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25 - Afro Latino Narrative

In the interview made by the Cuban essayist Miguel Barnet, Esteban Montejo, a former runaway, recounts his life as a slave in the Cuban Plantation Flor de Sagua. Later we explore slavery in the Cuban plantations and how Haiti’s abolition and conquest of self-government affected the slave trade and the sugar industry in Cuba.


1. Book: Biography of a Runaway Slave. Miguel Barnet. Translation copyright © 1994 by W. Nick Hill. First U.S. edition published by Pantheon Books, 1968. Revised edition published by Curbstone Press, 2004. New revised edition published by Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2016 All rights reserved.

2. Book: Faces & Masks: Memory of Fire Volume 2. Eduardo Galeano. Translated by Cedric Belgrage. Published by Nation Books. New York 1998.

3. Book: Afro-Latin America:1800-2000. George Reid Andrews. Oxford University Press 2004.

4. Book: Cimarrón de Palabras. Rodrigo Martínez Furé. Editorial Letras Cubanas. La Habana, Cuba, 2010.

5. Article: A Cuban Slave Hunter's Journal: Francisco Estevez's "Diario Del Rancheador" (1837-1842). Lorna V. Williams. Afro-Hispanic Review Vol. 10, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 1991), pp. 62-66 (5 pages) URL:

6. Article: The Names of Slavery and Beyond: the Atlantic, the Americas and Cuba. Michael Zeuske. University of Cologne. URL:

7. Thesis: The Architecture of Nineteenth-Century Cuban Sugar Mills: Creole Power and African Resistance in Late Colonial Cuba. Lorena Tezanos Toral. The Graduate Center, City University of New York. 2015. URL:

8. Article: La gesta libertadora, INRA [magazine] 2, no. 8 [1961]: 22–25

From the book of Eduardo Galeano Faces & Masks

1861: Havana: Sugar Hands

Soon the city of Havana will be staging its floral games. The intellectuals of the Literary Society propose a great central motif. They want the literary competition to be on the theme of asking Spain for sixty thousand new slaves. The poets will thus support the black importation project, which already enjoys the patronage of the newspaper Diario de La Marinaand the legal blessing of the attorney general.

Hands are needed for sugar. Blacks smuggled in via the Mariel, Cojímar, and Batabanó beaches are scarce and expensive. Three sugar mill owners have drawn up the project, because Cuba lies exhausted and desolate, imploring the Spanish authorities to hear her cries of woe and provide her with blacks, meek and loyal slaves to whom Cuba owes her economic prosperity. It will be easy, they insist, to bring them from Africa. They will run joyfully to the Spanish ships, when they see them arriving.

Biography of a runaway slave

Biography of a Runaway Slave. Miguel Barnet. Translation copyright © 1994 by W. Nick Hill. First U.S. edition published by Pantheon Books, 1968. Revised edition published by Curbstone Press, 2004. New revised edition published by Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2016 All rights reserved.

I have never forgotten the first time I tried to run away. That time I failed and spent a number of years enslaved by the fear they would put the shackles on me again. But I had the spirit of a cimarrón in me, and it didn’t go away. I kept quiet about things so nobody could betray me, because I was always thinking about escaping.

It went round, and round in my head and wouldn’t leave me in peace. It was an idea that never left me and sometimes even sapped my energy. The old blacks were not kindly toward running away. The women even less so.

Runaways, there weren’t many. People were afraid of the woods. They said that if some slaves escaped, they would be caught anyway. But for me that idea went around in my head more than any other. I always had the fantasy that I would enjoy being in the forest. And I knew that working in the fields was like living in hell. You couldn’t do anything on your own. Everything depended on the master’s orders.

When Esteban ran away

In the article “A Cuban Slave Hunter’s Journal,” Lorna Williams writes that in countries like Cuba, where mountains and highly forested areas offered an opportunity to hide and survive, groups of slaves generally chose marronage as their way of repudiating slavery. However, the runaways posed a threat to the continuity of the plantation system. As early as 1528, in Cuba, slave hunters began operating under a professional status.

One day I began to watch the overseer. I had already been studying him. That dog got stuck in my eyes, and I couldn’t get him out. I think he was a Spaniard. I remember that he was tall and never took his hat off. All the blacks had respect for him because one of the whippings he gave could strip the skin off of just about anybody.

The thing is, one day I was riled up, and I don’t know what got into me, but I was mad, and just seeing him set me off. I whistled at him from a distance, and he looked around and then turned his back. That’s when I picked up a rock and threw it at his head. I know it hit him because he shouted for someone to grab me. But he never saw me again, because that day I made it into the woods.

