By Aaron Kelly
For Hugo Ramos and Soraya T. Jaime
The cultural and political partnership between the Irish abolitionist, Richard Robert Madden [1798-1886], and the Cuban writer and former slave, Juan Francisco Manzano [1797-1854], flourished into Madden’s English-language translations of some of Manzano’s work as part of a compendium of materials published in 1840 that were primarily intended for dissemination at the General Anti-Slavery Convention in London that same year and which were printed as the book: Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, recently liberated; translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D., with the history of the early life of the negro poet, written by himself; to which are prefixed two pieces descriptive of Cuban slavery and the slave-traffic. As with the collection’s cumbersome title, the folio is a loose assemblage of translations of Manzano’s poetry, a fragment of his autobiography, coupled with Madden’s own poems, his political writings on Cuba and on the ignominies of slavery for both slaver and enslaved. Nonetheless, the heterogeneous, fragmentary component parts of the book constellate a very lucid and ethical unity of purpose that is committed resolutely to the fundamental equality of all human beings and to the defeat of all racist and colonial forms of oppression that would deny that that foundational, human equality.
In 1838 Madden had been introduced to Manzano, and to the poems he had written during his enslavement in Matanzas, by the Havana literary circle led by Domingo Del Monte, who became Manzano’s patron and sponsor. Given the repressive colonial regime still in place in Cuba at the time, Poems by a Slave anonymised Manzano for reasons of his own safety. Manzano would eventually, and quite rightly, be named and canonised in the great tradition of Cuban radicalism and decolonization as one of the key voices through which the oppressed asserted and expressed themselves, a tradition which of course leads directly to 1959 and to the ongoing vibrancy of the Cuban Revolution. To some extent, Madden’s wish for Poems by a Slave to be used for an abolitionist event in London, and his translation of Manzano’s voice for those purposes, would seem to reaffirm conventional hierarchies – Madden, from above, finding this liberated slave and representing him to the world and translating on his behalf not only linguistically but also politically, just as the top-down historiographic version of the ending of slavery and the slave trade more widely grants primacy to western abolitionists acting on behalf of the enslaved rather than recognising the agency of slaves themselves – but the transcultural encounters between Madden and Manzano were also more hospitable and equitable than that, and their egalitarian exchanges lay the groundwork for transatlantic and international forms of solidarity that have abided and which need urgent replenishment in today’s unipolar, imperialist world. Indeed, Madden uses his preface to declare that his translations cannot do full ‘justice’ to the poems – that full justice would reside in Manzano himself in his own terms and actions – and that his own efforts to publicise Manzano’s work are secondary to Manzano’s writings themselves, which insist through the protectorate of poetry that the enslaved are ‘intellectually and morally […] equal to the people of any nation on the surface of the globe’.
The journeys that brought both men to their cultural convocation in Poems by a Slave are as intriguing as they are inspiring. Madden was born in 1798, the year of the United Irishmen’s republican rebellion in Ireland: in fact, on the very day he was born, Madden’s family home in Dublin was raided by British forces. Madden’s father, Edward, was not involved in the uprising in any way. He was nonetheless a Catholic and thus deemed to be worthy of suspicion and harassment (Madden’s mother, Elizabeth was still in bed with her newborn child as the British yeomanry ransacked the premises). Unlike the majority of the Catholic population, however, Edward Madden was relatively well off, having prospered through a blind spot in the Penal Laws (which were designed to exclude Irish Catholics from civic, public life through the 1700s) that failed to cover commerce completely. The success of Edward Madden’s silk business allowed him to become a member of a small Catholic mercantile middle class. Although not politically radical, Madden Snr had been a member of the Catholic Committee which was formed in 1757 and sought, in quite reformist ways, to petition for the repeal of the Penal Laws and for the extension of full citizenship rights to Ireland’s Catholics. The Protestant United Irishman, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was appointed assistant secretary of the Catholic Committee in 1792 and was part of its delegation that lobbied the British King George III in London to end the Penal Laws.
Madden’s own life and his changing perspectives have some strong parallels with Wolfe Tone or indeed later figures like Roger Casement, both of whom participated in the administration of British colonialism before turning implacably against it. Although Madden was never an outright revolutionary like Wolfe Tone or Casement, he nonetheless embarked upon a political voyage throughout his life that led him to stand with the vanquished. Madden would become a physician though during his training he contracted tuberculosis and was advised to leave Ireland for warmer climes. Without telling his family, Madden took a passage to France in 1820, staying in Bordeaux for three months, before running out of money and then selling his personal possessions to fund a move to Paris, where he arrived without having already secured lodgings or a job. In what was to prove a felicitous, chance happening that would characterise much of Madden’s life and travels, on his first day in Paris he spotted a man trying to commit suicide by jumping in the river Seine and saved him from drowning. Locals, impressed by Madden’s act of bravery and compassion, engaged him in conversation and found that he had no accommodation or job and consequently directed him to an apothecary in a fashionable part of town that was in need of an English-speaking assistant. The job enabled Madden to continue his medical training and also to mix with the great and the good (including the Irish national poet Thomas Moore who was exiled in Paris at the time), and further travels followed to the likes of Naples, Rome, Constantinople, or Alexandria, where Madden again mixed with the upper echelons of society and within cultural and literary circles, as well as continuing his professional development as a physician (he completed his studies in London and was appointed to the London College of Surgeons). Madden’s roaming allowed him to recover from his tuberculosis, to become a skilled medical practitioner (he was on the frontline treating a bubonic plague epidemic while in Alexandria in 1825), to indulge his clear love of adventure (he was kidnapped by pirates during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1826), and to develop his interest in writing that would produce voluminous works throughout the rest of his life.
