La Escalera, Conspiracy of

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La Escalera, Conspiracy of

In December 1843 Esteban Santa Cruz de Oviedo, a planter with major holdings in the western province of Matanzas, Cuba, claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy to promote revolt by the slaves of Cuba's sugar plantation heartland. The authorities tortured suspects, then executed the "confessed" ringleaders. Captain-General Leopoldo O'Donnell, Cuba's new chief executive, doubting that all the guilty had been found, widened the circle of investigation. Persecution and torture spread throughout much of western Cuba in the first months of 1844. Officials eventually concluded that a vast revolutionary conspiracy involving slaves, free people of color, Cuban-born whites, and foreigners existed. They implicated Domingo Del Monte and José de la Luz y Caballero, two of Cuba's preeminent dissident intellectuals; they convicted in absentia David Turnbull, an abolitionist and former British consul in Havana, of being the "prime mover" behind the conspiracy; and they executed the prominent free mulatto poet Plácido for being the leader of a revolutionary faction of people of color. By the end of 1844, thousands of people of color, free and slave, had been banished, imprisoned, tortured, or executed; many others had simply disappeared. The alleged conspiracy acquired the name La Escalera—the Ladder—from the principal instrument to which suspects were bound before interrogation accompanied by the lash. The year 1844 has gone down in Cuban history as el Año del Cuero, the Year of the Lash.

Generations of Cuban scholars have debated the reality of the conspiracy. Although it was clearly exaggerated by unscrupulous officials who wanted to silence dissidence, by venal whites who wanted to despoil rising members of Cuba's free colored class, and by panic-stricken slaveholders who feared a replay of the Haitian Revolution, La Escalera probably existed as a conjunction of several different conspiracies. Each drew energy from British abolitionism; each had distinct cores involving whites, slaves, and free people of color; each overlapped, if only in some cases, at the margin; and each expanded or contracted at different points between 1841 and 1844.

La Escalera decimated the leadership of Cuba's free colored class and encouraged many Cuban whites to look more favorably upon Cuba's annexation by the United States. It was the last major act of collective resistance by Cuba's people of color before their participation in the Ten Years' War.

See alsoCuba: The Colonial Era (1492–1898); Slavery: Spanish America.


David R. Murray, Odious Commerce (1980), chaps. 8 and 9.

Enildo A. García, Cuba: Plácido, poeta mulato de la emancipación, 1809–1844 (1986).

Robert L. Paquette, Sugar Is Made with Blood (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Childs, Matt D. The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Cooper, Frederick, Thomas Holt, and Rebecca Scott. Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Post-emancipation Societies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Helg, Aline. Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher. Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833–1874. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999.

                                     Robert L. Paquette

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La Escalera, Conspiracy of

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