Cuban Historians Discuss Bicentenary Anti-Slavery Conspiracy (I)

Dmitri Prieto

Jose Antonio Aponte

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 28 — Many people would probably be surprised to read the phrase “Jose  Antonio Aponte, leader of the Cuban Revolution.”

Cuba is participating in solidarity with the Latin American celebrations around the subcontinent’s bicentennial. However certain events that occurred 200 years ago here on the island itself are not well known. This was when a free black carpenter and artist (Aponte) became one of the first martyrs in Cuban revolutionary history.

He was one of the anti-slavery conspirators who organized a decentralized resistance network that encompassed much of the island. He was also one of those who hung a clear abolitionist proclamation on the door of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (the colonial seat of government).

At that time there were more blacks than whites in Cuba and the transatlantic slave trade was continuing. Therefore, for the white capitalist elite it was clear what to do about his message: Aponte was sentenced to death and his head was left to rot inside an iron cage that was put on public display in Havana at the intersection of Reina, Carlos III and Beloscoain streets (sorry, Simon Bolivar, Salvador Allende and Padre Varela streets!*).

In the racist imagery of subsequent periods there remained a phrase that was known even by schoolchildren: So-and-so is “worse than Aponte.” There still is no monument to that forgotten leader that they once promised would be erected on the spot where his caged head was exhibited.

A deeper look into the past

This past February 13, Cuban historians gathered at the ALBA Cultural House to present a couple of books (by US authors, notably enough) and talk about slave resistance, historical racism and the Aponte conspiracy on its bicentennial.

On the panel were doctors Maria del Carmen Barcia, Gloria Garcia, Gabino de la Rosa and Fernando Martinez Heredia. Oscar Zanetti presided.

How can traditional historiography — the product of social elites — turn its attention to oppressed groups? This problem was addressed by Professor Barcia, who mentioned important precedents highlighted by French and English historians.

While the elites and leaders were the favorite historical subjects of positivist thought, Aponte, according to this speaker, was constructed by white Creole intellectuals of the colony as the “black anti-hero.”

The studies by Maria del Carmen Barcia are among the most extensive and best attempts to delve into the archives of the rubble of the past to de-mask the lives of those who were voiceless.

Gabino de la Rosa probes through another type of rubble: he is one of the greatest Cuban archaeologists, specialized in studying the remnants of communities created by runaway slaves and those who resisted slavery.

According Gabino, the patterns of these communities change from the east to the west in Cuba. In the west we find the remains of temporary hideouts and shelters, mostly in caves. In the more mountainous east, what prevail are remains of “palenques,” truely self-organized and productive communities created by blacks who freed themselves from the yoke of slavery.

Gabino defends the thesis that in Cuba, unlike in Brazil for example, these communities didn’t survive past the colonial era. This wasn’t because their members were slaughtered (runaways usually didn’t let themselves be discovered by the authorities, they fled into the most inhospitable areas), but because they massively joined the struggle for independence starting in 1868.

Interpreting the Aponte conspiracy

Gloria Garcia questioned the traditional more restrictive concept of “political struggle” and delved into details of that movement, which she demonstrated as having an “unusual” level of maturity for its time.

This was discovered accidentally, due to the negligence of one of the conspirators.

The movement was decentralized, with multiple leaders. One participant noted that many social organizations in Africa also had this multi-centered character.

It seems that in the case of the Cuban movement of 1812, it too stayed away from congregant leadership since there were various ethnic groups enslaved on the island.

Eighty years later, Jose Marti organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party also with a multi-centered design and great freedom at the base level.

Gloria Garcia read the proclamation that Aponte posted on palace gate. The notice spoke of despotism and resistance to oppression.

What was the movement’s program?

Aponte, a talented painter, had a picture book that he had created (later it was seized by the police and doesn’t exist today, though we have descriptions of it). In it an Indian woman seems to have represented the Cuban homeland.

She appears as a homeland made up of people forcibly abducted from their own homelands… But in the vision of Aponte, there were already white people.

Aponte’s proclamation…could it have been our first Declaration of Independence?

* Most people still use the colonial names of those streets, not the current “revolutionary” ones.