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SLAVERY – CUBA – AFRO-CARIBBEAN AND CHINESE SLAVERY: “Modela de Cedulas para los esclavos”.


The most extraordinary, extensive and data-rich manuscript on slavery we have ever encountered – being an original Cuban ‘registro’ (registry book) of ‘licensed’ slaves composed by a slave ‘registrador’s (registrar’s) office, likely either Havana or Matanzas, in 1855-56 (from December 1854 onwards, all slaves in Cuba were required to have a ‘cédula’, that acted as both a license and an identity certificate); amazingly listing around 4,500 individual entries, each relating to a single cédula (given one per slave), that notes the names of the slave owners (including many members of the island’s elite), as well as the race and gender of each licensed slave; importantly, while most of the slaves listed are either ‘black’ or ‘mulatto’, there are many entries for Chinese “slaves”, referring to the indentured Chinese agrarian workers that were imported into Cuba between 1847 and 1877; the present manuscript is thus an incriminating document, in that it proves that the Cuban authorities considered the Chinese labourers to be slaves, and not ‘guest workers’ as they had solemnly asserted to the international community; a peerless and inexhaustible font of primary research into the nature of both Afro-Caribbean and Chinese slavery in Cuba during the mid-19th century sugar boom, with thousands of data points regarding the island’s plantation owners and the demographics and locations of members of their enslaved work force not preserved anywhere else. 


4° (29.5 x 21 cm): [unpaginated, 234 pp., or 117 leaves (we have designated the page numbers)], manuscript, dark brown ink on lined ledger paper, almost all leaves written on both sides, disbound with traces of former leather binding (Fair to Good, ink quite oxidized in many places with some corrosion of paper and bleeding though leaves but all text completely legible, some purple staining in upper outer areas of pp. 49/50 to 177/178 and on last leaf, and some old damp staining to bottom part of leaves from pp. 49/50 to 77/78, occasional worming and slight chipping to few pages but with no real loss, some leaves a little loose), accompanied (loose) by a printed Slave ‘Cédula’ issued by the Cuban authorities, with details filled in by manuscript, dated at Matanzas, 1859 (21.5 x 31.5 cm).


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Cuba is largest island in the West Indies (with a land area of 110,860 km2) and possesses almost endless fertile plains, featuring some of the best farmland in the world.  The island’s Spanish colonial rulers began importing slaves from Africa to the island in the 16th century, becoming the backbone of Cuba’s largely agrarian economy.  However, for the better part of the first 250 years or so of the colonial era, Cuba’s agrarian sector dramatically underperformed relative to its potential, as the island was isolated from the global economy by the Spanish mercantilist system.  Its economy and population grew slowly, and its importation of slaves was relatively limited, as its agrarian sector was largely geared only towards local consumption, as opposed to for export.  Cuba grew more tobacco than the much more lucrative sugar, an inefficient allocation of resources.  Its sugar production and maritime trade was dramatically overshadowed by the nearby French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and the British island of Jamaica, which were the world’s leading sugar producers.


However, the Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804), which overthrew French rule, saw the almost complete collapse of the world’s largest sugar economy, creating a colossal vacuum in the global market.  Coinciding with the relaxation of Spanish mercantilist regulations, Cuba stepped into the void, dramatically ramping up its agrarian production, with an emphasis upon sugar, the global market price of which was at an all-time high.  This led Cuba to import an unprecedented number of African slaves, as between 1791 and 1805, 91,211 slaves entered the island through Havana.


In only a relatively short time, Cuba created a massively productive (yet savagely inhumane) sugar-slave economy, and by 1820 the island was the leading sugar producer in the world.  Its main competitors, Jamaica, and the other British West Indian islands, had become uncompetitive, as their production costs were too high, as the British Empire closed their access to the Transatlantic slave trade, while imposing expensive regulations upon the existing captive labour pool.  The ignoble institution was abolished throughout the British Empire between 1834 and 1838, largely taking the British West Indies out of the game.


During the same period, Cuba’s plantation owners were barely affected by the global abolitionist movement, which was weak in the Spanish Empire.  Despite British diplomatic pressure, the Spaniards paid little heed to the Royal Navy’s efforts to stamp-out the slave trade.  Cuba continued the mass importation of captive Africans, largely brought from Portuguese Africa on Portuguese ships (the British were loath to search and siege Portuguese vessels, as Lisbon was London’s oldest ally).  It is believed that between 1830 to 1839, 120,438 slaves arrived in Cuba, mostly from Portuguese Africa.  Famously, the saga of the Amistad (1839) involved slaves who were smuggled from West Africa to Cuba by Portuguese embargo-runners.


