Nineteenth-Century Abolitionist Literature of Cuba and Brazil
Nineteenth-Century Abolitionist Literature of Cuba and Brazil
The following entry discusses writings by Cuban and Brazilian authors who sought an end to the slave trade and often slavery itself in their countries in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.
Study of nineteenth-century Latin American abolitionist literature has been dominated by scholarship on antislavery sentiment in Cuba and Brazil, which, after the American Civil War, were the last two places in the western hemisphere where slavery was permitted. Even though historians and literary critics have noted the relative paucity of abolitionist literature in Cuba and Brazil, especially in comparison with the huge body of antislavery verse and prose generated in Britain and the United States, most have acknowledged that Cuban and Brazilian abolitionist writers faced far greater resistance to their ideals than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Although few contemporary critics have questioned the connection between Latin American antislavery literature and emancipation laws in 1886 and 1888 in Cuba and Brazil, respectively, a lively debate has emerged centering on which works should properly be included in the canon of abolitionist literature itself.
The development of abolitionist literature in Cuba, a Spanish colony until 1898, is almost unanimously credited to the work of Domingo del Monte, a literary critic and editor who, during the 1830s and early 1840s, encouraged and sponsored liberal Cuban authors to write novels expressing sympathy for the plight of the island's large slave population. Of the half-dozen novels dealing with slavery that are remembered today, at least half were written by del Monte's literary disciples, including Félix Tanco y Bosmeniel's Escenas de la vida privada en la Isla de Cuba (written in 1838; published in 1925), Anselmo's Suárez y Romero's Francisco (written in 1839; published in 1880), and Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés (written in 1839; published in 1882). All of these works were published abroad, most of them some decades after they were written, and were circulated throughout Cuba only in manuscript form.
Although critics today usually agree that these novels made no outright appeal for the end of slavery, they are divided over how best to explain the relatively benign nature of early Cuban abolitionism. Some critics have noted Spain's tight censorship laws, which made it illegal to criticize slavery; others have argued that most of del Monte's associates were slave-owners themselves who merely wished to end the slave trade or reform the most brutal aspects of slavery. The only novels from this period that denounced Cuban slavery forthrightly were the 1840 Autobiografía of ex-Cuban slave and poet, Juan Francisco Manzano, and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda's 1841 Sab, each published abroad and both virtually unknown in Cuba until after abolition. By 1844 Cuban abolitionism was forced further underground when a slave conspiracy to overthrow Spanish rule was discovered, its principal supporters executed, and del Monte fled the island, never to return. In the final two decades before Spain formally prohibited slavery in 1886, several important Cuban abolitionist novels were written, most notably Francisco Calcagno's Los crímenes de Concha (written in 1863; published in 1887) and Antonio Zambrano's El negro Francisco (1873). As was the case with the novels associated with del Monte, these later abolitionist texts are cautious in their standing against slavery, their appeals rarely evoking the scenes of brutality widespread in British and North American abolitionist literature, limiting themselves rather to eliciting pity from their readers for the hopeless condition of Cuban slaves yearning for freedom.
Brazilian abolitionist literature did not suffer the same limitations on free expression as it did in Cuba (Brazil became independent of Portugal in 1822), but its own antislavery writings were nevertheless limited by the fact that most of the country's literate population owned slaves and had a vested interest in keeping the institution alive. For the first several decades after independence, nearly all antislavery appeals were found only in newspapers and periodicals, and most of these confined themselves to calling for an end to the slave trade and not slavery itself. By 1850 the traffic of human slaves to Brazil was halted mainly as the result of British political and naval pressure. Poetry and literature began to appear soon after that portrayed free blacks and slaves more positively, though it was not always overtly critical of slavery itself. After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, many Brazilians became acutely aware that with the exception of Cuba, they were the only Western nation that allowed slavery, and essays, poems, drama, and novels began to appear attacking slavery as a corrupting influence on white slaveholders and as a drag on economic progress.
