This summer, Dr. Aaron Alejandro Olivas, assistant professor of History at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU), will have a rare opportunity to travel to Cuba for the first time to participate in an academic conference and connect with family he has never met.
Dr. Olivas will present at an international conference, “The Slave Trade to Cuba: New Research Perspectives“ this month in Havana, Cuba. The Conference is organized by Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Casa de África, the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, the Fernando Ortiz Foundation and the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation of Nature and Man.
Olivas’s presentation, “Trade and Politics of the French Compagnie Royale de Guinée in Cuba, 1702-1712,” delves into late colonial Spanish America’s transition from Habsburg to Bourbon rule and its relation to the slave trade.
Olivas will explain how Northern European corporations involved in the transatlantic slave trade manipulated politics in the Spanish empire to advance their commercial agendas. Through his research, Olivas argues that French control of the asiento (Spanish slave trade monopoly) and the Compagnie Royale de Guinée’s influence over colonial elites were largely responsible for Spanish America’s loyalty to the Bourbon cause during the War of the Spanish Succession.
Olivas noted that Cuba is a significant location to hold the conference because it was not only one of the first places in the Spanish-speaking world to adapt African slavery, but also the last to abolish it in 1886. Between 1513-1867, approximately 800,000 slaves were taken to Cuba alone from West Africa.
Most research on the transatlantic slave trade, which tends to be quantitative in nature, has disregarded the role it played in corporate and political history, Olivas said.
“My research not only looks into what happened on the ground in regards to the slave trade, but also how these corporations convinced people to purchase slaves from them,” Dr. Olivas said.
Fluent in French and Spanish, Olivas said his findings integrate extensive archival records from México, Spain and France, where he was able to track down names of corporations and individuals involved in the slave trade, as well as sales documents and official contracts.
He believes his research provides a fresh perspective on the study of the transatlantic slave trade and sheds light on how global networks of merchants worked together politically to ensure the rapid expansion of the slave trade during the early 18th Century.
Olivas, whose heritage is Mexican-American and Spanish, said he looks forward to traveling to Cuba because he will meet a cousin from his mother’s side of the family, whose parents immigrated there from Spain in the early 20th Century, after joining a mass exodus of Spaniards fleeing undesirable socio-economic conditions at the time. His cousin is part of a larger extended family that mostly left Cuba for the United States in the 1960s.
“My grandmother kept in contact with our family from Cuba during her entire life through correspondence,” Olivas said, “I remember she used to send money and religious cards to them. She felt a strong bond with them.”
Explaining that his Spanish side of the family also migrated to other parts of the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and the United States, Olivas said he has held on to the legacy left by his grandmother of keeping in contact with relatives.
“I give credit to the women in the family, including my grandmother, Dolores Jiménez and my great aunt, Rosa García, for preserving our family connection,” Olivas said.
Olivas, whose family is Catholic, said that when he finally meets his cousin in Cuba, he looks forward to learning how he is involved in the Catholic Church and the role that Catholicism plays in contemporary Cuban society.
“I would be curious to know what it means to be a Catholic in a communist regime,” he said, “I am also fascinated by the syncretism between West African religions and Catholicism in the Caribbean, so I am very interested in seeing firsthand how the African heritage of the island continues to be play a part in people’s spirituality, even those who are not of Afro-Cuban descent.”
While in Cuba, Olivas said he will not miss the chance to conduct research for his current book project by visiting local archives. In addition, he will use this opportunity to collect materials and gain perspectives for course development, particularly his Modern Latin America class scheduled for Fall 2016, as well as a future course on Caribbean history.
“I am eager to share these experiences with my students at TAMIU and perhaps create a study abroad course in Cuba in the near future,” Olivas added.
“U.S. scholars tend to mostly focus on México and Perú when it comes to the study of Latin America, and other parts of the region are often left out of the narrative,” Olivas said, “I look forward to finding similarities and differences in the Cuban story and adding to the conversation.”
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www.tamiu.edu, June 6, 2016