Biography of a Runaway Slave

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Biography of a Runaway Slave

by Miguel Barnet


A biography of Esteban Montejo set in Cuba from his birth in 1860 to the turn of the century; published in Spanish (as Biografía de un cimarrón) in 1966, in English in 1968 under the title Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, and in 1994 as Biography of a Runaway Steve


Written by Barnet in the first-person voice of Montejo, the biography recounts Montejo’s life as a slave, runaway, plantation worker, and rebel soldier in the Cuban War of Independence.

Events in History at the Time the Biography Takes Place

The Biography in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Biography was Written

For More Information

Miguel Barnet was born in 1940 and raised in Havana, Cuba. In the late 1950s he became interested in Afro-Cuban religion and trained as a folklorist under the direction of Fernando Ortiz, a pioneer in the study of Afro-Cuban culture. The Cuban Revolution (1959) had a tremendous impact on Barnet’s life and outlook, and fueled his passion to learn about the people of Cuba. In 1963 he first heard of Esteban Montejo, who was then 103 years old. Interviews with the former slave and runaway evolved into Biography of a Runaway Slave, which is considered the first Latin American testimonial novel. Barnet has continued to experiment with this form in La Canción de Rachel (1969) and Gallego (1981). Although his international reputation rests on his testimonial novels, his poetry has won Cuban and international awards.

Events in History at the Time the Biography Takes Place

Sugar is made out of blood

Sugar has held paramount importance in Cuba’s economy and society since the nineteenth century, during which sugar plantations expanded considerably in size and number. By the 1860s so much land and energy were devoted to sugarcane that the colony—Spain’s last major possession in Latin America—had to import food from Spain, the United States, and elsewhere. Cuba depended greatly upon the success of the sugarcane harvest, and on the labor of slaves in the cane fields and sugar mills.

Working on the sugar plantations, the slaves cleared virgin forest, planted the sugarcane, and harvested it. White overseers directed the work, often resorting to violent punishments to discipline the slaves, including public whippings and shacklings and even murder if the slaves resisted. The hardest season for the slaves was the harvest, which lasted for six months and demanded as many as 20 hours a day of labor in the fields.

Sugarcane had to be processed in the plantation’s mill, or trapiche. Directed by a white overseer (at times an American or Englishman), called the “sugarmaster,” slaves transformed the cane—by crushing, boiling, crystallizing, and draining it—into cane syrup, muscovado (unrefined sugar), molasses, and white sugar. Work in the sugar mills, though less arduous than in the fields, was still backbreaking, and fatal accidents with machinery were not uncommon. Beginning in the 1850s the increasing use of centrifuges allowed dry white sugar to be separated easily from the muscovado. Improvements in machinery throughout the nineteenth century allowed larger and larger mills to operate. The slaves continued to fill unskilled positions; blacks, it was believed, did not have the intelligence to direct the extraction process or handle the steam engines used in the mill.

The planter, or owner of the plantation, rarely appeared in the mill or the fields. Many did not even live on the plantation, but resided in the capital, Havana, or in another city or town. Occupying the upper echelons of Cuban society, the planters consisted of two groups: they were either members of oligarchic and interrelated families that had been in Cuba since before the nineteenth century, or self-made immigrant men from Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The established families tended to be old-fashioned and slow to change, in contrast to the immigrants, who spearheaded the mechanical innovations in sugar production.


In the nineteenth century increasing numbers of African slaves entered Cuba. The expansion of the sugar plantations generated a growing need for field hands that the existing slave population could not meet. There was a low rate of childbirth among these slaves, explainable by the fact that more male slaves had been brought over than female because women were considered inferior for sugarcane labor. The infant mortality rate and the death rate from accident, overwork, or epidemic were also high. Other factors contributed to the decrease in the domestic slave population, too. Cuban slaves could purchase their own freedom, and many took the less costly course of simply running away. A typical sugar plantation had to replace 8 to 10 percent of its slaves annually.

Whereas in the United States the slave population expanded steadily over several generations, in Cuba slaves arrived in huge numbers during a short span of time. This explains why in 1870, during the time of the biography, as many as 75 percent of slaves in Cuba had been born in Africa. Most of these people came from the Atlantic coast of Africa, where they lived in nations that were broadly defined by ethnicity, culture, or geography. The two largest nations were the Lucumi (Yoruba) and the Congo (people from the Congo River area). Some of the smaller nations included the Carabali, the Fanti, and the Ebros. Once in Cuba the slaves became homogenized into large categories. It was common practice for whites and blacks in Cuba to stereotype slaves and free blacks according to their nation. For example, Congos were said to be short, Carabali proud, and Lucumi industrious.

