The power of education is great and has played a role in the abolition of slavery. The inquiry being investigated in this paper investigates how slaves used the written word to fight against the oppression put on them through slavery have used literature. This inquiry will examine the effects of slave literature from Latin America, specifically Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti in the abolition of slavery in Latin America. The texts being analyzed are a letter written by Esperança “Hope” Garcia, a treaty written by slaves in Brazil, a letter to the French Directory written by Toussaint L’ouverture, and an autobiographical work written by Juan Francisco Marzano.
The letter written by Esperança Garcia is one of the oldest letters written by an enslaved person. Her letter is archived somewhere in Portugal and is considered a marvel given its source. Esperança ‘Hope’ Garcia was a slave in Brazil. On September 6, 1770, Garcia wrote a letter to the governor of Piaui protesting her social status as an enslaved person. Piaui is located in the northeastern part of Brazil. Garcia lived there as a slave to Captain Antonio Vieira Couto, with her child. Garcia worked as a cook on one of several farms in the area on which lived many slaves. It was highly unlikely for a woman, let alone a slave woman, to know how to read and write. Although the letter has several spelling and grammatical errors, Garcia’s testimony explains her situation.
In this letter, Garcia pleads with the governor of Piaui for the salvation (baptism) of her child and for the ability to reunite with her loved ones. Garcia discusses an incident where a child has blood coming from his or her mouth. Garcia also mentions the abuse and harsh treatment she has received that has left her physically hurt. Lastly, she pleads with the governor to let her return to her home to be with her loved ones. Education during this time was depreciating for natives and Africans living in Brazil due to the expulsion of Jesuits in 1767. The Jesuits served as middlemen in protecting slaves from extremely harsh treatment for about 200 years.
The second source comes from Toussaint L’ouverture; a man by the name of Toussaint L’ouverture took the lead role in organizing an army of slaves to revolt against the French in San Domingo. Toussaint L’ouverture was the son of a slave and received an informal education. L’ouverture wrote this particular letter in 1797 to the French directory. L’ouverture’s letter is in response to the French revolution and the status of San Domingo. During this time, the French were considering re-establishing slavery in San Domingo. L’ouverture fervently argued in his letter to the French directory against the re-establishment of slavery. At the end, L’ouverture threatens that slavery must not be reintroduced into San Domingo. His final sentence in this letter is powerful and adequately describes the sentiment felt by many slaves and black Haitians during the Haitian Revolution. “I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it” (C.L.R. James 197)
The third source comes from a group of unknown slaves who were working under a man named Manoel Da Silva Ferreira. These slaves wrote a treaty during the 1806 slave revolt close to Bahia making various demands. This treaty was written during the 1806 slave revolt. This slave revolt on a plantation near Bahia involved many slaves including seventeen enslaved persons belonging to Manoel Da Silva Ferreira. These seventeen slaves drafted a treaty of demands. Ferreira agreed but did not keep his promise. Ferreira sent the men to the local government office where they were all arrested.
There had been other revolts and forms of protest in Brazil at the time. There had been one in 1719 and one in 1804 where slaves from a large plantation escaped and terrorized the plantation from which they fled for two years. Slave revolts during this time seemed to be more common especially due to the successful slave revolt in Haiti.
The fourth and final document being analyzed is Manzano’s Life of the Negro Slave Poet. In this text, Manzano reflects on the treatment he sees as a slave in Cuba. He recalls in his narrative his journey as a poet as well as his journey through life as a slave. This text was written in 1840. The slave population in 1840 made up 45% of the entire population in Cuba. According to an excerpt from The Friend of Man, most slaves in Cuba were uneducated and overworked. Enslaved persons in Cuba also received little sustenance and faced high mortality rates and low birth rates. Manzano was one of the more fortunate slaves considering he was baptized and was able to take up a craft as opposed to working in the fields.
There are many inferences that can be made about the messages these particular slaves used to promote the abolition of slavery in Latin America. Three inferences are that: a. these slaves saw written messages as a way to communicate their pain and desire for freedom, b. most slaves did not know how to read and write, and c. slaves knowingly took a great risk revealing their literacy. The environment in which these enslaved persons lived in as well as the personal situations these individuals found themselves in demonstrates the desperation of these people and the hope they had for change.
Based on these documents, one can infer that literate slaves believed literature was a way to achieving better living conditions through communication with those in power. “Hope” Garcia was in a desperate situation and saw her ability to write as an opportunity to help get her out of the situation she was in. L’ouverture wrote to appeal to the French directory and prevent the reinstatement of slavery in San Domingo and the other French colonies. In L’ouverture’s letter, he references the French revolution and requests that the directory “enlighten the legislature” by demanding slavery remain out of San Domingo (C.L.R James 195).
It was also uncommon for slaves to know how to read and write in the dominant language. The errors within this letter make comprehending the text difficult at times. The writing errors in this letter testify to the fact that many slaves did not read or write. L’ouverture and Manzano were not the average enslaved persons. L’ouverture was the son of an enslaved man yet was educated by those around him. L’ouverture eventually achieved the status of a free man. Manzano learned secretly by copying other writing from various formats. Manzano was exposed to the written word at an early age and was passionate about learning to write.
One can also infer that writing was a huge risk taken by these and other enslaved persons. The result of the treaty written by enslaved persons living under Manoel Da Silva Ferreira is a testament to how dangerous it was for literate enslaved persons. The enslaved persons who wrote a treaty of requests for better treatment were incarcerated. This was probably the case for many slaves. While Manzano did write, he did so in secrecy for fear of being discovered. When his master, for example, found out about Manzano writing he advised me to drop that pastime, as not adapted to my situation in life…” (Manzano 79) Writing and learning, therefore, was not allowed or encouraged in most places for enslaved persons.
There are many similarities and differences among the different sources being examined. Both Juan Francisco Manzano and Toussaint L’ouverture lived in more ideal situations where they were able to become educated and were not exposed to as much hostility. By contrast, the slaves of Manoel Da Silva Ferreira and Esperança Garcia experienced harsher treatment. The requests mentioned in the slave treaty (e.g. allowing slaves to have a voice in choosing overseers, etc.) suggest slaves felt powerless and were possibly mistreated by overseers. The separation of Esperança Garcia and her family also suggests that she and other enslaved persons were not able to control some aspects of their lives.
The differing life situations of these four sources explain the difference in quality between Esperança Garcia’s letter and that of Juan Francisco Manzano and Toussaint L’ouverture. Esperança Garcia’s letter had many errors whereas Manzano’s work and L’ouverture’s letter included proper syntax and spelling. The writing of both Manzano and L’ouverture is reflects their education level.
These sources were also written in different countries within Latin America. The treaty written by the slaves and Esperança Garcia’s letter to the governor of Piaui was written in Brazil. Juan Francisco Manzano in Cuba wrote Life of the Negro Poet. Toussain’t L’ouverture wrote his letter to the French Directory from San Domingo (Haiti). Each of these sources had their own life experiences yet all felt they all experienced the oppression placed upon them by slavery.
The authors of these texts hoped to convey a message of change through complaint and by writing about their lives considering the inferences made and the topic in question. The purpose of each of these documents was to dispute the institution of slavery. Though the experiences presented by each of the sources differ, each describes slavery as a barrier they had to overcome. All of these sources also felt they could express their feelings through messages as a means to communicate with the world around them, hoping for change.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins, New York: Vintage Books, 1963, p195-197
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