María Francisca Camejo was a free black creole and leader of Cuba’s famous Mutual Aid Society of the Lucumí Nation of Santa Bárbara, remembered among modern-day practitioners of Cuban Santería as Ṣàngó tẹ̀ dún.
Little documentation exists for Camejo, but baptismal records describe her as a “black creole” (morena criolla), indicating that she was American-born. She self-identified as Lucumí, suggesting that her parents or other ancestors were Yorùbá speakers from the interior of the Bight of Benin region of Africa. By the 1790s, a branch of the important Camejo family lived in Havana and worked in the tobacco trade. It was probably this family who owned Camejo as a domestic slave and gave her the surname.
Sometime after the slave uprising on St. Domingue in 1791, Camejo married Juan Nepomuceno Prieto, an enslaved soldier in Havana’s Battalion of Loyal Blacks. The status and autonomy that came with military service helped both obtain freedom, with Camejo using the legal system of gradual self-purchase via installments (coartación).
During their transition toward freedom, Prieto and Camejo participated in cabildos de nación, legally sanctioned mutual-aid societies that were organized along ethnic lines and ubiquitous in Cuba’s urban centers. Often, the cabildos blended traditional African practices with Christian ones. Between 1817 and 1835, Prieto (who was born into a Yoruba-speaking family in the Bight of Benin area) became the recognized head of the famous Mutual Aid Society of the Lucumí Nation of Santa Bárbara. Over 47,000 enslaved Lucumí arrived in Cuba from the Bight of Benin hinterland between 1817 and 1836, the majority of them Yoruba speakers, making the leadership positions in the institution very important. Alongside her husband, Camejo stood at the top of the ritual hierarchy. She likely administered schedules, kept track of the ritual family, organized purchases, received deliveries, booked musicians, prepared sacrificial offerings, directed ritual sequences, and controlled the organization’s finances. The couple profited as entrepreneurs while also building up and helping to free members of the Lucumí community.
Although Camejo and Prieto had no biological children, they raised a large religious family created through a system that combined secret initiations into the Lucumí religion with Catholic baptisms. Camejo died around 1833, perhaps a victim of the cholera epidemic which was then decimating Cuba’s population. A red and gold flag the pair used to lead processions survives in Havana’s Casa de Àfrica museum. It reads: “The Lucumi Nation Mutual Aid Society of Santa Bárbara, year of 1820.”
Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Comisión Military 11/1, “Sublevación de Lucumí en la Habana y Juan Nepomuceno Prieto,” July 1835.
Ecclesiastical Sources for Secular and Slave Societies, Jesús María y José, Baptismos de Pardo y Morenos, vol. 3, f. 108v-109, Baptism # 806.
Lovejoy, Henry B. "Prieto, Juan Nepomuceno." Oxford African American Studies Center. 31 Jan. 2019; Accessed 6 Oct. 2020. https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-78274.
Lovejoy, Henry B. "Juan Nepomuceno Prieto's Arrest Report and Declaration, 1835," Studies in the History of the African Diaspora – Documents 20 (2012): 1-18. http://www.tubmaninstitute.ca/sites/default/files/file/Hlovejoy%20Juan%20Nepomuceno%20Prieto.pdf
Lovejoy, Henry B. Prieto: Yorùbá Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.