In England in 1828 Madden married Harriet T. Elmslie, whose Aberdonian father John was an owner of slave plantations in Jamaica. At the very same time, Madden was a member of the Anti-Slavery Society and – despite political, social and indeed familial pressures – he retained that commitment abidingly to the end of his life. Britain had – technically at least – abolished the slave trade in 1807 but not slave ownership, and it was 1833 before Parliament passed legislation ending slavery in the British colonies. Through his membership of the Anti-Slavery Society, Madden was appointed a special magistrate tasked with delivering the emancipation of the enslaved population of Jamaica and he travelled there in 1833. Four other special magistrates swiftly died of yellow fever and Madden himself would eventually leave Jamaica by 1834, not through fears about disease but because of death threats from the slave owners, planters, police and local militias. Having been physically attacked several times, Madden’s ultimately solitary mission to supervise the emancipation of Jamaica’s slaves was rendered impossible in the face of the violent opposition of the slave-owning elites and the whole judicial and martial system on the island. Although he was not permitted to enforce the law of emancipation in Jamaica, upon his return to London Madden published A Twelvemonth Residence in the Island of Jamaica (1835), a long, two-volume critique of the ongoing oppression endured by the enslaved on the island and across the colonial system. Madden used an epistolary form, with literary-political letters to imagined addressees like Thomas Moore, and his book had a palpable effect in galvanising opinion against the continuing forms of de facto slavery, and resulted in the establishment of a British government select committee – whose members included Daniel O’Connell – tasked with properly ensuring the end of slavery and the slave trade.
At this stage in his life, Madden’s forlorn function in Jamaica was not anti-colonial as such, and was more a strand of liberal imperialism coming face to face with the other, more obviously coercive and racist face of the British empire in the form of the Jamaican planters and their economic partners across the colonial system. That liberal imperialist role had a further opportunity to prove its reformist credentials in 1836, when Madden was appointed to the position of Superintendent of Liberated Slaves in the Island of Cuba. The main European powers – Spain, France, Portugal – had reached an accord with Britain nominally ending the slave trade (with fulsome financial compensation packages) and affording the Royal Navy the authority to search transatlantic shipping in order to enforce the deal. Thus, Madden’s planned role in Cuba was, officially at least, part of a positioning of British colonialism as a ‘progressive’ influence on world affairs.
What Madden found upon arrival in Cuba was that next to nothing was being done to halt or even reduce the slave trade, and that the slave system was still being violently enforced by both the colonial Spanish authorities, global traders and the local elites. Madden’s contempt for the slave owners and those who profited from the trade is vehemently expressed by his poem, ‘The Slave-Trade Merchant’:
Their owner comes, “the royal merchant” deigns
To view his chattels, and to count his gains.
To him, what boots it, how these slaves were made,
What wrongs the poor have suffered by his trade.
To him, what boots it, if the sale is good,
How many perished in the fray of blood!
How many peaceful hamlets were attacked,
And poor defenceless villages were sacked!
How many wretched beings in each town
Maimed at the onslaught, or in flight cut down!
How many infants from the breast were torn,
And frenzied mothers dragged away forlorn!
To him, what boots it, how the ship is crammed;
How many hundreds in the hold are jammed!
How small the space! what piteous cries below!
What frightful tumult in that den of woe!
Or how the hatches when the gale comes on,
Are battened down, and ev’ry hope seems gone;
What struggling hands in vain are lifted there,
Or how the lips are parched that move in prayer,
Or mutter imprecations wild and dread,
On all around, the dying and the dead:
What cares the merchant for that crowded hold, The voyage pays, if half the slaves are sold!
Here is a clear distillation of Madden’s sense of the remorseless inhumanity of slavery, the destruction wrought by imperialism upon villages and families and cultures and traditions and ways of life in Africa, the horror of the conditions of the Middle Passage through which the enslaved where transported across the Atlantic, and the absolutely depraved treatment of human beings as objects and commodities by the plantation system.
As with Madden’s experiences in Jamaica, he bravely set himself in opposition to that system and the powerful interests that supported it. Just as Madden was about to finish his first, punishing tour of duty in 1839, news came through that a schooner carrying slaves bound for Camagüey in Cuba had been seized by US naval authorities near Long Island, New York. The ship was La Amistad (made famous in the anglophone world by the 1997 Steven Spielberg film Amistad) and the fifty slaves on board had rebelled and killed their captors. The leader of the uprising, Sengbe Pieh, who was together with the rest of his comrades on La Amistad from the Mende people in what is now modern-day Sierra Leone, had instructed the navigator (whose life had been spared for this purpose) to sail back to west Africa. However, knowing that the USA in 1839 was still resoundingly a slave-owning nation, the navigator slyly sailed to north America instead where the Africans were captured and incarcerated. The enslaved Africans were the object of two vexatious court cases: the first, by the US state, charged them with murder, mutiny and piracy. The second, lodged by the Spanish authorities, but then contested by numerous US citizens, sought legal ownership of the Africans as property and chattel.
