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Role Of Afro-Cubans In The War Of Independence Essay, Research Paper

What distinguished the final War of Independence (1895-1898) from the earlier Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) and the short-lived Guerra Chiquita (1879-1880) was the war’s success throughout the majority of the island, the final ousting of the Spanish through the American intervention, the espousal of an egalitarian ideology by a radical multiracial military leadership, and the iconization of the war’s two most revered heroes: Jos? Mart? and Antonio Maceo. As has been documented, the aims of the liberation were modified when elite Cuban planters joined the insurgent cause beginning in 1896 and brought their social agenda to bear on the civil wing of the separatist cause (P?rez 1983:125). The liberation army under M?ximo G?mez, however, sought to eliminate the very socio-economic basis of Cuban society by razingl the sugar plantations as a means towards creating a more egalitarian society. While the division between the civilian and the military was in fact a deciding factor for the final outcome of the war and led to the intervention of the United States, the tension between the two wings has gathered too much attention at the expense of examining how class and racial conflicts before the final war were the source of later divisions among the separatists (Ferrer 1995:283). By discussing the historiography of Afro-Cuban nationalist discourse, a mythologized vision of nationalist unity emerges which was reproduced and interpreted differently by diverse segments of the separatist front, but nonetheless served to mobilize vast numbers of Afro-Cubans against the Spanish in an unprecedented display of force.

Afro-Cubans participated in greater numbers during the final war, and while there were divisions among them as well, a majority of these former slaves on the rebel side shared a nationalist vision for a freer, more egalitarian Cuba (Helg 1995:44). The source of this vision can be located in their struggle for liberation from slavery itself and their participation in the failed rebellion of the Ten Years’ War. Rebecca Scott (1994:81) reports that in the early 1860s, 173,000 slaves resided on around 1,500 sugar estates in Cuba. Before slavery was outlawed in 1886, over 100,000 former slaves had already gained freedom through self-purchase, flight, legal means, and individual arrangements. In addition the Pact of Zanj?n with Spain at the conclusion of the Guerra Chiquita had secured the freedom of all slaves who had fought for the rebel cause. It is in the intermediary period after the Guerra Chiquita and before the War of Independence that the debate over the Afro-Cubans’ role in previous wars and their participation in future liberation armies was to determine the character of their nationalist identity and the eventual betrayal which Afro-Cuban veterans experienced after 1898.

The debate was over the question of gratitude. Focusing on the writings of Afro-Cuban journalists in the early 1890s, Ferrer (1995:254-268) documents the reactions of Juan Gualberto G?mez and Rafael Serra to the general feeling among white Cubans that the abolition of slavery indebted ex-slaves and all people of the raza de color to political allegiance with the Autonomist Party for voting purposes. According to Serra in 1893, while not disputing that whites had led the previous war efforts, Afro-Cubans had not been graciously freed by their white masters, but instead they had fought for their freedom in the war and were thus ‘entitled’ to equality. This argument was rebutted by Manuel Sanguily who reaffirmed white preeminence in the Ten Years’ War and reasserted that black indebtedness to white Cubans should be expressed by political allegiance.

To understand G?mez’ conceptualization of Afro-Cuban nationalism, we must first turn to the thoughts of J?se Mart? who espoused a qualified racial equality. An anti-annexationist to the end, Mart? was engaged in a counterdiscourse against Spanish propaganda of the rise of ‘another Haiti’ while he advocated a revolution against the Cuban social order. Afro-Cubans took Mart?’s statement to heart that, “the greater the suffering the greater right to justice” (P?rez 1983:106). As the founder of the PRC (Cuban Revolutionary Party) in 1892, Mart? became the voice of the civil arm of the revolutionary movement abroad, and Afro-Cuban nationals embraced his ideals as justification for the affirmation of their “Cubanness” and the legitimization of their call for equal rights (Ferrer 1995:266) .

Consequently, G?mez and others described their struggle not as an affirmation of their Africanness, but as an effort to unite all Cubans. These Afro-Cuban journalists characterized the civil rights struggles of the 1890s as “Cuban” struggles and countered the accusation of the threat of a “race war” with the rebuff that it was in fact certain white sectors’ perpetuation of racist attitudes that posed the real threat to unity (Ferrer 1995:266). In 1887, the Directorio Central de las Sociedades de la Raza de Color was created by Afro-Cubans led by Juan Gualberto G?mez in order to challenge the Spanish government’s racist laws. The PRC publicly endorsed the Directorio’s cause as opposed to other major white party elements: the pro-Spanish Constitutional Union and the liberal Autonomists (Helg 1995:45). However, even members of the white separatists like Manuel Sanguily did not share Mart?’s views towards racial equality.

