The Spanish arrived in Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands, shortly after 1492. With its flat land, moist soil and sub tropical climate it was considered ideal for growing sugar, but was at first sidelined during Spain's early hunt for gold in mainland America. The first enslaved Africans were taken to Cuba in 1513, but only arrived in large numbers in the late 1700s. The British occupation of Havana in 1762-3 disrupted Spain's inefficient trading system and radically changed both sugar production and the slave trade in Cuba. The enslaved African population grew from 10-25% in the 18th Century to 43% by 1840, and Cuba was transformed into a highly structured plantation society, and the worlds largest sugar producer. African resistance to slavery grew and became increasingly woven into the struggle for Cuban independence. The final slave ships arrived in Cuba in 1867.

Jobabo Mine

In 1533 the first recorded uprising of enslaved Africans in Cuba took place at the Jobabo mines. Many of Cuba's early slaves were forced to work in the mines as the Spanish were gripped by gold fever, and the first large groups taken from Africa were put to work underground from 1520. The four Africans who resisted at Jobabo battled a large military force to the death, and it took the sight of their severed heads to ease the panic of the colonists in the neighbouring town of Bayamo.


Havana became the capital of Cuba in 1519, named after a local indigenous chief San Cristóbal de Habana. This city became part of the most important trade route on the island and was the only port entitled to send Cuban goods back to Spain. This meant that there was not much growth in the slave sugar industry in the countryside, and as a result many Africans were forced to work in Havana as domestics or in construction (ships, housing etc). The numbers of slaves alarmed Spanish colonists and in 1538 angry slaves joined forces with French pirates to burn parts of the city to the ground. The destruction resulted in the Spanish authorities building the 'Castillo de la Fuerza', only the second castle ever built in the New World (see below).

Castillo de la Fuerza

The British took Havana from Spain during the '7 Years War' and occupied both the city and port from 1762-3. Removing the Spanish trade restrictions, they sold Cuban sugar all over the world, which needed a much larger work force and so they turned to Africa. 10,000 Africans were brought to into Cuba in less than 10 months under the British, almost all to work in the ingenios (sugar factories). The image below shows the British fleet entering Havana on 21 August 1762.

British fleet entering Havana on 21 August 1762

After returning to Spanish rule in 1763 trade became more difficult again, but eventually the Spanish government was forced in 1789 Havana to open up as Cuba's exclusive port for the slave trade. As Cuba became the world's largest sugar producer, Havana became the largest market in enslaved Africans in the Caribbean by 1839, importing around 10,000 slaves a year. Although treaties with Britain prohibited the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Africans continued to be sold into slavery in Havana's markets until the last slave ship arrived in 1867.

The Valley of the Sugar Mills

Trinidad sits in the heart of the Valle de los Ingenios in South West Cuba, one of the islands most prosperous areas in the early 19th Century. By the 1860s the overworked soil had lost all it fertility, and many of the plantations closed. Several of the buildings still stand today and the Bella Vista sugar mill, built in the 1840s by Pedro Malibran, a rich merchant from Cadiz, was built entirely on the profits of slavery and sugar.

plantation house

His slaves were kept in large, crowded, barracks style housing, with little privacy and none of the luxuries of the great mansion.

slave barracks

The mill's tower shows the level of expense and sophistication used to keep watch over slaves. From the top of the elaborate steeple, the overseer would command slaves in the fields, and keep watch for runaways.

slave tower

La Escalera: The Conspiracy of Ladders

The continuing increase in Cuban slavery the 19th century provoked powerful resistance which in turn fuelled European reprisals. Spontaneous uprisings had taken place across Cuba throughout the 1830s, and following three bloody revolts in 1843, the army uncovered a planned slave uprising in the western province of Matanzas. A coalition of slaves, freemen and British abolitionists were suspected of plotting a revolution, to place the Afro-Cuban poet Gabriel de la Concepción (known as Plácido) at the head of a Cuban republic. This uprising became known as La Escalera (the ladder or staircase) because of the torture used to extract confession from the 'plotters', who were tied to ladders and flogged. The Spanish Governor, General O'Donnel, used the opportunity to introduce more punitive measures to disuade resistance. Plácido was executed by firing squad on June 28th 1844, and has become posthumously known as one the finest Spanish American poets.

portrait of Gabriel de la Concepción


Palenques, named after the Mayan lost city, was the term given to fugitive slave settlements. From 1796 organised militias were charged with hunting down renegade slaves and destroying their villages. Nevertheless, Palenques remained a feature of slave resistance until abolition, and were frequently as bases for planned attacks on plantations.


Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda

The novelist Avellaneda was born in Cuba, and in 1841 published the abolitionist novel Sab which talked about slavery in her homeland. The plot, which centred on the love between a mulatto slave and his white master's daughter, was considered so scandalous that it remained banned in Cuba until 1914. This book made an important contribution to the international debate on slavery, particularly in Spain, and anticipated Harriet Beecher Stowe's similarly controversial Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda

Narciso Lopez

Pro slavery forces in both the United States and Cuba called periodically for the US to annex, buy or invade the island to help preserve the slave societies of both countries. Lopez, born in Venezuela, lived in Cuba, Spain and the US, and headed the Cuban pro annexation party. He led several invasion attempts between 1849-51, and was finally arrested and executed for treason in the autumn of 1851. The question of annexation would remain unanswered until Cuba's final independence from Spain in1898.

Narciso Lopez

The Mambises

The rebel army, the Mambises, fought for independence from Spain in the Ten Years War of 1868-78. Manuel de Cespedes, considered by many as the father of the Cuban nation, and formerly a landowner in east, freed all his slaves in October 1868 and invited them to join his rebel army. Within two days 4,000 had joined the ranks, swelling to 12,000 in a month, the majority of whom were freed slaves. Cespedes was deposed and executed in 1874, but the army continued fighting a guerrilla war until 1878, in which both sides freed and armed many of Cuba's remaining slaves.

The Mambises