Cuba marks 135 years since the abolition of slavery

photo: Artwork by Roberto Diago from Granma website

On 18 October 2021 Cuba marked 135 years since the abolition of slavery on the island.

The commemoration took place at the Museum of the Slavery Route, inaugurated in June 2009 in the Castillo de San Severino, located on the outskirts of Matanzas.

At the event, representatives of cultural institutions such as UNEAC, the union of artists and writers, and other civil society institutions pledged to continue to work together to reduce the equity gaps related to differences in skin colour and to promote citizen participation as a decisive factor in the implementation of the National Program against Racism and Racial Discrimination.

But above all it became clear that the achievement of such aims, encouraged at this time with greater emphasis by the socialist state on a community scale, is through the transformation of individual and collective subjectivities, through education and culture.

The poet and ethnologist Miguel Barnet recalled how after Unesco launched the program ‘La Ruta del Esclavo’, now more precisely renamed ‘La Ruta de la Esclavitud’ (‘The Slavery Route’), he advocated convening in Matanzas at the end of 1995 the meeting for the initiative and years later for dedicating an institution to the memory of enslaved Africans.

President of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, Barnet called for a more in-depth reading of Cuban history and society, to fully address the legacy of Africans and their descendants, where the economic and material component must not be ignored, and to interpret the keys to miscegenation culture that has “led us to be what we really are”.

In charge of coordinating the program’s Cuban Committee, Alberto Granado, director of the Casa de África Museum, in Old Havana, insisted on teaching young generations about the horrors of slavery and the contributions of women and men enslaved, through training better prepared teachers, the linking into the educational process in schools and the use of familiar languages ​​ through the use of digital technologies.

The director of the museum, Isabel Hernández, historian and tireless promoter, showed the first stage of what will be the ‘interpretation room’ of slavery in Cuba, equipped with interactive devices, and where the model of a slave ship is installed at the centre.

One of the most diligent scholars of the slavery process, Dr. María del Carmen Barcia, sent a message to the event. The Matanzas Provincial Archive provided the museum with copies of the original notifications from the colonial authorities on the abolition of slavery.

In October 1886, Cuba was the penultimate Latin American territory to abolish slavery. Brazil abolished slavery 2 years later in 1888. The hundreds of thousands of Africans and descendants subjected to bloody exploitation had been considered six years earlier included in the so-called Patronage Law, which apparently eradicated slavery although in truth it masked it.

The declaration of Abolition was not the result of an altruistic and humanitarian gesture of the colonial metropolis and the island landowners, nor the necessary adjustment to the evolution of the mode of production. The resistance of the enslaved, expressed in uprisings, beatings and maroonage (grouping of refugees from slavery), the enormous symbolic value of the act of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes on October 10, 1868 [ringing his plantation bell and freeing his own slaves] and of the letter and spirit of the Constitution of Guáimaro, and the joining of freed slaves and blacks and mulattoes to the struggles for independence weighed decisively in the abolitionist act.

Read the original report by Granma in Spanish

About the Museum of the Slavery Route in Matanzas

The Museum of the Slavery Route located in the Castillo de San Severino, has four rooms: the Commander’s house, Archeological display, Slavery display and Orishas room. Objects, pieces, pictures and belongings that illustrate the period are exhibited. Also, the Museum offers a great variety of activities, such as workshops and lectures, throughout the year. 

Cuba is one of the countries that underwent through the longest slavery period in the world, from 1511 until 1886. Of the two and a half million enslaved people imported into the Spanish colonies from Africa, almost 40% were taken to Cuba.  Castillo San Severino was specifically built to serve as a defence against the attacks of privateers and pirates in the southern area of the Island. Its construction started on October 13, 1693 and ended in 1735.

Later on, it served as Seat of the Main Commander of the City Defense System and was part of a system integrated to the San José de la Vigía Fort, battery of Cajigal and Morillo. The castle was destroyed in 1762 to prevent it from being occupied by the English army that had recently occupied the city of Havana. When the invaders left the Island, the castle was rebuilt and thousands of Africans and their descendants participated in the task, and they were all forced to work as slave labour in inhuman conditions. 

In the castle -one of the oldest of the city of Matanzas- the marks made by slaves on stones, in order to keep count of and justify the day´s task for their masters, can still be seen.  In 1978, Castillo de Severino was declared National Monument of the Republic of Cuba after more than three hundred years since its construction.

Castillo de San Severino, Matanzas, Cuba