Before Columbus arrived on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba the indigenous peoples were unaware of the diseases that would devastate their populations, the cruelty of the Europeans who exploited their labor to steal their wealth and the plantations that would grow sugar and coffee with the labor of African peoples brought to their islands across the Atlantic in chains. It would be the Europeans that ran the sugar plantations and conducted the lucrative sugar trade, but it would be the enslaved labor of the Africans who produced the sugar under inhuman conditions. The Africanization of these islands and the other Caribbean islands and the mixing of races and cultures that ensued over hundreds of years are the legacy of European colonialism and the slavery that it institutionalized to grow and harvest sugar to feed European and international markets.
This paper is about the struggles in Saint-Domingue and then Cuba to free the people enslaved in sugar production on the plantations and their efforts to end their colonization by winning independence. To better comprehend what happened it is important to understand the origins of the African peoples brought to these islands, the different imperial systems of the Spanish, the French and the English colonizers and the ever-evolving role of the newly independent neighbor close by, the United States. From the beginning of the European presence there were several common elements that developed on both islands. The Europeans would come in numbers sufficient to establish and maintain their control in the beginning and then as the island economies began to be dominated by the sugar industry and other plantation crops the numbers of Europeans born across the Atlantic would decline and the number of people of European descent born in the islands would grow and be named creoles. There were European indentured servants to provide labor as well but as time went on the relative absence of European women and the burgeoning number of enslaved Africans brought to the islands increased, the importance of indentured servants declined and the prospects for maintaining the creole population increased with the presence of women of African descent to produce children of mixed race. The percentage of Europeans declined as the percentages of mixed-race people grew and the number of slaves brought to work on the sugar plantations grew exponentially.
There was no balanced growth of the different segments of the population. The European or white percentage basically stayed static while the gens de couleur grew and the African presence became the dominant demographic presence.
But it was the Europeans that exercised the political, economic and legal power and for a time the overarching cultural institutions of their Catholic religion. For the people of mixed race, it seemed that the lighter the color of one’s skin the more they were identified with Europeans and the darker the color of one’s skin the more they were identified with Africans.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive in both Hispaniola and Cuba and their cultural imprint is the primary European presence on the eastern end of Hispaniola in Santo Domingo, eventually the Dominican Republic and in Cuba. After 1697 when the French seized control of the western end of Hispaniola and established Saint-Domingue the dominant European presence was French. The French language was soon blended with different African dialects and the distinctive Kreyol language emerged over time and it’s still spoken in Haiti today. Spanish is the lingua franca of the Dominican Republic and Cuba today. Roman Catholicism was the common European religion for both islands and the early Africanization of Haiti with its many cultures brought with it a blending of those religious and cultures in Vodoun, or Voudou. The later Africanization of Cuba brought the practices and beliefs of Santeria and other African religions to Cuba.
The people sold into bondage in Africa primarily came from the western coast of Africa from the Guinea Coast down to the Bights of Biafra and Benin and farther south to the Congo and Angolan coasts. 1 The slaves were most often prisoners of war who were sold by the victorious rulers of neighboring societies in exchange for European goods including guns and gunpowder. The tribal groups and cultures that the enslaved prisoners came from were Yoruba, Angolans, Congolese, Mandinka, Ibo and many others. Each person on a slave ship started from Africa with a name, a family story and a culture and if they survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and were sold on the islands to work the plantations the individual’s name and stories were the first things they lost while the presence of enough individuals from a culture, their beliefs, their language and their ways became what was still shared. Over time, the different cultures present in the enslaved populations would blend and new fusions from different cultures with input from the cultural and political traditions that had been created before them on a particular island would enrich each other. The horrors of slavery were shared by most all Africans first brought to these islands and the desire for freedom from that bottom rung of the society they toiled within, and their powerlessness were common denominators. For most people of mixed race who might be free and even own slaves it was much more nuanced, and they often had to balance their interests between those of the often darker, people below them on the social hierarchy and the whites who enjoyed the rights that they were denied.
By the mid 1750s Saint-Domingue had become one of the richest colonies in the world, producing much of the world’s sugar and a little less than half of the world’s coffee. 2 Both crops were raised to be exported and not to feed the people who suffered in slavery while producing them on agricultural factories called plantations. It was the very success of that French colony and the dangerous processes for producing large volumes of sugar that required greater and greater numbers of slaves to be brought to the island each year. As the African presence grew on the island so did the paranoia of the European population and the gens du couleur role of providing the troops that worked to contain order became more difficult. In Cuba at that same time, the Spanish government had been much less aggressive in promoting the production of sugar and the importation of slaves.
The production of sugar in the 19th Century was dangerous and difficult. Dangerous and difficult for the slaves and difficult for the plantation managers. The overarching time element was, there was only 24 hours for the sugar cane juice to be converted into a solid state from the moment the sugar cane was cut, and the juice exposed to the air, until granular sugar was produced. That was because the high caloric value of the sugar cane juice would start to ferment after 24 hours. The sugar cane needed to be cut, transported to the grinding mill, ground down to produce the cane juice, and then the extracted juice had to be boiled down until only sugar remained, all within 24 hours from being cut down in the field. That was a narrow and fragile window for production to be successful and there were many variables that could complicate the process with the two most essential variables being the time it took to grind the sugar cane stalks and the maintaining of the boiling temperatures in the boiling vats. Both of those required constant slave labor, day and night, during the production process and they were fraught with the danger posed by grinding mills and huge pots or vats of boiling liquid. The high mortality rates required replacing expired slave labor, with new imported slave labor just to maintain the levels of production.
It would be the Haitian Revolution and the emancipation of its slaves that would create the opportunity for the accelerated growth of the sugar industry in Cuba and the accelerated numbers of African slaves that would be brought to the island. Cuba’s experience would be different because the success of the slave revolution in Haiti engendered fear in the Spanish government and the plantation owners in Cuba and across Europe and the United States.