The Discourse of Sacrifice in Cuba’s Wars of Independence, 1868-1898

By Jorge Camacho

For scholars interested in race relations and cultural formations in the Caribbean, the French and Haitian Revolutions of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries represent key moments for understanding these societies. These events set off a series of rebellions in the Caribbean and Latin America that drastically changed the way Western societies perceived the rights of others, especially the rights of those who were considered inferior and had lived in servitude throughout their lives. In what follows, I would like to point out how during the wars of independence in Cuba (1868-1898), black slaves and their Cuban descendants became central to white independentists who claimed that they went to war to abolish slavery all together, thus sacrificing themselves for the slaves’ freedom.

To begin with, the Haitian Revolution opened the door for the rapid industrialization of the Cuban economy, and to an intensive cultural and sexual hybridization that posed important challenges and fears for the white elite in the colony. Industrialization came in the form of sugar production and a massive importation of captives from Africa. Following the destruction of the sugar industry in Haiti, Cuban industrialists realized that they could take advantage by replacing the former French colony as the Atlantic’s top sugar producer. To achieve this, they asked the Spanish Crown to allow the importation of thousands of slaves from Africa, set up a new system of trade rules, and created scientific institutions that quickly implemented new agricultural techniques. This mixture of liberal reforms, scientific innovations, and complete disregard for human life, turned Cuba into the most profitable Spanish colony in the Americas and one of the top producers of sugar in the world. However, with the increase of the enslaved population, also came the fear of violent uprisings. Many white planters believed that sooner or later slaves would do the same as in Haiti; the planters feared for their own lives, and so they implemented a number of repressive measures thought to prevent rebellion. Among these measures were the creation of a new police force, intense religious indoctrination, a new policy of “good treatment” for the enslaved, and last but not least, physical and psychological punishments, including death for those who rebelled against the government.

In my most recent book, Masters, Slaves and Revolutionaries: The Literature of Cuba’s War of Independence (2018), I explore the ways in which the fear of blacks in Cuba coincided or conflicted with the creole uprisings of 1868 and 1895, that is, the two major wars of independence in Cuba. Those who supported the status quo argued that Cuba would become an island entirely populated by blacks if Cubans succeeded in attaining independence, while white nationalists, such as José Martí, downplayed these fears and doubled down on the discourse of sacrifice. This discourse would give white Cubans a new sense of empowerment and duty, since white creole writers, such as Antonio Zambrana, Julio Rosas, and José Martí, stated in their writings that in order to redeem themselves of their parents’ guilt for having owned slaves, white Cubans needed to take up arms against Spain and free all the slaves on the island. Slavery was the Cubans’ “original sin” and they needed to wash it away with their own blood.

Certainly, Cuban intellectuals were drawing their arguments from the abolitionist movement in Europe and the United States, as well as those who were influenced by Catholicism and religion in Cuba, including figures such as José Agustín Caballero and Felix Varela. Abraham Lincoln, who was very much admired by Cuban independentists like José Martí, also framed his “Second Inaugural Address” on this motive of reckoning as he declared that the war was proof of Gods words: “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[1] Moreover, several Cubans fought in the American Civil War and later went to fight for Cuban independence. It is not surprising then that in order to escape censorship and show their alliance with Abraham Lincoln’s abolitionist agenda, Julio Rosas and Antonio Zambrana locate their narrations before the start of the revolution, that is between 1861 and 1865, during the Civil War in the United States. Consequently, Zambrana and Julio Rosas’ white protagonists joined Abraham Lincoln’s forces rather than joining the Cuban liberation army. Their objective was to create a genealogy of freedom that united Cuba and the United States in hopes that this country would look favorably upon Cuba’s independence after having won the war with the South. The United States, however, did not recognize their belligerence and only intervened in the conflict much later. Furthermore, when Cubans returned to war in 1895, their leaders, who were mostly white, reminded Afro-Cubans that they had sacrificed themselves, their families, their lives, and their wealth for them, which effectively turned this initial act of “generosity” into a “debt” of honor and gratitude that Afro-Cubans needed to repay by going back to war.

In fact, when the war restarted in 1895, there were no more slaves in Cuba, and the Spanish government had agreed to a number of political measures that benefited Afro-Cubans more than whites. Both sides agreed on the need to win Afro-Cuban descendants to their side in order to avoid a future confrontation. Martí, who organized the last war of independence while he was living in the United States, understood this clearly, and in his chronicles for the Patria newspaper reminded blacks that that they owed their freedom to whites and were the only ones who had gained anything from the revolution. He stressed what I call the “indebting memory,” by which I mean an action in the past that is remembered in the present in order to gain something from others. Put another way, memory becomes a political tool to demand satisfaction of a previous “debt”. That is why five years after slavery was completely abolished on the island, Martí continued to remind Afro-Cubans of the generosity of whites during the uprising, and their initial commitment to wash away their original sin with their own blood (“lavar con su vida el crimen!”). Martí’s poem XXX from Versos sencillos (1891) clearly shows his commitment to this idea, and his intention to show how far he was willing to go to fulfill this promise. It says:

Red as in the desert zone,

The sun rose in the horizon:

And upon the dead slave shone,

Hanged from a tree in the mountain.

A boy saw him there and shook

With passion for the oppressed:

And at his feet and oath took

That this crime would be redressed. (89)

Jorge Camacho is a professor of Latin American and Comparative Literatures at the University of South Carolina-Columbia.  He is the author of four books, and seven edited volumes.  He recently made known more than fifty previously unknown chronicles written by José Martí for El Economista Americano and La America of New York. He also published thirteen hitherto uncollected chronicles written by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío for Havana’s journal El Fígaro and the Mercure de France. He has been a member of several editorial boards including the South Atlantic Review, Islas: Quarterly Journal of Afro-Cuban issues, and La Habana Elegante. In addition to these books, Camacho has published more than 80 articles in refereed journals.

Title Image: Johnson’s Cuba Jamaica and Porto Rico, 1861.

Suggested readings:

Camacho, Jorge. Miedo negro, poder blanco en la Cuba colonial. (Madrid: Iberoamericana /Vervuert, 2015)

___. Amos, siervos y revolucionarios: la literatura de las guerras de Cuba (1868-1898). Una perspectiva transatlántica. (Madrid: Iberoamericana /Vervuert, 2018)

Ghorbal, Karim. “La política llamada del ‘buen tratamiento’: reformismo criollo y reacción esclavista en Cuba (1789-1845)”. Nuevo Mundos, Mundos Nuevos, 2009, pp. 1-27,

Helg, Aline. Our Rightful Share: the Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995)

Lincoln, Abraham.“Second Inaugural Address” (1865)

Moreno Fraginals, Manuel. Cuba / España, España / Cuba historia común(Barcelona: Biblioteca de Bolsillo, 2002)

Martí, José. Simple verses. Trans. Manuel A. Tellechea. (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1997)

Rosas, Julio. La campana de la tarde: ó Vivir muriendo. Novela cubana. (La Habana: Imprenta El altar de Guttemberg, 1873)

Zambrana, Antonio. El negro Francisco. Novela Original de Costumbres cubanas. (Santiago de Chile: Imprenta de la Librería del Mercurio, 1875)


[1] I would like to thank Robert D. Taber for this reference.

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