The transition from slavery to free labor in the Hispanic Caribbean has recently become a topic of considerable scholarly interest.1 Although the close linkages between slavery and Caribbean sugar production have long been recognized, after 1850 slave labor and sugar remained inexorably bound only in Cuba.2 The Cuban sugar economy’s persistent dependency on slaves through the eve of emancipation has generated two multifaceted questions concerning slave labor, abolition, and the economics of sugar production.

The first centers on the relationship of slavery to the sweeping technological transformations the sugar economy experienced from the 1830s on. The installation of steam engines, Rillieux double vacuum pan evaporators, centrifuges, and British or U.S.-built railway systems to transport cane from fields to mills and sugar from mills to ports were among the most widespread and costly innovations gradually employed by sugar planters from the mid-1830s through the late 1870s.3 Did the increased refining capacity resulting from these transformations, and the rising capital investments their adoption mandated, make slavery an antiquated labor system incompatible with changing technological forms? Did new productive methods lead to emancipation because slavery was no longer economically viable? While refining was becoming more capital intensive, was the sugar economy’s continuing dependence on slave labor responsible for decreasing profitability?4

The second question concerns the adaptations of Cuban sugar planters in the aftermath of abolition. The end of slavery was followed by an unprecedented increase in sugar production between 1880 and 1894.5 Did abolition indeed release productive forces that were stifled because of the economic limitations of slavery, thus confirming the sugar economy’s preabolition “internal contradictions” alluded to above? Or was this increase in production due to a combination of other factors?

Although a number of suggestive, and sometimes emphatic, answers to these questions have appeared in the works cited above, it should he stressed that systematic economic data on the functional mechanisms of Cuba’s slave/sugar complex are conspicuous for their scarcity. Whether slavery had reached its maximum productive potential in Cuba by the 1860s is closely tied to the crucial question of profitability. To date, however, there have been few studies attempting to examine rates of return on investments in slaves and their variations through time.6 This is hardly surprising, since time-series data on the most fundamental economic variables needed to calculate the profitability of Cuban slave labor are currently unavailable. These include local sugar prices, land values, land/cane and cane/sugar yields, costs of technological innovations and their depreciation, maintenance costs of slave populations, productive life expectancies of slaves, and slave prices.7

The movement of slave prices can be used as an analytical tool to provide insights into the economic dynamics of Cuba’s nineteenth-century sugar economy. An a priori assumption is that planter willingness to support rising slave prices indicates the economic viability of slave-labor-based sugar production. Trends in slave prices during the late 1860s and early 1870s are particularly important indicators for the slave/sugar economy since by then the abolition process was initiated and the final end of slavery was no longer in doubt. It is assumed that if slavery were no longer profitable at this point in the history of Cuba’s sugar economy, demand for slaves would soften and prices would decline. The exact opposite occurred, suggesting the continuing economic compatibility of slavery and sugar production.

Despite increasing utilization of expensive imported technology, slaves continued to account for a substantial share of capital assets on most Cuban sugar ingenios through the mid-1870s.8 Clearly, therefore, it is impossible to analyze the economics of sugar production or the viability of slave labor without a precise understanding of trends in slave prices.9 This article does not pretend to definitively answer the broader questions outlined above; its purpose is to provide an accurate account of tendencies in Cuban slave prices between 1840 and 1875, which can be used to understand the economic dynamics of Cuba’s slave-based sugar economy on the eve of abolition.

Sources and Data

This study is based on slave transactions recorded in the city of Matanzas between 1840 and 1875 and in the town of Colón between 1863 and 1875. On the eve of the nineteenth century, the Matanzas region was largely an unexploited frontier. Sugar and coffee production expanded gradually around the Matanzas Bay area in the first two decades of the century. During the 1830s and 1840s, railroads opened the interior and large, capital-intensive mills were constructed in the Colón region which became one of the most important centers of the Cuban slave/sugar economy.

Slave sales were recorded by local notaries in bound protocol volumes preserved in various Cuban archival collections. The complete records from 1863 through 1900 of one Colón notary, Manuel Vega Lavarría, were discovered in the Archivo Histórico Provincial de Matanzas, located in the center of the port city of Matanzas. The volumes for 1863, 1864, 1867, 1870, 1872, and 1875 were read and 522 slave transactions were analyzed for this study. A number of notaries recorded slave sales in the city of Matanzas, and their protocol records have been maintained in the Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Havana. The notaries studied for this article were chosen randomly, and a total of 1,006 slave sales were examined for the years 1840, 1843, 1846, 1850, 1854, 1857, 1860, 1865, 1870, and 1875.10

By and large the data are consistent but not ideal. Notaries routinely recorded the sex, age, national origin, and the price of each slave sold, but did not uniformly report on occupations, skills, or physical impairments. Nor was there any indication of whether slaves were destined for urban or rural areas, sugar plantations or other types of farms. Thus, the latter factors have not been used to calculate average prices of the different categories discussed below. It is also lamentable that between 1837 and 1843 few transactions noted ages and that no age data were recorded by Matanzas notaries from 1846 through 1857.

