Slavery and the African presence in Cuba

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THE slave trade in Africa began in the early 1400s when thousands of Africans were brought to Spain and Portugal.
Africans living in Spain were called Ladinos.
Some of the Ladinos were brought to Cuba at the start of the Spanish conquest and colonisation of the Americas around 1511-1514.
However, not all black people who arrived in the Americas were slaves.
There were others who were born free in Spain before they migrated to Cuba and the rest of the Americas.
The first slaves to America arrived in the US around 1619, more than 100 years after it commenced in Cuba.
The African slaves who later landed in Cuba came mostly from West Africa, going in land to Lake Chad and Central Africa.
On the east coast, Africans were captured and enslaved along Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar.
In the south, the slave traders captured people from the borders of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
It has been argued by some historians that the slave traders did not come in as far as Zimbabwe.
But such a stance can be disputed because at that time, there were no borders and Africans moved and traded freely from coast to coast.
This means people were taken from the African coasts and from the central regions as well.
Among the most prominent historians who studied the African experience in Cuba is Fernando Ortiz, who was born in Havana, on July 17 1881.
As an ethnologist, folklorist, anthropologist and historian, Ortiz was also known as Tercer Descubridor of Cuba for his immense remarkable writings and research exploring all aspects of African Cuban history, culture and traditions.
Ortiz was the first person to use the term ‘AfroCubano’.
Most of our knowledge on the black experience in Cuba comes from the work done by Ortiz.
Fernando Ortiz found some ancient historical documents describing Africans this way:  “The Congos and Haitians are the blackest.
“The Haitian immigrant is atrociously backward.
“The Congo is the best built of all the black people, despite his clumsy facial features—sturdy, lusciously shaped bodies quite too elegant for clothes.
“Both sexes display phenomenal grace in walking and in all their movements.
“The Congo has great perseverance, courage and dignity, but is refractory to education.
“Sleepy and lazy, he shrugs off insults easily, and though often quickly treacherous, is never rancorous.”
African groups in Cuba were called the Bantu.
Ortiz also noted that: “The Bantu peoples, from south of the equator, were the most influential in Cuba and all of Afro-America, with the Bakongo of northern Angola, southern Zaire, and southern Congo, and the Abudu from Angola and part of Zaire.
“Also, from the eastern areas south of the equator were the Makua.”
But, which region or area in Africa did the majority of Africans come from?
Historical records show that Yoruba were among the largest slave population in Cuba.
Cuba quickly became a sugar growing colony as the numbers of Africans captured into slavery grew.
Most of these slaves came from Yorubaland because the slave trade coincided with the end or collapse of the Oyo Empire of Nigeria.
After many years of war between the Yoruba and the Fulani neighbours to the north and the Dahomeans in the west, the weak states made slavery easy and profitable to the traders.
It was at that time that many Yoruba people were taken to Cuba especially during the years between 1820-1840.
As a result, the Yoruba formed a majority of African people captured and enslaved then taken across the Atlantic from the ports of the Bight of Benin.
Among the subgroups of the Yoruba people were the Ketu, Ijesha, Egbado, Oyo and Nago.
In 1826, the Spanish government proclaimed that any slave who could prove that he had been illegally forced into slavery and imported to Cuba could be freed. They put up regulations to monitor captains of vessels arriving from Africa.
They checked the logbooks at the port to see if any slaves had been brought.
But the Spanish captains tried to evade this law.
For example, the schooner Minerva landed six boatloads of slaves in Havana one night and was arrested.
But the case was never tried in court because there was a dispute between the Spanish and the British over ownership of the waters where the schooner had been arrested.
Even after the official abolition of slavery, the barbaric practice continued in Cuba. In 1849 the Cuban Economic Society noted that, 150 negroes produced 400 tonnes of sugar because the slaves were used like machines.
Márquez Sterling later gave a speech in which the coming of machines helped free the African slaves from hard labour they remained weighed down by the chains of misery which could be seen and felt right across Cuba.
They still worked on the sugar cane fields and suffered from poverty and hunger.
After the Haitian revolution, many refugees, including French planters and their slaves, fled along the Windward Passage to eastern Cuba.
This is where they started to grow coffee plantations in the highlands around Santiago de Cuba.
In Guantánamo, the former slaves formed Afro-Haitian culture known as tuba francesa, or ‘French drum’.
They still speak French Creole up to this day.
According to a 1992 lecture by Lopes Valdez, an ethnologist from the Cuban Academy of Sciences, “at least 15 million Africans landed alive as slaves in the Americas during the whole slave trade period.
“For comparison, today, as of 1999, there are over 100 million people in Nigeria, of whom about 13 million are Yoruba.
“The number of slaves landing alive in Cuba over the whole period consisted of 45 percent of the Cuban population.”
The slave trade then ended in the US in the 1860s and in Brazil in the 1850s, but in Cuba it lasted until the late 1870s.
The black presence in Cuba therefore pre dates the arrival of African slaves to the US by more than a century and it was to last for a longer period than slavery in America.

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