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Vol. 73/No. 49      December 21, 2009

Afro-Cubans defended
anticolonial fighters
The following article appeared in the November 26 issue of the Cuban daily Granma under the headline “138 years since the colonial power’s crime of November 27.” It recounts the execution of eight Cuban medical students in 1871 by Spanish colonial authorities. The article also tells the story of five black Cubans, members of the Abakuá society who were killed attempting to rescue the students. The Abakuá was a secret society of both free and enslaved blacks, organized for self-defense and to protect their culture in the face of slavery and colonial rule. A broadly sponsored commemoration of their heroic action was held November 27 for the first time in Cuba. It is part of the vigorous discussion and debate in Cuba on the legacy of black Cubans in the island’s history from the independence war to the 1959 revolution to the challenges of overcoming remaining vestiges of racial discrimination today.

What lay behind the colonial authorities’ decision to carry out the horrendous crime of Nov. 27, 1871? Madness or calculated treachery? An irrational hatred for the emerging national sentiment that was taking shape in the countryside? Or a premeditated attempt to teach a lesson to those of rebellious spirit who sympathized with the movement for freedom?

That day, eight Cuban medical students received in their flesh a mortal salvo of rifle fire as punishment for supposedly desecrating the grave of a Spanish writer who had called, in a lampoon, for the extermination of everyone born on the island. It was soon learned that no such desecration had taken place; it was merely a pretext for carrying out the crime.

The first to be charged were five young people who had been found in the Espada cemetery November 23, the day on which the crime that had never taken place was alleged to have been committed. Three others were chosen at random. Thirty more received sentences of up to six years in prison in the frame-up trial.

Ángel Laborde, Anacleto Bermúdez, José de Marcos Medina, Juan Pascual Rodríguez, Alonso Álvarez de la Campa, Eladio González, Carlos Augusto de la Torre, and Carlos Verdugo were the victims. They ranged in age from 16 to 21.

Unrecorded, however, are the names of five other Cubans killed that same day, in an attempt to rescue the students on their way to the firing squad. They were five men of black skin, one of them “a milk brother” of Álvarez de la Campa—that is, someone nursed by the same black nanny.

An account of the failed action was written by no less than Ramón López de Ayala, captain of volunteers in charge of the execution of the young people. In a letter to his brother, who worked in Madrid’s Ministry of Overseas Territories, he wrote: “Blacks discharged their firearms at a group of artillery volunteers, killing their lieutenant. Those under attack responded immediately against the blacks, tearing to pieces the five authors of the aggression on the spot.”

The blacks belonged to the Abakuá group Bakokó Efó, one of the associations under whose name African slaves and their descendants on Cuban soil organized to defend themselves physically and preserve their culture against the colonial oppressors. The action taken Nov. 27, 1871, has been preserved and passed down orally by the Abakuás as part of the most valuable patrimony of their revolt. Taken by force to be exploited in the plantations of the island, the Abakuás brought essential ethical values to the forging of the nation.

Those anonymous fighters merit the words our [José] Martí used to honor the murdered students, praising the capacity of the Cuban soul “… to rise up in arms, sublimely and, at the moment of sacrifice, to face death without hesitation in the holocaust of the homeland.”
Related articles:
Cubans answer slander of racism against revolution
Health group withdraws from anti-Cuba letter  
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