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  • Manuel Moreno Fraginals: An Appreciation
  • Christopher Schmidt-Nowara

Manuel Moreno Fraginals: An Appreciation

Manuel Moreno Fraginals authored one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century historiography, El ingenio, in which he reconstructed the efforts of Cuban planters to build one of the Atlantic world’s major slave societies of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He also argued vigorously that the system’s unmaking was due to its own internal contradictions, specifically that the need to shift investment away from slave labor and to advanced processing technology was the driving force behind Cuban slave emancipation in the late nineteenth century.

Over the years, several works—most notably those of Rebecca Scott and Laird Bergad—have challenged Moreno Fraginals’s thesis about the internal contradictions of the slave mode of production ultimately leading to the transition to free labor. On the one hand, they have shown that slave labor adapted successfully to technological innovations throughout the nineteenth century. On the other, they have demonstrated that slave emancipation, not slavery, led to crisis in the organization of sugar production. These revisions, however, have only amplified the centrality of Moreno Fraginals’s work to any discussion of Cuban slave society by throwing into relief its particular virtues, especially its composition and its ambition to be the portrait of an age.

Moreno Fraginals wrote with great zest and energy about the investments and innovations of the Cuban planter class. Despite the rather daunting title, this study was not one of dry social science but a work of great learning combined with a broad historical vision and elegant style whose impact was felt far beyond Cuba. For instance, in a recent interview, Josep M. Fradera noted that El ingenio was a touchstone and inspiration for the generation of Spanish historians who came of age in the 1970, in his words “not only for the breadth of its descriptions and analysis but also for the beauty of its prose”.

While Moreno Fraginals’s fascination with the economic and technological aspects of sugar and the rise in slavery is crystal clear, his bold effort to comprehend a historical epoch in class terms is also evident to readers. Moreno Fraginals sought not only to describe the plantation and the entire [End Page 125] range of legal, economic, and political reforms demanded by the Cuban dominant class but also that class’s efforts to build the infrastructure of a unique creole culture through institutions like the Real Sociedad Patriótica de los Amigos del País. In his rendering, creole planters were an ascendant bourgeoisie characterized by the intellectual and entrepreneurial dynamism of their European counterparts. They were also, however, doomed to fail in their historic task of carrying out Cuba’s bourgeois revolution because of their fatal reliance on elements of the old regime: slavery, the slave trade, and colonialism. Hence, this class that committed itself to the conquest of nature and the mobilization of its country’s untapped resources ultimately capitulated under the weight of history. The paradox that Moreno Fraginals so elegantly crafted was that the sources of wealth and success of the planter class were also the sources of its failures.

Moreno Fraginals shared this view with other twentieth-century Cuban historians such as Raúl Cepero Bonilla and Juan Pérez de la Riva. One could look even further back for the origins of their critique. Indeed, Moreno Fraginals in El ingenio and his larger oeuvre, followed in the footsteps of Cuban historians who had helped craft one of the world’s richest historiographical traditions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most notably José Antonio Saco (1797–1879) and Fernando Ortiz (1881–1963). Like those towering intellectual figures, Moreno Fraginals worked within the broad historical question of how African slavery and Spanish colonialism had shaped the peculiarities of Cuban history and culture. Moreno Fraginals’s first book was a lucid study of Saco’s writings, both historical and political. While Moreno Fraginals, Pérez de la Riva, and Cepero Bonilla often castigated Saco harshly as the mouthpiece of the Cuban dominant class, what also emerges from this study is an appreciation for the exhaustive work that went into Saco’s own monumental history of...


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pp. 125-127
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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