7 Cuba & The Contradictions of Freedom

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Next Topic- Banana Wars and Global Battles

Week 8: Paper #2 Due

As discussed last chapter, when Bourbons were restored to the throne in 1814, the Spanish Empire was not the same. Since 1810, widespread rebellions had broken out and they now morphed into all out wars for independence. The creoles were increasingly becoming patriots and disenchanted with the oppressive Spanish governing body. These tumultuous emotions, however, were coming in the wake of and with inspiration derived from the revolutions in the US, France, as well as Haiti. Yet, independence was not easily won as there existed the understated arrangement in which Spain provided protection from slave uprisings in exchange for their loyalty. No one wanted another Haiti.

*Created using the data, numbers, or footnotes given in Gibson, Carrie. Empire’s Crossroads: The Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day. Pan Macmillan, 2014. ISBN: 0802124313 / 9780802124319

Sugar Boom

Despite what was going on, Cuba and Puerto Rico were not involved in the ongoing chaos.  They instead turned their focus to their rising stakes in the sugar market. For this loyalty they were each given permission to allow any and all Catholic settlers into the islands. Spain even went further as to pass bills which stipulated allowances or benefits put into place for these incoming migrants. These benefits being: acres of land, assistance in funding agricultural ventures, as well as being charged no taxes for the slaves they traded or bought. Slavery was far from ending in these islands.

Sugar & Napoleon

As is standard, with the rise in slave importation came the rise of sugar mills (ingenios). Sugar mills rose from 37 to 93 in one area and westward, around Havana, from 59 to 122 during the 4 year period until 1817. Where there were mills there were slaves which is why, not surprisingly, the first slave uprising of the 1800s took place in Matanzas in 1825. 200 slaves would burn 24 estates to the ground and 15 whites as well as 43 blacks would die. Similarly in Puerto Rico, a plot would be discovered and suppressed before it even began. Haiti’s revolutionary refugees had struck once more in fertile grounds.

For the final time, Napoleon was exiled in June of 1815, effectively ending the war and shifting European power in the Caribbean to Britain. Chaos rained in the Spanish Empire, and while France had one of its colonies returned following the wars end, Britain retained all other colonies acquired from both the French and Dutch. Territories or colonies such as St. Lucia, Tobago, and British Guiana.


“Mapa de América Latina (map of Latin America)” by Douglas Fernandes, licensed under a creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Spanish Latin America & West Indies

Spanish colonies in the West Indies kept abreast of the going ons of Latin America. Inspired and fearing the results, many looked closely at what was happening in Venezuela and New Spain. However, a few of the islands did more than look. Haiti was supporting the rebellion from the start.

Having developed a reputation as the place to go in order to outfit a people for rebellion, Haiti, became the first stop for Francisco de Miranda, in 1806, who felt the time had come for Venezuelan independence. Miranda was, however, thwarted at every turn and then caught and killed by Spain.  Years later, in 1813, Mexican independence hopeful Ignacio López Rayón sent a representative to Haiti and requested aid from northern leader Henri Christophe; although this too would fail. Yet, for Venezuela, the independence movement was far from over as a new hopeful and actual liberator Simón Bolívar arrived in Haiti on January 2nd 1816.

Cinco de Julio

Venezuela had declared its independence on July 5th, 1811 and Simón Bolívar arrived in Haiti on January 2nd, 1816. He sought the aid of Alexandre Pétion, the southern Haitian president, and it was during his time in Haiti, that Bolívar was introduce to Francisco Xavier Mina; a fighter for Mexican independence. This is of great import as it demonstrates the extent to which Haiti was involved in the Latin American independence movement; despite Bolívar not joining Mina in his campaign.

Bolívar left Haiti in March 1816 loaded with 6,000 rifles, funds and supplies and returned to Venezuela. This initial invasion failed and he was forced to return to Haiti. It was on his second volley where he was successful. Yet, to the disappointment and consternation of Haiti, Bolívar granted freedom to all those enslaved with the stipulation that they join his cause. The issue of slavery was a topic of continued debate for the next 10 years as those pro-slavery did their level best to reverse Bolívar’s initial edict.

