Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Revolts among Enslaved Africans in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A New Look to an Old Problem

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Revolts among Enslaved Africans in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A New Look to an Old Problem

Article excerpt


On 1 July 1840 Tranquilino, an enslaved person from the coffee plantation Empresa, killed his overseer during a quarrel. Moments later, more than fifty of his companions headed to the plantation owner's house and also killed him. Shortly before the killings, the owner, Jos6 Cantor Valdespino, had sent Julian, an enslaved person who was very loyal to him, to the nearby village of Ceiba del Agua in a desperate attempt to get reinforcements that would help him to survive the tumult. Julian ran as fast as he could to the office of Captain Sixto Morejón. However, by the time Morejón and his militiamen arrived in the plantation's batey, Valdespino was already dead and the insurgents, most of whom were Lucumis, were hiding behind a pile of stones or escaping across the coffee fields. Seeing the resolve of the insurgents who, "obeying the order of their captain" had attacked his men with stones, Morejón decided to open fire regardless of the consequences.1 At the end of the day he counted the casualties among the enslaved people and their overlords, regretting the deaths of the plantation owner and his overseer, but saying nothing about the insurgents except that almost all of them were of the "Lucumí nation".2

The reason for the revolt was the bad treatment that the overseer had meted out to the enslaved people under his command. Tranquilino, whose name curiously means in Spanish "Quiet One", felt that he had a very good excuse for taking the overseer's life. A few days before, while fixing the roof of a house, he had fallen to the ground and hurt himself very badly. The overseer, who had witnessed the accident, did not consider his injury particularly severe and therefore tried to flog him for refusing to work, thus triggering the beginning of the tragedy. Noting Tranquilino's resolve, moments before the attack his owner intervened in a final attempt to get him to change his mind, asking him why he did not look for a sponsor to represent him, since he was so upset. Tranquilinos's answer was defiant and clever. He replied, "I did not do it because the only sponsor is God, because if I get a sponsor just for today, tomorrow you [referring to his owner] will not defend me [against the overseer]."3

The two killings and the revolt highlight the main issues I will examine in this article. How did homicides lead to revolts and how did revolts provoke more homicides? Why did these types of resistance, far from diminishing, multiply throughout the first five decades of the nineteenth century? And to what extent did issues such as ethnicity, language, leadership and previously acquired knowledge of warfare characterize these events? What were the differences between movements of enslaved persons and those led by free(d) persons but also involving enslaved persons? All these issues will be analysed with the aim of reaching a rational conclusion about the character of servile resistance on Cuban plantations during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Anticolonial Movements and Antislavery Moments Influenced by "Foreign Ideologies"

Until the present, studies have focused mainly on the plots and revolts inspired or influenced by "international-revolutionary" ideologies, while largely ignoring or underestimating those organized and executed outside of the context of those ideologies. This circumstance has also led scholars to overlook several other acts of resistance that were more "African" and less "revolutionary", such as homicides and suicides. The fact is that in western Cuba enslaved persons introduced into the island directly from Africa were the main protagonists throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. They convened, plotted, organized and led the vast majority of the movements that constituted one of the main features of Cuban history during that period, with no ostensible reference to, or even awareness of, "international-revolutionary" ideologies.

When Captain-General Jer6nimo Valdes wrote to the Spanish Minister of Overseas Affairs in September 1843 that the island "was still inalterably quiet", he was aware of the fact that his words were totally false. …

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