Enslaved Background Image

Carlota and Fermina

Carlota (?-November 1843) and Fermina (?-1843) of the Lucumi nation transgressed Spanish colonial rule in Cuba through their involvement in an antislavery and anticolonial movement that became known as La Escalera. The Lucumi nation was historically associated with Afro-Cubans of West African Yoruba ancestry, The 1843 Conspiracy of La Escalera is known as one of Cuba’s most extensive uprisings, particularly because it allegedly involved a network of elite free men of color, white creole men, and rural enslaved people who worked on behalf of anticolonial and abolitionist movements in their own related but distinct ways. Many Cuban scholars debate about whether a conspiracy truly existed, instead speculating that Spanish officials were anxious about the rising class of free people of color on the island, including an intellectual class of poets and thinkers who greatly influenced anticolonial sentiment and a militia of color—which was dismantled by colonial order in 1844. That year was known as the "Year of the Lash,” because of the widespread punishments meted out to enslaved and free Cubans of color in response to the uprising. Nevertheless, some scholars argue the movement of La Escalera as the prerequisite for the Ten Years War that would occur some twenty years later in 1868. Whether a multi-racial and multi-class conspiracy truly existed or not, 1843 was indeed a year of widespread rebellion amongst western Cuba’s rural enslaved population. “La Escalara,” referred to the ladders to which alleged conspirators were tied to receive their punishment.

In terms of enslaved Afro-Cubans’ involvement in La Escalera, the uprising is best understood as a series of mostly individual but sometimes interrelated rebellions occurring on various plantations in rural, western Cuba in 1843. Historians have therefore not pinpointed one single figure as “leader” and instead identify multiple leaders and queens of the movement on various sugar and coffee plantations. Though male figures are more prominently identified as leaders of the 1843 rebellion, two women stand out in colonial archives as active participants. Fermina of the Ácana sugar estate and Carlota of the Triunvirato estate owned by Julián Alfonso were two of the only women named by witnesses to have committed violent acts during the Triunvirato Rebellion, which traversed various plantations including La Concepcion, San Miguel, San Lorenzo, and, finally, San Rafael.

The rebellion begun at the Triunvirato sugar estate on Sunday, November 5, 1843 around 8pm and followed a similar pattern as the previous rebellions in the Spring and Summer. While Carlota and Fermina were prominent insurgents when the rebellion moved to Ácana, three male Lucumí leaders were particularly important to initiating and expanding the rebellion at its starting plantation Triunvirato. Led by Eduardo, Santiago, and Bonifacio, groups of rebels targeted structures, symbols, and persons of power by assaulting the overseers, their homes, and their valuables. At least five whites were killed at Triunvirato, including two women, a child, and a foreman. As rebel numbers grew so did the number of leaders. Three more Lucumi men stepped into leadership roles and helped guide the group to the neighboring estate Ácana, where Fermina and Carlota would step into their own leadership roles.

Carlota of Triunvirato would travel with the rebels from her home plantation to Acana, where Fermina resided. As the rebels arrived from Triunvirato, Carlota and Fermina made their mark as women leaders in the rebellion by being unafraid to harm enemies and unafraid to command others. Carlota is particularly known for her brazen attack of an overseer’s daughter at Ácana, a young woman named Doña Maria de Regla. Carlota not only attacked Maria with a machete but bragged about it to such a point that it became well known amongst enslaved women and eventually known to colonial officials. Matea Gangá and Magdalena Lucumi testified to Spanish officials that they heard of a woman named Carlota who boasted of attacking a white overseer’s daughter. Maria herself testified about the event and revealed that Carlota and two Black men chased her until she fell. After Maria fell, she reports, Carlota struck her three times with a machete. Carlota then commanded her two male companions to strike Maria harder until she dies, but the men said that further assault was unnecessary because they believed Maria to be already dead. Upon hearing these testimonies, the presiding officer determined to find Carlota—likely to punish her for her transgressions. Yet, his search to reprimand her was futile as he discovered that Carlotta’s body was found the morning after the uprising. Her cause of death is unreported. 

Similarly, Fermina would become known amongst other enslaved women as a brutal leader of the uprising at Ácana. Two enslaved women named Filomena and Catalina reported that they “distinctly” witnessed Fermina guiding armed rebels through the estate, showing them where white overseers resided so they could initiate their attacks. Fermina, only recently freed from her own shackles, also took charge of freeing other enslaved people from iron weights and chains. A fieldworker named Martina reported that Fermina demanded a large hammer to break the shackles off people imprisoned on the estate. Two other enslaved women named Catalina and Camila also reported that they saw Fermina chasing down an escaping white foreman and commanding a group of rebels to assault him with their machetes because, as Fermina stated, he was “the one who puts us in shackles.” 

Though Fermina would deny the allegations these women forged against her, her history of marronage and rebellion casted doubt on her claim to innocence. That summer of 1843, Fermina escaped Ácana with a group of other bondspeople. Some scholars believe that she and another captain were responsible for a smaller rebellion that took place in June. Upon returning to her home plantation, Fermina was whipped and shackled with iron weights for five months. Coincidentally, the Triunvirato rebellion broke out just days after her shackles were removed. Colonial officials imprisoned Fermina after the rebels were defeated at San Rafael. She was imprisoned for months before being the only woman out of a group of eight people sentenced to death. She was judicially murdered on an unreported date at only 24 years old.

Carlota and Fermina lived, worked, and rebelled during a time of intense anticolonial and antislavery sentiment in Cuba. Just three years earlier in 1840, David Turnbull, a key figure in British abolitionist movements, was appointed British consul in Havana. By the 1840s, abolitionist and anticolonial sentiment had widespread traction in various facets of society and would lay the groundwork for the looming Ten Years War for Cuban independence. Though her leadership was short-lived, Carlota became so ingrained in Cuban popular memory that the 1975 Cuban military effort in support of Angolan liberation from Portuguese rule, was named “Operation Carlota.” 

Online Resources

Barcia, Manuel. "Exorcising the Storm: Revisiting the Origins of the Repression of La Escalera Conspiracy in Cuba, 1843-1844." Colonial Latin American Historical Review 15, no. 3 (2006): 311.


Finch, Aisha. "“What Looks Like a Revolution”: Enslaved Women and the Gendered Terrain of Slave Insurgencies in Cuba, 1843–1844." Journal of Women's History 26, no. 1 (2014): 112-134. doi:10.1353/jowh.2014.0007.


Finch, Aisha K. Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844. Chapel Hill: Unniversity of North Carolina Press, 2015.


Paquette, Robert. Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict Between Empires over Slavery in Cuba. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.


Jada Similton

"Packing Sugar, Cuba, ca. 1866", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed November 4, 2022, http://slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1065

Key Events

Early 1843

Numerous individual rebellions, many of them small and short-lived, began to break out in Western Cuba amongst the rural enslaved population.

March 27, 1843

The Bemba Rebellion broke out as rebels set fire to a plantation in the Macuriges District. Over 500 enslaved people would join the rebellion before it was quelched in battle between rebels and local infantry.

Summer 1843

After being openly resistant to working conditions, Fermina escapes Ácana with a group of other rebels.

November 5, 1843

A Lucumi led rebellion breaks out around 8pm at Triunvirato sugar estate where Carlota resides.

November 5, 1843

Rebels traverse various plantations, moving from Triunvirato to Acana to La Concepcion to San Miguel to San Lorenzo, and finally to San Rafael.

November 1843

At San Rafael, local calvary units approach rebels from multiple angles. Rebels and calvary fight for an hour and a half before rebels are defeated.