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Spanish slavery and its abolition

The emerging evangelical movement was one of the most active driving forces in mobilising Spanish society against slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

FEATURES AUTOR 363/Jose_Moreno_Berrocal 15 DE FEBRERO DE 2023 17:02 h
Antonio Carrasco and Julio Vizcarrondo, both evangelicals, were key figures in the abolition of slavery in Spain.

2023 marks the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the known as Disaster of 1898 - the loss of the last remnants of the Spanish overseas empire: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

The deep crisis that the disappearance of these last colonies caused in Spain was widely reflected by the so-called 'Generation of 98', to which writers as important as Unamuno, Valle-Inclán, Benavente, Pío Baroja, Azorín, Antonio Machado belonged, among other outstanding names in Spanish literature.

A television program in Spain recently recalled this event mentioning a widely ignored issue in Spain until today: the Spanish slavery. Specifically, the fact that Spain continued to trade slaves until the end of the 19th century, when this practice was already forbidden in the USA and England.

In fact, slavery survived in Cuba until a few years before the war with the USA, and was officially abolished on 7 October 1886. In Puerto Rico, it was abolished even earlier, on 22 March 1873.

The TV documentary explained how black slave labour was abundantly used on the sugar cane plantations in Cuba. It also talked about the huge fortunes that were made that way, which ended up benefiting certain family elites in mainland Spain.

The program featured many renowned specialists on the subject. One of them, Nayibe Gutiérrez, PhD in American History from the Pablo de Olavide University, said that "there is an interest in hiding this part of history".

It is appropriate to open this dark page, so that we are fully aware of all that is wrong within Spain's troubled history.

But, having reported the bad, it would also have been instructive to mention the people who fought for the abolition of slavery in Spain from the beginning of the 19th century.

In the latter part of that century, it is noteworthy the work of such exemplary Protestants as the evangelical pastor in Málaga, Antonio Carrasco and the Puerto Rican Julio Vizcarrondo Coronado, who founded the Spanish Abolitionist Society in 1865.

From the very beginning, this Society published the newspaper El Abolicionista (The Abolitionist), edited by Vizcarrondo, with the aim of promoting its abolitionist ideas. Distinguished cultural figures of the time wrote in the paper.

The great late historian Gabino Fernández Campos highlighted the imposing figure of Vizcarrondo in an article that appeared in the IDEA magazine of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance in 2007.

He also rescued the words with which the influential writer of the time, Benito Pérez Galdós, greeted the birth of the anti-slavery newspaper:

"The Abolitionist has been launched into the public arena. Its mission is great. The greatest of the crimes of modern society will have in this publication a continuous prosecutor; the unhappy blacks who in the Spanish Antilles vegetate chained to the earth, true machines at the service of the greed of the owners who regulate their movements with the whip, have in it a perpetual defender, a voice that with admirable eloquence ceaselessly announces to the free people of Europe the shame and ignominy of the slaves of America.... The new paper will succeed, and no one will dispute with it in the future the glory of having defended such a just cause, nor the blessings of the slaves, who will one day come out of abjection and lethargy, gaining with liberty a new life".

Vizcarrondo also defended freedom of worship and conscience at a time when Spain was officially Roman Catholic. He was a Member of Parliament for the district of Ponce de Puerto Rico.

The activist carried out a significant humanitarian work on behalf of the most vulnerable, being, for example, one of the founders of the well-known Infant Jesus Hospital in Madrid.

Reviewing the work of José María Piqueras The slavery in Spain: A transatlantic tie, Dr. María Margarita Flores Collazo of the University of Puerto Rico described Vizcarrondo as the Spanish Wilberforce, since his life had striking similarities with that of the great English abolitionist.

Both men began their fierce battle against slavery from the decisive push given by their evangelical experience of conversion.

Vizcarrondo came to the evangelical faith through his wife Henriette Brewster and Cornell of Philadelphia.

