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Freedom from Liberation: Slavery, Sentiment, and Literature in Cuba

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By exploring the complexities of enslavement in the autobiography of Cuban slave-poet Juan Francisco Manzano (1797–1854), Gerard Aching complicates the universally recognized assumption that a slave's foremost desire is to be freed from bondage. As the only slave narrative in Spanish that has surfaced to date, Manzano's autobiography details the daily grind of the vast majority of slaves who sought relief from the burden of living under slavery. Aching combines historical narrative and literary criticism to take the reader beyond Manzano's text to examine the motivations behind anticolonial and antislavery activism in pre-revolution Cuba, when Cuba's Creole bourgeoisie sought their own form of freedom from the colonial arm of Spain.

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1 Liberalisms at Odds: Slavery and the Struggle for an Autochthonous Literature

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In a letter that they wrote from New York on September 12, 1834, to the Creole patrician and liberal reformist Domingo del Monte and his cohorts, the Cuban exiles Félix Varela (del Monte’s former philosophy professor and a priest) and Tomás Gener (a wealthy Catalonian plantation owner from Matanzas) strongly advised their colleagues against translating and publishing Charles Comte’s Traité de legislation.1 Comte, a respected law professor and permanent secretary of L’Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in Paris, published his treatise in 1826 on the natural and moral laws that determine the conditions and potential for the advancement of diverse peoples across the globe. Del Monte probably became familiar with some of the volumes from the treatise at the gatherings of Cuban intellectuals around Varela and José Antonio Saco, the most renowned of this group, in New York and Philadelphia in 1829. Apart from Comte’s assertion that warm climates do not produce the effects on people that have been attributed to them and that the inhabitants of cold countries are generally no freer, no more active, nor more virtuous than those from warm countries, the most important section of the study for del Monte and his colleagues was the last book of the treatise, which tackles the subject of slavery. According to Varela’s and Gener’s letter, the idea behind translating Comte’s study for Cuban readers was to bring the discussion of slavery into the open in order to educate public opinion and gain support for abolishing the slave trade. Writing about slavery in Cuba, especially during Captain-General Miguel Tacón’s administration (1834–38), was practically outlawed.2 Under such circumstances, it was necessary to articulate criticism indirectly, and even then with due caution. Leading intellectuals, such as Cuba’s foremost poet, José María Heredia, and Saco, had been exiled because they dared to execute frontal attacks on Spanish imperialism and the slave trade. Hence, the translation of Comte’s study was intended to bring about a change in public opinion about the slave trade employing an oblique approach through intellectual forums and discussion.

 

2 In Spite of Himself: Unconscious Resistance and Melancholy Attachments in Manzano’s Autobiography

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The vast majority of slaves in the Americas did not escape bondage but found diverse and reasonably successful ways of withstanding its daily physical and psychological grind. Even though slavery was a broader phenomenon than the autonomous and single-handed ability of slaveholders to subjugate slaves by force, imagining how environments and circumstances compelled slaves to act in ways that seem counterproductive for their struggles to transcend bondage continues to require careful analysis and reflection. To suggest that masters wielded absolute power over slaves and, by implication, that slaves were entirely objectified beings does not allow us to perceive the necessarily subtle ways in which slaves resisted total subjugation on a daily basis. Although slavery demanded submission on the part of slaves, submissiveness cannot be considered an inherent character trait of enslaved subjects, not only because this view would constitute a disservice to those who strove to survive slavery, but principally because such an assertion would mean accepting masochism as the sole and permanent explanation for the slaves’ actions or inability to act. In order to substantiate my argument against the notion that slaves could be subjugated into psychological states of absolute compliance, I want to explore the mundane, complex, and ambiguous psychic space between subjugation and submission that does not require us to characterize slaves in any particular way but affords us opportunities to appreciate how submissive acts, for example, can also constitute strategies, if not for outwitting masters, at least for alleviating the slaves’ oppression. Even so, imagining how some of these strategies were consciously wrought is a far easier task than asserting that others were not. I would like to propose unconscious resistance as a psychological resource that emerges in the experience of being subjugated and is activated before the subject ever arrives at the threshold of absolute submission, if such a state exists. By demonstrating how Juan Francisco Manzano acted “in spite of himself,” I examine instances of unconscious resistance that the poet narrates in his autobiography for what they can tell us about the routine psychological resources that allowed him to withstand and survive his enslavement.1

 

3 Being Adequate to the Task: An Abolitionist Translates the Desire to Be Free

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One of the most significant transformations in the study of British abolitionism began with the publication of Eric Williams’s seminal Capitalism and Slavery in 1944. The late historian and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago argued against the widely held view, when he undertook research for his doctoral thesis at Oxford University, that philanthropic humanitarianism was the principal motivating factor in the movement to end the slave trade and emancipate slaves throughout the British Empire. Instead, he proposed that the rise of industrial capitalism and a transatlantic bourgeoisie that advocated free trade and wage labor and worked in tandem with abolitionist philanthropic humanitarianism rendered mercantilism and the slave-based sugar plantation that it supported an increasingly obsolete mode of production by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even though Williams’s book was initially greeted as highly polemical—to the extent that there would be no British edition of the book for almost two decades after its publication in the United States—it would be fair to say that the study’s influence has been such that most scholars of abolitionism today would concur that economic data or analyses should be taken into account in assessing the movement. Stated differently, it would be as if, in the historical evaluations of abolitionism before Williams’s book, the abolitionists’ quest to gain sympathy for the plight of slaves had overshadowed the role of economics. For some readers and critics, Capitalism and Slavery served as a useful reminder to scholars that the abolitionist was also an “economic man”; for others, the historian had swung too far in the opposite direction because he seemed to overstate the case for the decline of the slave-based production of sugar in the British colonies. Williams’s substantiated claim that this decline occurred was central to his argument, but it would fuel criticism asserting that the book created the specter of a conspiratorial international bourgeoisie or, relatedly, that the historian’s claims about abolitionism relied on a Marxist explanation that overdetermined the importance of the economic base. Nonetheless, more contemporary scholars who credit Williams for insisting on an economic explanation for the abolitionists’ philanthropic humanitarianism have sought to temper some of his claims by retaining notions of humanitarian sentiment and sensibility in their socioeconomic debates and analyses.1