Prices for slaves have been analyzed by sex, origin, and age, when this information was available. Three age groups have been defined: 1 through 14 years of age; 15 through 40; and slaves 41 years of age or older. This was not done idiosyncratically, but because an initial perusal of price frequency distributions by age indicated a notable increase in slave prices at age 15, and a sharp decline at age 41 for African and creole slaves, whether males or females.11

General Trends and Sex Differentials in Slave Prices

Slave prices for both males and females exhibited marked downward trends in the first half of the 1840s. Average prices for males dropped 19.5 percent between 1840 and 1846 (from 328 to 264 pesos); while average prices for females fell 29.4 percent (from 316 to 223 pesos).12 Although Cuban sugar production expanded significantly in the Matanzas region during this period and demand for slave labor was considerable, slaves were available in abundant quantities because of a surge in African imports from the mid-1830s through 1841.13 The slave market’s apparent oversupply meant downward pressure on prices.

Price differentials between males and females indicate no discernable trend before 1846. Females sold for 96 percent of male prices in 1840 and 84 percent in 1846. Yet, in 1843 females were priced at 111 percent the value of males.

From 1846 to 1854, average prices for male slaves recovered (+30.3 percent) and slightly surpassed 1840 levels (328 pesos in 1840; 344 pesos in 1854). However, differentials in prices between males and females widened considerably. Females were sold at 65 percent of average male prices in 1850 and 81 percent in 1854. In addition, by 1854 average female prices (278 pesos) remained lower than in 1840 (316 pesos), although there was a 24.7 percent increase from 1846.

Between 1846 and 1854, two factors exerted upward pressure on male slave prices. The first was the strong demand for labor accompanying the constant construction of new ingenios and the resulting increase in sugar production.14 The second factor was a decrease in slave supplies due to a downturn in African imports which began in 1841 and continued to the early 1850s. Between 1834 and 1841, an average of 13,469 African slaves landed in Cuba annually. But between 1842 and 1852 annual imports averaged 4,639 slaves.15

Average prices for all slaves increased sharply after 1855, soaring in Matanzas to 581 pesos in 1857; softening to 558 pesos in 1860; and peaking at 600 pesos in 1865. These prices were more than double slave prices before 1850.

In Colón prices reached their highest levels somewhat later, in 1870, when the average price per slave was 673 pesos, after which there was a gradual decline as the onset of the legal abolition process heralded the end of slavery.16 The willingness of Colón planters to pay the highest prices of the century for slaves, at the precise historical moment when the end of slavery was no longer in doubt, suggests the continuing economic viability of slave-labor-based sugar production. In 1872, Colón planters continued to actively purchase slaves and paid average prices (630 pesos) only slightly lower than the 1870 peak.

In Matanzas after 1855, sex differences in slave prices were insignificant and no discernable trend can be noted until 1870. In some years females sold at slightly lower average prices, 98.2 percent of males in 1860 and 93.0 percent in 1870. But in 1857 and 1865, female slaves sold for higher average prices (104 percent) than males.

A significant divergence in slave prices by sex took place in Matanzas after the promulgation of the 1870 Moret Law. In 1875, males sold at average prices of 518 pesos, females at 247 pesos (47.7 percent of male values). Under pressure to maximize productivity and extract optimum labor from slave populations in the short term due to the imminent end of slavery, planters placed a greater premium on males, more so than at any other time during the nineteenth century. Although not as extreme, the same phenomenon was found in Colón where male prices averaged 391 pesos and females 344 pesos in 1875 (88 percent of male values).

Declining female slave values were related to the fact that newborns had no future economic value since they were theoretically free under the terms of the 1870 Moret Law. Slave owners may also have viewed females as less viable economically because those bearing children would become a liability through lost labor time, and because the children themselves would have to be supported by masters under the terms of the 1870 law. (See Figures 1 and 2 for a graphic representation of price differences by sex in Matanzas and Colón.)

What factors supported significantly higher slave price levels after 1855, and what does the willingness of plantation owners to actively purchase slaves at relatively high prices through the early 1870s indicate about the economic viability of slave labor?

On the supply side, a resurgence of the slave trade from the mid- 1850s to the early 1860s meant an abundance of bozales landing in Cuba. According to British consular estimates, imports between 1853 and 1857 averaged 9,640 slaves per year, while from 1858 to 1864 over 120,000 Africans were brought to Cuba, 17,413 annually.17 It was only after 1863 that a variety of factors effectively curbed, then eliminated, the Cuban slave trade.

Not only were slave supplies abundant, but slave prices on the African coast seem to have remained remarkably stable from the 1840s through the mid-186os, although shipping and operating costs for slave traders seem to have risen considerably. In addition, increased bribes to Spanish colonial officials effectively raised operating costs for slavers.18 These factors did not restrict the number of Africans embarking for Cuba, nor can they be used alone to explain Cuban slave price rises in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Three interacting factors produced the overwhelming demand for slaves responsible for pushing prices to the high levels noted above. The first was the uncertainty surrounding the future of the slave trade itself The long and persistent British campaign to force an end to the Cuban trade had traditionally been circumvented by collusion between Spanish colonial officials and Cuban slave traders. An additional obstacle to British efforts was the unwillingness of the United States to permit the search of U.S.-flag vessels suspected of involvement in the slave trade.