The most important Brazilian abolitionist, Antônio Frederico de Castro Alves, produced some of the most explicit denunciations of slavery before his early death in 1871, his 1883 volume of poetry, Os Escravos (which includes well-known poems such as “Navio Negreiro: tragédia no mar,” “O Bandido Negro,” and “Vozes d'Africa’) earning him the posthumous title of “the conscience of Brazil.” Other poets, including Sílvio Romero and Valentim Magalhães, followed in Castro Alves' poetic footsteps, fanning the flames of abolitionism with portrayals of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. In addition to poetry, Brazil produced many abolitionist novels, many directly influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, translated into Portuguese a year after its American publication in 1852. Stowe's thematic motif of innocent slaves suffering at the hands of cruel masters and overseers became widespread in Brazilian literature in the final decades before emancipation in 1888, most notably in Joaquim Manuel de Macedo's As Vítimas Algozes (1869) and Bernardo Guimarães's A Escrava Isaura (1875). Another abolitionist work that is widely noted for its popular and political appeal is O Abolicionismo (1883), a text by statesman Joaquim Nabuco that carefully refuted the rationale pro-slavery forces used in arguing for the continuance of Brazilian slavery. As is the case with modern criticism dealing with Cuban abolitionist literature, many scholars today debate how much of Brazil's abolitionist literature should be labeled as such, many noting that much of what is considered abolitionist writing created negative stereotypes of the very slaves they were reputedly trying to free.
Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda
Sab (novel) 1841
O Mutato (novel) 1881
Los crímenes de Concha (novel) 1887
Antônio Frederico de Castro Alves
“Navio Negreiro: tragedia no mar” [“The Slave Trader: Tragedy at Sea”] (poem) 1880
“Vozes d'Africa” [“Voices of Africa”] (poem) 1880
“O Bandido Negro” [“The Black Bandit”] (poem) 1883
Os Escravos (poetry) 1883
João Severiano Maciel da Costa
Memoria sobre a Necessidade de Abolir a Introdução dos Escravos Africanos no Brasil (essay) 1820
A Escrava Isaura (novel) 1875
O Comendador (novel) 1856
Joaquim Manuel de Macedo
As Vítimas Algozes. 3 vols. (novels) 1869
“Liberdade” (poem) 1887
Juan Francisco Manzano
Autobiografía (autobiography) 1840
Domingo del Monte
“Estudo de la población blanca y de color de la isla de Cuba, en 1839” (essay) 1839
O Abolicionismo (nonfiction) 1883
Cantos do Fim do Seculo (poetry) 1881
Anselmo Suárez y Romero
Francisco (novel) 1890
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SOURCE: Schulman, Ivan A. “The Portrait of the Slave: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Cuban Antislavery Novel.” In Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies, edited by Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden, pp. 356-67. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977.
[In the following essay, Schulman argues that Cuba's nineteenth-century abolitionist novels, though few in number, set the stage for emancipation in Cuba and were the earliest and most influential critiques of the island's long tradition of slavery.]
La primera tarea que se impuso nuestra literaturea … [fue] … la preocupación social de orden ético …
Augusto Roa Bastos1
AN ANTICOLONIAL STATEMENT
The origins of the novel in Cuba are irrevocably linked to the internal contradictions and inconsistencies of the institution of slavery, the repressive policies of the colony, and the polar dynamics of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Costumbrismo and Eclecticism. As a consequence, an exclusionary analysis of the early narratives, that is, their examination from either a purely literary, philosophic, socioeconomic or political perspective is bound to yield distorted and fragmentary results2; whereas a comprehensive methodology, even of the limited disciplinary scope provided in this study,...
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SOURCE: Sayers, Raymond S. “Castro Alves and His Successors.” In The Negro in Brazilian Literature, pp. 109-35. New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1956.
[In the following excerpt, Sayers examines the themes of torture, violence, and suffering in the antislavery poetry of late-nineteenth-century Brazil, paying special attention to the work of Antônio Frederico de Castro Alves, whom he considers to be Brazil's greatest and most influential abolitionist writer.]
There are several important movements in the poetry of the last three decades of slavery. The first is represented in the work of the local color school, which has been described as being characterized by a combination of romanticism and realism. The second in order of time is seen in the “condor” poems of the Castro Alves school, for which the ground had been prepared by some of the local colorists and by the earlier romantics, and which shows the influence of Les Châtiments and La Légende des Siècles of Victor Hugo. The third movement, that of realism, has some overtones of naturalism which also attest to French influence. This is a forerunner of Parnassianism, which predominated in the 1880's and continued after the abolition. It is concurrent with the scientific movement, which bears traces of the influence of English and French positivism and which may be said to date officially from the...
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Criticism: Origins And Development
SOURCE: Sayers, Raymond S. “The Negro Theme in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century.” In The Negro in Brazilian Literature, pp. 65-72. New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1956.
[In the following excerpt, Sayers discusses antislavery sentiment in Brazilian literature in the first half of the nineteenth century, finding that this theme was most commonly found in newspapers and periodicals that generally criticized the slave trade more than the institution of slavery itself.]
