Sugar was once the important crop in Cuba, and although the island did not produce the gold the Spanish had hoped for the importance of ‘white gold‘ was quickly recognised by the colonists.
The early production of sugar unfortunately seems synonymous with the slave trade and the history of sugar plantations is a sad one. A story of cruelty littered with the lives of the enslaved.
Visiting a plantation now it is difficult to imagine the misery and suffering that took place and it is sobering to remember the main motivation was merely skin colour. The commercial reasons of sugar production and the lure of free labour aside it is extremely sad to consider one person could enslave another just because of the cosmetic colour of their skin.
Initially only males were used as slaves but unfortunately for the slavers they kept dying so women were introduced, this was a cold commercial decision, as reproduction meant a continual supply of cheap labour.
The foundations of some of the living quarters are still visible, tiny rooms accommodated that two couples, most rooms were about the size of a small bathroom.
Many of the buildings even the estate homes are little more than ruins or shells , but some of them have been preserved or converted to museums. One such building is a bell tower which dominates the plantation on which it stands. Many grounds had similar towers as the daily lives of slaves were controlled by the sound of the bell. It was rung throughout the day to signal the key moments in the daily routine of the slaves, alarm calls, mealtimes, time for work, time to return from the fields and time to sleep.
The Manacas Iznaga bell tower near Trinidad featured in these pictures is probably the best preserved of these. It also has a legend attached to it; two brothers had a bet, the one that building the largest structure would win. The eldest brother built this tower but his younger sibling dug a well which was both deeper and provided all important water for irrigation. Needless to say he was the winner, however it is the tower which still remains and with it the eldest brothers legacy.
It is now a major landmark which makes a great viewpoint for the surrounding area, providing views of the local town and old plantation grounds.
The Sugar Mills’ Valley plantations are popular with tourists, apart from the tower there is a well preserved plantation house. This attracts traders selling all manner of goods, though one folding sugar cane leaves into intricate designs was especially impressive. He offered me a grasshopper as a gift, however gifts usually require a present in return therefore it is advisable to refuse them unless you don’t actually mind paying for them.
Some of the goods on sale are tempting, they appear to be of good quality however there is generally little here that cannot be bought anywhere on the island. Supporting local communities however is responsible tourism so spreading souvenir purchases around is a good way to achieve this.
Considering the history of plantations they are not quite as striking as similar locations of human shame such as concentration camps. They require more imagination and thought as the history is not as evident, but it is worth visiting one, they are still a stark reminder of their place in mankinds legacy.