A little while ago I cam across a reference to the poet Juan Francisco Manzano (b.1797 d.1854). I hadn’t heard of him so of course had to look him up.
His autobiographical poetry is the only surviving slave account of life in Cuba. His mother was the mistress’s housemaid.
Manzano wrote that slaves were dead beings to their master, they had no control over their destiny. He taught himself to write and through poetry reclaimed some control over his life. Through his writing he became friends with a group of reformers who saved up the money to buy his freedom.
They wanted him to write an autobiography of his life, feeling it would help the abolitionist cause. It was unpublishable in Cuba, and was only available in a translated English edition for decades.
He wrote about he wrote how the mistress had the power of life and death over her slaves and allowed him to be born. About how he was always at the mercy of his mistress’s whims, even his clothing reflected her mood-in good favor he had excellent clothing, when she was angry he wore rags.
His original was heavily edited-his ‘benefactors’ wanted to turn his story into a generic example of the evils of slavery rather than the history of a specific man.
Manzano gained his freedom in 1836 and stopped writing about slavery directly. He turned his writing to drama-a play called Zafira, which was a metaphorical look at slavery and its influence on the complex political situations of the island.
THE CLOCK THAT GAINS.
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.
His poetry (as translated into English by Richard Robert Madden-with an introduction and preface by the same) is available on the University of North Carolina website.