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In Living Memory
by Pedro Pérez Sarduy, 2001

I loved my Great-gran Sabue, my mother’s gran, a lot. She wasn’t really called Sabue, that’s what I called her because she didn’t like Cunduna, her real name, and to call her Great-gran didn’t seem affectionate enough to me. She said she wasn’t called Cunduna either, but she couldn’t remember her real name. That’s why, rather than Cunduna or Great-gran, I preferred to call her Sabue, and she seemed to like it, and because I was the only one who called her that. Sabue lived down by the marsh, on the outskirts of Quemado de Güines, a small rural town in the north of Las Villas province which had big sugar cane plantations, and we lived in the provincial capital Santa Clara.

When my mother and I went for the end-of-year festivities -- December 24, Christmas Eve, and December 26, "Quemadense Ausente", a day to honour those who had been born there and gone off to the capital – Sabue would come to fetch me early in the morning and I’d spend most of the day with her, in her shack. I’d help her make wood charcoal to sell, or doing anything else. We always had some excuse for being together. I learnt a lot on those visits. At the beginning, it was once a year, but after my parents separated and my mother had to go to Havana to work as a servant and I had to go to live with Aunt Nena, the oldest of my mother’s nine sisters, who lived in Quemado, I was happy we could be together two or three times a month. Sabue didn’t much like going into town, because people made fun of her, called her names because she wore clothes of many colours and a white turban. I remember how she’d say people had to respect her because she was "negra de nación", a black African nation woman. She’d repeat this with great authority, but gently and in syncopated cadence.

From Granma, concerning a woman similar to Sabue

We all knew from her that she had come as a small child with her mother as a slave, from a far-off place called Africa. She never mentioned dates, but maybe some natural happening: "Mama died of typhoid in the slave quarters, during the rains before the harvest." When her mind was clear, Sabue, with her stock of many years of life, told me "black slave things", so I’d know, about colonial times when there were many slaves in Cuba and blacks wanted an end to slavery once and for all, but there was no end to the overseer’s whip. Of course, she had her own way of telling. If anyone or anything crossed her, Sabue would stand tall and thin, one hand raising her old carved ebony stick, the other on her waist, and declare in a serious tone, in her Bantu manner, if not language: "Don’t mess with Cunduna, I’m ‘negra gangá de nación’ [a black African nation gangá woman], damn it."

Sabue’s only daughter was my grandmother Alberta, who I called Tata. It was overhearing my mother and some of her many sisters talking that years later I learnt that Sabue had made a papaya seed remedy to have no more children. Sabue told me, without much of an explanation, that she’d had to work hard for my gran not to be a slave. It so happens Tata was born around 1875, five years after the Spanish authorities declared the ‘free belly’ law of 1870, whereby the children of slave mothers were no longer considered captive.

I was never a naughty child, but, like all children, got in trouble now and then – I’d throw stones at the mango trees, I’d go hunting snakes and hutias in neighbours’ yards, looking for snails, scorpions and all kinds of strange bugs to play with my cousins. When I’d get into mischief, Sabue would tell me off: "You little devil… you’re worse than Aponte". She’d say it kindly, because she knew José Antonio Aponte hadn’t been a bad black, on the contrary. First the Spaniards and later many Hispanic-descent Cubans might have concluded that the Havana-born free black carpenter who planned the 1812 slave uprising didn’t set the best example; but, for the great majority of African-descent Cubans, Aponte has always been a symbol of resistance and heroism. That I learnt from Sabue, who in turn learnt it from her mother. Trying to make sure I got the message, Sabue, the only great-grandmother I knew alive, talked to me about Aponte as if she’d actually known him: "Aponte was a handsome ‘nengre’ [black], loved and handsome as they come", and a man of great exploits.

When Sabue finally tired of life, I was all night at her wake, where the drums never stopped in her palm thatch hut down in the bush. I wasn’t afraid to accompany her to the cemetery. I really felt her death.

Like my maternal grandmother Alberta, my other grandmother on my father’s side, who everyone revered with the grand name of Mama, had 14 children, but in inverse gender: 4 females and 10 males. One of them was my father. My grandfather died before I was born, but Mama had also been born free in the last quarter of the 19th century and was of Yoruba descent.

The memories of our grandparents and great grandparents were filled with stories recreated between reality and imagination, which became one and the same. Time and distance didn’t seem beyond reach, but on the contrary was brought closer by Mama who always had another story to tell of black generals in the wars of independence against Spain and how she collaborated in the Mambí insurrection.

I didn’t go around boasting my two grandmothers had been born free in the last quarter of the 19th century, but I felt very proud of them, for all they had inculcated in me. One way or another, this has kept me, and my children, going, to confront, wherever it surfaces, the bitter legacy of slavery which is the racism that has prevailed throughout the 20th century, and is unending.