Slaves lived in barracoons, small, hot, cramped quarters that had only one entrance, which was locked at night. With only a small hole or barred window for air, the rooms grew stiflingly hot. Fleas and ticks were a constant nuisance in the barracoons, whose conditions incubated disease and ill health. Next to their quarters, slaves grew small fruit and vegetable gardens to supplement their monotonous diet of beans, rice, and beef jerky.

Children began working at five or six years old. They progressed from chores around the mill and fields to full-time labor in the fields before they were teenagers. Some children were trained to become servants and nurses in the owner’s house. As in other slave societies, the easier life indoors caused envy and distrust between the household servants and field hands.

Afro-Cuban culture

Slaves sustained much of their former African culture in Cuba. Food, games, language, music, divination, magic, and religion from many regions of Africa continued and merged with one another and with European cultural forms in Cuba. In contrast to the whites, who mostly imported their culture wholesale from Europe, the slaves fused or syncretized African and European sources to develop their own spiritual and material dimensions of life, which helped to sustain them under the brutality of slavery.

Santería, a Yoruba-derived religion that mixed African and European sources and remained hidden from the surface of the society, is a case in point. Lucumi slaves brought the worship of or-ishas, or African gods, to Cuba. There the orishas acquired the names and likenesses of Catholic saints, since the colonial authorities would not permit the open worship of African deities. For example, slaves fused or syncretized Oshún, the Yoruba divinity that controls love, marriage, and children, with Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre, the Catholic patron saint of Cuba. Oshún’s love of copper facilitated her syncretization with this Virgin of Copper (the Spanish word cobre means “copper”). The island’s resources prompted modifications, too. Coconuts became the symbols of the orisha, replacing the kola nut used in Africa.

Although they were expected to be baptized and to convert to the Catholic faith, most rural slaves had very limited contact with the Church beyond a rudimentary baptism, which meant little to the participants besides payment to the officiating priest. Barnet explains that “the plantation bell calling [the slave] to the implacable chores of the day had much greater significance than the bell on the chapel; the work-bell was resonant and cruel, the worship-bell dull and hollow” (Barnet, “The Culture that Sugar Created,” p. 43). In contrast, the continuing belief in African gods brought solace and meaning to the slaves’ lives.

The santeros, or Santería priests, worshiped their gods under the gaze of plantation overseers, the Catholic Church, and other authorities by keeping secret the African identity of the saint to which they ostensibly prayed. At fiestas for a certain Catholic saint, the blacks joined the parades and celebrations that outwardly expressed their devotion to the saint, and held their own separate and private celebrations for their version of the saint. In the cities, cabildos, or fraternal clubs of blacks and mulattos, were important incubators of Santería and Afro-Cuban culture. The practice of Santería and other African lore became a badge of identity that distinguished its practitioners from Cuba’s Spaniards, Creoles, and Chinese.

Although Santería and other African cultural expressions began exclusively with blacks, elements of this culture spread throughout Cuba among the lower classes of all colors. White overseers learned some aspects of Afro-Cuban belief and culture through their black mistresses and through daily contact with slaves. White children reared by black and mulatto nurses were taught African-derived beliefs while still in the cradle. Yet, because of class consciousness and racism, upper-class and, later, middle-class Cubans did their best to reject or ignore the African roots of Cuban society.

The end of slavery

On August 26, 1833, Great Britain passed the Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery in all British lands, including colonies; for humanitarian reasons and to protect their economic interests in the West Indies, the English pressured Spain to abolish slavery in Cuba. If abolition were achieved, Cuba’s industries would not have an unfair economic advantage. Planters, of course, felt threatened by the prospect of abolition since this would seriously cut into their efficiency and profits. Neither the poor white farmers, called guajiros, nor the significant number of free blacks and mulattos on the island would deign to do the work of the slaves in the cane fields, preferring starvation to such labor. The planters feared that without slavery there would not be enough workers to harvest the sugarcane. A failed harvest would devastate them economically. The Spanish authorities exploited the planters’ fear by threatening to free the slaves if the planters agitated for independence. The worldwide pressure to end the slave trade ironically prompted one of the largest importations of slaves ever into Cuba: between 1856 and 1860 some 90,000 African slaves were brought to the


