Granma | 27 July, 2016
One of the most infamous pages of history, the slavery to which women, men and children from the African continent were subjected for centuries, only ended in Cuba in 1886, long after the majority of territories of the Western Hemisphere.
While on February 13, 1880, the Spanish Crown decreed a law proclaiming “the cessation of the state of slavery on the island of Cuba,” slaveholders continued the exploitation citing Article 3 of a document establishing the right of patrons “to make use of the work of those under their patronage.” Euphemistic legalese which concealed the continuation of a brutal regime of exploitation.
It took a further six years for the so-called Patronage system to be eliminated. The end of slavery on the island was not a gift from the colonial metropolis, nor did it stem from the need to update the relations of production, but the result of many years of abolitionist struggle which, in the case of Cuba, was linked to the struggle for independence. The gesture of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes on commencing the anti-colonial insurrection on October 10, 1868, was eloquent: on taking up arms, he freed his slaves. Long before, in 1812, José Antonio Aponte, a free black, craftsman and painter, led a conspiracy to free Cuba and emancipate slaves.
The transatlantic African slave trade and the exploitation of this labor force on sugar and coffee plantations formed the basis of the accumulation of capital in European countries. The modernization of the economy of Western developed countries – including the United States – can not be explained without slavery.
But it is not about seeing things from a strictly economic angle. Historian Pedro Pablo Rodríguez described slavery as “a true social and cultural pathology, many of whose significant aspects have been hidden under the veil of time, all in turn conditioned by the interests and perspectives similar to or emerging from it.”
What Dr. María del Carmen Barcia painfully expressed about the suffering of those uprooted from their lands during the transatlantic voyage – “No matter the many facts that historians have gathered, it is impossible to reconstruct all the iniquity, vileness, neglect, humiliation and cruelty that Africans suffered” – offers a glimpse into the horror of the slave quarters, the whip against their bodies, punishment in the stocks, the rape of women, the destruction of families and the productive exploitation of who knows how many slaves, including those born into slavery on Cuban land.
None of this can be forgotten, nor the resistance that led to the runaway slave communities. Nor can the massive incorporation of former slaves to the independence struggles. Or the contributions that these Africans, dispossessed and ostracized, made to shaping the Cuban nation and culture, despite the resolve of their exploiters.
As noted by poet and anthropologist Miguel Barnet, “To be fully aware of what the gigantic holocaust of the modern slave trade meant for sub-Saharan peoples, I would say the most terrible ever known to mankind, is to also have in mind the profound mark left by men and women who bound by heavy chains arrived on our shores, never to return to their lands, their families or their cultures.”
These premises must not only inspire the commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Cuba, but also the systematic promotion of knowledge of our history and a culture of sensitivity that allow us to fully understand our identity, without breaks or gaps.
This commemorative period draws attention to events and processes, but the lessons that emerge from these can only be assimilated and spread when they are permanently and creatively embodied in the social fabric and the individual memory of those who today shape and build the future.
On September 4, 1998, during a visit to Mandela’s South Africa, Fidel Castro encapsulated a reality: “Without Africa, without her sons and daughters, without her culture and customs, without her languages and her gods, Cuba would not be what it is today.”