Nineteenth-Century Abolitionist Literature of Cuba and Brazil Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.