Barnet, Miguel. Biography of a Runaway Slave. Translated by W.Nick Hill, Willimantic, Connecticut, US, Curbstone Press, 1994. 217p.
sources exist from
Latin America and the
islands written by Africans or their descendants which describe life under
Brazil, two abolitionists of color 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 (1861-65).[i]
one slave narrative appeared in the 19th century. Penned by Juan
Francisco Manzano, the Autobiografía (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
The Autobiografía concludes with Manzano’s escape from his owner. The
book inspired other authors to condemn the institution of slavery in Cuba. Not
until the publication of Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón: Relato
its translation into English with the title The Autobiography of a Runaway
did there exist a narrative centered on the life of a common slave in Cuba. The
testimony of Esteban Montejo has been described 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.”[v]
This essay will explore how testimonial literature can help us better to
understand history. It will also examine problems inherent interpreting personal
testimony based on memories of events which occurred several decades in the
Montejo discussed his past with the Cuban ethnologist Miguel Barnet in taped
interviews carried out in 1963. At the age of 103, most likely Montejo
understood that the he was the sole living runaway slave on the
island of Cuba and that his
words and memories might be considered important enough to be published. For
that reason, he delved into topics of particular interest both 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 a black man in Cuba during the late 19th and early 20th
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 in the aftermath 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 Years War (1868-78),
Montejo escaped from bondage and lived on his own as a cimarrón (a
runaway slave). The narrative includes Montejo’s remembrances of the War for
(1895-98), 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 Máximo Gómez.
The narrative is
divided into three chapters. In the first chapter entitled “Slavery,” Montejo
offers some of his most poignant and insightful commentary. He believes that
“nature is everything. Even what you can’t see.”[vi]
In a tropical environment where sickness and painful insect bites were common,
Montejo delights in recalling the manner in which Africans used natural herbs
and potions for healing. Black women and men from various African nations reside
on the sugar plantations, including Musungo Congos, Mandingos, Gangas, Lucumís
and Carabalís. Montejo comments on the games played by Africans, sugar refining
in small mills, taverns that sold supplies to the slaves, and religious
practices. He rejects the myth that Africans committed suicide by hanging or
drowning themselves, but argues instead that they flew back to their homeland
with a religious object (known as a prenda) tied to their waist. Slaves
loved music, particularly the use of the drum. Montejo laments that the “white
man’s music has no drum at all. Tasteless.”[vii]
Montejo depicts the Africans with whom he lived as people of great physical
beauty, compassion and sensuality. He also presents clear evidence of the brutal
treatment inflicted on these African slaves by masters and overseers. Planters
often locked their slaves in stocks for two or three months for minor offenses,
and whipping was common. “The barracoon [slave quarters] was bare dirt, empty,
Slaves rose at 4:30 am
and then worked from
6:00 am until sunset cutting sugar cane or working in the mill.
In a chapter
entitled “Life in the Woods,” Montejo talked about his decision to escape. After
throwing a rock that hit the head of the overseer, he ran from the fields into
nearby wooded hills. Similar to the escaped slave Sethe in Toni Morrison’s novel
Montejo lived in constant fear of capture. Unlike the majority of slaves in the
United States who fled from their masters in the American South with a clear
destination in mind (the American North, American West, or Canada), Montejo
preferred to remain alone in the thick forests of Cuba. For several years, he
communicated with no one. Whenever he heard dogs barking, he immediately took
off his clothes to prevent the animals from picking up his scent. Montejo lived
in a cave for several months, and was always careful about the sounds he made
and the fires he built. When possible, he stole pigs and food crops from small
farms. He allowed his hair to grow long into a kinka (dread locks). “You
live half wild when you are a cimarrón…My legs and arms got as hard as
sticks…I felt good being a cimarrón. Because I was my own boss, and I
defended myself on my own.”[x]
Upon learning that slavery had been abolished, Montejo ended his life of
seclusion and began to search for employment at the sugar plantations.
