Old Glory is flying once again in front of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. And at the flag-raising ceremony on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry did everything he could to remind people of the history that brought it down 54 years ago. “For more than half a century,” he said, “U.S.-Cuban relations have been suspended in the amber of Cold War politics.”
The U.S. punditocracy, meanwhile, weighed in with predictable platitudes about the meaning of it all. Many complained that Cuban dissidents should have been invited to the embassy. The Washington Post called the State Department’s excuses for this failure “lame” and proclaimed, “The American flag is a powerful symbol of the country’s long and noble struggle to defend the values of freedom and democracy.”
Fair enough. But as we’ve learned in the course of this summer, flags can mean many things to many people. And if we want to have a better understanding of Cuba, now that it’s beginning to open up, we should remember that its troubled relations with the United States did not begin with Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 or even Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. We should understand that for many years the American flag—not the Confederate flag—was, for Cubans, the star-spangled banner of slavery.
Early in the 19th century, Great Britain, the United States, and most of the governments of Europe had passed laws banning the horrific slave trade between Africa and the Americas. The British, who finally emancipated the slaves in their colonies in 1833, moved not only to end their own previously extensive participation in the trade in humans, but to prevent others from carrying out that grim commerce as well. They deployed warships off the coast of Africa and South America to stop, search, and seize suspected slavers, and they used gunship diplomacy more than once to impose their will on weaker nations.
But the United States had gone to war against Britain in 1812 to stop it from stopping and searching any American ships, and steadfastly refused to let the British anti-slaving fleet stop American-flag vessels. Instead, Washington deployed its own feeble squadron off the coast of Africa which did little to stop slavers and much to interfere with the British efforts to do so.
The main market for the slaves—tens of thousands of them every year— was the Spanish colony of Cuba, where it was more profitable to work them to death in the cane fields and then replace them with new, cheaply bought Africans, than it was to keep them healthy and alive. Technically, it was illegal to import them, but the law was ignored.
And, technically, trafficking in African slaves was illegal in the United States as well—it was supposed to be a hanging offense—but the New York ship builders and outfitters figured it was well worth the risk, and when cases were brought before the Southern courts they refused to indict.
Indeed, the pro-slavery faction in the United States had its own designs for Cuba: to buy it or conquer it and turn it into two new slave states, thus assuring control of the Senate and greater power in the House of Representatives. (Slaves had no rights as citizens or as human beings under the Constitution, but counted as three-fifths of a person for census purposes, thus hugely inflating the voting power of the states that held them.) More than a century before the Bay of Pigs fiasco, adventurers in the United States organized invasions of Cuba to “liberate” it from Spain in the interests of American slavery. Those, too, were fiascos.
It is difficult to conceive, today, just how gruesome was the trade carried out under that American banner of “freedom and democracy.” In the 1850s, Southern politicians known as “fire-eaters” were defending slavery—and the slave trade—as a moral good. They were pushing to reopen it between Africa and the United States. And at the epicenter of Southern radicalism, Charleston, many refused to acknowledge the grotesque inhumanity of the Cuban trade even when it stared them in the face.
In late August 1858, the horror that the South did not want to imagine—a slave ship—was right there in Charleston harbor. Vomit and urine and feces and blood had seeped deep into the raw wood of the sunless slapped-together slave decks in the hold, staining them indelibly with filth. Cockroaches by the millions seethed among the boards, and clouds of fleas and gnats rose up from them.
The stench that came from this vessel wasn’t the smell of a ship full of cattle and horses, but that peculiar smell that surrounds humans, and only humans, who are very afraid and very sick, or dying, or dead. The water in Charleston Harbor was still and flat and thick as oil, and the air was stifling hot and heavy. The stinking vessel, a brig called the Echo, had been captured off the coast of Cuba a few days before.
Because it was the summer, the season of disease, many of Charleston’s better-off residents had left the city. For those who remained behind the spectacle of the Echo and its Africans was a disgusting but almost irresistible novelty. Because the transatlantic trade had been banned for 50 years, many had never beheld such a ship before. “You will see by this morning’s Mercury that we have a slaver in our harbor,” one distinguished Charlestonian wrote to a friend. “She has on board about 300 naked native negroes, 60 of them women. Every one of whom is in the family way. Everybody is talking about them. The yellow fever, the cables and every other subject have faded before this. There is really and truly an excitement among these cold, stolid Charlestonians.”
That the Echo had been captured at all was the result of a dawning awareness by the federal government of something that the British consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch, had been explaining to the foreign office in London for years: the fleets of slave ships flying the American flag, supported by money-men in New York, and incited and abetted by the fire-eaters like Robert Barnwell Rhett and Leonida Spratt, posed a growing threat to the authority of Washington and to the Union itself.
The slave traffic was growing fast. Something had to be done before the momentum became unstoppable. So, quietly and against stubborn bureaucratic resistance, President James Buchanan had American warships step up their anti-slaving patrols off the coast of Cuba as well as Africa. And the Echo was their first prize…Read the rest here…