Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Trade and International Relations
The Illegal Slave Trade to Cuba after Emancipation
The Effects of Indentured Servitude on the British West Indies During the Post Emancipation


The trans-Atlantic slave trade had a long, busy life until 1817 when an international body, the Mixed Courts of Justice, was created to pursue treaties between states to put a stop to it.  It had slowed down since 1807 when the United States made it illegal and 1808 when it was banned in the British Empire.  The Spaniards were allowed to trade south of the equator until May 20, 1820; however, they engaged in the slave trade much longer than that.  Cuba was the main destination of the illegal slave trade and thousands of Africans were brought there, despite British efforts to stop the trade and knowledge of its existence by Cuban authorities.

Cuba participated in many types of trade, and traded with countries all over the world.  While slaves were brought from Africa, linen, cotton fabrics, glass, and ironware were brought from Northern Europe; and food and lumber were coming from the United States.  Surprisingly, Cuba did not have many relations with Spanish America.  The United States saw Cuba’s potential and tried to annex it; and when speaking of ways to fend off the United States, Lord Palmerston, a British official in charge of relations with Cuba, said that “if the Negro population of Cuba were rendered free, that fact would create a most powerful element of resistance to any scheme for annexing Cuba to the United States”. [1]   According to Blackburn, there were about 217,000 slaves and 109,000 free people of color in Cuba around this time. [2]   The slave population kept growing even after 1820 when trade was supposed to stop, and the leaders of Cuba knew it was because of the illegal trade but they did nothing to stop it.  They suggested that they ask the United Stated for help with battling the slave trade.  Many powerful Cuban sugar growers opposed interdiction of the illegal trade because they believed that if the slave trade actually stopped, the slave population would drop rapidly and there would be no one left to work the plantations. [3]    Strictly looking at numbers, 372,449 slaves were imported to Cuba Returns of the Number of Slaves on board the Slave Ships before the slave trade legally ended, and at least 123,775 were imported between 1821 and 1853. [4]   The system used to suppress the slave trade, if there was any real system, was not very effective in Cuba.

Great Britain actively pursued the extinction of the slave trade to Cuba.  Repeated publications in the Parliamentary Papers that addressed the suppression of the slave trade. The British government knew that the slave trade was still going on after 1820, and they noticed that a large majority of the vessels that came to Havana with slaves were flying the Portuguese flag, especially in 1836.  In 1837 sixty-seven ships came flying the Portuguese flag; and in 1838, between May and July, nine ships came that had Portuguese papers.  Great Britain suggested that they come to an agreement with Portugal to stop this, but the treaty was never written because many of the ships flying the Portuguese flag were not from Portugal.  The Portuguese flag was a great commodity for the slave traders because with it they basically had a right of passage to Cuba.  Since Brazil, where the slave trade continued for many years, was first a colony and then an island of Portugal, many slave trading ships flying the Portuguese ships flag moved through the Atlantic.  For instance, Joze Mazorra was a well-known trader who would supply owners of slave vessels with Portuguese papers and send them to Cape de Verde or to the coast of Africa.    And Chevalier Rebello de Carvalho of Portugal, protecting Portuguese claims to their own sovereignty, told Lord Palmerston in 1838 that until a new treaty was reached between the two states for the total abolition of the slave trade, the Portuguese government could not acknowledge that British cruisers had any right to detain Portuguese ships engaged in the slave trade south of the equator. [5] The British Minister at Lisbon concluded that only through British efforts would the abuse of the Portuguese flag stop, and more importantly the slave trade.  A British consulate in Havana suggested in a letter [6] that the British naval force be sent to the coast of Africa to keep large slave vessels from getting through; and although some ships went there, they had little affect.

In 1838, Mr. Tolme, a British consulate in Havana, acknowledged in a letter to Parliament that the African slave trade to Cuba continued.  Tolme was most interested in trying to keep them out of Cuba, not because it was illegal, but because these slaves brought with them the notion of freedom, which could be dangerous.  At the end of September in 1838 about five hundred slaves arrived on two vessels.  Mr. Tolme also had information about other ships engaged in the slave trade, such as the American ship Sarah M. of Savannah, which was to hold a cargo of two hundred slaves; the Spanish brig Manso that left for Africa in June of 1838 and was to bring back five hundred slaves; and the Dolphin, a schooner expected to bring back three hundred slaves. [7]   Mr. Tolme also had the name of a famous slave trader based in Europe, Jose Miguel Fernandez.

Lord Palmerston, by John PartridgeLord Palmerston had more to say on the topic of the illegal slave trade then anyone else in Cuba.  He suggested that a British Consular agent be established in Puerto Rico to put a stop to the trade there.  He also requested that the Spanish government order Spanish colonial authorities to affix a penalty for the offense, and to do this publicly to get the attention of the people.  In response to Palmerston, British authorities pointed out more shortcomings of the existing system to stop the slave trade.  The reason why slaves kept being imported is because the demand for slaves was still high.  In May, June, and July of 1838, no less than 25 vessels sailed for Africa from Havana, some of them having stolen or forged papers.  The Queen was getting irritated because no one was obeying the government and everyone was telling someone else to take action against the trade, so the Duke of Frias was put in charge of giving instructions to the Captain-General of Cuba for suppression of the slave trade.  Several ships were caught with slaves on them, such as the Eliza, Esplorador, and Irene; but one ship was tracked through its journey, and it shows how ships carried slaves and goods in order to move back and forth between Cuba and Africa.  Around July or August in 1838 the Boca Negra sailed from Cadiz and brought 250 slaves to Havana, then sailed to Trinidad to pick up sugar bound for Cadiz, and in October the ship was preparing to sail back to the coast of Africa under a new name, Emprendedor.  This was a typical route that a slave vessel would follow so that they could pretend that they carried goods and not slaves.