Cuba’s growth during the first half of the 19th century was awesome, as its population grew almost six-fold between 1775 and 1841, rising from 170,000 to just over a million in 1841, with enslaved people accounting for 45% of the island’s residents.  During this time, Havana rose to become the wealthiest and most culturally sophisticated city in the New World.


However, events in the 1840s threatened to make Cuba’s reliance upon enslaved Afro-Caribbean labour economically and politically unviable.  First, an 1839 Anglo-Portuguese agreement caused Portugal to dramatically reduce its role in the Transatlantic slave trade, cutting Cuba off from its main source of new slave labour.  While slave smuggling continued, at greatly reduced volume, the price of newly imported slaves was prohibitively expensive, while the price of slaves already in Cuba greatly increased.


Second, the Spanish crown, under intense pressure from liberal elements in Europe, brought in legislation that imposed standards upon the treatment of slaves that riled plantation owners (who were generally known for their brutal behaviour towards their captive labourers).


Third, the Cuban elite developed a heightened fear of enslaved Africans, chilled by the bloody (although unsuccessful) slave rebellion Jamaica (1831-2).  There concerns were not misplaced, as in 1843 Cuban authorities would uncover a well-laid conspiracy to mount a slave insurrection in Matanzas.


While driving and terrorizing Cuba’s exiting labour pool of enslaved people of African descent would continue to be the backbone of the island’s economy, the planters enacted two major changes to save their industry from the fallout of the end of the mass slave trade.  First, they dramatically modernized their estates, for between 1838 and 1880, Cuban sugar production became the most mechanized on earth, employing steam-powered mills and narrow-gauge railways.


Second, they looked across the world to obtain a new source of labour to, at least partially, replace the slaves of African descent.

From 1847 to 1877, the purpose-created Compañia Asiatica de la Habana arranged for the importation of tens of thousands of Chinese migrant labourers to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations.  The Compañia, aided by its agents, marshalled poor Chinese agrarian workers to Macao, where they had to sign contracts committing them to terms of labour in Cuba, in return for promises of certain compensation, provisions, and guarantees of working conditions.  From there, they were transported in ships to Cuba, where they found themselves on sugar plantations.


As it turned out, the Chinese labourers were often deceived, coerced, and treated harshly, no better than slaves; even their meagre contractual rights were commonly not honoured.  Only foreign pressure after thirty years brought an end to this horrific system.  During the 30 years of the Compañia’s active operations, it is estimated that over 140,000 Chinese labourers were imported into Cuba, the great majority of which were male.  Most of the Chinese labourers were settled in the areas between Havana and Matanzas and Cárdenas and Colón, noticeably altering the Cuban economy and the demographic makeup of many areas.

The Present Manuscript in Focus


In the mid-1850s, the Cuban government sought to gain effective oversight of the island’s slavery system.  Amazingly, while slaves were the backbone of Cuba’s economy, the crown had no official or generally reliably records of how many slaves were on the island, their demographics, who owned them, and where they were located.  This was especially pressing as Cuba was home to over 500,000 slaves, out of a population of around 1.2 million.  It was now deemed necessary to create a general ‘register’ of slaves in Cuba, so that the government could: a) crack down on what remained of the slave trade (although this would not be fully stamped out until 1867); b) to decide how to best allocate civilian and military resources based on intelligence as to where slaves worked and resided (i.e. to put down possible slave rebellions, etc.); c) to be able to deploy state inspectors to plantations to ensure that slaves were being treated properly according new laws; d) to ensure that the state gained direct revenue from slavery.


The crown enacted the Decreto del gobierno superior civil, estableciendo las cédulas para los esclavos’ (December 19, 1854), commonly referred to as ‘Decreto de 19 de Diciembre de 1854’, that mandated that all slave owners had to apply to the government for a cédula for each slave in their charge, which acted as both a licence and an identification card that had to be produced to authorities on demand.  Offices of the Registrador de Esclavos (Registrar of Slaves), a division of Cuba’s civilian government bureaucracy (the Gobierno Politico), were established in major centres (ex. Havana, Matanzas, Santiago, Puerto Príncipe, etc.), which would issue the cédulas (certificates in the form of printed templates with the particulars filled out in manuscript and signed) for their districts, the details of which were listed in official registros (registers), being manuscript books, with separate registers kept by each office regarding their respective districts.  These books would be used by officials to locate slaves and to monitor the plantations and their owners as the law saw fit.