The title of the
second chapter is “The Abolition of Slavery.” A better title might be “The
Aftermath of Slavery,” given that the chapter covers the decade following final
emancipation in 1886. Montejo labored as a free worker at the Purio and Ariosa
central sugar mills during these years. He endured long days cutting sugar,
clearing the fields and maintaining the machinery of the mills. His cynicism
about race relations and treatment of workers is evident from the outset. “There
were masters, or rather, owners, who believed that blacks were made for locking
up and whipping. So they treated them the same as before. To my mind blacks
didn’t realize that things had changed [with emancipation] because they kept on
saying ‘Your blessing, master’…[The white man] believed they were the owners of
Montejo criticized the lack of education provided for blacks and children of
mixed race, and the fact that such persons were barred from entering elite
professions. Reserving some of his most scathing criticism for the Catholic
hierarchy, Montejo claimed that “with women they [the priests] were devils. They
converted the sacristy into a whorehouse…The priests put women in caves, in
holes in the ground where they had executioners ready to kill them.”[xii]
Other topics of great interest that he touches on include the use of identity
cards and passbooks to control the movement of workers, the harsh daily life of
peasant women, modernization of the mills (he observes that “progress is
amazing”) and deforestation of the Cuban countryside.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Montejo provides a wealth of information about social life in late 19th-century Cuba. Bandits created problems in the city of Havana and in rural areas. African and Chinese doctors understood best how to employ natural herbs, grasses and plants to keep people in good health. The religious holiday of San Juan, celebrated each year on the 24th of June, included festive parties attended by overdressed men and women of the elite, cock fights, horse racing and card playing, along with dances known as the maní, the jota, the zapateo and the tumbandera. Houses of Santería, where “only black people went” to practice their African religion, also hosted parties during the feast of San Juan. Instead of following Catholic rituals, however, the participants paid homage to the Yoruba god of iron, farmers and war known as Oggún. Clearly, Montejo is most interested in the African contributions to Cuban culture.
I come to the conclusion that the African was wise in all things. There are some who say they were from the wilds, and that they behaved like animals. There is no lack of white men out there who say it. I think different because I knew them. They weren’t the least bit like animals. They taught me many things though they didn’t know how to read and write. Customs that are more important than information. To be educated, not to meddle in other folks’ problems, speak softly, be respectful, be religious, be a hard worker…All of that the Africans taught me.[xiii]
Montejo alludes to the
presence and contributions of Chinese, Canary Islanders, Filipinos (all of whom
had been brought to
Cuba by planters as a cheap indentured labor force in the 19th
century), gypsies and creoles (meaning the children of Africans or of
Spanish born in Cuba). He remembers with emotion the strong sense of sharing and
community that flourished among the campesinos in the countryside.
In a third chapter
entitled “The War for
Independence,” Montejo comments upon his experiences during the fighting against
Spain from 1895 to 1898. Cuban guerrilla tactics and the use of the machete to
cut off the heads of their enemy instilled terror among the young Spanish
troops. Cuban soldiers became known as Mambises, meaning the child of a
monkey and a buzzard. The Mambises fought heroically throughout the war,
and Montejo attributes the victory over Spain to their actions. “The conduct of
our troops was a model for others, as anyone will tell you who fought in the
war...we were brave and put the revolution above everything else...Even so, many
colonels and other officers shit off-target every day. They did things that not
even little children do.”[xiv]
Cubans paid a terrible price for victory: a tenth of its population died and
two-thirds of the wealth of the island was destroyed.[xv]
Montejo condemned propaganda which minimized the role of black soldiers in the
war. He claimed that 95 percent of the blacks had fought, but their involvement
and sacrifices did not prevent them from being “left out in the street” after
the hostilities ceased.