Since the earliest colonial days, slaves in Cuba managed to escape from their masters and live as runaways (or cimarrones) in the woods and mountains. Groups of cimarrones formed communities and built palenques, well hidden and easily defended dwellings. Some palenques became platforms for resisting Spanish authority. There were also individuals and small groups of runaways who lived independently of any fixed palenque. The cimarrones aided other runaways, pirates, and the French attack on Havana in 1539. Their members raided plantations, killed whites, stole food and guns, and freed slaves. The Cuban Office for the Capture of Maroons (another word for cimarrones) reported thousands of runaways between 1795 and 1846. A few palenques survived into the 1860s, but their existence was threatened by the expansion of sugar plantations. Also, the rise in slave prices made the capture of runaways a more lucrative trade and the existence of palenques, which often traded with guajiros and free blacks, perilous. Many guajiros became devoted slave hunters. Cimarrones like Montejo lived alone in fear of betrayal, even by other runaways.

island. The movement to end the trade drove up the price of slaves, leading to further debate about the costs and benefits of slavery.

In the 1860s a group of wealthy planters formed a Reformist party that advocated greater political representation for Cuba in Spain. These men foresaw the end of slavery—Spain itself had passed an anti-slavery measure in 1845. Their plan was to gain political control and then seek the best means of abolition; they wanted to be compensated for the emancipation of their slaves. Other groups sought annexation by the United States, where, until January 1, 1863, slavery was still legal and thriving.

In the mid-1800s an alternate source of labor was found: Indians from the Yucatan and Chinese workers—125,000 Chinese by the early 1870s—came to Cuba with eight-year contracts that bound them to sugar plantations, as slaves in all but name. They were treated even worse than slaves, since their value to the plantation owner ceased at the end of their contracts, and many of them perished.

In 1865 the last ship carrying slaves arrived in Cuba. The end of the trade caused the price of slaves to skyrocket. Only the wealthiest planters could afford to buy more slaves. The economics of slavery became much harder to sustain. Three years later the planter Carlos Manuel de Céspedes rebelled against Spain’s control of Cuba and slavery, calling for gradual abolition in Cuba. In 1879, the Prime Minister of Spain, General Arsenio Martinez Campos, freed all Cuban slaves without compensation to the owners. He did, however, stipulate that the freed slaves serve eight years for their master as patronatos, which meant they remained in the same barracoons, and did the same work for food, lodging, and a small wage. In order to avoid the expenses of providing for workers outside of the harvest season, many masters freed their slaves outright and then hired them to work only for the harvest. The patronato system as a temporary compromise between slavery and free labor failed, and by general consensus it ended two years early.

The end of slavery in 1886 did not bring great change to the lives of most blacks, a theme that is treated by Montejo in the biography. The freedmen continued working in the cane fields and mills, often for the same master they had served as slaves.

There were masters, or rather, owners, who believed that blacks were made for locking up and whipping. So they treated them the same as before. To my mind many blacks didn’t realize things had changed because they kept on saying: “Your blessing Master.”

(Barnet, Biography of a Runaway Slave, p. 62)

Educational opportunities were limited for the ex-slaves, as was entrance to other occupations. Only literate men could gain the vote, a qualification that held back almost all blacks. Racism replaced slavery as the system separating whites from blacks.

Ten Years’ War

The desire of the planters for independence from Spain blossomed during the 1860s. Reform-minded Cuban planters felt burdened by the inefficient overseas Spanish bureaucracy, and resented the preferential treatment given to peninsulares (Spanish-born residents of Cuba) by bureaucrats and judges. Many felt that they could guide their own destiny better than Madrid did.

In 1867 the Spanish government exacerbated the Cubans’ resentment by levying an extra property tax during an economic recession. The next year the Glorious Revolution in Madrid, which toppled the Spanish monarchy, brought more political turbulence to Cuba, and gave the rebellious planters in Oriente, the eastern province of the island, a chance to rise. On October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes took up arms against the colonial government, declaring the independence of Cuba and freeing his own slaves. (As noted, he called for gradual abolition of all slavery on the island.) Many flocked to join his army, which initially succeeded by capturing two towns. Céspedes’s revolt swelled as whites and blacks, slaves and the free, joined the ranks of the rebels, who were led almost exclusively by men from the wealthy planter families.

The Spanish army, backed by the ferocious volunteers—peninsulares who fought for Spain—launched a vicious campaign of mass murder and repression against the rebels. Rebel sympathizers—most notably the future revolutionary José Martí (author of “Our America” [also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times])—were exiled or imprisoned. Pressed back by the superior numbers and resources of the Spanish, the rebels retreated to the hills and woods and waged a guerilla war.

The rebellion, however, could not be squelched quickly, and the war dragged on for years. The rebels succeeded only in the limited engagements of guerilla warfare. The skilled rebel commanders Maximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo wanted to bring the war to the western, and more prosperous, provinces of Cuba and destroy the plantations, which would cripple the island, but their plans were handicapped by the conservative leaders of the rebellion. Switching from guerilla warfare to pitched battles, rebel generals twice defeated larger Spanish forces, but these victories proved costly since they depleted the rebels’ ammunition and resources.