Naturally, the vast majority of the slaves recorded in the registers were categorized as ‘Black’ or ‘Mulatto’.


Importantly, however, the registers classified and listed Chinese indentured labourers brought to the island by the Compañia Asiatica de la Habana as “slaves”.  This is highly significant, as all the while the Spanish government and the Compañia publicly went to great efforts to assure foreign governments and abolitionist associations that that the Chinese labourers in Cuba were ‘guest workers’ and not slaves.  However, their own internal legal and bureaucratic systems revealed their deception!  Indeed, the Chinese labourer were often treated exactly like slaves, subjected to terrible working conditions and punishments, and were often prevented from leaving the plantations (sometimes indefinitely).


Amazingly, present here is one of the earliest original manuscript register books of slave cédulas, dating from 1855-1856, that runs to 234 pages and contains in the ballpark of 4,500 entries.  Written in dark pen on lined ledger paper, it is comprised of horizontal entries for each cédula granted, given in sections of alphabetical order (i.e., a set of several names beginning with ‘J’) according to the principal slave owner’s first (given) name (usually individuals, but sometimes companies), plus the names of co-owners, including many of the island’s elite figures and families (note that many owner’s names repeat, as they applied for multiple cédulas).  This is accompanied by a note on the race and gender of slave in question (whether they be Negro, Negra, Mulatto, Mulatta, Chino, China), while those designated as Dotacion (literally endowment) are part of large compliment of slaves, while some individuals are simply listed as Esclavo(a).  Each entry is accompanied by a number that, within an alphabetical section, usually follows a sequential order.  Notably, the sections of entries, while following an order within themselves, do not necessarily follow each other in a coherent fashion.  While the book does not necessarily appear to have anything missing, the highest progress of names in the alphabet recorded is of the letter ‘M’, so it is not clear whether the book is a fragment or is complete.


The present register, which lists Chinese people as “slaves” is an incriminating document, as despite the ardent and consistent assertions of the Cuban colonial regime and the Compañia Asiatica de la Habana, that the Chinese on the island were well-treated and voluntary present ‘guest workers’, their own internal official records classified them to be on a level indistinguishable from Afro-Caribbean slaves.


On the matter of the manuscript’s dating, from page 52 onwards, several pages feature the date “1856”, and while not noted, one gains the impression that the entries from before that point perhaps date from 1855, making the present work one of the earliest Cuban ‘registros’, made in the immediate wake of the Decreto de 19 de Diciembre de 1854.


While no place is given for where the manuscript was made, a cursory investigation of some of the slave owner’s names suggests that it was drafted by either the slave registrador’s office in Havana or Matanzas.  Moreover, the presence of Chinese ‘slaves’, which was typical of Havana and Matanzas areas, further supports this inference.


Appropriately, the manuscript was found accompanied by an example of an original slave cédula of the kind that that was recorded in its entries.  While the typography and precise formats of the cédulas differed from place to pace and over time, the present example follows the standard for the document, as it features a printed template, with the particulars of the individual slave filled in by manuscript and them signed by the appropriate authority (often the slave registrador).  The present example is a cédula dated in 1859 at Matanzas that records the registration of a male Chinese “slave”, named “Chin Riv Tanuto” (his proper name clearly ‘lost in translation’), who was a 24-year-old native of Amoy (Xiamen), obligated to serve an 8-year contact of labour in Cuba.  The cédula measures 21.5 x 31.5 cm and was published in Havana by the Imprenta de Gobierno y Capitania General por S.M. and was issued for a fee of 2 Reals.


The present manuscript is an extraordinary survivor, we are not aware of a reference to the present location of any other original Cuban slave registro, nor have we encountered anything remotely like it from any country, featuring so many entries.  The manuscript represents an almost inexhaustible font of primary academic research on the nature of both Afro-Caribbean slavery and Chinese indentured labourers during the heady period of the sugar boom of the mid-19th century.  Specifically, it will permit ground-breaking investigations into many Cuban slaveowners, including members of the island’s elite families, as well as the locations of slaves, and their demographics.  The work includes thousands of data points and angles of inquiry that are likely not preserved anywhere else.


References: N/A – Manuscript seemingly unrecorded.  Cf. Hubert Hillary Suffern AIMES, History of Slavery in Cuba, 1511 to 1868 (New York, 1907); Arthur F. CORWIN, Spain and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 1817–1886 (Austin, TX, 1967); Christopher SCHMIDT-NOWARA, Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874 (Pittsburgh, 1999).

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