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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Review: Chris Schmidt-Nowara, Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874 (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1999)

Chris Schmidt-Nowara’s Empire and Antislavery is a short but complex work that sheds new light onto several debates in the field of slavery and abolition.  His work centers on four main arguments.  First, he suggests that historians need to reexamine the “power and complexity” of the nineteenth-century Spanish colonial project to better understand the rise and fall of Antillean slavery (2).  While Schmidt-Nowara concedes that economic and mass mobilization were critical factors for Spanish anti-slavery, it appears that the interests of the Empire, specifically the retention of Cuba and Puerto Rico, were the most important considerations in the struggle over colonial slavery.

Schmidt-Nowara does an impressive job of examining Spanish abolitionism under the backdrop of intra-imperial politics in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Writing against historians who have characterized Spain as a weak colonial power after Spanish American independence in the 1820s, Schmidt-Nowara demonstrates how Cuba and Puerto Rico remained prized colonial possession in the “Second Empire.”  Following the rise and fall of Spain’s “second slavery,” from the 1830s to the restoration of the Monarch in 1874, he reconfigures our understanding of Spanish slavery and abolitionism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The second major theme in this work centers on the Spanish Abolitionist Society and the “political stage” that allowed for the development of anti-slavery initiatives (3).  Schmidt-Nowara craftily follows the development of pro-slavery and anti-slavery movements in both the metropolitan and colonial centers.  Unlike the Caribbean, where slavery was the heart of the colonial economy, Cuban and Puerto Rican anti-slavery supporters found acceptance with “Liberal Madrid,” and through a number of reform associations in the metropole, the Spanish Abolitionist Society came to be.  Put differently, Madrid offered an “anti-slavery space” where colonial and metropolitan supporters of anti-slavery could unite.  I also found it interesting that Schmidt-Nowara traces the origins of Puerto Rican anti-slavery to the idea that free labor would revive the colony’s failing sugar economy, not because of slavery was relatively marginal on the island.

The third major theme deals with race and how Spanish elites always viewed “political and economic transformations through a racial lens” (3).  And yet, elites in the metropole and both colonies continued to disagree about the implications and meanings of race and the timing of emancipation.  Although elites always lived in constant fear of race war (i.e. a second Haitian Revolution), by the 1860s, abolitionists came to “overlook race a qualification for liberty and nationality” (175).  Although Puerto Rican, Spanish, and Cuban elites saw “whiteness” as the foundation of the Nation, abolitionists came to overlook whiteness as perquisite for freedom and citizenship, especially after 1868.

The final major theme of Schmidt-Norawa’s book focuses on the interplay between the colony and metropole as an important part of the history of Atlantic anti-slavery movements, especially in the Spanish Empire.  Traditional historians have argued that liberal minded Europeans attacked colonial slaveholders.  However, Schmidt-Nowara shows that the development of anti-slavery, at least in the Spanish context, was a two-way street.  In fact, several Puerto Rican elites were part of the founding generation of the Spanish Abolitionist Society in Madrid.

The largest criticism that could be levied against Schmidt-Nowara’s work is that he ignores the lives and experiences of slaves in Cuba and Puerto Rico.  This is a heavy top-down examination of Spanish abolitionism, focused on the actions of the metropolitan and colonial elites such as José Antonio Saco, José Juan Acosta, and Rafael María de Labra.  Nevertheless, this work challenges us to examine how Spanish anti-slavery developed in light of other imperial issues, whether it was with Cuban slaveholders’ annexation movement, the debates over free trade, or the growing fear of race war.  Spanish anti-slavery did not form inside a bubble, and if we are to truly understand the abolition of Antillean slavery, we need to understand its place in the context of other issues overlabor, colonial/metropolitan economics, and intra-imperial politics.

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