In 1877, with the Spanish king back on his throne, the reinforced Spanish army launched a successful offensive against a dwindling rebel force. In February 1878 the war almost ended with the Pact of Zanjón, which granted the rebels amnesty, and gave Cuba increased political representation in Spain, equal to that of Puerto Rico. Maceo would not agree to end the war without full independence and returned to battle, but his small force could not hold out. In May 1878 he was defeated and sent into exile.

The War of Independence

The dream of independence did not die in 1878. Cuban exiles began to organize, plan, and raise funds for a successful revolution. José Martí, an exile living in New York, led the efforts of Cubans abroad. An indefatigable writer, speaker, and organizer, Marti united the various exile groups interested in liberating Cuba. He envisioned a new Cuba that would be racially and socially egalitarian, politically and economically independent of Spain and the United States, and a true democracy, unlike the republics ruled by petty tyrants throughout Latin America. Cubans everywhere caught the passion of Marti’s message.


I traveled by rail from Havana to Matanzas. The country outside the military posts was practically depopulated. Every house had been burned, banana trees cut down, cane fields swept with fire, and everything in the shape of food destroyed. … I did not see a house, man, woman, or child, a horse, mule, or cow, nor even a dog. I did not see a sign of life, except an occasional vulture or buzzard sailing through the air. The country was wrapped in the stillness of death and the silence of desolation.”

(Simons, p. 162)

Marti put his plans into action in 1895; while rebellions broke out across the island, a small force led by him and Maximo Gómez invaded eastern Cuba. In a skirmish with the Spanish, tragedy struck and Marti was killed. Gómez reunited with Maceo to lead the rebel army. Unlike the upper-class leadership of the Ten Years’ War, men from a broader span of society spearheaded this revolution. Despite the Spanish army’s superior numbers, the war did not turn in its favor. The Spaniards were fighting not just a war but a revolutionary army that commanded support throughout Cuba. Under Gómez, revolutionaries burned plantations and brought the entire economy under their control. Bandits, such as Manuel Garcia, who had vague political motives before the war, joined the rebel cause. They formed small, undisciplined bands, separate from the trained forces under Gómez. Staying in the hills and woods, living off the land and local farms, the rebels had spread across Cuba to the western provinces by October of 1895.

Nonetheless, rebel successes slowed as counter-insurgents of Spanish descent joined the Spanish forces. By mid-1896 war had engulfed the entire country, and almost all males had joined one side or the other. General Valeriano Weyler, the Spanish commander, had his troops viciously drive more than 300,000 rural civilians into the Spanish-controlled cities, thereby depriving the rebels of their support network. His destructive campaign converted many previously neutral Cubans into new rebels against him.

Although in 1896 Gómez and fellow commander Calixto García controlled the center and east of the island, they lacked the resources to launch an offensive. After the Spanish trapped Maceo’s army and killed him in battle, desertion from the rebel forces increased dramatically. By the end of 1896 the western provinces were firmly back in Spanish control.

The U.S. intervenes

On the evening of February 15, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine—an American battleship anchored in Havana’s port—blew up and sank, killing most of the crew. Although the cause of the explosion could not be proved, many Americans believed—or were eager to believe—that the Spanish caused the destruction. Already there existed a great deal of American public antipathy toward the Spanish in Cuba, an attitude instigated in part by the war-mongering of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. The Maine tragedy led directly to the United States’s declaring war on Spain in April. Known as the Spanish-American War, the conflict pitted Spain against the United States in a contest that spread from Cuba to Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

A U.S. force of 6,000 men led by General William Rufus Shafter invaded eastern Cuba on June 22, 1898. At the Battle of San Juan Hill, their only major conflict in Cuba, U.S. soldiers forced the Spanish to retreat, and took the outer defenses of the city of Santiago. The U.S. Navy further defeated the Spanish fleet outside Santiago. By mid-July the city had surrendered. This U.S. victory along with others in the Philippines and Puerto Rico led to the capitulation of Spanish forces. Cuba gained its independence in 1902, while Puerto Rico and the Philippines became U.S. possessions.

Postwar relations with the United States

Despite a troubling history of American imperialist ambition in the Caribbean basin, for much of the nineteenth century many Cubans looked upon the United States positively as an example in their own struggle for liberty against colonial oppression. This attitude shifted dramatically into a negative one, beginning with the Cuban War of Independence.