By 1839 Madden had already published a pamphlet, Regarding the Slave Trade in Cuba, that was an open attack on the insidious role played by the US in upholding, supplying, and profiting from the slave system in Cuba, with a very distinctive, Catholic ethos aimed primarily and strategically at Irish-Americans and what Madden perceived to be their unshaken complicity in that system. Madden left Cuba for the US as swiftly as he could in order to help defend and exonerate the slaves. He was aware that the Africans were subject to a trial being conducted in a language (English) that none of them spoke and Madden managed to communicate with them when he met them in jail in Arabic (one of the many languages Madden had learned during his early travels). Madden was able to give expert testimony in the slaves’ defence and his multi-lingual skills also enabled to pick apart key presumptions of the prosecutors’ case. The court was describing the slaves as ladinos (as they were designated on their transportation licences) and was translating this as ‘able-bodied’ in English. Madden demonstrated to the court that the term ladino in Cuba and in law internationally actually specified slaves sold and transported pre-1820 and before the official ending of the trade. The Africans were in fact bozales or recently enslaved and transported in abeyance of the law. So the description of the Africans in the transportation documentation as ladinos was a legal forgery designed to circumvent international law and Madden was able to contextualise it with many other instances of this kind of fictitious labelling through which the slave trade endured. Had the court upheld the status of the Africans as ladinos, then legally they would have been the property of their owners and without any rights of their own. Madden’s evidence was crucial in establishing the court’s legal recognition of the Africans as human beings rather than commodities and, together with the evidence provided by Madden of violence and reprisals against liberated slaves in Cuba which convinced the court that they would be under imminent threat of death on the island, this point ensured that the court had to recognise the slaves’ right to self-defence. It was on those terms – the Africans had been illegally captured and were in fact free human beings acting in self-defence – that the US court system had to acquit the Mende and they were permitted to return to Africa, though this was only made possible through charitable funds as the court lacked the grace or humanity to offer the Africans compensation for their ordeal.
Madden then returned to London and he did so with his translations of Manzano’s writings as part of his mission to publicise the case for the full, meaningful end to slavery and the slave trade using Cuba and Manzano’s work as his exemplars at the 1840 General Anti-Slavery Convention in London. As he did for hundreds of others, Madden played an active role in Manzano’s legal manumission, the financial costs of which were met by funds from the Del Monte literary circle. Juan Francisco Manzano was born into slavery in 1797 and his childhood and early adolescence were spent as a house slave. One of the few self-made benefits of Manzano’s dire lot as a domestic slave was that he had unsanctioned access to the books, writings and discussions of his masters, and he very much made the most of those limited, illicit opportunities in his self-education. If Madden led quite an interestingly life that permitted him to travel and learn languages in ways broadly in keeping with the experiences of the cosmopolitan elites that he joined, the circumstances by which Manzano educated himself are truly remarkable, in terms of both the skills and abilities that Manzano possessed and the indomitable fortitude he exhibited in surmounting all the social barriers designed to deny and to crush his humanity.
Before teaching himself to read and write, as a child Manzano already clearly had a gift for storytelling, and he would entertain other slaves (and on occasion the children of his owners) in the fields and in the plantation house with spoken narratives and tales. That orality connects Manzano to the African traditions that still persisted amongst the forcibly enslaved and their descendants and to the fragmentary cultural and historical memory sustained by oral tradition for those displaced from their homelands and robbed of their very names, identities and languages. Orality informs Manzano’s writing (and of course most of his fellow slaves were denied access to literacy and to writing), especially the composite fabric of his autobiography, and it helped structure his own autodidactic learning that would lead him to acquire literacy so that he could write in the first place. Initially Manzano would commit to memory the poems, songs or speeches and recitals that he overheard in his owners’ house. This process of mimicking and memorizing then transferred to writing itself. If Manzano was present during a lesson for the owners’ children (never seated at the table himself of course), he would await pages or drafts being discarded on the floor and collect these before later placing a blank sheet of paper over each of them and simply tracing the writing, so as to become accustomed to the hand movements necessary for the writing of letters and words. Manzano did the same with binned drafts and letters from his master and from his first mistress (who had a penchant for writing Neoclassical poems).
Painstakingly, Manzano eventually mapped onto his command of the physical technique of writing an understanding of what words meant and hence he also began to be able to read. Before he felt equipped to write his own poems down on paper, Manzano would store in his memory his creations alongside the poems, songs and sayings by others that he had already retained in what he referred to as the notebook of his imagination. One key passage in his autobiography, Autobiografía del esclavo poeta, recounts how when fishing he would take the opportunity to compose poems in his head:
I was extremely fond of fishing, which is why, when there were cool evenings and mornings, I would go to the banks of the San Agustín river, down by the low part where the Mill reaches out looking for the river: I would put the bait on the hook and catch fish; but since melancholy was concentrated in my soul and had exhausted my being, I was pleased under the guásima [a Caribbean elm tree], whose roots formed a kind of pedestal where I fished, to compose some verses from memory, which were always sad, and I did not write them down because I was still ignorant of the art of written poetry, and because I had a notebook of poems in my imagination where I could improvise anything.[i]
In any circumstances a self-taught and self-curated imaginative notebook that also functioned as a basic literacy tool would be impressive. That it was a cultural archive constructed by the mind of a young slave makes it especially astounding given the oppressive conditions into which Manzano was born. As Manzano disclosed in one of his early correspondences with Del Monte about his autobiography in 1835: ‘remember when you read me that I am a slave and that the slave is a dead being in the eyes of his master’.[ii] Every single word that Manzano improvised for the purposes of his own creativity in his head, every single word that he would go on to write down on paper when he was able, were acts of resistance that overturned the fundamental, dehumanizing essence of slavery: that he was not a human being but a commodity, that his time was owned by someone else and was to be used solely for work allocated by them, that culture and ideas were the monopoly of those who had appointed themselves the masters of humanity.
