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

6 Balancing Acts: The Shifting Dynamics of Race
and Immigration

It is indispensable that the white population be expanded success-
ively…. This expansion must always be bound to the political idea of
sustaining an equilibrium of the castes in order to prevent the notion that
the reduction of the black race might encourage those who wish to fuel
and promote ideas of independence and complete separation from the
Metropole
.

—LEOPOLDO O’DONNELL

In April 1844, Captain General O’Donnell urgently reminded officials in Spain of the political importance of “sustaining an equilibrium of the castes” in Cuba. In particular, he sought to undermine the positions of “black skilled craftsmen, maids, cooks, and coachmen” and replace them with white workers. He held the same attitude about the agricultural sector, although he conceded that “only Africans” could tolerate Cuba’s harsh, tropical climate. These sentiments, however, would change within a few years. Overall, O’Donnell asserted that augmenting the white population offered two solutions to the problems exacerbated by the Escalera rebellions. First, expanding Cuba’s white sector would help prevent “ideas of independence and complete separation from the Metropole” and bolster loyalty to the crown in Spain’s fractured nineteenth-century empire.1 Second, and more important, the presence of white workers would reduce the proportion of free people of color and slaves in Cuba and the island’s dependency on blacks for agricultural and urban labor. In other words, “equilibrium” meant reducing the proportion of blacks and increasing that of whites.

Despite O’Donnell’s ambitions, several factors aggravated existing internal and external strains. Although the displacement of free black workers by whites in the cities had garnered some success, the recent reductions in this population created a void in the skilled crafts. Raising the number of libres de color in the countryside had also proven difficult. Furthermore, agricultural labor shortages threatened to disrupt planters’ economic stability and profits. To alleviate anxieties, officials

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