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LAC 118 - Caribbean Society and Culture - Textbook


Dobo: A Liberated African in Nineteenth-Century Havana

by Oscar Grandio Moranguez


In the sixty years after 1807, many former slave trading nations, in particular the British, launched a major effort to suppress the slave trade. In this era, the Voyages Database shows that naval cruisers captured 1,985 slave ships and conferred liberated African status on 177,000 of those slaves found on board some of these vessels. The fate of these “re-captives,” as they were called, varied considerably. The majority spent their lives as self-sufficient farmers or fishermen. About one quarter of the group migrated to the British West Indies to work as contract laborers. For a few thousand others, they lived as de-facto slaves. The story that follows is for one of the latter group. It is a story that the search interfaces of the Voyages Database have helped reconstruct.

In March 1826 HMS Speedwell detained the small Spanish schooner namedFingal off the Cuban coast with 58 slaves, the survivors of 61, en route from Cape Mount (modern-day Liberia). After detention, the slaver, its crew, and human cargo were taken into Havana, where the slaves disembarked. In the Voyages Database the details of the voyage are found in VoyageID 558. British and Spanish officials interviewed the captives and recorded their names, ages, and places of habitation. The officials added data on height, sex, and a description of the most obvious cicatrization. From the docks, the newly disembarked Africans were taken to a nearby barracoon and held there by Cuban colonial officials. They then transferred, as emancipated Africans, to residents of the island from whom they were supposed to receive religious and occupational training. After a five-year term, they were to be integrated into Cuban society as free persons.

The Fingal was one of many slavers adjudicated at the Havana Court of Mixed Commission which, under the 1817 Anglo-Spanish treaty, was one of the courts established to interrogate suspected slave vessels detained under the Spanish or British flags and to declare any slaves on board to be emancipados, or liberated Africans. Under the provisions of the treaty, the two governments agreed that the emancipados should become free people in the territory where the adjudication took place1. It soon became clear, however, that the lives of the liberated Africans on the island were little different from those of slaves2. Certainly, the Cuban authorities did not want to distribute and monitor thousands of free Africans.

The story of one of the Africans on board the Fingal, a ten-year old boy named Dobo, illustrates the difficulties emancipados faced living under Spanish jurisdiction. Dobo’s story, or Gabino as he was renamed after his arrival in Cuba, is one of the most revealing accounts of the trauma and re-identification experienced by those enslaved in Africa and then “emancipated.” His personal story offers insight into how the slave trade was conducted in Africa, and how emancipated Africans in Cuba lived and worked effectively as slaves.

After the African youth landed in Havana, court officials interviewed him. Because Dobo’s slaver embarked slaves at Cape Mount, he was described as a Ganga, a term given in Cuba to all African peoples embarked at ports from the Sierra Leone and Windward Coasts3. But Dobo also identified himself as a member of the Kongoba nation, and he entered the Court’s Liberated African register as “Ganga-longová” (African Names Database, ID 70345). Dobo came from the interior of Galinhas, an area occupied by Gola people, an ethnolinguistic subgroup of Mel speakers who migrated south to the Galinhas hinterland from the Kongba region (and called themselves Kongoba). They eventually occupied a large section of the region between Lofa and Cape Mount, displacing in their expansion Dei groups4.

In 1826, when Dobo was shipped to Cuba, Spanish slave agents were very active on the Galinhas coast, and they traded extensively with local chiefs, especially those from the warring Dei and Gola peoples. The Spanish obtained prisoners of war from both groups5. The Dei belonged to the Kwa linguistic family, who occupied in the nineteenth century an area that extended from the coast to the hinterland of Galinhas. Gola expansion in the early nineteenth century displaced the Dei, causing friction and eventually war6. Constant skirmishes between the two parties produced continual lots of captives who were marched to the coast. Spanish agents—including the notorious slave trader Pedro Blanco—stockpiled imported goods in coastal entrepôts and maintained small sailing craft to shuttle slaves along the Sierra Leone and Windward Coasts. Vai merchants, who belonged to the Mande linguistic family and who inhabited the coastal area of Galinhas, acted as middlemen between the Europeans and the Dei and Gola slave traders7. Blanco and other Spanish brokers had built a profitable working relationship with local Vai chiefs, and rapidly expanded their operations by stationing agents at Cape Mount, Shebar, Digby (near Monrovia), Young Sestos, and nearby outlets.

