Cuba's La Escalera Conspiracy and British Ideological Expansionism

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 2:30 PM
Salon 3 (Palmer House Hilton)
Lewis Eliot, University of South Carolina
On beginning his travels to the Americas in 1839, abolitionist, troublemaker, and British consul to Cuba David Turnbull hoped that the distinctions between British and Spanish planters produced a different model of slavery in Cuba than had existed in the British Caribbean. Exposure to Cuban slavery, however, soon caused him to change his mind. Turnbull admitted that he “had been most miserably deceived” and concluded that, far from the indulgence of the Cuban slavers that he was led to believe, the Spanish were no more principled than “uncivilized barbarian[s].”[1]

This paper examines the struggles of Cuba’s enslaved population during the 1840s through the lens of British imperial ideology. Turnbull, like many other European anti-slavery luminaries and British officials, saw connections between slave rebellions and the nationalist uprisings that had torn much of the Caribbean apart since the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. The British, however, saw these uprisings in Cuba – known as La Escalera – as an opportunity to increase the empire’s Caribbean influence beyond its own colonies. The British, as Turnbull learned, understood that Spanish rule proceeded similarly to British imperialism. The uprisings, therefore, represented a moment in which the British might be able to undermine Spain’s imperialism, deal a blow to Atlantic slavery, and thereby increase Britain’s rhetorical control of the ocean without colonizing Cuba. I argue, however, that despite the efforts of Turnbull and the British Empire, Cuba’s enslaved population not only rejected their enslavement, but also the constricting paradigms of freedom that British anti-slavery offered. La Escalera was, of course, ultimately unsuccessful, but sowed the seed for a racialized independence movement that ultimately rejected both Spanish imperialism and its British alternative.

[1] David Turnbull, Travels in the West: Cuba; with Notices of Puerto Rico, and the Slave Trade (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1840), 48.

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