Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874

Article excerpt

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. …