Walking around the colonial-era coffee plantation of Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, I asked our guide if the plantation had many visitors. It was a popular destination for tourists he assured us. Later, signing the visitors’ book, I couldn’t help but notice that the last visitor had been five days earlier. Just one person, from Germany. Time moves at a different speed in the Cuban countryside.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Even with a Cuban driver we’d had to ask directions to Antiguo Cafetal Angerona on three separate occasions. Finally, we found the dirt track that led to the ruins of a formerly luxurious hacienda. For the previous hour we’d seen little but horse drawn traffic, the occasional bicycle and a couple of tractors. It felt like we’d stepped back in time.
Arriving just below the imposing ruins of the hacienda, we spotted some men sat outside a nearby building. We wandered over to say ‘hello’. It was 10am and a nearly empty bottle of rum sat on the table between them. The oldest of the group offered to show us around. He was knowledgeable and charming, but you could smell the rum from five feet away.
Founded in 1813 by German immigrant Cornelio Sauchay, this was one of the first coffee plantations in Cuba. Like most of the colonial economy of the island it was a slave plantation. As we walked towards some ruins that were being slowly devoured by tropical fauna, our guide pointed to the former slave quarters and a bell tower that doubled as a watchtower for escaping slaves.
Four hundred and fifty slaves – men, women and children – lived and worked on the plantation, cultivating around three-quarters of a million coffee plants. By the mid-19th Century it had become the second largest plantation in Cuba. It’s an atmospheric place, the decay of the buildings set perfectly against the lush greenery. In this setting, it’s hard to imagine the human misery that made it all possible.
We passed by a deep well and huge water cisterns used for irrigation. The plantation was like a small town with its own factories producing bricks for the buildings and clothes for the slaves. The plantation feels isolated today, in the 19th Century it must have been like another universe. Self sufficiency would have been vital for the survival of the estate.
In one of those ironic twists of fate, Cornelio Sauchay fell in love with a black woman from Haiti, Ursula Lambert. In an age when this was forbidden, the plantation’s isolation provided the perfect cover for them to live together. It’s claimed Ursula’s influence ensured the slaves of Antiguo Cafetal Angerona had a marginally better existence than slaves elsewhere in Cuba.
They lived in small houses in family groups, had their own kitchens, and didn’t have to work at night or in the searing heat of the afternoon sun. There was even a ‘hospital’ that treated slaves who were sick or injured. A small flicker of enlightenment maybe, but the slaves were locked up at night and the watchtower was built to prevent escape.
In an even more remarkable twist of fate, it seems that although Ursula left the plantation without any money when Sauchay died, she became a successful businesswoman. She died wealthy on Cuba Street in Havana Vieja, the (presumably) proud owner of twenty slaves. Weird thing history.
Today the coffee plants are long gone and the fertile red earth is now given over to towering fields of sugar cane. Somehow that seems to add to the atmosphere of the place. We walked back to the car, meeting a few farm workers on their way home who were keen to have a chat. Then it was back to the Carretera Central de Cuba and onwards to the magnificent Vale de Viñales.