A replica of the Spanish ship Amistad, near Cuba in 2010. / EFE

7 October 1886: Spain ends 300 years of slavery in Cuba

Enslaved Africans were first taken to the island in 1513; thousands lost their lives during the Atlantic crossings


On 7 October 1886, the Spanish government issued a decree abolishing slavery in Cuba.

African slaves were first shipped to the island in 1513, with hundreds of thousands arriving in the first few decades. This was a portion of the larger Atlantic slave trade that primarily supported Spanish plantation owners engaged in the sugarcane industry.

The primary source of enslaved labour at the very beginning of the 1500s had been Taíno, but the majority of this indigenous population of the Caribbean was wiped out in Cuba very fast, partly due to the lethal forced labour. The labour shortage on the island led to slaves being shipped in from West Africa. Tens of thousands never arrived, dying during the brutal Atlantic crossing .

Throughout the 1500s and 1600s, enslaved people made up a large portion of the services sector of Havana's economy. Some enslaved locals worked under a market-based system. That meant that they had the responsibility of finding their own job and employer. A portion of their earnings was given to their owner.

During the Seven Years' War with Spain, the British Empire's troops (led by Admiral Sir George Pocock and General the Earl of Albemarle) captured Havana and the surrounding regions in 1762. During the 11 months of occupation, the British expanded the plantation system on the island and imported 4,000 enslaved people from their other possessions in the West Indies to populate the new plantations. When the occupied territory was reconquered, the Spanish Crown increased imports of slaves in order to ensure the loyalty of European-Cuban planters and to increase revenues from the lucrative sugar trade.

In 1804, Haitians gained their independence from France and declared the new Republic of Haiti, the first founded by formerly enslaved people. That had a significant impact on the nearby island of Cuba, awakening the spirit of revolt. In March 1812, a series of uprisings led by freedman José Antonio Aponte erupted on the plantations of Cuba.

By 1817, Britain and Spain made a concerted effort to reform their diplomatic ties. The legal status of the Atlantic slave trade was negotiated as well. An Anglo-Spanish treaty of that year formally gained Spanish agreement to immediately end the slave trade north of the equator and expand enforcement against illegal slave ships. However, the island would have to wait another 70 years until 7 October 1886 for the Spanish royal decree that abolished slavery. Cuba was one of the last countries in the Americas (preceding only Brazil - 1888) to take the step.

During a period of around 300 years, over 600,000 Africans were transported to the island, making it the largest slave colony in the history of Hispanic America. The end of legal slavery, however, was not accompanied by racial harmony in Cuba.