Kwasi Konadu

Atlantic Plantation Complex: Cuba

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

After the international ban on transatlantic slaving, Cuba was second only to Brazil in the thousands of Africans illegally brought to its ports in the abolitionist period, during which Dr. Richard Robert Madden (1798 – 1886), British physician, writer, and abolitionist, spent at least a year in colonial Cuba. Madden collected anti-slavery materials, while working on behalf of the British government to halt the contraband trafficking. In the selection, Madden examines the subject of Cuban slavery, at a time when Cuban beet sugar was cheaper to produce and thus created a greater demand for enslaved African labor, and as an eyewitness fluent in Spanish and yet shaped by the fervor (and hypocrisy) of British abolitionism. Abolitionists of this stripe routinely denounced and campaigned against the slaving practices, plunder and imperialism of others, except that committed by Britain.


…The planter is the friend of the authorities of his district, they dare not disoblige him, and if they dared, they are at last to be gained over by a bride, or got rid of, by a remonstrance to the governor, and a suitable present to the assessor of the governor, who is one of the great law-officers of the crown. How in the name of common sense is the law to be looked to, in a Spanish colony for the mitigation of the evils of slavery, or the protection of the slave? The excellence of the Spanish civil law is admitted by everyone, yet the iniquity of Spanish tribunals, the corruption of Spanish judges, and the incomparable [villainy] of Spanish lawyers, is proverbial in all the colonies of Spain. Justice is bought and sold in Cuba with as scandalous publicity as the bozal[1] slaves are bought and sold in the barracones. Is there a man in Cuba who had suffered wrong in property or in person who would be mad enough to go for redress into a court of law, and expect to obtain it by trusting solely to the merits of his case? How then are we to expect from any code, for the regulation of negro[2] slavery, justice for the slave who has not the means to buy the judge? How are we to expect to restrain the cruelty, or to control the cupidity of men, who have the means to bribe the bench of every tribunal in the land, to make "impegnos," as these solicitations are called, with the sons, and servants, the cousins, and the familiars of the judges in their cause? Is it then to cedulas[3] and laws, to parchment justice, or to statute book benevolence, we are to look for that peculiar character of mildness, which we are told, is the characteristic of slavery in Spanish colonies?

…Nay, I have known men of great intelligence, whom I myself accompanied over estates in various parts of the country; and here in Cuba, so terrible were the admissions made by the mayorals or overseers on the estates we visited, that they could not believe they heard correctly the accounts that were given to us, even by the managers themselves, of the frightful rigor of the treatment they described. Till we made partially known at the Havana the evils that had come to our knowledge, on the sugar estates especially, there were persons who had resided there for years, who said they were utterly ignorant of these evils, but, who having read certain laws for the protection of slaves, and seen certain cedulas for the nominal mitigation of the cruelties of slavery, had actually imagined that the laws were enforced, and the negroes happy and humanely treated. With respect to my own experience, it is not by particular instances of cruelty or oppression the fact is to be established that slavery in Cuba is more destructive to human life, more pernicious to society, degrading to the slave, and debasing to the master, more fatal to health and happiness, than in any other slave-holding country on the face of the habitable globe. Instances of cruelty enough no doubt have come to my knowledge, of the murder of negroes, perpetrated with impunity, of men literally scourged to death, of women torn from their children, and separated for ever from them; of estates where an aged negro is not to be seen--where the females do not form a third part of the slave population, nay, of estates where there is not a single female; of labour in the time of crop on the sugar properties being twenty consecutive hours, frequently, for upwards of six months in the year, seldom or never under five, and of the general impression prevailing on this subject, and generally acted on by the proprietors, that four hours sleep is sufficient for a slave.

These cases, were I to describe without a shade of coloring to heighten the effect of the naked outline of so frightful a detail, I am persuaded it would seem marvelous that such things could take place in a christian land--could occur in the present age--could be done by men who move in society, who are tolerated in it, and bear the name and wear the garb of gentlemen. There is an argument stated and restated hundreds of times in answer to the ordinary charges of ill-treatment brought against slave-owners, namely, that it is the interest of a man to give good treatment to the beast and "pari passu [side-by-side]," to the slave he keeps for use, or sale, or hire. No doubt it is his duty, but is it his interest, according to his ideas, to do this! Is it the supposed interest of the owners of our miserable hacks to treat the animals thus which they let on hire, or use daily, or rather, can you persuade these people it is their interest to do this? Unquestionably you cannot. They act on the principle that a quick return of the money outlaid on horse-flesh, no matter how great the wear and tear of the animal, that is worked or hired, is better than moderate work with small gain, and a longer use of the means from which that return is derived. These persons deny it is their interest to spare their horses, and admit it is their interest to get the greatest possible quantity of work in the shortest space of time, from their hacks, and when they are worked off their legs to purchase new ones. In fact, it is on this very principle the fast mail coaches are horsed and run. But I have heard it said, however they may work them, it surely is their interest to feed them well. To this I answer, the universal feeling of the tribe is this, their true interest is to keep them cheaply. True it is, if they gave them treble the quantity of good hard provender, they would last much longer; but you cannot persuade these men you understand their interests better than they do, you may indeed easily persuade the owner of a stud of race-horses of the soundness of your opinion, but the high-blood racers that belong in England to gentlemen on the turf, in proportion to the hacks and stage-horses, are about in the same ratio, as the slaves in Cuba, belonging to intelligent, considerate, humane proprietors, are to the wretched negroes in the hands of unreflecting, grasping owners.

