From The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

By Ida Johnson,2014-06-28 12:33
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From The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave ...

    and sent them to Cuba. After that they couldn‟t go back to their Miguel Barnet Esteban Montejo (Cuba, 1966)

    own country. That is the reason for slavery in Cuba. When the From: The Biography of a Runaway Slave

    English found out about this business, they wouldn‟t let them bring

    any more Negroes over, and slavery ended and the other part began: Life in the Barracoons

    There are some things about life that I don‟t understand. the free part. It was some time in the 1880s. Everything about Nature is obscure to me, and about the gods more I haven‟t forgotten any of this. I lived through it all. I even so still. The gods are capricious and willful, and they are the cause remember my godparents telling me the date of my birth. It was the of many strange things which happen here and which I have seen 26th of December 1860, St. Stephen‟s Day, the one on the for myself. I can remember as a slave I spent half my time gazing calendars. That is why I am called Stephen. One of my surnames is up at the sky because it looked so painted. Once it suddenly turned Montejo, after my mother who was a slave of French origin. The the color of a hot coal, and there was a terrible drought. Another other is Mera. But hardly anyone knows this. Well, why should I time there was an eclipse of the sun which started at four in the tell people, since it is false anyway? It should really be Mesa, but afternoon and could be seen all over the island. The moon looked what happened is that they changed it in the archives and I left it as if it was fighting with the sun. I noticed that everything seemed that way because I wanted two names like everyone else, so they to be going backwardsit got darker and darker, and then lighter wouldn‟t call me “jungle boy.” I stuck to this one and, well, there and lighter. Hens flew up to roost. People were too frightened to you are! Mesa was the name of a certain Pancho Mesa who lived in speak. Some died of heart failure and others were struck dumb. Rodrigo. It seems this gentleman cared for me after I was born. He I saw the same thing happen again in different places, but I was my mother‟s master. I never saw him, of course, but I believe

    never dreamed of trying to find out why. You see, I know it all this story because my godparents told it to me, and I remember depends on Nature, everything comes from Nature, which can‟t every word they told me. even be seen. We men cannot do such things because we are the My godfather was called Gin Congo and my godmother subjects of a God; of Jesus Christ, who is the one most talked about. Susanna. I got to know them in the Nineties before war began. An Jesus Christ wasn‟t born in Africa, he came from Nature herself, as old Negro from their sugar plantation who knew me gave me the the Virgin Mary was a señorita. introduction, and took me to see them himself. I got into the way of The strongest gods are African. I tell you it‟s certain they could visiting them in Chinchila, the district where they lived near Sagua fly and they did what they liked with their witchcraft. I don‟t know la Grande. As I had never known my parents, the first thing I did how hey permitted slavery. The truth is, I start thinking, and I can‟t was ask about them, and that was when I found out their names and make head or tail of it. To my mind it all started with the scarlet other details. They even told me the name of the plantation where I handkerchiefs, the day they crossed the wall. There was an old wall was born. My father was called Nazario and he was a Lucumí from in Africa, right round the coast, made of palm bark and magic Oyo. My mother was Emilia Montejo. They told me too that they insects which stung like the devil. For years they frightened away had both died at Sagua. I would very much like to have known all the whites who tried to set foot in Africa. It was the scarlet them, but if I had left the forest to find them I would have been which did for the Africans; both the kings and the rest surrendered seized at once. without a struggle. When the kings saw that the whitesI think Because of being a runaway I never saw my parents. I never that the Portuguese were the firstthey were taking out these even saw them. But this is not sad, because it is true. scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving, they told the blacks, Like all children born into slavery, criollitos as they called them, “Go on then, go and get a scarlet handkerchief,” and the blacks I was born in an infirmary where they took the pregnant Negresses were so excited by the scarlet that they ran down to the ships like to give birth. I think it was the Santa Teresa plantation, but I am not sheep and there they were captured. The Negro has always liked sure. I do remember my godparents talking a lot about this scarlet. It was the fault of this color that they put them in chains


