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Films >> Ultima Cena, La (The Last Supper) (1976) >>

See the bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

A Peculiar Institution in a Peculiar Time

[1] The institution of slavery in Cuba in the 1790's was one in constant conflict. The sugar industry was booming at the time. From this point in Cuba's history until the 1860's, how to get slaves, how many slaves to acquire, and how best to control them was of huge importance. Haiti's sugar production crumbled in 1792, making the chance of economic growth of running a sugar plantation in Cuba exponential and causing a booming market Cuban landowners did not imagine possible. The market was about to boom, and labor was needed to maximize profits. Strangely, bringing in slaves as the source of that labor was not as heralded as has been widely believed.

[2] One of most widely debated topics of the time among plantations was whether slavery or wage workers would be the most cost efficient sort of slave labor best for the plantation owners. Slavery, while believed to be a thorough and economically feasible way to run production of sugar, also risked several setbacks. In fact, slavery in Cuba in the 1790s, while certainly oppressive, was not the oppression the word "slavery" stirs today. The Cuban institution of slavery recognized the slave as a human investment with basic rights to accomplish specific labor tasks in return for basic rewards. These rights varied from mill to mill. Many mills allowed property rights for the slave and, while the slave was not allowed freedom without buying it or as a gift from the master, slaves often traded, bought and sold with the masters. Other mills considered the slave nothing more than property which had to be worked and controlled rigorously, incorporating the kind of brutality and inhumanity at work in The Last Supper.

[3] But there was much about slavery that was not profitable to the Cuban landowner. Since children of slaves automatically became property of the master, landowners encouraged reproduction since baby slaves translated into free labor. However, the treatment of female slaves was brutal, since many landowners feared that pregnancy would be an excuse for laziness, which meant abuses of the system. As a result many pregnant slaves died or miscarried due to beatings and work-related complications, which led many female slaves to dread procreation. If a slave and her fetus could survive until childbirth, conditions were usually so unsanitary and dangerous that babies rarely lived more than a few days outside of the womb. As a result, hopes that the slave labor force could reproduce themselves soon were rarely realized.

[4] Slaves were also a problem for landowners looking for technological advances at the mill. Slaves were never or rarely educated (for fear of revolt), which meant most slaves (especially those working in the fields) were ill prepared for working with new machines, tools, or processes. Escaped slaves could also be costly, requiring the hiring of rancheadors (hired mercenaries to hunt down and return fugitive slaves) and punishments which could easily kill the slave or compromise his ability to work. Such disadvantages, and the sturdy price of slaves since they had to be shipped illegally, made the slave trade for sugar-mill owners less than attractive

[5] Hiring foreign wage workers became an easy answer for the problems inherent in owning slaves. Hired as indentured servants, wage workers came much cheaper than slaves and could be fired at any time for any reason, as opposed to expensive up-front price for slaves whose work lessened as they grew older or through various forms of brutal discipline. Much like slaves, wage workers were prohibited by law to leave their plantations. Most importantly, wage workers often came with a competent education and ability to embrace new technology, making the "free-laborer" much more potentially profitable. As ways of cutting cane moved away from the machete and more toward heavier and more complex machines, many slaves (and mills) found themselves utterly lost. Since wage workers were in many ways glorified slaves, working conditions at the mills, often terrible, did not have to improve since there were no consequences for keeping the workers in squalor. Often mill-owners, who up until this time bought strictly slaves, tried to incorporate both methods of labor acquisition, so that plantations showed an amalgamation of wage workers and slaves.

[6] One of the most obvious results of this mix between wage workers and slaves was a sort of caste system based on ethnicity. At the top of this system were the landowners, almost exclusively Spanish and hardly settled enough in Cuba to have generations of inhabitants since plantations only began thriving after the breakdown of Haitian sugar production. Hardly of any worth in the system but given much more respect than the slaves were the wage workers, a group largely made up of Chinese, Irish, Italians, and smaller denominations of other European and Asians. Slaves, while treated better than expected in many sugar plantations, were still considered as animals with human traits, not worthy of education or respect.

