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Buying a slave in Havana Cuba 1837
Buying a slave in Havana, Cuba 1837.

If you or I were plantation slaves in Cuba in 1859, our value would have been set by law at $1,000 a person, which is equivalent to $28,316.68 in today’s US currency.

Cuban sugar plantation
Cuban sugar plantation.


This was a considerable investment by the plantation owner. A large plantation might have around 200 slaves, with a human value in today’s currency of $5,663,336.

All of this horrified abolitionist Richard Henry Dana, who wrote a book about Cuba in 1859, “To Cuba and Back.” He called it “a vacation voyage,” but it was really an investigation into Cuban slavery. I have recorded this adventure as an audiobook:
“To Cuba and Back – A Vacation Voyage in 1859.”

To see pictures of Cuban slavery, the plantations and old Havana and hear excerpts from the narrative, click on this internet link:

Richard Henry Dana author of "To Cuba and Back" and also "Two Years Before The Mast"
Richard Henry Dana, author of “To Cuba and Back” and also “Two Years Before The Mast.”

Richard Henry Dana didn’t sit on the sidelines when he witnessed injustice. He was one of the good people in American history, individuals who actively opposed immoral and unethical behavior.

Hundreds of slaves each year escaped their Southern masters and worked their way North to freedom, beyond the reach of Southern slave laws. Unfortunately, in 1850, the United States Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act in an attempt to form a compromise between the Southern slave holding states and the Northern free states.
Richard Henry Dana represented fugitive slaves in court, attempting to keep the former slaves, who had escaped to the North, out of reach of their Southern masters. He refused payment for most of his legal services.


US Fugitive slave captured by law enforcement. Dana represented fugitive slaves pro bono, at no cost to the fugitive.
US Fugitive slave captured by law enforcement. Dana represented fugitive slaves pro bono, at no cost to the fugitive.

Richard Henry Dana was an active and outspoken abolitionist – dedicated to totally abolishing slavery everywhere, including Cuba, where sugar plantations were worked by slaves. The heat could be so intense in Cuba that when a US mainland slave was belligerent, and could not be controlled, the slave was shipped south, to spend the rest of his or her life in the heat of the Cuban sugar fields as punishment.

When Dana took his so-called “vacation,” he was well aware that Cuba was a place where United States interests were attempting to sustain slavery. He knew that he was entering territory with slave practices that were abhorrent to him.

Slaves cutting down sugar cane on a Cuban sugar plantation
Slaves cutting down sugar cane on a Cuban sugar plantation.


Dana was a deeply religious man, a man of conviction, who had considered the ministry, but eventually chose to practice law. He didn’t visualize himself as a writer, yet as a very young man, he had written a shocking, provocative book that changed the laws of the Merchant Marine, “Two Years Before The Mast.” He was a witness to and described the brutal practices of some ship Captains when they were long at sea and out of sight of the law, treating seamen almost as slaves.

Slavery had been abolished by Spain in 1820, however the Spanish government tolerated slavery’s existence in its Cuban colony for local economic reasons. It was an uneasy situation. Spain had already forbidden the importing of new slaves to Cuba, so plantation owners could only add to the new slave population with the children of present slaves.


Slaves tasting the sugar.


As Dana wrote:
“Every slave has a right to go to a magistrate and have him valued, and on paying the value, to receive his free papers. A slave is not obliged to pay the entire valuation at once; but may pay it in installments of not less than fifty dollars each.

By paying a share he becomes entitled to a corresponding share of his time and labor. If his valuation is $1,000, and he pays $100.00, he is owned one tenth by himself and nine tenths by his master.”



“To Cuba and Back” is an adventure that takes us on a journey into the lazy heat of tropical cities, the strict lines of society and the near lawlessness of the plantations.
It was a rough time for both Slave and Master, as Dana wrote:

Colonial Havana in a recent photograph

“The Master is a policeman as well as an economist and a judge. His revolver and rifle are always loaded. He has his dogs, his trackers and seizers, that lie at his gate. His hedges maybe broken down, his cane trampled or cut, or still worse, set fire to, goats let into his pastures, his poultry stolen and sometimes, his dogs poisoned. It is a country of little law and order, and what with slavery and free Negroes and low whites, violence or fraud are imminent and always formidable. No man rides far unarmed.”

Young ladies of wealthy Cuban Plantation families in Havana ride in a volante, drawn by horse with Black postillion.


“To Cuba and Back” also discusses the failed attempt, in 1859, to purchase Cuba and make it one of the United States’ slave states. Only a year after this book was written, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. A year after that, the American Civil War broke out, ending slavery in the United States, but not in Spanish Cuba.

Here is a link to pictures of Cuban slavery, sugar plantations and old Cuba, as well as excerpts from the narrative of “To Cuba and Back:”


“To Cuba and Back,” by Richard Henry Dana, is now an audiobook and published by Listen To Read, a new addition to our American Adventure Library series. It is enhanced with sound effects, music and an original Afterword.

It is available at,, Barnes & Noble Nook,,, and at our Listen 2 Read website, where it can be downloaded in full stereo.
Now that Cuba is so much in the news, I found it interesting to learn of Cuba’s history long before Castro, the Casinos and the Spanish American War.

Andre Stojka
Listen To Read
© 2016

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