A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter XVIII - Slavery - Cuban Slave Laws, Institutions, etc.

IT is not with pleasure that we approach this question, sacred to the pugilism of debate. Nor is it worth while to add one word to the past infinity of talk about it, unless that word could have the weight of a new wisdom. We Americans, caught by the revolutionary spirit of the French, make them too much our models, and run too much to grandiloquent speech, and fine moral attitudinizing. The attitudes do not move the world,—the words do not change the intrinsic bearings of things. They whom we attack, the fight being over, sit down and wipe the dust from their faces,—we sit and wipe the sweat from ours,—something stronger than their will or ours passes between us,—it is the great moral necessity which expresses the will of God. We and they are two forces, pulling in opposite ways to preserve the equilibrium of a third point, which we do not see. We must keep to our pulling, they cannot relinquish theirs. The point of solution that shall reconcile and supersede the differences is not in sight, nor has the wisest of us known how to indicate it. Meanwhile, the calm satisfaction with which some of us divide our national moral inheritance, giving them all the vices, and ourselves all the virtues, is at once mournful and ridiculous. Why are we New Englanders so naïve as not to see this? When the representative of a handful of men rises to speak, and, alluding to the progress which a great question has made in twenty years, says: "This is all our doing,—behold our work and admire it!" we cannot, but pause and wonder if merely that irruption of bitter words can have produced so sweet a fruit. In this view, what becomes of the moral evolution of the ages, of the slow, sure help of Time, showing new aspects, presenting new possibilities? What becomes of human modesty, which is nearly related to human justice?

I preface with these remarks, because, looking down from where I sit, I cannot curse the pleasant Southern land, nor those who dwell in it. Nor would I do so if I thought tenfold more ill of its corruptions. Were half my body gangrened, I would not smite nor reproach it, but seek with patience an available remedy. This is the half of our body, and the moral blood which brings the evil runs as much in our veins as in theirs.

Looking at realities and their indications, we see a future for the African race, educated by the enslavement which must gradually ameliorate, and slowly die out. We see that in countries where the black men are many, and the white few, the white will one day disappear, and the black govern. In South Carolina, for example, the tide of emigration has carried westward the flower of the white population. In Charleston, all the aristocratic families have their mulatto representatives, who bear their names. There are Pinckneys, Pringles, Middletons, and so on, of various shades of admixture, living in freedom, and forming a community by themselves. There are even mulatto representatives of extinct families, who alone keep from oblivion names which were once thought honorable. These things are indications of changes which will work themselves slowly. Noble efforts have hemmed the evil in, and the great soul of the World watches, we believe, at the borders, and will not suffer the sad contagion to creep over them into the virgin territories. But where the Institution sits at home, with its roots undergrowing the foundations of society, we may be sad, but we must be patient. The enfranchisement of a race, where it is lasting, is always accomplished by the slow and solid progress of the race itself. The stronger people rarely gives Freedom to the weaker as a boon,—when they are able, they rise up and take it with their own hands. It is an earning, not a gift, nor can the attributes which make liberty virtual and valuable be commanded, save under certain moral conditions. A man is not noble because he is free, but noble men constituting a nation become free. Let the wounds of Africa first be stopped,—let her lifeblood stay to enrich her own veins. The enslaved population of Cuba and our own South must, under ordinary circumstances, attain in time a condition in which Slavery shall be impossible.

But our business is with what actually exists. We will leave what shall and should be to the Theorists who invent it, and to God who executes it, often strangely unmindful of their suggestions.

The black and white races are, by all accounts, more mingled in Cuba, than in any part of our own country. People who have long been resident there assure us that some of the wealthiest and most important families are of mixed blood. Animadvert upon this as you will, it is nevertheless certain that it weaves close bonds of affinity between them, and ties of Nature which, though ignored, cannot be unfelt. I have not seen in Cuba anything that corresponds to our ideal separation of the two sets of human beings, living in distinctness one from the other, hating and wronging each other with the fierceness of enemies in the death-grapple. The Negro cannot be so hated, so despised,—it is not in the nature of things. His bonhommie, his gentle and attachable nature do not allow it. Nor can he, in return, so hate. There is a great familiarity between the children of the two races. They play, and run about, and are petted together. We made a visit at a Creole house, where the youngest child, a feeble infant of six months, was suckled by a black nurse. "You must see the nurse's Baby," they all said, and the little daughter of the house ran to fetch her, and soon returned, bringing her by one arm, the way in which their own mothers carry them. She was an uncommonly handsome infant, scarcely older than her white foster-brother, but greatly in advance of him in her powers of locomotion. She was, according to custom, entirely naked, but her shining black skin seemed to clothe her, and her fine back and perfect limbs showed that she throve in nudity. She ran about on all fours like some strange creature, so swift and strong was she, and meeting with a chair, pulled herself up by it, and stood dancing on one foot, holding out the other. The family all gathered round her, admiring her color and her shape, and the little girl finally carried her off in triumph, as she had brought her.