ANTI-SLAVERY LITERATURE BEFORE 1825
Attacks on slavery on humanitarian or moral grounds continued in France and England during the second half of the eighteenth century, and they reached such a pitch that both countries abolished slavery in their colonies in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although, there was an anti-slavery note in eighteenth century Brazilian prose, it was much less important than in France and England. Even by the end of the century important studies of Brazil contained only sporadic references to the subject. One of the few is to be found in the Memorias para a Historia da Capitania de S. Vicente, published in 1797. In this book Fr. Gaspar da Madre de Deus (1715-1800) alludes to one of the economic problems connected with the use of slave labor:
… neste Estado vive com summa indigencia quem não negocea, ou...
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SOURCE: Luis, William. “The Antislavery Novel and the Concept of Modernity.” Cuban Studies 11, no. 1 (January 1981): 33-47.
[In the following excerpt, Luis argues that Cuba's nineteenth-century abolitionist literature grew out of the evolution from Romanticism toward Realism and was also a response to the increasingly harsh treatment of slaves as the island's black population grew larger than the white population.]
As a politico-literary process, the antislavery novel developed in the first half of the nineteenth century at the request of Domingo del Monte, who was perhaps the most important and influential critic of his time.1 A belated Neo-classicist, Del Monte opposed Romanticism and encouraged his writer friends to abandon this form of art in favor of a more realistic type of literature. Del Monte commissioned Félix Tanco y Bosmeniel's Escenas de la vida privada en la Isla de Cuba,2 Francisco Manzano's Autobiografía (1840), and Anselmo Suárez y Romero's Francisco (1839, published 1880). The latter two works were to be published by the abolitionist, Richard Madden, in England. These novels were written with an immediate purpose in mind: to bring an end to slavery, and they constituted a response to an alarming concern regarding the treatment of slaves.
THE SLAVERY PERIOD
Not until the beginning of the...
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SOURCE: Luis, William. “Fiction and Fact: The Antislavery Narrative and Blacks as Counter-Discourse in Cuban History.” In Literary Bondage: Slavery in Cuban Narrative, pp. 1-17. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Luis discusses the historical and social conditions in Cuba that made the condemnation of the slave trade and slavery itself a growing concern in nineteenth-century Cuban literature.]
Antislavery narrative refers to a group of works written mainly during the 1830s, an incipient and prolific moment in Cuban literature. They include ex-slave Juan Francisco Manzano's Autobiografía (written in 1835, published in England in 1840 and in Cuba in 1937), Anselmo Suárez y Romero's Francisco (written in 1839, published in 1880), and Félix Tanco y Bosmeniel's Escenas de la vida privada en la isla de Cuba (written in 1838, published in 1925) and “Un niño en la Habana” (written in 1837, published in 1986).1 These early works were requested by Domingo del Monte, Cuba's most influential literary critic, and reflect the literary and historical circumstances of the times.2 They provide a sympathetic view of blacks and slaves during a period in which slavery was at its peak and Cuba was the most important sugar-producing country in the world.
Fiction in the antislavery works is...
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Criticism: Sociopolitical Concerns
SOURCE: Haberly, David T. “Abolition in Brazil: Anti-Slavery and Anti-Slave.” Luso-Brazilian Review 9, no. 2 (December 1972): 30-46.
[In the following essay, Haberly argues that the majority of nineteenth-century Brazilian abolitionist literature depicted black slaves as sexually immoral and prone to violence, stereotypes that reinforced the demand for emancipation based less on sympathy for the victims of slavery than the supposed dangers these slaves posed for their white slave-owners.]
The abolition of African slavery is clearly one of the fundamental events of nineteenth-century Brazilian history. Its peaceful accomplishment—in sharp contrast to the bloody struggle in the United States—has traditionally been presented as evidence of the social and political flexibility of the Empire and the nation's abhorrence of violent confrontation. The virtual absence of pro-slavery publications before 1888, moreover, has been cited as proof of Brazil's fundamental and unique racial tolerance.
Some historians have been unwilling to buy this portrait of idealism triumphant, and have pointed out the importance, in Brazil's progress toward abolition, of increased European immigration, urbanization, and basic economic and agricultural changes. These attempts to get at the motives behind the campaign, however, have not challenged the traditional description of its public image—tolerant,...