Print Resources

Aravamudan, Srinivas. Tropicopolitans. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.
Aravamudan's book is a decidedly postcolonial look at the situation of black figures in 18th century literature and history. He tackles the difficult issue of "white-washing" black slaves and colonial subjects in order to interpret them in the monologue of nationalist history. He uses the title of the book in a portmanteau sense to mean both tropical and cosmopolitan. In other words, his study focuses on the intersection of tropical mentality with European thought. Hence Aravamudan studies the dynamic of black agency that often rewrites European ideals in the New World. His book covers literary figures such as Aphra Behn's Oroonoko but also directly studies historical figures like Equiano and Toussaint Louverture. The last chapter presents a very useful application of Diderot's Historie des deux Indies. Aravamudan's study is incredibly useful to one who wishes to study the idea of black heroes in context with 18th century thought, literature, and politics.
Collins, Dr. Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves in the Sugar Colonies by a Professional Planter. London: J. Barfield, 1803.
In his how-to manual for the plantation owner, Collins spends the majority of time explaining how best to handle various diseases the slaves are subjected to as the result of their work in field. What makes this book so fascinating is that, while many parts are certainly offensive to late twentieth century mind-set, Collins is strictly interested in the well being of the slave and the plantation. Physical punishment of the slave is never mentioned, while rest and medicine for the slave are stressed as means to a more productive industry. How to care for pregnant slaves and slave babies are also given specific attention. While Collins could certainly be considered a liberal slave owner, he is by no means radical. The slave is characterized as dumb brute who lacks the intelligence and humanity necessary to function in the world. This is very informative for understanding that slave owners, while morally misguided, were not always monsters.
Downing, John. "Four Films of Tomas Gutierrez Alea." Film and Politics in the Third World. New York: Praeger, 1988. 279-301.
Downing is especially useful because of his attention to detail. The four films addressed in this essay are Death of a Bureaucrat, Memories of Underdevelopment, The Last Supper, and Up To A Certain Point. Downing's analysis of the films tends to be chronological, in that he discusses the films from beginning to end. This approach is helpful in a film loaded with complex symbolism such as The Last Supper. Not only does Downing elaborate on Marxist imagery, but he also clarifies allusions in the dialogue. Downing's analysis of the other three films is also enlightening and useful. He traces a pattern of technique and theme in Gutierrez Alea's work and connects the films through the Marxist, existential, and absurdist motifs present in each. Downing's essay presents Gutierrez Alea's canon of work into a context that allows the reader to access the films individually or as a whole.
Edwards, Bryan. An Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St. Domingo. London: Printed for J. Stockdale, 1797.
Edwards' survey of St. Domingo, or Haiti, is an extensively thorough description of all aspects of the island in the 1790s. Edwards also discusses the history of the island including the revolution that he refers as the "calamity or catastrophe." Needless to say, Edwards was a proslavery writer, and although he attempts to be open-minded he condemns the revolutionary notions of the black inhabits of Haiti. Edwards' study is particularly useful to those who wish to see a complete economic picture of Haiti in the period. He is meticulous in his explanations of trade, production, and assets of the island. The book is also especially useful for scholars who wish to see an 18th century proslavery view of the Haitian revolution.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Originally published: London : O. Equiano, 1789. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
By the time Equiano, an African forced into slavery, wrote his autobiography he had seen most of the world, had a handful of masters, and been through an incredible amount of adventures. His narrative, while containing an admitted bias, shows a great deal of impartiality for a former slave embittered by many experiences. Particularly well done is the manner in which Equiano relates his experiences with different whites, some who treated him with decency and respect while others attempted to trick him back into slavery only to flee when they discover Equiano's knowledge of the law. Equiano describes his time in the West Indies as among the worst periods of his life, making that section valuable in understanding the differences between the Cuban and American slave systems. While certainly an activist, he does not come off as a passionate one. Equiano's is among the more remarkable slave narratives
Finkelman, Paul, ed. Proslavery Thought, Ideology, and Politics. New York: Garland, 1989.
Finkelman attempts to collect the important essays concerning pro-slavery arguments, including "pioneering articles in the history of slavery, important breakthroughs in research and methodology, and articles that offer major historiographical interpretations" (9). The collection is vast; there does not seem to be any thread relating the essays to one another (Finkelman admits he was trying to give a complete account of pro-slavery thought, not a show a unified group of apologists). Specific attention is paid by the writers in the collection to slave problems in individual states at certain times, making the overall impression of the collection somewhat fragmented. This source will be invaluable for researchers looking for memorable quotations from slavery advocates, as well as how apologist views differed in different geographical areas.
Finkelman, Paul. Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.
