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The Americas 62.2 (2005) 177-207

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The Process of Cultural Change Among Cuban Bozales During the Nineteenth Century*

University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, North Carolina


On again reaching Matanzas, I ascertained that a slave-ship had just entered the port from the African coast, with 250 slaves on board. . . . On preceding to the quarter where these wretched beings were confined, I found them all huddled together in a large room, in which they were all exposed to sale like some drove of pigs, in a complete state of nudity, with the exception of a bandage tied round their loins. They . . . were seated on the floor in groups of eight and ten, feeding out of a parcel of buckets. . . . Three of these miserable outcasts were extremely ill, from the effects of close confinement during a long voyage.1

Thus began the experience of many nineteenth-century slaves upon their arrival in the New World. Hundreds of thousands of people from West and West Central Africa, bozales as Spaniards called newly arrived slaves, were torn from their own lands and plunged into a system that not only enslaved their bodies but also, through a system of physical violence and social control, re-inscribed personal and group identification.2 Because personal [End Page 177] modes of relational identification overlapped and were intertwined with categories of group consciousness from which Africans were removed, the process of being uprooted and deposited into new contexts of slavery would begin a profound transformative experience. People from a variety of African ethnic groups would take on new understandings of race and ethnicity that would affect how they thought of themselves and those around them.3 This would also ultimately lead to the construction of a new conception of nationality. The Cuban system of slavery provides an example of this process within the framework of the Caribbean plantation complex.

During the first half of the nineteenth century Cuban planters rapidly expanded plantation agriculture into the plains of western Cuba. A steady course of trade reform, including the liberalization of the slave trade over the course of the last decades of the eighteenth century, followed by the collapse of the sugar and coffee economy in Haiti after the revolution of 1791, provided the means and opportunity for planters to respond to changing world supplies and strong demand on the international market. As a result, slave owners enlarged the population of coerced laborers at an unprecedented pace, bringing the system into its maturity. Agricultural entrepreneurs sought to profit from a vigorous market that had lost a major supplier. The period of Cuba's agricultural boom had begun.4

Virgin soil and an abundant supply of fuel wood were needed for expansion and also for producing high yields of sugar; therefore planters pushed south from Havana into the Güines valley and east towards Matanzas. The Yumurí and San Juan rivers defined the contours of the town of Matanzas and provided a short-term answer to the transportation needs of agriculturalists. Coupled with the natural harbor, the area was an ideal site for plantation farming.

Estimates of the dramatic rise in the slave population during the first half of the nineteenth century reflect the response to the growing need for labor [End Page 178] on the frontier. Demographic data reveals a growth of the slave population by more than fifteen-fold during the first half of the century.5 Throughout the period, sales of newly arrived Africans dominated, often approaching 80 percent of all transactions and never falling below 50 percent.6 Ninety percent of all slaves imported during this time were classified, according to the ethnic understandings of the buyers and sellers, as belonging to one of five groups: Carabalí, Congo, Gangá, Lucumí, and Mandingo.7 These groups made up the slave population of Matanzas and constituted a significant portion of the total number in bondage on the island. During the 1840s they made up approximately one third of the total in Cuba.8 The region centered around Matanzas...


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