At a very young age Manzano recognised the emancipatory power of writing in the face of his actual, physical enslavement: ‘I resolved to give myself to another more useful study, which was learning to write’.[iii] This difference between doing something that was useful for himself and his allocated function as a slave for someone else (wherein all his activity, time, creativity, energy, physicality were the possessions of his masters and were reduced to the sole purpose of enriching and serving those masters) goes to the crux of the radical meaning of writing and literature for Manzano. His improvisations disorder the colonial system’s allocation not only of language and literacy but also its correlated and mutually sustaining hierarchies of master-slave, citizen-noncitizen, human-nonhuman. It is little wonder therefore that when Manzano’s owners realised he was spending time writing his own creations they sought to shut him down. Manzano’s early effort to acquire literacy was based necessarily on a need to copy or mimic. He describes how in his youth he would seek to make his transcriptions and tracings of the written words of his masters and their children as visually ‘identical’ as possible to the original, since these were designedly a pictorial means of grasping the mechanics of writing before he even knew the meanings of the words. These initial efforts were indulged by his owners and it is clear that they felt this activity was in some way amusing, that one of their slaves was seeking to copy their writings or sketches or join in on the educational lessons of their children. Indeed, both the plantation families who owned Manzano during his enslavement subjected him to a mixture of sickening punishment or abuse and a debasing condescension and objectification that masqueraded as benign care. Manzano’s first mistress would dress him in finery and parade him publicly when she deemed him to have been well-behaved and he would be encouraged when entertaining her children with routines and skits.
However, when she deemed Manzano to be deserving of punishment he would be dressed in a different set of dowdy clothes that his mistress considered appropriate to his lowly lot and publicly shamed; he would also then be stripped naked, have his head shaved, be beaten unconscious and locked in the coal cellar. After being wrongly accused of stealing a chicken, Manzano endured a nine-day cycle of punishment beatings and was thrown to a pack of hungry dogs. For what his mistress considered the ‘crime’ of Manzano taking one leaf from her geraniums, Manzano was symbolically crucified by being pinned to a board with pitchforks, raped and beaten until he passed out. It is worth restating that all these horrors were being inflicted upon a child. If Manzano seeking out a geranium leaf for his own amusement was the source of such deranged vengeance, then leaves of poetry, his improvised words created for his own imaginative pleasure and for the expression of his own, autonomous feelings, were also considered a threat to the absolute dominion claimed by his owners. When it was realised that Manzano was producing poems and writings of his own and then performing these to other slaves, everyone was forbidden under threat of punishment from listening to him and Manzano was given extra duties (including moving furniture from one side of a room to another arbitrarily) so that his time was to be fully consumed by work and nothing but work, as is the logic of slavery. Later, in his autobiography, Manzano relates how, deprived of human interaction and the opportunity to share his youthful literary improvisions with other slaves, he would instead recite the works from his imaginative notebook to objects, to tables, chairs, walls. The importance of the slave system’s necessary monopoly of the time and activity of the enslaved, as well as the capacity of Manzano’s words and ideas to redistribute time creatively and freely in a radical challenge to that system in which time must solely be worktime, is brilliantly encapsulated by Manzano’s poem, ‘El reloj adelantado’ (‘The Advancing Clock’), translated by Madden for Poems by a Slave as ‘The Clock That Gains’. Manzano’s original reads:
En vano, reloj mío
Te aceleras y afanas
Las horas que no pasan.
Si, aunque veloz el tiempo,
Como el viento se escapa,
Jamás el sol brillante
De sus límites pasa
El con dedo de fuego
Las verdades señala
Y en las reglas que fija
Ni un solo punto falla.
Si, hurtando los momentos,
A mis ojos engañas,
No por eso este día
Más brevemente pasa,
Pero si un mal interno,
O de tus ruedas varias
Los aguzados dientes
Te muerden las entrañas;
Aprende de mi pecho;
Que en tan fatal desgracia,
Por ser igual al tiempo
De lágrimas se baña.
Mas, ¡Ay! que no me entiendes
Ni en tu carrera paras,
Tal vez horas buscando
Menos duras y amargas
Tus pasos desmedidos,
Tu acelerada marcha,
Todo sigue y demuestras
Una ofensiva causa:
Y en tan discorde curso
Ya a mi dolor se iguala,
Que con el largo tiempo
Siempre más se adelanta.
And this is Madden’s translation, ‘The Clock that Gains’. It is immediately apparent that Madden’s version reduces the original in terms of both its content and its form, as it becomes much more metrically predictable and simplified:
The Clock’s too fast they say;
But what matter, how it gains!
Time will not pass away
Any faster for its pains.
The tiny hands may race
Round the circle, they may range,
The Sun has but one pace.
And his course he cannot change.
The beams that daily shine
On the dial, err not so,
For they’re ruled by laws divine,
And they vary not. we know.
But tho’ the Clock is fast,
Yet the moments I must say,
More slowly never passed,
Than they seemed to pass to-day.