Spain was hard pressed during this time as they were dealing with insurrections throughout the empire and had effectively lost Florida. This was in addition to the domestic political crisis that took place from 1820 to 1823. Spain lost Mexico in 1821 and the empire could no longer patch up its dilapidation.

Free At Last

Come 1824, wars for independence were raging throughout Latin America and Spain now faced pressure from the US, Russia, and other European nations to acknowledge them. Spain’s Ferdinand VII, categorically refused to do so, but with the aforementioned countries recognizing them he soon found himself left with no other choice.

Bolívar, on his part, spoke of holding a congress in 1824 and when it took finally place in 1826, the US would not attend as they wished to remain neutral and only managed to arrive after it was concluded. The Congress of Panama would last just shy of a month and Haiti would not be part of it; despite seeking recognition themselves and their aid in the independence movements. The US, for their part, had they made it to the congress would have not recognized Haiti as they remained adamant in keeping slavery at home. Therefore, the US, could not be seen even thinking of recognizing a country run by former slaves.

The Congress of Panama Attendees

“Congreso de Panamá” by Nagihuin, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Haiti’s Intervention

Before Cuba rose to prominence in the sugar market Haiti was the major producer. This status would be taken from Haiti under the last few years of Louverture’s rule. As Christophe took power, he sought to revive the countries flagging sugar production. To do so he reverted back to the plantation system and placed his high ranking military officers in charge of large swaths of land. The only distinction between the old and new system being the required payments of taxes as well as a salary to those working. The system was further delineated by the issuance of the Code Henri in 1812. Europe was left in a state of shock upon seeing the capabilities of a former slave.

Europe would be continuously shocked as Christophe had an excellent public relations plan in place and directed by American Prince Saunders. The two having met in February 1816, Sauders would set about photoshopping the image of Haiti held in the minds of the world with the publishing of the Haytian Papers; published in England. In doing so he targeted those of the abolitionist persuasion and in hopes of Haiti becoming living proof for their cause. Promoting the Anglican faith, Saunders would return to Haiti with two teachers tasked with opening schools and establishing an education system.

“British Library digitised image from page 123 of “Dictionnaire géographique et administratif universel d’Haïti illustré … ou guide général en Haïti”” by British Library. No known copyright restrictions.

New Blood

On October 8th, 1820, Christophe committed suicide after being left paralyzed physically as well as in the political realm; from a stroke. His family was forced to flee into exile. This came at an opportune time for Jean-Pierre Boyer who had taken control of the country’s southern half after the death of Alexandre Pétion in 1818. Boyer immediately sent soldiers to the north and at long last the country was united. This reunion would not go smoothly as the division of black and mulatto would fracture and affect every step of the reunification process. The problem of skin shade posing a problem even today.

Haiti & Santo Domingo

Much as the US had felt about Britain upon declaring independence in 1775, Santo Domingo was fed up with Spain. With Bolívar as an example, José Núñez de Cáceres declared Santo Domingo’s independence.  However, despite current relations, Santo Domingo would turn to Haiti for aid in their cause and on December 1st, 1821 it became part of Haiti as the “Independent state of Spanish Haiti”.

Boyer, on his part, was ecstatic at finding a way to control the entire island. He could now prevent any possibility of a European power installing themselves so close to Haiti. With 12,000 troops at his back, Boyer managed, much to the chagrin of Cáceres, amalgamate the entire island on February 9th, 1822. He did what Louverture had done in 1801 but this time for Haiti rather than in the name of France. Slavery was now abolished on the island as a whole.

“”Keep off! The Monroe Doctrine must be respected” (F. Victor Gillam, 1896)” by Frederick Victor Gillam. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

Cuba’s Revolution

Cuba was experiencing a battle of wills on the Homefront as well as the global arena. On the Homefront they viciously maintained control of the people of color while simultaneously policing the, continuously imported, rising number of slaves on the island. Yet, Cuba also had to deal with threats of invasions as Spain was weakening in political strength and clout. With Spain so focused on its Latin American colonies, Cuba was left vulnerable to colony picking vultures such as the US; who understood the islands value.