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SOURCE: Luis, William. “The Antislavery Narrative: Writing and the European Aesthetic.” In Literary Bondage: Slavery in Cuban Narrative, pp. 27-81. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Luis describes how Cuban editors Domingo del Monte and José Antonio Saco encouraged the island's liberal writers to protest slavery.]
The antislavery narrative developed as part of a movement to abolish slavery and the slave trade.1 Domingo del Monte gave rise to this form of protest by encouraging friends in his literary circle to write about slavery and the plight of the slave. These early works describe the abuses of the slavery system and the unjust and cruel punishment of the slave protagonist. By making blacks and slaves dominant elements of the emerging Cuban narrative, the antislavery works reflect a historical and literary counter-discourse which directly challenged the colonial and slavery systems.
Del Monte and the authors of the antislavery narrative were among the first to define Cuban culture, which, by its very nature, developed in opposition to the Spanish colonial discourse. Del Monte, who was born in Venezuela, was interested in promoting a Cuban type of education and culture on the island. With the Spanish writer J. Villarino, Del Monte founded and published the weekly La Moda o Recreo Semanal del Bello Sexo...
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SOURCE: Sayers, Raymond S. “The Negro in the Romantic Novel.” In The Negro in Brazilian Literature, pp. 165-83. New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1956.
[In the following excerpt, Sayers discusses Brazilian abolitionist novels written between 1850 and 1888, many of them thematically influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.]
The period from 1850 to 1888 is marked by great development in the technique, subject matter and quality of Brazilian fiction. From the first tentative fumblings of Teixeira e Sousa and Joaquim Manuel de Macedo before the midpoint of the century, the novel traversed the stages of Indianism, historical fiction, and regionalism, which were still of only national interest, to join the contemporary currents of realism, represented by Machado de Assis, and naturalism, which is seen in the work of Inglês de Sousa and Aluízio de Azevedo. With these writers the novel achieved international stature, if not recognition, as Brazilian music and painting were to do in the twentieth century. The predominant current at first was that of romanticism, but after 1870, when Machado de Assis began to publish his short stories, various forms of realism rapidly came to the fore. However, certain aspects of romanticism did not disappear at once. If after 1870 there were produced almost no Indian novels, historical and regional fiction remained vigorous, and the popular...
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SOURCE: Coulthard, G. R. “The Anti-Slavery Novel in Cuba: Indians and Negroes.” In Race and Colour in Caribbean Literature, pp. 6-26. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
[In the following essay, Coulthard discusses antislavery themes in several nineteenth-century Cuban novels and poems, arguing that abolitionism was in many respects a cause taken up by Cuban liberals to gain the support of the island's black majority to help overthrow Spain's colonial rule.]
One of the aims of writers in Latin America in the nineteenth century was to find an original and distinctive note for their literary creations and one of the subjects they introduced to lend an unmistakable American flavour to their works was the autochthonous Indian. It is a commonplace of Latin American literary criticism that the Indian of the nineteenth century Romantics was idealised and totally artificial. Nevertheless, the quantity of Indianist writing is impressive,1 and the fact that the Indians of certain countries had died out did not prevent writers in those same countries from using them as a subject of literature. Indeed, curiously enough, it was in the countries which had not had any Indians for years that the best works on the Indian theme were produced, in Uruguay and Santo Domingo.2 Cuba, another country without Indians, was not far behind with its mid-nineteenth century siboneista school. As...
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SOURCE: García-Barrio, Constance. “The Abolitionist Novel in Nineteenth-Century Cuba.” CLA Journal 21, no. 2 (December 1977): 224-37.
[In the following essay, García-Barrio analyzes six nineteenth-century Cuban novels commonly described as abolitionist, arguing that as a result of strict censorship laws in Cuba prohibiting the denunciation of slavery, only two Cuban novels from the period should rightly be regarded as abolitionist.]
During the first decades of the nineteenth century in Cuba, slaves became the primary source of labor for the rapidly growing sugar industry. The growth of the industry had not been matched by more efficient means of production, and the need for able-bodied workers soared.1 By 1827, enslaved blacks constituted 41٪ of the population of Cuba, and this percentage increased steadily for more than a decade.2 While the number of slaves rose, the treatment they received worsened.3 Enslaved blacks were victims of the exigencies of production; their lives were “short, brutal and nasty.” Conditions were ripe for protest.
Between 1838 and 1873, Cuban writers produced six novels which usually have been described as abolitionist literature. Four of these novels were written between 1838 and 1841 when the slave population was highest, and the difference of opinion about the continued importation of slaves was greatest. The four...
