Inside these walls, I could hear the voices that once cried out — “voices of thousands of slaves forced to work and build walls, position batteries, dig tunnels, place iron bars, and drill wells . . .” (“Places of Memory”, UNESCO Habana)
During a trip to Cuba this Spring 2014, one of our Executive Board members travelled to the city of Matanzas, 56 miles east of Havana. The purpose of this trip was to visit the Castillo de San Severino, (Castle of San Severino), a national historic landmark that, in June 2009, was inaugurated as the Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo (Slave Route Museum) as part of UNESCO’s ongoing Slave Route Project and its international efforts to learn more about the origin, development, and impact of slavery, to break the silence on the tragedy of the slave trade, and to preserve the African legacy in diverse parts of the world.
Matanzas, located on the northern shore of the island on the Bay of Matanzas, is the capital of the western province of Matanzas. In the 19th century, the city was known as the “Athens of Cuba” because of the “enormous wealth accumulated through the plantation economy as a result of the exploitation of slave work, which provided most of the city’s cultural splendor” (“Places of Memory”, UNESCO Habana), as well as its literary and musical heritage. Founded in 1693, there was an intensive development of sugar plantations in Matanzas during the colonial era, and Africans were imported in increased numbers to provide the forced labor needed to maintain the industry.
According to official documents, on October 13, 1693, the first stone was placed for the construction of the Castillo de San Severino with slave labor (The Havana Reporter, May 20, 2014). Strategically overlooking the Bay, it was completed by the Spanish in 1735 as part of Cuba’s defensive ring. San Severino is where Africans — men, women, and children who came to Cuba in chains — were offloaded in huge numbers, beginning in the 18th century. In 1792, there were 1900 Africans in Matanzas, 30% of its population. By 1817, the population of Africans had grown to 10,773, 50% of its population. By 1841, 53,331 Africans made up 62.7% of the population of Matanzas, and census figures for 1859 put the Matanzas enslaved population at 104,519 (Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias).
Today, the Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo “serves as a bridge for generations,” and inside, the Interim Director Marciela Veleso Barani provided an informative tour for our group that included pictures, text, artifacts, and lecture that presented the history of the transatlantic human trade and its relevance to Cuba. There are four exhibition halls; among them is the Sala de Esclavitud, the Slavery Room. This space reflects the tragic, violent history and human misery of the trade, but it also provides evidence of the alternatives that Africans employed to change their condition. Still visible are the marks the enslaved scratched into stones to account for and justify to their masters the days’ work. Several archaeological pieces reveal the lives of Africans on the sugar and coffee plantations — shackles, padlocks, and pots, for example. Other evidence, such as machetes, informs us of how Africans, weapons in hand, escaped from their oppressors and ran into the mountains to inhabit the nearby caves, where they formed independent settlements, survived as free men and women, preserved their African culture and traditions, and organized rebellions against plantation owners. Closely associated with the Sala de Esclavitud is the Sala de los Orishas, the Room of the African Deities, who represent natural and supernatural forces and phenomena, as well as human activities, emotions and passions. Here, one can see a representation of the rich African heritage in Cuban culture, including several full-scale sculptures of the pantheon of Gods of the Afro-Cuban religion (a belief system that provided the Ancestors with the strength and determinination to survive). In addition, there are tapestries showing the environment where each Orisha manifested in the tradition and the ritual drums used in each Orisha’s ceremony. The Museo provides an overview of the diversity of the Afro-Cuban religion, including rituals and customs, legends that characterize each deity, colors that identify them, and their meanings.
This trip to Matanzas, Cuba, was a most important visit for the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project because we established another connection between the Project and our relations across the diaspora. We were able to share information about the Project and leave our brochures to be disseminatied; we were able to learn about this most important city and its history of the transatlantic human trade; and, we were able to acknowledge our common history.
It is our hope that one day soon we will be able to visit and join together with the Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo at the Castillo de San Severino and the local community in Matanzas in honoring our Ancestors, our brothers and sisters who were lost and who survived the Middle Passage to Cuba.