I traveled many days without any clear direction. I was sort of lost. I had never left the plantation. I walked uphill and downhill, all around. I know I got to a farm near Siguanea, where I had no choice but to camp. My feet were full of blisters and my hands were swollen. I camped under a tree. I stayed there no more than four or five days. All I had to do was hear the first human voice close by, and I would take off fast. It would have been real shame if you got caught right after escaping. So, I came to hide in a cave for a time. I lived there for a year and a half.

I was careful about all the sounds I made. And of the fires. If I left a track, they could follow my path and catch me. I climbed up and down so many hills that my legs and arms got as hard as sticks. Little by little I got to know the woods.

Cimarrons and Rancheadores

Lorna Williams tells us that initially, the pursuers' mission was to capture fugitives and return them to their owners. As the maroons' intense desire for autonomy continued in 1610 in an attempt to deter the runaways', the colonial authorities in Havana sought to compel the captured fugitives to bear the marks of their defiance. Each marron would have an ear or nose be cut off, and that those who resisted recapture were killed. Although the Spanish crown had stated laws to regulate slave hunters' conduct, prohibiting acts of excessive brutality, the persistence of maroon led to the increase of harsh punishments.

Sometimes I would forget I was a cimarrón, and I would start to whistle. Early on I used to whistle to get over the fear. They say that when you whistle, you chase away the evil spirits. But being a cimarrón in the woods you had to be on the lookout. I didn’t start whistling again, because the guajiros or the slave catchers could come. Since the cimarrón was a slave who had escaped, the masters sent a posse of rancheadores after them.

The guajiros came with hunting dogs so they could drag you out of the woods in their jaws. I never ran into any of them. I never seen one of those dogs up close. They were trained to catch blacks. If a dog saw a black man, he ran after him. If by chance I heard one barking nearby, I took my clothes right off, because the dog can’t smell anybody naked like that.

When a slave catcher caught a black, the master or the overseer gave him an ounce of gold or more. In those years, an ounce was like saying seventeen pesos. Who knows how many guajiros were in that business! Truth is that I lived well as a cimarrón, very hidden.

Family and name

In the article, “The Names of Slavery and Beyond,” Michael Zeuske writes that the children of slaves born in Spanish America were given surname of their owner or the name of the plantation where they were born. However, in the act of baptism, the child was rendered fatherless.

This was because Spanish law, only allowed children of a legitimate marriage to bear the double last name of the two apellidos. Children of unmarried women -- mostly slave mothers -- took the maternal last name as sole last name. In consequence, the majority of urban house slaves bore only the first apellido of one of their owners.”

For me, none of that is forgotten. I lived through it all. I even remember my godparents told me the date I was born. It was the twenty-sixth of December 1860, San Esteban’s day, the one on the calendar. That’s why my name is Esteban. My family name is Montejo, for my mother, who was a slave of French origin. My middle name is Mera. But that one hardly anyone knows about. Anyway, it’s not right, so why use it?

My real middle name is Mesa. What happened was that they put it down wrong in the records, and I left it that way. Since I wanted to have two names like everybody else, so I wouldn’t be called jungle baby, I took that one, and there it was. The name Mesa came from a certain Pancho Mesa in Rodrigo.

That seems reasonable, since he raised me after my birth. He was my mother’s master. Of course, I never seen him, but I know the story is true because my godparents told it to me. And I’ve never forgotten anything they ever told me. My godfather was named Gin Congo, and my godmother, Susana. I was to get to know them around the ’90s, when the war hadn’t really started up yet.

Since I didn’t know my parents, I asked about them first. Then I learned about their names and other details. They even told me the plantation where I was born. My father’s name was Nazario, and he was Lucumí from Oyó. My mother, Emilia Montejo. They also told me my parents had died in Sagua.

Like all children of slavery, the criollitos, as they were called, I was born in the infirmary where they took the pregnant black women to give birth. I think it was at the Santa Teresa plantation, though I’m not real sure. What I do remember is that my godparents talked to me a lot about that plantation and its owners, people by the name of La Ronda. That’s the name my godparents had for a long time, until slavery left Cuba.

Truth is that I would have liked to meet them, but because I had to save my skin, I was unable to. If I had come out of the woods, they would have caught me on the spot. Because I was a runaway slave, I never met my parents. I never ever seen them. But what is true can’t be sad.

