Rising From the Barracoon
The Roads of Yemoja (4/6)

Rising From the Barracoon

Beninese writer and photographer Laeila Adjovi visits the ruined slave barracks of old Cuban sugar plantations for her Fay Chiang Fellowship research, where she discovers vestiges of ancient African rites.

“El Barracon”
by Georgina Herrera 
Translated from Spanish by Juanamaría Cordones Cook

On those ramparts
still damp, on the walls
which the rain and sobs from long ago 
wore down and also
made eternal, I lay my hands.
Through my fingers, I hear
moans, curses, swearing
from those who quietly
resisted for centuries
the fangs of the whip on their flesh.
Everything comes to me from the past, while
thoughts emerge. I ask 
of the endless middle passage
for strength and memory – that 
devotion to remembrance – 
and love, so much, all the love
that watered their impetuous seed, perpetuating it.
Thus I sense it, I gather it.
I tremble. 

*“El Barracon” was written in the ruins of Santa Amelia sugar plantation by Cuban poetess Georgina Herrera. It was first published in her book Oriki para Georgina.

Arnaldo Zulueta strolls cheerfully through the alleys of Santa Rita, Cuba as if he were showing around his kingdom. He tells me that in the past, the vast sugar plantation had “well-lit streets and a fountain.” Now there are only unmaintained squares, rusty swings, and a bodega from another era. This property, once owned by the Armas brothers, is as large as a residential neighborhood, with scores of dilapidated houses lining up for miles. In spite of successive attempts at modernization, the ingenio (sugar mill) no longer grinds cane. Most of the old workers moved to the surrounding farms and factories. Not all of them, though. 

Arnaldo blends into the background. The years of physical toil have left the 84-year-old custodian of Santa Rita thin, gangly, and slightly stooped. He wears a khaki shirt and a work badge that swings across his chest as he strides from place to place. The only sign of his age is his balding jaw. Arnaldo has more than 60 years of experience making sugar. Before him, his father worked at the ingenio. And before his father, his grandfather. “My Mom’s dad was a slave in the Mejico plantation.” That’s how Arnaldo inherited the last name Zulueta, from the owner. He doesn’t know his place of origin or the name of his ancestors. The man recounts this with a kind smile, as if he were telling a sad story with a happy ending.

The Santa Rita sugar mill dates back to 1842. Its “endowment” was of several hundred slaves. Endowment, yes, that’s how people say it, as if the slaves had been a lot of equipment—human machines, tools, chattel. The barracoons, those austere barracks where the men and women of the endowment lived, stretch as far as the eye can see. “There are some there, there, there, there, and there,” points Arnaldo. Long white and red buildings “made of earth and stones, nothing more” still stand almost two centuries later. People still live here today, “more than a thousand of them.” They’ve had to renovate the buildings a little—adding cement and filling in some cracks—but they left the old walls intact “because they are part of our heritage.” 

Both here at Santa Rita, and at the old San Ignacio compound not far away, residents refurbished what they could salvage from the crumbling slave barracks. But I am told that not all former barracoons are habitable. In San Ignacio, the ruins adjacent to the old lookout tower could never be converted into homes. No one knows (or wants to speak of) what happened there, only that “no one has ever managed to settle inside.” 

The living conditions in the barracks have been illustrated in many accounts, including by those who experienced them first hand. “It was all about the whip and surveillance,” recounted Esteban Montejo, whose testimony was chronicled in Cuban author Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. In the book, Montejo describes barracoons as dilapidated mud buildings, without modern ventilation, haunts of fleas and disease, where enslaved people were locked up at night like hostages, kept in unsanitary prisons. Not to mention the bell. The metronome of forced labor. A bell to get up, another to line up, another to go to work, and so on, until the “bell of silence”, signaling bedtime. 

Sugar plantations bore all the hallmarks and characteristics of labour or concentration camps. Guards exerted absolute control over the population through the use of torture, sexual violence, forced labour, the separation of children from their parents for resale, and the threat of execution. But even amidst the pervasive terror, Esteban also mentions the permanence of African rites in his account. He goes into detail about Yoruba rites that took place on the site: dilogun sessions (divination ceremonies using cowrie shells), syncretic rites and the transmogrify of Catholic saints, wooden statues hidden in the barracoons to honor Shango, Obatala, and Yemaya. He also elaborates on the “witchcraft” of the Congos, specifically how their knowledge of plants and poison posed a threat to their “masters”. Plants and trees are at the heart of their animist rites.

Venerating elements of nature as abodes of spirits and mystical forces is widely shared among African communities across the continent. Collective trauma, the oppression of slavery, and prolonged confinement on the plantations created fusion among once-distinctive traditions from different parts of Africa. The Congos of Central Africa were the first to be trafficked to Cuba from the 16th century onwards, and so it is their heritage that is best known and most deeply rooted. 

“Among the Congos, trees are very important. Everything is born from them and granted by them. They are like gods,” says Esteban in his biography. “The Congos draw their power from nature, from the trees, which are the soul of nature. In the days of slavery, in all the sugar mills, the Congos had their bushes and their special trees.”

