Insurgent Cuba
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Insurgent Cuba

Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898

Ada Ferrer

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Insurgent Cuba

Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898

Ada Ferrer

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About This Book

In the late nineteenth century, in an age of ascendant racism and imperial expansion, there emerged in Cuba a movement that unified black, mulatto, and white men in an attack on Europe's oldest empire, with the goal of creating a nation explicitly defined as antiracist. This book tells the story of the thirty-year unfolding and undoing of that movement. Ada Ferrer examines the participation of black and mulatto Cubans in nationalist insurgency from 1868, when a slaveholder began the revolution by freeing his slaves, until the intervention of racially segregated American forces in 1898. In so doing, she uncovers the struggles over the boundaries of citizenship and nationality that their participation brought to the fore, and she shows that even as black participation helped sustain the movement ideologically and militarily, it simultaneously prompted accusations of race war and fed the forces of counterinsurgency. Carefully examining the tensions between racism and antiracism contained within Cuban nationalism, Ferrer paints a dynamic portrait of a movement built upon the coexistence of an ideology of racial fraternity and the persistence of presumptions of hierarchy.

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1 War

1. Slaves, Insurgents, and Citizens

The Early Ten Years’ War, 1868–1870
On October 10, 1868, in the eastern jurisdiction of Manzanillo, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and his followers staged what came to be known as the Grito de Yara, an armed call for the end of Spain’s rule in Cuba. Céspedes was a prominent sugar planter and slaveholder. He was also a poet and lawyer, educated in Madrid and Havana, well traveled in Europe, a veteran of Spanish republican conspiracies, and the founder and director of local philharmonic societies. One Spanish detractor accused him of having the “aristocratic” pretensions of all “creoles and mestizos,” citing a letter Céspedes had written to an authority on noble lineages requesting the coats of arms for his four surnames: Céspedes (Osuna), López del Castillo (Canary Islands), Luque (Córdoba), and Ramírez de Aguilar (Castille).1 Whatever his ideas about the virtues of noble ancestry, on that morning of October 10, Céspedes gathered the slaves on his sugar mill, La Demajagua, and granted them their freedom. “You are as free,” he told them, “as I am.” Then addressing them as “citizens,” he invited them to help “conquer liberty and independence” for Cuba. Thus began the first war for Cuban independence.2
The Spanish captain general of the island, apprised of the unrest in eastern Cuba, reassured authorities in Madrid that he had “more than enough forces to destroy [the rebellion] in a matter of days.”3 But ten years and twelve generals later, Spanish authorities still found themselves unable to pacify the island. Peace required negotiation, and the field of things open to negotiation had radically changed as a result of war. Over the course of ten years of insurgency, thousands of slaves accepted Céspedes’s invitation to join the struggle for Cuban independence. They abandoned farms and estates to join insurgent forces in support of their own freedom from enslavement as well as Cuba’s freedom from colonialism. In 1878, then, Spanish authorities confronted militant and mobilized slaves whom they could not reasonably expect to reenslave yet who, if legally freed, would set a dangerous example for slaves who had remained loyal to Spain.
Not only had the social and political context of negotiation changed over ten years, so too had the negotiators. A peace accord signed by most of the rebel leadership at Zanjón in February 1878 accepted the continuation of both Spanish rule and racial slavery. Spain, in return, agreed to grant some political reforms and legal freedom to those slaves who had participated in the rebellion. Though the Pact of Zanjón formally ended the war, it in fact failed to ensure pacification, as a considerable group of rebels decided to reject the treaty and to continue the war. Spanish officials thus saw themselves forced to bargain again with the rebels. Only now they could not bargain with Céspedes, or even with any of his original co-conspirators. Instead they negotiated with Antonio Maceo, a self-described man of color from a family of free smallholders, who in the course of ten years of war had risen to the rank of general in the Cuban Liberation Army.4
In 1868, a white sugar planter freed his own slaves to help fight a war for Cuban independence. In 1878, sixteen thousand slaves received their legal freedom for having rebelled against Spain; and a mulatto smallholder and general repudiated the peace without abolition that had been accepted by elite rebel leaders at Zanjón. The dramatic contrast between the beginning and the end of the war, and between the principal protagonists in each episode, suggests the profound transformations under way in the Cuban nationalist movement between 1868 and 1878. From a slave society formed by a fear of slave and black rebellion there emerged a movement that came to attack slavery and colonialism, to mobilize free and enslaved black and mulatto men, and to enable the rise of nonwhite leaders.
That Cuban nationalism was transformed in the course of this ten-year war is indisputable.5 But process is often as important as outcome, dynamics as revealing as results. The changes that occurred in the course of anticolonial insurgency—the freeing of slaves and the promotion of nonwhite officers, for example—did not evolve smoothly or consensually. Neither did they emerge only—or even principally—from a confrontation with Spanish authority. Rather, these transformations emerged from sustained conflicts within the separatist movement. Here every proclamation, every measure and act promising freedom or alluding to equality seemed to produce multiple and unintended consequences: outright resistance from some, too eager an embrace from others, and doubts and misgivings even from among the most committed of nationalists. The war against the Spanish metropole, then, was only one aspect of the anticolonial insurgency and the independence movement that began in 1868. Another central part of that insurgency was the internal conflict and uncertainty over what the new Cuban nation should be and over the roles different social groups would play in that nation. This was a war, in a sense, over the boundaries of Cuban nationality.

