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chapter five Sugar and Slavery in Early Colonial Cuba Alejandro de la Fuente According to a popular Cuban saying, without sugar there is no country (‘‘sin azúcar no hay país’’). What the adage does not state is that sugar was produced in the island well before any sociopolitical entity resembling a ‘‘country’’ existed. It is frequently forgotten that Cuba’s spectacular rise to a prime world producer of sugarcane in the early nineteenth century was based not only on a favorable market conjuncture, due to the destruction of Haiti’s productive capacity, but also on a long local tradition of production of high-quality sugars. According to British sources, by the early eighteenth century the island made ‘‘the best sugars in the West Indies.’’∞ For the most part, modern historians have ignored this long productive tradition . We have very limited knowledge of sugar and slavery during the early colonial period. With a few notable exceptions, students of colonial Cuba have concentrated their research efforts on the period that corresponds to the rise and expansion of the slave-based, export-oriented plantation complex that developed on the island at the end of the eighteenth century.≤ If only by default, modern historiography has contributed to reproducing the old vision that Cuba’s preplantation history is, in fact, prehistory. It is a vision that subordinates the very existence of the colony to its role as a supplier of sugar to the North Atlantic markets and that blends Cuba’s own history with that of the system into which the island was inserted. This lack of scholarship cannot be attributed to a couple of factors: scarcity of sources, and difficult access to existing sources. The early colonial period has been overlooked mainly because Cuba’s postrevolutionary historiography has focused on the ‘‘precedents’’ of the revolution itself, none of which can be found in the first two centuries of colonial history.≥ The lack of serious empirical research about this period has led, in turn, to sweeping characterizations about slavery and sugar in colonial Cuba. Numerous authors have assumed that the 116 alejandro de la fuente plantation model typifies slavery in general, regardless of chronological, geographical , or socioeconomic factors.∂ It is as if sugar production generated, per se, a given set of fixed social and productive relations. During the seventeenth century sugar was produced in Cuba under circumstances that were vastly different from those found in nineteenth-century plantations . Several institutional and commercial constraints prevented the early manufactures from becoming plantations, in the sense of productive units serving a highly competitive international market and driven by a permanent search for efficiency.∑ Rather than specialized industrial units, seventeenth-century mills were basically self-sufficient agricultural concerns that manufactured sugar in an artisan-like manner with a limited number of slaves. A limited and irregular supply of slaves was one of the leading factors that explains Cuba’s late entrance into sugar production. Despite the relatively early conquest by Spaniards in 1511, concrete evidence about sugar production on the island cannot be found until the 1590s. By this time, Havana had become a crucial maritime center of the Spanish empire and played an active role in the Atlantic world in the making, which was, to no small degree, a world of slaves and sugar. The challenge, however, is to explain not only why the production of sugar did not start in Cuba until the late sixteenth century but also to explain why a century later the island remained a modest producer. In contrast to Brazil or the British West Indies, sugar did not become the colony’s cash crop in the seventeenth century. If official records are to be trusted, by the second half of the century other commercial crops, particularly tobacco, successfully competed with sugar in terms of value, while traditional products, such as wood and hides, still represented a large share of the island’s total exports. It would take another century for sugar to be queen and displace all other economic activities.∏ By looking at the early stages of sugar manufacturing in Cuba, this chapter seeks to fill a significant gap in the historiography of sugar and slavery in the Americas. The only other study devoted specifically to this subject is now over eighty years old.π After a brief discussion of the numerous attempts made to build sugar mills during the sixteenth century and the obstacles placed by the Spanish colonial system on the growth of...


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