United States troops landed
on Cuba in 1898 during the final weeks of the war. In the words of one scholar,
“in a bizarre little war, the United States Army—wretchedly led, scandalously
provisioned, and ravaged by tropical disease—swiftly defeated a demoralized,
dispirited Spanish army and snatched the fruits of victory from the Mambises,
the Cuban guerrilla fighters who had fought gallantly in a struggle of three
During the US
occupation which followed, US troops brutalized the Cuban populace. Montejo
claims that many US soldiers abused Cuban women and called blacks “nigger,
nigger.” Yet, it is interesting to note that he also recalls that “the Americans
were the only ones to put a stop to the pimps,” and that “the white Cubans were
as much to blame as the Americans [for the poverty and social inequalities on
the island] because they let themselves be ordered around in their own country.”[xvii]
Memories among Cubans of two occupations and interventions (1898-1902, 1906-09,
1912, 1917) by the United States endured.
In an afterward to
the narrative entitled “The Alchemy of Memory,” Miguel Barnet offers an eloquent
discourse on the meaning and construction of testimonial narrative. He
emphasizes the responsibility of the writer to interpret the ideas and words of
marginalized persons and the underclass. This is accomplished through effective
oral communication and close consideration of how best to write about the “true
identity” of the common people. “The function of the testimonial novel [sic] as
rescuer of a foundational language, as a rescuer of the old historical novel
[sic], should be to give back the original sound of storytelling to the
contemporary novel. It should be interpreted as the burgeoning of a new cultural
language, in battle with real deceit that is propped up by long-standing
Certainly Barnet’s suggestions have been heeded. Some of the most insightful
social commentary and historical analysis emanating from Latin America in the
past three decades have appeared in the form of testimonial literature (see for
example I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala,[xix]
a book for helped the author to receive a Nobel Prize, and Hear My Testimony:
María Teresa Tula, Human Rights Activist of El Salvador).[xx]
Yet, the appeal and influence of the burgeoning genre should not allow us to
overlook complex questions that arise when judging Biography of a Runaway
Slave as a historical source.
With regards to
Esteban Montejo, the reader encounters difficulties in gleaning clear
information about many aspects of his life. How long was he a fugitive? Did he
in fact end his life as a cimarrón in 1886 when slavery officially ended?
If this date is correct, Montejo would have been 26 years old, and not 20, as he
estimated in his testimony. He provides stimulating details about a rich culture
shared by enslaved Africans. Yet it is most likely that he learned about the
various African cultures of
Cuba after emancipation, and
then worked backward in the taped interviews to portray such cultural practices
as common at an earlier juncture. Such a practice can easily distort the actual
conditions and history. Montejo portrays himself as a rebel during his first 45
years of life, yet he never entered a
community) nor joined up with other fugitive slaves to attack plantations.
One wonders to what extent
Esteban Montejo reshaped his views of the past in response to the present
circumstances he encountered in the post-revolutionary Cuba of 1963. Montejo
notes on the last page of the book that “If I could, I would tell the whole
story now, all of it.”[xxi]
What is he alluding to? Perhaps his unhappiness with continued racial
discrimination in a revolutionary Cuba whose leadership claimed that such
practices had ended? Or is this another voice, that of Miguel Barnet speaking
about censorship that he had endured as a writer? The result, in the words of
William Luis, is that “the narration cannot be conceived as a chronicle with a
historical development but as a fictional discourse which breaks with history
and is subject to the strategies of memory.”[xxii]
Questions also emerge
regarding Miguel Barnet’s role in writing this testimony. As the transcriber and
editor, he played a critical role in determining which topics would be addressed
in the discussions and what ultimately appeared in print in the book. He changed
words and whole phrases to satisfy what he as the intermediary believed would be
most readable and most true to what Montejo wished to say. But we also need to
consider that Barnet determined which events would be included for personal
political reasons. Barnet had been part of a group of poets know as El Puente,
named after a private publisher of that name which existed between 1960 and
1965. The revolutionary government claimed that members of the group were
homosexuals and antisocial, and subsequently repressed or marginalized its
members. Therefore, Barnet was seeking to reestablish his credentials as an
acceptable writer in the new literary establishment of Cuba of the early 1960s.
