September 18, 2006

On Jose Antonio Saco

It saddens me that we don’t have more of José Antonio Saco’s work available in English.

Saco was born on May 7 1797, to a slaveholding family in Bayamo. By “divine right,” Saco should have been “friendlier” to the institution of slavery, but as editor of the Revista Bimestre Cubana, he began to attack the slave trade as early as 1832.

By mid 19th century, Saco was walking a line that seemed to defy conventional logic. He did not support Cuba’s first war for separation from Spain (the Ten Year War) but was completely in favor of independence, and he believed that one day Cuba would have its own identity with no strings to any empire.

At times, Saco hinted at concerns for a Haiti-style race war in Cuba, but he did not believe in slavery. Still, abolitionists considered that he was not on their side, and supporters of slavery were sure he was against them, as he often referred to slavery as an “evil and corrupt institution.”

Saco also opposed the idea of Cuba becoming part of the U.S. landscape, and he envisioned a distinct identity that would not be able to exist within the U.S. (or any) empire.

Contending that the slave trade had been illegal since 1821, Saco became a target of the Spanish government, and was exiled in 1834 by Captain General Miguel Tacón (one of the most hostile Captains General Cuba ever had). Saco then began to work on a “history of slavery” project that would consume the rest of his life, and which he intended to do in three parts: slavery in the Old World, Negro slavery in America, and a history of Indian slavery.

Rather than focusing on the sociological aspects of the slave trade, Saco focused on the legal, political and diplomatic issues, and contended that Spanish legislation was “more humane” than that of any of the other powers involved in the slave trade (Dutch, Portuguese, French and English). His work shows that from the very beginning, some Spanish writers condemned the “traffic in human beings,” but always at their own risk.

Saco was never able to return to Cuba. He died in Barcelona in 1879, unable to fully complete his work. Today he’s regarded as one of the important developers of Cuban nationalism, which includes Father Felix Varela and José Martí. To that list I would add José de la Luz y Caballero, whom I hope to cover in more detail at a later date.


September 12, 2006

Knowing Cuba through Books

An article published in the November 1946 issue of Hispania (Vol. 29, No. 4) looks at books that would assist anyone wishing to know more about Cuba.

Author John T. Reid, who was once stationed as an officer at the American Embassy in Havana, can be commended for seeking Cuban sources, which may be rare today.

Reid asked a group of friends (including Manuel Grau, Raimundo Lazo, Fernando Ortíz, José María Chacón y Calvo, Herminio Portell Vilá, Enrique José Varona and others) for their picks, and these picks are included in the article. Many or most of the books mentioned are still relevant today, and some have been translated into English, though not nearly enough of them.

Included in this 60-year-old list is “José Martí, el Apóstol” by Jorge Mañach, described in Reid’s article as “the best biography of the greatest Cuban.” (This seems rather subjective for a scholarly journal. Is Martí the greatest Cuban? Is he greater than Maceo? Is he greater than Felix Varela or even Teofilo Stevenson? ) He adds that “no one can understand Cuba without knowing Martí and the Cubans’ almost religious reverence for him.” That I can fully agree with. Luckily, Mañach’s book is now available in English, although it may not be easy to find.

Another title from the list also available in English is Fernando Ortiz’ “Contrapunteo Cubano del tabaco y el azucar.” (In English, the book is titled “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar,” from publisher Alfred A. Knopf) I’d love to see more books by Ortiz translated into English, particularly his work on the meaning of race in Cuba.