Plantations and long hours work

In the article “The Architecture of Nineteenth-Century Cuban Sugar Mills,” Lorena Tezanos Toral writes, "The Cuban sugar industry had two essential cycles: Zafra or crop-time and tiempo muerto or planting season. The crop or harvesting time lasted three to four months, starting in late December or January, and ending between April and May. During the harvest the work time doubled, and every minute counted.

In the book, The Sugarmill, Moreno Fraginals, writes that "the limit of a slave's workday was his physical capacity. He began to the nine chimes of the Ave Maria and ended to the nine chimes of Vespers. Another bell summoned him at noon to return to work until he heard the evening call to prayer, when he left the fields to cut hay for the animals and do other marginal jobs. The cart drivers, having already spent eight to ten hours in the fields, rotated with boiling-room blacks and continued working until dawn. The cutters became feeders of cane into the grinding mill and carters of dry and green bagasse. Boiling-room workers shifted to the curing house. Each group went off to sleep for three, four, or at the most five hours as this rotation system continued."

The picture of another plantation comes to mind, Flor de Sagua. I don’t know if that’s the place where I worked for the first time. What I am sure about is that I ran away from there once. I rebelled, by God, and I ran away. Who wanted to work! But they caught me like a little lamb, and they put some shackles on me that I can still feel if I really think about it. They tied them on me tight and put me to work and all of that. You talk about this kind of thing now and folks don’t believe you. But I experienced it, and now I’ve got to talk about it.

At Flor de Sagua I first began work with the wagons carrying bagazo. I would sit in the driver’s seat and steer the mule. If the wagon was very full, I would stop, get down, and lead him by the reins. The mules were stubborn, and you had to pull them very hard. Your back would start to get humped.

The wagons went out full, right up to the top. They were always unloaded in the batey, and you had to spread out the bagazo to dry. You pulled the bagazo down with a hook. Then you took it bunched up and dry to the ovens. That was done to get the steam up. I think it was the first job I had. That’s what my memory tells me anyway. All the parts inside the mill were primitive. Not like today, with lights and fast machinery.

In Flor de Sagua I worked in the cachimbo’s cooling room. But that’s after I was experienced with the bagazo. That was a pick-and-shovel job.

To my mind, even cutting cane was better. I must have been about ten, and that’s why they didn’t send me to the fields. But ten years of age then was like saying thirty now, because children worked like oxen. If a little black boy was pretty and lively, they sent him inside, to the master’s house. There they began to sweeten him up, and…what do I know!

The fact is that the little black boy had to spend his time shooing flies because the masters ate a lot. And they put the little boy at the head of the table while they ate. They gave him a big long fan made of a palm frond. And they told him, “Shoo, so those flies don’t fall in the food!” If a fly fell on a plate, they scolded him severely and even whipped him. I never did this work because I never liked to be near the masters. I was a cimarrón from birth.

Life in the Barracoons

In 1831, Honorato Bernard appeared to have been the first to recommend the construction of barracoons or barracks. He advised building the slaves’ quarters in the shape of a barracoon with a single door. The keys of each barrack would then be collected by the overseer or mayoral at night. Each room would have a single door with a small barred window to avoid unwanted communications between the slaves at night.

All the slaves lived in barracoons. Those living quarters are gone now, so nobody can see them. But I seen them, and I never had a good thought about them. The masters sure did say that barracoons were little boxes of gold. The slaves didn’t like living in those conditions because being closed in suffocated them.

The barracoons were big, although there were some mills that had small ones. It depended on the number of slaves in the workforce. About two hundred slaves of all different colors lived at Flor de Sagua. The barracoon was in the form of two rows that faced each other, with a big door in the middle and a thick padlock that locked the slaves in at night.

There were barracoons made of wood and others made of cement with tiled roofs. Both kinds had a dirt floor and were filthy as hell. There certainly was no modern kind of ventilation inside. A little hole in the wall of the room or a little tiny window with bars was all there was. So, the place swarmed with fleas and ticks that gave the entire workforce infections and sickness. Those ticks were witches. And so, the only thing to get rid of them was hot lard, and sometimes even that didn’t work.

The masters wanted the barracoons to look clean outside, so they painted them with whitewash. The blacks themselves were given that task. The master would say to them, “Get some whitewash and spread it evenly.”

People had to stay in the rooms of the barracoons, which were small and hot. Rooms! In reality they were furnaces. They had doors with latchkeys so nobody would get robbed. But watch out for the little criollos, who were born rascally, with a thieving instinct. They would get out from under the covers at night to go around stealing like the dickens.