The Cuban elite was petrified of any hint of an independence movement as they feared it would usher in a race war as had happened in Haiti. The US for its part was getting tired of the European debacle and issued the Monroe Doctrine; effectively curtailing and eliminating Spanish involvement. Yet, as had happened in both the American and French revolutions, when the cry for independence was raised the Masonic associations involved themselves in the cause.


The Monroe Doctrine

Between 1810 and 1822, Spain’s Latin American colonies rose in rebellion and established a series of independent nations. In 1822, the Monroe administration became the first government to extend diplomatic recognition to the new Latin American republics. In some ways, Latin American constitutions were more democratic than the U.S. Constitution. This was the case because they allowed Indians and free blacks to vote; as opposed to the US. However, this recognition did not come without fears. The fear that Spain would try to regain its colonies, saw Secretary of State John Quincy Adams drafting the Monroe Doctrine. The Doctrine provided for three key things:

  1. No new European colonization of the New World.
  2. The United States would abstain from European wars.
  3. Europeans should not interfere with new Latin American republics.

Cuban Slavery

In theory Cuba had the capability to become its own nation but the deep seated fear of a race war was well founded. Unlike Mexico or Peru, believed comparable colonies, Cuba had hundreds of thousands enslaved with the aforementioned having mere tens of thousands. In addition to this Cuba also had a large population of “colored” people who were often denigrated. Then there was Haiti’s proximity to contend with and the wealthy elite’s need for the “colonial pact” to ensure their continued luxuries.

Cuba was, however, not the only one still practicing and dependent upon slavery in the Caribbean. The British, French, Dutch, and Danish territories also continued the practice. Yet, the British continuously pressured Spain and France to cease in the trading of slaves and while agreements were made it would take decades for the stipulations to be adhered too and enforced. Throughout their fight to end the slave trade those enslaved in its colonies understood that the slave trade was abolished and saw the opportunity to demand British abolishment of slavery itself. Abolishment movements would rise in territories such as Barbados, Tortola and Jamaica to name a few.

Abolitionist & Sugar

The abolitionist movement found grounds in the religious fervor following the Baptist Wars and its inability to accept slavery as well as monetary motives. The price of cultivating and refining cane on the British colonies increased astronomically. This in addition to the price of slaves also going up. By 1806, sugar prices plummeted and enslaved numbers dropped alongside it. The US was no longer interested in trading with Britain and beet sugar produced in Europe was taken up by the sugar market. The nullification of taxes on other sugars also pushed Caribbean sugar down. Further exacerbating the Caribbean cane crisis was the acquiring of French sugar producing territory, Mauritius, by Britain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

Soon Britain would not be the only one calling for an end to slavery as the 1830s ushered a period of emancipation throughout the Caribbean. Despite this change in consciousness, many whites, particularly those of the elite class, waged a resistance of their own as they still feared the impending doom of Haitian provoked killer former slaves.


Compared to the abolishment of slavery in British colonies that of the Danes was not so smooth. An edict abolished slavery on 1847 and stated that all those born after July 28 were free, however, for those currently enslaved they had to wait 12 years. With rising liberalist sentiment in Europe, abolishment soon followed in the remaining European held territories from the 1850s onward.

Although, the southern expansionist US president would hold out hope and made offers to Spain to buy Cuba for an estimated  $3 billion in today’s exchange rate. Spain declined… and also in 1853 when the next request to buy Cuba was made.

The Panama Canal

Cornelius Vanderbilt had created the steam engine power behind the revolutionized ships of ocean travel, yet, he was unable to create a straight path as the ships still had to travel around Latin America in order to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  After looking at maps of the region Vanderbilt, by 1851, began building the Suez Canal using the connecting rivers leading to Lake Nicaragua. Simultaneously, train tracks were being laid by Jamaicans, and other Caribbeans, in Panama and the trains officially started rolling in January 1855.