It was at this juncture that he read in a newspaper that Esteban Montejo was
alive and well. Barnet most likely decided (wisely) to devote the bulk of the
book to a description of slavery and flight in Cuba, the Ten Years’ War, and the
Independence War because such themes would not raise a controversy. Each episode
had been directly affected by foreign intervention, and therefore appealed to a
regime seeking to demonstrate that it had fulfilled the revolutionary
aspirations of earlier generations (such as the generation of José Martí in the
second half of the 19th century).
It is strange that the story
ends in 1905. Esteban lived through the 1912 “Race War” in which thousands of
Afro-Cubans were slaughtered by white or light-skinned Cubans. Why does Barnet
not include such an important episode when we know that Montejo expressed strong
opinions about this violent episode in the taped interviews? Perhaps Barnet
understood that an analysis of the Race War, one in which foreigners played
virtually no role, would not be acceptable to the Cuban revolutionary
The book received immediate international acclaim, and Barnet quickly regained
political and literary stature in Cuba.
The Curbstone revised edition of 1994 is translated by W. Nick Hill. Mr. Hill mistakenly writes in the preface that Cuba was the “last country to overcome this affront [slavery] to the human condition [in the Americas].”[xxiv] Rather, that distinction falls on Brazil, which officially ended its slave regime on 13 May 1888 after flourishing for more than three centuries. In spite of this error, W. Nick Hill has provided readers with a solid translation of this testimonial narrative from Spanish into English. The book merits translation also into Portuguese so that it can be available to readers throughout the Portuguese world interested in the lives of slaves, slave resistance, comparative slavery and race relations in the 20th century. It is a book which can be used with great success among advanced high school students and at the advanced college and university level.
By Dale Torston Graden, University of Idaho
[i] Robert Edgar Conrad, Children of God’s Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil (University Park, PA.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), xix.
[ii] Juan Francisco Manzano, Autobiografía, cartas y versos de Juan Francisco Manzano, edited by José Luciano Franco (Havana: Municipio de La Habana, 1937). See also Thomas Bremer, “The Slave Who Wrote Poetry: Comments on the Literary Works and the Autobiography of Juan Francisco Manzano,” in Slavery in the Americas, ed. Wolfgang Binder (Wurzburg: Koningshausen und Neumann, 1993), 487-501.
[iii] Miguel Barnet, Biografía de un cimarrón: Relato etnográfico (La Habana: Instituto de Etnologia y Folklore, 1966).
[iv] Miguel Barnet, Esteban Montejo: The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, translated by Jocasta Inness (London: Bodley Head, 1966).
[v] William Luis, Literary Bondage: Slavery in Cuban Narrative (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 200.
[vi] Miguel Barnet, Biography of a Runaway Slave, translated by W. Nick Hill (Willimantic, CT.: Curbstone Press, 1994), 17. All subsequent citations of Barnet are from the 1994 edition of Biography of a Runaway Slave. See also Gerard Aching, “On the Creation of Unsung National Heroes: Barnet’s Esteban Montejo and Armas’s Julian Del Casal,” Latin American Literary Review 22:43 (January-June 1994), 35-41.
[vii] Barnet, Biography, 33.
[viii] Barnet, Biography, 24.
[ix] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin, 1988).
[x] Barnet, Biography, 52.
[xi] Barnet, Biography, 62.
[xii] Barnet, Biography, 80.
[xiii] Barnet, Biography, 150-51.
[xiv] Barnet, Biography, 183.
[xv] Lester Langley, The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898-1934 (Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1988), 13-14.
[xvi] Benjamin Keen, A History of Latin America, vol. 2, Independence to the Present, 5th edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 414.
[xvii] Barnet, Biography, 194-95.
[xviii] Barnet, Biography, 207.
[xix] Rigoberta Menchú, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, edited and introduced by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and translated by Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1993)
[xx] Maria Teresa Tula, Hear My Testimony: Human Rights Activist of El Salvador, edited and translated by Lynn Stephen (Boston: South End Press, 1994).
[xxi] Barnet, Biography, 200.
[xxii] Luis, Literary Bondage, 205.
[xxiii] Luis, Literary Bondage, 199-218.
[xxiv] Barnet, Biography, 13.