Slavery lasted 360 years in Cuba. Between 1526 and 1886, over a million Africans of different ethnic groups were transported across the Atlantic to work in the mines, the sugar plantations, coffee, tobacco, domestic service, and the construction of housing and forts. They were only able to bring with them their cultures and their religious beliefs, some instruments they reproduced in the new lands, and the power of memory which remains to this day.

That’s why, on my first visit to Africa, in early December 1998, my thoughts were inevitably with my "viejas". Together with men and women from 27 countries of the Americas, Europe and Africa, I was taking part in a colloquium of Afro-Ibero-American studies in Grand Bassam, close to Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast – only a few hours’ journey from Elmina Castle, in Ghana, one of the infamous slaving port-cities on the coast of West Africa.

I don’t know whether by chance, but on the hot, clear afternoon of December 4, a group of us were at the beach. I walked alone for a while on the terracotta-colour sand, like that of Cuba’s Caribbean beaches. There was only one thing I could think about on such an occasion. I tried to imagine the suffering of the crossing, capture and the complicity of Africans on the continent who went along with the European slavers trading in human cargo – one of the themes of the symposium – and reflect on the extent to which the legacy of slavery linked to colonialism and neocolonialism continued to weigh on Africans in their own lands as well as all of us in the African diaspora.

The date was special, for me and the others from Cuba. Back on our Caribbean island, it was the day when thousands of drum rituals celebrated Changó, an important orisha or divinity in the Yoruba pantheon, and the name by which one of the most popular religions of African origin continues in Cuba, also known as Regla de Ocha or Santería.

The African cultural heritage has been preserved on the island up until our day thanks to the oral tradition passed down to us by those Afro-Cuban gatekeepers who have been our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; rituals are the communicating vessels with our origins.

Despite this, until recently there had been no monument to commemorate slavery, until the recent totemic sculpture of Alberto Lescay in the hills surrounding El Cobre, near Santiago de Cuba. There have, in different periods of the 20th century, been sculptures, museums and monuments that have been allegoric, including the many sculptures dedicated to Major General Antonio Maceo y Grajales, the man who symbolizes and synthesizes the rebellion of all Cubans because, among other things, in 1878 he rejected the truce proposed by Spain for a negotiated end to the Ten Years’ War, because Spain refused to include the abolition of slavery in the talks.

One of the sculptures in memory of the Bronze Titan (as Maceo, a great mulatto warrior and man of great ideals, was also called) is in Cacahual, on the outskirts of Havana, the country’s capital. Another is in the park that bears his name on the Havana seafront, where he is riding horseback facing the centre of the island, not North. Busts and statues have gone up to his mother, Mariana Grajales, who from the early 20th century, has been considered the mother of the nation. The most outstanding of these is in the eastern town of Guantánamo.

In the early 1990s, a sculpture to Maceo was unveiled in Revolution Square in his birth city Santiago de Cuba, which was the most allegorical of its time. The work of black Cuban sculptor Alberto Lescay, it represented the most impressive mausoleum to be put up in Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. The warrior figure of Maceo, also on horseback, can be seen from all angles surrounded by 23 huge structures rising to the sky which represent machetes, the feared tool-turned-weapon used by Cuban Creoles and freed blacks when they rose up in arms on 10 October 1868. That day, planter Carlos Manuel de Céspedes set an example to his class and liberated the slaves on his La Demajagua plantation. With the cry of independence from Spanish rule and the involvement of blacks in that struggle, a nation was in the making. Patriotic homage to a legendary national hero, the sculpture, according to Lescay, also carries within it a strong redemption.

Maceo was born into a Santiago de Cuba free coloured family in 1845. My grandmother Mama, who was particularly fascinated by his imposing figure, told me that when Maceo was little there were times he’d be seen talking to slaves in the slave depot close to his home and there first heard the word freedom. When he was 23, he had joined the struggle for Cuba’s independence; and, in 1896, he died fighting, as had his father Marcos Maceo and his brothers before him.

Despite the fact that the slave trade was officially abolished in Cuba in 1865, the clandestine trade continued and slavery was not abolished up until 1886. In 1873, during the war, what is thought to be the last slave cargo of African slaves arrived in Cuba. Possibly amongst them were some of my own ancestors.

Like my two grandfathers, many soldiers and officers in the first war of independence were black. When the veterans tried to resuscitate the independence movement in the 1879-80 Little War, the colonial press led a virulent campaign painting the patriotic struggle as a race uprising. But they were struggling for a republic ‘with all and for the good of all’, as in the rallying call of José Martí, a Cuban of Spanish origin who, in exile in the United States at the end of the 19th century, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Martí fell in battle in 1895, in his first and last attempt to turn his words of redemption into deeds. With the fall of Maceo a year later, the aspirations of those who envisioned a united Cuba for all Cubans were frustrated as the United States entered the war and negotiated a treaty with Spain, without Cuba.