Finkelman's anthology serves two purposes in the study of proslavery ideology. In the first part of the book, Finkelman presents a lengthy essay documenting the social attitude and history of the Southern defense of slavery. The second half of the book is devoted to a selection of American proslavery essays ranging from Thomas Jefferson in 1787 to Josiah Nott in 1866. Finkelman's project is especially focused on the relationship of the proslavery argument to the American Civil War. In his introduction he fortifies the idea that slavery was a peculiar Southern institution, "as Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president noted, slavery was the ‘cornerstone' of the would-be southern nation." Scholars in search of evidence of the proslavery argument in other parts of the Americas may want to look elsewhere. With that in mind, there are numerous examples of proslavery attitudes and theories that undoubtedly transfer to the rest of the colonized New World. In fact, many of the cases Finkelman uses are generally universal to all proslavery defenses. Of particular interest are his discussions of the "Early Basis of Enslavement" and "The Historical and Classical Defense." The remainder of the volume offers striking examples of American (mainly political) thinkers' defenses of slavery. All in all, the book serves well as a basic introduction to the proslavery mentality and to the writings of prominent Americans on the subject.
Fraginals, Manuel Moreno. The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760-1860. New York: Monthly Review, 1976.
The Cuban sugar industry, at least the first two centuries of it, marked a chaotic time in the island's development. Fraginals analyzes the main aspects of the development of Cuban sugar production in an historical context, focusing primarily on sugar as the foundation of the plantation economy and the event that brought the commerce to Cuba that would define its existence. The sugarmill owners were indeed brutal but not only with their slaves. Sugarmill owners or those wishing to set up sugarmills often burnt down other proprietors' coffee or tobacco mills in an effort to push them out and set up the plantations that meant instant and substantial profits after the fall of the sugar trade in Haiti. While Fraginals spends much more time on mill technology than on slaves and plantation life, he remains a valuable source for understanding the concerns that drove the Cuban sugarmills and how they have influenced Cuban life into the present.
Hillier, Richard. A Vindication of the address to the people of Great Britain, on the use of West India Produce. With Some Observations and facts relative to the situation of Slaves. In reply to a Female Apolgist for Slavery. London: M. Gurne
Claiming to address only a female apologist, Hillier attempts to take the biblical argument in favor of slavery to task. Seeking a public debate that never happens, Hillier promises that he can change his opponent to the abolitionist point of view as soon as they meet: "If you will come before the public a second time, and attempt to prove that farmers never abuse their horses, never entrust them to their servants, never kill them when worn out; and, moreover, that a horse and an African are so nearly alike, that we have as much right to enslave one as to saddle the other, then I will reason with you upon your grounds" (6). The fact that Hillier is only working to abolish slavery in England makes the pamphlet somewhat limiting, but the energy he brings to the argument is still impressive. This serves well as a glimpse into abolitionist sophistry.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Originally published: London: H. Jacobs, 1864. Ed. L Maria Childs. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
The problems of the female mulatto slave on the plantation were particularly troublesome. Jacobs, constantly under the fear of rape by her master, Dr. Flint, must also worry about facing the rage of a jealous wife who cannot accept that her husband lusts after a slave. The whites who wish to help Jacobs are also problematic, as many refuse to acknowledge her when she disguises herself as a darker-skinned slave, making clear that she is only worth talking to as long as she is a mulatto. Jacobs's account shows how the potential problems facing the female mulatto slave much more dangerous than the "average" slave, particularly once she escapes. Jacobs must spend years in a room where she can literally barely move, always under the threat of being captured and always depending on sympathetic whites for survival. Jacobs's narrative is a must for understanding dangers specific to the female slave as well as the politics of whites both on and off the plantation.
James, Stephen. Extracts from a West India Plantation Journal, Kept by the Manager: Showing the Treatment of the Slaves and Its Fatal Consquences. London: Bagster, 18--.
James's accounts of plantation life are a bit ambiguous. He discusses the brutality at work on the plantation and how this cruelty kills several slaves, yet he does not seem to express a need to change the system, a need pushed at length by most abolitionist documents. The account is very general, offering little detail except for the disciplinary tactics of the overseers. James's middle position may be explained by his position as manager on the plantation, a position where he must maintain and endorse the problems he is at odds with because his financial security depends upon his doing so. The book probably serves best to shed light on the conflicts of an overseer who disagrees with slavery at heart but must let go of part of his conscience in order to survive.
Klein, Herbert S. Slavery in the Americas: A Comparative Study of Virginia and Cuba. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967.
Klein finds fault with the failure of historical and anthropological studies of his time "to go beyond the legal materials to the social and economic dynamics of the New World slave systems to test the assumptions and conclusions that have been proposed" (8).  His basic finding is that the Cuban slave system led to a more integrated community, an assertion supported by the strict laws on the Virginia plantation about race mingling between owners and slaves.  Another fact Klein uses for support is that on the Cuban plantations masters and overseers were usually single, while in Virginia owners had wives who were often jealous of the attractions owners had for their slaves, limiting opportunities for rape and race-mixed reproduction.  Klein also does extensive research on the functions of religion in the two regions, though his work has become somewhat dated.
Knight, Franklin W. Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1970.
Knight notes that Cuba's chronology in the slavery system is strangely opposite to the other systems of slavery in the hemisphere.  Knight notes that the Cuban plantation owners began bringing the largest numbers of slaves at a time when the rest of the hemisphere was beginning to abandon the system.  His approach is mostly chronological showing how the institution picked up in Cuba in the late 1700's and staggered after 1835.  The originality of Knight's work is his attention to the life of the slave throughout these periods, showing what economic and political factors altered the Cuban slave's existence and made that existence different from slaves of other cultures at the same time.  Like Fraginals, Knight spends considerable time on the lives of the non-black slaves, the wage workers from other cultures, and how they co-existed with slaves.  This is a crucial source in understanding the daily life of the Cuban slave as the institution was in flux.
