Another kind of freedom

Freedom from Liberation: Slavery, Sentiment and Literature in Cuba
Gerard Aching
2015, Indiana University Press
251 pages, hardback

THERE were in the order of 2,000 slave narratives published in the US, but in the Spanish-speaking world there was only one, that of Juan Francisco Manzano, an enslaved poet who lived from 1797–1854 in Cuba when it was still a Spanish colony. His Autobiografía de un esclavo was written in bondage at the behest of a group of creole reformists and completed in 1839 when he was about 42.

A key figure in this endeavour was Domingo del Monte, a wealthy patrician who subsequently became the poet’s protector. The autobiography would form an important item of evidence for the Anti-Slavery Society in Great Britain as they internationalized their cause and strove to denounce the persistence of slavery in some countries of the Americas. Nonetheless, Manzano was already something of a public figure in Cuba as a poet who had been publishing since the 1820s. There is no doubt that he was an exceptional man. As a youth he taught himself to write by tracing his master’s handwriting so that he could record the poems that he heard or composed in order not to forget them.

Gerard Aching’s excellent study of the poet’s life and of how he conceptualized the notion of freedom in a context in which local creoles dreamed of national liberation provides considerable food for thought. Slavery in Cuba would persist until 1886, and the Spanish colonial government prohibited public discussion of it – influencing how Manzano’s account would be disseminated in very different ways to his contemporaries in the transatlantic, English-speaking world.

As Aching points out, there was little discussion between the slave and the patrician about who would be reading the book beyond the small literary circle to which Manzano had been introduced by Del Monte. In the Anglo-American world, however, abolitionist circles had already given rise to a distinctive and sympathetic transatlantic readership for the autobiographical accounts of slaves. There was a network of venues where former slaves could read or narrate episodes from their lives. By contrast, none of this existed for the Cuban, and nor did the underground railroad north by which he could have escaped to freedom.

Aching says Manzano was therefore left to his own devices when it came to how he recounted his life, breaking cardinal rules that all slaves adhered to for the sake of survival but also emphasising his dignity and essence as a cultured man over the indignities and cruelty that he had endured. The author writes: “He insisted that the cruelties that he had suffered failed to distort his spirit and the essence of who he was. In light of the abolitionist movement’s practice of gathering reports of slavery’s barbarisms – reports that frequently limited the representation of slaves to helpless victims – Manzano’s eagerness to transcend bondage by means of the very skills that he had acquired while he was enslaved is a story that abolitionists seldom highlighted.” [p5]

Aching argues that what makes this autobiography intriguing is how Manzano viewed his enslavement as an obstacle to his development as a skilled worker. “In other words, as a slave narrative Manzano’s autobiography describes the worthiness of its writing subject to enjoy a freedom that would result not from open rebellion or abolition but from his status as a free and proficient labourer.” [p6]

This was in fact largely at odds with the prevailing vision of abolition among creole reformists, which foresaw the creation of a wage economy on the plantations in which workers would not be freed black slaves but white immigrants from Spain and elsewhere in Europe.

Hence the underlying objective of this book: to explore the nuanced variation and, often, incompatibility of such terms as freedom and liberation. Aching is a highly original thinker, and this superb book will be a valuable resource in the study of anticolonialism and antislavery activism, as well as a fitting account of one of Cuba’s less well known literary greats. – GO’T