The Year of the Lash
Free People of Color in Cuba and the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World
Publication Year: 2011
Michele Reid-Vazquez reveals the untold story of the strategies of negotiation used by free blacks in the aftermath of the “Year of the Lash”—a wave of repression in Cuba that had great implications for the Atlantic World in the next two decades.
At dawn on June 29, 1844, a firing squad in Havana executed ten accused ringleaders of the Conspiracy of La Escalera, an alleged plot to abolish slavery and colonial rule in Cuba. The condemned men represented prominent members of Cuba’s free community of African descent, including the acclaimed poet Plácido (Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés). In an effort to foster a white majority and curtail black rebellion, Spanish colonial authorities also banished, imprisoned, and exiled hundreds of free blacks, dismantled the militia of color, and accelerated white immigration projects.
Scholars have debated the existence of the Conspiracy of La Escalera for over a century, yet little is known about how those targeted by the violence responded. Drawing on archival material from Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and the United States, Reid-Vazquez provides a critical window into understanding how free people of color challenged colonial policies of terror and pursued justice on their own terms using formal and extralegal methods. Whether rooted in Cuba or cast into the Atlantic World, free men and women of African descent stretched and broke colonial expectations of their codes of conduct locally and in exile. Their actions underscored how black agency, albeit fragmented, worked to destabilize repression’s impact.
Published by: University of Georgia Press
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The development and completion of The Year of the Lash has been a shared journey. This project would not have come to fruition without the initial support of several faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. I owe a special thanks to Aline Helg and Toyin Falola, who shepherded the...
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At dawn on June 29, 1844, a firing squad in Havana executed ten accused ringleaders of the Conspiracy of La Escalera, an alleged plot among free people of African descent (libres de color), slaves, creoles, and British abolitionists to end slavery and colonial rule in Cuba. The group of condemned...
1. “Very Prejudicial”: Free People of Color in a Slave Society
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“You will be surprised to observe the number of free blacks and mulattoes,” wrote Abiel Abott, a Massachusetts minister who visited Cuba from February to May 1828 in a quest to improve his lung condition.1 Numerous travelers, primarily North Americans and Europeans, who...
2. Spectacles of Power: Repressing the Conspiracy of La Escalera
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As guards led Plácido (Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés), celebrated Cuban poet, to his death before a firing squad, he reportedly recited verses from his final work, “A Plea to God.”1 The above excerpt from the poem highlights his grief over the repression of the Escalera revolts and...
3. Calculated Expulsions: Free People of Color in Mexico, the United States, Spain, and North Africa
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On March 19, 1844, José Falgueras, president of the Cuban Military Commission, condemned free blacks Anastasio Ramirez, José Castillo, Mateo carabalí, and Alonso lucumí to imprisonment in Ceuta, Spain’s presidio in North Africa. Moreover, the Commission prohibited them from returning to Cuba...
4. Acts of Excess and Insubordination: Resisting the Tranquillity of Terror
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As the Military Commission sentencing came to a close in January 1845, Captain General O’Donnell had begun sending carefully crafted correspondence to the Ultramar affirming Cuba’s peaceful state of affairs. Twenty-two of the twenty-five letters he penned between January and December 1845 asserted the island’s...
5. The Rise and Fall of the Militia of Color: From the Constitution of 1812 to the Escalera Era
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In March 1844, the same month the O’Donnell administration initiated the targeted expulsion of libres de color from Cuba, officials also disarmed moreno and pardo battalions. Over the next few months, the Military Commission trials convicted or detained an array of militiamen as...
6. Balancing Acts: The Shifting Dynamics of Race and Immigration
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In April 1844, Captain General O’Donnell urgently reminded officials in Spain of the political importance of “sustaining an equilibrium of the castes” in Cuba. In particular, he sought to undermine the positions of “black skilled craftsmen, maids, cooks, and coachmen” and replace them...
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“Every visitor to Havana notices the variety in appearance, as well as the numbers of the negro population,” noted American writer Samuel Hazard, who traveled to Cuba in late 1860s. Englishman Henry Latham not only reiterated these sentiments but offered a positive appraisal of black...
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Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 2 b&w photos, 3 maps
Publication Year: 2011
Series Title: Early American Places