Cuban Slaves

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The Role of Slaves on the Island

The history of the slaves is one full of international events. From being colonized centuries ago by European explorers, to then being at the center of an international crisis just decades ago, this nation's past is colorful. Additionally, the modern day Cuban demography is equally as diverse and international, with many Cubans having genealogies based in Spain, Africa, China, the US, and Caribbean islands. The slave trade in Cuba was extensive, causing hundreds of thousands of slaves to be brought from the western coast of Africa to Cuba, mainly being put to work in the sugarcane fields. Ironically, when Cuba's sugar industry peaked due to improved refinement technology and a high supply of slaves, the rest of world was beginning to abolish slavery, and the country was forced to follow suit soon afterward.

Cuba at the Peak of the Slave Trade

As mentioned previously, slave trade on the island reached its peak around the middle of the 1800s, as plantation owners and refining mill technicians perfected the manufacturing and transportation processes surrounding the sugar industry. At this time, life in Cuba was divided into social classes, typically determined by color and ethnic origin. At the top of society were the white people, mostly of Spanish decent. Next in line were the people of color who had been freed, sometimes from a white father and a Cuban slave mother. Furthermore, this group of people was divided between mullato and black categorizations. Finally, there were slaves brought in from Africa. These people were taken from African nations like Nigeria and Angola, sold to business owners, and put to work planting and harvesting sugar in Cuba.

A Long Line of Oppression

The first slaves were brought to Cuba in the 16th century. More than 200 years later, the first large group of slaves arrived on the island. Surprisingly, they were not brought by the Spanish. In 1762, England took control of the island from Spain during the Seven Years' War, transforming its economy and society by opening it up to trade with neighboring nations. When the British took over Havana, they imported horses, food, and a shipment of approximately 5,000 slaves from Africa. At the end of the war, Britain agreed to return Cuba to the Spanish in return for Florida. Thus, the Spanish resumed power and in 1789 allowed the slave trade to open up on the island.

During the 5-year period from 1835 to 1840, there were over 165,000 new slaves brought in to Cuba. Despite new treaties being signed between England and Spain to discontinue the slave trade, the local economy's reliance on slave labor had grown too much. The treaties could not be enforced, and throughout the 1850s, the trade continued unfettered. Finally, in 1866, the last slave ship delivered its shipment, but the slaves would have to wait another 20 years until they were completely set free.

Cuban Slaves and Sugarcane

The country's main items of export during the 19th century were coffee, tobacco and sugar. By the mid 1800s, there were more than 1,300 sugar mills on the island refining 450,000 tons of sugar crystal. This equated to approximately 30% of the annual supply for the whole world.

At the time, about 370,000 slaves were dedicated to the work on the sugar plantations. This labor was arduous, as the workers had to cut down sizable stalks of sugarcane ranging in height from 5 feet to 15 feet with only a cane knife. Truly, the work done by Afro Cubans made the island the commercial center that it became in the 19th century.

Modern Racial Integration

After the African slaves were freed, they became part of the new demography. In modern-day country there are an ever increasing mix of races, so that it is often difficult to tell them apart. Current demographics from the Cuban government state that around 65% of the population is white. On the other hand, international organizations have issued ranging demographics, saying that Cuba's black population is 33 - 62% of the total population.

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