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Sonic Continuum

‘I hear and I forget’, Confucius once said, and it has been found that we find it harder to retain the memory of sound than of our other senses. Our collective past often seems silent – its inhabitants voiceless strangers more easily visualised than recalled to our ears.  This absence of sound distances us from the lived realities of those who can no longer speak, and our present is denied the full benefit of their experiences.

Detailed reconstructions of the past are built out of a wide variety of archival and documentary sources: letters, reports and published texts; the painstaking piecing together of statistical details; the drawing of maps to reveal spatial connotations and interconnections; and contemporary descriptions and artists’ renditions at times providing vivid impressions of how life might have been and what the world might have looked like. From these documents, historians have been able to write about social lives, cultural expressions, economic trajectories and political movements; debate their significance and the underlying historical processes they have revealed; follow the movement of people, goods and resources around the world, and the flow of commodities through these networks.

Yet there is an uneasy tension between the globalising impulse to seek out the abstract forces that have driven history forwards, connecting time and space in analytical meshes; and historians’ role as storytellers, giving voice to the experiences of those who are long gone. Amidst all the descriptive, qualitative and quantitative analytical wealth, we do not know what voices of the past sound like. Historians can question what particular pieces of evidence mean, and indicate where the gaps in our knowledge are, but not give voice where it is absent. Those working on periods subsequent to the invention of recording equipment may have access to auditory sources – to the voices of those who lived the events, the sounds that they would have experienced – through which that past may seem more immediately available than any amount of writing could hope to achieve. For most historians, however, with no direct access to the sounds of a place and time, even such voices are reduced to textual representations that have favoured those speaking subjects who – being the most literate, articulate and well-connected – have more opportunity to speak for themselves.

We cling to these surrogates, implicitly conjuring sound whenever we quote their words.  But when it comes to the sounds of the past, at best we can draw on their written descriptions, or seek out clues through the reproduction and ongoing re-encounter with their sonic form, to conjure in our imaginations the glimmer of an echo, so mediated by our present-day perceptions that it can barely claim to be a crude approximation. Rather than dwell upon this auditory absence, historians have tended to remain deaf to it.

My own historical research has focused on the Cuban sugar industry, in particular in the nineteenth century, and in the reconstruction of the processes and experiences of those involved in the production, trade, and ultimately, consumption of sugar, when it was becoming a ubiquitous part of the global diet. Although quoting different voices as came to me in the documents I perused, sound itself played at best a tangential and contextual role.

Of all the sounds that make their way into contemporary accounts, the ringing of the plantation bell is perhaps the most common. Its chimes act as a replacement for those of church towers that have, since the middle ages, marked the passage and regimentation of time. In the Cuban cane fields, on the leading edge of the expanding sugar frontier, there were few priests to bless the enforcement of industry. The mills themselves were the new cathedrals, and their bells announced the rhythm of the relentless working day. In the words of Esteban Montejo, a former sugar-plantation slave:

‘The mill’s bell was at the entrance. It was rung by the overseer. At four-thirty in the morning it rung the Ave María. I think there were nine chimes. You had to get up straight away. At six in the morning, the bell rang again and we had to form up in the area outside the barracks. The men on one side and the women on the other. From there to the fields until eleven in the morning, when we ate dried beef, vegetables and bread. Then at sunset came the prayer. At eight-thirty the bell rang for the last time to go to sleep. It was called the Silence.’[1]

Other sounds did not recede into a subconscious background through their predictable regularity. There was the crack of the whip – ever present and anticipated even in its absence – punctuating the repetitive motions of cane-cutting or the feeding of the mill’s great boilers and hungry presses. A perceived slacking of the speed of work, and the whip cracks. A stumbling under the load, and the whip cracks. Daring to flash a rebellious eye at the overseer, and the whip cracks. The forced witnessing of punishment, as recalcitrants, stripped and strapped to a ladder, were flailed to set an example. There would be no escaping the sound of knotted ropes, their explosive penetration of the air blurring with their destructive penetration of flesh. The threat of such violence may have been as much a part of the enforcement of order as the imagined ubiquity of the whip.

While for six days a week the plantation was a place of regimented order and unrelenting work, Sundays, the day of rest, was when the mill came to a different kind of life:

‘The noisiest days in the mills were Sundays. I don’t know how the slaves reached this day with such energy. The biggest parties of slavery were on this day. There were mills where the drums began at midday or one o’clock. On the ‘Flor de Sagua’ [where I worked], they began very early. With the rising of the sun began the noise and the games, and the children messing around. The barracks came alive early, and it seemed like the end of the world. And despite the work and everything, the people woke up happy.’[2]

In this same account, Montejo describes the different dances and games:

‘The one I remember the most was the ‘yuka’. In the ‘yuka’ three drums played: the ‘caja’, the ‘mula’ and the ‘cachimbo’, which was the smallest. Behind this, two sticks beating two hollow cedar trunks were played. The slaves themselves made them, and they were called the ‘catá’. The ‘yuka’ was danced in pairs with vigorous movements. Sometimes they spun like a bird and even seemed to fly they moved so fast. They jumped with their hands on the waist. Everybody sang to encourage the dancers.’[3]

Such contemporary accounts of sonic materiality are rare, but can sometimes be found in the letters and diaries of those who were present. Yet they still leave us at a distance. Even with the most evocative of texts, we must rely on our aural imagination to conjure such sounds to life.