Origins of the War

Though the war would last ten years, the rebellion began reluctantly, only as the option of political reform seemed to disappear. Just a few years before the outbreak of insurrection, expectations of colonial reforms ran high among Cuban creoles: Since the late 1850s, Spanish authorities had pursued a general, if sometimes sporadic, policy of attraction in order to ensure colonial loyalty. In 1866, for example, they established the Junta de Información de Ultramar to consider the question of reform in areas such as labor, trade, and taxes; and elections were held on the island to elect delegates to that commission. While the prospects for change looked favorable in 1866, political events in Madrid prevented their realization. A series of pronunciamientos (coups) in Spain, though unsuccessful, contributed to the rise of a less reform-minded government, which opposed colonial concessions and the Junta de Información. Not only did the new Spanish administration and its colonial representatives negate the possibility of reform, but they also ushered in an era of increased government repression: military authority was intensified, newspapers were censored, and opponents were exiled. Rebellion thus emerged only after the failure of reform and the onset of conservative reaction made peaceful advocacy for change increasingly ineffective, and as the beginning of the liberal September revolution in Madrid weakened the colonial state in Havana.6
The political complaints of creole elites were accompanied by economic ones, results of the economic crisis that began in 1857 and exacerbated by the economic policies of the new conservative colonial administration. In an effort to undercut an expanding trade between the United States and Cuba, Spanish authorities raised tariffs on foreign goods entering Cuban ports. And in the midst of economic decline, they also restructured the tax system, imposing a direct tax of 10 percent on the value of all rural and urban property—a tax that some doubted could ever be collected peacefully.7
Notwithstanding the significance of political and economic grievances that helped spark and fuel the rebellion, the manner in which the insurgency began and then took root—indeed, the very geography of insurgency—reveals also the centrality of race and slavery both to shaping those grievances and to understanding Cuba’s anticolonial endeavor. While the rebellion began and flourished in eastern Cuba, in western Cuba no sustained rebellion materialized. There creole and peninsular elites did not generally share the political and economic complaints of the men who proclaimed war in the east. Much of the western region had enjoyed the benefits of economic expansion through the first half of the nineteenth century. That expansion was particularly visible in the sugar industry, where sugar mills (ingenios) had grown in number, size, and productive capacity, displacing coffee and tobacco farms and leveling forests in their path. Boom areas in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, and Las Villas exemplified the trajectory of sugar’s expansion in the west. The village of Sagua la Grande in Las Villas, for example, had only 2 mills producing a few thousand arrobas of sugar in 1827. In 1846, however, 59 mills produced about 11,500 tons of sugar; and by 1859 there were twice as many mills producing four times as much sugar: 119 mills and nearly 46,000 tons.8 No boom, however, was as impressive and sustained as the one that occurred in Matanzas province, where by 1857 just three local jurisdictions (Matanzas, Cárdenas, and Colón) produced more than 55 percent of the island’s total sugar crop.9
Western prosperity, so evident in statistical summaries, rested on the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants. During the harvest, many worked between sixteen and twenty-one hours a day cutting or milling the cane, sleeping only for brief respites in what contemporary observers and modern scholars alike have referred to as “sugar prisons”—the barracones, long rectangular and fortlike living quarters designed for the maximum security of owners and overseers and the minimum mobility of workers. Though enslaved men and women were able to carve out spaces in which to assert some degree of autonomy and agency, they still faced daily the commands of owners and overseers to work harder and longer at tasks and under conditions few would have chosen freely. Despite abolitionist pressure, the slave population grew, continually replenished (even as late as 1867) by new arrivals from Africa—men, women, and children many of whom continued to speak African languages and practice different African cultural forms.10 In many parts of the prosperous west, African and creole (Cuban-born) slaves together formed a significant proportion of the population. In the boom areas of Cárdenas and Colón, for example, slaves accounted respectively for 48.7 and 51.2 percent of the population in 1862. If one adds to the number of slaves the number of indentured Chinese and Yucatecan laborers, then the percentage of the unfree population climbs to 59.4 and 59.9 percent of the total population in the two districts.11
