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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Grant

Ariadne - A 19th Century Cuban Plantation

Updated: Apr 29

On a clear March day in 1851, on the Cuban sugar plantation called Ariadne, a dance took place. According to the Swedish woman who later recorded this event, the dancers were dressed in, "clean attire", a significant fact as the dancers were enslaved Africans and Afro-Cubans who comprised Ariadne's labor force. March was crop time in the sugar cane world, and crop time meant that the sugar plantation entered a period of furious activity. Overseers drove slaves to chop the sugarcane, load the stalks onto carts, haul the carts to the mills, grind the cane and work their magic to transform the cane juice into the precious sugar that graced European tables and brought wealth to planters' pockets. Yet on this day when so much work needed to be done, fifty dark-skinned cleanly attired enslaved men and women were drawn from the fields—at their master's command—to dance. Bremer's experience suggests that the enslaved people were being used to entertain the plantation owner's guests, possibly in an attempt to present the work of sugar manufacture, which relied heavily on slave labor, in a better light.

The idea that Ariadne was a "showcase" plantation and an important destination for nineteenth-century travelers to Cuba is supported in the travel journals of several other visitors who wrote of their time in Cuba. The nineteenth century saw the rise in popularity of travel writing as a literary genre. Europeans and North Americans could experience adventure vicariously through these often-sensationalized works. Cuba was especially interesting because in a world where the enslavement of human beings had become much frowned upon the island still held onto a labor system that included legal slavery. Ariadne could be seen as an attempt by this family of sugar makers to defend their use of slave labor. Eight years after Bremer's visit Richard Henry Dana Jr., a U.S. lawyer, and abolitionist, also visited Ariadne. He described it as having been established in 1819 originally as a coffee plantation called El Laberinto, meaning Labyrinth. The coffee plantation was later converted to a sugar estate after two hurricanes on the island decimated the coffee plantings.

During her visit, Bremer was told the story of the plantation owner's history, and this story bolstered the image of Ariadne as a patriarchal operation. Fredrika Bremer writes that her host, Mr. C (other sources refer to the owner of Ariadne as Mr. Chartrand), had lived as a boy on the neighboring island of Hispaniola (Haiti) when that country's slave uprising occurred in 1791. One of his father's enslaved servants, a man named Samedi also called Saturday, acted quickly when slaves broke into the plantation. He grabbed his master's two young sons and rushed to the port and safety. Bremer’s host was one of those boys. Somehow Saturday was able to secure passage on a ship to Charleston, South Carolina. He placed the boys in school and hired himself out as a servant to earn money to take care of them. According to the tale, each week Saturday gave three dollars each to the boys until they grew into men. One son made his fortune at sea, married, and purchased a plantation in Cuba where he took Saturday to live with him. He gave Saturday three dollars pocket money each week until he died.

Image of Saturday from John Lauris Blake's book entitled, Evenings in Boston

Dana was told a similar story about Ariadne's owners. In fact, the story both visitors heard had been published in an early nineteenth-century children's book entitled, Evenings in Boston, and included a sketch of Saturday fleeing with the boys. The story was used as a tool to represent the "good" slave who was loyal to his master even when his fellow slaves turned against their masters. But here is what is interesting. According to Bremer's account, When Saturday died it was found that this Christian slave (thought to have been fully assimilated into the culture of his master), “Wore upon his breast an African amulet, a piece of folded paper printed very small, with letters and words in an African tongue, and to which the negroes appear to ascribe a supernatural power.” (Bremer, 315) Many African slaves and their descendants in Cuba held religious beliefs that attributed supernatural powers to certain written symbols. Amongst these Africans were the Carabalí who were brought to Cuba from the Old Calabar region on the West Coast of Africa during the early nineteenth century. It would be pure speculation to attempt to link Saturday with the Carabalí, but it is clear that this "model" slave had never given up his personal African religious beliefs.

13th Vice President of the United States
William Rufus Devane King

Ariadne was also a significant location in nineteenth-century Cuba for an unexpected reason. In 1852, Franklin Pierce was elected President of the United States of America. His vice president was William Rufus Devane King. King was suffering from tuberculosis and was unable to take the oath of office with his President. Instead, Congress passed a special act allowing King to be inaugurated on foreign soil. William Rufus Devane King was attempting to recuperate from his illness in Cuba—at Ariadne plantation! On March 24th, 1853, the newly elected thirteenth vice president of the United States took his oath of office at Ariadne sugar plantation in Cuba. Shortly after this event he returned to his own estate in North America and died on April 18, 1853.

Further Reading:

Richard Henry Dana, To Cuba and Back, published in 1859

Fredrika Bremer, The Homes of the New World, published in 1858

John Lauris Blake. Evenings in Boston, published in 1828 (this book can be read online through GoogleBooks)

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