Many desperate young people were forced to leave their homes and travel to Cuba in 1853, aiming to earn a living on the sugar plantations. The sad adventure of one of these games was described by Bibiana Candia in her novel ‘Sugar’, published last year by the Pepitas de Calabaza publishing house. He left for the Caribbean in December, when Galicia was experiencing one of the wettest winters in its history. Storms destroyed crops, while a cholera epidemic wreaked havoc on the population.

As the author points out about one of the protagonists: “Orestes never touched the sea, he only saw it from afar. The sea is big and never ends, like hunger, that’s why she is not afraid to enter it, because hunger removes fear from almost everything. In the 140 pages of the book, the author only finds the true story of 1,744 Galicians who crossed the Atlantic to work on the lands of Urbano Feijoo Sotomayorbut who ended up being sold into slavery.

This deputy from Orense took advantage of the needy situation of his compatriots and launched a colonization campaign with them, promising them lots of money and decent working conditions. The objective was to replace the labor force that had arrived from Africa and had begun to claim its rights in small rebellions.

For his business, Feijóo Sotomayor even benefited from the support of the government, which granted him a significant subsidy. What the unfortunate Galicians did not imagine was that their new destiny had a test in store for them. “The Villa de Neda leaves the port of La Coruña like a procession leaves on Maundy Thursday, proud, without realizing that in reality it is going to celebrate death. But the ocean, which in this way turns out to be bad, lets the ship in like someone opening a secret door and welcomes it as an intimate enemy would do,” we also note in “Azucre.”

unknown story

“What pushed me to write this novel was that it was an unknown story not only in Spain, but also in Galicia, where we have a very deep oral tradition and great pride in ’emigration. “I was shocked that such a tragedy had not been recorded in our collective memory and I became obsessed with it,” Candia explains to ABC about this “fraudulent and criminal” plot which caused great scandal in the world. mid-19th century press and it was even discussed at the Cortes, but it was lost in oblivion.

Currently, the only remains that remain are three letters sent to Spain by some of these Galician slaves and kept with restricted access in the archives of the Congress of Deputies; a series of documents preserved in the archives of Galician emigration, which demonstrate the direct involvement of Feijóo Sotomayor, and the lists of passengers who went to work in Cuba, the latter purchased by a historian, by chance, on eBay. “When the evidence came to light in October 1854, Feijóo claimed that he knew nothing and that it was just residual behavior, but this was not true. A debate began over whether slavery was morally correct and a Madrid newspaper, “El Clamor Público”, even published a letter from the Galician community who lived in New York and which demanded that the Spanish government help their compatriots”, he underlines. author.

The nearly two thousand workers who emigrated under Feijóo’s promise were treated like animals during the year that their sad adventure lasted. They worked from dawn to dusk even when they were sick, they barely gave them food, they locked them in barracks as if they were prisoners, they beat them with whips to make them work harder and they barely saw a peseta. The actions were even used against those who complained, which Candia describes in her novel: “It’s like a mousetrap the size of a man. Two wooden planks with one hole for the head and two for the hands. The punishment is simple: stay there, head stuck and hanging, body bent, with the impression for hours that your blood is stagnating and not circulating. They have sores on their butts from not moving for days.

Urbano Feijóo de Sotomayor, in the second part of the 19th century


“The work of two black people”

The sinister deputy had already warned of the possibility of business in one of his writings: “A Galician must do the same work as two blacks for the price that a slave costs”. The reality, however, was not so simple. The report produced during the government investigation specified that, of the 1,700 Galician passengers who had emigrated to work with Feijóo, 500 had died by October 1854.

“There are a lot of deaths,” emphasizes Candia, whose novel is in its sixth edition and has sold more than 15,000 copies. However, I understand that there is almost no testimony, because the survivors would be ashamed to say that they were deceived and what they suffered. At that time, it was a horrible shame to return to your country poor after having emigrated. “No one would want to tell future generations about this tragedy.”

Feijóo justified himself in a thousand ways before the Cortes, but he knew that nothing could happen to him because he enjoyed parliamentary immunity. He went so far as to say that “the Galicians were lazy and that they only wanted to eat, that we had to be tougher with them”, says the writer. He maintained this position, even when he managed to escape with the Cuban Development Council grant to Spain. The only consequence was that he had to close his business, because he did not even compensate the thousands of families who suffered from his abuse. The government decreed that anyone wishing to report it must do so individually through the island’s arbitration system.

“As you can imagine, no one did. Most didn’t even know how to read or write. This episode should teach us to look to the past to ask more questions about what our immigrant ancestors suffered. Those who achieved the great American dream of Indians were the 1%. Almost no one has managed to become rich. The emigration experienced by Galicians and Spaniards in general in the 19th and 20th centuries was a story of survival and not of enrichment. We must not forget that glory is often sustained by tragedies,” concludes Candia.