A closer, prose-poem, anglophone version of Manzano’s original would read as follows:
‘In vain, my clock / You speed up and you rush / Silently marking / The hours that do not pass. / Yes, although time is swift / Like the breeze escaping / The bright sun never / departs from its own laws / The one with the finger of fire / That points out truths / on each point of the sundial / And in the rules that it sets. / Yes, stealing the moments, / You deceive my eyes / But that’s not why this day /Seems more fleeting than it really is / It’s as if there’s an internal evil in the clock mechanism, / That your various wheels / Are sharp teeth / gnawing at your insides; / Learn from heart; / That in such fatal misfortune, / Time is equal / To a flood of tears. / But, oh! you do not understand me / Not even in your task do you stop, / Permitting hours to seem perhaps / Less brutal and bitter / Your excessive steps, / Your accelerated march / All continue and you disclose / Your horrible mission / And in the course of such discord / Already my pain is equal / To the long time / That always keeps increasing ahead of me.’
In Manzano’s poem, the essence of the ‘discord’ he discerns is a collision between competing concepts of time. There is natural or cosmic time, the time of the sun and its unfaltering register on the sundial. There is clock-time, a more mechanised standard of temporality related directly to and structuring the work that Manzano is forced to undertake. And there is a more subjective, experiential version of time, a temporality of the mind or consciousness that makes worktime stretch unnaturally and endlessly and makes free moments accelerate all too fleetingly. To a large degree, the poem’s pathos and its lament express how Manzano’s pain and suffering are made one and the same thing as the regulation of his time by work, by the evil mechanism of the clock of alienated and enforced labour. Manzano’s imaginative revolt against clock time is enacted by his very writing of this poem, which is already a rebellion against time since he is using his moments of leisure to create art, to do something other than slave work, to make something unbound to the plantation economy and its sequestration of his agency.
The poem was written around 1820 and it allows us to contest an orthodox version of literary history from an anti-imperialist and decolonizing position. The standard account of the development of literary modernism partly highlights the increasing mechanization of work and society through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, following and deepening Marx’s work on commodity fetishism, reification is proposed as a direct result of changing industrial practices and technologies in the early twentieth century that forced on the working population new levels of mechanisation, rationalisation and consequent alienation at the level of consciousness, especially for the newly urbanised proletariat. According to Lukács, the need to sell their working time forced workers to see themselves as commodities, and time itself – clockwork-time at least – as a measure of disadvantageous commercial exchange (Surplus Value) and unwelcome control. Those new work processes and their instrumental rationality are most associated with Taylorism and then Fordism and the enforcement of time and motion studies in workplaces. Taylorism and Fordist production-line techniques, intensifying the subdivision and atomization of labour processes, further introduced fragmentation and reification into worker’s activities, and ultimately into consciousness itself, imprinting profound effects on modern culture in terms of increasingly-valued machines and commodities taking over agentive human roles; with people, reciprocally, reduced more and more to the function of things, objects or machines. Modernism is usually considered, especially in its High Modernist form, as a very particular artistic response in Europe and north America to that increasingly industrialised, technological and urbanised world (a rupture in sensibility hastened by events like World War I and its traumatically modern, mechanised mass warfare). If modernism is to be understood as a period of necessary aesthetic experimentation in which tradition and traditional literary forms break down and are no longer the adequate means by which to register such dislocation, as an interregnum where new forms, styles, techniques and literary languages must be invented, then Manzano’s work permits us to insist that rather than having to await European modernism in the early twentieth century, another kind of modernism was already long underway in the colonized spaces of the world. For all those already forcibly displaced across oceans, robbed of their own names and languages, violently coerced out of traditional ways of living into enslaved labour, banished from the humanity of their own cultures into the depleted function of objects, property, commodities and things in someone else’s economy and for someone else’s profit, modernism has already happened.
Manzano’s imaginative notebook of self-education, where ‘I could improvise anything’, is itself part of anti-colonial aesthetic of avant-gardism avant la lettre, of a continual artistic improvisation forced upon those colonized and displaced by capitalist imperialism, a decolonizing modernism that already had to invent new styles and techniques out of an experience of pure exigency, to acquire and deploy new languages in new forms, and create transnational and composite aesthetics that were impelled to adapt to work with cultural fragments and shards rather than with cohesive cultural traditions and holistic worldviews. Sometimes Manzano’s poetry is dismissively considered a mere mimicry of his masters’ forms (especially the somewhat trite Neoclassical poems of his mistress) because of the practicalities of how he learned to read and write to begin with and because of the lack of autonomous poetic forms of his own. However, as indicated by the rather basic and simplistic metrical regularity imposed on ‘El reloj adelantado’ by Madden’s ‘The Clock That Gains’ translation, many of Manzano’s poems are highly complex, heterogeneous and inventive in their forms and techniques precisely because of the appropriative work that he must undertake in trying to establish a voice for himself, for his experiences, and for the multifarious cultural disruptions and adaptations that bring him to writing from the outset.