Outside the barracoon there weren’t any trees, nor inside, either. The barracoon was bare dirt, empty, and lonely. A black man couldn’t get used to that. Blacks like trees, woods. Maybe the Chinese could! Africa was full of trees, ceibas, cedars, banyan trees. Over there they had plants that grew along the ground, creepers, purslane, morning glories…Since the rooms were tiny, the slaves did their business in a latrine, as they called it. It was in a corner of the barracoon. That’s a place everybody went to.

The bells and the sugar mill routine

In the article “El ingenio: El complejo económico social Cubano de azúcar” (Havana: Comisión Nacional Cubana de la UNESCO, 1978), Manuel Moreno Fraginals, says that the bell was an essential symbol of the mill, marking the rhythm of the endless chores at the plantation. There was no mill or coffee plantation without a bell. The bell ringer played simple patterns, and it was generally an old black who no longer could work in any tasks of production, would not run away. The tower, were the lookout, fort, and bell were, was the symbol of slave labor in the cane fields. The bell marked the daily, sixteen, eighteen, or twenty hours of work per day. Also, the bell served as communication throughout the valley. There was a chime to call the ox-driver, another for the administrator, another for the overseer, and sometimes one will announce the death of a slave.

The mill’s bell was at the gateway. It was struck by the assistant overseer. At four thirty in the morning they rang the Ave María. I think there were nine strokes. You had to get up right away. At six in the morning they struck another bell, which was the lineup bell, and you had to form up on the dirt in front of the barracoon.

The men on one side and the women on the other. Then into the fields until eleven in the morning, when we ate beef jerky, taters, and bread. Then, at sunset, came the prayer bell. At eight thirty they rang the last bell for bed. It was called silence.

The assistant overseer slept in the barracoon and kept watch. In the batey, there was a white night watchman, a Spaniard, who kept guard. Everything was based on leather and vigilance.

I seen many of the horrors of punishment during slavery. That’s why I didn’t like that life. The cruelest were the stocks that they kept in the boiler house. There were stand-up stocks and lying-down ones. They were made of thick planks with holes where they made the slave put his feet, his hands, and his head. They were locked up like that for two or three months for any kind of simple bad behavior.

They used the leather on the pregnant women, too, but they laid them facedown over a scooped-out piece of ground to protect their bellies. The women got a whole handful of lashes. Well, they tried not to damage the babies, because they wanted them in abundance.

The most common type of punishment was whipping. The overseer himself gave out the whippings with a rawhide lash that left marks on the skin. Whips were also made of hemp from any old branch in the woods. It stung like the dickens and tore the skin into little strips.

I seen many smart-alecky blacks with their backs red. Afterward they would cover the wounds with compresses of tobacco leaves, urine, and salt. Life was hard, and bodies wore out quick. If you didn’t escape early on into the forest to be a cimarrón, you had to be a slave. It was better to be alone, on the loose, than in that corral with all that slime and rot.

It didn’t take much to get tired of living that life. The ones who got used to it didn’t have much spirit. Life in the woods was healthier. In the barracoons you caught a lot of diseases. You can say, without exaggeration, that’s where a man got sick most often.

There were cases of men who had up to three illnesses at the same time. When it wasn’t the colic, it was the whooping cough. Colic gave you a pain in the belly that lasted for hours and left you like dead. Whooping cough and the measles were contagious. But the worst, the ones that could cut anybody down, were smallpox and the black vomit.

Smallpox puffed you all up, and the black vomit took you by surprise because it came all of a sudden, and between one vomit and another you went stiff. There was a kind of sickness that the whites picked up. It was a sickness of the veins and of a man’s private parts. The man who had it went to bed with a black woman, and it went away.

In those days there were no powerful medicines. You couldn’t find a doctor anywhere. There were the sort of witch nurses who cured you with homemade remedies. Sometimes they cured diseases the doctors didn’t understand. Because the problem is not in poking you or pinching your tongue.

What you have to do is have confidence in herbs, which are the mother of medicines. If some slave caught a contagious disease, they took him out of his room and transferred him to the infirmary. They tried to cure him there.

If a slave began to croak, they stuck him in a big box and took him to the cemetery. Usually the overseer came and told the workforce to go and bury him. He would say, “Let’s go and bury this black man since he has completed his work.” And the slaves did it real quick, because, and this is true, when someone died, everybody lowered their heads in mourning.