However, policy toward the Cuban slave trade shifted as the U.S. Civil War deepened. The United States began to support British efforts to curb slaving in the Caribbean, and Spain was increasingly pressured to effectively patrol the Cuban coast. The result was the reduction of slave landings by 1865, and the trade’s virtual elimination by 1867.19 Thus, from the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Cuban planters experienced increasing uncertainty on the critical question of future labor supplies. Planter response was to stock ingenios with large numbers of slaves, thus exerting upward pressure on prices.

After 1855, the Cuban slave market was also transformed by a second factor, the sharp upward trend in sugar prices on international markets and the maintenance of higher prices through the early 1870s (Figure 3). In May 1855, the price for top grade Cuban white sugar in the port of Matanzas was 4.63 cents per pound. By March 1856, prices were quoted at 6.88 cents per pound (+48.6 percent); by August 1857, Matanzas planters were receiving 12 cents per pound for top grade (florete) white sugar. Prices retreated to an average of 6.47 cents per pound in 1858, but remained at 6 cents or more per pound through 1870. Thus, even though there was a sharp rise and subsequent decline in sugar prices between 1855 and 1857, the overall trend after 1855 was an upward movement in sugar prices to 1873. Prices in the 1860s and 1870s were considerably higher than prices in the 1840s.20

Supported by the highest prices of the nineteenth century, Cuban sugar production increased 51.8 percent between 1855 and 1870, from 462,960 to 702,974 metric tons.21 The growth in income resulting from price rises and productive expansion meant that Cuban sugar planters could well afford higher slave prices.22

The third factor was related to the mechanics of Cuban sugar expansion during the nineteenth century. Despite innovative, capital-intensive refining methods, the growth of sugar output was heavily dependent on the constant integration of newly planted canefields into the productive process. In part this was linked to the need for ever increasing quantities of cane to efficiently utilize installed refining capacity at the mill. Railroads facilitated the industry’s mobility, and the center of Cuban sugar production shifted incessantly from Havana toward the high-yielding virgin soils of an eastward-moving frontier throughout the nineteenth century. However, unlike its industrial counterpart, the agricultural phase of sugar production experienced few technological transformations, remaining both land extensive and labor intensive through the 1870s.

Despite constant efforts to find alternative sources of labor, including the importation of over 120,οοο Chinese between 1848 and 1874, Cuban sugar production remained as dependent on slave labor in the late 1860s as a century before.23 To increase sugar production new canefields had to be planted, and this meant that slave labor forces had to he maintained or expanded. With the relatively high sugar prices of the post-1855 period, new mills were also constructed, and ingenio owners continued actively purchasing slaves despite their higher prices.24 The cost of slave labor was supported by the evident profitability of a dynamically expanding labor-intensive industry, exhibiting few signs of contraction on the eve of abolition.

Slave Prices by Origin and Age Groupings

Before 1850, African-born slaves accounted for a majority of slave sales in Matanzas, After midcentury, however, sales of creoles outnumbered Africans by ever increasing margins despite the vigor of the transatlantic trade in the 1850s and early 1860s. Creoles were more actively sold in Colón in the 1860s as well (see Figures 4 and 5).

Explanations are hardly complex. The natural reproduction of the Cuban slave population resulted in a large creole to African ratio by the 1860s despite continuing imports, especially in the prime working age group of 15 to 40 years old.25 In addition, it is likely that the high price structure of the slave market after 1855 induced some slaveholders to take profits on prior investments, especially those who had purchased young creoles at low prices in the 1840s, or who benefited from the natural reproduction of their slave populations. These factors, which revolved around slave demographics and higher slave prices, resulted in the abundance of Cuban-born slaves placed on the market after 1855.26

Until the price increases of the post-1855 period, the data seem to indicate that creole slaves generally sold at lower prices than Africans in Matanzas (see Figure 6). However, this impression is distorted. Although age information is fragmentary in Matanzas between 1840 and 1860, on the basis of data from the 1830s it is likely that a high percentage of marketed African slaves were between 15 and 40 years old, the highest-priced age category. (See Figures 7 and 8 for slave prices by age group in Matanzas and Colón.) In addition, a greater percentage of creole slaves was in the lowest-valued age group, under 15 years of age. Combined, these factors effectively lowered the relative average price of creoles compared to Africans.27

As the price structure of the slave market moved upward after 1855, and more creole slaves between 15 and 40 years of age were marketed, the overall differential in prices by origin narrowed. In 1857 and 1860 there was very little difference in average prices between creoles and Africans, and by 1865 Cuban-born slaves not only overwhelmed the Matanzas slave market (83 percent of all sales), they also sold at higher average prices than Africans, 611 to 523 pesos.

This marked increase in the sale of higher priced creoles was linked to the changing age structure of the slave population. The offspring of the voluminous African imports of the 1830s and early 1840s were just entering the prime working age group in the 1850s and early 1860s. Despite continuing imports, the African-born slave population was generally much older, which meant declining market values. For example, in Guanajayabo, the Cárdenas partido referred to above, the 1871 slave census revealed the mean age of Cuban-born slaves to be 19.3 years, while the African-born slave population had a mean age of 32.2 years.28

The data for Colón on slave prices by origin indicate no discernable trend (see Figure 9). The higher price structure of the overall slave market in the 1860s and early 1870s is confirmed, but the comparative market values of Africans and creoles is inconsistent through time. In 1863, 1864, and 1870 creoles sold at average higher prices. But in 1867, 1872, and 1875 Africans were more costly, even though most transactions involving creoles consisted of prime working age slaves.