The close link between prosperity and servitude made the question of independence particularly difficult for western planters. Here where reliance on unfree labor was most conspicuous and the fear of slave rebellion most tangible, the vast majority of planters were unwilling to free their slaves or to support an insurgency likely to encourage their mobilization. It is not entirely surprising, then, that the western sugar zones did not produce or welcome an anticolonial rebellion in 1868.
Instead the rebellion began in the east, in the area of western Oriente bounded by Tunas and Bayamo on the west, Holguín and Jiguaní on the east and Manzanillo on the south (see map 1.1). Here the effects of economic crisis and political reaction were harshest and the contrast with the, prosperous west starkest. Local landowners had less capital with which to expand, purchase slaves, or mechanize. Most mills cultivated only three to five caballerías of land and still relied primarily on animal power. Their land was, therefore, generally less productive than land cultivated in the west. For example, of the 1,365 operating ingenios on the island in i860, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’s ingenio, La Demajagua, where the revolution began, ranked a very low 1,113 in annual sugar production. In fact, while in i860 animal-powered mills (trapiches) produced an average of 113 tons of sugar in a grinding season, mechanized mills-concentrated in the western sugar provinces—produced an average of 1,176 tons of sugar per season.12 In the east, then, the effects of economic downturn and aggressive taxation were more exacting, and irritation with the colonial government was more acute.
The differences between east and west, however, went deeper than the immediate economic crisis. Eastern and western Cuba were, in fact, quite different societies. While sugar and slavery dominated much of the western landscape, the eastern landscape was significantly more variegated. Coffee, tobacco, cattle, and other farms stood alongside sugar estates; and the population was distributed accordingly. The eastern jurisdiction of Manzanillo is a good case in point. It was home to the sugar estates owned by Céspedes and other anticolonial conspirators. In this jurisdiction, only 6 percent of the total rural population lived on sugar estates. Compare this with 64 percent of the rural population living on sugar estates in the western region of Cárdenas in Matanzas. Moreover, while the prosperous sugar mills of the west were worked primarily by unfree laborers in the 1850s and 1860s, the smaller, less technologically advanced mills of the east did much more to combine slave and free labor. Thus, in Cárdenas slaves accounted for almost 75 percent of the persons living on sugar plantations. In Manzanillo, by contrast, slaves accounted for 53 percent of estate residents.13 This figure attests to the presence of significant numbers of free workers on local estates in the east.
Outside plantations, in the cities, towns, and countryside of eastern Cuba, the presence of slaves was even smaller. In fact, as a percentage of the total population, slaves accounted for only 6.5 percent of Manzanillo’s total population; and the white population predominated, accounting for 51.4 percent. In Manzanillo’s district of Yara, site of the rebels’ first victory, the slave population was only 2.4 percent of the district’s total population.14 A similar pattern prevailed in all five jurisdictions where the rebellion quickly took root. In none of them did the slave population account for more than 8.5 percent of the population; and in none did the white population constitute a minority (see table 1.1).15 Thus in the eastern regions that sustained the initial uprising, slavery had ceased to be a pivotal social or economic institution; and the image of slave rebellion and social upheaval appeared to have lost some of its power.16
Images
Map 1.1. Map of Cuba showing jurisdictions, 1860. (Adapted from Franklin Knight, Slave Society in Cuba [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970])
Table 1.1 Population of Selected Jurisdictions of Eastern Cuba in 1862
Total
Population
White
(%)
Free
Colored
(%)
Slave
(%)
Bayamo 31,336 50.5 41.0 8.5
Holguín 52,123 78.2 13.5 8.1
Jiguaní 17,572 70.1 26.5 3.4
Manzanillo 26,493 51.4 41.9 6.5
Tunas 6,823 59.8 33.0 7.0
Source: Cuba, Centro de Estadística, Noticias estadísticas de la Isla de Cuba en 1862 (Havana: Imprenta del Gobierno y Capitanía General, 1864), “Censo de población de la Isla de Cuba en . . . 1862.”
Note: Percentages may not total 100 percent because I have not included Chinese and Yucatecan laborers or emancipados, Africans found on captured slave ships. In each of the five jurisdictions, the population of these three groups combined constituted less than 1 percent of the total population.
Sugar, race, and slavery, ...

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