The slave children wear oftenest no clothing until five or six years old. They look well-fed and healthy, only the prevalence of umbilical Hernia shows a neglect of proper bandaging at birth,—the same trouble from the same cause is very observable in the south of Italy. The increase of the slaves is, of course, an important test of their treatment,—it is small throughout the Island, and amounts to little save on the best plantations. There is now a slow improvement in this respect. The repression of the slave-trade has caused such a rise in the price of negroes, that it is become better economy to preserve and transmit their lives than to work them off in eight or ten years, leaving no posterity to supply their place. Vile as these motives seem, they are too near akin to the general springs of human action for us to contemn them. Is it otherwise with operatives in England, or with laborers in Ireland? Emigration lessens their numbers, and raises their value,—it becomes important to society that they shall be fed and sustained. One wrong does not excuse another, but where a class of wrongs is universal, it shows a want of moral power in the race, at which the individual cannot justly carp.

Even the race of Coolies, hired at small wages for eight years, and exploitered for that time with murderous severity, have found a suicidal remedy that nearly touches their selfish masters. So many of them emancipated themselves from hard service by voluntary death, that it became matter of necessity to lighten the weight about their necks, and to leave them that minimum of well-being which is necessary to keep up the love of life. The instinct itself is shown to be feeble in the race, whereas the Negro clings to life under whatever pains and torment. The Coolies are valued for their superior skill and intelligence, but as men will treat a hired horse worse than a horse of their own, so they were, until they happily bethought them of killing themselves, more hardly used than the Negroes. Would that horses in the North had the same resource. If the wretched beast, harnessed, loaded, and beaten over the face and head by some greater brute in human shape, could only "his quietus make" by himself, and be found hanging in his stall, what a revolution would there be in the ideas of Omnibus-drivers and Carmen! Self-assassination is, surely, the most available alleviation of despotism. When Death is no longer terrible to the Enslaved, then let the Enslaver look to it.

True, we have heard of horrible places in the interior of the Island, where the crack of the whip pauses only during four hours in the twenty-four, where, so to speak, the sugar smells of the blood of the slaves. We have heard of plantations whereon there are no women, where the wretched laborers have not the privileges of beasts, but are only human machines, worked and watched. There, not even the mutilated semblance of family ties and domestic surroundings alleviates the sore strain upon life and limb. How can human creatures endure, how inflict this? Let God remember them, as we do in our hearts, with tears and supplication.

We have seen too, here and there, fiendish faces which looked as if cruelty and hardness might be familiar to them. The past history of Spain shows to what a point that nation can carry insensibility to the torment of others. Yet the Creoles seem generally an amiable set of people, enduring from the Spanish government much more than they in turn inflict on those beneath them. Nor can we believe that even the Spaniard can be a more dreaded tyrant than the Yankee, where the strong nature of the latter has been left coarse and uncultured, or brutalized by indulgence in vice. The nervous energy of his race makes him a worse demon than the other, while the peaceable and pious traditions of his youth, turned against him, urge him yet further from the sphere of all that is Christian.

