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  • Breaking the Chains, Forging the Nation: The Afro-Cuba Fight for Freedom and Equality 1812–1912 ed. by Aisha Finch and Fannie Rushing
  • Philip Howard
Breaking the Chains, Forging the Nation: The Afro-Cuba Fight for Freedom and Equality 1812–1912. Edited by Aisha Finch and Fannie Rushing (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2019) 340 pp. $55.00

The individual chapters in this book explore the conspiracies, rebellions, and protests of African slaves and free Afro-Cubans between 1812 and 1912 in Cuba. The leading historians and scholars from the United States and Cuba who contributed to this timely and important volume cite the Aponte conspiracy of 1812 as the first in a series of acts of resistance through which blacks attempted to end African slavery and Spanish colonialism during the nineteenth century. After the republic was established in 1901, blacks continued to fight for justice and equality. Their endeavors culminated in the founding of the Independent Colored Party (pic) of Cuba (1908). The pic challenged the political power of white Cubans and the Cuban government’s marginalization of blacks, eventually resulting in the Race War of 1912—a massacre that put an end to the black struggle for racial justice and equality.

The contributors argue that the historiography about the period between the Aponte conspiracy and the Race war of 1912—watershed events of black resistance in the Caribbean and particularly Cuba— typically misrepresents the numerous acts of resistance by describing them as exceptional. Hence, the purpose of this collection is to prove “that any discussion of Afro-Cuban resistance to slavery and racism . . . challenges the mythology underpinning the invisibility of Afro- Cubans as well as the agency they expressed” (xi). This book opposes the arguments that slaves and free blacks did not have to resist because slavery was benign in Cuba, and that after the War of Independence in 1895, and the adoption of the 1901 constitution, Cuba became a raceless society.

The book is divided into three sections, “Slavery and Resistance in the Era of Aponte,” “Black Political Thought and Resistance in the Age of the Escalera,” and “Race and Blackness in Post-emancipation Cuba.” Each section begins with an introduction written by a well-known Cuban historian who summarizes the contents and arguments of the articles that follow. These introductions also underline the overarching thesis that ties all the section’s chapters together. The first section, introduced by Matt Childs, surveys the historiography about the transformation of both the sugar industry and African slavery during the nineteenth century. The chapters by Manuel Barcia and Gloria García, which discuss the ways in which race and ethnicity fueled black resistance to slavery and the movement to secure rights in Cuba, reveal the intricate planning and coordination behind the conspiracies and revolts. Barcia discovered that the tactics employed in these conspiracies and revolts were informed by African-born Yoruba speakers.

According to Garcia, the initial decision to revolt stemmed from blacks’ inability to access the legal system because of Cuban customs that served to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The right of slaves to coartación, or self-purchase, was never legally enforced. The incentive [End Page 176] for planters to ignore it derived from the exigencies of the global capitalist system, which made Cuba the world’s largest supplier of sugar and encouraged not only the expansion of African slavery but also its brutality and violence. According to Reynalso Ortíz-Minaya, the implementation of technological innovations designed to produce sugar cane also explains the nature of the slave system, transforming slaves into industrialized workers brutally exploited by their owners.

African slavery and the racialized colonial society also affected freed blacks. Bárbara Danzie’s chapter follows the career of José L. Franco, a Cuban historian who studied slavery’s influence on people of African ancestry as well as the “rebelliousness of Afro-Cubans.” Matthew Pettway’s chapter—which examines the poems of Plácido, a nineteenth-century free Afro-Cuban who wrote about white and black masculinity—argues that the Cuban slave system caused freed blacks, particularly light-skinned pardos (people of multiracial ancestry), to deny their African heritage.

Ada Ferrer introduces...