White separatist writers such as Ram?n Roa, Manuel de la Cruz, Jos? Mart?, and Manuel Sanguily focused on countering Spanish propaganda by characterizing the Afro-Cubans’ role in the Ten Years’ War as a positive one. The black rebel was conceptualized as the “obedient insurgent” who was inspired to fight by his former master and expressed gratitude towards the independence leaders who had granted him his freedom (Ferrer 1995:229). The Afro-Cubans’ role in the war was treated as secondary to the superior role of the whites. Such a rewriting of history is certainly not unique and finds parallels in Roosevelt’s depiction of the Rough Riders’ ‘triumph’ at San Juan Hill (Kaplan 1993). However, in contrast to Roosevelt’s negative portrayal of African-American soldiers, for Mart?, the Afro-Cuban soldiers were depicted as heroes who were crucial for the construction of a free Cuban republic. Mart? asked rhetorically, “How could a race war erupt, when white and black Cubans had already fought together as brothers?” (Ferrer 1995:240) In this sense the Afro-Cuban journalists and the white separatist writers shared the view that the Ten Years’ War was a redemptive war for Cuba since it effected the freedom of many slaves and offered reconciliation through the fraternity established in the ranks of the army.

Afro-Cubans did not form a united front after they had freed themselves from the shackles of slavery. Ferrer (1991:40) states that blacks were not united during the Guerra Chiquita, that some served in the Spanish Army, edited pro-Spanish newspapers, and acted as spies against the Afro-Cuban rebels. In the same section, Ferrer writes:

Alliances were not determined by factors of either race or class alone. Rather they resulted from the inevitable confluence of race and class in a society dominated by the institution of “racial” slavery and privileged, white property owners.

Therefore, while racial identity was a factor which led to Afro-Cuban alliances and a growing sense that they were involved in a popular movement leading to social change, the socioeconomic transitional situation of the majority of blacks following 1886 was a more determining factor as far as the scope and success of alliance-building. Space does not permit a thorough discussion of the technological transition in sugar production which coincided with the emancipation of slaves and has been discussed elsewhere (see Ayala 1995; Scott 1985, 1994). The former slaves combined subsistence production with wage labor, and had more ties to cities through the employment women were able to secure there. There was a shift to seasonal wage labor in the sugar plantations, and this fact combined with the decentralization of cane production made the plantations susceptible to rebel activity. Moreover, in the new labor climate, white and Chinese immigrants worked beside former slaves (Ayala 1995:96). When workers were displaced by the final war, these segments would fight side by side. Helg (1995:32) points out that the racial barrier was more fluid in the Oriente where there was already a large free black population before 1886.

The Oriente held the largest black population on the island and was the site of initial rebel activity in both the Ten Years’ War and the War for Independence. The Ten Years’ War was never successful in becoming an island-wide revolt and part of the reason for this may be attributed to the effectiveness of Spanish propaganda that the Oriente blacks were planning a race war to establish an independent black republic. Some white separatist leaders were persuaded to lay down their arms under the Spanish pressure (Ferrer 1991:41). In the early 1890s Afro-Cuban journalists claimed that blacks were too weak and passive to effect a war against white rulers, whether Spanish or Cuban (Ferrer 1995:254). Their argument was that such a war would counter the gains of the Ten Years’ War under the exemplary black leadership of Antonio Maceo and Guillermo Moncada. Ferrer (1995:274) argues that while Spanish propaganda of a race war succeeded in dissuading potential supporters in the early 1870s in Camaguey and in 1879-1880 in Oriente, in 1896 Havana the claim was not successful. Doctors and lawyers from the white elite joined the movement and revaluated their negative views of black insurgents. Helg (1995:234) offers a different interpretation and argues that the propaganda of the threat of a race war was perpetuated by the white Cuban elite after the Spanish were defeated, and it was still in force until the racist massacre of 1912, which quashed any future political organizing by Afro-Cubans for some time.

Spanish accusations that blacks were planning a race war were exposed as divisive strategies by Mart? and other white separatists, but to the detriment of the separatist cause, racism was used as a tool to effect the form which the war was to take. When Mart? died in May of 1895, Tom?s Estrada Palma, a pro-annexationist, took over the PRC leadership. Civilian and military divisions became more tense, and the civilian arm of the military began to reaffirm white supremacy in the naming of the constituent assembly and in the policy of officer promotion. The provisional government, with Salvador Cisneros Betancourt as President, held the economic interests of plantation holders to preserve traditional social hierarchies over what had been expressed as the goals of the revolution by the military, namely, the destruction of traditional social inequalities. When Maceo effected significant victories in the West in January of 1896, the provisional government distrusted his motives and claimed he had a hidden dictatorial plan. Maceo was clearly worried about this as he had criticized Juan Gualberto G?mez’ sociedades de color because they could feed such accusations. As P?rez (1983:xvii) has argued, in 1895 there was a recognition among many separatists that class and racial inequalities were not only caused by Spanish colonial rule, but were ingrained in the Cuban social system. That such inequalities surfaced within the separatist forces, especially towards the end of the war, are not so surprising when it is understood that racial equality was a myth created by white Cubans to create popular support, believed by Afro-Cubans, and was to some extent realized inside the ranks of the insurgent armies.

