- The Great African Slave Revolt of 1825: Cuba and the Fight for Freedom in Matanzas by Manuel Barcia
In his introduction to The Great African Slave Revolt, Manuel Barcia writes that he wishes to address the absence of scholarship on the revolt with a comprehensive and evocative study and an analysis of the place of the revolt in the larger context of both Cuban history and the Age of Revolution. While Barcia sets a lofty goal, he deftly meets it, and in doing so offers a keen contribution to the literature of slave revolt and Cuba. In 1825, slaves in western Cuba revolted, beginning in Guamacaro. That revolt was led by three male slaves, all African in both their birth and upbringing. This event, Barcia argues, marked the opening of a cycle of resistance that was essentially African in nature, defined by the experiences of West African slaves. That African-led resistance, essentially ignored in the scholarly literature, would continue until the repression of La [End Page 740] Escalera in 1844 and 1845. Consequently, examination of slavery through the lens of African resistance opens a window into the convergence of Atlantic culture within Cuba’s slave society, and more importantly, demonstrates how birthplace played a key role in resistance.
The work is based on detailed examination of sources in Cuba and Europe, and though it draws heavily on a nuanced reading of the interrogation records, it is not simply an examination of the revolt and its aftermath. Instead, Barcia provides tremendous insight into both how slavery developed generally in western Cuba and the impact of revolt. The very real fear of rebellion, made concrete by then-recent events in neighboring Saint-Domingue, and the dramatically altered place of Cuba in the larger Spanish empire following the Wars for Independence all shaped the Cuban response to the revolt.
Cubans of the early nineteenth century had a number of fears, including both abolitionists and republican revolt, but African-led slave rebellion posed the greatest danger to their society. Anxiety concerning this long-standing threat took on a new urgency following the explosion of Cuban slavery in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, though the Cuban authorities, planters, and merchants remained committed to slavery and the wealth it made possible. The rapid economic development of Matanzas in the early nineteenth century brought with it a rapid escalation in the number of African-born slaves. And it was those African-born slaves, with a keen understanding of warfare honed in fighting in Africa at the turn of nineteenth century who would lead the Revolt of 1825. As they took their knowledge to fight on a different field of battle, African military practices could be clearly observed in the revolt, including the beating of drums before and during the rebellion, the use of symbols of war, and the extreme violence of the war itself. It would be quickly put down, though not without bloodshed by all parties involved.
Significantly, Cuban authorities responded very pointedly to the threat the revolt had posed. A new black code, issued soon after, had as its goal tighter control over slaves, largely through placing limits on mobility and regulating space. This code would be the first to order the construction of barracones, or slave barracks, which would transform life for western Cuba’s slaves with far-reaching implications for slaves’ family life.
Barcia’s study includes an exceptionally fine set of appendices including the number of African slaves imported into Cuba, the names of those involved in the revolt, (as participants or in quelling it), the new code instituted to maintain order in its wake, and a chronology of events. Readers unfamiliar with African cultural practices may find the connection between the revolt and its African characteristics to be somewhat murky, but this is an outstanding work that fills a void in the scholarship of a major revolt with important consequences for the study of Cuban slavery, and it calls on historians...