Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844

Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844

Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844

Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844


Envisioning La Escalera--an underground rebel movement largely composed of Africans living on farms and plantations in rural western Cuba--in the larger context of the long emancipation struggle in Cuba, Aisha Finch demonstrates how organized slave resistance became critical to the unraveling not only of slavery but also of colonial systems of power during the nineteenth century.

While the discovery of La Escalera unleashed a reign of terror by the Spanish colonial powers in which hundreds of enslaved people were tortured, tried, and executed, Finch revises historiographical conceptions of the movement as a fiction conveniently invented by the Spanish government in order to target anticolonial activities. Connecting the political agitation stirred up by free people of color in the urban centers to the slave rebellions that rocked the countryside, Finch shows how the rural plantation was connected to a much larger conspiratorial world outside the agrarian sector. While acknowledging the role of foreign abolitionists and white creoles in the broader history of emancipation, Finch teases apart the organization, leadership, and effectiveness of the black insurgents in midcentury dissident mobilizations that emerged across western Cuba, presenting compelling evidence that black women played a particularly critical role.


The early 1840s ushered in a tumultuous decade on the island of Cuba. in 1843 slave insurgents in western Cuba mounted two resistance struggles that shook the rural plantation world to its core. Their efforts were part of a larger anticolonial momentum that had taken root in urban communities of color across the western region. As the year drew to a close, a series of events unfolded whose scope and impact few would have been able to predict. in late December, Cuban authorities began to uncover a widespread movement that encompassed the major urban centers, much of the western countryside, and allegedly some of the island’s most prominent people of color. According to legend, this discovery was made possible in part by the revelations of an enslaved woman named Polonia. in order to eradicate this activity—and with it a number of closely related struggles against slavery and colonialism—the Cuban government unleashed a bloody reign of terror in 1844, holding parts of the island under quasi-martial law for over a year as confessions were extracted by the hundreds from accused people of color and a few white men. in some of the more infamous episodes of torture, accused witnesses were tied face down to a ladder and beaten. Hence the name “La Escalera” that eventually fixed itself to the trials and later, to the plot itself.

Merced Criolla, a woman enslaved in one of the sugar heartland’s easternmost districts, was among those who lost her husband in the 1844 prosecutions. Merced was one of the first to testify about a rebel movement steadily evolving on her home estate of Encanto, “whose head was her husband, Dionicio Carabaly.” She went on to speak about clandestine meetings between her husband and a cohort of other organizers who were galvanized by the rebellions of 1843. in her statement, she revealed a world of subterranean political organizing that crossed lines of ethnicity, freedom, gender, and plantation borders.

For his part Dionisio Carabalí refused to testify, even after several interrogation attempts. This did not stop the prosecutors from concluding . . .

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