Past Graduate Fellow - Jorge Felipe


Dublin Core


Cuba, the U.S., and Upper Guinea during the Atlantic Slave Trade (1790-1840)

During the 19th century, the Spanish colony of Cuba became the largest slave-trading center of operations in the North-Atlantic. Between 1790 and 1866 (when the last documented slave ship disembarked in Cuba), around 820,000 African captives arrived at its shores. The contrast with the U.S. traffic in humans helps to dramatize these numbers. Around 400,000 African captives disembarked in the U.S. in its whole history. This is half of the numbers that arrived in Cuba just in the 1800s. It is worth noting that Cuba is about the same size as Virginia, a state that imported a little less than 80,000 slaves between 1656 and 1774. This transformation in Cuba was much more than a vast increase in scale. From the 16th century and until the first years of the 19th century, an Atlantic slave trade organized under the Spanish flag was non-existent. Cuba lacked economic, political and financial institutions, legislation, technology, facilities, personnel, professional knowledge, and commercial networks on the African continent. However, by the time Spain banned the slave trade in 1820, Cuba had a distinctive slave-trading infrastructure. Island merchants owned a large slave trade fleet that crossed the Atlantic regularly in search of slaves. Cubans operated slave trade outposts along the African coast from Senegal to Mozambique. My dissertation explores three main historical problems:

How Cuban-based slave traders not only increased the total annual number of captives but also conducted these commercial operations without depending on foreign merchants. How did Cuban merchants learn the know-how of the Atlantic slave trade? How did they acquire ships, train personnel, and build the necessary financial and economic institutions? Moreover, how did they establish commercial networks along the African coast?

How did these networks operate during part of the 19th century (1808-1840)? Did they represent a rupture with the Atlantic slave-trading structures from preceding years? How did partnership between traders from Cuba and Africa work?

Was the emergence of these new slave trading route related in any way with internal changes in Africa? In other words, what was the relationship, if any, between internal socio-economic processes taking place in Africa with the rise of the plantation economy in Cuba and the rise of the Atlantic slave trade?

After 1808, I argue, European and American merchants with centuries of involvement in the human traffic as voyage owners, captains, sailors, or financiers, relocated their operations in those regions where the slave trade was still legal, tolerated, or outside of European control either in Africa or the Americas. Many slave traders found a niche for their slave-trading activities in Cuba, where that “odious commerce” was thriving, it was tax-free, and would not be banned until 1820. The relocation of these human-trafficking operations from traditional slave-trading centers to the peripheries resulted in a transference of technologies, skills, know-how and transatlantic trading networks. Cuban-based merchants seized the conditions created by this historical conjuncture to materialize their long-standing goal of building a domestic Atlantic slave trade.

Between 1808 and 1820, Cubans inherited a set of trading networks along the African coast from British, Danish, German, French, Portuguese, and American human traffickers. I will focus on the case of American traders that moved their operations to Cuba. The resettlement of the slave-trading operations 1808 linked Cuban merchants with Europeans, Euro-Africans, or Africans trading partners in the African coast. To fully attend to the factors leading to the creation of the transatlantic slave trading networks between Cuba and Africa, this dissertation focuses specifically on the connection between Havana and two major 19th-century commercial outlets in Upper Guinea: Rio Pongo (today in Guinea-Conakry) and Gallinas (today in Sierra Leone). U.S. traders, I argue, were the main responsibles for linking the slave exportation regions of Rio Pongo and Gallinas with the Cuban market.

Thus, after explaining the creation of this slave-trading route, my subsequent goal is to detail its functioning mechanism between 1808 and the 1840s. I chose the 1840s as the final date because the British burned down the “factories” in Gallinas and Pongo and the slave trade started to be replaced for what historians call the legitimate commerce. Documents from British, American, Spanish, and Cuban archives have helped me to describe the trading dynamics between Cuba and certain regions in Upper Guinea.

Finally, I am interested in finding the effects that the increase of the Atlantic slave trade between Cuba and Upper Guinea had in Pongo and Gallinas. During the second half of the 18th century and the 19th century, the kingdom of Futa Jallon increased their attack on neighboring territories under the guise of a holy war or Jihad. According to Boubacar Barry and Walter Rodney, the main reason for this warfare was the production of slaves for the Atlantic market. If we also consider that Rio Pongo was, as Barry and Bruce Mouser agree, the main outlet of the slaves captured in these wars, then this brings us directly to the question of who was buying these captives in Rio Pongo. As we know, Cuba was the main market for them. Thus, there is a link connecting Jihads in Futa Jallon and the desires for slaves in Havana. This is a historical angle that has never been explored before which begs some questions. Was the establishment of Cuba as a slave-importing colony one of the many factors explaining the warfare in Futa Jallon? Did the rise of the slave demand from Pongo have any effect on the commerce between Futa Jallon and the coast? Did these new set of commercial trading networks between Cuba and Rio Pongo reconfigure the political relationship between the coastal region of Rio Pongo and the political authorities from Futa Jallon?

In the case of Gallinas, my attention centers in the creation and flourishing of the Passii Massaquoi Kingdom (or the Gallinas Kingdom) in what is now the southern frontier of Sierra Leone with Liberia. I have found a direct link between the creation of this African state and the development of Cuba as a slave trading center. Seven years ago, I found a group of documents in the Cuban National Archive produced in which was possibly the first Cuban-financed slave trade outpost in Gallinas in 1815. This “factory” started its operation, under the administration of U.S. slave traders. At the same time, a war was occurring in Gallinas which ended with the creation of the Passi Massaquoi Kingdom under chief Siaka. The Cuban records not only described the war with a high level of details but also how the merchants from Havana sent to King Siaka weapons to destroy his enemy. For the next thirty years, Cuba would supply Siaka with resources. This Cuban involvement in the local politics in Gallinas is especially evident during the years when the infamous Pedro Blanco managed various slave trade outposts in the regions (1824-1840).


“Past Graduate Fellow - Jorge Felipe,” Legacies of the Enlightenment, accessed April 17, 2024,