    plantation and its owners, people called La Ronda. My godparents belonged to a single owner; these were called the trapiches. There were called by this name for a long time, till slavery left Cuba. were three sugar-boilers in the cachimbos--big copper ones with Negroes were sold like pigs, and they sold me at once, which is wide mouths. The first cooked the cane juice, in the next the froth why I remember nothing about the place. I know it was somewhere was taken off, and in the third the treacle was boiled till ready. in the region where I was born, in the upper part of Las Villas, Cachaza was what we called the froth that was left over from the Zulueta, Remedios, Caibarién, all the villages before you come to cane juice. It came off in a hard crust and was very good for pigs. the sea. Then the picture of another plantation comes to mind: the When the treacle was ready, you took a ladle with a long wooden Flor de Sagua. I don‟t know if that was the place where I worked handle and poured it into a trough and from there into a sugar-for the first time, but I do remember running away from there once; locker, which stood a short distance from the boilers. That was I decided I‟d had enough of that bloody place, and I was off! But where they drained the muscovado, or unrefined sugar, which had they caught me without a struggle, clapped a pair of shackles on me most of the syrup left in it. In those days the centrifuge, as they call (I can still feel them when I think back), screwed them up tight and it, did not exist. sent me back to work wearing them. You talk about this sort of Once the sugar in the locker had cooled, you had to go in thing today and people don‟t believe you, but it happened to me barefoot with spade and shovel and a hand-barrow. One Negro and I have to say so. always went in front and another behind. The barrow was to take The owner of that plantation had a funny name, one of those the hogsheads to the tinglado, a long shed with two beams where long ones with lots of parts. He was everything bad: stupid, evil-the hogsheads were stacked to drain the sugar. The syrup which tempered, swollen-headed. . . . He used to ride past in the fly with drained off the hogsheads was given to the mill-town people and his wife and smart friends through the cane fields, waving a was given to the pigs and sheep. They got very fat on it. handkerchief, but that was as near as he ever got to us. The owners To make the refined sugar there were some big funnels into never went to the fields. One odd thing about this man: I remember which the raw sugar was poured to be refined. That sugar looked he had a smart Negro, a first-rate driver, with gold rings in his ears like the sort we have today, white sugar. The funnels were known and everything. All those drivers were scabs and tale-bearers. You as “moulds.” might say they were the dandies of the colored people. I know that part of sugar-making better than most people who At the Flor de Sagua I started to work on the bagasse wagons. I only know the cane as it is outside, in the fields. And to tell the sat on the box and drove the mule. If the wagon was very full I truth I preferred the inside part, it was easier. At Flor de Sagua I stopped the mule, got down and led it by the rein. The mules were worked in the sugar-locker, but this was after I had got experience hard- mouthed and you had to bear down on the reins like the devil. working with bagasse. That was spade-and-shovel work. To my Your back began to grow hunched. A lot of people are walking mind even cane-cut ting was preferable. I was ten years old then, around almost hunchbacked now because of those mules. The and that was why they had not sent me to work in the fields. But wagons went out piled to the top. They were always unloaded in ten then was like thirty now, because boys worked like oxen. the sugar-mill town, and the bagasse had to be spread out to dry. It If a boy was pretty and lively he was sent inside, to the master‟s was scattered with a hook and then it was taken, dried, to the house. And there they started softening him up and . . . well, I don‟t furnaces. This was done to make steam. I suppose that was the first know! They used to give the boy a long palm leaf and make him work I did. At least, that‟s what my memory tells me. stand at one end of the table while they ate. And they said, “Now All the indoor parts of the plantation were primitive; not like see that no flies get in the food!” If a fly did, they scolded him today with their lights and fast machinery. They were called severely and whipped him. I never did this work because I never cachimbos, be cause that is the word for a small sugar mill. In them wanted to be on closer terms with the masters. I was a runaway the sugar was evaporated and drained. There were some which did from birth. not make sugar, but syrup and pan sugar. Almost all of them


    All the slaves lived in barracoons. These dwelling places no called toilet standing in one corner of the barracoon. Everyone used longer exist, so one cannot see them. But I saw them and I never it. And to wipe your arse afterwards you had to pick leaves and thought well of them. The masters, of course, said they were as maize husks. clean as new pins. The slaves disliked living under those conditions: The bell was at the entrance to the mill. The deputy overseer being locked up stifled them. The barracoons were large, though used to ring it. At four-thirty in the morning they rang the Ave some plantations had smaller ones; it depended on the number of MariaI think there were nine strokes of the belland one had to

    slaves in the settlement. Around two hundred slaves of all colors get up immediately. At six they rang another bell called the line-up lived in the Flor de Sagua barracoon. This was laid out in rows: two bell, and everyone had to form up in a place just outside the rows facing each other with a door in the middle and a massive barracoon, men on one side, women the other. Then off to the cane padlock to shut the slaves in at night. There were barracoons of fields till eleven, when we ate jerked beef, vegetables, and bread. wood and barracoons of masonry with tiled roofs. Both types had Then, at sunset, came the prayer bell. At half-past eight they rang mud floors and were dirty as hell. And there was no modern the last bell for everyone to go to sleep, the silence bell. ventilation there! Just a hole in the wall or a small barred window. The deputy overseer slept in the barracoon and kept watch. In The result was that the place swarmed with fleas and ticks, which the mill town there was a white watchman, a Spaniard, to keep an made the inmates ill with infections and evil spells, for those ticks eye on things. Everything was based on watchfulness and the whip. were witches. The only way to get rid of them was with hot wax, When time passed and the esquifación, the slaves‟ issue of clothing,

    and sometimes even that did not work. The masters wanted the began to wear out, they would be given a new one. The men‟s barracoons to look clean outside, so they were white washed. The clothes were made of Russian cloth, a coarse linen, sturdy and good job was given to the Negroes themselves. The master would say, for work in the fieldstrousers which had large pockets and stood

