Negotiating a slave regime: free people of color in Cuba, 1844-1868

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Reid, Michele Bernita

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In my dissertation, I investigate how race, gender, and freedom intertwined in colonial Cuba’s slave-based society. By examining government documents, newspapers, manuscript censuses, petitions, and personal accounts from archives in Cuba, Spain, and the United States, Negotiating a Slave Regime charts the strategies employed by free people of African descent (libres de color) to navigate nineteenth-century Cuba. In 1844, a series of slave uprisings, known collectively as the Conspiracy of La Escalera, ruptured the tenuous stability of the colony. Cuban officials accused libres de color of leading the revolt, in collaboration with Creoles, slaves, and British abolitionists, to overthrow slavery and Spanish rule on the island. The ensuing repression intensified Spain’s efforts to limit the influence and demographic growth of libres de color by expelling them from the island, restricting their occupational opportunities, and curtailing their social activities. While Cuba’s proscribed legal, racial, and gendered norms marginalized free men and women of color because of their racial ancestry and potential threat to the slave regime, this system simultaneously cast them as vital to providing for the needs of Spaniards and Creoles. Nevertheless, the tensions of this duality enabled libres de color to maneuver effectively within colonial constraints. By 1868, the advent of the Ten Year’s War, Cuba’s first war for independence from Spain, the free population of color had achieved a remarkable demographic recovery. Fueled by the predominance of women, and legal and occupational perseverance, libres de color nurtured a new leadership and political consciousness. By narrating the re-emergence and development of free people of African descent in Cuba, my dissertation explores the themes of freedom and resistance. Moreover, I illuminate the dynamic nature of colonial social relations and the challenges to imperial ideology and control in nineteenth-century Cuba, the African Diaspora in Latin America, and the Atlantic World.