There is no information on how young Dobo entered slavery in his Gola homeland. He might have been a victim of a Dei raid on a Gola settlement, or sold by relatives, or born as a slave and traded from his original community. It was common for Dei or Gola rulers who desired imported goods to raid neighboring peoples and send their captives to the coast in exchange for items such as salt, tobacco, and various metals, particularly brass objects. Not all slaves traded from the interior, however, were captured in raids or prisoners of war. Some people in the Galinhas hinterland were born into slavery; some entered slave status by being orphaned. The practice of bartering children—and even sometimes adults—for food during famines was not unknown. Children were also sold to compensate for homicides and other crimes committed by relatives. Adults expelled from their original kin groups might also risk enslavement when forced to leave their own kin groups because of quarrels, threats, hunger, or criminal activity. Dobo could have entered slavery in any one of these ways8.

Before reaching the Galinhas coast, Dobo had to travel many hundred miles from the Gola hinterland, and almost certainly he was bought and sold more than once during his journey. From his first capture, Dobo found himself surrounded by strangers. Dobo was probably transferred from Gola or Dei traders to Vai middlemen who marched him to the coast. As a newcomer in alien communities and separated from his own ethnic group, Dobo must have had to redefine a new identity, social personality, and status. New surroundings usually implied new customs, languages, or dialects9.

When he arrived on the coast, Dobo was housed in a slave factory belonging to one of the Spanish factors around Galinhas before he was traded for imported commodities. Cape Mount, from whence the Fingal had sailed, functioned as an auxiliary shipping point of the main slave entrepôt in the area, the Galinhas River, between the Mano and Moa Rivers. At Cape Mount, several slave depots operated in the 1820s and 1830s, including one owned by Pedro Blanco. Once he was bartered for merchandise, Dobo and 60 others were taken on board the slaver by canoes. Conditions must have been horrific on the schooner Fingal, and three slaves died during the Atlantic crossing.

The treaty of 1817 clearly stipulated that emancipados, once disembarked, came under the jurisdiction of the nation in whose territory the court was located. Dobo and his African companions thus remained under the custody of Spain after registration. They were assigned a new “Christian” name and a tin ticket for identification, and began a five-year labor term under some responsible trustee “to ease their transition to civilization.” But these terms could be extended legally to a maximum of three more years, and other mechanisms existed to prolong servitude indefinitely. Spanish colonial law also decreed that trustees needed to feed and clothe their emancipados, provide medical care, instruction in Catholicism and train them in an occupation10. As Dobo’s story will show, many, if not most emancipados, fell victim to corruption and fraud. Trustees often kept them in servitude and paid them only nominal monthly wages after the expiration of their term.

Dobo was consigned for five years to Luisa Aper de la Paz, a rich widow from Havana. She paid 612 pesos to bribe the authorities, and used Dobo, now named Gabino, as a water-carrier, and paid him only one peso per day11.  After the end of his five-year term, she paid further bribes to extend Gabino’s services for two more five-year terms12. Extending Gabino’s involuntary servitude gave Donna Aper de la Paz greater financial flexibility than purchasing a slave: slaves required large outlays of cash, and owners bore the risk that slaves would die or escape. Hiring free laborers in Havana was also very expensive, and wageworkers could not be controlled or exploited like emancipados. The emancipado system enabled “trustees” to obtain labor at below-market rates and avoid the long-term commitments, preoccupations, and maintenance costs associated with slavery.

As an emancipado, Gabino was in limbo, neither free nor slave. His legal status and day-to-day existence combined the worst of two worlds. He did not enjoy the freedoms and higher wages of free persons of color, nor did he have the few legal and material protections that most slaves could reasonably expect. Further, Gabino needed to pay taxes to the colonial government. After taxes, he lost two-thirds of his one-dollar per day salary. Gabino also was isolated from the slave community in Havana, which devised their own solidarity mechanisms to survive, resist and pursue freedom. Emancipados were the object of contempt to both free blacks and slaves. In fact, blacks in Cuba used “emancipado” as a derogatory term13, and people like Gabino were at the bottom of Cuba’s social ladder. They had no protection in the Cuban colonial legal system, and their only hope for redress was to gain the attention of a foreign official, such as the Superintendent of Liberated Africans in Havana.