“Panama Canal Map EN” by Thoroe, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Slavery & The U.S.

The US soon found themselves having to deal with the issue of slavery at home. Hence the outbreak of the Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865. However, the losing southerners refused to give up their slavery mentalities and would move to the Caribbean seeking a new place for their peculiar institution to flourish.

Birth of the Dominican Republic

In the former Santo Domingo, the Spanish creoles began to regret becoming the “Independent state of Spanish Haiti”. So much so that and underground movement towards independence began with the forming of La Trinitaria. La Trinitaria launched their first attack in 1843 and by February 1844 the Dominican Republic was born. Yet, diplomatic relations between the two countries sharing the island would never be in good standing. A situation made even more tenuous with the arrival of Faustin-Élie Soulouque as president of Haiti. Soulouque would crown himself emperor and make his intentions to control the whole island quite clear. Soulouque, however, was disliked by all and soon found himself exiled in Jamaica. Although his departure did not stem the problems within the fledgling republic. First, the republic was once more annexed to Spain; whom would later annul said annexation. Then, the US, fresh from the Civil War sough to make the island as a whole its 38th state and home to a naval base; this of course did not happen. In terms of US involvement in Hispaniola, however, Haiti would receive diplomatic recognition from them in 1862; after the south seceded.

“Altar de la Patria (Santo Domingo)” by Jorge Brazil, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

For their courage in founding “La Trinitaria” Juan Pablo Duarte, Matías Ramón Mella and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez are considered the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic.

Britain & China

With slavery over and its territories in the Americas of no interest, Britain was now busy with controlling India, Australia, and New Zealand. Although, Britain did have a small stake in the sugar market as their remaining territories in the Caribbean produced small amounts of sugar. Britain was also interested in getting access to China and its tea markets as they were no longer satisfied with having to trade on island ports far from the mainland.

Britain had long since traded silver to China in exchange for tea, yet, now came the issue of depleting silver stores and Britain’s discovery of opium. Much like sugar and later tobacco, opium hit the worlds market as a decadent luxury for the ultra rich. Although its initial use was medicinal, opium would soon be used to replace silver as the good to exchange for Chinese teas. If not sold directly, the opium would be sold to others and payment to Britain would be made in silver which in turn would be used to purchase tea and silk from China. As the opium industry took off so did the temperaments of disgruntled merchants. Tired of going through middle men the merchants would find the perfect pretext to start the Opium Wars of 1839-1842; and then a second war from 1856-1860. Yet, these wars and trade deals established with China would also affect the Caribbean.

Population Shifts 

During Britain’s shifting focus, the populations of the Caribbean would also shift. This was due to the fact that the abolition of slavery had caused a shortage of laborers. For example we can look to Trinidad where slavery was replaced with an apprenticeship program of which the former enslaved population thought very little of. Landowners were at their wits end and the government would go about creating vagrancy laws similar to those of the Reconstruction American South, however, the former slaves paid them little heed. The government then found themselves forced to hire workers from neighboring islands and as far out as the US.

Yet, the Caribbean could no longer oppress the black peoples of any of the islands no matter from which island they were being shifted. The new solution put forth would be the use of Indians and Chinese. The first batch of Indians (later known as Coolies) would be shipped to Trinidad on May 1845. This batch would be followed by waves upon waves of Indians being sent to Jamaica and British Guiana in addition to Trinidad. The Dutch would follow the British example and bring Indians and Javanese people to work their colonies. They too would encourage the migrants to keep their culture alive something that had been denied to the enslaved Africans.

Chinese workers were shipped to the Caribbean from 1852 to the 1880s. The majority went to Guiana but several thousand also went to Trinidad, other British territories as well as Cuba. Those that ended up in Cuba were brought to help boost the flagging laborer class as the demand for sugar became more than the island could produce. In exchange for their services, they would sign indenture contracts for up to 5 years and upon its expiring would receive a return trip home or, in later contracts, a land grant. The contracts also delineated a strictly adhered to low wage and on not much was different for the Chinese in Cuba despite being classified as ‘white’. These workers were men and were not allowed to bring their women with them.

