BIG SUGAR AND THE BLACK HEADACHE:
Cuba in 1803 was dominated by expanding sugar production. Slavery played a part in this growth as did the relentless focus on improving the island’s sugar technology. Sugar was Cuba’s most important export, along with tobacco and coffee. All three agricultural products required many people working the land.
Tainos were nearly exterminated, so the Spaniards looked towards Africa for workers. This was a double-edged sword because Cuban whites were terrified the Haitian slaughter of whites would be repeated in Cuba. Their fears were not unfounded. In 1843, Cuba’s total population of just over one million included 418,000 whites, 436,000 slaves and 153,000 free people of color.
Slaves rise up at Ingenio Alcancia
Cuban white fears were proved true in 1843. Early one March morning, at a sugar mill near Cardenas, drums began beating out the rhythms of rebellion. The slaves began to act on a well-planned plot to kill the mill engineer at Ingenio Alcancia and two other employees. Mutineers began going to other estates to recruit other slaves. This was the start of a rebellion that involved both slaves and ‘free people of colour’ and ended with many deaths.
Leopoldo O’Donnell, the Spanish Captain-General in 1843 did not hesitate. He ordered the arrest of thousands of blacks in the sugar-heartland around Matanzas. He knew men of color seeking advancement and slaves seeking freedom were a volatile combination.
This added to the fear of the white planters, and led to the gruesome punishment of La Escalera (The Ladder).
The conspiracy took its name from a method of torture. Blacks were tied to a ladder and whipped until they confessed a transgression or died. The Ladder Conspiracy involved free blacks and slaves as well as white intellectuals and professionals.
Approximately 300 blacks and mulattos died from torture, 78 were executed, more than 600 imprisoned and over 400 expelled from the island.
White planters faced a dilemma. Some wanted annexation to the United States; others to increase influx of white Europeans.
The slave population remained predominantly male until around 1850. Other alternatives to slave labor were sought. Agents contracted Yucatecans from Southern Mexico and Chinese from Macao. These workers were mostly males and began taking their place in the sugar fields.