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  • Voices of the Enslaved in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Documentary History
  • Edgardo Pérez Morales
Voices of the Enslaved in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Documentary History. By Gloria García Rodríguez. Translated by Nancy L. Westrate. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 240. Foreword. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00 cloth; $26.96 paper.

This book is an outstanding collection of primary sources that will prove useful to historians for both classroom work and research. The book tells the story of slavery and freedom in nineteenth- century Cuba, mostly through documents housed at the National Archives in Havana that have largely been inaccessible to students and scholars outside of Cuba. This book contains more than 70 transcriptions or partial transcriptions of historical documents, most of which date from the 1800s and have never before been published in English. Nancy Westrate’s translation of the documents is accurate and meticulous. There is a useful foreword by Ada Ferrer that situates the book in its larger scholarly context. In eight thematic sections preceded by an introduction, the author offers a comprehensive survey of Cuban slave society. The introduction touches upon topics such as the dynamics of colonization in the expansion of plantations, the impact of such expansion on rural life, the internal dynamics of social life in slave communities, and the sustained efforts of the enslaved to modify the ways laws governing slavery and freedom were applied.

This book is based on the assumption that the motivations, ideas, and feelings of slaves may be extrapolated from written documents such as court records and letters, despite the distortions and potential misinterpretations of the notaries and scribes who created the documents. Critical reading of these sources allows for a closer look at the history of slavery and freedom through the personal experiences of the slaves themselves. These records reveal the dramatic circumstances of slavery, the relentless efforts of slaves to obtain freedom for themselves and for their loved ones, the dynamic social worlds of the enslaved in both rural and urban contexts, and the contradictions of a system that was exploitative by principle but could not rely on violence and coercion alone to continue.

Collectively, the documents cited in the book take the reader through a journey of spaces and voices from the 1780s to the 1860s. These voices reveal that slaves managed to maintain their families amid the most dire circumstances imaginable. They allow us to hear the everyday sounds of the plantations, from the dreaded sound of the whip to the whispered words of conspiracy and secret communication among slave communities. The documents demonstrate slaves’ determination to defend and represent their human dignity despite their masters’ relentless efforts to commodify them. They provide a window into a world much more complex and interconnected than we could otherwise imagine.

The first three sections reveal the dynamics of legal and social change leading up to the Cuban slave code of 1842. Sections four and five contain documents regarding family and social life and present interactions between slaves and overseers and illustrate both the solidarity and conflict that existed within slave communities. Section six contains [End Page 142] documents regarding the labor relations of coartado slaves, individuals that enjoyed special privileges because they had fulfilled partial payment of the price of their freedom. Section seven deals with violence and brutality in the treatment of slaves. The last section is devoted to documents that illustrate the various radical avenues to freedom that Cuban slaves took in the nineteenth century. In addition to treating marronage and slave insurrection, this section contains documents that shed light on a path to freedom that historians are only recently beginning to explore: slaves’ travel to free-soil territories in order to claim lasting freedom. García Rodríguez offers examples of Cuban slaves who traveled to Spain, Venezuela, and the United States and later claimed that visiting these countries made them free individuals. Among the many topics illuminated in this book, free-soil conceptions and practices are one of the most promising areas for new historical research. [End Page 143]

Edgardo Pérez Morales
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan


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