Parliament later proposed a uniform set of punishments for all those captured on the high seas while engaged in the illegal slave trade. [8]   There were seven punishments listed:

1.      Captain, Master, Pilot and Crew of any Spanish vessel involved will be found guilty of piracy and be sentenced to ten years at the galleys.

2.      Captain, Master, Pilot and Crew of a vessel being prepared to pick up slaves will serve two years in prison if they have not left port.  If they are at sea but have not done anything involved with the slave trade yet, they will be sentenced to four years at the galleys.  If negotiations have taken place for the purchase of slaves, they will spend six years at the galleys.

3.      The owner(s) of a vessel engaged in the slave trade will be punished like the Captain, unless they can prove that the object they proposed for the vessel did not involve slave trade, and the object and cargo of the vessel changed after her departure from port.

4.      The purchaser of African Negroes will be sentenced to six years at the galleys.

5.      The owner(s) of a vessel that knowingly equip her for another fitter-out to go on a voyage to Africa will suffer half the punishment to be indicted on the fitter-out.

6.      All African Negroes are declared free when landing in Spanish possession.

7.      Crimes against Africans on ships will be punished with penalties established by Spanish laws against such offenses when committed against free white Christian peoples.)[9]

These consequences, if implemented, could have helped stop the slave trade.  However, keep in mind that this list of punishments came from Britain, but the punishments were supposed to be implemented in Spanish territories.  The Spanish government would not let the sovereignty of their government be challenged, so they seldom enforced these punishments.  

We have examined Britain’s involvement in the suppression of the slave trade, but now we take a look from inside Cuba.  Before 1835, the slaves that were taken by traders illegally were delivered to the Spanish authorities of Cuba and they were liberated from slavery.  The governor was put in charge of these people in order to protect their rights when they went through apprenticeship, but that is often not what took place.  When the Captain-General of Cuba received the slaves, he sold them to planters in Cuba, usually for a term of seven years but most likely forever.  General Tacon was one of the leaders in Cuba who took part in this activity.  It turned Mother and children watch approach of slave shipout that the slaves who were freed after arriving to Cuba and then resold were treated much worse then the slaves who had been there the whole time.  This illegal trade seemed to have been tolerated by the Cuban government.  Mr. Kilbee, the chief commissioner at Havana, said in the late 1830’s that the present system to suppress illegal trade was not working and that the trade was more extensive then it had ever been.  He said that the people of Cuba knew that it was going on but did nothing about it, like the treaty of 1817 did not exist.  Most authorities in Cuba agreed, everyone knew that the efforts to suppress the slave trade were not working.  In 1835, eighty ships arrived for illegal trade, and 78 flew the Portuguese flag.  It was estimated that there were about 300 slaves per ship, which have a high monetary value.  When there was so much money to be had in this business it was hard not to get involved, even the French participated.  Finally, on January 18, 1831, the Board of Trade addressed Lord Palmerston calling for stronger measures of suppression, and their suggestions included allocating over a quarter million dollars a year for anti-slavery efforts.  This suggestion was obviously not something Cuba could afford, and along with other suggestions was out of the question.

The illegal slave trade to Cuba was no secret.  The British government and the leaders of Cuba knew about it the whole time it was going on; and even though they all espoused anti-slavery ideas and claimed that they wanted to put a stop to the slave trade, no one took action against it.  The British government sent letters to the leaders of Cuba whining about the illegalities taking place and nagging them to do something about it, while the leaders of Cuba were at a loss and had no idea what to do to keep this from happening, or any strong desire to do so.  The illegal slave trade to Cuba was not something that took place in secret, but was a well-known trade that was essentially allowed to continue for many years, until it was finally stopped in the 1860s.

[1] Alexander Humboldt, The Island  of Cuba, (New York, 1856), 92.

[2] Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, (London, 1988,) 383.

[3] While Humboldt argued that only one out of six Cuban slaves worked on the plantations, and that they were inefficient, other authorities argue otherwise.  Humboldt, 188.  Cf. Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899, (Princeton, 1985.)

[4][4] Humboldt, 221.

[5] Parliament. Correspondence with Spain, Portugal, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Sweden, Relating to the Slave Trade.  (London, 1839,) 2.

[6] Parliament. Correspondence with Spain…, 118.

[7] Parliament. Correspondence with Spain…, 120, 122.

[8] Parliament. Correspondence with Spain…, 87.  The seven punishments are listed there.

[9] Parliament. Correspondence with Spain…,  p.87