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

4 Acts of Excess and Insubordination:
Resisting the Tranquillity of Terror

Give that to your mother!

—JOSÉ ELIAS MENDIOLA

As the Military Commission sentencing came to a close in January 1845, Captain General O’Donnell had begun sending carefully crafted correspondence to the Ultramar affirming Cuba’s peaceful state of affairs. Twenty-two of the twenty-five letters he penned between January and December 1845 asserted the island’s “tranquillity”; all was safe in the colony.1 Cuban elites especially desired a return to a state of affairs that would further subordinate blacks to whites and displace free black workers, particularly in skilled and domestic urban labor sectors. With this characterization of colonial “normalcy” in mind, Escalera era legislation limited geographic mobility between urban and rural areas and curtailed economic opportunities for libres de color. In many instances, the tightened restrictions combined to drive their social networks underground and disrupt established forms of free black individual and group identities. Just as the public executions generated spectacles of white supremacy and authority, and the expulsions attempted to remove seditious behavior that could foment violent dissent, local legislation circumscribing the lives of people of color attempted to harden racial boundaries and reinvigorate the slave system. Blanketed in what one foreign observer called the “tranquillity of terror,” Cuba’s revised black codes of 1844 extended the Escalera repression into the decades to come––not, however, without opposition.2 Despite trauma from the “Year of the Lash,” some libres de color contested governmental attempts to direct and restrict their lives, indicating that the calm veneer O’Donnell constructed for the Spanish metropole had already started to

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