Front Door to Cuba

An excerpt from:
by Ada Ferrer

From: Introduction - A Revolution the World Forgot

Cuba's nineteenth-century revolution emerged from a society that seemed highly unrevolutionary-a society that in the political ferment of the Age of Revolution earned the designation "the ever-faithful isle." Between 1776 and 1825, as most of the colonies of North and South America acquired their independence, Cuba remained a loyalist stronghold. The story of Cuba's deviance from the Latin American norm is, by now, a familiar one: in the face of potential social revolution, creole (Cuban-born) elites opted to maintain the colonial bond with Spain. With that bond, they preserved as well a prosperous and expanding sugar industry built on the labor of enslaved Africans. After the Haitian Revolution of 1791, Cuba replaced colonial St. Domingue as the world's largest producer of sugar. Content with their new position in the world market, Cuban planters did not want to emulate Haiti again by becoming the hemisphere's second black republic. Thus colonialism survived in Cuba even as it was defeated to the north and south; and peace and slavery prevailed over insurrection and emancipation.

The colony that outlived those Atlantic revolutions was, however, a fractured and fearful one. In 1846, 36 percent of the population lived enslaved. Even well into the nineteenth century, a thriving (and illegal) slave trade continued to replenish the supply of enslaved Africans. More than 595,000 arrived on the island's shores in the last fifty years of the trade, between, 1816 and 1867-about as many as ever arrived in the United States over the whole period of the trade (523,000). About half those slaves labored on sugar plantations. Under brutal work regimes, many continued to speak African languages and to have only minimal contact with the creole world outside the plantation. Free persons of color constituted another 17 percent of the population. Though legally free, they faced numerous constraints on the exercise of that freedom: prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol, bans against marriage to white men and women, and restrictions on the use of public space, to name but a few.

At mid-century, then, enslaved and free people of color together constituted a majority of the population, outnumbering those identified as white. That white population, educated in the fear of black and slave rebellion, looked to Haiti and clung to Spain in fear. Haiti's slave revolution served as perpetual example of what might happen to whites in the midst of armed rebellion; but there were smaller, local examples as well. The most famous, perhaps, was the alleged conspiracy of 1843-44, said to comprise a massive number of slaves, free people of color, and abolitionist statement from England. Even as late as 1864, only four years before the outbreak of nationalist insurgency, authorities uncovered a conspiracy in El Cobre in which slaves from seven area farms were allegedly to join forces to "kill all the whites and make war in order to be free." When the would-be rebels were captured and tried in a Spanish military court, translators had to be hired, for the enslaved suspects spoke no Spanish. In this context of slavery and division, the colonial state and many influential white creoles asserted that to risk expelling Spain was to invite a more horrible fate. Cuba, they said, would either be Spanish or it would be Africa; it would be Spanish or it would be another Haiti. For those with the power to decide, the answer came without hesitation: Cuba would remain a Spanish colony. There did exist a handful of prominent intellectuals willing to consider, if hypothetically, the founding of a Cuban nation independent from Spain. But, always, they were careful to specify that the Cuban nationality they desired-"the only one that any sensible man would concern himself with-[was] a nationality formed by the white race."

It was onto this world that revolution erupted on October 10, 1868; and when it did, it seemed to defy the fear and division that formed the society from which it emerged. Led initially by a handful of prosperous white men, the revolution placed free men of color in local positions of authority. It also freed slaves, made them soldiers, and called them citizens. And that was just the beginning. The movement formally inaugurated on that day went on to produce three full-fledged anticolonial rebellions over the thirty years that followed: the Ten Years' War (1868-78), the Guerra Chiquita, or Little War (1879-80), and the final War of Independence (1895-98), which ended with the Spanish-American War. All three rebellions were waged by an army unique in the history of the Atlantic world-the Liberation Army, a multiracial fighting force that was integrated at all ranks. Historians estimate that at least 60 percent of that army was composed of men of color. But this was not just an army in which masses of black soldiers served under a much smaller number of white officers, for many black soldiers ascended through the ranks to hold positions as captains, colonels, and generals and to exercise authority over men identified as white. By the end of the thirty-year period, estimates one historian, about 40 percent of the commissioned officers were men of color.

If this integrated army was one pillar of the revolution, the other was significantly less tangible. It was a powerful rhetoric of antiracism that began to flourish during the first rebellion and became much more dominant in the years between the legal end of slavery in 1886 and the outbreak of the third and final war in 1895. This new rhetoric made racial equality a foundation of the Cuban nation. Espoused by white, mulatto, and black members of the movement's civilian and military branches, it asserted that the very struggle against Spain had transformed Cuba into a land where there were "no whites nor blacks, but only Cubans." It this condemned racism not as an infraction against individual citizens but as a sin against the life of the would-be nation. Revolutionary rhetoric made racial slavery and racial division concomitant with Spanish colonialism, just as it made the revolution a mythic project that armed black and white men together to form the world's first raceless nation.

That this revolution emerged from that slave society makes the story of Cuban independence a remarkable and compelling one. That it emerged from the late-nineteenth-century world makes it seem even more so-for the Cuban revolution unfolded as European and North American thinkers linked biology to progress and divided the world into superior and inferior races. Those ideas, espoused or encouraged by the work of thinkers as diverse as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Joseph-Arthulr de Bogineau, had a profound influence in Latin America. Yet in that world "under Darwin's sway," the Cuban movement's principal intellectual leader, Jose Marti, professed the equality of all races. Indeed, he went further, boldly asserting that there was no such thing as race. Race, he and other nationalists insisted, was merely a tool used locally to divide the anticolonial effort and globally by men who invented "textbook races" in order to justify expansion and empire. Here, then, were voices raised not only in opposition to Spanish rule but also in opposition to the prevailing common sense of their time.

While antiracist presumptions of the revolution defied the central tenets of North Atlantic racial theory, they also differed significantly from racial thinking in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Elsewhere in Latin America politicians and intellectuals came to define their nations in multiracial terms, but they did so relying principally on the notion of miscegenation. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and especially by the first decades of the twentieth, they argued that biological and cultural mixing had produced a new national type: mestizo, mulatto, and uniquely Mexican, Brazilian, Venezuelan. In such formulations, the nation's inclusiveness was the result of sexual and cultural proximity and contact; and, at least in the case of Brazil, that union seemed to reflect something of the imputed openness of the European colonizer, who mixed with and allegedly accepted the native and the African. This was a vision of unity essentially physical and cultural, and a vision in many ways premised on the agency of Europeans and the passivity of the other. coverIn late-nineteenth-century Cuba, by contrast, national unity was cast as the product of joint political action by armed black, mulatto, and white men fighting in a war against the colonizer. The distinction is a meaningful one, for in the case of Cuba, the nation was imagined not as the result of a physical or cultural union but as the product of a revolutionary cross-racial alliance-a formulation that ostensibly acknowledged the political actions of nonwhite men and therefore carried with it powerful implications for racial and national politics in the peace and republic to follow anticolonial insurgency.

[Emphasis mine, not the author's - J.A.Sierra]

Struggle for Cuban Independence and Identity | Ten Year War | Little War | War for Independence

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