Tannenbaum’s thesis of a consistently milder slavery in Latin than Anglo-Saxon America has been under attack for over twenty years now. This book, comparing slavery in 19th century Cuba and 18th century Haiti (when both societies had strong, sugar-based plantation economies) is a recent addition to this critical literature. Since of the two determining factors singled out by Tannenbaum, one (religion) was the same for Spain and France, the other one (protective aspects of slave laws) receives appropriate attention here. The author finds Spain wanting, preferring as she does the “concrete and practical French laws and the serious-though largely unsuccessful-attempts at enforcement over the “vague and abstract Spanish legislation, and the government’s weakness in enforcing it. Yet, as soon as the author deals with decrees detrimental to the Cuban slaves, free blacks, or coloreds, her confidence in the efficacy of enforcement in the Spanish colony increases notably; thus we are led to believe, without further qualification, that as per 1844 “no free colored male . . . could remain in Cuba,” and that “destruction of the wealthy and educated colored élite” was ruthlessly carried out, remnants of this class being dispersed to neighboring countries.
Properly speaking, in a comparison such as this one, where the economic forces in both colonies are assumed to be similar, no conclusion can be reached as to the weight of the economic (and related demographic) factors on the treatment of slaves. Yet, a main purpose of this study is precisely to demonstrate the supreme importance of these latter factors. To achieve this purpose, the author abandons her cross-colonial comparison, and shows that in each of the two colonies, master-slave relations were milder before than after the advent of the sugar boom, a convincing, though no longer sensational, conclusion.
The author states that legal intermarriage was “far from unusual” throughout the history of St. Domingue. Yet she informs us that toward the end of the colonial period there were about 300 white men married to sang-melées. On a white population of some 40,000 and a free colored group of some 28,000, this does not seem impressive at all. There were, of course, many more concubinates, but their off-spring, as the author acknowledges, swelled the group of free colored (the social categorization of the offspring of legal intermarriage is not made clear). Was it not precisely the fact that the wealthy colored, in spite of their identical “class” interests and position, had not been able to form intimate social alliances with the wealthy whites, that made them an easy prey to increasing social and legal discrimination in the course of the last half of the eighteenth century? This question forms part of some larger ones: which factors determine the formation of a specific socio-racial stratification outside and after slavery, and why are some of these stratifications apparently continuous and others discontinuous? Professor Hall implicitly assumes that in these respects there were no differences at all between Cuba and St. Domingue and that, for example, the social definition of a ‘light colored” was identical in both societies.
The author also seems curiously ambivalent as to the relation between slavery per se and race relations outside and after slavery. On the one hand she states that racism is, and has been, more powerful in the United States than elsewhere in the Americas because “the slaves were looked upon as a necessary, permanent part of the population”; on the other hand, such a naive historicism is absent in her remarks about the ways the colonial governments of Cuba and St. Domingue deliberately manipulated the conflicts between the races, thus fomenting racism among “social groupings . . . which had something to gain from the degradation and dispossession of the black and colored population.”
The book was written with enthusiasm, but without much caution or care. The Archives Nationales in Paris figure in the list of Symbols, but I could not find one reference to them in the text; the chapter on “Systematic Resistance in St. Domingue” mostly deals with Martinique and Guadeloupe; the author’s translations from the French and Spanish need a critical eye: “eran a menudo pródigos de su sangre” does not mean “they often shed prodigious amounts of blood”; the Dutch war of independence against Spain did not last from 1580 till 1640; whereas on page 4 it is stated that manuscript materials relating to slave systems outside the United States are practically untouched, on page 9 we learn that St. Domingue has been well researched and studied. The author who professes some lack of faith in secondary sources, has used some of these (Dutertre!) indiscriminatingly in her Chapter on Magic, Witchcraft and Religion. Now that her book has become itself a “secondary source, Professor Hall shall want us to read it with the same healthy skepsis that she intended to apply to similar works.