In the book “Afro-Latin America:1800-2000,” George Andrews mentions that the conucos in Cuba were an example of the ambiguities of their master-salve relationship. “Many owners provided garden plots to their slaves, on which the latter grew fruits and vegetables for their own consumption and to sell, either to the owner or in nearby markets. Slaves benefited from more nutritious and varied diets, along with the opportunity to earn money; owners benefited by reducing their food costs, and also through what many perceived as the plots’ pacifying effect on slaves.” Several planters in the Rio de Janeiro province commented “Slaves who have [provision grounds] neither flee nor make trouble.

But it was the small gardens that saved many slaves. They provided them real nourishment. Almost all the slaves had their conucos. They were little strips of dirt for gardening. They were real close to the barracoons, almost right in back.

They grew everything there: sweet potato, squash, okra, corn, peas, horse beans, beans like limas, limes, yuca, and peanuts. They also raised piglets. And so those products were sold to the guajiros, who came straight from town. Truth is that the blacks were honest. Since they didn’t know much yet, being honest just came naturally. They sold their things very cheap.


George Andrews tells us that drumming, and dance were fundamental elements of African religious ritual. “Throughout Spanish and Portuguese America, Sundays, saints’ days, and religious holidays became occasions for African dancing and music-making. Some slave owners, priests, and officials allowed these events to proceed unchecked, recognizing in them not just a necessary concession to slaves’ spiritual well-being, but a useful means of keeping a potentially rebellious population divided into different African ethnic groups.”

But not everyone agreed. In 1790, in Brazil an observer expressed: it does not seem politically wise to permit these barbarous war drum dances in the streets and squares of this city. They dance in a lascivious fashion, sing heathen songs, speak in strange tongues, arousing both fear and suspicion.

Sundays were the noisiest days on the plantation. I don’t know where the slaves found the energy. The biggest fiestas during slavery took place on that day of the week. There were plantations where the drum began at noon or at one. At Flor de Sagua it started very early. At sunrise the noise began, and the games, and the children began to spin around.

The barracoon came to life in a flash. It seemed like the world would come to an end. And, even with all the work, everybody got up happy. The overseer and his assistant came into the barracoon and started fooling around with the women. I noticed that the ones who were least involved were the Chinese.

Those bastards didn’t have an ear for the drums. They were standoffish. It was that they thought a lot. In my opinion they thought more than the blacks. Nobody paid them any mind. And folks just went on with their dances. The one I remember best is the yuka. In the yuka three drums were played: la caja, la mula, and the cachimbo, which was the littlest.

Behind the drums someone played two hollowed-out cedar trunks with two sticks. The slaves themselves made them, and I think they called them cata. Yuka was danced in pairs, and the movements were dramatic. Sometimes they swooped like birds, and it even seemed like they were going to fly they moved so fast. They did little jumps with their hands on their hips. Everybody sang to encourage the dancers.

There was another, more complicated dance. I don’t know if it was a dance or a game, because the punches given out were serious. That dance was called the maní. The maní dancers made a circle of forty or fifty men. And they began to slap at each other. The one who got hit went out to dance.

The women didn’t dance but made a hand-clapping chorus. They would shout from the scare they got, because sometimes a black would fall down and never get up again. The maní was a cruel game. The dancers didn’t bet on the challenges. At some plantations, the masters themselves bet, but at Flor de Sagua I don’t remember them doing it. What the masters did do was to prohibit the blacks from hitting each other too much, because sometimes they got so beaten up they couldn’t work.

African beliefs

Lorna Williams says during the second half of the 1700s, the catholic church tried to convert the cabildos, which were African membership organizations, into Catholic religious brotherhoods. Each cabildo was assigned a patron saint and instructed their members in Catholic doctrine and observance. African worshipers were receptive to Christianity but retained African gods and rites as well by practicing them at the cabildos.

During the 1800s, the church’s control over Cuban society weakened, and as more Africans than ever before were brought into the island, the cabildos’ cultural influence was strengthened, giving rise to new Afro Cuban religions: Santería, Abakuá, and Palo Monte.

The African gods are different, although they seem to resemble the other ones, the gods of the priests, which are stronger and less decorated. Right now, if you up and go to a Catholic church, you see no apples, no rocks, no rooster feathers. But in an African household those are the first things you see.

The African is more down-to-earth. I knew about two African religions in the barracoons, the Lucumí and the Conga. The Conga was the more important. They gained the trust of all the slaves with their fortune-telling.

