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Spanish Rule, Sugar and Slaves

palenques, world sugar prices, French masters, independent farmers, slave revolts

The sugar industry received a major boost when a slave rebellion broke out in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791. The slaves massacred many of their French masters and drove the remaining French planters from the colony. Prior to the revolt, Saint-Domingue had a booming coffee and sugar industry that depended on African slaves. After 1791 Haiti’s sugar production never matched its former output, and Cuba emerged as the world’s major sugar producer.

Enterprising Cuban landowners bought new land, built additional sugar refineries, and imported unprecedented numbers of African slaves. Between 1780 and 1788, more than 18,000 slaves were brought to Cuba. That number increased to over 125,000 between 1789 and 1810. Between 1811 and 1820, the decade of the greatest African slave trade, over 161,000 human beings were carried against their wills from Africa to Cuba. For the next 40 years, over 200,000 new slaves labored on plantations. Creole plantation owners flourished, slave traders bought land and built plantations with the profits they made from selling slaves, and Spanish moneylenders filled their pockets with the interest from loan payments for land purchases. Cuba’s economy became a monoculture, an economy based on one product. The economy boomed in years when world sugar prices were good and went bust when prices were down.

Sugar production rested on slave labor, and the life of a slave in Cuba was often harsh. Most Cuban slaves were males who worked long, hard hours clearing land and cutting cane on the sugar plantations. Once a slave began work in a sugar field, his or her future life expectancy shrank to eight years. Plantation owners tended to work slaves hard until they died and then replaced them with new slaves. The sugar harvest required backbreaking work. From November to May, slaves worked shifts of 16 to 19 hours daily. During the slow months from June through October, owners could not work their slaves more than 9 hours a day by law. Women could be field slaves, and when they were, they worked the same hours and at the same jobs as men.

Generally slaves were well fed. They lived in shelters that were usually kept neat by older women, who also looked after the children. Sundays and holidays were reserved for planting gardens for the slaves’ subsistence, and the Africans could hold their own religious ceremonies during this time. Santeria, a mixture of beliefs from Catholicism and the African Lucumi religion emerged. By the end of the 19th century blacks and whites alike practiced this religion.

Treatment of slaves varied according to the whims of masters, even though laws offered theoretical protection. Overseers carried whips, which they used to move people along or to punish them. Not all slaves accepted their conditions. Some runaway slaves made it into interior mountains, where they lived in organized communities called palenques (runaway communities) that the police and the Spanish army tried to destroy.

Just as sugar drove the economy and the importation of slaves, it also shaped the makeup of the Cuban population, changing the proportion of whites to blacks and mulattoes, and of free people to slaves. Liberal policies allowed slaves to obtain their freedom. These policies distinguished Cuba from many other nations with slavery; they also meant that Cuba’s population contained a significant number of free people of color. According to the official census of 1774, the Cuban population was 56.4 percent white, 19.9 percent free blacks or mulattoes, and 23.7 percent black slaves. This sizeable population of free blacks worked as artisans, independent farmers, stevedores, small entrepreneurs, and professionals. At first the Spanish believed that free blacks made positive contributions to colonial society, but they soon became concerned that black intellectuals would support emancipation and slave revolts.

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