Although the United States invaded Cuba on the side of the rebels, tensions developed between the U.S. forces and the rebels. Racist U.S. soldiers, overwhelmingly white, disparaged the blacks that comprised the majority of the rebel forces. The U.S. soldiers considered the Cubans incompetent, and lavished more praise upon the chivalrous actions of the Spanish enemy. Major William Schafter even contemptuously suggested to the rebel commander Calixto García that his local forces serve as laborers instead of soldiers.

The United States governed Cuba from 1899 until 1902, during which the Cuban rebel army did not receive the honors earned by its long struggle. The U.S. occupiers believed that their own army and navy deserved all the credit for the victory. Neither the rebel army, nor its commander, Gómez, was invited to attend the formal withdrawal of Spanish forces from Havana in December 1898. During the occupation, tensions between Cuban and U.S. soldiers boiled over into street fighting in Havana and Cienfuegos.

The island was in ruins after the war; the population, plantations, and sugar mills had been decimated. U.S. companies and investors received the lion’s share of opportunities in rebuilding the island’s infrastructure. Tariffs in the United States gave Cuban sugar an advantage over beet sugar from Europe, which encouraged the re-dedication of the island to sugar cane production. U.S. investors assumed control of a large amount of the sugar industry, and took their profits out of the nation.

During the drafting of the Cuban Constitution, the U.S. government demanded that the Cubans accept the Platt Amendment as part of the constitution. Cuban politicians initially opposed this amendment because it granted the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it believed the island’s independence to be in question. The amendment also gave the United States the right to maintain naval bases in Cuba, and—the most patronizing of all—to intervene if Havana was literally not kept clean. But the Cuban drafters of the constitution were forced to abandon their protest when General Leonard Wood, the leader of the U.S. occupation, made it clear that his army would not leave the island until the amendment had been passed. Thereafter, politics in Cuba would hinge on the approval or disapproval of the United States, squelching the dream of true political and economic independence as envisioned by José Martí and his fellow liberators.

The Biography in Focus

Plot summary

Biography of a Runaway Slave recounts Esteban Montejo’s actions over the course of 40 years, along with his observations on Cuban society and the political events through which he lived. His descriptions of cultural life include sections on magic, religion, social and sexual relations, festivals, African slaves and criollo slaves (those born in Cuba), and sugar-making. His observations are as important as the narrative of his life and adventures, for they provide an eyewitness account of a culture otherwise little known or documented.

Barnet organizes Montejo’s life into three sections:

Slavery: Montejo describes his childhood and young adulthood as a slave, and then his years—it is unclear how long—as a cimarrón or runaway. The section begins with some of the details of his birth in late 1860, and ends with the abolition of slavery in 1881.

Abolition of Slavery: From approximately 1881 until 1895, Montejo works as a laborer in sugarcane fields and in sugar mills on plantations throughout the countryside. He conveys a picture of the emerging Afro-Cuban culture and the building tensions within colonial Cuba.

The War of Independence: This section details Montejo’s career as a rebel soldier in the War of Independence, beginning with his enlistment in December 1895. The section ends soon after the end of the war and includes Montejo’s observations on the post-war Cuba.

Montejo was born on December 26, 1860. On the Catholic calendar, this is St. Stephen’s Day, from which he attained the name Esteban (Spanish for “Stephen”). He is a criollito (a slave child born in Cuba); his father hails from Africa (a Lucumi); his mother, from Haiti. Since his original master sold him as a baby, he meets his parents for the first time as an adult.

When he is ten, Montejo works with a pick and shovel on the bagazo, the remains of the cane after cutting. He notes that “ten years of age then was like saying thirty now because children worked like oxen” (Runaway Slave, p. 22).

Montejo details life in the barracoons (slave quarters), describing the crowded, inadequate housing, as well as the slaves’ games, fiestas, dances, and religion. “Strange as it may seem, blacks had fun in the barracoons,” he asserts (Runaway Slave, p. 26). Despite the emerging slave culture, life in the barracoons takes its toll physically and spiritually: “it didn’t take much to get tired of living that life. The ones who got used to it didn’t have much spirit. Life in the woods was healthier. In the barracoons you caught a lot of diseases” (Runaway Slave, p. 41). Montejo decides to run away. Even as a child he always had “the spirit of a cimarrón in [him]” (Runaway Slave, p. 44). Although his first escape attempt fails, he later succeeds.


