A Faithful Account of Colonial Racial Politics
At the top of most pieces of offi cial correspondence in nineteenth- century
Cuba, from statistics on sugar harvests to investigations of slave unrest, was a
seal or letterhead hailing “La siempre fi el isla,” the ever- faithful isle. Cuba’s
loyalty to the Spanish empire became one of its defi ning attributes during the
Age of Revolutions. Travel accounts repeated and reproduced the “ever faith-
ful” motto, as did leading writers throughout the century. By the time that
Fernando VII of Spain formally bestowed Cuba with the siempre fi el title in
1824, people had described the island with the phrase for de cades.
Perhaps the title protested too much. In the wake of successful in de pen-
dence movements in mainland Spanish America from Mexico to Argentina,
Cuba, along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines, stood as the remnants of
what at the beginning of the nineteenth century had been second only to Rus-
sia as the world’s largest empire. As Cuban sugar production grew to global
dominance during that century— enabled by the vast expansion of African
slavery— Spain was as eager for the island to remain in its imperial orbit as
Cubans themselves were sharply divided about their po liti cal future. Anxiety
about maintaining the colonial relationship explained, in part, the spread of the
“ever- faithful” motto, adapted to designate cities that were fi delísimas (super-
faithful) and printed atop the lottery tickets that optimistic Cubans tucked
away in their pockets. Its ubiquity guaranteed nothing in terms of people’s po-
liti cal allegiance, but neither did it lack symbolic value. In 1899, one year aft er
the conclusion of the thirty- year struggle for Cuba’s national in de pen dence,
court documents still written on the Spanish government’s letterhead had the
coat of arms punched out of them, leaving a gaping hole at the top of the page.1
So much talk of loyalty does not entirely square with common historical
associations pertaining to Cuba, namely, the rebellions and revolutions that
have given shape to its unique po liti cal culture. Today, at the Museo de la Revo-
lución in Havana, the narrative of the Cuban Revolution begins with the re sis-
tance of African slaves in the nineteenth century. But at a time in the Atlantic
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