Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874
Lundahl, Mats, Ibero-americana
Christopher Schinidt-Nowara, Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 1999 (239 pages). ISBN 082295690X.
The Haitian revolution sent a shock wave throughout the American slave societies. The spontaneous uprising that began with the voodoo ceremony at Bois Caïman on 14 August 1791. ended with the declaration of independence at Gonaïves on New Year's Day 1804. This uprising made itself felt both in the Caribbean and in the antebellum United States. It was no coincidence that Haiti was not recognized by any foreign nation until 1825 - and then, paradoxically, by France. The neighboring territories based on slave labor viewed with awe and fear the collapse of the plantation system and the emergence of a society of free and independent peasants. Rebellion and racial violence were lurking around the comer even at home.
During the course of the nineteenth century the majority of the European powers gradually abolished slave trade and slavery. Britain outlawed slave trade in 1807 - followed soon by the United States, France and The Netherlands - and abolished slavery in the entire Empire in 1833. The French followed suit in 1848 and in the United States the end of the Civil War in 1865, put an end to slave labor.
However, slavery in Brazil, Puerto Rico and Cuba persisted. Slavery was not abolished until 1873 in Puerto Rico. In Cuba the end came even later in 1886 (with trade having been abolished in 1867), in spite of the 1870 Spanish law for the gradual abolition. Brazil continued to import slaves until 1850, and finally put an end to slave labor in 1888. Neither the planters nor the metropolitan exporters were interested to discontinue the practice. This is notable in the particular case of Cuba. When the Spanish law was issued Cuba was producing some 40 percent of the world's cane sugar and constituted the third most important export market for Spain, after Great Britain and France. Slavery thus constituted an important part of the process of production and exchange of primary staples for manufactures.
Christopher Schmidt-Nowara's book tells the story of how these interests were challenged and finally defeated. It focuses on the activities of the Sociedad Abolicionista Española, founded in 1865, and other similar groupings. Schmidt-Nowara suggests that Spain pursued a policy that retrenched slavery in the Antilles during most of the period covered by the book (1833-74). Spain was the last European power to abolish slave trade and slavery in the Americas, and the author stresses the interaction between abolitionist forces in Spain and in the colonies in response to this policy.
After presenting the facts on slavery in the Cuban sugar economy in the introduction, Schmidt-Nowara in the first chapter demonstrates how the issue of slavery and abolition formed part of a larger complex involving such factors as the views on constitutionalism or absolutist rule after the death of Fernando VII in 1833; and the ensuing three Carlist wars, the form of colonial government, Cuban loyalty to Spain versus annexation by the United States, the color composition of the Cuban population and the fear of a black uprising. The second chapter deals with the situation in Puerto Rico during 1840-60. The early debate in Puerto Rico provided the inspiration for abolitionists all over the Spanish Empire. The author shows how the slavery question, like in Spain, was part of a wider discussion on trade, immigration, labor recruitment and color.
In Chapter 3, the attention once again turns to Spain - to the debate over free trade versus protectionism in the 1850s and 1860s, and the growing importance of various types of institutions representing various segments of the Spanish public. In Spain, protectionism and slavery went hand in hand, since the same agricultural and industrial forces that called for a protected national market also defended slavery in the name of the 'national' economy. Sound economic arguments in favor of free trade were countered with appeal to 'practical experience'. It was during the same period that abolitionist views began to be strongly heard in Spain, as evidenced in Chapter 4. This is followed, in Chapter 5, by an account of how Spanish and Antillean forces forged an alliance culminating into the foundation of the ideologically hybrid Sociedad Abolicionista, in the liberal and reformist Madrid setting, espousing capitalist free trade ideals and also Hispanic unity based on 'whiteness'. This society would provide a platform from which forces on both sides of the Atlantic could attack slavery in the Caribbean.
These attacks and the defense by advocates of slavery is the focus of Chapters 6 and 7. In the former, Schmidt-Nowara surveys the new political situation following the September Revolution in Spain: the deposing of Isabel II in 1868, the outbreak of the Ten Years' War in Cuba and the intensified demands by the abolitionist groups. These events led to the promulgation, in 1870, of the so-called Moret Law which envisaged gradual measures to end slavery - a measure that failed to convince the abolitionists. In Chapter 7 shows how the half-hearted law spurred them to urge immediate abolition in both Puerto Rico and Cuba, countered by the stern resistance of rapidly mobilizing conservative forces in Spain and in the Caribbean. Finally, the new Spanish Republic, proclaimed by Cortes in February 1873, put an end to slavery in Puerto Rico. Its short duration (a mere 326 days) and the stronger resistance put up by the pro-slavery forces in Cuba precluded decisive action in the latter island, where the end would not come until 1886. The concluding chapter, finally, sketches the reorganization of production and the labor market in Puerto Rico and stresses the interaction offerees in metropolitan Spain and the two colonies in the abolition process.
Schmidt-Nowara's book provides a good overview of the abolition debate, but leaves a few open ends. In the first place, it is taken for granted that the reader has a good background of nineteenth-century Spanish history. This is unfortunate, because this history is quite intricate with lots of events and. not least, many crossing ideological and political currents. Since one of the main pillars of Schmidt-Nowara's approach is the insertion of the debate on slavery in the wider political context, a more detailed presentation of the underlying historical themes would have added to the attraction of the book. The same is true with respect to events in Cuba. It is not always clear why the events took the course they did.
My second reservation is with regard to the role of economic factors in the abolition process. Here, the author makes no real attempt to come to grips with the material. To take just one example: why did Puerto Rico take the lead in the abolition process? The reader is not offered any real explanation as to why the arguments in favor of abolition had an early and more successful start there than elsewhere - except perhaps indirectly, in terms of demography. An economist might be inclined to think in Heckscher-Ohlin terms. Puerto Rico was a much more densely populated island than, for example. Cuba, and the vast majority of the population was white. Thus, most of the labor force was free and the implicit wage in a completely unregulated labor market presumably would have been lower than in Cuba. In the latter island free peasants with access to land would have demanded a relatively high wage, and slavery would serve as the means for reducing it, while its economic importance in Puerto Rico (where the number of slaves was relatively low) was considerably lower. However, as Schmidt-Nowara points out in the concluding chapter, the sugar industry in Puerto Rico also depended on slave labor and the emancipation of the slaves produced a crisis and a change in the output mix of the island with coffee rising to prominence and sugar declining, relatively speaking. But then, did economics not matter at all? It might have been worth dwelling a bit more on this point.
These remarks, should, however, not obscure the fact that Schmidt-Nowara has produced a highly readable account of the struggle over slavery in the Spanish colonies. Above all, he has demonstrated very clearly how Antillean and Spanish interests joined forces - both for and against - and how this was due to the role that they attributed to slavery in a wider political setting. Slavery as such was not always seen as the main problem. It was entangled with a number of others, some of which were seen as more important by some of the main participants in the debate.
Stockholm School of Economics
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Publication information: Article title: Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874. Contributors: Lundahl, Mats - Author. Journal title: Ibero-americana. Volume: 30. Issue: 2 Publication date: July 1, 2000. Page number: 109+. © Institutte of Latin American Studies, Stockholm University 2001. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.