- Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841–1844 by Aisha K. Finch
Placing the 1843 conspiracies and rebellions of rural slaves and free blacks that occurred in Matanzas in the context of the black Atlantic, Finch explores the actions and ideology of this segment of the African diaspora and the causes of the insurgencies that evolved into the most important and studied Cuban revolt, that of the 1844 “Escalera.” Her sources are Cuban, Spanish, and American archival materials, including the correspondence of colonial functionaries; the personal papers of slave owners; and the testimonies of plantation slaves and free black insurgent.
Finch believes that the “Bemba,” “Triunvirato,” and Escalera rebellions illuminate how the slaves’ social institutions, culture, and gender are critical in explaining the grassroots organizations of resistance that slaves created in Cuba and other territories of the Americas. Hence, Rethinking Slave Rebellion engages the conversations about slave resistance in the British and French Caribbean, informed by Craton’s Testing the Chains, Hart’s Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, and Fick’s The Making of Haiti1 These writers revealed the autonomous agency of plantation slaves in constructing networks and organizations to make revolution.
Finch’s study also adds to the works on slave resistance in Cuba, especially Paquette’s Sugar is Made with Blood and Barcia Paz’s The Great African Slave Revolt of 18252 Although her methodology and arguments are similar to those of Barcia, she locates the central difference between her study and the contributions of these scholars in her use of gender analysis in unpacking not only the composition of the black protest movements of 1843 and 1844 but also their origins and objectives. [End Page 255]
Underlining the contributions made by urban slaves and free blacks for attacking the institution of slavery in Cuba, as advanced by Paquette and other historians, Finch counters with an argument that emphasizes rural slaves and free people of color as an active cohort of conspirators and rebels. Animated by the local and regional clandestine organizations that linked transatlantic networks and events that sought to destroy both slavery and colonialism, rural slaves and free blacks, along with their leaders, “engaged in dangerous talk, subversive ideas, and rebellious plans . . . [and] built the growing insurgent project, shaping its contours in radical ways” (7). Thus did they inspire the men and women of the Escalera conspiracy of 1844 and, according to Finch, spark the beginnings of the anticolonial ideology of Cuban nationalism.
After Cuba became dependent on sugar cane by the 1840s, Finch discusses how the plantocracy used African ethnicity to select slaves. Unknown to the slave owners, however, some ethnic groups from the Kongo-Angolan and the Niger-Cross River Delta areas arrived with a military culture that facilitated the projects of resistance between 1843 and 1844. Finch discovered that some of the leaders of the revolts in Cuba had served militarily in Africa and had even obtained prestigious military ranks and titles. In Cuba, those on the plantation recognized their privileged military rank and supported their leadership. Appointed by the slaves, bozal military leaders organized and led the movement that opposed the “carceral” plantation regime’s routine acts of brutality, horror, and terror.
In spite of the oppressive and repressive nature of African slavery, rural slaves and freed blacks constructed their own worlds. The geographical mobility of privileged and artisanal slaves and free men and women—including coachmen, domestics, muleteers, and even some field slaves—allowed them to establish hidden networks to spread their ideology. They were permitted to move throughout Matanzas, particularly on Sundays and after sunset, gathering to propitiate and venerate their ancestral deities with song and dance. Finch maintains that these sites also became venues of conspiracy.
Finch’s incorporation of gender, especially the role and voice of African females, helps us to “rethink slave rebellion in Cuba.” Finch claims that the revolts of 1843 and 1844 occurred not only because of the poor material conditions in Matanzas but also...