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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 154-156
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The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre:
Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670-1780
The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre: Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670-1780. By MARIA ELENA DIAZ. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xviii, 440 pp. Cloth, $49.50.
Irene Wright, a pioneering North American historian of colonial Cuba, reached the village of El Cobre in the southeastern end of the island for the first time in 1900 . Standing in the reddish soil near the site of a still active copper mine, she, like generations of pilgrims before her, scanned the tops of the surrounding hills to locate the legendary shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad. By this time, the Cuban people had come to embrace El Cobre's Marian sanctuary as a kind of sacred national monument. Yet, as Wright discerned, persons of African descent regarded our Lady with special affinity. Indeed, in picking up a Cuban newspaper several years later, she noted that the leaders of a black political party--probably the newly formed Partido Independiente de Color--had chosen the shrine as the appropriate place to make a public avowal of their willingness to lay down their lives in defense of their race.
María Elena Díaz grounds the modern memory of El Cobre as a place of miracles and popular resistance to oppression in a rich, multilevel analysis of the village's colonial past. The Spanish Crown took control of El Cobre's copper mines and the African slaves who labored in them from a private contractor in 1670 and retained jurisdiction over the property until 1780 . A royal slave, it turns out, provided the foundational story on which the Marian tradition was built. By 1758 , as a Spanish bishop reported, the shrine of El Cobre had become "the richest, most frequented, and most devout in the Island, and the Lady of Charity the most miraculous statue of all those venerated [in Cuba]" (p. 117 ).
Drawing primarily on sources in the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Díaz explores the relations between the cobreros, the shrine, and the state to understand the construction of social identity, the process of creolization, and the meaning of freedom on a colonial frontier. She distinguishes the village's slaves from neighboring maroon bands that infested the Sierra Maestra and in so doing, separates herself [End Page 154] from such notable Cuban historians as Francisco Pérez de la Riva and José Luciano Franco. Under Crown rule, the demographic profile of the village changed. Imports of African slaves ceased; an increasingly creolized, racially mixed, and acculturated population that could reproduce itself naturally emerged; the number of royal slaves grew from 271 in 1670 to 896 in 1775 ; and a predominantly male population became predominantly female.
The royal slaves of El Cobre wasted little time in using their new status to redefine their lives. Over the years, they repeatedly staked claims to the land, defending them inside and outside of court "on a series of formulations that ranged anywhere from a slave's basic right to subsistence, to special entitlements as the King's slaves, to the corporate rights of a pueblo under colonial law" (p. 177 ). Their petitions also asserted rights to family and marriage. In defending and promoting the shrine, the royal slaves defended and promoted a corporatist sense of themselves as a people. They spoke of El Cobre as a pueblo, even a patria. Accordingly, they eventually formed a town council and elected representatives. El Cobre's royal slaves began to look more like peasants or, perhaps, like the king's vassals.
Crown rule created space for the royal slaves to organize their labor according to their own needs and understanding of proper gender roles. Men preferred farming, herding, and hunting to mining and spent considerable time away from the village. Women...