Manzano’s autobiography, Autobiografía del esclavo poeta, is written even more intensely in a fragmentary, formally modulating and experimental manner, again precisely because the ‘self’ being inscribed by the text is not considered a fully human being let alone a citizen or author, and because he is at one and the same time adopting himself to and subverting the conventions of his masters’ language of Spanish and autobiography as a genre, retaining a fragmented yet enduring sense of the oral traditions and belief systems that his ancestors retained in the plantations, and seeking forms that might express or register personal and historical experiences whose horrors would defy language and representation. It is notable in the account Manzano gives in his autobiography of his staged, brutal crucifixion and the attendant rape and beatings, that he invokes Christ of course but also describes how during the terror he saw the nameless dead arise and stalk the room before disappearing out the window into imagined waters with other mythical beings.[iv] Those supernatural elements of his writing as sometimes considered as gothic elements but that is a means of trying to make them comprehensible in European and north American narrative and generic terms. The watery dead spectrally appearing to Manzano during his torture and violation actually link him to the tradition that would become Afrofuturism, to the spiritual and cultural touchstones of the enslaved Africans that persist in broken forms through the Middle Passage and on the plantations and which provide part of the aesthetic and formal basis of efforts to express that horrific experience and to assemble new repositories and new means of transmission for cultural and historical memory. Even though the child Manzano sought to be as ‘identical’ as possible to the writing of his masters as he copied out their words, what he then achieved with his literacy is traduced by reading it solely in relation to European and colonial New World norms and his poems and prose retain as sense of non-identity, of difference and heterogeneity that is irreducible to standard generic conventions and norms.
Given that Manzano’s poem ‘El reloj andelantado’ criticises slavery’s theft of his time and agency, taking his imagination and words away from him, it is tempting to view Madden’s reductive translation as yet another, albeit well-intentioned, misappropriation of his creativity and words. But Madden’s translations always had a very specific and practical function – the publication of Manzano’s writings and the Cuba dossier at the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840 and the amplification of anglophone awareness of the horrors of slavery, including amongst Irish and Irish-American audiences – and Madden viewed the literary side to his translations as very much secondary to Manzano’s originals. Indeed, Madden insisted upon the self-standing merit and cultural value of Manzano’s work. Madden’s literary friendship with Manzano held him in much higher regard than the Del Monte cultural circle who were Manzano’s sponsors. When offering materials to Madden for use at the Anti-Slavery Convention, Del Monte had suggested a novel, Francisco, by Anselmo Suárez y Romero in place of Manzano’s autobiography but Madden refused Francisco in favour of Manzano’s own writing. Suárez y Romero’s novel is a somewhat typical liberal-abolitionist affair in that it is the reforming colonial settler who is heroic while the slaves, especially those slaves actively seeking to take control of history and assert their own emancipatory politics, are underemphasised, and doomed to failure and self-destruction.
Although in his correspondence Manzano is strategically grateful to Del Monte and his circle (of course there would be a genuine gratitude too on Manzano’s part), he is also critical of the limits of their liberal goodwill, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in coded ways. When Manzano asks in Autobiografía del esclavo poeta, ‘but I, raised in the darkness of so much ignorance, what could I know?’ (‘pero yo criado en la oscuridad de tanta ignorancia ¿qué podía saber?’), there is something performatively rhetorical about the question. At face value it would seem to confirm his own limitations but Manzano’s question also teasingly suggests that the ‘darkness’ in which he was raised (which of course was not of his own making) actually belongs in the heart of the New World Enlightenment, the supposed embodiment of light-giving reason, and that beyond the gleam of its veneer is barbarity, ignorance and suffering. Furthermore, the words suggest that it is Manzano, and not the European Enlightenment and its American colonial offshoots, who is in possession of this knowledge in spite of the ignorance of imperialism’s self-mythologizing of itself as progressive.
Manzano’s Autobiografía del esclavo poeta, in a further impediment to any effort to accord it the status of full, autonomous self-representation, was written at Del Monte’s suggestion. Manzano himself had instead intended ‘to write a properly Cuban novel’ (‘escribir una novela propiamente cubana’). Although, on one level, Manzano’s acceding to Del Monte’s request attests to the power relations between the two, nonetheless Manzano’s insistence that a Cuban novel, a properly Cuban novel, had yet to be written suggests of course that in Manzano’s view Del Monte and the rest of his privileged literary elite had failed to achieve this and indeed were incapable of doing so in the future. By extension, a properly Cuban novel, a novel of the people and for the people, would need to be written by the people. One of the many sad aspects of Manzano’s life, his mistreatment and the status of his works, is that his autobiography was composed in two volumes. Only the first survives. In the first volume, in keeping with Manzano’s long journey to establish some creative space for himself, his necessary need to combine aspects of a lost, oral tradition and folkloric fragments from his African ancestors with coming to terms with written Spanish and his masters’ literary forms while seeking to make these in some meaningful way also his, the narrative voice – which is hesitant, episodic and frequently pauses in silence – modulates between first-person and a third-person reportage on his own life. Manzano’s status as a slave, as someone else’s possession or property legally and socially, goes a long way to explaining that splitting of narrative subjectivity in the autobiography. But the final lines of his first volume, sadly the only surviving volume of his prose, anticipates that the second narrative of the autobiography will be written by him and his own recuperated voice. And Manzano equates that prospective literary freedom at the end of the first volume with his escape from slavery on horseback (having never ridden a horse before in his life he acquired one to facilitate his escape one dark rainy night, just as he had a train himself to write in someone else’s language and forms in real time). In the memorable last lines of Autobiografía del esclavo poeta, lines that acquire an even more charged and poignant meaning precisely because of the absence of the text that should have followed, Manzano writes:
‘But we will see what has happened to me later in the second part of this story. Here’s Manzano’s story so far: that poor slave whose breast nevertheless contains the heart of a poet, still lives thanks to a subscription promoted by an enlightened and generous American, enjoys freedom today, but he is black, and a black man in Cuba cannot be happy: That is why Manzano, in order to feed his wife and children, works as a cook. The servant, however, will surely be worth more than his boss, just as surely as the slave was worth much more than his Masters.’[v]