At the start of the War of Independence the Spanish soldiers nicknamed black Cuban rebels Mambises (singular Mambí), which means the children of a monkey and buzzard. The rebels, however, accepted the derogatory name as a term for their ferocity and courage. The machete, the tool of the sugarcane laborer, became a weapon in the hands of the Mambises—and their symbol. Many lacked rifles and carried machetes into battle against the Spanish. In his first combat, at the Battle of Mal Tiempo, Montejo took the guns of cowardly Spanish soldiers after capturing them with just his machete from the sugar fields. He and other Mambises supplied the rebel troops with food by raiding farms for pigs and other supplies. Blacks and mulattos comprised between 75 and 85 percent of the Cuban rebel forces. About 40 percent of the rebel officers were blacks, in contrast to the Ten Years’ War, in which whites dominated the leadership positions.

As a cimarrón (runaway slave), Montejo lives in a cave and then in the woods, where he travels constantly and covers his trail to avoid capture by slave-hunting guajiros. He keeps to himself, avoiding even other runaways, since “cimarrón with cimarrón sells cimarrón” (Runaway Slave, p. 47). He lives off the land, taking animals and plants in the forest, and stealing pigs from the farms of guajiros. In the woods he lacks for nothing, it would seem, except for the companionship of a woman. His solitary days in the woods are a defining time in Montejo’s life. They established his lifelong desire for independence, and an inclination to avoid social entanglements. He lives by his hands and by his wits. After abolition, Montejo, unlike other freed slaves, does not crave the security of life on a plantation.

Montejo learns about the abolition of slavery by overhearing the celebrations of freed slaves, and he leaves his idyllic life in the forest. After wandering the land for a while, he finds a job cutting cane at a plantation in Las Villas. Life and work on plantations remains much the same as before abolition. While the barracoons no longer have locks, and the overseers do not “hit you like during slavery” (Runaway Slave, p. 61), the work and living conditions remain dismal. Montejo establishes a pattern of living and working at a single plantation for a couple years, and then moving to another for employment in the fields or sugar mills.

Despite having many lovers, Montejo neither lives in a family, nor knows his children. His relationships are temporary arrangements. After the War of Independence he will enter into an informal marriage, which he prefers to a permanent arrangement.

Montejo participates in social and cultural life. For example, he attends the annual fiesta celebration of San Juan in the town of Calabazar, and describes the three competing or overlapping sets of activities that occur there. During the day he sees the official Catholic ceremonies, and the accompanying secular celebrations that include music, dancing, drinking, and gambling. At night he attends the celebration of the Santería god, Oggún, who is associated with the saint. Although Montejo respects all religions, he believes that the African gods are stronger than the Christian god and dislikes the weak Catholic priests.

Montejo joins in the War of Independence in December 1895, leaving behind his life and work at a sugar mill. He provides an eyewitness account of the next three years of fighting. Montejo serves under three commanders during the course of the war. The first two were bandits before the war, and lead small, informal bands of men. The first, Tajó, he describes as “a horse thief in a liberator’s uniform,” and the second, Cayito, is no better (Runaway Slave, p. 169). Both men attempt to desert their commands and surrender to the Spanish. Tajó successfully switches his allegiances back and forth throughout the war, always searching for personal gain; but Cayito’s attempt fails when his men discover his plan to go over to the Spanish, and murder him.

Montejo’s third commander, Brigadier Higinio Esquerra, is a true revolutionary. Under his command, Montejo joins part of the main rebel army. He fights in the large battle of Arroyo Prieto, and serves as a soldier in a disciplined regiment.

When the war finally ends, Montejo compares his shock and disbelief to that which he felt when slavery ended. The victory finally strikes him when he reaches Havana, where he joins in the victory celebrations that continue for weeks. In Montejo’s view the city is a crazy place full of women, drunks, dancing, violence, and chaotic merrymaking. He sees the U.S. soldiers taking control of the city and disrespecting Cuban women. In 1899 he joins a group of Mambises that clash with Yankee soldiers in Cienfuegos. In the end Montejo despairs of the corrupt city and returns to the countryside and the life of a sugarcane worker.

Magic and belief

Throughout Montejo’s biography, there are descriptions of magic that at first glance may appear unbelievable to unaccustomed modern eyes. Montejo identifies two types of African-derived religion: Santería from the Lucumi, and magic from the Congo. He learns some magic from an older Congo man, including how to make and keep a tiny devil to do his bidding. Montejo also refers to stories about the supernatural and the magical, like men returning from the dead, as well as folk beliefs and tales about headless horsemen and ghosts. Although these stories and beliefs may sound fantastic, it is important not to dismiss them as nonsense.