    “Get some whitewash and spread it evenly.” They pre pared the up stiff, a shirt, and a wool cap for the cold. The shoes were whitewash in large pots inside the barracoons, in the central generally of rawhide, low-cut with little straps to keep them on. courtyard. The old men wore sandals, flat-soled with a thong around the big Horses and goats did not go inside the barracoons, but there was toe. This has always been an African fashion, though white women always some mongrel sniffing about the place for food. People wear them now and call them mules or slippers. The women were stayed inside the rooms, which were small and hot. One says rooms, given blouses, skirts, and petticoats, and if they owned plots of land but they were really ovens. They had doors with latchkeys to they bought their own petticoats, white ones, which were prettier prevent stealing. You had to be particularly wary of the criollitos, and smarter. They also wore gold rings and earrings. They bought who were born thieving little rascals. They learned to steal like these trophies from the Turks and Moors who sometimes came to monkeys. the barracoons, carrying boxes slung from their shoulders by a In the central patio the women washed their own, their wide leather strap. Lottery-ticket sellers also came round, who husbands‟, and their childrens‟ clothes in tubs. Those tubs were not cheated the Negroes and sold them their most expensive tickets. If like the ones people use flow, they were much cruder. And they any of the tickets came up on the lottery you wouldn‟t see them for had to be taken first to the river to swell the wood, because they dust. The guajiros, or white countrymen, also came to barter milk were made out of fish-crates, the big ones. for jerked beef, or sell it at four cents a bottle. The Negroes used to There were no trees either outside or inside the barracoons, just buy it because the owners did not provide milk, and it is necessary empty solitary spaces. The Negroes could never get used to this. because it cures infections and cleans the system. The Negro likes trees, forests. But the Chinese! Africa was full of These plots of land were the salvation of many slaves, where trees, god-trees, banyans, cedars. But not Chinathere they have they got their real nourishment from. Almost all of them had their weeds, Purslaine, morning glory, the sort of thing that creeps along. little strips of land to be sown close to the barracoons, almost As the rooms were so small the slaves relieved themselves in a so-behind them. Everything grew there sweet potatoes gourds okra


    kidney beans yucca, and peanuts. They also raised pigs. And they The game of mayombe was connected with religion. The sold all these products to the whites who came out from the villages overseers themselves used to get involved, hoping to benefit. They The Negroes were honest, it was natural for them to be honest, not believed in the witches too, so no one today need be surprised that knowing much about things. They sold their goods very cheap. whites believe in such things. Drumming was part of the mayombe. Whole pigs fetched a doubloon, or a doubloon and a half, in gold A nganga, or large pot, was placed in the center of the patio. The coin, as the money was then, but the blacks didn‟t like selling their powers were inside the pot: the saints. People started drumming vegetables. I learned to eat vegetables from the elders, because they and singing. They took offerings to the pot and asked for health for said they were very healthy food, but during slavery pigs were the themselves and their brothers and peace among themselves. They mainstay. Pigs gave more lard then than now, and I think it‟s also made enkangues, which were charms of earth from the because they led a more natural life. A pig was left to wallow about cemetery; the earth was made into little heaps in four corners, in the piggeries. The lard cost ten pennies a pound, and the white representing the points of the universe. Inside the pot they put a countrymen came all week long to get their portion. They always plant called star shake, together with corn straw to protect the men. paid in silver half-dollars. Later it became quarter-dollars. When a master punished a slave, the others would collect a little Cents were still unknown because they had not crowned earth and put it in the pot. With the help of this earth they could Alfonso „XIII king yet, and cents came after his coronation. King make the master fall sick or bring some harm upon his family, for Alfonso wanted everything changed, right down to the coinage. so long as the earth was inside the pot the master was imprisoned Copper money came to Cuba then, worth two cents, if I remember there and the Devil himself couldn‟t get him out. This was how the

