Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 155-156
[Access article in PDF]
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 María Elena Díaz (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001) 440 pp. $49.95
This book is a gem. It is carefully researched, elegantly written, exquisitely crafted, and poignantly personal. It is the story of about 300 slaves, who became the property of the king of Spain in 1670, when the Crown confiscated the copper mines where they worked in eastern Cuba. The author weaves an account of the following 100 years of Santiago del Prado, using as sources judicial records, depositions, parish registers, village censuses, writings by literate slaves, and oral interviews with local inhabitants. She argues that the royal slaves of El Cobre (named for the copper that was mined in the area) fashioned a collective identity out of real or imagined events in their past to obtain entitlements that virtually made them free men and women. Among the "microevents" (seemingly insignificant happenings in the lives of common people) that the author examines are the 1687 declaration of eighty-five-year old Juan Moreno regarding the apparition of Our Lady of Charity in 1612; a 1670-1672 statement by the governor implying that royal slavery was a special category of bondage; the 1677 petition by cobreros (residents of El Cobre) to remain in their pueblo (town, settlement), thus effectively negotiating a corporate identity; and the early eighteenth-century conflict over the right to land. Squeezing meaning out of scarce extant documentation, the author traces convincingly the slaves' able manipulation of shared understandings of slavery, social relations, private property, local governance, and the king's obligations to his subjects.
The most notable characteristic of Díaz's superb analysis is her adroit command of the conceptual frameworks of several conventional and crossborder disciplines, among them history, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. In this book, she offers a demographic argument for creolization (Chapter 1); takes historical actors at face value, as they shaped the contemporary and local understanding of slavery and social relations (Chapter 2); assumes the role of omniscient historian to propose that the slaves' ideological formulations of their situation essentially translated into demands for a corporate persona (chapters 3 and 6); demonstrates that people often construct and reimagine their past (Chapter 4); refuses to inject twentieth-century meanings into social memory, as could easily be done with the symbolic association between nationalism and the Virgin of Charity (Chapter 5); and examines the material context (chapters 7, 8, and 9) from which slaves projected their legal personae into the political and judicial system (chapters 10 and 11). Díaz's deconstruction of the king's slaves' social identity makes use of time-tested methodologies, as well as of original reconfigurations of the theoretical tools of various disciplines.
This book places the events under study in the larger context of slavery in a frontier, not just historically but also historiographically. As [End Page 155] Díaz herself reminds us, the paradigms that the late Moreno Fraginals set for Cuban history lay in the economic domain of nineteenth-century sugar production. 1 This book considers another kind of slavery, as the kings' slaves themselves argued, that is outside the familiar narrative, transcending the models that historians have been debating thus far. El Cobre was a frontier region historically as well, dangerously close to Jamaica and Saint Domingue, and isolated from the center of Spanish military and political authority. Díaz adeptly places the cobreros' political maneuvering in its "hinterland" setting, uncovering the ways in which they made use of Spain's irremediably weak enforcement of imperial rules and its consequently long legal arm.
At the risk of faulting the author for doing precisely what is so exciting about this work, a more conventional analysis of gender is missed throughout the book. Dí...