Waves of rebellions—from on ships to at plantations—were central to ending slavery.
Across the Caribbean, slaves took on their masters and demanded liberation.
Carlota Lucumi, also known as La Negra Carlota, was one such slave.
Now famous for fearlessly brandishing her machete, she has become something of a modern-day Cuban icon.
African-born, Carlota heroically led a rebellion from the Triumvirato sugar plantation in 1843.
It’s likely she was kidnapped as a child from an area of Africa that now includes Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria.
Cuba was run by Spanish colonialists and had been ever since Christopher Columbus invaded in 1493.
But people on the island fought back.
Three years of guerrilla warfare erupted while the local population fought against massacres from Spanish invaders.
Despite the resistance, Columbus and his army were determined to conquer a land that would become instrumental in establishing Spanish dominance in the region. In Carlota’s time, sugar and tobacco were the primary products of Cuba.
And even though Spain had signed up to treaties in 1817 and 1835 promising to abstain from the slave trade, its Cuban colony relied on indentured labour.
Carlota was one of many kidnapped from her Yoruba people and forced to harvest sugar cane at a plantation on Matanzas.
Determined to escape, she hatched a plan with fellow slave Fermina.
But their plot to rebel was discovered after Fermina was captured by their masters and locked up.
Carlota used talking drums—West African instruments that could convey messages across large distances—to send messages to other plantations.
Fearing capture herself, Carlota sprang into action and used the drum to urge other slaves to join the rising.
This helped give them the element of surprise as slave owners didn’t understand the significance of talking drums.
She freed Fermina and other slaves held in captivity, burnt down a house that had been used to torture slaves and forced the plantation owner to flee.
Carlota went into battle wielding the machete that she used to harvest the sugar cane.
The overseers’ daughter, Maria de Regla, testified that Carlota demanded slaves “should strike her harder because she was still living”.
Over the course of two days, slaves in least five sugar cane plantations in the province of Matanzas freed themselves. So did slaves at a number of coffee plantations and cattle estates nearby.
Rebels not only seized control of plantations, they razed them to the ground and executed their masters.
During the fighting, leaders were captured and Carlota suffered a particularly horrible death—her body dragged by horses until lifeless.
In 1843 the Spanish governor brought in troops that quickly overpowered the slaves. The following year slave repression reached new heights and became known as the “Year of the Lashes”.
Cuban slaveholders used violence to punish those involved in the uprisings, and to deter those who might think of joining one in the future.
But slavery was eventually defeated.
Today a statue of Carlota towers over the Triumvirato sugar mill plantations—one of the institutions she helped bring to its knees.
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