    right, and other novelties in the way of money, all due to the king. Congolese revenged themselves upon their master. Strange as it may seem, the Negroes were able to keep The taverns were near the plantations. There were more taverns themselves H amused in the barracoons. They had their games and than ticks in the forest. They were a sort of store where one could pastimes. They played games in the taverns too, but these were buy everything. The slaves themselves used to trade in the taverns, different. The favorite game in the barracoons was tejo. A split selling the jerked beef which they accumulated in the barracoons. corn cob was placed on the ground with a coin balanced on top, a They were usually allowed to visit the taverns during the daylight line was drawn not far off and you had to throw a stone from there hours and sometimes even in the evenings, but this was not the rule to hit the cob. If the stone hit the „Cob so that the coin fell on top of in all the plantations. There was always some master who forbade it, the player won the coin, but if it fell nearby, he didn‟t. This the slaves to go. The Negroes went to the taverns for brandy. They game gave rise to great disputes, and then you had to take a straw drank a lot of it to keep their strength up. A glass of good brandy to measure whether the coin was nearer the player or the cob. costs half a peso. The owners drank a lot of brandy too, and the Tejo was played in the courtyard like skittles, though skittles quarrels which brewed were no joke. Some of the tavern-keepers was not played often, only two or three times altogether that I can were old Spaniards, retired from the army on very little money, five remember. Negro coopers used to make the bottle-shaped skittles or six pesos‟ pension. and wooden balls to play with. This game was open to all comers, The taverns were made of wood and palm bark; no masonry like and everyone had a go, except the Chinese, who didn‟t join in the modern stores. You had to sit on piled jute sacks or stand. They much. The balls were rolled along the ground so as to knock down sold rice, jerked beef, lard, and every variety of bean. I knew cases the four or five skittles. It was played just like the modern game of unscrupulous owners cheating slaves by quoting the wrong they have in the city except that they used to fight over the betting prices, and I saw brawls in which a Negro came off worse and was money in those days. The masters didn‟t like that at all. They forbidden to return. They noted down anything you bought in a forbade certain games, and you had to play those when the overseer book; when you spent half a peso they made one stroke in the book, wasn‟t looking. The overseer was the one who passed on the news and two for a peso. This was the system for buying everything else: and gossip. round sweet biscuits, salt biscuits, sweets the size of a pea made of


    different-colored flours, water-bread and lard. Water-bread cost obviously Spaniards, because they never had fellows like that in five cents a stick. It was quite different from the sort you get now. I Cuba, with those lace collars and long hair. They had Indians here preferred it. I also remember that they sold sweet cakes, called in the old days. “caprices,” made of peanut flour and sesame seed. The sesame seed Sunday was the liveliest day in the plantations. I don‟t know was a Chinese thing; there were Chinese pedlars who went around where the slaves found the energy for it. Their biggest fiestas were the plantations selling it, old indentured laborers whose arms were held on that day. On some plantations the drumming started at too weak to cut cane and who had taken up peddling. midday or one o‟clock. At Flor de Sagua it began very early. The

    The taverns were stinking places. A strong smell came from all excitement, the games, and children rushing about started at sunrise. the goods hanging from the ceiling, sausages, smoked hams, red The barracoon came to life in a flash; it was like the end of the mortadellas. In spite of this, people used to hold their games there. world. And in spite of work and everything the people woke up They spent half their lives at this foolishness. The Negroes were cheerful. The overseer and deputy overseer came into the barracoon eager to shine at these games. I remember one game they called and started chatting up the black women. I noticed that the Chinese “the biscuit,” which was played by putting four or five hard salt kept apart; those buggers had no ears for drums and they stayed in biscuits on a wooden counter and striking them hard with your their little corners. But they thought a lot; to my mind they spent prick to see who could break them. Money and drinks were more time thinking than the blacks. No one took any notice of them, wagered on this game. Whites and blacks played it alike. and people went on with their dances. Another competition was the jug game. You took a large The one I remember best is the yuka. Three drums were played earthenware jug with a hole in the top and stuck your prick in it. for the yuka: the caja, the mu/a, and the cachimbo, which was the The bottom of the jug was covered with a fine layer of ash, so you smallest one. In the background they drummed with two sticks on could see whether a man had reached the bottom or not when he hollowed-out cedar trunks. The slaves made those themselves, and took it out again. I think they were called catd. The yuka was danced in couples, with Then there were other things they played, like cards. It was wild movements. Sometimes they swooped about like birds, and it prefer able to play with oil-painted cards, which are the correct almost looked as if they were going to fly, they moved so fast. ones to play with. There were many types of card games. Some They gave little hops with their hands on their waists. Everyone people liked playing with the cards face up, others with them face sang to excite the dancers. down, which was a game where you could win a lot of money, but I There was another more complicated dance. I don‟t know preferred monte, which began in private houses and then spread to whether it was really a dance or a game, because they punched the countryside. Monte was played during slavery, in the tavern and each other really hard. This dance they called the man/or peanut in the masters‟ homes, but I took it up after Abolition. It is very dance. The dancers formed a circle of forty or fifty men, and they complicated. You have to put two cards on the table and guess started hitting each other. Whoever got hit went in to dance. They which of the two is the highest of the three you still have in your wore ordinary work clothes, with colored print scarves round their hand. It was always played for money, which is what made it heads and at their waists. (These scarves were used to bundle up attractive. The banker dealt the card and the players put on the the slaves‟ clothing and take it to the wash: they were called vayajd money. You could win a lot of money, and I won every day. The scarves). The men used to weight their fists with magic charms to fact is, monte is my weakness, monte and women. And with some make the man/blows more effective. The women didn‟t dance but

