Moreno Fraginals on the Collapse of Cuban Slavery

Manuel Moreno Fraginals was a Cuban historian. Along with scholars like Walterio Carbonell, he belongs to a radical strain of historiography that found itself at odds with both the pre-1959 dictatorship and the Castro regime. Moreno Fraginals was exiled twice: from 1956–1959 and again after 1994. Like novelist Jesús Díaz, he became increasingly critical of the Cuban government during the economic crisis of the 1990s. Also like Díaz, he was a radical thinker whose heterodox Marxism placed him in the crosshairs of the dialectical materialist orthodoxy. Unlike the main body of revolutionary scholars, for whom Marx’s statement “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” was reduced to “history = class struggle,” Moreno Fraginals always insisted on dealing with the problem of race. His work on Cuban sugar mills, El ingenio, is one of the most compelling analyses of slavery and the plantation economy in any language.

The following text is a translation of his note “¿Abolición o desintegración?”, a reflection on the collapse of the slave economy in Cuba. For the most part, I’ve tried to retain his unvarnished style. Moreno Fraginals often criticized his fellow historians for being wordy and boring, among other things. I disagree with a few of his assertions, most notably that slave labor produced surplus value, but I think the text is genuinely interesting and potentially helpful for thinking about how one social form (mode of production) is sublated (aufgehoben), unfolding into another. A useful exercise for those involved in crisis theory.

Cuban Sugar Mill

Abolition or Disintegration?

A Few Questions about the Centennial

1980 marked the hundred-year anniversary of the colonial law to abolish slavery in Cuba. In Puerto Rico a similar centennial had already been celebrated in 1973 because, although both islands were Spanish colonies, abolition was enforced first in Puerto Rico. It’s a centennial that invites study rather than celebration. We say this because it’s strange to commemorate the anniversary of a law that was neither the first one to abolish slavery in Cuba nor what ultimately destroyed the institution.

Unfortunately, very little has been written about the history of slavery in Cuba. Regardless, using current research—done in Cuba and abroad—one can arrive at certain conclusions about this “anomalous” institution, as Karl Marx would certainly label it. There is plenty of evidence that the enslavement of black Africans and their descendants on American plantations was a system of labor that, from a humane perspective, was barbaric and even criminal, but was economically profitable for the exploiting class. Its extremely high profits drove its expansion and development to the point of uprooting between 9 and 12 million people (according to the most conservative calculations) from the African continent.

Slavery’s profitability was possible within a set of conditions clearly present, for example, in the 18th-century English and French Antilles and in late-19th-century Cuba. But socioeconomic conditions change over time, and slavery, which was rational and profitable from the standpoint of colonial exploitation, began to create a set of insoluble contradictions that made it irrational and ruinous even for the exploiting class itself. This long process led to slavery’s disintegration and, finally, to its disappearance.

Plantation slavery was familiar to Cubans during the time of colonization, but its heyday began toward the end of the 18th century. Several of the characteristics that distinguish Cuban slavery from that of the English and French Antilles became evident at that time. Let’s examine some of these differentiations. The free introduction of African slaves into Cuba began in 1790, but the slave trade was banned by Denmark in 1802, England in 1808, Sweden in 1813, Holland and France in 1814, and by Spain in 1820. This meant that the greatest development of Cuban slavery took place while European countries unleashed an intense campaign against this kind of human commerce. This caused more slaves to enter Cuba as “contraband” than legally.

It’s true that this contraband was usually permitted by the Spanish colonial authorities, who benefited from it and even participated directly. But this doesn’t change the fact that slave traffic to Cuba during the 19th century confronted greater challenges than those faced by the English and French colonies in the previous century. The difficulties of the slave passage, the cost of bribes, and many other factors contributed to a rapid rise in the price of slaves, which increased fivefold over half a century (1810–1860).

And since all this happened amid an unprecedented European technological revolution and the rise of workers’ movements, the high cost of slaves as commodities was joined by the evidence that slavery was a brake on the modern development of the means of production. Likewise, every year it became clearer that slavery was a moral crime.

In Cuban cities, especially Havana, slavery had special characteristics. For example, the first major Cuban census, undertaken in 1774, records a free black population greater than 30,000. In 1862, free blacks numbered 221,417, of which 53% lived in cities; it was a predominantly urban population even though it maintained an influential presence on ranches, tobacco plantations, and farms. This free black population continued to grow and became a large, marginal mass that a achieved a degree of economic development in several important sectors, despite all the discrimination and exploitation. It was able to monopolize a large portion of the island’s artisanal activity: they were tailors, cobblers, and musicians in addition to carters, stevedores, coachmen, etc. During the 18th century and part of the 19th, many of them had won their freedom by providing important military services. Along with the free blacks, battalions of pardos and morenos were organized—their exploits in battle are famous.