The post of Superintendent was created by an additional Anglo-Spanish anti-slave trade treaty signed in 1835. The new treaty allowed the adjudication of vessels with slave trading equipment on board—vessels thus could be seized before they embarked slaves14. The treaty reflected the British government’s renewed interest in the welfare of emancipados. It stipulated that emancipados would hereafter come under the authority of the capturing nation. Further, every six months Spanish officials were required to provide the Havana Mixed Commission with updated registers of emancipados15. The new measures had an immediate impact: British officials no longer transferred emancipados to Spanish colonial authorities; they instead began relocating them to several British Caribbean possessions, in which slavery had been abolished (1834). A Superintendent was appointed to oversee these arrangements.

From the mid-1830s until 1841 two well-known British abolitionists, Dr. Richard Robert Madden and David Turnbull, occupied the post of Superintendent. The two were members of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and came to Cuba ideologically committed to the interests of liberated Africans. Turnbull replaced Madden in 1840 and also held the position of British Consul in Havana. The British foreign secretary instructed Turnbull to persuade Cuban authorities to obey the treaties of 1817 and 1835, and to investigate the conditions of the emancipados and protect their rights. However, emancipados like Gabino, landed in Havana before 1835, remained under the jurisdiction of Spanish law and Spanish officials. The Superintendent could do no more than investigate and denounce cases that were in clear violation of the earlier treaty. Many emancipados learned of the Superintendent’s position and sought his assistance. One of them was Gabino.

When Mrs. Aper de la Paz died in 1840, Gabino’s livelihood deteriorated. Felix Piñero, who inherited the widow’s property, cut off Dobo’s tiny remuneration as a water-carrier, in violation of all conventions regarding liberated Africans16. Gabino’s desperation led him to appeal to Superintendent Turnbull. In his declaration, Gabino narrated the abuse to which he had been subjected since his arrival in Havana, then as Dobo. Turnbull immediately sent a strong note of protest to Cuban officials claiming for him “the immediate and unconditional enjoyment of the freedom which was guaranteed to him by the treaties in force between Spain and Great Britain.” By 1841, Gabino had been in Cuba for fifteen years, and understood that the Spanish legal system was closed to him. He searched for an alternative method of redress and found one.

In his note to the Captain General in Havana, Principe de Anglona, Turnbull also claimed that Gabino was entitled to all monies held from him unlawfully. The Captain General responded by declaring Turnbull to be a “persona non grata,” a danger to the island’s security because of his links with “the people of color.” Turnbull was also told in this letter that his intervention in Gabino’s case “supposes that you are qualified to listen to complaints and to offer protection to the people of color, and to support their pretensions.” The Captain General feared that “such a state of things might loosen the ties of subordination and obedience among emancipados.”17 The Captain General thus opposed Turnbull’s defense of emancipados’ rights, without addressing the specifics of Gabino’s case18. Turnbull had in fact previously traveled through the island to check on the conditions of the emancipados working on plantations, and had listened to the complaints of many other emancipados in Havana. He was also seen accompanied by white Cubans who openly opposed slavery in the island. The Cuban colonial government wanted Turnbull to leave the island, and his official complaint in Gabino’s case gave them the opportunity. The Superintendent was forced to abandon his offices at the British Consulate in Havana and move to a British vessel anchored in the harbor, as he was not allowed to remain on Spanish soil. Eventually, he had to sail to Jamaica19.

Turnbull, though forced to leave Cuba, achieved his immediate objective: Gabino, at the age of 25, won his freedom. A letter from the Anglona’s successor as Captain General, Geronimo Valdes, to the British Consulate, dated June 23, 1841, stated that a letter of emancipation had been issued for Gabino. The report also mentioned that Gabino had married a slave, Candelaria20. Gabino had achieved the nearly impossible: he had overcome all the barriers imposed on emancipados by the Spanish colonial government and gained his freedom. His decision to bypass the Spanish legal system, importantly, produced a diplomatic crisis between the British and Spanish governments.