    reason, for you would have had to look hard to find a better player stood round in a chorus, clapping, and they used to scream with than me. Each card had its name, like now, except that cards today fright, for often a Negro fell and failed to get up again. Man/was a are not so colorful. In my day they had queens, kings, aces, and cruel game. The dancers did not make bets on the outcome. On knaves, and then came all the numbers from two to seven. The some plantations the masters themselves made bets, but I don‟t

    cards had pictures on them of men on horseback wearing crowns, remember this happening at Flor de Sagua. What they did was to


    forbid slaves to hit each other so hard, because sometimes they I remember one instrument called a marimbula, which was very were too bruised to work. The boys could not take part, but they small. It was made of wickerwork and sounded as loud as a drum watched and took it all in. I haven‟t forgotten a thing myself. and had a little hole for the voice to come out of. They used this to As soon as the drums started on Sunday the Negroes went down accompany the Congo drums, and possibly the French too, but I to the stream to bathethere was always a little stream near every can‟t be sure. The marimbu/as made a very strange noise, and lots

    plantation. It sometimes happened that a woman lingered behind of people, particularly the guajiros, didn‟t like them because they

    and met a man just as he was about to go into the water. Then they said they sounded like voices from another world. would go off together and get down to business. If not, they would As I recall, their own music at that time was made with the go to the reservoirs, which were the pools they dug to store water. guitar only. Later, in the Nineties, they played danzones on They also used to play hide-and-seek there, chasing the women and pianolas, with accordions and gourds. But the white man has trying to catch them. always had a very different music from the black man. White The women who were not involved in this little game stayed in man‟s music is without the drumming and is more insipid.

    the barracoons and washed themselves in a tub. These tubs were More or less the same goes for religion. The African gods are very big and there were one or two for the whole settlement. different, though they resemble the others, the priests‟ gods. They Shaving and cutting hair was done by the slaves themselves. are more powerful and less adorned. Right now if you were to go to They took a long knife, and, like someone grooming a horse, they a Catholic church you would not see apples, stones, or cock‟s sliced off the woolly hair. There was always someone who liked to feathers. But this is the first thing you see in an African house. The clip, and he became the expert. They cut hair the way they do now. African is cruder. And it never hurt, because hair is the most peculiar stuff; although I knew of two African religions in the barracoons: the Lucumí you can see it growing and everything, it‟s dead. The women and the Congolese. The Congolese was the more important. It was arranged their hair with curls and little partings. Their heads used to well known at the Flor de Sagua because their magic-men used to look like melon skins. They liked the excitement of fixing their hair put spells on people and get possession of them, and their practice one way one day and another way the next. One day it would have of sooth-saying won them the confidence of all the slaves. I got to little partings, the next ringlets, another day it would be combed know the elders of both religions after Abolition. flat. They cleaned their teeth with strips of soap-tree bark, and this I remember the Chichereki at Flor de Sagua. The Chicherekí made them very white. All this excitement was reserved for was a Congolese by birth who did not speak Spanish. He was a Sundays. little man with a big head who used to run about the barracoons and Everyone had a special outfit that day. The Negroes bought jump upon you from behind. I often saw him and heard him themselves rawhide boots, in a style I haven‟t seen since, from squealing like a rat. This is true. In Porfuerza there was a man who nearby shops where they went with the master‟s permission. They ran about in the same way. People used to run away from him wore red and green vayajd scarves around their necks, and round because they said he was the Devil himself and he was bound up their heads and waists too, like in the maní dance. And they decked with mayombe and death. You dared not play with the Chicherekú themselves with rings in their ears and rings in all their fingers, real because it could be dangerous. gold. Some of them wore not gold but fine silver bracelets which Personally I don‟t much like talking of him, because I have came as high as their elbows, and patent leather shoes. never laid eyes on him again, and if by some chance. . . .Well, these The slaves of French descent danced in pairs, not touching, things are the Devil‟s own! circling slowly around. If one of them danced outstandingly well The Congolese used the dead and snakes for their religious rites. they tied silk scarves of all colors to his knees as a prize. They sang They called the dead nkise and the snakes emboba. They prepared in patois and played two big drums with their hands. This was big pots called ngangas which would walk about and all, and that called the French dance. was where the secret of their spells lay. All the Congolese had


    these pots for mayombe. The ngangas had to work with the sun, were called oché. Eleggua was made of cement, but Changó and because the sun has always been the strength and wisdom of men, Yemayá were made of wood, made by the carpenters themselves. as the moon is of women. But the sun is more important because it They made the saints‟ marks on the walls of their rooms with is he who gives life to the moon. The Congolese worked magic charcoal and white chalk, long lines and circles, each one standing with the sun almost every day. When they had trouble with a for a saint, but they said that they were secrets. These blacks made particular person they would follow : him along a path, collect up a secret of everything. They have changed a lot now, but in those some of the dust he walked on and put it in the nganga or in some days the hardest thing you could do was to try to win the little secret place. As the sun went down that person‟s life began to confidence of one of them. ebb away, and at sunset he would be dying. I mention this because The other religion was the Catholic one. This was introduced by it is something I often saw under slavery. the priests, but nothing in the world would induce them to enter the If you think about it, the Congolese were murderers, although slaves‟ quarters. They were fastidious people, with a solemn air they only killed people who were harming them. No one ever tried which did not fit the barracoonsso solemn that there were

