Review of Slavery in the Americas. A Comparative Study of Virginia and Cuba by Herbert S. Klein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. 270 pages. $6.95.
The appearance of Mr. Klein’s book is timely, and the underlying idea excellent. He sets out “to go beyond the legal materials to the social and economic dynamics of the New World slave systems” (p. VIII), to examine the basic assumptions and generalisations of the Frank Tannenbaum – Stanley M. Elkins group of comparative historians . Mr. Klein tries to show that, in fact, slavery in Cuba and Virginia were essentially different institutions, not merely owing to their varying cultural and legal heritages, but by the power of an Imperial Crown, and the benevolent, paternalistic intervention of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba. Properly pursued, such a book should have proven an extremely elucidating forward step in an old debate. Yet this book has certain glaring shortcomings. By concentrating heavily on the earlier period of Cuban history, the author loses a valuable opportunity to emphasise some of the obvious weaknesses of these broad generalisations about slavery.
No slave society ever was, or could remain, a static unit. Slavery everywhere responded to local, internal developments and external, often international, pressures. The island of Cuba was no exception.
Although Mr. Klein states the apparent comparability of both his models – size of planter class size and ratio of slave population; and, importance within an imperial system – his evidence and analysis tend to refute this comparability. This is because he does not say precisely upon what period of Cuban history he wishes to focus. The author disregards the crucial element of a time perspective, and so fails to explore the “social and economic dynamics” which could provide substantial material changes in the nature of Cuban slave society. One quotation from his preface illustrates the general weakness prevalent in the book:
“. . .each state was of prime importance in its geographic and cultural region because of the size and predominance of its slave population. Virginia was the largest and most influential state in moulding the slave institutions of the North American continent, and Cuba in its turn was unquestionably the major slave colony of the Spanish Empire.” (p. VIII).
However valid this may be for Virginia, it certainly does not hold true for Cuba. Since the political and economic importance of Cuba within the Spanish Empire was continually changing, it is necessary to emphasize the particular period of history to which Mr. Klein refers.
Up to the middle of the seventeenth century, Mexico was the largest, and probably most important Spanish slave colony. Aguirre Beltram estimates that that country absorbed 66 per cent of Negro slaves supplied to the Spanish New World, or about 88,383 during the forty-five years between 1595 and 1640. Negroes supplied the labour in the mines and plantations on the continent while the indigenous native population recovered from the shattering demographic effects of the immediate post-conquest period. Cuba then was an underpopulated island of ranchers and tobacco Farmers.
Prior to the nineteenth century, Cuba was important far less as a Negro slave colony, than as a geographically ideal location. It gained its fame as a vital port for rest and re-fuelling of ships, conveniently close to the American colonies, and the wind systems across the Atlantic Ocean. Before sugar and coffee became important Cuban export crops, the island virtually languished in stagnation. The lure and legends of Mexico and Peru almost completely eclipsed the importance of Cuba. To balance its budget, the island depended upon subsidies from Mexico. Later, Spain lost her continental colonies just as Negro slavery was becoming of paramount importance in the political, social and economic development of Cuba. In such a vastly reduced empire, and given the progressively increased demand for and price of sugar and coffee, it, was not difficult to accept the unquestionable importance of the ever faithful isle.