Cuba began its lucrative slave trade in 1520, when a large contingent of kidnapped African slaves arrived. Wealthy landowners relied on slaves to work their sugar plantations. In 1886, the Spaniards officially abolished slavery by royal decree. Although blacks and whites have made great strides to end racial discrimination, Esteban Morales, author of “Challenges of the Racial Question in Cuba” states, “It hasn’t been possible to completely erase that ballast of colonial slavery.”
Nicolas Morales organized the 1795 slave revolt demanding equality for both blacks and whites. Although the revolt was squashed by the Spaniards, owners were sent a message largely because both races participated in the uprising. The next organized revolt began in 1812 when José Aponte’s mission to overturn slavery and Spanish colonialism captured the passion of the people. Aponte’s execution set the timeline toward abolishment of slavery in the 1820 treaty signed between Spain and England. Unfortunately, the treaty was merely a piece of paper. Sixty thousand additional slaves arrived on Cuban shores over the next decade.
Fight for Independence
According to AfricaSpeaks.com, Afro-Cubans comprised over 40 percent of the population by 1841. In 1868, Antonio Maceo commanded the fight for Cuban independence from Spain in the 10-Year War. Dubbed the “Bronze Titan,” Maceo’s efforts spurred further rebellion and eventually played a part in the 1886 Spanish decision to abolish slavery. While Afro-Cubans still faced discrimination after the decree, many strove for freedom serving in Los Mambises, Cuba’s Liberation Army.
Life as a Slave
Although slaves who had fought in the 10-Year War were set free according to the Pact of Zanjón, non-veterans still were bound by both the chains of slavery and black cultural differences. Two years later, even liberated slaves were required to serve as indentured servants, working without pay for former masters. Slaves originally came from many different tribes. Traditional disparities in language, beliefs, customs and music afforded Cuban slaves little tolerance for each other. Segregation was rampant, no more so than in education. While laws were passed to teach slaves, many schools did not allow black attendance or enforced expensive fees prohibitive to slaves.
While abolishing slavery looked good on paper, cultural and racial suppression continued. Prejudice did not die easily, with racists warning against the pitfalls of a racially mixed society. By 1887, only 11 percent of Afro-Cubans could read and write, according to History of Cuba.com. In succeeding years, many hotels and restaurants refused Afro-Cubans service, and employment opportunities were limited by race requirements. Irrational fears circulated including worries over Afro-Cuban uprisings and beliefs that Afro-Cuban religion encompassed witchcraft and magic.