    to put a spell on me because I have always kept apart and not Negroes who took every thing they said literally. This had a bad meddled in other people‟s affairs. effect on them. They read the catechism and read it to the others The Congolese were more involved with witchcraft than the with all the words and prayers. Those Negroes who were household Lucumí, who had more to do with the saints and with God. The slaves came as messengers of the priests and got together with the Lucumí liked rising early with the strength of the morning and others, the field slaves, in the sugar-mill towns. The fact is I never looking up into the sky and saying prayers and sprinkling water on learned the doctrine because I did not understand a thing about it. I the ground. The Lucumí were at it when you least expected It. I don‟t think the household slaves did either, although, being so have seen old Negroes kneel on the ground for more than three refined and well-treated, they all made out they were Christian. The hours at a time, speaking in their own tongue and prophesying. The household slaves were given rewards by the masters and I never difference between the Congolese and the Lucumíwas that the saw one of them badly punished. When they were ordered to go to former solved problems while the latter told the future. This they the fields to cut cane or tend the pigs, they would pretend to be ill did with di/og gunes, which are round, white shells from Africa so they needn‟t work. For this reason the field slaves could not with mystery inside. The god Eleggua eyes are made from this shell. stand the sight of them. The household slaves sometimes came to The old Lucumís would shut themselves up in a room in the the barracoons to visit relations and used to take back fruit and barracoon and they could rid you even of the wickedness you were vegetables for the master‟s house; I don‟t know whether the slaves doing. If a Negro lusted after a woman, the Lucumís would calm made them presents from their plots or whether they just took them. him. I think they did this with coconut shells, obi, which were They caused a lot of trouble in the barracoons. The men came and sacred. They were the same as the coconuts today, which are still tried to take liberties with the women. That was the source of the sacred and may not be touched. If a man defiled a coconut, a great worst tensions. I was about twelve then, and I saw the whole punishment befell him. I knew when things went well, because the rumpus. coconut said so. He would command A1afia, to be said so that the There were other tensions. For instance, there was no love lost people would know that all was well. The saints spoke through the between the Congolese magic-men and the Congolese Christians, coconuts and the chief of these was Obatalá, who was an old man, each of whom thought they were good and the others wicked. This they said, and only wore white. They also said it was Obatalá who still goes on in Cuba. The Lucumí and Congolese did not get on made you and I don‟t know what else, but it is from Nature one either; it went back to the difference between saints and witchcraft. comes, and this is true of Obatalá too. The only ones who had no problems were the old men born in The old Lucumís liked to have their wooden figures of the gods Africa. They were special people and had to be treated differently with them in the barracoons. All these figures had big heads and because they knew all religious matters. Many brawls were avoided


    because the masters changed the slaves around. They kept them unlucky because they had to go back to being beasts of burden divided among themselves to prevent a rash of escapes. That was again, but they were allowed to choose their own husbands. It often why the slaves of different plantations never got together with each happened that a woman would be chasing one man with twenty other. more after her. The magic-men would settle these problems with The Lucumís didn‟t like cutting cane, and many of them ran their potions. away. They were the most rebellious and courageous slaves. Not so If you went to a magic-man to ask his help in getting a woman, the Congolese; they were cowardly as a rule, but strong workers he would tell you to get hold of a shred of her tobacco, if she who worked hard without complaining. There is a common rat smoked. This was ground together with a Cantharis fly, one of the called Congolese, and very cowardly it is too. green harmful ones, into a powder which you gave to the woman in In the plantations there were Negroes from different countries, water. That was the way to seduce them. Another spell consisted of all different physically. The Congolese were black-skinned, though grinding up a humming-bird‟s heart to powder and giving this to a

