The Year of the Lash: Free People of Color in Cuba and the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

By Michele Reid-Vazquez | Go to book overview

Introduction

At dawn on June 29, 1844, a firing squad in Havana executed ten accused ringleaders of the Conspiracy of La Escalera, an alleged plot among free people of African descent (libres de color), slaves, creoles, and British abolitionists to end slavery and colonial rule in Cuba. The group of condemned men represented some of the most prominent artisans, property owners, and militia officers within the colony’s free community of color, including the acclaimed poet “Plácido” (Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés).1 Convinced that recent rebellions involving slaves and free blacks formed part of a larger conspiracy, officials sought out its leaders and collaborators through a spectacle of arrests, tortured confessions, and public executions. In addition, Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba coerced hundreds of libres de color into exile, prohibited all free blacks from disembarking in local ports, banned native-born men and women of color from select areas of employment, and dismantled the pardo and moreno militia units.2 In the process, local officials redrew social and economic lines by extending race-based occupational restrictions and promoting immigration from Spain, the Canary Islands, and China to supplement or replace black laborers and reverse the “Africanization” of Cuba. The unprecedented wave of violence that engulfed Cuba in 1844 became known as the “Year of the Lash.” The violence and restrictive polices that accompanied it, however, persisted into the 1860s, in an attempt to silence and resubordinate the free population of African descent by stripping away decades of moderate political, economic, and social gains.

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