This timely study about a major aspect of black history in the New World brings new information and fresh interpretations to a subject that has been scantily treated heretofore. Corwin covers the period from 1817, when the Spain of Fernando VII agreed under British pressure that it would begin to stop the African slave trade to the Antilles, to 1886, when slavery in Cuba terminated. He has kept his focus precisely on the subject while exhibiting his awareness of the numerous implications of the problem. His researches have been principally in the Madrid archives of offices that dealt with Cuba. It is likely that sources elsewhere in Spain and in Havana, London, Washington, and in other localities could be examined profitably as the subject of the Negro in Cuba is broadened, but there is no reason to doubt that Corwin has thoroughly investigated his special topic. Moreover, his book is clearly and gracefully written.
Beginning with a sketch of the slave trade from Africa to the Antilles, the author summarizes, perhaps too briefly, the considerations behind the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1817 and the long frustrations that followed. In Spain there was virtually no abolitionist conscience until mid-century, and then it was an aspect of republicanism and anti-clericalism in many instances. The successive governments under Fernando VII and Isabel II were too weak to follow any policy consistently, especially one like ending the slave trade with which they disagreed. Spain also came to realize that the illegal traffic was a useful lever in keeping Cuban creoles loyal. At length the creoles, offended by their exclusion from the Spanish Cortes and gradually becoming more humane and anti-Spanish, looked hopefully to Britain and the United States, exaggerating the dangers of American annexationism in order to coerce Madrid into reform. By the 1850s Spain, aware of British pressures against Brazil, moved to reduce the slave trade. Abolitionist sentiment in both Spain and Cuba grew markedly during that decade and after the Civil War in the United States. In the Junta de Información of 1866-1867 Cuban and Puerto Rican delegates worked optimistically with Spanish officials to effect political reforms and moved toward emancipation of the slaves.
The September 1868 revolution in Spain included a decree concerning free birth in the colonies, but the Cuban uprising that started a few days later complicated the problem, though its leaders announced gradual and indemnified abolition. The Ten Years’ War, Spain’s own convulsions, and British-American threats further confused matters. Very slowly, the Moret law passed by the Spanish Cortes in 1870 for qualified emancipation came to be enforced. An act of 1879 speeded the process, and by 1886 slavery in Cuba supposedly ended.
Since Spanish and Cuban history from 1817 to 1886 is full of futility, meaningless negotiations, frustrations, and unsatisfactory solutions, Corwin’s narrative necessarily includes some material that is tedious. The author does not seem particularly sure-footed in the wilderness of nineteenth-century Spanish politics, and he repeatedly refers to ministers as ambassadors. A few colorful and perhaps revealing items that other writers might have included he omits. No doubt there are further sources to be covered. In all, however, this is a lucid and authoritative account.