    there were many of mixed blood with yellowish skin and light hair. woman in her tobacco. If you merely wanted to make fun of a They were usually small. The Mandingas were reddish-skinned, tall woman, you only had to send for some snuff from the apothecary‟s. and very strong. I swear by my mother they were a bunch of crooks, This was enough to make any woman die of shame. You put it in a too! They kept apart from the rest. The Gangas were nice people, place where they used to sit down, and if only a little touched their rather short and freckled. Many of them became runaways. The bums they started farting. It was something to see those women Carabalís were like the Musundi Congolese, uncivilized brutes. with cosmetics all over their faces farting about the place! They only killed pigs on Sundays and at Easter and, being good The old Negroes were entertained by these carryings-on. When business men, they killed them to sell, not to eat themselves. From they were over sixty they stopped working in the fields. Not that this comes a saying, “Clever Carabalí, kills pig on Sunday.” I got to any of them ever knew their age exactly. What happened was that know all these people better after slavery was abolished. when a man grew weak and stayed huddled in a corner, the All the plantations had an infirmary near the barracoons, a big overseers would make him a doorkeeper or watchman stationed at wooden hut where they took the pregnant women. You were born the gate of the barracoon or outside the pigsties, or he would be there and stayed there will you were six or seven, when you went to sent to help the women in the kitchen. Some of the old men had live in the barracoons and began work, like the rest. There were their little plots of ground and passed their time working in them. Negro wet nurses and cooks there to look after the criollitos and Doing this sort of job gave them time for witchcraft. They were not feed them. If anyone was injured in the fields or fell ill, these punished or taken much notice of, but they had to be quiet and women would doctor him with herbs and brews. They could cure obedient. That much was expected. anything. Sometimes a criollito never saw his parents again I saw many horrors in the way of punishment under slavery. because the boss moved them to another plantation, and so the wet-That was why I didn‟t like the life. The stocks, which were in the nurses would be in charge of the child. But who wants to bother boiler house, were the cruelest. Some were for standing and others with another person‟s child? They used to bathe the children and for lying down. They were made of thick planks with holes for the cut their hair in the infirmaries too. A child of good stock cost five head, hands, and feet. They would keep slaves fastened up like this hundred pesos, that is, the child of strong, tall parents. Tall Negroes for two or three months for some trivial offense. They whipped the were privileged. The masters picked them out to mate with tall, pregnant women too, but lying down with a hollow in the ground healthy women and shut them up in the barracoon and forced them for their bellies. They whipped them hard, but they took good care to sleep together. The women had to produce healthy babies every not to damage the babies because they wanted as many of those as year. I tell you, it was like breeding animals. Well, if the Negress possible. The most common punishment was flogging; this was didn‟t produce as expected, the couple were separated and she was given by the overseer with a rawhide lash which made weals on the sent to work in the fields again. Women who were barren were skin. They also had whips made of the fibers of some jungle plant


    which stung like the devil and flayed off the skin in strips. I saw cured people with their home-made remedies. They often cured many handsome big Negroes with raw backs. Afterwards the cuts illnesses the doctors couldn‟t understand. The solution doesn‟t lie were covered with compresses of tobacco leaves, urine, and salt. in feeling you and pinching your tongue; the secret is to trust the Life was hard and bodies wore out. Anyone who did not take to plants and herbs, which are the mother of medicine. Africans from the hills as a runaway when he was young had to become a slave. It the other side, across the sea, are never sick because they have the was preferable to be on your own on the loose than locked up in all necessary plants at hand. that dirt and rottenness. In any event, life tended to be solitary If a slave caught an infectious disease they would take him from because there were none too many women around. To have one of his room and move him to the infirmary and try to cure him. If he your own you had either to be over twenty-five or catch one died they put him in a big box and carried him off to the cemetery. yourself in the fields. The old men did not want the youths to have The overseer usually came and gave instructions to the settlement women. They said a man should wait until he was twenty-five to to bury him. He would say, “We are going to bury this Negro who have experiences. Some men did not suffer much, being used to has done his time.” And the slaves hurried along there, for when

    this life. Others had sex between themselves and did not want to someone died everyone mourned. know anything of women. This was their lifesodomy. The The cemetery was in the plantation itself, about a hundred yards effeminate men washed the clothes and did the cooking too, if they from the barracoon. To bury slaves, they dug a hole in the ground, had a “husband.” They were good workers and occupied filled it in, and stuck a cross on top to keep away enemies and the themselves with their plots of land, giving the produce to their Devil. Now they call it a crucifix. If anyone wears a cross around “husbands” to sell to the white farmers. It was after Abolition that his neck it is because someone has tried to harm him. the term “effeminate” came into use, for the practice persisted. I Once they buried a Congolese and he raised his head. He was don‟t think it can have come from Africa, because the old men still alive. I was told this story in Santo Domingo, after Abolition. hated it. They would have nothing to do with queers. To tell the The whole district of Jacotea knows of it. It happened on a small truth, it never bothered me. I am of the opinion that a man can stick plantation called El Diamante which belonged to Marinello‟s father, his arse where he wants. the one who talks a lot about Martí. Everyone took fright and ran Everyone wearied of the life, and the ones who got used to it away. A few days later the Congolese appeared in the barracoon; were broken in spirit. Life in the forest was healthier. You caught they say he entered very slowly so as not to scare everyone, but lots of illnesses in the barracoons, in fact men got sicker there than when people saw him they took fright again. When the overseer anywhere else. It was not unusual to find a Negro with as many as asked what had happened, he said, “They put me in a hole because three sicknesses at once. If it wasn‟t colic it was whooping cough. of my cholera and when I was cured I came out.” After that, Colic gave you a pain in the gut which lasted a few hours and left whenever anyone caught cholera or another disease, they left him you shagged. Whooping cough and measles were catching. But the for days and days in the coffin until he grew cold as ice. worst sicknesses, which made a skeleton of everyone, were These stories are true, but one I am convinced is a fabrication smallpox and the black sickness. Smallpox left men all swollen, because I never saw such a thing, and that is that some Negroes and the black sickness took you by surprise; it struck suddenly and committed suicide. Before, when the Indians were in Cuba, suicide between one bout of vomiting and the next you ended up a corpse. did happen. They did not want to become Christians, and they There was one type of sickness the whites picked up, a sickness of hanged themselves from trees. But the Negroes did not do that, the veins and male organs. It could only be got rid of with black they escaped by flying. They flew through the sky and returned to women; if the man who had it slept with a Negress he was cured their own lands. The Musundi Congolese were the ones that flew immediately. the most; they disappeared by means of witchcraft. They did the There were no powerful medicines in those days and no doctors same as the Canary Island witches but without making a sound. to be found anywhere. It was the nurses who were half witches who There are those who say the Negroes threw themselves into rivers.