The murder of a slave by a white man, in no case whatever, is punished with death. During my residence in Cuba, some of the most atrocious murders that I ever heard of, came to my own immediate knowledge, the murders of slaves by their masters or mayorals, and not in any one instance was the murderer punished, except by imprisonment or the payment of the costs of suit. During General Tacon's administration of the government in the latter part of the year 1837, in the village of Guanabacoa, a league from the Havana, where I was then residing, the murder of a slave was perpetrated by his master, a well-known lawyer of the Havana. The name of the murderer is well known, and he moves without reproach in the goodly circles of genteel society at Havana, in that society where the capitalist who has acquired his riches in the abominable slave-trade, by the especial favour of his sovereign, bears the title of "Excellentissimo," where the prosperous dealer in human flesh now retired from the trade, is a noble of the land, where the foreign merchant who still pursues the profitable traffic on the coast is the boon companion of the commercial magistrates of the place, and where the agents of foreign governments themselves are hailed as the private protectors and avowed well-wishers of the interests of the trade. The murdered slave of the Cuban lawyer was suspected of stealing some plated ornaments belonging to the harness of his master; the man denied the charge; the customary process in such matters to extort a confession from a suspected slave was had recourse to. He was put down and flogged in the presence of his master. The flogging it appeared by the sworn testimony of the witnesses who were present, given before the commandant of Guanabacoa, a colonel in the army, a gentleman of the highest character, commenced at three o'clock, it ceased at six, the man having literally died under the lash; a little time before the man expired, he had strength enough left to cry out, he would confess if they flogged him no more. The master immediately sent for the commissary of police to receive his confession; this officer came, and stooping down to speak to the man, he found him motionless; he said the man had fainted. The brutal master kicked the lifeless body, saying, "the dog was in no faint, he was shamming." The commissary stooped down again, examined the body, and replied "the man is dead."

The master hereupon called in two physicians of Guanabacoa, and rightly counting on the sympathies of his professional attendants, he obtained a certificate, solemnly, declaring that the negro had labored under hernia, and had died of that disease. In the meantime, the atrocity had reached the ears of the Captain-General Tacon, the Alcaldis [mayors] of Guanabacoa were ordered to inquire into the matter; they did so, and the result of the inquiry was, of course, the exculpation of the murderer. General Tacon, dissatisfied with the decision, immediately ordered the military officer commanding at Guanabacoa to proceed to a strict investigation, de novo, without reference to the decision of the civil authorities, and this gentleman, with whom I was well acquainted, proceeded with all the energy and integrity belonging to him, to the inquiry. The result of this inquiry was an able report, wherein the commandant declared that the testimony adduced, plainly proved that the negro had died under the lash in presence of his master, in consequence of the severity of the punishment he received [for] three hours. I have entered at large into this case, because I speak from actual knowledge of the judicial proceedings, and on the authority of the judge in the cause. Now what was the result in this case, why, in due time, the Captain-general communicated to the commandant the law opinion of the assessor or legal adviser of his administration, to the effect that the report was evidently erroneous; inasmuch as the commandant had examined negro witnesses in the investigation, when their masters were not present, which was illegal, and consequently all the proceedings were vitiated. In plain English, the murderer was acquitted, and the upright officer who declared him guilty was rebuked, nay, more, he was ultimately removed from his post at Guanabacoa. The folly of talking about illegality in the proceedings is evident, when it is considered that the setting aside the civil authorities and putting the cause in the hands of the military tribunal was a course obviously illegal but rendered necessary in the mind of the governor by the base corruption of the civil tribunal, and the iniquity of its decision. On inquiry into the amount of money paid by the murderer in the way of bribes to obtain the decision in his favour, and the costs of suit, I found that the expenses amounted to 4000 dollars.

The next case I have to direct attention to, has been given to the world in the recent admirable work of Mr. Turnbull on Cuba, a work which it required more honesty, closer observation, and a higher spirit of humanity to produce, than any work on the West Indies that has been given to the public. I happened to be with Mr. Turnbull, on the journey of which he speaks in reference to this case, when a person who accompanied us on our return from a sugar estate in the vicinity of Guines, informed us that the estate in question was the terror of all the negroes in the vicinity. Of this fact, what we had ourselves witnessed of the management of the property, and what we had heard from the mayoral himself, left but little cause to doubt, but it was not without surprise we learnt that this very overseer, who was still left in charge of the estate, had recently been brought before the authorities of Guines on the charge of flogging one of the slaves of the estate to death, and that the result of this investigation, was similar to that of the case at Guanabacoa; the body of the murdered slave was examined by medical men, and the usual certificate was given in all due form, satisfactorily accounting for the death of the negro, and in the eye of the law of Cuba, the slave that was murdered by a white man and expired under the lash of legitimate authority, died a natural death. The wretch who committed this act left the court, of course, without a blemish on his character, and the employer of this man, who had taken him back into his service, to the terror of every negro on his estate, this respectable planter was living at ease, fifty miles from the scene where the blood of his murdered negro was shed with impunity, enjoying the pleasures of the Havana, and perhaps, by the urbanity of his manners, and the hospitality of his house, and the indulgent treatment of his domestic slaves, convincing the passing tourist, who was fortunate enough to be his guest, of "the peculiar mildness of slavery in the Spanish colonies."

