Front Door to Cuba

Excerpts from
A Preliminary Essay by J.S. Thrasher
in The Island of Cuba
by Alexander Humboldt

Translated from Spanish by J.S. Thrasher
Originally published in 1856 by Derby & Jackson, New York
Reprinted 1969 by Negro University Press A Division of Greenwood Publishing Corp., New York

Island of Cuba IV. The social condition and relations of Cuba have been influenced and modified by her insular position, and by her political connection with Spain. To the first of these is, probably, to be traced the cause that her population is composed in a great measure of two unmixed races-the European white and the African black; and to the second, the reason that, notwithstanding a community of origin and language, there is little social affinity between her population and the Spanish American nations of the continent. In contemplating the present social condition of Cuba, we should not forget the origin and causes of the principles and laws upon which it is based.

The early settlers of Cuba and of South America were fearless adventurers seeking for gold. The native races of the Antilles soon melted away under the hardships imposed upon them by their new taskmasters, and these, cavaliers and hardy men-at-arms, were unfitted to till the soil, or pursue the peaceful avocations so necessary to the welfare of every community. The disappearance of the indigenous races gave rise to a great social necessity in the new settlements. "Send us at once," say the Spanish officers in Cuba, in 1534, to the emperor, "send us at once the seven thousand negroes, that they may become inured to labor, before the Indians cease to exist; otherwise the inhabitants cannot sustain themselves, nor the government detain any one here, for with the new tidings from Peru, all desire to leave."

This social necessity gave birth to negro slavery in America; but the new institution made little progress until the humanitarian arguments, which we find again brought forward now for its destruction, were brought to its aid. Las Casas, bishop of Chiapas, moved by the deepest compassion for the native races, urged, upon the ground of humanity, the substitution of African slaves for the natives in the labor of the new communities. The hardships of the poor Indian were dwelt upon with the same fervor and zeal, the same heedless inconsistency, that characterizes the appeals of the humanitarians of the present day in behalf of the negro, and the conscience of Europe gave an energetic impulse to the new institution.

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If we could have an impartial view of the condition of the great mass of negroes in Africa, of their social and military slavery from the earliest ages, subject to the sway of barbarous native chiefs, it might be found that his argument in favor of the change from a savage to a civilized master, was not so inconclusive as is now supposed; and that the step itself was not so cruel as it has been, and still is painted.

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The two unmixed races exist in Cuba, under a social organization in which the inferior is subject to the superior race, to the manifest material and moral advantage of both. The material condition of the inferior or slave race, is not that degraded and suffering state of deprivation, which the reasoners upon the abstract question of slavery assume it to be. On the contrary, the relation of master and slave is one of mutual dependence, and creates ties between them which do not exist in countries where the two races live in a state of civil equality. The feelings of affection incident to an intimate and continued intercourse from the cradle to the grave, are not interfered with or broken by the existence of separate interests. Though the slave is bound to reside with and labor for his master, this does not infer that his whole time and strength is consumed in bringing profit to his owner. It is true the general direction of his labors lies with his master, yet the slave in America is able to devote a much larger portion of his time and strength, to his own individual comfort and pleasure, than is the manufacturing or agricultural laborer, who is not a freeholder, in those communities where slavery does not exist. Not only are his present wants supplied, in return for his labor, but he has no future of age and poverty to provide for, or to fear. His material condition is thus one of comparative happiness, (and all happiness is comparative), and this is further improved by the instigations of interest with his master, and by that friendly sentiment toward all who are dependent upon us, or upon whom we have conferred a favor, which is innate to the human heart. The possession of power, or control by the slaveholder, over the labor of his slaves, does not make him a tyrant, but rather does it give him a feeling of stronger affinity with them, apart from that of interest, and creates in his breast those friendly ties which every human bosom experiences for its dependents.

The moral condition of the slave is also benefited by his relation with his master. Every individual is brought into an intimate connection with a better society, and example, than is afforded him by his own class exclusively, and the faculty of imitation, which is much stronger in the negro than that of origination, stimulates him to imitate his superior, rather than his equal.

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A respect for the laws, and for the rights of others is thereby inculcated, and the religious sentiment is developed to a degree never found in the free negro, and seldom in the same relative class in other communities. Pauperism never exists among slaves, and great crimes are much more rare among them than among the lower classes in free States.

It is under this social organization, that Cuba has risen to that condition of material prosperity which she exhibits to the world.

Race in Cuba |

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