The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 817-818
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The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre: Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670-1780. By María Elena Díaz. (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2000. Pp. xx, 440. $49.50.)
Historical writing on Cuba has been dominated by attention to the nineteenth century and the Havana-Matanzas sugar belt to the virtual exclusion of earlier and later centuries and other regions of the elongated island's east and west, Moreover, particularly in recent U.S. historiography, studies of Cuban history have disproportionately focused on slavery and Afro-Cubans. María Elena Díaz's The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre breaks with the first two trends while adding to the third. It is a study of a Cuban slave community from the eastern town of El Cobre during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Resting on a wide array of archival documentation, Díaz traces the development of the slave community of El Cobre from 1670 (when the Crown confiscated the mine of El Cobre and its slaves) until the late 1700's. The study covers a variety of topics including the community's legal and political struggles to assert its privileges stemming from the fact that its members belonged to the monarch rather than private masters, the population's changing ethnic and demographic composition, and its evolving and complex economic activities. The scope of the book is ambitious, indeed, and offers important contributions toCuba's religious, social, legal, cultural, gender, demographic, and economic history.
One of the book's central contributions is the reconstruction of the legal, religious, and economic mechanisms used by the cobreros to retain and expand [End Page 817] upon their special status as royal slaves and to protect their community from the encroaching labor demands of agrarian capitalism and the island's military needs. The cobreros, for example, dispatched representatives to Spain's highest government levels in 1709 and 1784 to protect their access to royal lands and to limit the extent to which they could be forced to work on military construction projects. As Díaz ably demonstrates, the slaves of El Cobre also used the tradition of the Virgin of the Charity of El Cobre (which centuries later became Cuba's official patron) to defend the integrity of the community and its particular ties to the locality in which it crystallized.
The book also provides relevant insights on gender roles among the slaves of El Cobre. According to the author, the cobreros strove to reconstitute an autonomous peasantry even within the confines of slavery; this reconstitution of an African peasantry, however, was gendered along Spanish models with men dominating as agrarian workers; the women, meanwhile, predominated in the mining activities.
The book's main weaknesses have to do with its idiosyncratic structure and its over-reliance on social science jargon which adds very little to this otherwise excellent study The book's topical structure does not allow Díaz to trace change over time effectively, producing a static picture of some of the aspects that she addresses. This is particularly serious given the study's broad chronological scope. It is also unfortunate that the very useful material and conclusions of the study are packaged with dated jargon: "imagined communities," "discourses," and the like. Fortunately, the book's contributions will most certainly outlive the jargon with its characteristically short shelf-life.