Landing at Santiago de Cuba (on the southern side of the island of Cuba) I must admit that I was at a loss to decide what to see – memorials to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are not really my cup of tea. Somewhat unenthusiastically I signed up on a taxi trip to see the Gran Piedra – a large rock on top of a big hill, which necessitates climbing some 500-plus steps. The tour was also to take in a coffee plantation. Now, that did not really fire the imagination – been there, bought the T shirt, tasted the coffee. … But this was different – although not billed as such it was an evocative and effective explanation of the lives lived by slaves working on a coffee plantation on the island two centuries ago.
Until the slave revolution on Haiti, which overthrew French colonial rule in 1804, no-one realized the economic significance of growing coffee on Cuba. Coffee grows in the mountains – and the land was dirt cheap because it was considered unproductive. So, when the French fled Haiti they bought up large tracts of mountainous woodland, and dragged their slaves across from Haiti to provide the labour.
The plantation house we visited was at Cafetal la Isabelica, and it was especially poignant to see all the slaving memorabilia in the context of the actual house where they served. This was no dry exhibition behind glass cabinets, with lengthy written explanations. This was a slave plantation house recently restored and with UNESCO status – and the slavery exhibits were not shut away but rather, left lying around.
The guide rang the brass bell on the porch. The sound of the bell could apparently be heard for several miles – one chime to send the slaves out to the fields, another single chime to bring them back in, and a continuous chime to alert neighbours to fetch their dogs and join a man-hunt for any slave escaping into the hinterland. You could see where the beatings took place – even the shallow hollow where pregnant slaves could lie face down (to protect their unborn child) while being flogged across the back.
Inside took visitors to a room where all the instruments of slavery were hanging on a wall – the manacles, the shackles, the neck irons. You could see the tiny cramped quarters where the slaves lived, see the kitchens where the slave cooks worked – and where they were required to eat the same supper as the Master, but one hour before he ate his meal, to ensure that the food was not poisoned. Another display was of iron objects found in the fields and forest – adzes, hoes and so on. The drying bays, the areas for getting rid of the outer skin from the coffee beans, the area where the beans were washed, weighed, bagged and shipped out were all there to see. And upstairs you could walk round the Masters living quarters, and see the bed where the Master would enjoy the company of whichever female slave took his fancy. It was a fascinating display. Even if it was reached by possibly the most appalling piece of mud-track I have ever had the misfortune to be driven down – it really had to be seen to be believed! The place echoed its sad past – it was eerily quiet, rather damp, and with enough neglect to make it interesting – restoration had not taken away its power as a memorial to past horrors.
All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia (on account of the fact that the museum charges for cameras to be used, and I am too stingy to pay when I have already bought my entrance ticket….).