The Americas 61.2 (2004) 318-319
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Originally published in Havana, Cuba in 1988 with the title Los palenques del oriente de Cuba: Resistencia e acoso, Gabino La Rosa Corzo meticulously analyzes escaped slave settlements in eastern Cuba from the 1740s through the 1850s. Culling a wealth of information from 28 slave hunters' diaries (14 of which describe such activities in the east of Cuba), the author provides an overview of the historiography of palenques and offers new insights into escaped slave communities as a form of resistance. Particularly impressive is that the author journeyed into the remote mountains of eastern Cuba so as better to comprehend the natural environment and routes traveled by slaves and slave hunters. In this regard, the author has followed closely the advice of another of Cuba's great historians, M. R. Moreno Fraginals: "a specialist in the social sciences must have a physical relationship with the environment he studies. If he lacks this relationship or experience, he may have erudition (sometimes excellent, useful erudition), but he will never have a grasp of living anthropology, sociology, and history. The territory or environment is not just climatic or geographic data; man and society establish very specific relationships with their environment. These relations give the dimension not only of the environment, but also of the men who move in, transform, and control it" (p. 224).
Several commonalities among 30 palenques in four subregions of eastern Cuba are noted. These commonalities include the occupation of remote areas with little population; the existence of networks of communication and relations among temporary and permanent settlements; the cultivation of crops, either on small plots by individuals or large areas by groups; and the construction of huts or "houses" (made from materials of palm trees) in a "relatively small area" (p. 243) for reasons of efficiency and defense. The number of inhabitants of the palenques ranged from a few persons to an estimated 160 individuals (at Bayamito in the Sierra Nevada mountains). In only three instances did the escaped slaves residing in the palenques of eastern Cuba put up "total resistance" to attack. The inhabitants of the palenques understood that their best strategy for survival was to flee rather than fight pitched battles against better-equipped forces. [End Page 318]
The monograph offers helpful tools for understanding the ever-changing nature of palenques in eastern Cuba. In the wake of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), cultivation of sugar, coffee, and cotton increased in that part of Cuba. This meant that more slaves were transported to plantations. As a result, more slaves took off to join palenques, and slave resistance reached unprecedented levels throughout the island. In response, Spanish colonial officials and planters implemented a series of decrees to deal with the problems posed by escaped slaves. The author emphasizes that the reaction by slave owners was dynamic and not static. They employed a variety of tactics to destroy palenques and to arrest the inhabitants. As the slave regime faced its demise after 1850, the number of slaves fleeing to palenques rapidly declined. Some of the slaves who survived in the mountains of eastern Cuba (most often as individuals or in small groups) subsequently joined in the first independence war against Spain (1868-78).
The author sheds light on numerous subtleties associated with palenque formation and destruction. For example, a variety of crops were cultivated at several palenques. This included fruit trees, which meant that the inhabitants planned to reside in the locale for many years. Escaped slaves used their environment astutely to stay alive. They employed Indian, African and Spanish customs in whatever manner best suited their needs. Most of the slaves who joined palenques in eastern Cuba came from the east and not from western Cuba (as has been suggested by earlier histories). The rich analysis and detailed...