Sitios de Memoria


Slavery, as a social phenomenon, is one of the biggest human tragedies; oppression, violence and socio-cultural damages to peoples, nations and an entire continent live on through centuries. Of all the forms slavery was implemented all over the world, special importance must be given the African slave trade carried out by the European powers to use this labor force in the new world between the 16th and the 19th centuries.

Cuba was one of the first colonies to receive African slaves, as a result of the early extinction of the aboriginal population by the Spanish colonizers as well as the need to exploit the new lands they conquered.

The introduction of African slaves in Cuba is considered to have occurred between the late 16th century and early 17th century. The lack of a labor force to sustain on-going colonization made the Spaniards bring small numbers of African slaves through the Royal Trade Company of the Indies; at the same time, they made sporadic purchases from English slave traders. Soon the slaves were not enough for the growing coffee and sugar plantations.

By the end of the 18th century and early 19th century, the economic growth of the island represents a second stage in the implementation of slavery in Cuba. Demands for labor force increased, and the slaves became necessary for the hundreds of sugar mills throughout and coffee plantations that emerged throughout the island. The highest slave presence is found in the sugar-producing western areas of the Habana-Matanzas plains as well as in the coffee-producing mountain regions of Sierra del Rosario in Pinar del Rio province. Slaves were used not only in plantations but also for the construction of roads, railroads, storehouses, and for household chores among other things.
Between 1503 and 1873 more than one and a half million enslaved Africans were transported to Cuba from African coasts, or resold from the Americas and the Caribbean, considering the underground slave trade which developed considerably since 1820.

Not all ethnic African groups were equally represented in Cuba as a result of the historical variations areas where slaves were captured, the different markets where they were sold, and the sailing ports, and more specifically as a result of the struggle among the European powers to control the slave trade. However, since the first half of the 16th century to date, over 1200 slave denominations have been acknowledged (Africans and creoles), the overwhelming majority (95.33 %) from Southern Sahara, fewer from the Americas and the Caribbean (3.77 %) and from the northern part of Africa and Europe (0.90 %)

Of these 1200 denominations, 86 ethnonyms from sub-Saharan Africa have been identified and classified. These groups correspond to five zones:

I. Zone between Cabo Blanco and Cabo Las Palmas, in the current territories of Mauritania, Cape Verde, Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leona and Liberia. Reference is made to the generic denominations of Guinea, Gangá and Mandinga. Twenty-eight groups have been identified;
II. Zone of Gold Coast, in the current territories of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo. Reference is made to the generic denomination of Mina and 7 groups have been identified;

III. Zone of the Slave Coast (Bight of Benin), which corresponds to the current territories of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and the east of Ghana. Reference is made to the generic denominations of Arará, Carabalí and Lucumí. Nineteen groups have been identified;

IV Zone between Cabo López and Cabo Negro, in the current territories of Gabon, Congo, democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Reference is made to the generic denomination of Congo. Twenty-six groups have been identified;

V. Zone of the East Coast, between Mombasa and Zitundo, in the current territories of Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Kenya. Reference is made to the generic denomination of Macuá. Four groups have been identified.

Although zone I accounts for over one third  of the ethnonyms, the historical and commercial ties during modern slave trade between zones III and IV account for over half the number of identified ethnonyms; this is directly related to a higher intensity of cultural flows coming from the areas around the Niger and Congo Rivers, respectively.

Because of the poor quantitative-qualitative representation of Africans, many of the referred ethnonyms have not market Cuban popular culture for a number of reasons: very low presence, early mortality, irregular immigration, low or null birth rates, assimilation in slave barracks where other ethnic groups were much more numerous, mixed marriages in which Cuban-born women were predominant, and absence of associations in the urban context.

On the contrary, the intense and permanent quantitative-qualitative representation of numerous human groups generically identified as arará, congo, carabalí and lucumí have had a great influence in shaping the African heritage present in Cuba´s national culture, especially through institutional associations or cabildos of Africans and their descendants. These slaves were basis for the creation of networks of religious families open to the social participation of their members from several generations down, and of the rest of the Cuban population.

By the same token, the slave trade in inland Cuba was very unequal, from the mid 19th century on, since the big plantations in the central and western regions and the coffee plantations in Oriente province always needed more labor force than other regions devoted to cattle breeding, mining, subsistence agriculture and urban slavery. Colonial censuses show higher concentrations of slave population in the western part of the island, and this would explain their higher socio-cultural influences.

In urban areas the early constitution of cabildos of Africans and their descendants according to their original groups, represented very important niches for the preservation of many African traditions, which later on became a legacy to national culture through the first descendants of these African slaves.



The material legacy of slavery in Cuba is practically equivalent to the amount of colonial properties which have survived to date. Slave work was present in almost all productive activities in the island: mainly coffee and sugar, tobacco and cattle breeding to a lesser extent. Slaves also worked in the construction of roads, railroads, temples, fortresses, and as servants of the island’s aristocracy. Historical, archeological and natural sites connected to slavery still exist, as well as human settlements reflecting a rich African presence and numerous expressions of their culture.

