L’histoire d’un morceau de sucre est toute une leçon d’economie politique, de politique et aussi de morale. (The history of a cube of sugar is an entire lesson in economy, politics, and also in morality.)
—Agustin Cochin (1823–1872)
The Sugar Islands and the Plantation (1492–1900)
The islands of the Caribbean—the focus of this book—were Europe’s first colonies in the New World, and as such, the site of the first multicultural experiment, the cradle of ethnic and cultural syncretism. Spain, the nation responsible for Columbus’s momentous “discovery” of these new lands in 1492, ruled unchallenged over the region for a century, but by the final decades of the sixteenth century other aspiring European maritime powers—England, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark—had begun to contest its hegemony over the area that would become known as the West Indies.
The diversity of the metropolitan powers vying for hegemony in the Caribbean led to the fragmentation of cultural and linguistic patterns characteristic of the present-day West Indies. However, their collective focus on the development of a plantation economy centered on the production of sugarcane by African slaves provided a common link between the various islands. During the early decades of the seventeenth century, the ever-threatened enclaves of European-style farming communities that had struggled to flourish throughout the Caribbean during the previous century were gradually replaced by large-scale plantations. The consolidation of sugar production through the plantations was the foundation of the Caribbean colonial economy. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the sugar industry had become so pervasive throughout the archipelago that Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, would refer to the entire area as “our sugar islands.”
As the plantations of the Caribbean became the centerpiece of an international trade subordinated to the needs of European markets and often financed from abroad, the region became the destination for thousands of African slaves, themselves a valuable commodity central to the triangular
trade that fed upon the plantation system for centuries. According to Franklin Knight, African slaves became as a result “the most important single ingredient in the economic success of plantation society” (Knight 1978: 83). While it is true that millions of human beings of diverse racial, geographic, and cultural origins would be pressed into service in the sugar system, the brunt of the enterprise was undoubtedly borne by enslaved Africans, making the Caribbean archipelago “the historical and geographical core of Afro-America” (Hoetink 1985: 55).
The first African slaves arrived in the Caribbean at the very beginning of the “discovery” and conquest, and the region was among the last areas in which slavery was abolished in the Americas (Cuba in 1886, two years prior to its abolition in Brazil in 1888). Lasting nearly four centuries, African slavery would span nearly all of postcontact Caribbean history. Consequently it has been described as “the most massive acculturational event in human history” (Mintz 1974: 9). Upon arriving in the Americas, Africans experienced multiple levels of acculturation: an initial adaptation to new languages and customs in an interchange with slaves of other cultures, and later with the culture of their masters. The strategies of accommodation, transformation, and resistance of African peoples are exemplified in the syncretic, creolized religions described in the following chapters, practices that evolved from the experiences in which Africans were obliged to re-create their cultures and systems of belief within a very restrictive social structure in a new and unfamiliar environment.
Of the roughly five million Africans transported to the Americas, more than half were intended for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. The plantations, which first proved their potential as producers of “white gold” in the English-held territories of Barbados, Antigua, and Surinam in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, consumed their greatest number of African slaves during the eighteenth. By 1750 Jamaica had superseded Barbados and Antigua as the region’s leading producer of sugar, only to lose its dominance to the French colony of Saint Domingue by 1780. Cuba would surpass them all in the nineteenth century, but only after the Haitian Revolution brought an abrupt end to sugar production in Saint Domingue, and those planters who survived the violence fled the newly independent island to start anew in Cuba.
The importation of slaves and their ultimate destination within the Caribbean followed the uncertainties of these changing patterns of sugar production, with the highest concentrations of slaves to be found wherever production was highest and most technologically advanced. The shifting patterns of
these concentrations are central to our discussion, as they were responsible for the intensity of cultural exchange that would bring about the development of the African-based religious practices commonly known today as Creole religions. The practice of Obeah, for example—the set of “hybrid” or “creolized” Caribbean beliefs “which includes such practices as ritual incantation and the use of fetishes or charms” (Richardson 1997: 173)—was perceived to be widespread throughout the late seventeenth and early to mid-eighteenth centuries in Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica, then at their highest levels of sugar production. Even at that early stage in the history of slavery in the New World, Obeah could be traced to the concentrations of Ashanti and kindred tribes from the Gold Coast of Africa, heavily represented in the slave population of the British colonies of the Caribbean.
