the main programs of The Slave Route[2] project as a basis, memory sites are those buildings and places that are an authentic testimonial to the tragedy or those that have been conceived with the purpose of preserving an associated historic memory.

The extensive historical research carried out in Cuba for more than a century in this field has been supplemented with archaeological efforts.

¨the possibility of using archaeological sources in the study of slavery in Cuba is a great novelty and allows us to admit or deny facts that are occasionally open to misinterpretations because of the lack of documents or because they do not show the real facts¨[3]

Archaeology’s contribution is not only relevant from the point of view of anthropology, but also from social and cultural viewpoints, shedding light on the ways of life, habitat, traditions, religiosity and rebelliousness of the slaves.

The results of the archaeological campaigns carried out in the coffee plantations of Angerona, El Padre, Sierra del Rosario, the Taoro sugar mill, in San Isidro de los Destiladeros in the Valle de los Ingenios and the coffee plantations of the Cuban East bear the imprint of experienced young researchers that have allowed us to have wide variety of material evidence of the events.

Thanks to the research efforts of highly regarded scientists like Gabino La Rosa Corzo, Fernando Boytel Jambú, Lourdes S. Domínguez, and Enrique Alonso; young researchers such as Lisette Roura Álvarez, Yaumara López Segrera and Jorge Garcell Domínguez that followed their examples, and with the institutional support offered by the Archaeology Department of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, the Office of the Curator of the city of Santiago de Cuba, the Cuban Institute of Anthropology and the National Council of Cultural Heritage, among others, today we may outline important aspects such as the evolution of the slave dwellings through the years and the specificities that allow to differentiate the events in the western and the eastern part of the island, the runaway slave’s settlements, their cemeteries, among other evidences of the presence of slaves in our geography.

In addition to the various slave’s work sites and dwellings, other testimonials allow a better interpretation of the slave society as a whole. Once again, the documentary and archaeological research jointly shed light on these sites.

Considering that the slaves were brought to the island by sea, after long voyages from the coasts of Africa, in sailing ships overloaded for profit, with minimum sailing conditions, pursued by enemy ships and by those of the Spanish Crown once the slave trade became an illegal activity, it follows that many of these ships sunk and their wrecks lie in our waters. They are currently a pioneer element in these memory sites.

The first point of contact with land were the ports in cities such as Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas and Trinidad which were systematic points of entry, but there were other informal ones in general associated with the illegal trade.

The next link in the chain may be found in confinement sites previous to the sale, which were the places in which slaves were confined before been taken to the market, a public space that shared this function with other commercial activities, since after all, the slave was nothing more than that, a merchandize. Their destiny was decided at the market.

And their destiny was no other than working in some of the activities that we have previously mentioned, therefore, sugar mills, coffee plantations, mines, tobacco fields, fortresses and railways were the reason of their existence, their legacy to posterity and each one of them is a monument to their memory. Likewise the sites of rebelliousness and resistance, places in which they endured the short-lived freedom of the runaway, of roving fugitives in a new world in search of the miracle of nature and their deities.

The lives of slaves, at the very best, ended in a modest cemetery near the place where they gave up everything they had. Sugar mills and coffee plantations kept spaces to this purpose that today have a very high archaeological and anthropological value, but that at the same time have become the most indisputable testimonial of the slave presence.

There are other places that could be regarded as memory sites because of their associative value with slavery and the cultural legacy borne by subjugated Africans. One of the typologies that better evidences this relationship are religious and confraternity temples, both those who have kept the beliefs of their ancestors alive, and in that connection the temple house and the “cabildos” are clearly representative examples; as those that show a clear mixture between the official catholic religion and the Yoruba pantheon, temples in which Saint Lazarus, the Virgin of Regla, Saint Barbara and Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, patron-saint of Cuba, among others, are worshipped.

Also with associative character are those cultural spaces that are the expressions of intangible heritage. Those places were witnesses and protagonists of traditional pagan or religious celebrations, transmitted from one generation to the next, in which various cultural expressions such as music, dance, chants, and in general, pageantries whose best expression are the plazas and promenades where the traditional carnivals take place.

Cultural landscape is the term used for a very specific category of memory site, one that encompasses many other inter-related categories, allowing for a better interpretation of the historic events. The Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Mills), the Valley of Güines, and historical monuments made up by groups of mountain coffee plantations both in the eastern and western regions show today a diversity of forms, technologies and customs that coexisted, as well as communities that keep their traditions alive.

The documents currently preserved in the National Archive of Cuba, parish churches, libraries and specialized centres such as the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, the House of Caribbean and the House of Africa, among others, have transformed these institutions into testimonials of the historic events. This heritage is also preserved in a national network of museums that store important archaeological and ethnographic collections.

The list of Cuban sites for the The Slave Route on line catalogue for Latin America and the Caribbean is based, first of all, on previous surveys for the identification of sites related to slavery in Cuba, and in the specific analysis of variables such as the exceptional value of the sites proposed, their protection category, territorial and typological representation, and the existence of trustworthy documentary sources in order to fill out the forms.

[1] M. Moreno Fraginals – El Ingenio. Complejo Económico Social del Azúcar. Volume I. Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 2014, p. 324

[2] UNESCO’s Slave Route project was initiated in 1994 in Benin, after a proposal made by Haiti.

[3] S. Domínguez - Fuentes arqueológicas en el estudio de la esclavitud en Cuba.