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Colonial Cuba - Life and Society

In the early years, Cuba became the source of support for the conquest of nearby lands. It was from the island that Hernan Cortes's expedition sailed in 1519 to conquer the Aztec Empire. The conquest of Mexico meant temporary prosperity and great euphoria, but it also meant the decline of Cuba's importance. The days of boom soon gave way to years of bust. Farmers and adventurers all left the island in search of El Dorado in Mexico, or joined the ill-fated expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez of 1527 and Hernando de Soto in 1539 to conquer Florida. Exodus of population, decline of food production, and economic misery afflicted the island. Estates were abandoned by their owners and bought cheaply by less adventurous Peninsulars, humble folks willing to produce for the passing ships and live a modest existence.

For the next two centuries, Spain focused most of its attention on the continental colonies from which it obtained much needed mineral wealth. A complex and at times cumbersome political and defense system developed to ensure the uninterrupted flow of this wealth. Cuba was relegated to a mere stopping point for passing ships. It remained valuable only because of its strategic location as the gateway to the New World, not because of its products.

Cuba's population diminished continuously throughout this period. The indigenous peoples continued to die out and there was little new influx of Spanish immigrants. An economy of scarcity and a hot, sickness-ridden tropical climate offered little incentive for new immigration. Those who did come to Cuba were mostly Spanish officials, soldiers, and members of the clergy; there were also many transient migrants on their way to Mexico or South America. By 1544 Cuba had a population of fewer than 7,000, composed of 660 Spaniards, some 5,000 native Americans, and 800 black slaves.

This early society was characterized by little social mobility as well as lack of interest in the arts or in education. Creoles were less educated and seemed less interested in a formal education than were their ancestors. Living in small towns, surrounded by an unknown and at times hostile environment, fearful of Indian or later of black rebellion, or of foreign attacks, most had little time for cultural activities and were mainly concerned with the daily problems of existence. Brutality, opportunism, corruption, and smuggling characterized this society. Violence and lack of observance of the law flourished as the struggle for survival became harsher. Whatever education existed was offered within the Roman Catholic Church.

Protected by the power of the state, the church grew in numbers and influence. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were about 200 friars and priests and about 100 nuns on the island. Churches were built in every new city, and church wealth increased through the continuous acquisition of lands donated to the church and through the collection of rents, as well as of the special tax called diezmo. With wealth came not only prestige and influence, but also the loss of the church's early missionary zeal. The priesthood began identifying with the wealthier classes to the neglect of Indians and blacks and became a conservative institution interested in preserving the status quo.

The uninterrupted arrival of blacks throughout the colonial period decisively influenced this developing society. African slavery existed in Spain, and the first slaves had come to Cuba with the early conquistadors. Later they were brought in greater numbers to pan for gold; they replaced the weaker indigenous groups. The importation of black slaves was costly, however. As gold reserves became exhausted, there was little need for a large and expensive labor supply, and so their importation slowed down. Not until the full-scale development of the sugar industry was there again a significant need for manpower. Thousands of black slaves entered Cuba in the nineteenth century, and by 1825 the black population had surpassed the white one.

The condition of the slaves, although not unbearable, was poor. Blacks were much more valuable than the Indians and seemed to have received better treatment. Yet Spanish officials complained to the crown that the blacks were given little food or clothing and that they were subjected to abusive corporal punishment, forcing many to escape into Cuba's mountains. These runaway slaves, called cimarrones, were a constant concern to the Spaniards because by their example they encouraged other slaves to escape captivity and to rebel. As early as 1538, black slaves rioted and looted Havana, while French privateers were attacking the city from the sea.

Although most blacks worked in rural areas, some performed a variety of jobs in the cities. A considerable number labored in artisan industries, in construction, in the wharves, and in domestic service. Some were able to obtain their own earnings and thus liberate themselves or pay the price of their manumission. Others were freed after they had performed services their master was willing to reward. The number of slaves decreased continuously until reaching the low figure of 38,879, out of a total population of 171,620 in 1774.

The opportunities for slaves to become free contributed to the development of a uniquely Cuban society. Spanish law, the Roman Catholic religion, the economic condition of the island, and the Spanish attitude toward blacks all contributed to aid their integration into Cuban society. While the black population in the British sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean lived under the tight political control of a small, exploiting minority of overseers and government officials, blacks in Cuba coexisted with the rest of the population and lived mainly by farming and cattle grazing. Prior to the eighteenth century, the island avoided the plantation system with its concomitant large-scale capital investment, latifundios (large estates), and docile black slave labor force. Instead, society developed with little outside interference. Cuba thus began to find its own identity in a society that combined racial bal1ance, small-scale agriculture, arid folk-Catholicism within a Spanish framework.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:31 ZULU