The Charity Ball - Free People of Color in Matanzas, Cuba
Swedish traveler, Fredrika Bremer, found her way to the town of Matanzas on Cuba’s north coast as she traveled around the island in 1851. She attended a dance hosted by the city’s free people of color apparently to raise money for a charitable cause. Bremer referred to the event as a “negro ball” and this is what she wrote about it. “I was one evening one of the spectators of a great ball given by the free negroes of Matanzas for La Casa de Beneficienza [sic] in the city, to which the white public were invited by the black. The ball took place in the theatre, and the gazing public occupied the boxes.” Bremer noted that the theatre was located near the Plaza de Armas and I tried to locate it myself when visiting Matanzas in 2009. While I did locate a fancy theatre it wasn’t near the Plaza de Armas, so I imagine the original theatre has either been replaced or moved. Bremer went on to describe the event as, “A banquet, arranged with flowers, lamps, and ornaments, [that] occupied the lower part of the dancing hall. The dancers amounted to between two and three hundred persons. The black ladies were, for the most part, well dressed, after the French mode, and many of them were very fine.” As Bremer continued to write about the event it becomes clear that she did not enjoy the performance. Her issue seems to be not that they were dancing minuets, but that the dances were being performed by people who were not naturally suited to perform minuets. Other entries in her journal indicate that she enjoyed watching performances by African-descended people when these dances were more closely akin to what she considered to be African-influenced.
So, what were these free people of color in Matanzas up to? Surely, if it was about raising money for their cause, it seems likely that they could have raised more money (with less expense) by presenting an “African-derived” performance. Why wear French-styled clothing and dance minuets? And what about the charity itself? While the orphanage, La Casa de Beneficencia would have been very familiar to them as the organization where many mixed-race children were placed and raised out of sight of polite society, this organization had another role in nineteenth-century Cuban society. For Cuban-born whites, criollos, La Casa de Beneficencia was a showpiece institution taking in first white and then mixed-race children. Its patrons were the leading citizens of Havana who prided themselves on their modernizing agenda.
So again, at a time when the presence of free people of color was problematic in Cuba’s urban areas (for what they represented to the growing numbers of enslaved Africans), especially after the 1791 revolution in Haiti – what were these Matanzas dancers up to?
Well, presenting a European-styled charity event and aligning it with such an illustrious charitable organization made it a brilliant choice for free people of color bent on challenging their subordinate status! The free blacks who organized the performance were challenging the prevailing race-based assumptions that excluded them from the overall modernizing effort that identified the management of progress and civilization as a “white” concern. Associating themselves with this prominent charity, which was itself associated with the most “progressive” element of Cuban society, could only reflect favorably on free people of color whose racial heritage made them socially inferior in the colonial hierarchy. If the Matanzas dancers had been solely concerned with raising funds, they could have taken advantage of the prevailing white attraction to Afro-influenced performance (cosas negras) and the popular stereotypes of “blackness” as a form of public amusement. They chose, however, to use public dance to challenge derogatory images of African culture rather than perpetuate them. In this way, they resisted efforts to relegate them to a black underclass.
Bremer, Fredrika. The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1858.
Grant, Jacqueline. Public Performance: Free People of Color Fashioning Identities in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Cuba (Dissertation), University of Miami, 2012.