In 1896, the provisional government awarded commissions to civilians holding academic degrees or certain administrative positions. This policy conflicted with the merit system that had evolved in the military ranks where soldiers would be promoted according to their valor and experience. Since this translated into more white officers, notwithstanding the fact that many of the black officers had been killed in battle, Afro-Cuban soldiers such as Ricardo Batrell Oviedo felt resentment towards white elites who had not made many sacrifices but had higher positions (Ferrer 1995:279). Negative feelings were also fueled by the fact that many blacks were given menial positions. Adding coals to the fire, in 1897, the foremost surviving black leader of the revolution, Quint?n Bandera had his command stripped by his own army through a court-martial procedure. Ferrer (1998) makes the point that his censure was a complex form of discrimination that had as much to do with the white separatists’ fear of the Oriente-version of multiracial insurgency as with the rejection of his blackness and humble origins. Ferrer (1995:330) argues poignantly that the discourse making the practice of racism anti-Cuban caused friction between the Afro-Cuban soldiers and their white superiors, since the former were held to a double standard. The discourse against racism was directed against the Afro-Cubans to control their potential political aspirations, but white separatists were not held to the same standard. Ironically, while Afro-Cuban soldiers fought to create a new Cuban society, the victories of the war led to changing allegiances of white civil sectors, whose leaders undermined the military’s authority and reshaped the war to favor their own social and economic interests.

After 1896, white planters from the central and western regions together with the autonomists allied with the separatists. Afro-Cubans fought to undo the system of white privilige that had been the hallmark of colonial society, but with the change in the separatist leadership and the cooptation by the United States, a massive reinvestment in the sugar industry occurred and traditional social hierarchies were reaffirmed under the direction of the new colonial power. P?rez (1983:xviii) asserts that the U.S. intervention of 1898 prevented the seizure of power of the Cuban revolutionary army and reaffirmed the traditional social hierarchies. As Benedict Anderson (1983:160) observes, “One should therefore not be much surprised if revolutionary leaderships, consciously or unconsciously, come to play lord of the manor.” What distinguishes the Cuban case however, is that the two foremost revolutionary leaders, Maceo and Mart? died in battle, so we cannot know whether the social aims of the popular movement would have been realized under their leadership to transform Cuban society.

It is important not to lose sight of the civilian/military division which emerged after Mart?’s death because the vision of nationalist unity espoused within the military ranks differed considerably from the vision of post-colonial Cuba envisioned by the new annexationist leadership of the PRC and the white Cuban, planter elite. Nonetheless, as has been discussed, views regarding the Afro-Cubans’ role in the revolution was a divisive issue within the ranks of the white separatists as well as a thorny problem for outspoken Afro-Cubans. The sacrifices made by Afro-Cubans in the War of Independence were great because they held a strong vision for a more egalitarian society, reinforced by white revolutionary party propaganda; however, their hopes led to disillusionment at the conclusion of the war with the reimposition of oppressive colonial-style status hierarchies.



Anderson, Benedict 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Ayala, C?sar 1995. “Social and Economic Aspects of Sugar Production in Cuba, 1880-1930.” Latin American Research Review 30(1): 95-124.

Ferrer, Ada 1991. “Social Aspects of Cuban Nationalism: Race, Slavery and the Guerra Chiquita 1879-1880.” Cuban Studies 21: 37-56.

1995. To Make a Free Nation: Race and the Struggle for Independence in Cuba, 1868-1898. Unpublished PhD. Dissertation, University of Michigan.

1998. “Rustic Men, Civilized Nation: Race, Culture, and Contention on the Eve of Cuban Independence.” Hispanic American Historical Review, Forthcoming.

Helg, Aline 1995. Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912. University of North Carolina Press.

Kaplan, Amy 1993. “Black and Blue on San Juan Hill,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, 219-236. Durham: Duke University Press.

P?rez Jr., Louis A. 1983. Cuba Between Empires, 1878-1902. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Scott, Rebecca J. 1985. “Class Relations in Sugar and Political Mobilization in Cuba, 1868-1899.” Cuban Studies 15(1): 15-28.

1994. “Defining the Boundaries of Freedom in the World of Cane: Cuba, Brazil, and Louisiana after Emancipation.” American Historical Review 99(1): 70-102.

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