The practice of Obeah, seen by British colonial authorities as a threat to the stability of the plantation and the health of colonial institutions, had been outlawed in most British Caribbean islands early in the eighteenth century, after being perceived as one of the few means of retaliation open to the slave population. Moreover, Obeahmen were seen as potential leaders who could use their influence over the slaves to incite them to rebellion, as had been the case in the Jamaican rebellion of 1760. “The influence of the Professors of that art,” wrote the authors of the Report of the Lord of the Committee …
(1789) at the time, “was such as to induce many to enter into that rebellion on the assurance that they were invulnerable, and to render them so, the Obeah man gave them a powder with which to rub themselves.” As Alan Richardson underscores, Edward Long had discussed the role of a “famous obeiah man or priest in the Tacky Rebellion in his History of Jamaica
(1774), a work notorious for its virulent racism, and stated that among the ‘Coromantyns’ (slaves shipped from the Gold Coast) the ‘obeiah-men
’ were the ‘chief oracles’ behind conspiracies and would bind the conspirators with the ‘fetish or oath.’”1
Likewise, the practice of Haitian Vodou—the array of practices that Michel Laguerre has called “the collective memory of the [African] slaves brought to the sugar plantations of Haiti”—grew in intensity as the colony’s accelerated rate of production during the mid- to late-eighteenth century redoubled the massive migration of thousands of men and women to a new and unfamiliar world marked by their brutal exploitation and early deaths in the plantations of Saint Domingue. The French colony of Saint Domingue (as Haiti was named prior to independence), on the western half of the island of Hispaniola—the site of Spain’s first colony in the new world—had achieved an unprecedented degree of economic prosperity during the eighteenth century,
becoming the world’s leading producer of sugar. French pirates, taking advantage of Spain’s neglect of its Caribbean colonies after the discovery of the gold-rich territories of South America, had established sugar plantations on the western end of the island following the foundation of Port-de-Paix in 1664 and the establishment of the French West India Company. Haiti’s aboriginal Arawak population having disappeared early in the colony’s history as a result of conquest, warfare, excessive work, or disease, the island’s sugar-based prosperity was built on a violent and systematic exploitation of labor unlike any known in early modern history. It represented the “epitome of the successful exploitation of slave society in tropical America” (Knight 1978: 149).
In 1791, the Haitian slaves—a population estimated at 452,000 in 1789—rebelled against the brutal conditions of the plantation and the denial of the most basic civil liberties, beginning the long process that became known as the Haitian Revolution, which would eventually lead to the establishment of the first independent republic in the Caribbean. Like the Obeah-inspired rebellions in the British West Indies, the Haitian Revolution was rooted in the commonality of religious and cultural practices centered on Vodou, and its beginnings were marked by a pact between the revolutionary leaders and the Vodou lwas or spirits at a ceremony held at Bois-Caïman (described by a captured slave during legal proceedings against him at Cap-Français). The links between religion and the uprising were established early through the slaves’ belief in the powers of their legendary leader Makandal to predict the future and transform himself into various animals, attributes that served him well in his clandestine war against the French colonists. Makandal’s chief strategy was sabotage by means of poison, but his reputation as a houngan or Vodou priest grew in proportion to the fear he instilled in the French settlers that his knowledge of the poisons, spells, and other subtle weapons he deployed against the white population had its source in magical powers linked to mysterious African practices.
The implications of the Haitian Revolution for the entire Caribbean were enormous, as the former slaves laid the country to waste, destroying its economic structure and severing their connection to international markets, to which they had been the leading supplier of sugar, coffee, and cacao. The vacuum opened a golden opportunity for Cuban sugar producers who had met with only limited success in their ability to compete against Saint Domingue’s enormous production capacity. Thousands of French émigrés from Saint Domingue resettled in Cuba, bringing with them capital, slaves, and, most importantly, considerable skill and experience in sugar and coffee production.
A surge in the price of sugar, new trading possibilities with the United States after the American Revolution, an industrial revolution that mechanized and greatly facilitated sugar production, and the successful independence movements of Spain’s mainland colonies that eliminated Cuba’s former strategic role set new priorities for Cuban growers, who dominated the industry throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the burden of sugar production shifted to Cuba, so did the concentration of slaves, making of Cuba the crucible of syncretism in the nineteenth-century Caribbean.