It is lamentable that the second volume was either ignored, discarded or destroyed. Nevertheless, in the very absence of that text, Manzano congregates with all the other enslaved peoples who never got the chance to record their experiences and feelings, those ancestral dead spirits who come to Manzano when he is being crucified and tortured and then slip away into the waters of folk memory. Collectively they are all signatories authorising future historical agency and writing, the unforgotten whose absence is always remembered and who restively stalk the amnesia of imperial injustice until what is unreal becomes real, until what is impossible becomes possible, and the lost text of the tradition of the oppressed becomes the ghost-written chorus harmonising the composition of a better world. Manzano’s own narrative was curtailed by the racist colonial system in Cuba in his own lifetime – a full Spanish-language version of the first volume of Autobiografía del esclavo poeta only appeared one hundred years later in 1937 – but of course Manzano’s whole life and work, and his prophetic vision of a Cuba and a world in which the oppressed are much more than their masters, were to be dignified by the Revolution and by the confirmation of Manzano’s rightful place in the political tradition that produced it, not only in terms of the radical overthrow of the imperialist, racist system within Cuba itself but also when Cuban Revolutionaries, whose ancestors had been forcibly transported from Africa as slaves, returned to the continent to defeat the western-backed Apartheid army and to play the leading role in the liberation of southern Africa. That properly Cuban novel that Manzano dreamed of writing has been written for him, with him, because of him, collectively again and again since the Revolution on the island and across this planet. However much imperialism reasons history is its monologue, every word that empire violently writes upon the world is only ever a sign of its beleaguered attempt to silence the clamour of millions of other enduring words whose resonance cannot be contained.
In addition to the loss of the second volume of Manzano’s autobiography, it is clear, as suggested by the brief mention of his working as a cook to make ends meet at the close of the first volume, that his liberation did not deliver the full freedom he was promised by abolitionist liberalism and most of his surviving writing was undertaken during his enslavement rather than after his manumission. The colonial authorities continued to censor his work – it was effectively banned in practice and fragments were passed around covertly – but the liberal elite who had paid for his legal liberation evidently sought to hold him in a hierarchical bond and in an inferior position to their own literary output. All of which makes Madden’s efforts, despite some of their problems, all the more laudable in getting Manzano’s work out there to the world, given Madden was aware Manzano wasn’t being properly published in Cuba and in Spanish. One major work that Manzano did undertake post-manumission was his writing of the play Zafira . In keeping with the aesthetic technique of anti-colonial allegory (appropriating an existing form and giving it new, subversive meanings because a writer is dispossessed of their own tradition and has no autonomous literary forms of their own; as well as writing in code because of the political radicalism of the work in repressive societal conditions), Zafira reworks an older Spanish play, Tragedia, but replaces the white European hero with the slave Neomi who allies with Selim, son of the titular character and Arabian princess Zafira, to defeat the tyrant Barbarroja. Although set in sixteenth-century north Africa, the play’s coded allegorical meanings place centre stage slave rebellions and the historical agency of the enslaved, including via veiled allusions to the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution and hence to a direct threat to the contemporary plantocracy. Part of the play’s allegorical ruse is a letter possessed by Selim, the contents of which are never explicitly disclosed – another lost text in Manzano’s oeuvre and in the subaltern tradition he embodies that awaits the transcription of a just future – but which strikes fear and terror in the heart of Barbarroja. Unlike the national allegories of the Del Monte literary circle, which gestured to independence from Spain in the hands of a white, liberal elite, Manzano’s play, as carefully as it can given the colonial conditions in which it was written, torments both slavers and liberals on the island with intimations of slave rebellion and, through the mysterious letter, with an as yet unreadable and unperformed equality of all human beings to be created by the arising of the enslaved. Just two years later in 1844 Manzano was arrested on suspicion of being involved in a plot against the colonial regime and, despite being eventually found innocent, was rearrested, tortured and imprisoned for six months.
If Manzano understood self-determination and independence for Cuba to be ultimately the task of the oppressed themselves rather than a national elite, Madden’s time in partnership with Manzano and in the Caribbean more widely helped lead him back to Ireland with a more radical worldview that saw him side with his home island’s most dispossessed. After the Anti-Slavery Conference of 1840, Madden would eventually travel to the west coast of Africa and expose the unabated hypocrisy and complicity of Britain in the slave trade and the slavery system, including naming and shaming MPs, banks and companies still involved in reports written from 1841 onwards and which used witness testimony from people enslaved at the hands of British commercial interests. Madden’s investigative role for the British government was ended due to a combination of the complaints of the powerful forces that he confronted and the publication of a work that he had initially begun during his time in Cuba: the first three volumes of his Lives and Times of the United Irishmen in 1842 and four further volumes between 1844 and 1846. These monumental volumes (which were published at a persona financial loss to Madden) combined biographies of all the key revolutionaries in the 1798 Rebellion, such as Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and James Hope, and meticulous interviews with survivors of the uprising. Madden couched the 1798 Rebellion and the United Irishmen as principled idealists in a strong republican tradition connected to a continental, Jacobite ferment of egalitarian ideas. Madden was accused, predictably, of glorifying armed struggle and the 1798 rebels, charges which he denied and though he had to be diplomatic in what he said, he nonetheless affirmed his positive interpretations of United Irishmen and his castigation of what he termed British misrule in Ireland. One thing that Madden said of his political ‘apprenticeship’ in the Caribbean and latterly in west Africa was that the suffering he witnessed at the hands of colonialism and the slave trade reinforced in his being a fearless commitment to ‘the cause of general freedom’. Drawing parallels between the privileged elites he encountered in the Americas and Caribbean with the Ascendancy in Ireland, Madden’s worldwide vision hailed all those people internationally ‘who are needed to stand forth on all occasions which call for the defence of the rights and liberties of their fellow men,—not of those alone of one class, or of a particular creed or country, but of all, by whatever name they are called’.