For centuries stereotypes about African “witchdoctors” have inaccurately portrayed traditional healers in Africa and the New World as evil witches or quacks who rely on fear and superstition. These stereotypes are misguided. Traditional healers in Africa and Cuba had extensive, highly valued knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants, the properties of which form the basis of many Western medicines. The same knowledge of herbs and medicines was also used for malevolent purposes, such as providing poison for the tips of daggers used by black rebels in the Ten Years’ War. Montejo tells of slaves who wielded magic to control or kill their masters. Regardless of the actual success of such magic, the belief that it was effective is significant, since it raised the slave, the least powerful person in society, over his master. This inversion through magic must have secured a modicum of self-respect and confidence among men and women at the mercy of a brutal system.

Along with the folktales and beliefs that Montejo relates, magic helped form for Africans and Afro-Cubans a separate identity and culture amid that of Spaniards, creoles, and Chinese. To dismiss Montejo’s discussions of magic as nothing more than fantasies is to fail to recognize the beliefs that enabled slaves to create a viable Afro-Cuban culture while physically shackled.


When Biography of a Runaway Slave was first printed in English, the translator rendered the title Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. This misnomer gave the impression that Montejo had been the author of the work, and neglected Barnet’s role in its creation, which was significant.

Barnet interviewed, arranged, edited, wrote, and rewrote the account. He questioned Montejo for several tape-recorded sessions over the course of several days. The questions that jogged Montejo’s memory are not included in the text. Barnet took the transcripts from the sessions and arranged them into the biography’s three major sections and smaller subsections. He edited Montejo’s words, eliminating some incidents and phrasing, and adding other phrases that he found appropriate. Barnet’s goal was neither pure replication of testimony nor pure fiction. He wanted to give a voice to the common people of Cuba by combining the anthropological and the literary. His work strove to challenge the notion that slaves and other marginal people had no history, or any connection to the history or consciousness of their times.

Sources and literary context

One of Barnet’s major sources of inspiration was the work of his mentor, Fernando Ortiz, who had introduced the term “Afro-Cuban” in the 1910s. Ortiz’s studies of Afro-Cuban culture were groundbreaking and opened the eyes of many middle-class Cubans to the reality and prominence of African-derived culture in Cuba.

In the 1950s Oscar Lewis, an anthropologist in the United States, started a movement to compile and relate the life-stories of individuals. In his La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of PovertySan Juan and New York, Lewis strove to write according to his informants’ wishes. Bar-net followed Lewis’s philosophy in general, but believed that the writer must also use his or her own imagination and not rely completely on informants.

Barnet wrote Biography of a Runaway Slave during an exciting period in Cuban literature. Initially the Cuban Revolution had inspired Cuban writers to experiment with styles in order to find a new form that expressed the emerging realities of a society undergoing radical change. Much of the Cuban literature of the 1960s, including Barnet’s testimonial biography, shares certain themes: a critical view of pre-Revolutionary society; attempts to reconcile oneself with personal and social pasts; and a drive to capture the authentic language of the Cuban people.

Events in History at the Time the Biography was Written

The Cuban Revolution

In 1959 Fidel Castro overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista in a revolution that enjoyed broad public support. The liberators were national heroes who had come to fulfill the promise of an independent Cuba cherished by Marti and others. Castro, the sole source of political power and the director of the Revolution, intended to reinvent Cuban society. He aimed to end the sugar industry’s domination of the economy, so that Cuba would no longer be subject to foreign competition and the whims of the world markets for sugar. Castro planned to develop other industries and agricultural products, which would make Cuba less dependent upon the United States for food and manufactured goods. In 1960 he nationalized the sugar industry despite the protests of the U.S. government.

The next year Castro declared himself a communist. The United States broke off diplomatic relations, made attempts to remove Castro from power, and imposed an economic embargo on the island, which remains in effect (although relaxed to some degree in January 1999) 40 years later. That same year an army of Cuban exiles, trained and supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, but suffered a humiliating defeat from Castro’s army. Later in 1962 the world almost saw nuclear war when U.S. President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The United States set up a naval blockade of the island, whereupon the Soviets backed down and removed the missiles. These U.S. attempts to control events in Cuba followed the pattern of intervention that had been established during the Spanish-American War, antagonizing Cubans.

These conflicts, on the other hand, bolstered many Cubans’ enthusiasm for Castro, and garnered the respect and admiration of other Latin Americans. It appeared that Castro was raising a prostrate Cuba from generations of U.S. political, economic, and cultural hegemony. At the same time, his Revolution improved the living conditions for the poorest Cubans, raising their standards of literacy, health, housing, education, and sanitation.