The nineteenth century was a period of transition for the region. After the consolidation of the new Haitian Republic, the island’s political leaders were hard-pressed to establish and maintain a stable regime. As a result, the country’s history since independence has been marked by social turmoil, economic instability, frequent political coups, and the use of political assassination as an instrument of terror. Dessalines, who emerged from the Revolution as Emperor Jacques I, was killed in 1806 while trying to put down a mulatto revolt. Henri Christophe, heir to his kingdom, forced the newly freed slaves to return to the plantations in order to improve the country’s economy, and committed suicide in 1820 at his citadel of Laferrière, with rebelling soldiers storming his gates. His successor, President Jean Pierre Boyer, invaded the Spanish half of the island, which had just declared its own independence from Spain, and was overthrown in 1842, a year before the Haitian army was expelled from the Dominican Republic. Between then and 1915 a succession of twenty heads of state tried to govern Haiti, sixteen of whom were overthrown by revolution or were assassinated. The resulting political instability, greed, and corruption, coupled with a systematic depletion of the country’s resources, contributed to Haiti becoming the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the once-promising young republic was poised for a lengthy American occupation and a tortuous struggle against poverty, corruption, despair, and environmental degradation.
Prior to the nineteenth century, the Spanish-held territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo—on the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola—had failed to fulfill their early promise as major sources of colonial wealth. For the greater part of their histories they had been severely neglected by Spain, particularly following the discovery of the more valuable territories of Mexico and Peru. Unlike Cuba, whose main port of Havana had played a major role as a supply depot for the Spanish fleet on its way to and from Latin America, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo had failed to establish themselves as important posts in the line of defense against Spain’s European enemies—the French, British, and Dutch pirates intent on interdicting
the gold and silver pouring out of the Americas and interrupting the empire’s supply systems. Largely characterized by underpopulated small towns, tobacco farms, cattle ranches, coffee plantations, and a small number of sugar plantations whose production was geared to internal consumption, and few African slaves, the population of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico—mostly Creoles of mixed European, Amerindian, and African stock—had expanded slowly. Until the Haitian Revolution gave them an increased role in sugar production, they had found themselves subordinated to a peripheral role as way-stations for the Spanish flota
transporting the wealth of South America to Spain. Their social and political lives had revolved around fortified garrisons for the armies protecting the naval routes between the new center of the empire and the metropolis, their economies dependent on the situado
, a subsidy collected from the Mexican treasury. Their fates would be significantly altered by events in Haiti, although they would remain in Cuba’s considerable shadow.
The Haitian Revolution truly transformed Cuba, turning it into the greatest of the Spanish “Sugar Islands.” Among the numerous changes caused by the resulting economic upheaval was the concomitant increase in Cuba’s general population and the tremendous new demand for African slave labor. Between 1512 and 1761 about sixty thousand slaves were imported into Cuba; from 1762 to 1838 the figure rose to four hundred thousand (an increase from two hundred and fifty per year to nearly five thousand).2
Although one quarter of the slave population (mostly Creoles, or native-born) lived in urban centers, the majority of Africans toiled on the sugar plantations or in the coffee and tobacco fields where they worked under the most wretched conditions, not unlike those the slave population of Haiti had known during the heyday of that country’s sugar production. The mortality rate was so high that new acquisitions were constantly required to replenish the population.3
The response to such oppression, as in Jamaica and Haiti, was very often marronage
(flight), suicide, or rebellion. Controlling the slave population soon became a dominant social and political issue in Cuba.4
Slave revolts were frequent, ranging from spontaneous eruptions of violence on individual estates to large organized uprisings that included free persons of color and whites. Perceived as a serious threat to central authority, these organized revolts were brutally crushed by the Spanish colonial government, among them the famous conspiracy referred to as La Escalera (The Ladder, 1844), one of the best organized and most severely repressed. Thousands were tried in military tribunals and hundreds were condemned to death, imprisoned, or deported.