Despite all these restrictions and abuses, these workers unlike slaves were able to keep their cultural practices which eventually mixed with that of the countries in which they found themselves in. With the mixing of cultures also came the different religious and religious house of worship that sprung up in these islands. Soon it was not a strange sight to see a church side by side with a Hindu or Muslim temple. Especially as, migrants were no longer, just, coming from China or Java or India but rather from the aforementioned as well as from Madeira, Syria and Lebanon.

Labor & Freedom

With indentured contracts, low wages, classifications and persecution the attempts to quench the thirst for laborers shined a light on the lack of definition to the word freedom. Yes, slavery had ended legally but in reality it had simply taken on a different shape. Far from surprising freedom movements broke out, but what was surprising was the fact that the fight was being waged by the immigrants rather than the former enslaved. Going on strike they would fight for better wages and better working conditions. In Jamaica for example, fights for these demands led to arrest in the early days of October 1865. Punishment for those arrested were reminiscent of slavery punishments, as they were killed, flogged, had their house burnt and later a state of martial law was put in place. When word of this reached London, public outcry would cause the government to launch an inquire into the islands situation but this amounted to no real change of justice.

“Branding slaves” by New York Public Library, released under Public Domain.
Karen Arnold has released this “Sugar Cane Clipart Illustration” image under Public Domain license. License: CC0 Public Domain

Cuban Sugar

BY the mid 1800s, sugar exports from the Caribbean were greater than they had been prior to Haiti’s independence. However, all of this sugar was predominantly coming from Cuba and with nothing left Spain needed the money from their exports. Then there was the market Cuba provided for Spanish goods, although, in terms of strong standing trading partners, Cuba depended on the US.

The more sugar Cuba produced, the richer its elite class became and this meant mansions were built to house their lavish lifestyles. Havana was soon a dirty and narrow port city that was home to  a Spanish speaking Vegas like world. Yet, this Spanish Vegas was a façade that hid a deep seated fear of a race war. Especially knowing, that its shores were a homebase of sorts for the illegal slave trade which Britain made efforts to curb. Britain for its part had a giant sweet tooth as it would consume 183 million pounds of Cuban sugar in 1859.

Portugal & Slavery

Portugal started the slave trade in the 1400s, with Prince Henry the Navigator, and they were the last ones to end it. They first made a deal with Britain, in 1815,  to only use slaves south of the equator and refused to abolish the slave trade until 1836. This of course did not mean smuggling did not take place and its former colonies followed suit. Brazil, becoming independent in 1822, would abolish the trade in 1850 and was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888.

Comparably  obtuse were the Spanish who would only ban the trade in 1867. This only because the use of slaves was no longer efficient. With innovations such as steam power, railroads and modern sugar mills, the problem was finding a labor force to use them and produce the sugar. The solution, use the Chinese. With all of these new immigrants Cuba’s population soon shifted to a white majority, although, the abolition of slavery took a long time to happen in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. The issue, however, soon became moot as with the Civil War and ending of slavery in the US meant slavery was approaching its death in the Americas and Caribbean alike. This was also accompanied by the first shots of independence for both nations. Cuba’s fight would last 10 years and Puerto Rico would go to the US in 1898 along with the Philippines for $20 million.

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At Last!

Independent Cuba may have become but the sharks were circling and as the people themselves would ask: “[…] once the [US] is in Cuba, who will drive them out?” Spain was barely surviving after the Spanish-American War, losing its Latin American colonies, and its Caribbean ones. Other European countries were in better shape but still economically strained as their territories sugar productions could not compete with those of Cuba and Brazil. Not to mention the natural disasters that shook the Caribbean. All in all, the issue of slavery was finally “resolved”. Haitian revolutionary spirit spread like wildfire through the Caribbean and Latin America, albite slowly. However, the end of slavery did not mean an end to  injustice, inequality or oppression.

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© 2020. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Licensed by Mahalia Méhu under a Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0 International License.


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