Among this black population were many who had purchased their freedom with their own labor. As far back as the 17th century, urban slaveowners had discovered that one of the most profitable and safe forms of exploitation was to rent their slaves out as day laborers, which guaranteed a monthly cash income without the burden of labor or investment falling on the slaveowner. And at the end of a period of five to ten years, the slaveowner would recover his initial investment when the rent-earning slave purchased his liberty.

It’s obvious that the great mass of free blacks in Cuban cities during slavery’s apogee didn’t owe its freedom to the owners’ beneficence (as slavery and colonialism’s panegyrists claim). Rather, it existed because of the specific characteristics of a highly profitable form of exploitation. But it’s a fact that these free blacks were a very important factor in the disintegration of slavery in the cities. They had extensive communication with the slaves and they taught them about legal resources that provided protection from certain levels of super-exploitation and cruelty. Either directly or through the “councils” (cabildos), they helped slaves buy their freedom by making cash or work available to them.

By the 1860s, Havana was witness to the unique spectacle of a slave society in which slaves lived independently of their masters, in rented houses or extensions, working for themselves and sometimes running small businesses with employees who might be free blacks, slaves, or whites. These weren’t isolated cases: the 1860 census reveals that 34% of Havana’s adult black male slaves lived independently.

Thousands of urban slaves, and many in rural areas, earned a wage. However, despite what some historians say, a slave with a wage is not an indication of slavery’s benevolence, but of its disintegration. It shows that brute force, upon which typical slavery rests, is being replaced by the economic coercion upon which capitalist exploitation depends.

In sugar mills and coffee fields the situation was different. The extremely low fertility rates among enslaved women, the high proportion of men to women, the high mortality rate, etc. caused the continuous decline of the slave population in the sugar mills. To avoid this decline it was necessary to buy slaves annually to replace the deceased. Another way was to balance the sexes, improve living conditions, provide economic stimuli similar to a wage, etc. In Cuba the latter system was given the pompous title of “the good treatment.”

Parque Jatibonico

Sugar mill owners who employed the old system of exploitation, buying new slaves every year to replace the ones consumed by work, found that slaves cost more each time, but produced the same amount. Additionally, the basic system of labor grounded exclusively on brute force made it impossible to apply new technologies to increase productivity. The inability to modernize clashed with the capitalist law of constant revolution of the means of production. Productivity fell, production costs rose, the price of sugar fell, the technical disparity grew. . .

Those who practiced “the good treatment” created economic stimuli among the slaves; in the long run these were indistinguishable from a salary. They gave slaves land to cultivate and then purchased the produce and livestock. They lowered the mortality rate, raised the birth rate and average life expectancy, and achieved notable progress in modernization. Technical advances shortened the harvest time and increased idle time proportionally. The changing demographic indices increased the number of children born. These were too young to work and had to be clothed and fed. The number of unproductive elderly slaves who had to be supported also increased. As the harvest time—the period of maximum exploitation and surplus-value extraction—became shorter, the underutilization of slaves became more obvious, producing an internal crisis that was aggravated by the external factors already examined. This accelerated slavery’s process of disintegration. A modern, capitalist economy was impossible with slavery! Other forms of exploitation were sought, and 150,000 Chinese came to Cuba during the 19th century.

Cuban sugar mills in the 1860s and 1870s reveal the slave regime’s disintegration, which was much more perceptible in the eastern provinces. Sometimes systems were superimposed in a single mill, with some slaves working under the threat of physical coercion, others received wages, and still others were rented at a different price and were treated differently. And there were also Chinese under contract, and blacks and whites on salary or doing single-payment jobs or piecework. This chaos is the typical expression of disintegration.

But this process isn’t determined merely by these internal socioeconomic conditions, nor by external economic or moral pressures. It’s also a function of the constant defiance**of the slaves, seen in uprisings, escapes, suicides, sabotage, and work done poorly or reluctantly. Slavery’s coup de grace was finally dealt by the anticolonial struggle, which couldn’t succeed without abolition.

At the beginning of the Ten Years’ War, the conservative wing of the insurgents took great pains to avoid proclaiming the full emancipation of slaves. The Guámiro Constitution declared slavery abolished, but it instituted a transitional system (the regulation of freed slaves) similar to the patronage system established by the 1880 colonial law. Nevertheless, the reality of the independence struggle radicalized the revolution. In 1870, the Spanish colonial government was forced to impose the first law of emancipation, which “freed” slaves younger than 11 and older than 60. The law liberated slave owners from the economic burden of unproductive laborers.

Finally, the first law of total emancipation, which recognized the right of freed slaves to enjoy all civil and political rights, was Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’ glorious declaration on December 25, 1870. Within the territory of Cuba Libre, this meant effectual abolition.

The 1880 colonial law did not end slavery. It simply managed its inexorable extinction, caused by economic contradictions and the strength of the revolutionary fighters. It was a conservative colonial law that attempted to prolong the life of an institution whose time had definitely come.

Jatibonico Sugar Mill