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Aponte, José Antonio

Aponte, JosÉ Antonio

c. 1756
April 9, 1812

The life of the carpenter, sculptor, and alleged rebel leader José Antonio Aponte exemplifies the experiences of people of African descent in Cuba during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Although the precise date of his birth is unknown (historians believe he was probably born in 1756), the extant documentation shows that Aponte was a free man of color who was part of the black artisanry in colonial Cuba. As was true in other parts of the Americas, Cuban slaves and free persons of color dominated the urban trades and service sectors of the colonial economy. Aponte, in addition to being a carpenter and sculptor, was also a member of the colonial militia, which was, like other colonial militias established by Spain during the colonial period, composed of men of color and intended to help defend the colony from attack by rival powers. Thus Aponte was part of the more privileged sector of the Afro-Cuban population.

From January through March of 1812, a series of rebellions launched by slaves and free people of color erupted across Cuba. Rebels burned down sugar plantations in the island's interior and on the outskirts of Havana, and Spanish authorities imprisoned hundreds of slaves and free persons of color. On April 9, 1812, they executed the man they saw as the leader of the Havana rebellion: José Antonio Aponte.

In the early 1800s, the status of Cuba's free population of color was jeopardized by the expansion of slavery on the island. Since the seventeenth century, the Caribbean islands under European colonial rule supplied most of the world's sugar supply, and the production of sugar depended upon the massive exploitation of the labor of millions of African slaves. Like other Caribbean colonies, Cuba had been a slave society since the Spanish conquest in 1492. But in contrast to other Caribbean societies, such as Jamaica or Saint Domingue (today Haiti), plantation slavery was not the dominant labor system in Cuba. Rather, the island's economy was structured on small scale peasant production, cattle ranching, and contraband trade with other Caribbean colonies. However, the destruction of the sugar-plantation economy by the slave revolt in Saint Domingue (17911804) left a vacuum in the world sugar market. Soon thereafter, Cuban planters increasingly invested in sugar and slaves. Between 1790 and 1820, more than 300,000 African slaves arrived in Cuba. The development of sugar and the expansion of slavery dramatically transformed Cuba from a society with a relatively fluid class structure to a society whose hierarchy was more rigidly organized along racial lines. The expansion of racial slavery put free people of color in a precarious position. Fears of black rebellion routinely circulated throughout Cuban society, particularly after the outbreak of the slave revolt in Saint Domingue.

It was within this context that the slave revolts of 1812 unfolded. After arresting and interrogating suspected rebels, the Spanish colonial authorities became convinced that Aponte was the leader of a massive conspiracy. The most incriminating evidence was a book of drawings that they confiscated from his home. The book had a complex constellation of images produced by Aponte, but the ones that captured the attention of colonial authorities the most were maps of Havana and its fortifications, along with images of black soldiers defeating white soldiers in battle. Testimony from another accused conspirator claimed that Aponte also had images of the Haitian rebels Henri Christophe and Jean Jacques Dessalines. This seemingly solid evidence led the authorities to execute Aponte and a number of other free men of color for conspiring to incite a slave rebellion.

After decades of neglect, the Aponte Rebellion has become the subject of scholarly debate in recent years. Scholars such as Stephan Palmié have questioned the claim that Aponte was the mastermind behind the conspiracies. Palmié argues that historians' efforts to make Aponte into an ideal antislavery rebel has led them to overlook the other fascinating aspects of Aponte's book of drawings, which seemed to have little connection to an antislavery plot. Other scholars, including the historian Matt Childs, have acknowledged Palmié's points but still insist that the extant documentation supports the claim of an extensive conspiracy. Although Aponte clearly had relationships with a number of the rebels, his precise connection to the rebellion is difficult to determine. The debate on the rebellion exemplifies the challenges facing historians of slave resistance, who have to rely on the documents that were produced by white power structures. Although Aponte's exact role remains unclear, what is clear is that slaves and free persons of color in Cuba were active in resisting their oppression and saw the transformations enveloping the Caribbean at this time as an opportunity to strike for their freedom.

See also Christophe, Henri; Dessalines, Jean-Jacques; Haitian Revolution


Childs, Matt. "The Aponte Rebellion of 1812 and the Transformation of Cuban Society: Race, Slavery, and Freedom in the Atlantic world." Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2001.

Franco, José Luciano. La conspiración de Aponte, 1812. Havana: Publicaciones del Archivo Nacional de Cuba, 1963.

Palmié, Stephan. Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

frank a. guridy (2005)

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