 

4 Freedom without Equality: Slave Protagonists, Free Blacks, and Their Bodies

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In a letter concerning the Missouri Compromise that he wrote to the American politician John Holmes from Monticello on April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson famously described the dilemma of slavery in the United States in the following terms: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”1 Even though the country had won its independence from Britain forty-four years earlier, slavery loomed as an issue that threatened to tear the United States apart, had it not been for the stopgap measure of the compromise that maintained the number of slave and free states equal and, with hindsight, postponed the Civil War. Cuba was still a Spanish colony in the 1830s, and the island’s Creole reformists found themselves in similar straits. As I illustrated in chapter 1, Félix Varela and Tomás Gener, writing to Domingo del Monte from their exile in Philadelphia, portrayed themselves as enslaved by slavery because they felt that they could not heed the humanitarian call to emancipate their slaves without compromising their own self-preservation as a class. Furthermore, the reformists, who prided themselves on being an enlightened minority within a larger local bourgeoisie, understood that it was not the fact of colonialism alone that shackled them to slavery: Madrid’s economic policy of ensuring a consistent supply of slaves was also politically strategic because it frustrated the reformists’ ambition to reduce the number of slaves and free blacks on the island, which was a goal that they considered essential for the social and political progress of their class and community.2 Yet Jefferson’s statement is also paradoxical in a way that is useful for my discussion below. At the same time that he describes the relationship between the United States and slavery as their having “the wolf by the ear,” which implies that the nation was precariously in control of the institution, he admits that slavery could be neither maintained nor eliminated because the conflict that it generated between free and slave states threatened to split the Union. In other words, how was “the wolf” going to be manageable if it could be neither restrained nor released?

 

Epilogue

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This book began as a reflection on Juan Francisco Manzano’s account of his life. What initially intrigued me about the text were the ways in which the former slave and poet was consistently engaged in psychic battles on two fronts, or so it seemed. The more obvious fight was his struggle against the unrelenting, dehumanizing oppression of slavery. It is on this score that his autobiography takes its place among other slave narratives as documented evidence of some of the most atrocious practices that a group of human beings has ever perpetrated on another in the modern period. Such writings can be shocking in the barbarisms that they reveal, and abolitionists who sought to speak on behalf of slaves valued these texts precisely because they believed that the impact that brutal episodes could have on readers would produce the empathy that their faith and the abolition movement required. However, in addition to the violent spectacles that slave narratives detailed, there also existed, side by side, or often relegated to the background in the quest for this impact, a subtler and ubiquitous range of oppressive practices and responses to these that were so mundane as to escape ready notice. Even an account as epic and inspirational as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass displays another site of daily struggle that he felicitously called the “tender point” that kept slaves from heading north to escape slavery. In a system that consistently destroyed familial and communal ties, the decision to remain behind, to stay in bondage for the sake of these attachments, cannot be considered a willing or masochistic acceptance of enslavement. Aware of its enormous pull on enslaved subjects, including the extent to which it affected his desire to run away, Douglass respected this decision or outcome. The vast majority of slaves throughout the Americas lived debating their inclinations toward the “tender point” or the “point of no return” that made slavery so unbearable that it propelled the enslaved subject to undertake life-threatening measures to break out of bondage; moreover, they engaged in this internal quarrel, both consciously and unconsciously, from within the confines of their enslavement. In order to evaluate those mundane situations in which the tender point might win out, it seemed to me that my task involved trying to imagine the contexts, conditions, and contingencies that made this option or outcome a reasonable way, even if temporary, to resolve difficult dilemmas. Because Manzano believed that his account was true to life, I was not willing to ignore the obstinacy with which he held on to certain complex attachments, including those that seemed to oppress him the most.

 

Appendix: “My Thirty Years”

ePub

Mis treinta años (by Juan Francisco Manzano)

Cuando miro el espacio que he corrido

desde la cuna hasta el presente día,

tiemblo y saludo a la fortuna mía

más de terror que de atención movido.

Sorpréndeme la lucha que he podido

sostener contra suerte tan impía,

si tal llamarse puede la porfía

de mi infelice ser al mal nacido.

Treinta años ha que conocí la tierra;

treinta años ha que en gemidor estado

triste infortunio por doquier me asalta;

mas nada es para mí la cruda Guerra

que en vano suspirar he soportado,

si la comparo, ¡oh Dios!, con lo que falta.

My Thirty Years (translated by Richard Robert Madden, 1840)

When I think on the course I have run,

From my childhood itself to this day,

I tremble, and fain would I shun,

The remembrance its terrors array.

I marvel at struggles endured,

With a destiny frightful as mine,

 

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