By the mid-1860s, with the waning and then collapse of the slave trade, sales of nonprime age slaves declined notably. Although the slave market remained surprisingly active in the early 1870s, buyers were interested primarily in working age slaves of either sex. In Matanzas, 1860 data reveal that 39.6 percent of all sales consisted of prime age slaves, but in 1865 this figure stood at 66.7 percent; in 1870, 74.3 percent; and in 1875 at 80.8 percent. In Colón a similar pattern can be noted; over two-thirds of all slave sales after 1863 involved prime working age slaves (Figures 10 and 11).29

Prices for prime working age slaves in the 1860s and 1870s peaked at different times in Matanzas and Colón. In Colón, where almost all slaves worked on sugar plantations, average prices for this group reached their apex in 1870 at 717 pesos. In more urbanized Matanzas, where it is likely that a significant portion of marketed slaves were destined for nonsugar sector occupations, general prices for prime age slaves peaked a decade earlier, in 1860 when they reached 714 pesos. It is also conspicuous that in 1870 average prices for prime age slaves in Matanzas had fallen to 521 pesos, a decline of 27.0 percent from 1860, and that these prices were 72.7 percent the value of Colón's average-priced prime age slaves.

The importance of these comparative data is worth stressing. They indicate the persistence of strong demand for working age slaves in a major Cuban plantation zone (Colón) to the very beginning of the legal abolition process. Although the ongoing revolutionary war in eastern Cuba certainly caused a great deal of political uncertainty among planters, the rebellion had little impact on sugar production in the major cane-growing areas of western Cuba. In Matanzas province, sugar cultivation expanded and new ingenios were constantly established throughout the Ten Years War.

When prime age slave sales in Colón are broken down by sex and national origin, the strong demand for slaves is apparent, even in 1872 when the end of slavery was no longer in doubt. Prime age creole males sold for average prices of 737 pesos in 1870 and for exactly the same price in 1872. The average price for prime age African males increased from 638 pesos in 1870 to a peak of 837 pesos in 1872. It should be underlined that in Colón the price peak for all male slaves was 1872, at average prices of 694 pesos. Demand for males was so strong in this major sugar-producing zone that prices thus continued to rise after legal abolition began. It is also interesting to note that labor demands pushed prices higher for slaves 41 years of age and older in both Matanzas and Colón between 1870 and 1872. (See Figures 8 and 9.)

Creole females sold for average prices of 738 pesos in 1870, almost precisely the price for males, but declined to 634 pesos in 1872, 86 percent of male values. African females, like African males, increased in value between those two dates, from 550 to 700 pesos.

If slave labor was no longer economically viable by the 1860s and 1870s, it is puzzling that Colón’s sugar planters would underwrite the highest prices in the history of Cuban slavery for prime working age slaves, particularly with final abolition no longer a theoretical debate. In fact, the continuing rise in sugar prices to 1873 evidently meant that slave-labor-based sugar production continued to remain completely viable despite the highest labor replacement costs of the nineteenth century.

It was only after 1873, when sugar prices declined sharply, that demand for slaves softened and prices plummeted. Inflation, the political uncertainty caused by the continuation of the Ten Years War, and the imminence of final abolition were other critical factors. In 1875, the average price of prime age slaves of both sexes and nationalities was 366 pesos in Matanzas (−29.8 percent from 1870) and 408 pesos in Colón (−43.1 percent from 1870).30 (See Tables I and II, and Figures 12 and 13.) The data presented here can accordingly be used to challenge the notion that Cuban slavery collapsed because it was no longer economically viable, nor compatible with the industrial modernization of sugar refining.


The movement of slave prices in Cuba between 1840 and 1875 can be broken down into two broad periods. The first was between 1840 and 1855 when prices seem to have responded exclusively to fluctuations in supplies of newly arrived Africans, The Cuban slave trade’s high level of activity in the late 1830s drove down prices in the 1840s. The contraction of African imports through the early 1850s was followed by a recovery of slave prices. There seems to have been a lag time in the response of the slave market to changes in supplies, prices shifting after supply levels were clearly defined over several years. Since slaves represented the principal source of labor on almost all sugar plantations, and Cuban sugar production increased steadily in this period, strong demand for slaves was constant or increasing.

The second period was between 1855 and 1875 when a number of other variables exerted more influence on slave prices than supplies of newly arrived bozales. The most important factor was the rise of sugar prices on world markets. Sugar prices fluctuated wildly between 1855 and 1857 but settled at substantially higher levels in the early 1860s, and moved gradually upward between 1865 and 1872. Even though the slave trade reached its highest nineteenth-century level in the late 1850s and early 1860s, slave prices soared on the strength of intense labor demand linked to rising sugar prices. A new plateau was reached in the early 1860s, and prices for males even increased in the sugar-producing region of Colón in the early 1870s. Other factors acting to sustain high slave prices included: a reduction of African imports after 1862; the effective end of the Cuban slave trade after 1867; and planter uncertainty over future labor supplies. Sugar price levels played a critical role in maintaining high slave prices even after the onset of the legal abolition process. Between 1870 and 1872, when sugar prices continued to gradually rise, prices for male slaves increased in Colón, prices for creole males rose in Matanzas, and prices for males over 40 years of age moved upward in both regions. It was only after 1872, when sugar prices dropped, that slave prices declined precipitously.

