- Shade-Grown Slavery: The Lives of Slaves on Coffee Plantations in Cuba by William C. Van Norman, Jr.
The last twenty years has witnessed a noted shift in the thematic interests and conclusions about the first half of nineteenth-century Cuban history. Previously, the dominant topic of historical investigation was the rise of the sugar economy, analyzed from the insights of dependency theory. Sugar became the single most important catalyst in explaining the causes behind Cuba’s war for independence, even helping to explain the historical roots of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. Beginning in the 1990s, however, when Cuba lost the Soviet Union as an ally and benefactor, its economy atrophied, and sugar production came to a grinding halt. The economic and political chaos of the 1990s led historians to look at topics far removed from sugar and its hegemonic role in shaping Cuban history. Van Norman’s excellent study is the latest addition to this budding historiography. Diligently working his way through imperial archives in Spain, national archives in Havana, and regional archives in Cuba, Van Norman examines the neglected role of coffee in Cuba during the nineteenth century. In particular, he analyzes how coffee produced a type of slavery vastly different from that on sugar plantations.
Van Norman organizes his book into three parts that address three broad topics. Part I examines the structure and demographics of Cuban coffee plantations. Van Norman convincingly shows not only that “the crop mattered”—coffee plantations were not run like the agro-industrial work camps found on sugar plantations—but also that coffee’s economy of scale fostered the emergence of a rapid rate of creolization among the slave population. After analyzing the structural dynamics of coffee plantations, he then turns to the heart of his book, which explores labor, religion, family, housing, geographical space, and slaves marketing and selling their own goods. Readers of this journal will find the chapters about religious practices and the spacial layout of the coffee plantation to be the most interdisciplinary. Drawing inspiration from anthropological and religious studies, Van Norman describes the enslaved population’s attempt to re-create an African cosmology that also spoke to their immediate Cuban surroundings. Moreover, he employs scholarship about cultural geography and archival sources to show how slaves subverted their masters’ intent to convert them into crude instruments of labor by establishing their own family and kin relations. [End Page 597]
Another of Van Norman’s major contributions is the way in which he re-orients the study of resistance and slave revolts to show what was particular to coffee plantations. Over time, the rapid rate of creolization, the development of more stable family and community relations, and the opportunity to harvest and market agricultural production resulted in a “moral economy” that came to govern slave life on coffee plantations. When these rhythms and expectations were upset, rebellion often followed. For example, Van Norman cites the cholera epidemic as a cause of the 1833 slave revolt on the plantation Salvador. The slaves perceived cholera as an indication of malevolent forces at the command of whites that they had to eradicate. Hence, the uprising was not just about opposition to enslavement; it was also a religious movement to restore balance to the world that had been upset by evil spirits.
More than seventy years ago, Ortiz, Cuba’s foremost anthropologist of the twentieth century, deftly counterpointed sugar and tobacco as the two dominant crops that shaped Cuban history.1 By counterpointing coffee to sugar, however, Van Norman’s book brings further complexity to the study of nineteenth-century Cuban history. Thus will it appeal to a broad range of scholars who study Latin America, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the African diaspora.
1. Fernando Ortiz (trans. Harriet de Onís), Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham, 1947; orig. pub. in Spanish, 1940).