Manzano, Juan Francisco. Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated. London: T. Ward and Co., 1840.
Labeling this book as a collection of poems is awfully limiting.  Following the poetry (wonderful work in and of itself) is a collection of anonymous essays detailing the horrors and injustices inherent in slavery.  The book works chiefly as a piece of propaganda, as the poems all deal with brutality Manzano experiences on the Cuban plantation.  The essays following the poetry focus on the slavery system in Cuba, a strange concentration considering the intended audience seems to be in the United States.  The tone of the essays all share an acidic tone towards slaveowners and apologists, concentrating on religion as the chief means of liberation.  The poems, while clearly published for the political value, make Manzano an example of intellectual superiority slave owners did not think possible at the time.  The essays predict that apologist readers will question that such work could be created by a black.
Montejo, Esteban. The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Ed. Miguel Barnet. Trans. Jocast Innes. New York: Pantheon, 1968.
Barnet does his best to abridge and synthesize Esteban's story, an incredible life considering how rough it was and the fact that Esteban is at least one hundred years old when the interviews take place. Of particular interest are Esteban's recollections of life on the Cuban plantation, a life Esteban quickly escaped, living in the forest where he spent at least a decade until two years after the Ten Years' War which led to the abolition of slavery (1880). Esteban's account requires a certain amount of cynicism considering that he is recalling events eighty years before to a recorder determined to make him a legend, but his account remains a fascinating source of what it meant to be a slave in Cuba at its most brutal.
Paquette, Robert L. Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba. Middletown: Weslyan UP, 1988.
La Escalera, the sequence of events in 1844 that began as a containment of a possible slave revolt and turned into a large scale Cuban witch hunt, remains an important symbol of the tension and turmoil during Cuba's ongoing separation from Spain throughout the nineteenth century.  Paquette examines La Escalera through the lenses and retrieved documents of historians at different points in Cuba's always uncertain history.  Paquette, looking closely at the political tensions and political figures of the time, finds that, while there is little evidence large-scale arrests and executions were based on little or no real merit, abolitionist activists had created enough unrest on the Cuban plantations so that the fear of widespread plans of rebellion were not quite as absurd as previously believed.  Paquette is an attractive source for how Cuba's history has been redefined through different political periods, and how the construction of La Escalera has been reinterpreted at different points in Cuba's development.
Pro-slavery Argument; as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States, containing the Several Essays on the Subject of Chancellor Harper, Governer Hammond, Dr. Simms, and Professor Dew. New York: Negroes Universites P,
These essays are reprinted from a collection of apologist essays from 1852. Whether the original purpose of the essays was to create a dignified merger of literature singing the virtues of slavery or to create a collection of pro-slavery opinions many abolitionists must have found offensive, the four essays presented here reflect a scholarly attempt to defend slavery against the abolitionist literature and speakers who were gaining momentum at the time in America. Slavery is defined by these apologist writers in a variety of ways, ranging from a way to help cultivate the black and society as a whole (ordained by God since slavery is mentioned in the Bible without refutation) to an institution with several problems that cannot be eradicated because it is too essential to Southern culture. These essays are essential to anyone trying to understand the pro-slavery argument passionately argued by mostly Southern scholars leading up to the Civil War.
Scott, Rebecca J. Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.
While a substantial amount of work has been done concerning Cuba during its use of slavery, work on Cuba in between the years of Emancipation and Castro's revolution remain relatively sparse.  Scott attempts to explore the transition of the Cuban worker's life as Cuba moves from a slave economy to one based on wage work.  For Scott the period of emancipation was still largely a time of slavery, as workers were helpless to correct or change horrible conditions and pay.  However, the fault does not remain wholly with the Cuban government, as for much of this period Cuba remained under the control of Spain.  In fact, Scott credits the almost feudal system as a major factor contributing to Cuba's fight for independence, and one of the first wrongs Cuba's new government intended to correct.  Scott is helpful for looking at Cuba at its time of transition, though little of the period before emancipation is covered.
Tise, Larry. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.
Tise's study is based upon the rejection of poor scholarship in the area of proslavery in America. Tise uses William Sumner Jenkins's Proslavery in the Old South (1935) as the whipping-boy for generally weak and outright incorrect documentation in the area of study. The core of Tise's study appears to be focused on dispelling myths about the American, specifically the United States before and after the Revolution, proslavery argument. He accomplishes this feat by extensively examining proslavery literature dating from 1701 until the 19th century. Among the many myths he dispels, Tise seems to be most interested in shifting the responsibility of proslavery ideology to Northern thinkers -- although he doesn't exclude Southern writers. Tise argues that proslavery was not an "aberration in American history"; instead, he finds "that it was precisely one of the clearest possible indications of the nature of and character of American society and its values –- not merely in the Old South but throughout the nation." Tise's book is especially useful to those who wish to examine a comparative study of American proslavery writing. He illustrates numerous enlightening examples of the proslavery attitude through direct quotation and thorough examples. Overall, Tise presents a fresh, detailed, and unbiased approach to American attitudes on proslavery.

