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

1 “Very Prejudicial”: Free People of Color
in a Slave Society

The free sector of color expands immensely throughout the population
without constraint, and without any hope that they or their children will
be alleviated from the low condition in which they find themselves
.

—FRANCISCO ARANGO Y PARREÑO

“You will be surprised to observe the number of free blacks and mulattoes,” wrote Abiel Abott, a Massachusetts minister who visited Cuba from February to May 1828 in a quest to improve his lung condition.1 Numerous travelers, primarily North Americans and Europeans, who regularly selected Cuba as a destination point for enhancing their health, promoting business, comparing slave systems, and sightseeing in the 1820s and 1830s, reiterated Abbot’s observations. In the thriving port city of Havana, visitors noted the black stevedores, sailors, and day workers clustered near the wharf attending disembarking and departing ships and passengers.2 They passed artisans and washerwomen of color traversing streets lined with shops, stately mansions, and dilapidated huts.3 Carts loaded with sugar, coffee, and molasses rattled alongside carriages, and moreno street vendors walked about selling fruits and other products.4 On Sundays, black soldiers, dressed in distinctive uniforms, practiced drills in the colony’s central plazas.5 Amid this flurry of activity, some men stood smoking at the outer gates to homes, waiting “to eye and answer strangers” approaching the entryway.6 Music echoed from the heart of Havana as popular pardo band musicians entertained those who rode or strolled along the Paseo’s broad thoroughfare.7 Imperial data backed up travelers’ observations that a large proportion of these laboring individuals were of African heritage and legally free. According to Cuba’s 1827 census, free people of color constituted 15 percent of the island’s inhabitants and 27 percent of the African-descended population

-17-

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