When they had a problem with some person, they followed that person along any path and gathered up the dirt they walked on. They saved it and put it in the nganga or in a secret little corner. As the sun went down, the life of the person would leave him. And at sunset the person was quite dead. I say this because it happens that I seen it a lot during slave times. No one ever tried to work a hex on me because I have always been a loner, and I’ve never cared to know too much about other people’s business.

Witchcraft is more common with the Congos than with the Lucumís. The Lucumís are more allied to the saints and to God. They liked to get up early with the strength of the morning and look at the sky and pray and sprinkle water on the ground.

When you least expect it, the Lucumí is doing his work. I have seen old blacks kneeling on the ground for more than three hours speaking in their tongue and telling the future. The difference between the Congo and the Lucumí is that the Congo does things, and the Lucumí tells the future.

He knows everything through the diloggunes, which are snails from Africa. With mystery inside. They’re white and a little lumpy. Eleggua’s eyes are made from that snail. All the saints spoke through the coconuts.

Now the master of all of them was Obatalá. Obatalá was an ancient, so I heard, who was always dressed in white. They said that Obatalá was the one who created you, and who knows what else. People come from nature, and so does Obatalá. The old Lucumís liked to have their figurines, their gods, made of wood. They kept them in the barracoon. All those figurines had a big head. The Eleggua was made of cement, but Changó and Yemayá were made of wood, and the carpenters made them themselves.

The other religion was Catholicism. It was introduced by the priests, who wouldn’t go into the barracoons during slavery for love or money. The priests were very neat and tidy. They had a serious look that didn’t sit well in the barracoons.

They were so serious that there were even blacks who hung on their every word and obeyed them to the letter. They learned the catechism, and then they would read it to the others. With all the words and the prayers. Those were the house slaves, and they met with the other slaves, the field slaves, in the bateyes. They came to be the priests’ messengers.

Truth is, I never learned that doctrine because I did not understand it at all. I don’t think the house slaves did, either, but because they were so refined and so well treated, they became Christians.

African nations and their breeding

George Andrews comments even in the Americas, African ethnicity remained a determinant of slave identities and a source of difference, division, and occasional conflict within the slave population. Slave owners and colonial administrators sought to maintain those divisions, seeing in them a defense against unified slave resistance.

The count of Arcos, governor of Bahia during the 1810s, defended his policy of allowing African slaves to hold public street dances by arguing that the dances reinforced national divisions among the slaves, which constituted the strongest guarantee of safety for the great cities of Brazil, he said: If some day, the different African Nations forget the anger that disunites them, and if the Dahomey become brothers of the Yoruba, the Ewe with the Hausa, the Tapa with the Ashanti, and so forth: from that moment onward enormous danger will confront and desolate Brazil.

The governor’s point was confirmed years later when, in 1835, a Yoruba slave revolt failed in large part because of the refusal of Congo, Angolan, and Creole, that is the native-born Brazilian slaves to take part in it.

In the plantations there were blacks from different nations. Each one had its own traits. The Congos were dark, though you also had many lighter, fair-skinned mulattoes. They were short on the whole. The Mandingoes were slightly reddish colored. Tall and very strong. I swear on my mother’s grave they were crooks and a bad bunch. They always went their own way. The Gangás were good folks. Short and freckle faced. Many were cimarrones. The Carabalís were fierce like the Musungo Congos.

At all the plantations there was an infirmary near the barracoons. It was a large wooden house where they took the pregnant women. Children were born there and stayed until they were six or seven years old, when they went to live in the barracoons to work like everyone else. I remember that there were some black nannies who took care of the little slave children and gave them food.

When someone was hurt in the field or got sick, those black women would doctor him. With herbs and potions they cured everything. There was no need to worry. Sometimes the little criollitos wouldn’t see their parents again, because the master was the owner, and he could send them to another plantation.

Then the nannies certainly would have to do everything. But who was going to worry about a child that wasn’t even her own! In that same infirmary they stripped and bathed the children. The breed-stock children cost some five hundred pesos.

The thing about the breed-stock children was that they were born of strong, tall blacks. Tall blacks were privileged. The masters kept an eye out for them to mate them with big healthy black women. After they were together in a separate room in the barracoon, they were obliged to have sex, and the woman had to bear good babies every year. I tell you it was like breeding animals. Well, if the woman didn’t bear the way they liked, they separated them and put her out in the field again to work. The women who weren’t like little rabbits were sunk because they had to go back to breaking their backs.

We are free!