And so, it was not until a few years ago, 1997 to be exact, that Cuba commemorated specifically the slave past, in the form of the Monument to the Runaway Slave. Part of UNESCO’s international project on the route of the slave, there will also be a museum given over to slavery and the copper mines, considered to be the oldest in the Americas. The town, Santiago del Prado de El Cobre, took its name from "el cobre", the copper, discovered by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The monument took a year of intense labour to complete. The idea was that of sculptor Alberto Lescay and the director of Casa del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba, Joel James. Lescay describes the piece as a ‘song to the spirituality of the hills charged with the energy of men and women who sweated and toiled over the centuries, working the land for its metal…’.

In addition to geographical, cultural and spiritual considerations, one of the key motivating factors in selecting the spot was historical. Between 1731 and 1800, slaves working the mines successively took on Spanish troops until finally they were defeated them, forcing the king of Spain to concede their freedom. This has gone down in history as the first victorious slave rebellion in the Caribbean, which makes it important on the slave route.

The vertical bronze figure, forged in workshops of the Caguayo Foundation, which Lescay heads, is just over 9 meters high. It is set in an iron piece, which is one of the huge pots used for boiling the sugar juice taken from a 19th century sugar mill. The pot symbolizes the "Nganga", the receptacle for the attributes of the spirits in the Afro-Cuban religion of Congo, called Regla de Palo, or Palo Monte, originated in Angola.

For many Cubans, however, the most colossal monument against slavery has been the blood shed by Cubans on successive internationalist missions against colonialism, starting in the Congo in 1965. Ten years later, Cuba’s military involvement in Angola became a southern African epic, fitting contribution to the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa by the sons and daughters of a people through whose veins flows African blood. Such sentiments were to be found in the words of Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1976 when he said: "Those who one day captured and sent slaves to the Americas, perhaps could never have imagined that one of those peoples to have received slaves would send its combatants to fight for the freedom of Africa."

To this day, Cuba has no museum on slavery and the slave trade such as those in Hull or Liverpool, in England. The first bears the name of Hull’s illustrious British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The second is the Maritime Museum of the Slave Trade, in Liverpool, one of the two great British slave ports. Bristol is the other, but has no equivalent museum to its slave trading past.

Though there are statues in the Caribbean in memory of the region’s maroons, or runaway slaves, I do not believe any one is eloquently symbolic enough to reflect the atrocities and legacy of that triangular trade between Africa, Europe and the Americas. The media of today all too frequently remind us that the scourge of slavery continues through Africa, wracked by ethnic civil wars, famines, epidemics, forced displacement, endemic racism, economic hyper-dependence, systematic over-exploitation of its natural resources, political corruption, and countless other calamities tending towards the mass extinction of its people.

A simple monument, not a great monument but a simple one, could be an initiative on the part of countries that, in one form or another, took part in the triangular trade to provide systematic aid to the African continent to eradicate at least some of that legacy.

In January 2001, the University of Havana conferred an Honorary Doctorate on Nigerian writer of Yoruba origin, Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 (coincidentally the year marking the centenary of the abolition of slavery in Cuba). Soyinka spoke of the ties of friendship between Cubans and Africans and declared that the many young Africans studying in Cuba carried with them a seal of development and success. He referred to Cuba’s aid to Africa in the struggle against colonialism, followed by an army of teachers and doctors helping develop the region – all of which Nelson Mandela had singled out on multiple occasions.

What better monument than that?

At the start of the 21st century, with galloping globalization, such a gesture should be neither a pipe dream nor difficult to undertake. If a poor, small country like Cuba could build its own solidarity with Africa in the form of free scholarships for thousands of students from Africa and other parts of the so-called Third World, it should not be too much to ask of the rich nations in question an altruistic gesture of this nature. In the final analysis, many of their economies were grounded on slave labour and the fruits of colonialism. At the same time, each and every country in Europe and the Americas which benefited from or suffered the consequences of the slave trade and slavery should also have even a modest mausoleum as lasting testimony. Africa records its role in the triangular trade with two historic sites: Elmina, in Ghana, and Gorée island, two miles outside Dakar, capital of Senegal. A place of pilgrimage for Africans of the diaspora and declared UNESCO World Patrimony, the isle preserves the trace of that terrible past, including the gate of no return through which the human cargo passed for export to the New World.

Putting up monuments recording the facts would not be designed to inflict greater wounds into human memory but rather cleanse them for them to heal one day. In the final analysis, it’s about paying a debt. Others have been paid. This one remains.

(c) Copyright 1999 by Pedro perez Sarduy. May not be reproduced without permission.

This article was published in Dutch in the anthology Het verleden onder ogen: Herdenking van de slavernij --forthcoming in English "Coming to terms with the past: Commemorating slavery", by the Prince Claus Fund and Arena Publishers (1999), in The Netherlands.


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