- Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the insurgencies of 1841–1844 by Aisha K. Finch
La Escalera, a nineteenth-century slave rebellion, has long been the subject of debate, even to the point of doubts over its existence. Aisha K. Finch's history of La Escalera makes clear that those doubts are misplaced. In writing that history of La Escalera she has provided tremendous insight into the operation of the Cuban slave society and the colonial state, exploring the unexamined and revealing the hidden.
In 1843, Cuban slaves twice rose up against the horrific oppression they endured. Moreover, they planned a third time, in 1844, though discovery of that conspiracy occurred before it came to maturation. Such a course of events was not unknown in Cuban history, but the repression that followed was. By the end of 1843, Cuban authorities believed those uprisings were part of a vast conspiracy, linking both urban and rural areas, and slaves and free people of color throughout much of western Cuba, resulting in a "reign of terror" (1). The revolt gained its name from that repression, as accused slaves and even witnesses were tied face down to a ladder (escalera) and beaten as part of their interrogation. Finch's work focuses on La Escalera to understand not only the events themselves, but also what occurred in rural Black communities during the years antecedent to the repression of 1844, and it is those findings, more than what is revealed about La Escalera itself (which advances the field of slave uprising), that are the real strength of the work.
Scholars of La Escalera have had held a number of different views about it. They range from disbelief that it even existed and was instead a creation emerging from White fears about the implicit danger of a vast conspiracy of enslaved people, to the idea that it was a construction of the Spanish colonial government to galvanize those same White fears to create support for the colonial state. Finch's work, along with Robert Paquette's earlier, path-breaking study (1988), removes any doubt of La Escalera's existence.1 But Finch does more. Based on a careful and nuanced reading of thousands of pages of testimony, she is able to uncover a new narrative of La Escalera.
Cuba's colonial government did not need to look far to find opponents. White abolitionists strongly opposed the continued massive importation of African slaves. A growing anticolonial movement viewed the government through critical, if not hostile, eyes. Free people of color resented a racial hierarchy that placed them in a subordinate position. In urban areas especially, these groups found common ground, and while they helped mobilize insurrection, La Escalera grew out of a long tradition of opposition to oppression by slaves. On the ingenios (sugar plantations and mills) of western Cuba, enslaved men and women rose to prominence as leaders of rebellion, largely as a result of slaves' ability to move among and between the geospatial boundaries of their lives. Slaves were actors in an Atlantic world; they engaged the market economy; they escaped their bondage, if only for a night; they participated in religious events beyond the dominion of their White oppressors. In doing so, they created an environment in which they could both plan a rebellion and develop a hierarchy of leadership. Significantly, that leadership, as Finch effectively argues, was more than just coachmen and those slaves placed in positions of authority by Whites. It also included Black women, women whose role in slave rebellion has been obscured, sometimes by the worldview of those in power who in many ways determined the nature of the interrogation, but also by the women themselves, who deftly and effectively manipulated the power dynamic at play. While historians have long cited the limited role of women in slave rebellion, and all too often noted that women were responsible for the discovery of conspiracy (as seen in the case of La Escalera in 1844 when Polonia Gangá supposedly confessed to...