Then there was language, the sound of voices. The mid-nineteenth century Cuban sugar mill was a babel in which there was no guarantee that Spanish, the official language of the island, would be dominant. By a conscious policy of sonic segmentation, slave populations were plucked from many different tongues – Congo, Lucumí, Mandinga, Carabalí – in the hope that difficulties in communicating would keep them servile. Different sonic cultures were brought along the routes of forced migration and new common cultures developed on the island. Languages, songs and dances, bound together by the drumbeat, mobilised not only rhythms, chants and melodies, but a secret language of belief, identity and resistance that sowed fear of the unknown and the ever-present threat of revolt on the plantation.

Eventually, out of the crucible of exploitation and conflict, the syncretic sonorities of the plantation became an integral part of the emerging culture of the new Cuban nation. To the present day their echoes can be heard amidst languages thrown into the sonic mix: those of the Iberian peninsula and Hispanic America – Spanish, Catalan, Andaluz, Galician; but also English, French and German, brought by the skilled workers, engineers and other artisans who accompanied the rise of the Cuban sugar industry with their steam technology and industrial innovations. European and creole languages arrived from neighbouring Caribbean islands: from the slave revolution in Haiti and emancipation in the English colonies. Then, as African slavery reached the end of its days on the island, the arrival of Chinese indentured labourers threw their various traditions, languages and dialects into the mix.

This was the sonic ajiaco,[4] the cultural hotpot of identities brought together to forge the Cuban nation. Through conflict and concurrence, their calls for freedom, claims of rightful place and liveable futures continued to reverberate through the subsequent history of independence struggles and political upheavals on the island. These sounds also reveal much about the global networks of which the Cuban sugar industry was a part.  The regimentation of time marked symbolically by the mill’s bell connected the plantation workers with industrialised labourers elsewhere – the rhythm of their lives determined by the requirements of a depersonalised, denatured modernity where everything could be quantified, commodified, and ordered so that it may be brought under firmer control. This same process was occurring relentlessly with the product itself: the sugar gradually took on a homogenised appearance and quality, regardless of its geographical or botanical source. The ironing out of local difference was seen also in the environment, in which large tracts of the most fertile land were given over to this single crop.

Then there was the machinery, because the sugar mill was as much an industrial factory as it was an agricultural plantation. Where before teams of oxen would have provided the power, making their own contribution to the sonorous mix, there came the sibilance of steam driving piston shafts and belts to turn the ever-hungry presses. Through them the cane was crushed and its juice extracted, while giant furnaces consumed anything combustible to keep the engines rolling and centrifuges spinning to separate out the sugar granules, the air agitated and full of noise. The steam engines, and the machinery they powered, connected to industrial enterprise not just in other sugar mills wherever this commodity frontier reached, but to all manner of mechanised production. They connected the Cuban countryside to the urban centres of Europe and North America, from where the new technology, and those skilled in its installation and operation came.

Beyond the plantation, roads were too often made impassable by tropical storms, as ever more land was swallowed by the expanding sugar frontier. Somehow transportation had to be improved, and steam also brought railroad locomotives in service of the burgeoning industry. Through them, distances were closed on the first leg of a journey that would take the sugar through ports, onto ships, offloaded and sold, broken down and packaged, finding its way into the food and drink of workers in the same cities from which the machinery came. The characteristic sound of the trains became as much a part of the Cuban countryside as once were the birds in the woods.

And these were now pushed into the receding margins as nature was not just tamed but eradicated, the land cleared and set to monoculture, its soil exhausted by overuse, and the former forests turned through that use as fuel into the white granules that sweetened the palette of global consumers. The wind that before would have spoken through the varied trees, now murmured ghostlike over a sea of cane fields, the occasional royal palm breaking the monotony of the scene. A part of the planetary story of landscapes transformed, environments exploited and corrupted, and ultimately the crisis of ecological degradation that we are living through today.

These sounds that lie behind such connections should be accorded a place in commodity history, helping us in the reconstruction of past stories and bringing erased voices more effectively to life for present and future generations. The mixing of sounds, languages and cultures on sugar plantations, produced microcosms of a world where millions were cut off from their places of origin, set loose in transnational networks of migration (both forced and free). Restoring sound to our understanding of commodity history may make the experiences of earlier generations more immediate, and the processes that built the modern industrial world less abstract. By listening, historians may play a larger part in conveying the past that continues to reverberate into our shared present, ensuring that the voices of those who for so long have been silenced may be heard and understood.