The influence on Vizcarrondo of Wilberforce and his parliamentary allies can be seen in a reference Vizcarrondo made to them in 1866:

"The cry of indignation against the trade of human beings which had been raised in the English Houses by a handful of virtuous men, found an echo in the hearts of some brave men in the glorious Cadiz Parliament; and two men, whose memory will forever be honoured by admirers of learning and virtue, Alcocer and Argüelles, presented propositions for the abolition of slaves. Since then, all the countries that stained their national honour with such a great injustice, have repaired Christianity and civilisation by washing such a leprosy from their foreheads; only Spain persists in error and injustice".

Another great historian of Spanish Protestantism, Juan Bautista Vilar, pointed out that: "Vizcarrondo was tirelessly active in the most diverse social, political and literary circles to promote the abolition of slavery in the Spanish territories where it still existed".

"To this end, he organised innumerable conferences, courses, seminars, rallies and competitions. Among the latter, a poetry competition was held shortly after his arrival, in 1864, which Concepción Arenal won, and after which the contributions of the contestants were published in a volume entitled El cancionero del esclavo (The Slave's Songbook)", Baustis Vilar added.

Writing in the Protestant newspaper The Light, Vizcarrondo stated that "slavery is an wicked institution that the Gospel condemns. Black slavery is the great crime of Spain and its punishment. We, as Christians and as Spaniards, must protest against this abominable institution which dishonours our country in the eyes of all educated peoples".

The abolitionist underlined that "right now, when the reforms of Puerto Rico, which include the abolition of slavery, are under attack, we thought it was right to talk to all the evangelical Christians in Spain, and in particular the pastors who lead the Christian churches, to beg them to send petitions to the Parliament asking for the abolition of slavery".

Fernández Campos also mentioned the abolitionist work of the evangelical pastor Antonio Carrasco. A tireless speaker against slavery, he used The Light, which he founded and directed, as a channel to express his views.

This publication "promptly reported on anti-slavery activities, published summaries of speeches and included poems, such as the one in its edition of 23 April 1870, titled Jesus Christ condemning slavery".

We would therefore facing two serious failings. On the one hand, forgetting our dark slavery past as a nation: in this regard, I am impressed by Martín Rodrigo's statement: "Throughout the history of Cuba, almost a million Africans were enslaved, over twice the number of slaves who arrived in the United States".

It strikes me because we do know about slavery in the USA and we do know about Abraham Lincoln. But how little we have known, so far at least, about Spanish slavery.

And, on the other hand, I think it is very relevant that the emerging Spanish evangelical movement was one of the most active driving forces in the mobilisation of Spanish society against slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

It is striking that this outstanding Spanish evangelical work against the scourge of slavery is not recognised among us. But it is essential, in my opinion, to be aware of the wide historical context in which the anti-slavery movement developed worldwide.

The Spanish abolitionist movement is one more fruit of the great evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries.

At the very heart of those revivals was the doctrine of salvation by God's grace alone. The grace of God which is God's sovereign initiative to save those who deserve nothing on His part, on the basis of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

As Paul says: "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one may boast", Ephesians 2:8-9.

The great hymn Amazing Grace composed by a slave ship captain converted to the gospel, John Newton, sums up the message of revival perfectly: God saves the lost by pure grace.

And it is precisely this experience of God's saving power in Christ that leads to a life of fighting against evil in all its forms and manifestations, not only against the sin that dwells in me, but against every form of sin that oppresses my neighbour and against which something can and should be done.

That explains the bold evangelical fight against slavery: it is the development of a civic spirit that seeks the good of all.

It is the transforming impact of salvation by God's grace that explains the lives of people like John Newton, William Wilberforce, Antonio Carrasco or Julio Vizcarrondo.

Their example of commitment to public welfare should motivate us today. The question is: Have you known the grace of God in Christ? And, how does God's grace impact the way you live in society?




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