A History of Enslaved Galicians in Cuba

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item and all related links to our attention.] “Una historia de gallegos esclavizados en Cuba, el fenómeno soterrado de la literatura española” [A History of enslaved Galicians in Cuba, the buried phenomenon of Spanish literatura] by Paula Corroto (El Confidencial) focuses on a book based on extensive research by Bibiana Candia Becerra, Azucre: Una epopeya (fifth edition published in June 2022).

The story of the 1,770 Galicians enslaved in Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century is terrible in two acts. The first, because it is real; it happened. And many of those rapaces—children, in Galician—were 14, 16 years old, or 20 at the most. The second, because hardly anyone remembers it, not even in Galicia. Yes, it was a scandal at the time, there were press articles, but that went down the drain of collective memory, that organ that is so sensitive and so prone to remembering only what it wants (or what “they” want).

Bibiana Candia (A Coruña, 1977) ran across this history by chance. She lived in Berlin, where she had moved for personal reasons and with the firm desire to become a writer, after having studied Hispanic Philology and having worked as a civil servant at the University of A Coruña. And there, in that “amusement park for adults,” as she describes the German city, a friend told her about these Galician young people who, in search of a better life, practically went to die on the Cuban sugar plantations.

It could have become a journalistic report, since Candia used to work as a cultural journalist, “but it tightened a spring that led me to an obsession, not only because I was touched by the story, but what intrigued me was that it had not reached the Galicians, at least by popular memory. It was not a hidden story, it was there, but when I asked around me, nobody knew it and it sounded like a lie. So, if I wanted to exorcise this story, I was going to have to write it and I was going to do it in the tone of fiction, because what touches the human levers and makes the characters stay in our memory is fiction,” she tells El Confidencial by phone. This is how ‘Azucre’ (Pepitas de Calabazo) came about, one of the most successful novels in recent months—by Sant Jordi Day it had already sold 20,000 copies, an extraordinary number, especially for a small publisher—, and which has just won the Espartaco award for Historical Novel in the Black Week [Espartaco de Novela Histórica en la Semana Negra] in Gijón.

[. . .] Indeed, the story was there. Today it can be found on the website xenealoxia.org, where we can find Urbano Feyjoó-Sotomayor, the son of a noble family, deputy in the Cortes for Ourense and owner of the Patriotic-Mercantil Company, the company that organized the expeditions to Cuba and whose principle was: “A Galician has to do the same work as two black men and at the price of one slave.” Also on the list, there appear the names of all the emigrants who participated in the eight expeditions that took place in 1854. Many of them died within a few months of being in Cuba, reminiscent of the German concentration camps.

With all this data, how is it possible that it is such an unknown history beyond the work of historians, archivists, and documentalists? For Candia it has something to do with the image that was created of the emigrant, which is the one that remains today. “The idea we have of someone who went to make a living in the Americas is that of the native who triumphs and returns. However, until recently it was taboo to tell your people that you had not managed to become rich. And much more so a story like this one, in which they had enslaved you. On the other hand, many of those who went there, died in the first months from dysentery, fever… Those who survived, probably did not want to tell anyone about what happened, and it seems logical to me because it was another era; and what they wanted was to forget everything that had happened,” she argues.

It did not only happen with the Galicians of Cuba in the 19th century, nor are the stories of emigrants from the 20th century very visible, for example, for those who left in the 50s and 60s, because Spain was, of course, not the best place to live. “In most families there is an official version of emigration: our grandfather went to Switzerland, worked in a watch factory and then came back and bought a house. That is what was told. But, if you dig a little, it turns out that the grandfather lived in barracks next to the factory and ate from a can of sardines,” says Candia. [. . .]

Disgraced in America

The history of ‘Azucre’ has not only been covered by the shame of the emigrants. What happened with the slave trader Feyjoó-Sotomayor (nothing to do with the current leader of the PP, Feijóo is a very common surname in Galicia) also helped. In other words, nothing. “It was a scandal, but he said that it had all been a political maneuver. He continued as a deputy, was unpunished and suffered no major consequences,” adds Candia. To this day, the family still has its country house in Viana do Bolo (Ourense), where, by the way, Isabel II spent a night on her visit to Galicia (after the slavery event had ocurred), and the family’s tableware, with illustrations from Cuba, is in the Museum of Romanticism. [. . .]

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full article (in Spanish), see https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2022-07-24/bibiana-candia-azucre-gallegos-esclavos-cuba_3464073

Also see:

Azucre: Una epopeya
Bibiana Candia Becerra
Logroño: Pepitas de Calabazo, junio 2022 (quinta edición)
144 páginas
ISBN 978-84-17386-82-5

‘Azucre’, gallegos esclavos en Cuba
Héctor J. Porto, La Voz de Galicia, 9 diciembre 2021

Los esclavos gallegos de Cuba
Sabela Corbelle, El Progreso, 12 junio 2018

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