The strong demand for slave labor indicated by the high price structure of the Cuban slave market in the 1860s and early 1870s seems to indicate the continuing viability of slave-labor-based sugar production.31 Cuban sugar planters were hardly naive, nor were they under any illusions about the long-term future of slavery by the late 1860s, and certainly not after 1870. Yet, they continued to support high slave prices. Planters apparently acted on the basis of short-term economic considerations, which revolved around maximizing income by producing as much sugar as possible to take advantage of high world market sugar prices. Construction of new mills, clearing and planting of virgin land, and maintenance of slave labor forces were all part of their activities. Although plantation owners attempted to diversify their work forces, dependence on slave labor continued through the mid-1870s.32

Average Prices Per Slave in Colón and Matanzas


In June 1981, a “Conference on Problems of Transition from Slavery to Free Labor in the Caribbean” was held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The papers were published in Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., Between Slavery and Free Lahor: The Spanish-Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, 1985).

In Nov. 1986, an international colloquium “L’Abolition de L’Esclavage dans les Antilles Hispaniques (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo)” convened in Paris sponsored by the research group “Histoire des Antilles Hispaniques” of the University of Paris.


The British Foreign Office estimated that 178,852 slaves landed in Cuba between 1850 and 1867. David R. Murray, Odious Commerce. Britain, Spain and the Abolition of the Cuban Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1980), 244.

These data have recently been revised in David Eltis, “The Nineteenth-Century Trans-atlantic Slave Trade: An Annual Time Series of Imports into the Americas Broken Down by Region,” HAHR, 67:1 (Feb. 1987), 109-138.

In the central sugar-producing regions, most slaves resided on sugar ingenios. For example, in the jurisdicciones of Matanzas, Colón, and Cárdenas the percentage of total slaves residing on ingenios in 1862 was 64.2, 82.2, and 74.3 respectively. See “Distribución de la población en los pueblos y fincas de la isla” in Cuba, Centro de Estadística, Noticias estadísticas de la isla de Cuba en 1862 (Havana, 1864).

The slave trade to Puerto Rico fell dramatically after 1850 along with a general decline in the importance of sugar. For a discussion of the Puerto Rican sugar economy in the first half of the nineteenth century, see Francisco A. Scalano, Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico: The Plantation Economy of Ponce, 1800-1850 (Madison, 1984). For the second half, see Andrés Ramos Mattei, La hacienda azucarera: Su crecimiento y crisis en Puerto Rico (siglo XIX) (San Juan, 1981) and the essays in Ramos Mattel, ed., Azúcar y esclavitud (San Juan, 1982).


For a description of the technological transformations of the sugar mill to 1860, see Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio. Complejo económico social cubano del azúcar, 3 vols. (Havana, 1978), I, 203-237.


Since the publication of Raúl Cepero Bonilla’s Azúcar y abolición (Havana, 1948), which argued that abolition was due to the incompatibility of slave labor with a modernizing sugar industry, every Cuban historian writing about sugar and slavery has adopted this same view. The most influential proponent has been Moreno Fraginals who emphasizes this in El ingenio and in a series of articles, the most important of which are "El esclavo y la mecanización de los ingenios,’’ Bohemia, 61:4 (June 13, 1969); “Abolición o disintegración” and “Plantaciones en el Caribe: El caso Cuba - Puerto Rico - Santo Domingo (1860—1940)” in Moreno Fraginals, La historia como arma y otros estudios sobre esclavos, ingenios y plantaciones (Barcelona, 1983), 50-117.

Fe Iglesias García, who has conducted extensive research on the Cuban sugar economy from 1860 to 1900, also emphasizes the above. See “The Development of Capitalism in Cuban Sugar Production, 1860-1900” in Moreno Fraginals et al., eds., Between Slavery and Free Labor, 54-76. Also see her unpublished manuscript “Formación del capitalismo en la producción de azúcar en Cuba (1860-1900)” and “Changes in Cane Cultivation in Cuba, 1860-1900,” paper presented to the Symposium on Caribbean Economic History, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, Nov. 7-8, 1986.

Franklin Knight, Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century (Madison, 1970) asserts that slavery was not economical in nineteenth-century Cuba. See p. 183. However, Rebecca J. Scott’s Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899 (Princeton, 1985) dissents from this view. She has studied the abolition process from a regional perspective within Cuba, and found that in the areas of the great sugar estates, planters strove to keep producing sugar with slaves well after emancipation began. She questions, convincingly, the validity of the “internal contradiction” theory of Cuban abolition.


Cuban production increased from 618,654 to 1, 110,991 metric tons between 1880 and 1894. See Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio, III, 37-38.


