Few documentary sources exist from the Caribbean islands and the Latin American mainland written by Africans or their descendants that describe their life under enslavement. In Brazil, two mulatto abolitionists wrote sketchy descriptions of their personal experiences, and one autobiography of a black man was published before emancipation. In contrast, several thousand slave narratives and eight full-length autobiographies were published in the United States before the outbreak of the Civil War (1860-1865) (Conrad, p. xix). In Cuba, one slave narrative appeared in the nineteenth century. Penned by Juan Francisco Manzano, the Autobiografia (written in 1835, published in England in 1840, and in Cuba in 1937) recounted the life of an enslaved black who learned how to read and write. The Autobiografia concludes with Manzano's escape from his owner. The book inspired other authors to condemn the institution of slavery as it existed in Cuba. Not until publication of Miguel Barnet's The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave in 1966 did there exist a narrative centered on the life of a common slave in Cuba (Barnet, 1966). The testimony of Esteban Montejo has been described by its foremost interpreter as "the first personal and detailed account of a Maroon [escaped] slave in Cuban and Spanish American literature and a valuable document to historians and students of slavery" (Luis, p. 200). This essay will explore how testimonial literature can help us better to understand past events. It will also examine problems inherent in interpreting personal testimony based on memories of events that occurred several decades in the past.
Esteban Mesa Montejo discussed his past with the Cuban ethnologist Miguel Barnet in taped interviews carried out in 1963. At the age of 103, most likely Esteban Montejo understood that he was the sole living runaway slave on the island and that his words and memories... [continues]
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