Adriana Chira Talks to The Docket About Transatlantic Research and the History of Slavery in Cuba

  1. Is this article part of a book project?  If so, could you give our readers a sense of what you will be trying to accomplish in the book?

Yes, the article is part of my first book project, tentatively titled Becoming Free of Color: Popular Racial Thought in Cuba, 1791-1868. It is a book about the relation between postracial ideologies and ordinary people’s understandings of social difference in everyday life. The manuscript complicates the idea that the Cuban ideology of “racial confraternity” emerged out of black and white soldiers’ shared military experiences during the Cuban War of Independence (1868-1898) against Spain. Perhaps the most reputed figure to promote this postracial ideology was José Martí. In an 1893 poetic piece, he argued that the pro-independence insurgents’ esprit de corps transcended the color line; in his oft-repeated words, in Cuba “‘[m]an’ means more than white, more than mulatto, more than Negro.”

My work shifts attention away from elite military figures and intellectuals and focuses instead on popular understandings of color- and social status that preceded the formalization of “racial confraternity.” I focus on vernacular social taxonomies in Santiago (in eastern Cuba), which would become the independence war’s focal point, a region that was home to a large population of free Afro-descendants who would be at the forefront of the pro-independence mobilization. Throughout the nineteenth century, Santiago was also a Caribbean borderland, by and large outside yet in the orbit of the sugar economy.  I trace the expansion of the free population of color throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and look at its political, economic, and legal strategies to retain a measure of autonomy at a time of increasing sugar incursions into the area (after the 1850s).

One of my key arguments is that the free Afro-descendant population constructed social taxonomies that allowed some individuals of publicly known African ancestry to lose association with official color terms denoting blackness. The fluidity of categories was not the outcome of some folksy notion of inclusion though: it went hand in hand with new forms of inequality.  I also examine how and why in their practices of bureaucratic inscription and adjudication, colonial officials (such as judges in courts of first instance and notaries) adopted these vernacular taxonomies and locally specific notions of equity that deviated from codified law, as in the freedom suits that I examined in the article, in which enslaved people and their advocates developed arguments that redefined manumission from a paternalistic prerogative of masters to, in some cases, a claim based in ideas of rights.

What connects the book manuscript and this article therefore is their shared attention to the role of the notion of “equity” in judicial settings. So, for instance, some freedom litigants, especially women who were domestic slaves, claimed that care-related work for masters was like any other kind of labor and could therefore be monetized. At the time, enslaved people in the Spanish Empire had the right to buy themselves in instalments, a practice known as coartación that enabled individuals held in slavery to monetize some of the labor that they did, to work outside their owners’ homes, and to have some control over the wages that they obtained. The litigants I examine in this piece were applying the rules of coartación to a new domain though—that of intimate care—in which the quantification of value and monetization were thought to be harder to achieve and even dangerous. Judges often ruled for the freedom litigants in the name of equity, in an attempt to keep the peace.

  1. The research in your article is really quite astounding.  Walk us through what it was like to work in the archives.  Did you know as you were researching just how important your ‘finds’ were?

I spent two years doing archival research in seventeen repositories across Cuba, Spain, France, the UK, and the U.S.. The experience opened up many worlds, past and present, to which I became bound not only as a scholar, but also ethically and emotionally. When I started reading judicial cases from Santiago, I intuitively knew that I was in front of something quite special. These records confounded my expectations about who controlled the process of manumission. Enslaved people in Santiago were especially litigious in pursuit of manumission and of customary rights that granted them some autonomy but that misaligned with existing statutes.

They were nevertheless quite effective at winning these suits for reasons that have to do with the political economy of eastern Cuba (an underdeveloped region of Cuba at the time) and the presence of large marron communities in the mountains surrounding the city. The pursuit of justice by extra-judicial means (such as marronage and insurgency) was therefore key to expanding judicial avenues. Enslaved litigants also used the available openings in the Iberian judicial system to create new ones. Judges, trained or untrained (and one could be an untrained judge in this context), frequently misquoted statutes in the name of equity or of custom, for prudential reasons.

These elements all drew me in immediately. But I did not have an overarching narrative that would help me make sense of the different pieces. Moreover, I developed a more nuanced approach to labor and gender through conversations with colleagues. Ultimately, I concluded that enslaved people’s efforts to argue that affective, emotional, or intimate activities were actually labor with monetary value “challenged several fundamental tenets of the institution of slavery,” including the power of the community to regulate a contractual relationship between enslaved people and masters, the relative power of oral contracts versus written deeds, and the presumed paternalistic naturalness of the master-slave relationship.

The judicial and notarial archive posed several other conundrums. Judicial records are replete with narrative accounts. Since I tend to fall prey to a good story all too easily, at first I was not paying close enough attention to legal procedure and approached judicial cases primarily as sources of ethnographic knowledge about a community. Understanding procedure takes time and copious secondary-source reading. An additional challenge has been thinking through the meanings of a highly localized history. I developed my project at a time when Atlanticist and transnational methods that emphasize the circulation of people and ideas have become highly prized. As I was researching, however, I knew that I would only be able to capture vernacular understandings of status and see how ordinary people approached the legal system through a localized lens. Atlanticist methods have however been very generative for me: they have pushed me to think comparatively in ways that opened up the local lens.

  1. Your piece is about Cuba, but manumission and emancipation laws have been a major area of interest for scholars of other regions of the Atlantic world.  Are there particular works that you have drawn inspiration from?

My historiographic readings span the Atlantic world, a field that is also my main teaching area at Emory. From among those published in the last three years, I have been especially transformed by Michelle McKinley’s nuanced approach to procedure in Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy, and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima, 1600-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2016); by Bianca Premo’s take on custom and equity in The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017); by Celso Castilho’s analysis of the relationship between citizenship and emancipation in his Slave Emancipation and Transformation in Brazilian Political Citizenship (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016); and by Kelly Kennington’s In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Freedom in Antebellum America (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

Right now, I am thinking more about the ways in which extra-judicial violence, such as insurgencies or marronage, can shape slavery- and freedom-related litigation. So, I have been very inspired by recent works that have addressed the question of nineteenth-century insurgencies in the Caribbean front and center. Two studies that have stood out for me are Anne Eller’s We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), and Aisha Finch’s Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

  1. You teach in the history department at Emory University.  Have you been able to draw on the research that went into this article for your courses?

I have not yet. But I plan to use it after also translating some of the primary sources so that students may use them alongside the article and other secondary sources. In my experience, teaching materials from the judicial archive in undergraduate history courses is extremely satisfying. The conflicts at their core and their dialogic (and I say this cautiously) nature evoke an entire world, while also spurring intense discussion and debate.


Editor’s Note: Adriana Chira is Assistant Professor of Atlantic World History at Emory University

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Twitter @AdriChira