Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.
Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.
Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.
The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.
Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.
On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.
Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.
Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.
Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.
As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.