On a very narrow data base, José Curet has made a pioneering calculation of slave profitability on plantations in Ponce, Puerto Rico between 1845 and 1861. See Curet, “From Slave to Liberto: A Study on Slavery and Its Abolition in Puerto Rico, 1840-1880” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1980), especially ch. 4, “Slave Labor versus Free Labor: A Question of Profitability?” Also see Curet, “About Slavery and the Order of Things: Puerto Rico, 1845—1873” in Moreno Fraginals et al., eds., Between Slavery and Free Labor, 117-140.


Curet, “From Slave to Liberto,” using a small sample of transactions, calculated Puerto Rican slave prices between 1845 and 1872.

Cuban slave prices between 1856 and 1863, based on plantation assessments, have been calculated in Engerman, Moreno Fraginals, and Herbert S. Klein, “The Level and Structure of Slave Prices on Cuban Plantations in the Midnineteenth Century: Some Comparative Perspectives,” American Historical Review, 88:5 (Dec. 1983), 1201-1218. This article, based on market transactions, has arrived at substantially lower calculations.

Eltis offers systematic data on prices for newly arrived prime age male bozales in Cuba between 1815 and 1864, gleaned largely from British archival sources. See Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York, 1987). I should like to thank him for sending me the manuscript of app. 3, “Prices of Slaves in the Atlantic Slave Trade After 1810.”


Complete ingenio inventories are exceedingly rare in Cuban documentary collections. However, an example is provided by the case of the ingenio Nuestra Señora de la Paz, located in the Cárdenas partido of Guamacaro. In 1867 this property extended for 52 caballerías (1 caballería = 33.6 acres) and was worked by 198 African slaves assessed at 140,250 pesos ($7o8/slave), which accounted for 39.4 percent of the estate’s total value. The mill was powered by a 14-horsepower, English-manufactured steam engine, and utilized two Jamaican trains. See “Testamentaria de María Eugenia Alvarez de Marril,” Archivo Histórico Provincial de Matanzas (hereafter AHPM), Gobierno Provincial, Ingenios, leg. 3, no. 40. While other mills utilized more costly machinery, they also used much larger slave populations.


Engerman, Moreno Fraginals, and Klein have pointed out that slave price trends also indicate other aspects of slave-based societies such as planter expectations on the future of slavery. See “The Level and Structure of Slave Prices,” 1201, 1218.


Only sales from one individual to another were used to calculate prices for this article. Coartaciones, or down payments on self-purchase by slaves themselves, were not used, nor were sales of slaves who had been previously coartados. These slaves, by law, had their prices fixed at the date of coartación and thus cannot be considered as part of current market values.


All values were listed in pesos. The 1875 data, however, were listed in “billetes” (paper money) or “oro” (gold). To finance the Spanish military during the Ten Years War (1868-78), the Banco Español de la Habana began printing paper money in the early 1870s which resulted in rampant inflation by the middle of the decade. For 1875 I have determined that the value of “billetes” was half that of gold, two pesos in “billetes” worth one peso in gold. This was done by separately analyzing transactions in each type of currency. The mean prices for different categories of slaves (males, females, Africans, creoles, age groupings) were compared by type of currency utilized. In almost every grouping, the value rate was two pesos in paper for every one peso in gold. Thus, for the 1875 mean prices, “billetes” have been converted to gold at the 2:1 rate.


Unless otherwise noted, data for all slave prices included in the text, tables, and figures have been based on slave sales recorded in the following sources: Archivo Nacional de Cuba (hereafter ANC), Protocolos Notariales (hereafter PN), Matanzas, Joaquín de la Fuente, 1840; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Manuel Morales, 1843; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Manuel Morales, 1846; ANC, PN, Manuel Morales, 1850; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Manuel Morales, 1854; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Clemente Mihoura, 1857; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Clemente Mihoura, 1860; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Manuel Padrón, 1865; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Manuel del Portillo, 1870; ANC, PN, Matanzas, Manuel del Portillo, 1875; AHPM, PN, Colón, Manuel Vega Lavarría, 1863, 1864, 1867, 1870, 1872, 1875.

It should be noted that since specific age data are unavailable for the 1840s, trends can only be indicated by the average price of all slaves by sex and origin.


From 1840 to 1846 Cuban sugar production increased 27.5 percent from 161,248 to 205,608 metric tons. See Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio, III, 36.

For data on total Cuban slave imports, see Murray, Odious Commerce, 111-112, 244. Murray used British Consul David Tolmé’s reports of slave landings in Cuba and estimated 70,038 slaves imported between 1834 and 1838 (approximately 14,008 per year). Tolmé estimated that 20 percent would have to be added to this figure for unknown landings (see p. 111).

The total Cuban slave population was 286,900 in 1827. No reliable subsequent data are available until 1841, when the total number of slaves was estimated at 436,500. According to the British consular reports cited by Murray, between 1830 and 1841, 189,497 slaves were imported (66 percent of the slave population of 1827). Based on these statistics, 43.4 percent of Cuba's total slave population in 1841 was imported between 1830 and 1841. See Murray, Odious Commerce, 111-112. Klein, The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade (Princeton, 1978), table 9.8, p. 226, examines imports by known region of origin.


