Miguel Barnet's Biography of a Runaway Slave: Testimonial Literature as History
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 might be considered important enough to be published. For that reason, he delved into topics of particular interest to himself and to the interviewer Barnet. These included forms of African religious expression and Montejo's recollections of life as a fugitive slave hiding for several years in the forests of Cuba. The book includes what appear to be actual quotes from Montejo along with sentences and paragraphs shaped by Barnet to provide a readable account of the life of a black man in Cuba during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Born in 1860 as a slave, Esteban Montejo witnessed some of the most turbulent moments in all of Latin American history. With the end of sugar production on the Caribbean island of St. Domingue as a result of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Cuba became a major exporter of sugar from its plantations in the decades before Montejo's birth. To satisfy an insatiable demand for inexpensive labor, planters and merchants transported thousands of African slaves to Cuba from the 1780s to the 1860s, among them Montejo's parents. Given the presence of so many recently arrived Africans in his midst, Montejo had an extraordinary opportunity to witness African cultural expression and various forms of resistance to the slave regime. At some unknown juncture during Cuba's Ten Year's War (1868-1878), Montejo escaped from bondage and lived on his own as a cimarron (runaway slave). The narrative includes Montejo's remembrances of the War for Independence (1895-1898), better known as the Spanish-Cuban-American War. The subsequent presence of United States troops as an army of occupation (1898-1902) deeply influenced Montejo's worldview. The book ends in 1905 with the death of the Cuban general Maximo Gomez.
The narrative is divided into three sections. In the first section entitled "Slavery," Montejo offers some of his most poignant and insightful commentary. He believes that "nature is everything. Even what you can't see" (Barnet...
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