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Do you have an ancestor who went to Cuba in the nineteenth century?

If you do, historian Chris Evans would like to hear from you. He’s writing a book called Slave Wales, which looks at the importance of Atlantic slavery in Welsh history. It’s a story in which Cuba plays a part. Evans explains: “A lot of people imagine that the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 dealt a death-blow to the system of Atlantic slavery. But that’s not true. The number of slaves in the Atlantic world was expanding, not shrinking in the first half of the nineteenth century.”

Cuba was one of slavery’s major growth points. This was largely because of the rapid take-off of sugar cultivation in the west of the island in the early 1800s, but it was also because of copper mining in the eastern Sierra Maestra in the 1830s and 1840s. And that’s where there’s a Welsh connection.

The Swansea and Neath valleys were the world’s most important centres of copper smelting in the nineteenth century. Most of the ore was shipped in from Cornwall, but by the late 1820s the big copper firms were investigating ores from overseas, especially those from the mines of El Cobre in Cuba. Welsh industrialists invested heavily in them. Much of that investment went into buying slaves.

Hundreds of enslaved Africans worked at the behest of Welsh industry. They provided the bulk of the workforce, but there was also a layer of imported experts: miners and engineers from Cornwall and Wales. Dozens of workers left Wales for Cuba in the 1840s and 1850s. Some were from Merthyr Tydfil, others from the Swansea district, still others from the coalfield around Wrexham. Many died in Cuba, victims of yellow fever. Others must have returned to Victorian Wales after their encounter with the brutal world of Caribbean slavery.

Do you know of any? If you do, email to cevans3@glam.ac.uk.

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