The Santa Rita sugar mill was no exception. As Arnaldo leads me toward another part of the compound, we pass an immense alcove. At the back of a wide garden, encircled by small shacks, a majestic giant tree stands like a lighthouse in a sea of barracoons. One must cross the courtyard to truly gauge its height and width. The season is cool and dry and dead leaves crunch under my feet. Nearby, the sound of a radio crackles through a window. Further away, a man burns something in a barrel. White smoke fills the air. Is it the smoke…the golden atmosphere of twilight…the tiredness of this long day? I have no idea. But something happens in me when I reach the giant’s feet. This tree is in shackles. Literally. Several metal chains, with rings as big as fists, girdle the trunk.

I think it’s a kapok tree, but I am told it’s a hawei, the indigenous name for a certain type of ficus. Really, it’s a Palo de Ogun, a ritual tree for Ogun, the deity of iron to the Yoruba and Congo peoples. Ogun, brother of Shango and Elegua, is said to have originated in the city of Ilesha in present-day Nigeria. Ogun is formidable. Yoruba mythology bestows him colossal power, matched only by his jealous and belligerent character, and his kinship to prestigious dynasties of Oyo and Benin. The work of iron, mechanics, transport, engines, weapons, and war are all the business of Ogun. Irascible and violent, Ogun is one of the divine guerreros, the warriors. During an orisha initiation in Cuba, he comes with three other deities: Ochosi, Osun, and Elegua. Together, they mean protection and stability, like the “four legs of the same table,” Cubans say. Yemaya is always close by: in the mythology, she is sometimes depicted as his mother and other times as his wife.

The trunk bears the residue of libations and ritual offerings. In the branches, several meters above the ground, is a metal sculpture with a star and moon that resembles an assin, a small altar dedicated to ancestors, a practice that exists in Benin to this day. Further around the tree, just above my head, a cavity wrapped in chains is filled with more bones, feathers, and traces of libations. Captivated as I am by the tree, a few minutes pass before I realize that another person is standing here. “[The tree] is at least two hundred years old,” says the voice of an elderly woman, a resident, who seemed to appear out of nowhere. She says during the period of slavery, the mill supervisor, the foremen—the entire hierarchy, in fact—allowed the rituals for the tree to take place. Or maybe they just turned a blind eye. “In years when the tree was not fed, there were serious accidents.” 

To this day, people come to pray, make promises of offerings, and sometimes wrap a chain around the tree. “As the tree trunk continues to grow, it eats the chains.” Indeed, some broken links appear in the hollows of the wood, as if the tree digested the invocations or worshippers to bring their wishes to reality.

I think of the high kapok trees of Casamance (Senegal) and of the ancient towering ìrókò trees of Benin—of all the earth-bound temples to which people turn for blessings, assistance, and absolution. Irókò trees are sacred in Benin, described as the home of a vodun (deity) that crossed over to the “New” World. While in Cuba, the ceiba tree is said to be the cane of Olofi, which is another name for Olodumare, the Supreme God, also used to refer to the sun. I think of the baobabs of Senegal, where some griots are traditionally buried. Baobab sepulture. Iroko sanctuary. 

I think of the tree-mausoleums at the nearby San Ignacio sugar mill. During slavery, some people preferred to be buried in a standing position, with a tree to mark their grave, to perpetuate forbidden mortuary rites. (Consequently, many funerals administered by the church took place with coffins that were either empty or filled with stones.) 

I think of the mango tree tickling the clouds at the house of Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna II, a prominent religious dignitary in the town of Ouidah, Benin. During our conversation, he was adamant: “There must be a tree, at least one, in each Vodun temple.” A channel between earth and sky.

It’s getting late, the light is fading. Time to leave. I cross the courtyard covered with dead leaves, the blank scripts of painful life-stories that will never be told. I think of all those who were born here, and died here, with this garden and offerings to Palo de Ogun as their sole crumb of freedom. I put my hands on the trunk, and I pray. As I start to move away, a glint between the snaking roots catches my eyes. I get closer. Squint my eyelids. Several tiny statuettes of Catholic saints and one of the Virgin Mary lay in a nook between the gnarled roots. Of course. Small porcelain santons live here with Ogun and his chains.

As I walk away, the huge totem becomes a shadow in the distance, at the far back of the yard. The man who had preserved the spirit of the Tree with the necessary rituals died a few years ago. The old woman from the barracks assured me that’s when the mill that ground the sugar cane broke. When the Tree was no longer being cared for, the mill finally had to shut down.

Author’s Note: Extracts were collected in December 2020 in Agramonte, Matanzas province, Cuba. The text has been translated from French and edited for clarity and length for ArtsEverywhere’s digital platform.

“The Roads of Yemoja” follows the rites of a West African deity on the two shores on the Atlantic, from Benin and Nigeria to Cuba. The work will be compiled as a book of photographs, travel notes, historical research, poetry, and elements of fiction.

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