The slave laws of Cuba are far more humane than our own. It is only to be doubted whether the magistrates in general are trustworthy in carrying them out. Still, it is the policy of the Government to favor the Negroes, and allow them definite existence as a third class, which would be likely to range with the Government in case of civil war. It is affirmed and believed by the Cubans that the colonial President has in his hands orders to loose the slaves throughout the Island, at the first symptoms of rebellion, that they may turn all their old rancors against their late masters. The humane clauses of which we speak are the following:—

In the first place, every slave is allowed by law to purchase his own freedom, when he has amassed a sum sufficient for the purchase. He can moreover compel his master to receive a small sum in part payment, and then, hiring himself out, can pay the residue from his wages. The law intervenes also, if desired, to fix the price of the slave, which it will reduce to the minimum value. Every slave has the right to purchase his child before birth for the sum of thirty dollars, a fortnight after, for fifty, and so on, the value of course rising rapidly with the age of the child. Again, a slave who complains of ill-treatment on the part of his master may demand to be sold to another, and a limited space of time is allowed, during which he can exert himself to find a purchaser. These statutes do not seem to contemplate the perpetuity of slavery as do our own institutions. What a thrill of joy would run through our Southern and South-Western states, if every slave father and mother had the power to purchase their own offspring for a sum not altogether beyond their reach. How would they toil and starve to accumulate that sum, and how many charitable friends would invest the price of a dress or shawl in such black jewels, which would be the glory of so many black mothers. On the other hand, it is to be feared that the ignorance and poverty of the slaves may, in many places, make the benevolent intention of these statutes null and void. Official corruption, too, may impede their operation. In many parts of our own South, superior enlightenment and a more humane state of public feeling may do something to counterbalance the inferiority of legislation. Still, Americans should feel a pang in acknowledging that even in the dark article of slave laws they are surpassed by a nation which they contemn. Slaves are not sold by public auction, in Cuba, but by private sale. Nor are they subject to such rudeness and insult as they often receive from the lower whites of our own Southern cities. The question now rises, whether in case of a possible future possession of the Island by Americans, the condition of the blacks would be improved. There is little reason to think so, in any case, as our own unmitigated despotism would be enforced; but if their new masters were of the Filibuster type, they might indeed sing with sorrow the dirge of the Creole occupation, and betake themselves to the Coolie expedient of obtaining freedom at small cost.

Not in such familiarity live the Creoles and Spaniards. Here, the attitudes are sharply defined. Oppression on the one hand and endurance on the other appear in a tangible form, and the oppression is conscious, and the endurance compulsory. The Spanish race is in the saddle, and rides the Creole, its derivative, with hands reeking with plunder. Not content with taxes, customs, and prohibitions, all of which pass the bounds of robbery, the Home Government looses on the Colony a set of Officials, who are expected to live by peculation, their salaries being almost nominal, their perquisites, whatever they can get. All State-offices are filled by Spaniards, and even Judgeships and Professorates are generally reserved to them. A man receives an appointment of which the salary may be a thousand dollars per annum. He hires at once an expensive house, sets up a volante, dresses his wife and daughters without economy, lives in short at the rate of ten times that sum, and retires after some years, with a handsome competency. What is the secret of all this? Plunder,—twofold plunder, of the inhabitants, and of the Home Government. And this, from the lowest to the highest, is the universal rule. We spoke of customs and prohibitions. Among the first, that on flour seems the most monstrous imposition. No bread-stuffs being raised on the Island, the importation of them becomes almost a condition of life, yet every barrel of wheaten flour from the States pays a duty of eight dollars, so that it becomes cheaper to ship the flour to Spain, and re-ship it thence to Cuba, than to send it direct from here. Of prohibitions, the most striking is that laid upon the vine, which flourishes throughout the Island. It may be cultivated for fruit, but wine must on no account be made from the grape, lest it should spoil the market for the Spanish wines. Among taxes, none will astonish Americans more than the stamp-tax, which requires all merchants, dealers, and bankers to have every page of their books stamped, at high cost. Of course, no business contracts are valid, recorded on any other than stamped paper. To these grievances are added monopolies. All the fish caught on the Island is held at the disposition of Señor Marti, the Empresario of the Tacon theatre. This man was once a pirate of formidable character,—after some negotiation with the Tacon Government, he gave up his comrades to justice, receiving in return his own safety, and the monopoly of the fish-market. The price of this article of food is therefore kept at twenty-five cents a pound. These compromises are by no means uncommon. The public Executioner of Havana is a Negro whose life, once forfeit to the State, was redeemed only by his consenting to perform this function for life. He is allowed only the liberty of the Prison. One of our party, visiting that Institution, found this man apparently on the most amicable terms with all the inmates. The Garrote being shown, he was asked if it was he who garroted Lopez, and replied in the affirmative, with a grin. Our friend inquired of him how many he had garroted: "How can one tell?" he said, shrugging his shoulders, "so many, so many!" The prisoners chatted and smoked with him, patting him on the back,—making thus that discrimination between the man and his office which is at the bottom of all human institutions. Of the great sums of money received by the Government through direct and indirect taxation, little or nothing revisits the people in the shape of improvements. The Government does not make roads, nor establish schools, nor reform criminals, nor stretch out its strong arm to prevent the offences of ignorant and depraved youth. The roads, consequently, are few and dangerous,—a great part of the Island being traversable only on horseback. There is little or no instruction provided for the children of the poorer classes, and the prisons are abominable with filth, nakedness, and disorder of every kind. There is the same espionage, the same power of arbitrary imprisonment as in Austria, Rome, and Naples, only they have America near them, and in that neighborhood is fear to some, and hope to others. The administration of justice would seem to be one of the worst of all the social plagues that abide in the Island. Nowhere in the world have people a more wholesome terror of going to law. The Government pays for no forms of legal procedure, and a man once engaged in a civil or criminal suit, is at the mercy of Judges and Lawyers who plunder him at will, and without redress. If a man is robbed, the Police come to him at once with offers of assistance and detection. It is often the case that he denies and persists in denying the robbery, rather than be involved in the torment of a suit. Much of what we narrate was common to all the civilized world, an hundred years ago, but the Cubans do not deserve to be held under the weight of these ancient abuses. They are not an effete people, but have something of the spring of the present time in them, and would gladly march to the measure of the nineteenth century, were it not for the decrepit Government whose hand has stiffened with their chains in it. The portrait of the vulgar Queen hangs in nearly every place of note,—she is generally painted at full length, in a blue dress. So coarse and weak is her face that one would think those interested would keep it out of sight, that the abstract idea of royalty might not be lowered by so unqueenly a representation. But this is unjust, for what crowned head of the present day is there that has anything intrinsically august in its aspect?

