Viewed from a mirador a few kilometres outside Trinidad, the Valle de los Ingenios, or Valley of the Sugar Mills, is an extraordinarily beautiful place, red earth feeding a lush green landscape. The beauty belies a brutal history of slavery, and vast fortunes made by slave owners, when this was a centre of sugar production in 18th and 19th century Cuba.
The history of sugar in Cuba is the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, that saw Europeans colonise the Americas and import slaves from Africa to work on plantations that generated huge profits. Sugar, and the rum that was manufactured from it, were so valuable that Spain kept tight control over it.
That ended in 1763 with the Seven Year’s War and the British occupation of Cuba. A sugar boom gripped Cuba, fortunes were made and Cuban sugar flowed into an increasingly globalised economy on American, British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish ships. The industry peaked in the 1850s, by which time Cuban sugar could be found in households across Europe and the Americas.
The Valle de los Ingenios had more than fifty sugar mills by the 19th century, the profits from which built the grand mansions of nearby Trinidad. All that sugar wasn’t going to grow and harvest itself, and by 1827 there were over 11,000 slaves working in the sugar industry. Slavery and sugar have left a profound legacy on Cuba’s cultural and ethnic mix, and also on the national love affair with rum.
The Valle de los Ingenios is still home to many former sugar mills and slave plantations, including extravagant haciendas. Unfortunately, the valley is firmly on the tour bus itinerary and, after driving through the peaceful countryside, our stop at Manaca Iznaga was eye-wateringly busy with tour groups.
Manaca Iznaga has the Torre de Iznaga though, a 43-meter tower up which most people from tours don’t venture. The tower itself seems incongruous in this place. Legend claims it was built as a competition between the two sons of the plantation owner. They both loved a beautiful young woman. Their father told one to build a tower and the other to dig a well, whoever built higher or dug deeper would marry her.
As in all fairy tales there was a happy ending, although not for the sons or (presumably) the young woman. Both tower and well ended up being the same height/depth so their father married the woman himself. In reality, the tower served as an observation post to spy on the hundreds of slaves who worked the plantation.
Despite all the tourists, there is something extraordinary about Manaca Iznaga, and the views from the tower are as spectacular as the stairs are steep. Jumping back into our taxi en route to Sancti Spiritus, we headed to another former plantation through lush countryside with sugarcane growing on either side of the road.
Guáimaro, with its picturesque hacienda and sweeping views over the valley, is a tranquil and atmospheric place. Its location, a few kilometres off the main road, seems to have protected it from tour groups and we were the only people there. Driving up a dirt road to the house we passed only a young boy on horseback.
It’s bizarre to stand on the veranda, a cooling breeze cutting though the heat of the day, imaging this beautiful place when it was the most productive sugar plantation in Cuba, worked by over five hundred slaves. The man responsible, and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in 19th Century Cuba, was José Mariano Borrell y Lemus.
He inherited the Guáimaro Ingenio in 1830 and commissioned a celebrated Italian artist, Daniel Dall Aglio, to do the interior decoration of the house. Dall Aglio also decorated Borrell’s mansion in Trinidad. The house’s main room is covered with paintings of Romantic and Neoclassical European scenes – a truly odd sight in the middle of the Cuban countryside.
Borrell was a Royalist and was awarded the title of Marquis of Guáimaro by Queen Isabel II of Spain. He was also a philanderer of epic proportions. While his wife and family lived in Trinidad he lived a ‘bachelor’ lifestyle at Guáimaro. He regularly took advantage of the female slaves with whom he had at least fifteen illegitimate children, adding to his six legitimate children.
This hypocrisy was emphasised on Sundays, when he would bring his entire family to the estate for prayers in the private chapel. They must have been excruciating occasions and might be one of the reasons his wife and eldest son plotted to kill him. They paid a slave to shoot him, but he survived his wounds and ‘interrogated’ the man to discover who was behind the plot.
Legend has it that, because his wife was motivated by money to kill him, be decided to bury a large amount of gold somewhere on the plantation. No one knows whether this story is true but, if it is, the gold has yet to be found…