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The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre: Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670-1780 and A Refuge in Thunder: Candomble and Alternative Spaces of Blackness. (Reviews).

The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre: Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670-1780. By Maria Elena Diaz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. xviii plus 440 pp.).

A Refuge in Thunder: Candomble and Alternative Spaces of Blackness. By Rachel Harding (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000. xix plus 251 pp.).

What a pleasure to review two such rewarding books, each of which sheds bright and much needed light on black history and culture in Latin America.

Maria Elena Diaz's The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre examines a fascinating and little known episode of Cuban and Afro-Latin American history: the century-and-a-half struggle by "royal slaves" in the village of El Cobre to win freedom and land rights for themselves and their families. These slaves were brought to Cuba from Africa in the early 1600s to work in the copper mine that gave the village its name. By 1650 the mine had essentially ceased production and had been abandoned by its concessionaires, the Eguiluz family. Along with the mine, the Eguiluzes also relinquished control over the workforce of some 300 slaves, who promptly seized on the opportunity to re-create themselves and their community as a "reconstituted peasantry," Diaz argues, employing the concept and terminology originated by Sidney Mintz. Farming village lands, hunting in the surrounding forests, and smelting copper from the piles of discarded tailings left by the mine's earlier operations, the villagers (known local ly as cobreros, copper miners) carved out a life and identity for themselves as slaves living more or less free of any master, fashioning lives largely of their own design.

Thus when the Crown re-asserted direct control over the mine and its village in 1670, and sought to convert the villagers into "royal slaves," the direct property of the King, trouble was bound to ensue. An initial effort to send the village's men to Havana, hundreds of miles away, to work on the city's fortifications, was met by immediate resistance. Villagers fled into the forests and petitioned the Crown to be relieved of such service, arguing that sending the men so far away would leave their wives and children, "whom we have always supported quietly and peacefully" (339), unprotected, hungry, and alone.

The Crown eventually backed down, agreeing to a rotating labor system in which male cobreros worked two weeks out of every eight, and were never sent out of the immediate region. Far from resolving the conflicts between the Crown and its slaves, however, this initial concession marked the beginning of a century-long process of bargaining and negotiation between the two parties, over two basic issues: the terms of the rotating labor draft, and control of agricultural lands surrounding the village. In their dealings with the Crown, the villagers employed a variety of tactics and weapons. They enlisted priests, local elites, and even royal officials in support of their cause; periodically they rebelled and fled into the forest; and they exploited to the maximum the opportunities offered to them by the court system, sending representatives to litigate cases in Havana, at the Audiencia in Santo Domingo, and even at the royal court in Madrid.

By 1780 the Crown had had enough, and returned control of the mine and its slaves to the descendants of the original concessionaires. Rather than attempt to re-open the mine, the new owners decided instead to recoup their investment by rounding up the slaves and selling them. This precipitated the cobreros' last, titanic effort: again, flight and rebellion, combined with the dispatching in 1784 of a literate villager, Gregorio Cosine Osorio, to Spain to present their case to the king. It took sixteen years (and two monarchs, Charles III having died in 1788 and been succeeded by his son, Charles IV), but ultimately Osorio was successful: in 1800 the Crown conceded collective freedom to the villagers, and formal ownership of the lands surrounding El Cobre.

In the process of telling this remarkable story, Diaz offers rich asides on the cobreros' social, economic, cultural, and religious life. Yet another extraordinary aspect of the village's history is its role as the home of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre. A small statue found floating in the nearby Bay of Nipe in the early 1600s, the Virgin was brought to El Cobre and installed there. During the 1700s she advanced from being an object of local veneration to attracting first a regional and then, in the 1800s and 1900s, a national following. Diaz carefully explores the transformation of a local icon into a symbol of national identity, and the villagers' role in that process.

Yet other chapters examine demographic, social, and economic aspects of life in El Cobre. The result is an unusually informative picture of slave society, culture, and politics in the New World. As Diaz readily acknowledges, the cobreros' story was far from typical; but even, or perhaps especially, in its unusual aspects, their history powerfully illuminates issues of central importance in slave life, and the multiple ways in which slaves struggled with masters and state authorities for control over those lives, and ultimately for freedom.