In 1886, Cuba became the second to last country in Latin America to abolish slavery, followed by Brazil in 1888.

All my life I’ve liked the woods. But when slavery ended, I stopped being a cimarrón. I found out about the end of slavery from all the people shouting, and I left the woods.

They shouted, “We’re free now.” But I wasn’t affected. To my mind, it was a lie. I don’t know… fact was that I went up to a mill, and without touching the boilers or the cans or anything, I stuck my head out little by little until I came out altogether in the open. That was when Martínez Campos was governor, because the slaves said he was the one who let them go free.

Even so, many years passed in Cuba, and there were still slaves. It lasted longer than people believe. When I came out of the woods I started in walking, and I met an old woman with two children in her arms. I called to her from a distance, and when she came up to me, I asked her, “Tell me, is it true that we’re no longer slaves?” She answered me, “No, son, now we’re really free.”


Very well, dear listeners, as customary, it is time to talk about the story. In this opportunity, we will be exploring aspects of the slave trade in the Spanish and Portuguese America, Haiti's effect, how Cuba became a major sugar exporter, and how that made this island the second to last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.

Let's start with Haiti's effect.

If anyone remembers from history class, what is now called the Haitian Revolution began in the late 1700s and lasted until to the early 1800s. It was the first successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in the Americas. Self-liberated slaves led the call to arms against French rule in Saint-Domingue.

The whole story is quite intricate, full of conspiracies, heroism, betrayal, and deaths by yellow fever. But that, of course, is another cuento. The reason I am briefly mentioning Haiti's conquest of self-government is because of its influence on the wars for independence in Latin America and the subsequent abolition of slavery.

If you check this episode’s transcript in our website, you’ll find a comparative chart of the dates of independence of Latin American countries and the years of emancipation.

On the Haiti Effect, George Andrews, author of the book Afro-Latin America: 1800-2000, says, "The example of Haiti loomed even larger in Cuba and Puerto Rico." Mainly, because these two islands had sheltered many of the refugees from the revolution, which included white, free blacks, and slave refugees.

Andrews continues saying that "In 1799, while the revolution was still in progress, Havana's Royal Consulado, an official body representing local planters and merchants, sent the captain-general a set of proposals.” The goal was to keep the order and obedience of the slaves in the Cuban colony. One representative expressed, "The independence of the slaves in Saint-Domingue justifies our present state of fear and concern…Nothing will be easier than to see in our country an eruption of those barbarians, and it is urgent that precautions be taken to prevent a catastrophe."

Thus, by 1806 Spain had banned entry, into Cuba and Puerto Rico, of all people of color arriving from Haiti. But the measure did not stop the desire for freedom. In 1812 several major slave conspiracies were uncovered on both islands. In Cuba, the principal conspirator who was arrested and put to death was a free black carpenter and militiaman named José Antonio Aponte. In his house were portraits of Haitian independence commanders Toussaint L'Ouverture and Henri Christophe.

Despite the proximity of both islands to the epicenter of Haiti's slave revolution, and now equipped with a significant Spanish military presence, Cuban and Puerto Rican elites chose to remain loyal to Spain. Consequently, avoiding the violence caused by the independence campaigns that wracked the rest of Latin America through the first part of the 1800s—and postponing the issue of emancipation for almost a whole century.

However, Haiti's effect did not stop there. During the 1700s, the Spanish and Portuguese colonies had been looking for an opportunity to expand their sugar production. But at the time, France had a sort of sugar monopoly. Then, the big break came in the 1790s, with the Saint- Domingue revolution.

When in 1804, the free and independent republic of Haiti began, the most prosperous plantation economy in the world came to its end. For instance, in 1791, Saint Domingue, today is known as Haiti, had exported over 80,000 tons of sugar. But by 1804, the numbers went down to about 24,000 tons. And in 1818, the exports were less than a thousand. Last, in 1825, it was only one.

Quickly, without wasting no time, Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico planters rushed to grab a piece of the sugar bounty. They expanded their production so quickly that by the early 1790s, Cuba had over 500 mills operating. Ten years later, Rio de Janeiro had over 600 mills.

So, since more plantations meant more slaves, imports of Africans increased considerably. Andrews affirms, "These highly developed centers of plantation-based export production became the largest importers of African slaves, and thus the heartlands of Afro-Latin America."

By 1760 Cuba was receiving an average annual import of fewer than 1,000 slaves. Between 1764 and 1790, the imports doubled. And between 1790 and 1810, more than 7,000 Africans had arrived each year to the island.

