- Cuba, Haiti, and the Age of Atlantic Revolution
Long before Fidel Castro, Cuba was a special case in Latin America as far as revolutions were concerned. For all appearances, the late eighteenth-century age of Atlantic revolution bypassed the island. Cuba was the last Spanish American society to end slavery (1886), and it was similarly late to achieve independence. Just fifty miles to the east, however, the French colony of Saint-Domingue experienced what many scholars regard as the most radical of all the Atlantic Revolutions. In 1791, enslaved workers there rose against their masters. For a dozen years they stymied attempts to re-enslave them until, in 1804, their leaders established the independent state of Haiti. Yet this was a paradoxical moment. The end of Saint-Domingue’s slave-produced sugar and coffee exports made it profitable for masters elsewhere in the hemisphere—notably in Cuba—to buy more captive Africans and produce more of these products. Slavery’s late heyday made Cuba, along with Brazil and the United States, central sites for what some scholars have dubbed the “second era of slavery.” In the first era, from roughly 1500 to roughly 1800, Europeans enslaved Africans in the New World with no state opposition. In the second era, slavery and antislavery coexisted. By 1810, the British Navy was moving to eliminate the transatlantic slave trade, and, Ada Ferrer argues, Haitian leaders were working to end slavery abroad.
The main point of Freedom’s Mirror for Atlantic historians is that Cuba was, in metaphorical terms, the “hinge” between these two eras. Despite appearances, Ferrer maintains, the age of Atlantic revolution did not bypass Cuba; rather, Haitian opposition to slavery affected white, black, and brown Cubans in powerful ways that transcended higher sugar prices. Ferrer proves that Cuba came into its most profitable slave period despite a decade of exposure to the Haitian Revolution at every level of society.
Along with her clear and beautiful prose, Ferrer’s ability to situate Cuba in the age of Atlantic revolution makes Freedom’s Mirror an important volume for [End Page 52] students of this age, even if they do not focus on Cuba. Caribbean historians already know her prizewinning 1999 book Insurgent Cuba: Nation, Race and Revolution, 1868–1898. Examining Cuba’s last thirty years as a colony, it addressed the same question that Freedom’s Mirror does: why did independence and the end of slavery come so late to Cuba? Both books address similar topics in their different periods: the forces holding Cuba in the Spanish Empire, the attempts of Afro-Cubans to claim freedom and citizenship, and white Cubans’ fear that their island would become “another Haiti.”
Ferrer’s focus on how Cubans experienced the Haitian Revolutionary years builds on recent books in Cuban history by Sibylle Fischer, Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard, and Matt Childs. She also joins scholars like Jane Landers, Ashli White, and Sara Johnson in exploring the regional impact of Haitian independence. Like many of these scholars, she supports, at least implicitly, Eugene Genovese’s idea that the Haitian Revolution affected the political imagination of enslaved people in the Americas. In 1979, Genovese argued that Haiti’s success changed the political goals of rebel slaves, who no longer revolted to create African-style kingdoms. Henceforth, he claimed, they planned revolutions that would give them rights within a Western-style polity.1 However, in a series of carefully researched publications, David Geggus showed that many of these “Haitian-inspired conspiracies” had only loose connections to the new black state or its revolution.2 He speculated that most were provoked by local conditions, including masters’ paranoia. Ferrer does not resolve this issue, but she makes an important contribution to the debate by showing how deeply Cubans engaged with Haitian events and by demonstrating the effect of that engagement on Aponte’s Rebellion in 1812.
The book begins with a document that reveals how, from the very beginning, the Haitian Revolution reverberated...