5025 - Race, blood purity, and status in colonial Cuba colonial, 18th-19th centuries

This paper analizes continuities and discontinuities in the Cuban discourse on race, limpieza de sangre (blood purity) and status during the long period of Spanish colonialism. Indeed, Cuba offers a unique framework to examine the issues put forward by this symposium on Race, Blood and Purity: it was, together with Puerto Rico, the American colony that remained under Spain for the longest time, until 1898, and it was the penultimate American region to abolish slavery, in 1886. Between the 1760s and the 1840s, Cuba transformed itself into Spain’s most faithful and wealthiest colony, thanks to the forced labor of an increasing number of enslaved Africans and their “pure” or racially-mixed slave descendents in sugar, coffee and tobacco production. Simultaneously, Cuba’s free population of African descent grew, whose free status openly questioned the foundations and permanence of racial slavery. Very early on, in reaction to the slaves’ revolution in neighboring Saint-Domingue (1791-1804), Cuban hacendados and intellectuals began to racialize Cuba’s Afro-descendents, regardless of their slave or free status, of their African or Cuban birthplace, and of their “color,” blood purity, or possible partial white Spanish ancestry. As a result, the concept of a raza de color (race of color) including all Afro-descended individuals emerged in Cuba around 1800—that is well before the rise of modern racist theories. This concept was so hegemonic that it also influenced the organizations formed by Afro-Cubans themselves, which often took the name of sociedades de la raza de color (societies of the race of color). This paper focuses on the changes in white Cuban hacendados’ and intellectuals’ discourse on race during the decades of mass importation of enslaved Africans, between the 1760s and 1840s, as well as on some of the responses such discourse generated among people of African descent. Based on primary sources and the existing historiography, it attempts to demonstrate the importance of the historical context in the construction of discourses on race and the diversity in Iberian colonial processes.

Keywords: Race, colonial Cuba, slavery, free population of color, purity

Author: Helg, Aline (University of Geneva, Switzerland / Schweiz)


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