See Also

Casal, Lourdes. "Race Relations in Contemporary Cuba." The Position of Blacks in Brazilian and Cuban Society. London: Minority Rights Group, 1979. 11-27.

DuBois, Laurent, and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804. Boston: Bedford, 2006.

Fuente, Alejandro de la. A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001.

Dubois, Larent. Avengers of the New World; The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2004.

Suchlicki, Jaime. Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond. Washington: Brassey's, 1997.

Williams, Cynric. A Tour Through the Island of Jamaica; From the Western to the Eastern End in the Year 1823. London: Hunt and Clark, 1826.

Video/Audio Resources

Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery. PBS Video, 1998.
Narrated by Angela Bassett, the film examines how the slavery practices in America's history are in direct contradiction with what our country's forefathers claimed they wanted America to be.
Cecilia. World Service Publications, 1981.
A peasant woman in 1830's Cuba attempts to bring down the family of young slaveowning aristocrat.
A Woman Called Moses. Xenon Entertainment, 1992.
Harriet Tubman's life and work is dramatized, with the expected attention on the Underground Railroad. Of particular interest will be the attention spent on Tubman's activity in the women's and black's voting movements, where the film attempts to put Tubman on the same plateau as Susan B. Anthony.

Online Resources

Africans in America: The Terrible Transformation http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/home.html
The actual site, a companion to the PBS mini-series, chronicles the slave experience from 1450 to the end of the Civil War. Primarily addressing how the slave transformed the American economy over four centuries, the site is divided into four smaller sites breaking down different time periods, about one hundred years each. Concentrating on narratives and biographies, the site serves well as a data bank on the majority of major figures concerning slavery in America. Many historical documents concerning slavery are also catalogued here.
The Haitian Revolution http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Revolution
The film dates its action after the slave revolt at Santo Domingo. Here is a brief overview of that context.
History – African Americans http://dent.edmonds.wednet.edu/IMD/historyafricanblack.html [Archived]
Created and run by the Edmonds school district (north of Seattle), the site contains a large amount of links and pages mainly revolving around the teaching of African American history in the public school classroom.  The site is broken up into four main areas:  biographies, African American history, slavery in the United States and the Underground Railroad.  The site has a long list of links, making it valuable to make general searches about slavery more specific.
Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation http://www.h-net.org/~slavery/
SWHSAE is a site that publishes essays, images, documents, and everything in some way relating to slavery. The site is primarily concerned with essays, but the list of external links is impressive.