I read somewhere, I think it was one of the Shardlake novels, that back in Henry VIIIth’s time, sugar was such a sign of wealth that women of society would deliberately blacken their teeth to make it look as if they were rotting from having had too much of the white stuff. Oh, to be a slave to fashion.
Sugar and slavery are two words that have appeared way too often in the one sentence over the years. In Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) outside Trinidad, remnants of Cuba’s sugar plantations bear witness to a time when slavery was very much in vogue. These three interconnected valleys – San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer – were where it was at, back in the day. More than 30,000 slaves worked anywhere between 57 and 70 mills and plantations to keep the world in sugar. Fifteen of these mills belonged to the Iznaga brothers, Pedro and Alejo.
In the village of Manaca Iznaga stands a look-out tower, the tallest in the whole Caribbean sugar region, built by Alejo around 1816, some say to house his unfaithful wife. It served as an observation post from where the supervisors could watch the slaves working the fields. Standing seven stories high, it takes 136 steps to get to the top which makes it about 45 m tall. I didn’t go up but I sent my camera 🙂
It housed three bells, each with its own distinct sound, there to communicate to the fields. The larger of the three marked the start and the end of the working day; the mid-size one rang for a holiday; and the smallest was reserved for prayer times to the Virgin Mary in the morning, midday, and afternoon. But it didn’t end there. If the two largest were rung together, that meant a slave had escaped. If the biggest and the smallest rang together, a rebellion was afoot. And if all three rang at the one time, pirates were invading.
Like Walter Raleigh bringing the potato to Ireland, it was the Spanish who brought sugar to Cuba – back in 1512. And for years, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Cuba was the world’s leading producer of the sweetener. It had the climate, the soil, the ports, and the internal infrastructure.
I hadn’t given much though to why slaves were needed if there were locals to work the land but like Hawaii, the natives were nearly wiped out by disease through contact with the European settlers. Those who survived the disease often met their death as slaves. So the Spanish plantation owners had to look further afield – and they did – to Africa. The Spanish didn’t abolish slavery until 1820 and this, coupled with the Wars of Independence, saw the demise of the plantations.
In Manaca Iznaga, the owners house has been turned into a restaurant. Out the back is one of the original threshers. It didn’t take much to imagine slaves breaking their backs turning it around. Through the cane field, the barracones (save quarters) are still visible. I got quite a land when I saw a guy, sitting on his steps, minding his business. It was way too real to be comfortable. My imagination was running riot.
It didn’t help that we had to walk a gauntlet of traders to the get to the tower. And while prices for table cloths and the like were much lower than in Trinidad or Havana, the approach was more full on. It was here that women came up and asked for soap. One young lad asked a tourist for his shoes. Another wanted a jacket. Had I known, I’d have come prepared but the cache of soap and toiletries I’d brought were all back at the house.
I bought beads from an old lady, paying five times what she was asking because I wasn’t listening and was too addled to care. Not for the first time I wondered what it must be like to see well-heeled tourists walk through your streets when you have little more than what you’re standing in. I was back in South Africa, wondering what sort of person would go on a bus tour through a township.
Cuba is a heart-full of happening, a wealth of contradictions. At times I felt like a welcome guest, at others I felt like an intruder. My emotions were all over the place. There is so much to it, so many layers, so much to understand. It can’t be done – not in a week or 10 days.