Sugar production increased from 205,608 to 397,713 metric tons between 1846 and 1854 (+ 93.4 percent). See Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio. III, 36. This expansion was largely due to the founding of new mills and planting of sugar cane in virgin land, which assured high yields. For example, in the province of Matanzas (not officially constituted until 1878) there were 9,150 caballerías of land cultivated in 1846, but 15,877 in 1862 (+ 73.5 percent). See Cuba, Gobernador y Capitán General, Cuadro estadístico de la siempre fiel isla de Cuba, correspondiente al año de 1846 (Havana, 1847), 41–42; and "Estadística territorial caballerías de tierra” in Cuba, Centro de Estadística, Noticias estadísticas de la isla de Cuba en 1862.


See Murray, Odious Commerce, 244. These estimates include the British consul's addition of one-third the number of slaves known to have landed, which account for the widespread activities of smugglers. This decline in imports reflects the total saturation of the Cuban slave market because of high imports during the 1830s.


Prices peaked later in Colón because almost all slaves in that jurisdicción were employed on ingenios where demand for slaves continued even after the Moret Law was decreed in 1870. This law initiated the legal abolition process by freeing all slaves reaching 60 years of age and those born after Sept. 1868. In Matanzas, a large portion of the slave population lived in the city or on other types of farms where demand for labor was not as strong. In 1876, for example, 94 percent of Colón’s slaves lived on sugar estates. See Padrón general de fincas rústicas de este distrito, año de 1875 a 1876,” ANC, Gobierno General, leg. 270, no. 13563. In 1862, when similar data are available for Matanzas, 64.1 percent of all slaves lived on ingenios. See "Distribución de la población en los pueblos y fincas de la isla” in Cuba, Centro de Estadística, Noticias estadísticas de la isla de Cuba en 1862.

It should be noted that Engerman, Moreno Fraginals, and Klein, The Level and Structure of Slave Prices,” 1207 found that prices for prime age slaves peaked in 1859. My findings for prime age slaves (to be discussed below) confirm this for Matanzas, but in Colón prices for this category peaked in 1870.


Murray, Odious Commerce, 244. The slave trade peaked in 1859 when British consuls estimated 30,473 African imports. There were 24,895 in 1860 and 23,964 in 1861. These three years constitute the highest levels of Cuban slave imports in the nineteenth century.


Eltis found the absence of slave price rises on the African coast. See Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, app. 3, fig. 1. This is supported by E. Phillip Leveen, “A Quantitative Analysis of the Impact of British Suppression Policies on the Volume of the Nineteenth Century Atlantic Slave Trade” in Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies, Engerman and Eugene D. Genovese, eds. (Princeton, 1975), 51-81, who found that slave prices in Africa declined between 1820 and 1860. However. Leveen found a considerable rise in shipping and distribution costs involved in the Cuban trade in the 1850s and 1860s (see p. 56). I want to thank Eltis for pointing out the role of increased bribes in raising slave costs.


Murray, Odious Commerce, 304-305. Also see Arthur F. Corwin, Spain and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 1817-1886 (Austin, 1967), 129-151.


For sugar prices, see the respective years of La Aurora de Matanzas, which was also published under the name La Aurora or Aurora de Yumurí. The Biblioteca Gener y Del Monte, in the town of Matanzas, has a complete collection of this valuable provincial newspaper from 1828 through 1895. I would like to thank Mirta Martinez of the library’s Fondos Raros y Valiosos for helping me locate and examine these newspapers.

For monthly sugar prices in Havana from 1857 through 1866, see Great Britain, Public-Record Office (hereafter PRO), Foreign Office (hereafter FO) 72/1153.


Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio, III, 36-37.


For example, Colón sugar planters experienced a 55.7 percent increase in income between 1865 and 1876, from 5,396,337 to 8,402,088 pesos. See "Padrón de fincas rústicas de la jurisdicción de Colón, 1865," ANC, Gobierno General, leg. 405, no. 19209 and "Padrón general de fincas rústicas de este distrito, año de 1875 a 1876," ANC, Gobierno General, leg. 270, no. 13563. Data on income for Colón and Cárdenas are summarized in Laird W. Bergad, “Land Tenure. Slave Ownership, and Income Distribution in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: Colón and Cárdenas, 1859-1876” (Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies, forthcoming).


For a statistical summary of Chinese landing in Cuba, see J. Pérez de la Riva, El barracón y otros ensayos (Havana, 1975), 469-507. For general treatment of the Chinese in Cuba see Duvon C. Corbitt, A Study of the Chinese in Cuba, 1847-1947 (Wilmore, KY, 1971) and Denise Helly, Idéologie et ethnicité: Les chinois Macao à Cuba: 1847-1886 (Montreal, 1979).

My research on the social and economic history of Matanzas province indicates that even in the mid-1870s almost every major sugar plantation depended almost entirely on slave labor. See Bergad, “Land Tenure, Slave Ownership, and Income Distribution in Nineteenth-Century Cuba,”


The construction of new sugar mills, and accompanying demand for slave labor, continued through the Ten Years War in Matanzas province. For example, in Colón the largest sugar-producing jurisdicción in Cuba, 33 new ingenios were constructed between 1865 and 1876, a 45.2 percent increase in the number of mills. All were based on slave labor in this late period in the history of Cuban slavery. “Padrón de fincas rústicas de la jurisdicción de Colón, 1865” and “Padrón general de fincas rústicas … 1875 a 1876," ANC, Gobierno General, leg. 405, no. 19209 and leg. 270, no. 13563.