The next case of negro murder committed by a mayoral, of which I have to speak, came to my knowledge in the autumn of 1839. I was travelling in the vicinity of Matanzas, accompanied by a gentleman who resided in that district. I was informed by my companion that he had just received very unpleasant intelligence of an acquaintance of his, a mayoral of an estate on the Pan [de] Matanzas, who had unfortunately flogged a worthless negro, and the worthless negro had unfortunately died, and the soldiers had just been sent down to arrest the mayoral, and they did not find him. The misfortune of the mayoral touched me indeed less than the murder of the slave; but if my sympathies had been ever so strongly directed to the inconvenience the mayoral had been put to, by his flight, I might have been comforted by the assurance that he had only to keep out of the way for some time, and the thing would pass over; or, if he were taken, at the worst, he had only to suffer in purse, and perhaps in person, by imprisonment for some time, if he was a poor and friendless mayoral. This was only another vacancy in the negro gang to be filled up by the purchase of a new bozal—another life taken away under the lash to be added to the list of Cuban crimes—another item in the long account that slavery has to settle with a just God.

The last case of murder perpetrated on a slave by a white person, to which I will refer, took place at the Havana in the year 1839. This crime was committed by an American woman on a poor negro girl, under such horrible circumstances of cold-blooded cruelty, that I doubt if there is any parallel to be found to it in the records of crime in Cuba. The girl that was murdered belonged to a Spaniard of the Havana, who was the paramour of the American. This woman was possessed of property to a considerable amount. She had been long resident in Havana, and was somewhat remarkable for her personal attractions. Her friend, the Spaniard, had sent to her house one of his slaves to assist her, and this girl became the victim of her jealousy, it is supposed--for no other adequate reason, has been assigned for the cruelties practiced on her. The cries of the unfortunate girl had been heard in the adjoining houses: at length the usual screams were heard no longer, but night after night the sounds of continued moaning were noticed by the neighbors, and at length they gave information of the matter to the police. The commissary of police proceeded to the house of the American woman. On searching the outhouses in the yard, in one of these offices, converted into a dungeon, they found a dying negro girl, chained by the middle to the wall, in a state that shocked the senses of all who were present, so loathsome a sight, so pitiful an object, the persons who discovered this unfortunate girl never beheld. On releasing her from this dreadful dungeon, where she had been, she could not tell how long, it was found that the chain round her body had eaten into the flesh, and the ulcers in it, were in a state of gangrene. She was taken to the hospital, and she died there in two or three days' time.

The monster who committed this murder, when I left the Havana, in October last year, was alive and well; in prison, indeed, but in one of the halls of distinction, (salas de distinction,) where the prisoner who has money, no matter what his crime, may always obtain superior accommodation. She was visited there by persons of my acquaintance. She did not admit, that she had committed any crime, and she had no fear for the result of the process that was going on, except on the score of its expense. She looked on her imprisonment as a conspiracy only of the Spanish lawyers to get money from her, because they knew she was rich; and in this she probably was not much mistaken. The teniente Gobernador, one of the principal officers of state, was in the habit of visiting her in prison, and encouraging her with the assurance that her suit would speedily be terminated, and that she had nothing worse than banishment to fear. A lawyer of the name of Garcia had defended her some short time before her committal on the present charge, in another case of cruelty practiced by her on a slave, and he publicly boasted that if she had come forward in the present case, with a sufficient sum, he would have brought her through her present difficulty, without any more inconvenience than in the former instance. Such is the administration of justice in the island of Cuba, and the execution of those laws which are thought, so mild in their character, and benevolent in their principles, that the slave who lives under them, is protected from injustice, and in consequence of their excellence, that the slaves in Spanish colonies are comparatively happy. It was said by the late Mr. Canning, that all laws for the partial amelioration of the condition of slaves, were necessarily defective, because such laws had no executive principle, inasmuch as the persons who were expected to carry them into operation, were interested in defeating them. My experience entirely bears out the assertion of Mr. Canning; and both, I am sorry to say, are at variance with the common opinion entertained even by well-informed persons in this country, on the subject of Spanish slavery.

Source: Richard Robert Madden, Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated; Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden… (London: Thomas Ward and Co., 1840), 161-167.

[1] bozal – a newly arrived and un-acculturated captive from Africa.

[2] negro(es) – a racialized term used for African peoples and their descendants in primarily European/white accounts of such peoples in Africa and in the Americas.

[3] cedula – an order or authorization, usually in the form of a royal decree.