A slave speaks

James Ferguson takes a look at Miguel Barnet's Biography of a Runaway Slave, the story of Cuban ex-slave Esteban Montejo

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This is a book with unlikely origins. Its story begins in a Cuban nursing home in the early 1960s, only a few years after Fidel Castro has come to power. The nursing home and its exceptionally elderly inhabitants make it into the national newspaper, and the article is spotted by Miguel Barnet, an anthropologist and writer. Some of the inmates of the nursing home claim to be a hundred years or older. One in particular, Esteban Montejo, says he was born in 1860, making him 103 at the time. Barnet makes contact with Montejo, who is happy to be interviewed. The young anthropologist tape-records the centenarian’s reminiscences in a long series of sessions. A tall, grizzled black man, Montejo talks freely and coherently about his long and eventful life. The result is Biography of a Runaway Slave.

One of the first and best-known of the so-called “testimonial” novels, the Biography was an enormous critical success. It won a prestigious award from the Cuban Casa de las Americas institution and appeared in different editions throughout the world. It was, in every sense, revolutionary. For here was the life story of a man who had been an illiterate slave, told in his own words, presented as a work of literature. It was, as such, a challenge to conventional notions both of history and literature, which had traditionally been seen as the preserve of educated academics. It was also subversive in that it retold a large slice of Cuban history from the point of view of those who had usually been written out of that history – the slaves, rebels, Afro-Cubans. Little wonder that the revolutionary Cuban government greeted the testimonial genre, and Montejo’s life history, with enthusiasm. Montejo became something of a celebrity; he died in 1973 at 113.

The account takes place against the background of Spain’s last three decades of colonial rule in Cuba. It was a period of intense economic and political crisis, marked by falling sugar prices and increasingly vocal demands for independence from many Cubans. The first War of Independence (1868-1878) pitted Cuban guerrilla forces against the Spanish army in a dress rehearsal for the second conflict (1895-1898), which finally ended Spanish control and ushered in a long phase of American interference in the island’s affairs.

Montejo was born a slave on 26 December 1860, on a plantation in what is now the province of Villa Clara. He never knew his parents, for as he says, “Blacks were sold like piglets, and they sold me right off.” He is brought up on another plantation and, at an early age, starts working, driving mules and cutting cane. After an unspecified number of years spent in the squalor of the barracoon, Montejo is ready to escape. Throwing a rock at the plantation’s sadistic overseer, he takes off into the hills and becomes a cimarron or runaway slave.

The cimarron (the forerunner of the English Maroon) is a mythic and romantic figure in Cuban folklore, symbolising the thirst for freedom and rebellion that flourished in every slave society. Yet rarely before had the daily reality of the outsider’s life been documented in the way that Montejo tells it. Lonely, scared, permanently silent, the runaway slave lives in a cave or in the woods, surviving on roots, berries and the occasional stolen pig. With only birds for company, Montejo spends his days sleeping and dreaming.

When Montejo finally emerges from this almost dream-like solitude, it is to the news that slavery has been abolished. The first War of Independence is over; the Spanish are still in control, though weakened and forced into making reforms. Montejo takes a job as a labourer on the Ariosa plantation, where he quickly discovers that conditions and attitudes have changed little with the passing of slavery. In the uneasy period between the truce and the next round of conflict, the island is plagued by bandits and kidnappers, the remnants of the anti-Spanish forces.

When eventually the struggle against Spanish rule crystallises into further armed conflict, Montejo joins the Mambises, the pro-independence guerrilla forces. It is at this point that his individual story takes on far greater significance for, as a black Cuban, Montejo’s involvement throws light on one of the most disputed aspects Cuban history. For many years the contribution made to the independence fight by Afro-Cubans had been downplayed or ignored by official histories, which tended to depict the island’s black population as indifferent or passive in the face of the anti- Spanish movement.

Montejo’s account is rather different, “Whenever I see one of those blacks in my memory, I see him fighting. They didn’t talk about what the were going into or why. They just fought. To defend their lives of course. When someone asked them how they felt, they would say, ‘Cuba libber, Me’s a liberator.’ Not a one wanted to see himself in shackles again or eating beef jerky or cutting cane at dawn. That was why they went to war.”

The war itself, as experienced by Montejo, is brief and brutal. While the Cuban independence leaders bicker among themselves, the guerrillas make swift work of inexperienced and terrified Spanish conscripts. Then suddenly the conflict ends, as the US “intervention” spells the end of Spanish rule and the beginning of an uneasy relationship with Cuba’s American neighbours.

Montejo’s story finishes with this change of foreign control, and the old man cannot resist an observation that Castro would doubtless endorse: “To tell the truth, I prefer the Spaniard to the American, but the Spaniard in his own country.”

It is intriguing that the narrative stops in 1898, and frustrating that we learn nothing of how Montejo viewed what followed. Even so, Biography of a Runaway Slave offers unparalleled insights not just into plantation life before and after slavery, but also into the wealth of African culture to be found in rural Cuba. Recalling religious ceremonies, fiestas, music, food and folk medicine, Montejo conjures up a world in which contacts with the ex-slaves’ homeland are still almost tangible; in which Yoruba traditions and beliefs survive and perpetuate themselves among the rigours of slavery and deprivation.

By emphasising the central role of Afro-Cubans in their nation’s struggle for independence, the book made an important political point. By celebrating the vitality of Afro-Cuban culture, it also struck a blow for those whose art forms and beliefs are often dismissed – even by “revolutionaries” – as marginal, or at best, exotic.

Testimonial literature has had a bad press recently. How can you believe that it’s not all made up? ask the cynics. Or that the narrator isn’t trying to satisfy the interviewer’s preconceptions? Or, worse, that the interviewer takes liberties with the recorded raw material? Such risks may exist, but Biography certainly has the ring of authenticity. The Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegria has rightly written of its “aroma,” while Graham Greene thought it “unique.”

Idiosyncratic, sometimes slightly rambling, but always compellingly human, Montejo’s voice brings to life a history of suffering and struggle that is at once exceptional and yet typical of an entire generation.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)