For data on Cuban slave population increase, see Jack Ericson Eblen, "On the Natural Increase of Slave Populations: The Example of the Cuban Black Population, 1775-1900” in Engerman and Genovese, eds., Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere, 211-247.

Even on plantations with large African-born slave populations, age-structure differentiations between Africans and creoles were sometimes extreme. For example, in 1854 in the Matanzas partido of Sabanilla, the Ingenio San Juan owned 197 creoles and 503 Africans. The mean age of the Africans was 44.0 years while the creoles had a mean age of 15.9 years. See AHPM, Gobierno Provincial, Esclavos, leg. 6, no exp. number.

Although global nineteenth-century Cuban census data do not provide national origins of the slave population, surviving manuscript slave census data include this information. For example, in Guanajayabo, a major sugar-producing partido of Cárdenas, in 1871 75.5 percent of the 2,107 slaves registered were creoles. See “Provincia Matanzas. Término mpal. de Guanajayabo. Cuaderno para tomar razón de las certificaciones espedidas por la central sobre derechos de patronato,” AHPM, Gobierno Provincial, Provisional, leg. 60, exp. 1731 (this leg. is provisionally catalogued).


Another factor was the increased demand for slaves by the sugar sector. There is evidence that high prices and plantation demand induced the transfer of slaves in the late 1860s and early 1870s from nonsugar sector slaveholders to ingenios. For example, in Colón 83 percent of all slaves lived on ingenios in 1859, but 94 percent in 1876. See “Repartos municipales de la jurisdicción de Colón, 1859,” ANC, Miscelánea de Expedientes, leg. 4120, no. M and “Padrón general de fincas rústicas … 1875 a 1876,” ANC, Gobierno General, leg. 270, no. 13563.


For example, in 1834, when age data are available in the Matanzas protocol records, of 54 Africans sold 43 (79.6 percent) were between the ages of 15 and 40; of 28 creoles sold 53.9 percent fell into this category; and 42.9 percent were under 15 years of age. See slave sales, ANC, PN, Matanzas, 1834, Joaquín de la Fuente.


See “Provincia Matanzas. Término mpal. de Guanajayabo,” AHPM, Gobierno Provincial, Provisional, leg. 60, exp. 1731.


The only exception to this was in 1864 when 58 percent of slave sales were in this category. In 1870, 79.7 percent of marketed slaves were between the ages of 15 and 40.


It should be noted that the prices listed for African males and females in Matanzas are based on very few transactions. (see app.). They are presented here, not as authoritative data, but because they are the only data available. Data on the other groups are more reliable since they are based on a larger number of transactions.

The average slave prices presented here are significantly lower than the data presented by Engerman, Moreno Fraginals, and Klein in “The Level and Structure of Slave Prices,” 1207. Data in the two articles are comparable for 1863 (for Colón in this article). The average prices for 1863 presented here are 23.6 percent lower for creole males; 21.3 percent lower for creole females; 31.1 percent lower for African males; and 28.3 percent lower for African females.

Several explanations may account for these discrepancies. The first and most probable is that values presented for slaves in plantation assessments, the source material utilized by Engerman, Moreno Fraginals, and Klein were inflated and did not reflect real market values. Motives for inflating prices were many, including fear of abolition and the quest for possible indemnification. Most slaves were also insured by various slave life insurance companies such as José María Morales’s La Protectora. Compañía general de seguros mutuos sobre la vida de los esclavos, founded in 1855. It was in the planters’ interest to present high slave values in case of slave death. That slaves were assessed by “independent” assessors is of little importance, since they, as all other Spanish officials, could be handsomely rewarded for presenting “correct” figures. There is also the possibility that what planters considered to he the “value” of slaves was more subjective for many reasons, including self-serving calculations of their own worth. In sum, I feel that the data presented here reflect the real prices of slaves on the Cuban slave market and are more reliable as a measure of slave value than plantation assessments.

It is conceivable that plantation slaves were generally more “seasoned” and thus worth more in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the data used to calculate average prices in this article do not indicate occupation or place of residence. Thus, it is impossible to determine how many were plantation slaves. However, since over 90 percent of all slaves lived on ingenios in Colón in the 1860s, it is very likely that Colón’s slaves were destined for plantations. In addition, I doubt that the value of “seasoning” in an epoch of strong slave demand could account for over 20 percent higher values in each category.


I have recently completed an article-length manuscript which explores the economics of slave labor, “The Economic Viability of Slave-Labor Based Sugar Production in Cuba, 1859-1876.”


See Scott. Slave Emancipation in Cuba, 84-110 for a discussion of planter attempts to diversify labor forces. For data on planters’ continuing dependence on slave labor, see Bergad, “Land Tenure, Slave Ownership, and Income Distribution.”

Author notes


I would like to thank the Professional Staff Congress, City University of New York, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council for providing funds to support the research and writing of this article. I want to thank Luis M. Rodríguez for his much appreciated research assistance in Cuban archives, and Stanley Engerman, David Eltis, and Rebecca Scott for comments on an earlier draft.