Rachel Harding's Refuge in Thunder examines yet another means through which slaves and free blacks waged those struggles: African-based religion. Much has been written, both by Brazilians and by foreign scholars, on the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble. Virtually all of that literature, however, has been anthropological or sociological in character, and has looked at Candomble mainly as a twentieth-century phenomenon. The religion's historical origins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remain very murky. Most scholars continue to rely heavily, often exclusively, on the invaluable writings of turn-of-the-century anthropologist Raimundo Nina Rodrigues; but even Rodrigues came to the study of the religion a century or more after its initial crystallization.

Working largely with police records and reports, Harding seeks to extend our knowledge of Candomble back into the 1800s. She readily acknowledges the limitations of these sources, which viewed the religion as menacing, depraved, and a profound threat to public order and morality. Those limitations soon become apparent in her inability to prove conclusively a thesis that may well be correct, but that the documents simply do not permit her to demonstrate.

Candomble is often presented in the literature as a religion born of syncretism between Catholicism and the Yoruba gods and liturgies of West Africa. Harding agrees that Catholic-African syncretism was of fundamental importance in creating Candomble, but goes on to argue that long-term syncretism among various African religious traditions was just as important in forging the religion. Thus while Rodrigues, many subsequent scholars, and many twentieth-century Candomble priests and priestesses, stress the Yoruba "purity" of their rites, Harding maintains that over the course of the 1800s the religion took form as a "pan-African" creation incorporating elements not just from Yoruba traditions but from Congo-Angola, Jeje, Ketu, and other African ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, the police were not sufficiently interested in, or knowledgeable of, the doctrinal aspects of African-based religion to leave conclusive evidence of this process of mixing and melding. They did, however, record occasional information on the ethnic and gender composition of Candomble worshippers and their priests. These data indicate that, while the number of Brazilian-born participants in Candomble rites increased over the course of the century, the majority of worshippers remained African-born, along with the great majority of Candomble priests, 85 percent of whom were Africans. In marked contrast to Catholicism, in which the priesthood was (and is) open only to males, some 30-40 percent of the Candomble priesthood was female, and 55-65 percent of the worshippers. (71-74)

The book is even more informative--at times, brilliant--in interpreting and evoking the meanings and significance--social, cultural, and historical--not just of Candomble but of all African-based cultural forms in the New World. As the book's subtitle suggests, in societies that systematically exploited, abused, and denigrated people of African ancestry, African-derived culture offered uplifting and empowering social and spiritual practices, and powerful alternative visions, imaginings, and interpretations of the world and the universe. For example, while Catholicism insisted on highly restricted access to the gods, and access mediated by robed white males, Candomble, through the practice of spirit possession, offered direct experience of the divine. "Possession is particularly significant," notes Harding, "because the occupation of black bodies by divine being is a stunning contestation of subalternity." (156)

The music, singing, and dancing that accompanied Candomble rites were similarly healing and empowering. The pleasurable, energizing physical movements of dance were the direct antithesis of the painful, exhausting movements of forced labor; and the rhythms of Candomble musical observance transformed perceptions and experiences of the moment, transporting worshippers out of slavery and into an altered and joyous emotional state.

Those moments of "escape" were of course perceptual and temporary rather than "real" and permanent; but even symbolic and temporary freedom had enormous significance for people enmeshed in the multiple oppressions of slavery and racism. While the royal slaves of El Cobre used rebellion, work stoppages, and litigation to bargain with their owners, in Brazil slaves used Candomble as an additional point of leverage in "the process of negotiating a sustainable relationship to the oppressive structures of power while simultaneously emphasizing-in silence, in private, in work, in family, in music, in dance--an alternative meaning of black experience, of black being." (105)

Harding closes with eloquent reflections on the present-day religion's inescapable historical dimension. "Candomble is history riding your back. Something close and demanding, passing its burdens as both gift and requisition. It is also history as alchemy, Candomble as feitico [witchcraft]--a means of constructing an oppositional self (personal and collective) out of the material of subjection, the materials of oppression, the history of slavery." (148)

This book is a truly unusual combination of clarity, concision, erudition, and passion--four qualities that only rarely cohere. I recommend it highly, especially for classroom use--students who read this book will want to push on to learn more about Candomble and its American analogues, Cuban Santeria and Haitian Voudoun.

One final point: Diaz and Harding both end their books with appendices of documents in the original Spanish and Portuguese (the latter translated into English by Harding) concerning, respectively, the cobreros and Candomble. This is a very welcome development, which gives readers direct access to sources that otherwise most of us would never see. Many thanks to the authors and their publishers for including this material.
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Author:Andrews, George Reid
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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