Within Cuba’s restrictive colonial social and economic structure, the free population of African descent, which during certain periods represented a dominant percentage of the population, maneuvered a space for themselves in many occupations and trades, due in part to the policy of coartación
(manumission), through which a number of Cuban slaves were permitted to purchase their freedom from their masters in installments. The system favored Creole or native-born over newly arrived slaves from Africa, and urban over rural slaves who generally lacked similar opportunities to save money to purchase their freedom. In rural agricultural areas, where conditions were harsher and emancipation more elusive, many disregarded the brutal punishments reserved for recaptured runaways and fled to the isolated interiors of the south and central-eastern Cuba’s mountain range to establish fortified maroons settlements, palenques
where they fashioned their own unique cultural traditions. The experience of culture building that took place in maroon societies is considered emblematic of the process that resulted in the syncretic African-based traditions (including religions) shaped by enslaved Africans in the Americas. The difficulties of creating and maintaining maroon societies in the colonial slave systems of the Americas required the full range of the collective experiences of Africans from a variety of cultures who had to adapt themselves not only to a challenging environment but also to a new social community that could range from newly arrived Africans to highly acculturated Creoles.6
“What the majority of these people did share was a recently forged Afro-American culture and a strong ideological (or at least rhetorical) commitment to things ‘African’” (Price 1973: 26).
Cuba remained a slave society until the abolition of slavery in 1886, and the tensions and alliances created during a long history of racialized labor exploitation featured prominently in the coalitions brought together to fight the Cuban War of Independence in 1895. Black and mulatto soldiers fought side by side with the most liberal sectors of Cuban Creole society, hoping to establish a new nation on democratic principles and greater class and race representation. The victory over Spanish forces—coming in the wake of the United States joining Cuban forces in what would be known as the Spanish-American War—would disappoint the broader social aspirations of the black and mulatto sectors of the Cuban population. Independence, when it finally came in 1903, came under restricted neocolonial conditions, with American sugar corporations taking over sugar plantations, and the United States throwing its considerable support behind the most conservative military-backed dictatorships. Renewed hopes would wait until the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which opened a new chapter in Afro-Cuban history.
Cuba’s Spanish-speaking Caribbean neighbors—Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic—followed significantly different paths during the nineteenth century. Both intensified their production of sugar in response to the opening of markets following the Haitian Revolution. Neither would rival Cuban production, although both would see their economies transformed by sugar production. The Spanish colony of Santo Domingo opened the decade by joining Haiti, the United States, and Spain’s Latin American colonies in wars of independence against continued colonial rule. As the Dominican Republic, it gained its independence from Spain in 1821, only to be invaded by the Haitian army in 1822, in Haiti’s bid for annexation of Santo Domingo and consolidation of the island’s territory under one flag. The struggle against Haiti, and the humiliation of an almost twenty-two-year occupation, left deep emotional scars on the young Dominican nation, and frequent boundary disputes only consolidated the already existing animosity between the two nations. As a result, the consolidation of national independence was the salient political and economic intellectual focus of Dominican leaders throughout the nineteenth century.
The Dominican Republic, bound as the country had been throughout the century in a seemingly ceaseless struggle to solidify its independence, entered the twentieth century solidly in the orbit of the new neocolonial power in the region, the United States. Like Cuba, its sugar production, long neglected because of the internecine war against Haiti, and plagued by inefficiency and limited access to new technologies, fell into the hands of American sugar corporations. Its governments, corrupt and greedy for the most part, subordinated the country’s independent economic development to serving American interests. As in Haiti, American occupation loomed ahead in the opening decades of the new century; like Cuba, it would see its full share of American-backed dictatorships and would have to defer dreams of racial justice and greater class equality.
Puerto Rico followed a different path during the nineteenth century. Although it intensified sugar production in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, it maintained a steady production of coffee throughout the century, with coffee surpassing sugar after 1850. As a result, it never reached the high percentages of slave population of other Caribbean islands. At the height of its slave-centered sugar production, only 11 percent of its total population was enslaved. The only one of Spain’s possessions in the Caribbean and Latin America not to wage a war of independence against Spain, Puerto Rico, despite a strong separatist movement responsible for at least one serious attempt at rebellion—the 1868 Grito de Lares—would close the century
having obtained an Autonomous Charter from Spain. Only months later it was ceded to the United States as a new American territory, following Spain’s loss of the Spanish-American War in 1898. As a result of its idiosyncratic path—the result, perhaps, of havin...