The Cubans, considered in comparison with the Spaniards, form quite as distinct a people as the Americans, compared with the English. Climate and the habits of insular life have partly brought about this difference, but it has also a moral cause,—a separate interest makes a separate people. The mother-countries that would keep their colonies unweaned must be good nurses. The intermingling of the black element in the Creole race is, as I have said, strongly insisted upon by competent judges,—it is evidently not purely Caucasian, and there seems to be little reason for supposing that it perpetuates any aboriginal descent. The complexion, and in some degree the tastes of these people give some color to the hypothesis of their indebtedness to the African race. The prevailing color of the Creole is not the clear olive of the Spaniard, nor the white of the Saxon,—it is an indescribable, clouded hue, neither fair nor brown. We have seen children at a school who were decidedly dark, and would have been taken for mulattoes in the North,—they had straight hair, vivacious eyes, and coffee-colored skins,—those whom we interrogated called them "Criollos" as if the word had a distinct meaning. We could not ascertain that they were considered to be of black descent, though the fact seemed patent. In this school, which we saw at recess only, some of the mischievous boys amused themselves with dragging their comrades up to us, and saying: "Señora, this boy is a mulatto." The accused laughed, kicked, and disclaimed.

The taste of the Cubans, if judged by the European standard, is bad taste. They love noisy music,—their architecture consults only the exigencies of the climate, and does not deserve the name of an art. Of painting they must have little knowledge, if one may judge by the vile daubs which deface their walls, and which would hardly pass current in the poorest New England village. As to dress; although I have whispered for your good, my lady friends, that the most beautiful summer-dresses in the world may be bought in Havana, yet the Creole ladies themselves have in general but glaring and barbaric ideas of adornment, and their volante-toilette would give a Parisienne the ague.

The Creoles then, as a race, do not incline to plastic art, nor to the energetic elegancies of life. Theirs is not the nature to grapple with marble or bronze, or with the more intellectual obstacles of Painting. One art remains to them, common to all early civilizations, first in history, first too in rank,—they are Poets. Not only is a facility for versification common amongst them, but they have some names which the real halo adorns. Of these, Heredia, Placido, and Milanés are best known.