Of course, as Madden is publishing his multi-volume rehabilitation of the United Irishmen and their ideals, Ireland is itself enduring An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger or Famine. And the ‘famishing peasantry’ he described as existing in 1798 were even more abjectly destitute at the time that he is publishing his works on Irish republicanism. Madden was of course much less threatened and abused on the basis of what he wrote than his Cuban literary partner Manzano but one thing they did share was an implicit or tacit affirmation of the political legitimacy of the oppressed seizing possession of their own history and future. At almost the very same time that Manzano was scaring the plantocracy with his play Zafira and the spectre of slave uprising and revolution, Madden was writing in his United Irishmen histories of ‘the turbulence of a people who have been trampled upon by the proprietors of the soil, as those of Ireland had been’. Although Madden had been brought back in from out in the cold by the British government in 1846 (helped by the return of a Whig government and the premiership of Lord Russell who was a fan of Madden’s), while working at Dublin Castle he was exposed as the author of a series of anonymous letters (signed “X”) published by the Freeman’s Journal in 1850 and 1851 that castigated the treatment of the poor in Irish society, the conditions in workhouses, and the ongoing evictions of Irish peasants even in the wake of the Great Hunger. Whilst Madden never became a revolutionary himself like those United Irishmen he sought to dignify and honour (he did once refuse to toast Queen Victoria in the Royal Irish Academy dining club), he did nonetheless side with the Irish poor whose suffering had intensified massively during and after An Gorta Mór and his final years of work were devoted to their assistance. His histories of the United Irishmen (which was revised for a four volume edition in 1858) was crucial in keeping the republican flame alive, at a time when prevailing opinion dismissed the rebels as sectarian and fanatical, and it greatly influenced generations who in turn would resurrect the fight for self-determination and free, independent republic in the twentieth century. One of posthumously published works was The Literary Remains of the United Irishmen of 1798  which was a collection of rebel songs, street ballads and popular materials that would otherwise have been lost.
Both Madden and Manzano, in their respective ways, shared this unshakeable sense that lost and abandoned voices should be heard and made central to the imagining of new and more equitable ways of living together. Both writers were able to enact in culture and in writing imaginative freedoms and equalities of intelligence denied by the societies and imperial systems in which they lived. If the Cuban Revolution was able to inscribe in collective forms the anti-colonial writings begun by Manzano or to create from a redeemed future the possible works he might have produced, so that Cuban society is remade through the egalitarian vision of the formerly dispossessed, then Ireland, like Madden himself, has a choice today: to be part of an imperial system or to stand with the oppressed. There are good historical and contemporary reasons why it is written in La Calle O’Reilly in Havana that Cuba and Ireland are ‘two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope’. Today it is Cuba that is being starved by an illegal, sixty-year blockade inflicted upon it by a powerful empire just off its shores, and, as in the times of Manzano and Madden, it is partnership and solidarity that are required of those of us in Ireland who are committed to asserting the inalienable equality of all human beings and to defeating all forms of imperialism that would deny and punish that shining example.
[i] Manzano’s original text reads: ‘Era sumamente aficionada a la pesca, razón porque de tarde y de mañanas cuando eran frescas, me iba a orillas del río de San Agustín, por la parte baja en que atraviesa el Molino a buscarla: ponía la carnada en el anzuelo y recibía el pez, que sacaba; pero como la melancolía estaba concentrada en mi alma, y había extenuado mi físico, me complacía bajo la guásima, cuyas raíces formaban una especie de pedestal donde pescaba, en componer algunos versos de memoria, que siempre eran tristes, y no los escribía por ignorar este arte, causa por que tenía un cuaderno de aquellos en la imaginación y a cualquier cosa los improvisaba’.
[ii] ‘pero acuérdese […] cuando lea, que yo soy esclavo; y que el esclavo es un ser muerto ante su señor’.
[iii] ‘determiné darme a otro estudio más útil, que fue el de aprender a escribir’.
[iv] ‘Qué noche no pasaría allí solo en alma! Parecíame que los muertos se levantaban y vagaban por todo lo largo del salón, y que se colocaban por una ventana, medio derrumbada, que caía al río, cerca de un despeñadero de agua cuyo perenne golpeo se me figuraba una legión de duendes.’
[v] The original reads: ‘Mas lo que me ha sucedido luego lo veremos en la segunda parte de esta historia. Hasta aquí Manzano: ese pobre esclavo cuyo pecho encierra sin embargo un corazón de poeta, vive todavía gracias a una suscripción promovida por un tan ilustrado como generoso Americano, goza hoy de libertad, pero es negro, y un negro en Cuba no puede ser feliz: por eso es que Manzano, para dar de comer a su mujer y a sus hijos, trabaja de cocinero. El criado no obstante, valdrá seguramente más que su amo, así como valía el esclavo mucho más que sus Señores.’