Now, we turn the focus to Cuba and its successful efforts to replicate the pattern of success established by the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Spain was prepared to commit to increasing and maintaining slavery in the sugar field while most of the former countries that supported slavery that began to turn against it, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Brazil. In 1825, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only Spanish colonies remaining. Many newly independent Latin American nations had begun abolition (although some did not fully abolish slavery until the 1850s). There was a sense of the synchronicity of the timing of Spain’s policy towards increasing their commitment to slavery. In 1791 the Spanish reduced their efforts to limit the slave trade and increasingly Cuba became the focus of the international slave trade after Britain sought to end the trade in 1807. Havana became a destination for the slave ships filled with Africans imprisoned below. Before 1790, Spain had brought a total of 100,000 slaves to Cuba in the hundreds of years since the first slaves were brough there. In the period from 1790 to 1820 Spain encouraged the importation of 300,000 Africans to Cuba. 13 That number is estimated to be only a 100,000 fewer than the number of Africans brought to the United States in its entire early history. The labor was there and so was the opportunity to quickly replace Haiti’s steadily declining sugar production it was only a decade or two before Cuba became the largest producer of sugar in the world for the rest of the 19th century.
Although Haiti was faltering economically, its ideas of freedom for the enslaved and the empowerment of Africans and their children reached many of the peoples in the countries and colonies nearby. Haiti was not that far from Cuba and the Cuban people were aware of the struggles for abolition and independence there. Dessalines vision of being a sanctuary for the oppressed had a powerful resonance across the Caribbean and Pation met with Simone Bolivar in 1815, afterward he encouraged him to abolish slavery when he helped Spanish colonies win independence.14 Christophe also maintained strong connections to the English abolitionists, William Wilberforce and Henry Clarkson. The retribution towards their oppressors conducted by the former slaves in Haiti haunted the dreams of the slaveholders in Cuba and in the United States. Although not the economic powerhouse it once had been the ideas expressed in the Haitian Revolution reached oppressed people at the time in all corners of the Americas. The fear that potential insurrection engendered could also be used as a motivating tool to harden resistance to those ideals on one hand while encouraging revolt on the other. The presence of the success of the Haitian Revolution hung like a cloud over all those that continued to enslave African peoples after 1804.
The Aponte Rebellion in Cuba in 1812 was a case in point. Aponte, a Cuban free black man, had planned a series of risings around Havana, and he had used the presence of former African Generals in the Haitian army to inspire. Aponte was betrayed and summarily hung by the Spanish authorities. But the reality of the possibility of slave revolts became more deeply ingrained in the thinking of the Spanish authorities and the Cuban plantation owners. You can learn more about Aponte in one of the accompanying study units.
The period between 1812 and 1868 in Cuba saw tremendous growth in the sugar industry with an accompanying tight reliance on slave labor. The United States was very interested in the possibility of adding Cuba as another territory or state as the number of slave states in America was capped by the addition of Texas in 1845. The United States was close to the plantation aristocracy in Cuba and they both were tolerant of a relatively weak but helpful Spain’s presence when they needed the Spanish troops to insure order in Cuba.
In 1834 the British ended slavery in their colonies in the Caribbean and the international slave trade was ending. When the Civil War in the United States ended in 1865, slavery was ended there. Cuba was the last bastion of the use of slaves in North America. The stage was set for the abolition of slavery in Cuba and independence from Spain, but it would take almost 34 years for both to be accomplished. In Haiti it had taken 11 years with slavery very much alive all around it.
In 1868 a Cuban slaveowner in eastern Cuba, Cespedes, gathered his slaves one day and told them that he was setting them free, and that day was the beginning of the fight for liberty from Cuba’s Spanish overseers. He envisioned a slow emancipation supported by the slaveholders who would be paid for releasing their slaves and granting them their freedom. That was his intent, but momentum soon built and the calls for independence from Spain for Cuba and the abolition of slavery were soon joined as rebellion spread across eastern Cuba. 15 The prospect of freedom for all from Spain and freedom for the enslaved attracted a broad base of support across all non-slaveholding interests of Cuban society. It was a multicolored revolutionary movement that engendered significant support in eastern Cuba. Antonio Maceo rose to be one of its leaders, he was a brilliant black military leader who would become a fixture in the struggle for years including a time when he was exiled to Jamaica.16 The rebels even contemplated an invasion of western Cuba toward the more prosperous sugar plantations on the other side of Havana. There the plantation owners were much more powerful and the Spanish troops much more numerous. They did not invade and for ten years the rebels attacked the status quo in Cuba. Finally in 1878 the ten-year war came to end with the promise of pardons for all rebels and freedom for all rebels who were former slaves in return for autonomy under the guidance of Spain which was much less than the goals the rebels sought of independence and abolition. Many of the rebels accepted the terms but Maceo did not and the enslaved people who had not rebelled would continue in slavery. That was an unsatisfactory outcome for them, and they joined Maceo and others in the continuing fight in the Little War that lasted only two years. The Spanish authorities made every effort to paint the rebels during the little war as primarily black and not a coalition. It suited their purposes of scaring people with the threat of a Race War or return to Haiti. Tacitly, the Spanish authorities started to call for emancipation of slaves on existing plantations through an apprenticeship program and free womb law. That started in 1880 and by 1886 Spain had abolished slavery in Cuba. Abolition was won but independence was still 14 years away thanks to the Spanish General Weyler and another American President, William McKinley.
Once again, in 1895, the Cuban people rose as one to secure their independence from Spain after 400 years. Inspired by the ideas of Jose Marti and once again led by Generals Maceo and Gomez the Cuban rebels invaded western Cuba over Spanish attempts to keep them out. It should be noted that the axis of engagement in Haiti was between the North and the South and in Cuba it was between the West and the East. In late 1896 the rebels were about to drive the Spanish out of Cuba when the Spanish government named General Valeriano Weyler to lead the counterinsurgency. Weyler used the concept of reconcentration for the people away from the rebels by force and launched a scorched earth policy. Tragically, it is estimated that 170,000 Cubans died before Weyler was recalled and once again the rebels regrouped and marched against the teetering Spanish regime.17 Fearing the threats to United States investments in Cuba the United States started to move to stabilize the situation by thwarting rebel success while forcing concessions from Spain. In 1898 the USS Maine was sent to Havana to protect the interests of the United States and threaten the Spanish forces there. Mysteriously, the Maine was blown up on February 15th, 1898, and the United States declared war on Spain. US troops moved into Cuba and the American presence stopped the Cuban rebels from driving the Spanish out forever. The United States would do that and seize the last remaining Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba along the way. They also installed a US military government in Havana led by General Leonard Wood, and it was not until 1902 that the US granted a conditional independence to Cuba. In 1902 Cuba became independent from its Spanish colonizer for 400 years. 18
Abolition of slavery had come in 1793 to Haiti and Independence from France 11 years later in 1804. Abolition of slavery had come to Cuba in 1886, 93 years after abolition in Haiti. Independence from Spain had come to Cuba in 1902 almost a 100 years later than it had to Haiti.