This seems a very natural manifestation in their case. Held in check by the despotism of the tropical sun, and excluded from social and political action by the more barbarous despotism of Spain, their minds are turned inward, and their energies flow in the channel of contemplation. For Poetry is the freedom of the oppressed,—it is one voice leaping up where a thousand arms are chained, but the thousand hear it, and take courage. In the dreamy tropical life, the beautiful surroundings must bear some fruit. Those glorious growths of tree and flower, those prickly hedges with the sudden glare of a red sword among them, those inconceivable sunsets and nights without parallel,—these things must all write themselves upon the sensitive Southern nature, and the language in which they write themselves is poetry. How far a wider sphere of action may develop in them more hardy and varied powers is a question not to be solved in the existing state of things.

It does not seem likely that the Cubans will ever by their own act abolish slavery. The indolence and mechanical ineptitude which enter into their characters will make them always a people to be waited on. Perhaps no nation, living below a certain parallel, would be capable of such a deed. The far-off English, in their cool island, could emancipate the slaves in their own Indies, but the English dwelling among them would never have relinquished the welcome service; nor is it likely that the men of our own far South will ever conceive as possible another social status than the present relations between master and slave. From the North the impulse must come, and however clogged and sanded with unutterable nonsense of self-gratulation and vituperation of the brother man, we must welcome it. The enslaved race too, gradually conquering the finer arts of its masters, will rise up to meet the hand of deliverance, having in due course of time reached that spiritual level at which enslavement becomes impossible.

Sismondi, in the second volume of his Essays, has some sensible remarks on the farming system as pursued in Tuscany, where the farmer is employed on long leases, receiving one half the profits of the farm worked by him. Sismondi sufficiently sets forth the advantages of this over all other systems of leasing and underletting, as it allows the husbandman a well-being in direct proportion to the thoroughness and persistency of his labors. After speaking of the apparent failure of English emancipation, he ascribes the idleness of the freed blacks to their entire want of interest in the landed property about them, and proposes associating them in this way to the interests of their would-be employers. For the world can hardly afford that these people should merely feed and grovel in the sun, when all the tillage of the tropics lies fitted to their hand. Nor will it much longer afford, let us hope, that the human tool shall work without the advantage that individual will and interest alone can give him. They who thus consent to use the man without his crowning faculties are like those who would purchase the watch without the main-spring.

How all this is to end, doth not yet appear. The abstract principles of right and wrong we know, but not the processes, nor the duration of their working out in history. All the white handkerchiefs in Exeter Hall will not force the general Congress of Nations to decide questions otherwise than by the laws of convenience and advantage. England as a power has never lifted a finger nor a breath against Russian serfdom or Austrian oppression; and the Spanish government she is determined to uphold in Cuba is reeking with abominations of which she cannot afford to be cognizant.

I know that God has in His power swift miracles of redemption. He can command the sudden Exodus of a wronged people, and can raise bloody waves of wrath over the heads of their oppressors. But we cannot call down these wonders, nor foretell their appointed time. Meantime, the ram's horn Fantasias which our modern Prophets have so long been performing against the walls of the southern Jericho do not seem to have had the Divine commission to overthrow them.

I feel that any one in the North who gives a mild, perhaps palliative view of slavery, will be subject to bitter and severe censure. But this should surely make no difference to us in the sincere and simple statement of our impressions. Intellectual justice revolts from the rhetorical strainings, exaggerations, and denaturalizations of facts which the Partisan continually employs, but which the Philosopher and Historian must alike reject. Moral justice dissents from the habitual sneer, denunciation, and malediction, which have become consecrated forms of piety in speaking of the South. Believe me, in so far as we allow personal temper, spite, or uncharity, place in our treatment of a holy cause, in so far we do it wrong. Believe me, too, that the actual alleviations which often temper the greatest social evils should not be left out of sight, lest an atheistic despair should settle on the minds of men. The overruling mercy of God is everywhere,—in the North and in the South it has its work of consolation and of compensation. It absolves us from no possible reform, from no labor for the amelioration of the condition of our fellow-men. But as it limits alike the infliction and endurance of wrong, and sets bounds which the boldest and wickedest dare not pass, we must not paint the picture of what is, without it.

So, with thoughts reverting to the slow and mighty operations in the World of Nature, which seem to have their counterpart in the World of Life and Fate,—trusting in the wisdom of the gray-haired centuries, even when the half-grown ones call them Fool, I finish my Chapter of philosophizing, somewhat, no doubt, to the relief of my Reader, but very much more to my own.

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