Given there are few written testimonies by enslaved people anywhere, this, “the first personal and detailed account of an escaped slave in Cuban and Spanish American literature”, first published in 1963, is an incredibly valuable document on the history of slavery in Cuba.
It is the testimony of Esteban Montejo, a former “Cimarrón”, runaway slave, as told to and written by celebrated Cuban writer and ethnologist Miguel Barnet. Montejo, who was born a slave in 1860 to parents who had been transported as slaves from Africa, discussed his past with Barnet in taped interviews carried out in 1963. He was 103, but Montejo must have understood that he was the sole living runaway slave in Cuba and that his words and memories were considered important enough to be published. These included African religious expressions, practices and culture, examples of resistance to the slave regime, Montejo’s recollections of life as a fugitive in hiding, his memories of the Wars of Independence and the later presence of American troops on the island as an occupying army.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part is his experiences as a slave: the terrible conditions they were forced to live in on the sugar plantations, and their brutal, inhuman treatment at the hands of masters and overseers. He then moves on to his decision to escape and live alone in the thick Cuban forests and a cave, for several years constantly living in fear of re-capture.
The second part explores his life following the abolition of slavery in 1886. He worked as a free labourer at various sugar mills enduring long and hard working days. Montejo notes how very little seems to have changed since the abolition of slavery. Black people were still treated as second class citizens. But with the arrival of immigrants from the Canary Islands and elsewhere, he also experiences a strong sense of sharing and community amongst the farm workers in the countryside.
In the final part, Montejo comments on his experiences during the fighting against Spain for Cuban independence and the important role black soldiers played in the struggle, never getting the full credit they deserved. He is inspired by the black Cuban general, Máximo Gómez. He talks about how under the US occupation, US troops brutalised the Cuban people.
Miguel Barnet’s book is an informative and engrossing read, a great contribution to our understanding of Cuban history and the life of one incredible man.
Review by Tim Turner for CubaSi magazine Autumn 2018
Biography of a Runaway Slave By Miguel Barnet, translated into English, 50th anniversary edition, Northwestern University Press 2016