Cuban intellectuals

For three days in June 1961 Castro addressed a prominent group of intellectuals at the National Library in Havana. In his speeches he outlined the Revolution’s goals for artists and writers, establishing the official policy of the government toward the arts until 1968. The Revolution did not limit the freedom of the true artist, he claimed, but rather gave him or her the opportunity to serve the people whose freedom had been denied for so long. Artists must be willing, said Castro, to dedicate their abilities to the Revolution. They should help form a cultural revolution in addition to the socioeconomic one. The art they produced should not be for personal prosperity but for the benefit of their contemporaries, the people of Cuba.

Those intellectuals and artists whose work did not reflect the ideals of the Revolution received cold rebukes from the government. Their jobs were terminated, their books were not published, and their art was not displayed. In one renowned case, the poet Heberto Padilla was imprisoned for verse that was critical of the government. A number of artists, including Padilla, ultimately fled the island to pursue their art in exile.

Although Castro’s new Cuba caused some artists to flee, others answered the call to celebrate the popular culture of Cuba, and experimented with styles to complement its new society. Genres such as the novel were transformed to accommodate revolutionary concerns and beliefs, and the testimonial novel—oral testimony told to a transcriber—was born. Barnet wrote that “with a brush stroke we became the spokesmen of an all-knowing view of the world and our role in the life of our country” (Runaway Slave, p. 204).

The closing section from Castro’s “Words to the Intellectuals” has particular relevance for Bar-net’s Biography of a Runaway Slave:

We recently had the experience of meeting an old woman, 108 years old, who had just learned to read and write, and we proposed to her that she write a book. She had been a slave, and we wanted to know what the world looked like to her as a slave, what her first impressions were, of her masters, of her fellow slaves. I believe that this old woman can write something more interesting than any of us could about that era. . . . Things like these are the fruit of the Revolution! Who can write about what the slave endured better than she, and who can write about the present better than you?

(Castro, p. 298)

Castro is here calling for a new history that includes the voices of oppressed participants. Barnet was a student in Havana at that time. Then and later, he would have had the opportunity to hear or read accounts of Castro’s words, and be influenced by the message.

As early as 1959, two months after his victory, Castro counseled “public condemnation against any people so filled with old vices and prejudices that they would discriminate against Cubans over questions of lighter and darker skin” (Castro in Cannon, p. 114). On the heels of this antiracist declaration came advances in civil rights for black Cubans. An adviser to Castro’s government recalls how its new leaders “opened up the beaches, they opened up the hotels… they put the weight of the society… against racism. . . . The whole thing took place with surprising speed, with surprisingly little opposition” (Boorstein in Cannon, p. 114). Certainly Cuba did not rid itself of racism—to a large extent a legacy of the slavery featured in the 1966 biography of Esteban Montejo. But Castro’s stance meant the government was attaching a negative value to prejudice against blacks in Cuba, making the biography a timely publication indeed.


By 1980 Biografía de un cimarrón had sold better than any other Cuban book published since the Castro Revolution (Sklodowska in Luis and González, p. 61). It has been translated into many European languages, adapted into two films, and transformed into a year-long radio serial in Cuba. Early reviewers of the English translation, which bore the title Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, considered the book in light of its importance to the study of Cuban history. Pritchard Flynn wrote that it “will prove invaluable” for its detailed accounts of Afro-Cuban life (Flynn, p. 100). In contrast Paul Bailey said the book “has little value as a historical document” because Montejo’s understanding of the War of Independence is “naive and one-sided, a matter of heroes and villains” (Bailey, p. 587). Another review considered the biography’s importance to understanding Cuba in the 1960s: “Anyone seeking to view the Cuban social and political events of the past decade in the deeper perspective of a centenarian… may find it here” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 501).

—John Roleke

For More Information

Bailey, Paul. “Slave Talking.” New Statesman 75 (May 3, 1968): 587-88.

Barnet, Miguel. Biography of a Runaway Slave. Trans. W. Nick Hill. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone Press, 1994 (1966).

----------. “The Culture that Sugar Created.” Latin American Literary Review 8, no. 16 (1981): 38-46.

Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Cannon, Terence. Revolutionary Cuba. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1981.

Castro, Fidel. “Words to the Intellectuals.” In Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Flynn, Pritchard. Review of Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Newsweek, September 16, 1968, 100.

Luis, William, and Ann González, eds. Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers.2nd series. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 145. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Simons, Geoff. Cuba: From Conquistador to Castro. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Sklodowska, Elzbieta. “Spanish American Testimonial Novel: Some Afterthoughts.” In The Real Thing. Ed. Georg M. Gugelberger. Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1996.

Thomas, Hugh. Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Review of Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Times Literary Supplement, May 16, 1968, 501.