Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: MS Span 170

Houghton Library collection of Cuban slavery documents


Documents concerning enslaved persons, slavery, black Cubans, and related economic factors, collected by the Houghton Library.


  • 1561-1898

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is closed pending end-processing.


1.5 linear feet (5 boxes)
This collection consists of documents related to the institution of slavery and emancipation in Cuba over the course of the island's long process of gaining independence from Spain. With the exception of 3 items from the 16th century, the documents date from the mid to late 19th century and represent a variety of both official and personal records.

Since enslaved people were considered "property" of their enslavers, civil authorities did little to administer the lives of the former as legal entities, e.g., issuing them birth certificates, establishing official forms of their names, etc. The Catholic Church, however, in its role as self-appointed guardian of the souls of both free and enslaved, did in many cases record names, dates, and places as they related to ecclesiastical sacraments--here, chiefly baptism and marriage. The collection thus contains a large proportion of letters and reports reflecting formerly enslaved individuals' efforts to confirm their legal identities, intra and post emancipation, with the aid of church records. There are also a large number of fatality reports, along with a variety of censuses and statistics, including commercial summaries of slave sales. Finally, the collection documents the Cuban system of patronato, or patronage, whereby capitalists, called patronos, would sponsor formerly enslaved individuals (patronados) in paid employment, often at the same sugar mills or plantations where they had previously worked in bondage.


Collection is arranged by document type.

Custodial History

The documents in this collection were purchased from a number of different sources over time. Information regarding provenance prior to purchase is unknown.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

2008M-99. Purchased with funds from the Francis B. Hayes Bequest, per Lynn Shirey, 2009 May 7.

2014M-71. Purchased with funds from the Sidney J. Watts Fund, 2014 November 1.

2014M-82-84, -90-95. Purchased with funds from the Thomas W. Streeter Fund and the Bennett Hubbard Nash Fund.

2015M-148-151. Purchased, 2016 April 22.

2016M-95. Purchased with funds from the Treat fund and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 2017 March 22.

2018M-16. Purchased via Lynn Shirey, Widener Library, 2017 July 12.

2018M-60. Purchased via Lynn Shirey, Widener Library, 2017 December 4.

2018M-70. Purchased via Lynn Shirey, Widener Library, 2018 January 10.

2018M-95. Purchased via Widener Library, 2018 March 27.

2019M-19. Purchased via Widener Library, 2018 September 10.

2019M-36. Purchased with funds from B. Pool Book Fund Pool, 2018 October 1.

Related Materials

For related material, see MS Span 171, the Andrzej Henryk Wojcik collection of documents relating to slavery in Cuba, and Théophilus Conneau Collection on A Slaver's Logbook, 1853-1854, 1928, 1976 (MS Am 3352). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Processing Information

Processed by: Michael Austin and Melanie Wisner.
Processing Information This finding aid was created in accordance with the guidelines set forth in "Anti-racist Description Resources", by Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia, 2019; the internal Google document "Writing About 'Slavery'?" was also consulted [need citation]. The archivist, in consultation with other colleagues at Houghton Library, consciously avoided the neutral language of the economics that fostered slavery and instead chose to use terminology that highlights the brutality, cruelty, and dehumanization of that institution. For example, instead of "owner", we use "enslaver"; for "slave", we say "enslaved" (except when talking about the system, as opposed to individuals); for "runaway" or "renegade", we say "self-liberated".

In the case of the former Spanish colonies, there existed an involved set of racial taxonomies utilized to describe an individual's perceived "whiteness" or "blackness", e.g., criollo, pardo, moreno, etc. While these terms are unscientific and inherently racist--to say nothing of being inconsistently applied, often to same person--they were frequently employed as an added means of identification for individuals throughout the documents that make up this collection, especially when last names are lacking. The archivist has, when appropriate, included these descriptors in this finding aid. As recommended in "Writing About 'Slavery'?", they have not been set off with quotation marks or italics, given the native Spanish-speaking environment in which they were generated.
Link to catalog
Houghton Library, collector. Houghton Library collection of Cuban slavery documents, 1800-1898 (MS Span 170): Guide.
Houghton Library, Harvard College Library
Description rules
Language of description
English, Spanish

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, literary and performing arts archives, and more. The library's holdings of primary source material are managed by an expert staff and shared with scholars, students and the public in the reading room.

Harvard Yard
Harvard University
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2440