- Ever Faithful: Race, Loyalty, and the Ends of Empire in Spanish Cuba by David Sartorius
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Cubans experienced two monumental shifts. In 1886 slavery was finally abolished and in 1898 Cubans gained their independence from Spain, though not under the conditions they would have preferred. Understandably, historians of Cuba have expended much energy studying these events and producing scholarship, the most innovative of which has woven the histories of slave emancipation and anti-colonial insurgency into stirring accounts that have resonated beyond the field of Cuban studies. A defining feature of these histories has been the centrality of the African-descended to the unfolding of these events. As David Sartorius argues in Ever Faithful, however, anti-slavery was not the sole purview of Cuba’s independence movement, just as people of color were not automatically against the empire. By focusing on the ways Cubans of color asserted their loyalty to the Spanish Empire throughout the nineteenth [End Page 213] century, Sartorius complicates the relationship between race and nation that all too often links a particular sense of the former with the seemingly irresistible ascension of the latter. In doing so, he forgoes presenting a history of empire premised on its inevitable demise for one of empire in action.
Ever Faithful begins with two chapters outlining the changes reconfiguring the Spanish Empire during the first half of the nineteenth century. Imperial subjects navigated this world as members of rigid hierarchies that were inherently discriminatory at the same time that they were maintained by systems of social reciprocity. Following the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 and Fernando VII’s abnegation of the Spanish throne, Spaniards resisting Napoleon’s forces coalesced in the Cortes de Cádiz and drafted the liberal constitution of 1812. Their debates regarding the representation of the African-descended within this new political order exposed the limits of the universal aspirations of the new constitution. And yet an emerging vocabulary of political inclusion transcended these limitations, providing openings for Spanish subjects to reconsider their place within the prevailing social order and political culture.
By 1825, Fernando VII was absolute sovereign once again, but of a greatly diminished empire. Though the next four decades of Cuban history were marked by slave rebellions, liberal insurgency, anti-slavery conspiracies, and pro-annexationist invasions, Sartorius contends that these acts of resistance to empire were part of a continuum of responses through which people grappled with the forces of a changing world, rather than merely being swept away by them. Moreover, expressions of loyalty still constituted the primary way most Cubans, including free people of color, engaged with the state and conducted their social lives. When insurgents in eastern Cuba did decide to openly rebel in 1868, then, they were met not only by the military power of the Spanish Empire, but by the considered response of a populace not entirely convinced that independence was the answer to their problems.
Chapter 3 addresses the questions regarding race and loyalty that were paramount during the more than ten years of fighting that ensued. The multiracial composition of an insurgent army fighting for a vision of independence that also came to reject slavery quickly became the insurgency’s most prominent feature. As Sartorius points out, however, this was not the only articulation of racial politics provoked during the war. The presence of the black Dominican general Eusebio Puello, the head of Spanish forces for a time, constituted a paradigmatic expression of unquestioning loyalty to the Spanish Empire. As the Spanish sought to undercut the appeal of the insurgency, especially for free and enslaved people of color, they also introduced the Moret Law of 1870, which outlined a path towards the gradual abolition of slavery in Cuba. The law included a provision immediately freeing slaves who assisted the Spanish against the insurgents. Though the provision was applied unevenly, it nonetheless introduced an alternative expression of loyalty that was more transactional in nature...