Therefore, in Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, both slavery and the plantation economy survived intact through the first half of the 1800s. During the same period, Cuban sugar exports went from 29,000 tons per year to 295,000, and Brazilian exports increased from 20,000 to 120,000 tons a year.

However, Cuba could not remain isolated from all the other revolutions going on in the rest of Spanish America. The increased slave trade aggravated social tension at all levels. Do you remember I mentioned earlier that Cuban elites were afraid of Haiti's effect which led them to pledge their loyalty to Spain? In so, the elites thought that in this way they could dodge the revolution's bullet and at the same time guarantee themselves economic benefit? Well, in truth, not everyone prospered from the situation.

Andrews tells us that "while sugar plantations in the western half of the island expanded and multiplied, smaller producers of coffee, tobacco, and sugar in eastern Cuba fell further and further behind, marginalized in the competition for markets, capital, and slaves."

When, in 1868, Spain imposed new taxes and denied self-rule, those elites representing eastern Cuban interests declared their independence and launched an armed revolt against Spanish rule.

And just as slaves in Spanish South America had played a role in the wars for independence 60 years earlier, they did as well in Cuba's Ten Years War (1868-78). A big part of that had to do with their large numbers. By 1861 there were 370,000 slaves on the island. That was a quarter of the total population.

Nonetheless, the sneaky white leaders of the revolution, as in other revolutions in the Americas, initially tried to retain the slave's owner support, saying “We will talk about the abolition when we have won.” But pressure from the abolitionist forces in the rebel movement mounted. Much of the rebel fighters were free blacks and mulattos. Within a year, the rebel government decreed full and immediate emancipation for those joining their cause.


Finally, I could not end the program without saying something about the cimarrones, also known as marrons or runaways.

Despite the planters' best oppressive efforts, runaway communities multiplied everywhere in the Americas. Andrews comments that in Cuba, "in the sugar-growing province of Matanzas, encampments of up to 300 people were reported. Palenques dotted the westernmost province of Pinar del Río, where slaves took refuge in the rocky mountains of the Sierra de los Oreganos, and the eastern province of Oriente. Between 1815 and 1838, Spanish forces fought a continuing battle against the cimarrón communities surrounding the eastern city of Santiago, destroying a number of them but never overcoming the largest such settlement, Muluala."

In 1796 to subjugate the cimarrones and the communities they were forming, Cuban authorities implemented a systematic patrolling of the countryside. The backbone of this plan was the salve-hunting rancheadores. As Montejo mentioned in his story, they tracked runaways through the forests and mountains of the island. Sadly, some of them were free blacks and mulattoes.

In her article, “A Cuban Slave Hunter's Journal,” Lorna Williams mentions that the well-known rancheador Francisco Estévez was often frustrated by how outnumbered his search party was in comparison to the marrons. After they dismantled, a marron village, another one would come to life.

The rancheadores knew that the runaways had superior knowledge of the rugged terrain as they would use rivers, caves, forests, and the thick undergrowth to disappear and that darkness and the torrential rains would make their tracks invisible.

In his dairy, the rancheador Estevez writes: "I have referred to the S.S. in charge of monitoring that I've been given four pesos for the capture of the crew captain Pedro José; seeing him motionless and having seen him with intentions of committing suicide, I gave him to his owner. He came to tell me that he would die a thousand times before delivering any of his companions, that he did not care to die, that a man does not die more than once."

And with this cry for freedom we finalize today’s episode. I’ll leave you with my translation of a poem by the Cuban poet Rogelio Martínez Furé.

Ikiri adá

Ogún aladá meyi.

Ikiri adá

Rights cannot be begged,

They are conquered with the blade of a machete

-sentenced our Titan

Ikiri adá

¿And if the machete lost its edge?

-I ask to the ancestors.

Ikiri adá

¡Sharpen it again!

-answered the égunes

of cimarrones and mambises.

¡Sharpen it again!

¡We are children of Yaokende!

Owner of the machetes.

Ikiri adá

Sharpen your minds my dear listeners, in our next episode of Afro-Latino narratives: we will be exploring on of the most important palenques, communities of cimarrones in Latin America, San Basilio de Palenque. Until the next cuento, adios.

Music Credits

Sabana_Havana and Danzon_De_Pasion_Sting – Jimmy Fontanez

Camaguey – Silent Partner




Handheld Recordings Addis, Ababa, Bahir Dar 5




Yadi_Camara_-_01_-_Afro_rumba_camara – America Afroindigena


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