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SOURCE: Decosta-Willis, Miriam. “Self and Society in the Afro-Cuban Slave Narrative.” Latin American Literary Review 16, no. 32 (July-December 1988): 6-15.
[In the following essay, Decosta-Willis analyzes themes of desire for freedom and self-identity in two autobiographical narratives written by former Cuban slaves—Juan Francisco Manzano and Esteban Montejo.]
As for me, from the moment that I lost my hopes, I ceased to be a faithful slave; from an humble, submissive being, I turned the most discontented of mankind: I wished to have wings to fly from the place, and to go to Havana; and from that day my only thoughts were in planning how to escape and run away.
Autobiography by Manzano
… I had the spirit of a runaway watching over me, which never left me. And I kept my plans to myself so that no one could give me away. I thought of nothing else; the idea went round and round my head and would not leave me in peace; nothing could get rid of it, at times it almost tormented me.
Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Montejo
The autobiography in its various forms—slave narrative, journal, diary, personal chronicle, and autobiographical novel—is one of the primary genres of Afro-American literature for a number of reasons: (1) it developed out...
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SOURCE: Fivel-Démoret, Sharon Romeo. “The Production and Consumption of Propaganda Literature: The Cuban Anti-Slavery Novel.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 66, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-12.
[In the following essay, Fivel-Démoret questions whether four Cuban novels written in the late 1830s should be labeled abolitionist, concluding that while they all advocated some level of reform, only Avellaneda's Sab offered a clear denunciation of Cuban slavery.]
This article is based on four Cuban novels written in 1838 and 1839: Francisco, Anselmo Suárez y Romero, 1838-39; Petrona y Rosalía, Félix Tanco y Bosmoniel, 1838; El Ranchador, Pedro José Morillas, 1839; Sab, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, 1839.1 All are set in nineteenth-century Cuba, and as the following summaries will make clear, each discusses some aspect of what was then a vital issue on the island—slavery.
Francisco is the story of a young male slave who acts as a coachman for Doña Dolores' Havana establishment. He falls in love with her seamstress Dorotea, who returns his love, but his request to marry the young mulatress is turned down by their mistress who claims that he is by nature inclined to be morose and therefore unsuitable for marriage. Doña Dolores refuses to give in to the repeated pleas of the young lovers, and finally forbids them to continue to harbour...
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SOURCE: Branche, Jerome. “Ennobling Savagery? Sentimentalism and the Subaltern in Sab.” Afro-Hispanic Review 17, no. 2 (fall 1998): 12-23.
[In the following essay, Branche contests standard depictions of Avellaneda's Sab as a pioneering abolitionst/feminist novel, arguing that the novel's characters, plot, and themes betray the author's own deep-seated racism.]
“Rock stone a' river bottom no know sun hot.”
Notwithstanding what seemed obvious to a contemporary reading of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda's first novel, Sab (1841)1 there is a preponderance of critical evaluations today, which with greater or lesser adamancy, proclaim it to be a discourse of liberation.2Sab as liberation discourse is thereby read as a pioneering abolitionist novel,3 an early demonstration of modern feminism in literature,4 and an exemplary articulation of Enlightenment vindication of human liberty and equality.5
The trend in liberationist critical readings of Sab, may well be seen in terms of what Stuart Hall refers to as the process of the “fixing of the meaning” of visual images, through the way in which the media represents events past and present.6 In his discussion of the media as a signifying practice, Hall...
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Blanchard, Peter. “Abolitionist Pressure.” In Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru, pp. 151-70. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 1992.
Describes the antislavery movement in Peru during the first half of the nineteenth century, concentrating on liberal journalistic and political efforts to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself.
Borges, Dain. “Intellectuals and the Forgetting of Slavery in Brazil.” Annals of Scholarship 11, no. 1-2 (1996): 37-60.
Argues that Brazilian intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century were slow to view race and slavery as defining features of the country's nineteenth-century history and society.
Braga, Thomas. “Castro Alves and the New England Abolitionist Poets.” Hispania: A Journal Devoted to the Interests of the Teaching of Spanish and Portuguese, no. 4 (December 1984): 585-93.
Compares and contrasts the abolitionist poetry of Brazil's Antonio de Castro Alves with the American antislavery poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as well as Civil War-era abolitionist songs.
Conrad, Robert. “Action and Reaction.” In The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850-1888, pp. 151-69. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Provides details of Brazil's...
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