    This is untrue. The truth is they fastened a chain to their waists others to seize me. But that was the last he saw of me, because I which was full of magic. That was where their power came from. I took to the forest there and then. know all this intimately, and it is true beyond doubt. I spent several days walking about in no particular direction. I The Chinese did not fly, nor did they want to go back to their had never left the plantation before. I walked uphill, downhill, in own country, but they did commit suicide. They did it silently. every direction. I know I got to a farm near the Siguanea, where I After several days they would turn up hanging from a tree or dead was forced to rest. My feet were blistered and my hands were on the ground. They used to kill the very overseers themselves with swollen and festering. I camped under a tree. I made myself a sticks or knives. The Chinese respected no one. They were born shelter of banana leaves in a few hours and I stayed there four or rebels. Often the master would appoint an overseer of their own five days. I only had to hear the sound of a human voice to be off race so that he might win their trust. Then they did not kill him. like a bullet. It was a terrible thing to be captured again after you When slavery ended I met other Chinese in Sagua la Grande, but had run away. they were different and very civilized. Then I had the idea of hiding in a cave. I lived there for

    something like a year and a half. The reason I chose it was that I

    thought it might Save me wandering about so much and also that Life in the Forest

    I have never forgotten the first time I tried to escape. That time I all the pigs in the district, from the farms and smallholdings and failed, and I stayed a slave for several years longer from fear of allotments, used to Come to a sort of marsh near the mouth of the having the shackles put on me again. But I had the spirit of a cave to bathe and wallow in the water. I caught them very easily runaway watching over me, which never left me. And I kept my because they came up one behind the other. I used to cook myself plans to myself, so that no one could give me away. I thought of up a pig every week. This cave of mine was very big and black as a nothing else; the idea went round and round in my head and would wolf‟s mouth. Its name was Guajabán, near the village of Remedios. not leave me in peace; nothing could get rid of it, at times it almost It was very dangerous be cause there was no other way out; you tormented me. The old Negroes did not care for escaping, the had to enter and leave by the mouth. I was very curious to find women still less. There were few runaways. People were afraid of another exit, but I preferred to stay in the mouth of the cave with the forest. They said anyone who ran away was bound to be the majases which were very dangerous snakes. They knock a recaptured. But I gave more thought to this idea than the others did. person down with their breath, a snake breath you cannot feel, and I always had the feeling that I would like the forest and I knew that then they put you to sleep to suck your blood. That was why I was it was hell working in the fields, for you couldn‟t do anything for always on guard and lit a fire to frighten them off. Anyone who yourself. Everything went by what the master said. dozes off in a cave is in a bad way. I did not want to see a snake One day I began to keep my eye on the overseer. I had already even from a distance. The Congolese, and this is a fact, told me that been sizing him up for some time. That son-of-a-bitch obsessed me, the majases lived for over a thousand years, and when they got to a and nothing could make me forget him. I think he was Spanish. I thousand they turned into marine creatures and went off to live in remember that he was tall and never took his hat off. All the blacks the sea like any other fish. respected him because he would take the skin off your back with a The cave was like a house inside, only a little darker, as you single stroke of his whip. The fact is I was hot-headed that day. I would expect. Ah, and the stink! Yes, it stank of bat droppings! I don‟t know what came over me, but I was filled with a rage which used to walk about on them because they were as soft as a burned me up just to look at the man. featherbed. The bats lead a free life in caves. They were and are the I whistled at him from a distance, and he looked round and then masters of caves. It is the same everywhere in the world. As no one turned his back; that was when I picked up a stone and threw it at kills them they live for scores of years, though not as long as the his head. I know it must have hit him because he shouted at the majases. Their droppings turn to dust and are thrown on the ground

    to make pasture for animals and fertilize crops.


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