The 2001 Inventory of the Slave Route in Cuba was an important step for the identification and protection of this legacy. To date, 775 properties have been catalogued, 16 of which are National Monuments, 14 are Local Monuments and 10 are Protected Zones. Of the Cuban sites considered World Heritage by UNESCO, at least three are exceptional representations of this legacy.


In today’s religious environment it is possible to identify the legacy of the peoples of the Congo through the rule of palo or palomonte; of the Ewé-Fon through the arará rule; of the Yorubá through the rule of ocha or santería, the Ifá priesthood and the Iyesá cult; of the Ekoi, Ibibio, Ibo and Ijaw through the abakuá male societies; of the Bulom through the gangá cult which is mixed with santería; and of Haiti through vodú, which is very much mixed with other social cults. This legacy gave rise to the tradition of forming religious families around blood relationships and affinity, because they follow the initiation processes. Regardless of their connections to Catholicism, these religious practices are self-enclosed, thus enjoying greater freedom of cult, since they may select practicing members, something impossible in ecclesiastical religions.

Many musical instruments come from these religious practices, including a complete knowledge of terminology, construction techniques, the modes of playing, social and musical functions, music ensembles and their repertoire for both religious and non-religious activities. The rites of palomonte are accordingly related to the yuca, kinfuiti and makuta bembé drums, sets of drums and musical instruments; the arará rule is related to the arará drums, which even today keep their African denomination according to their musical register, asojún or sajún (very bass), aplintí or plintí (bass), achebolisa or sebolisa (middle tones) and akuebí (high tones), among several denominations; the ocha rule or santería, the Ifá priesthood and the Iyesá cult are related to the set of batá, olokun, iyesá and dundún drums and the set of guiro, abbe or chequeré; the ceremonies of the abakuá males societies are related to the set of instruments of biankomeko; the gangá cult is directly related to the set of gangá drums; and vodú and its socio-cultural environment are related to the set of instruments of radá and nagó. Likewise, the Tumba Francesa societies have their own sets of instruments.

All these expressions com with a wide variety of dances, their own outfits for religious activities, and they have many different ways of performing, which may depend on the space of the temple-house and consecration sites. The dances can also be artistically presented by professional or amateur ensembles.

As part of their religious lexicon, these religious practices preserve some linguistic expressions of African origin. For instance, the very well identified Kikongo linguistic legacy is widely studied in the rule of palo or palomonte; recollections of Ewé-Fon are known through the arará rule; the Yoruba legacy, especially the Oyó and Iyesá variants, are known through the ocha rule or santería, the Ifá priesthood and the Iyesá cult; recollections of efik, which belongs to Ibibio, are also used in the rites of abakuá male societies. Many of these expressions are now part of Cuban Spanish and are used in different social sectors.

The above-mentioned religious practices identified because of their African origin share a group of characteristics such as anthropocentrism, live entities, ritual offerings, communication with the supernatural world (oracle, possession, oneiric messages and predictions and omens), syncretism, parallelism through analogy and a mimetic-adaptive moral, among other things. All this, accompanied by a wide symbolic body: representations, objects, colors, materials, ritual spaces and times, which have come down to us as part of the universal holistic views of the practitioners that is, in their ethical values. Part of the ritual offerings is found in the food and drinks prepared according to established norms, but these have become part of the regular diet of believers and nonbelievers.

The religious practices also show a rich oral tradition directly related to storytelling, myths, legends, fables, sayings, omens and predictions which have been studied through local and national samples. The religious ideas and expressions are manifested through extremely symbolic and morphologically diverse handicraft. This entire cultural legacy intertwines representative objects and images with the accumulated knowledge based on meanings, interpretations, values, use, management and transmission to the new generations.


African legacy as a cultural inheritance of our nation is given priority by the State. Cuban culture as a whole is a priority approved by the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba.

The policy to protect our cultural heritage is supported by a set of laws and a network of institutions which research, protect, rescue and promote our cultural heritage. Cuban legislation establishes protection for the cultural tangible and intangible heritage in its Bill No 1, “Bill for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Nation”, Bill No 2, “Bill on Local and National Monuments”, Bill 23, “Bill on Municipal Museums” and Resolution No 126 of the Ministry of Culture, approved to create the Commission for the Safeguard of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The network of institutions that protect this legacy reaches all 169 municipalities of the country; in each municipality there is at least one museum, a community house for cultural activities, and a library. There is also a wide variety of national institutions specializing in specific African aspects of our culture, like the Slave Route Museum, among others.

Finally, the transmission of this huge cultural contribution to the new generations is also a priority. An example of this is the UNESCO “Breaking the Silence” educational project, which has been positively implemented in several schools of the country. The close relationship between museums and schools has also been a way for students to learn about their local history; the most relevant case could be the one in Old Havana, where each museum has a classroom.

Several personalities and ensembles devoted to the African legacy in the national context have been praised and acknowledged for their life’s work, their artistic activities and for their research and management work.

The preservation of the African cultural legacy is a system that includes laws; a wide network of institutions; and all of our society, thus guaranteeing the future of this legacy through research, identification, protection, promotion and transmission.