In late June 1841 Gabino began a new life as a free black man with a wife, but the Spanish colonial government did not forget him. A few months after his letter of emancipation, he was accused of conspiracy to foment a black uprising and condemned to eight years in prison. He would need to serve his sentence in a prison in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, far from his wife. Paradoxically, Gabino now returned to the African continent as a captive. His freedom had lasted only a few months. In November 1841 he left Havana imprisoned on board the Spanish naval warship Correo 4. It was the second time that Gabino crossed the Atlantic, in both cases as a captive. The conditions on board the Correo 4 were undoubtedly as bad as those on the slaving vessel Fingal. Gabino was gravely ill when the naval ship arrived at the Spanish port Cadiz. A few days after disembarkation, he died in the military prison21. Gabino, born Dobo, never reached the African continent. His story in Africa and in the Americas illustrates the fate of thousands of liberated Africans in Cuba. Dobo did not arrive in Cuba as a slave, but like other emancipados, he lost his African name, had his rights ignored, and was not remunerated for his work. Dobo, a free youth from Gola, became Gabino, a de-facto slave in Cuba.


1 Leslie Bethell, “The Mixed Commissions for the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of African History 7 (1966): 79-93; David R. Murray, Odious Commerce: Britain, Spain, and the abolition of the Cuban slave trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972).

2 Archivo Histórico Nacional, Madrid (hereafter AHNM), Estado, Esclavitud, Legajo 8034/21.

3 The term seems to come from the Gbangá River in Sierra Leone or a toponymic that refers to the zone of Gbangbama, where that river comes into the sea. See Alessandra Basso Ortiz, “Los Gangá Longobá: el Nacimiento de los Dioses,” Boletín Antropológico 52 (2001): 195-208.

4 On Gola, see Warren L. d’Azevedo, “A Tribal Reaction to Nationalism (Part I),” Liberian Studies Journal 1 (1969): 1-21; and Svend E. Holsoe, “A Study of Relations between Settlers and Indigenous People in Western Liberia, 1821-1847,” African Historical Studies 4 (1971): 331-62.

5 Lino Novás Calvo, Pedro Blanco, el Negrero (Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1997); William Renwick Riddell, “Observation on Slavery and Privateering,” Journal of Negro History 15 (1930): 337-71.

6 See Svend E. Holsoe, “Chiefdoms and Clan Maps of Western Liberia,” Liberian Studies Journal 1 (1969): 23-39.

7 On Vai, see: Svend E. Holsoe, “The cassava-leaf people: An ethno-historical study of the Vai people with particular emphasis on the Tewo chiefdom” (Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1967).

8 For Sierra Leone and Liberia, see Svend E. Holsoe, “Slavery and Economic Response among the Vai (Liberia and Sierra Leone)” in Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, eds. Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 287-303.

9 For slavery in Africa, see: Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers, “African ‘Slavery’ as an Institution of Marginality,” in Slavery in Africa, eds. Miers and Kopytoff, 3-78.

10 See: José Gutierrez de la Concha Habana, Memoria sobre el ramo de emancipados de la Isla de Cuba (Madrid: Imprenta de la América, 1861).

11 Some reports have mentioned that Spanish officials were selling emancipados in Havana during the 1830s for nine ounces of gold, or about one-third the cost of a slave. Archivo Nacional de Cuba (hereafter ANC), Gobierno Superior Civil, Legajo 105/5363; ANC, Reales Órdenes y Cédulas, Legajo 100/14.

12 AHNM, Estado, Esclavitud, Legajo 8019/39.

13 Inés Roldán de Montaud, “Origen, evolución y supresión del grupo de negros ‘emancipados’ en Cuba, 1817-1870,” Revista de Indias 42 (1982): 580.

14 Foreign Office, “Great Britain: Treaty between His Majesty and the Queen Regent of Spain, during the minority of her daughter, Donna Isabella the Second, Queen of Spain, for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, signed at Madrid, June 28, 1835,” British and Foreign State Papers, 1834-35, 23: 343-71; AHNM, Ultramar, Legajo 3547/6.

15 ANC, Reales Órdenes y Cédulas, Legajo 51/123.

16 This paragraph from AHNM, Estado, Esclavitud, Legajo 8019/39/4.

17 Ibid., 8019/39/1-7.

18 Before his appointment as British Consul in Havana, Turnbull spent almost two years traveling in Cuba and writing his best-known book, Travels in the West: Cuba; with Notices of Porto Rico and the Slave Trade (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1840).

19 Turnbull would return to Cuba in 1842 from the Bahamas. Accompanied by several free blacks, he hoped to free some emancipados who were held as slaves. For his arrest and deportation, see Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: the story of the Atlantic slave trade, 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 668.

20 AHNM, Estado, Esclavitud, Legajo 8019/39/10.

21 AHNM, Estado, Esclavitud, Legajo 8019/39/15-18.