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Juan Francisco Manzano

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Juan Francisco Manzano

Juan Francisco Manzano (1797 - 1854) was born a slave in the Matanzas Province of Cuba. He wrote two works and started his autobiography while still enslaved. He obtained his freedom in 1836 and later wrote a book of poems and a play.[1]

Manzano was falsely accused of being involved in the conspiracy of La Escalera in 1844. After his release from prison in 1845 he never wrote again and died in poverty in 1854.[1]


Early life

Manzano was born to Maria del Pilar Manzano and Toribio de Casto in 1797. His married parents were both slaves to Señora Beatriz de Justiz de Santa Ana, his mother was her chief handmaid. Their mistress was a writer and poet. During his youth Manzano was not allowed to play with other black children and was treated like a white child. He had a relatively comfortable life in comparison to other slaves in this important sugar region. However, the life of a house slave was isolating.[1][2][3]

His next mistress, María de la Concepción, la Marquesa del Prado Ameno, was cruel and abusive. Manzano escaped.[3]

Learning to write

Manzano was a domestic city slave with little power over his life, but was remarkably taught to write by his master.[2]

His first mistress exposed him to the arts, and, under her care, he memorized short plays, bits of opera and other works of theater. Subsequently with a master, Manzano was not allowed to use time that he could be working to recite by heart or write letters, but he practiced writing letters with the discarded notes of his master, first copying the script and then writing himself.[2] Until he learned to read or write, Manzano was limited to remembering other's poetry. Writing allowed him to express his own viewpoints.[2] He became a part of a group of Cuban reformists who, with a publicist and liberal writer named Domingo Del Monte, encouraged Manzano to write. The group took up a collection to buy Manzano's freedom. Manzano’s poetry was edited by publishers who sought to create a cleaner version of the text, but in the process the poems lost their authenticity.[2]

While still enslaved, he wrote Poesias liricas (1821) and Flores pasageras (1830). In 1835 he began writing his life story at the request of Domingo del Monte, who bought Manzano’s freedom in 1836.[1] Del Monte wanted him to write a narrative of his life to help promote abolitionism among the enlightened middle class. In correspondence between Manzano and Del Monte, Manzano was initially hesitant to reveal details that he though would not be well received by his benefactor. But he gained greater self-confidence and certainty about his autobiography with time. He held back some material, though, that he wanted to put in a later book. That book never happened.[2]


The Autobiography of a Slave is the only existing documented account of 19th century Cuban slavery, or existing narrative account of slavery in Spanish America. British abolitionist Richard Robert Madden published his Poems by a slave in the island of Cuba in 1840. Manzano's play Zafira was published in 1842.[1][3]

Published works


His work appears to be the first slave narrative published in Spanish America.[2] Manzano says in his narrative that his parent's mistress possessed the power over life and death - and allowed him to be born. He writes, "remember when you read me that I am a slave and that the slave is a dead being in the eyes of his master," meaning Manzano had no control over his destiny.[2]

Manzano’s biography makes reference to his body as a tool for his mistress's pleasure. His body did not belong to him. His second mistress, Marquesa de Prado Ameno, exercised control by dressing him up. When dressed in fine clothes, he was on his mistress’s good side. When dressed in rags, this symbolized her displeasure. His change of dress publicized symbolically him being stripped of his identity in front of others. Manzano’s dignity was removed, due to his constant change of costume[4]

Spanish edition

Spanish colonial regime suppressed the history of marginalized social groups such as the African and the Chinese during the period the autobiography was written. During that time the Cuban sugar economy depended on slave labor for its wealth. Even after the end of the Spanish rule in 1898, the book was unavailable to be published. The autobiography was the property of Del Monte, passed to Del Monte’s heirs and then passed to the national library in Havana to be published in 1937.

English edition

Lacking authority and respect from the white literary establishment, slaves needed white sponsors who could get their works published and distributed. In Manzano's case, the mediators were Del Monte and Madden.[2]

Because a Spanish version could not be published for some time, an English version translated by Richard Madden was created. In North America, slave narratives were translated and edited, partly for dramatic effect and sometimes omitting details. In Manzano's case, names, places and dates as well as instances of brutality were contradicted by moments of peace and happiness which were included in the later Spanish version. Molloy points out that “on occasion the narratives contain so many of the editors views that there is little room for the testimony of the fugitive”.[2]

Madden’s translation of the text into English unauthorized the text by making it anonymous. The text was entitled, The Life and Poems of a Cuban Slave, to generalize it. Some details, however, remained that identified Manzano, such as how much it cost to liberate him or the fact that he was the only slave poet on the island. Overall the text was to represent not one individual's life but the life of a Cuban slave. Madden included the slave narrative in a book that offered poems about abolition and an appendix containing conversations between him and Del Monte. In the end, only a fourth of the text was written by the slave himself. Some incidents were altered to present the suffering of the slave with more intensity. Manzano’s original text with its alternating suffering and moments of kindness showed his helplessness at the hands of his mistresses. Madden also does away with details that show Manzano as an exception among slaves in order to portray Manzano as a “worthy victim”.[2]


Manzano's play, Zafira, was published in 1842.[1] It was a metaphor of colonialism and slavery in Cuba. Zafira takes place in 16th century Mauritania in North Africa. The play follows Zafira, an Arabian princess, who mourns the loss of her husband and dreads the wedding with the Turkish pirate, Barbarroja, who wants to rule the coast. Her son, Selim, returns in disguise to reclaim the throne. He allies himself with the slave Noemi to challenge the reign of Barbarroja.[5]

Zafira references the Haitian revolution of 1791, the only successful slave revolt, and the black republic established there in 1804. Haiti stood as an example of freedom in an age that claimed human equality at birth. The revolt led wealthy landowners to flee to Cuba bringing stories of the rebellion. French slaves were not allowed in Cuba for fear of another revolt. The presence of Spanish soldiers to prevent another uprising did not permit white Cuba's autonomy.[5]

In the play, Selim possesses a mysterious letter which was not present in the Spanish version of the play. Zafira presents the letter to Barbarroja who responds to the letter with fear. This represents the Spanish and Cuban's fear of another uprising like the one in Haiti. The themes of tyranny, exile, subjugation, slavery and rebellion in 19th century Havana indirectly challenged Spanish colonial rule.[5]

Being cautious, Manzano gave obscure reference to his views of personal and national sovereignty to the audience. The audience was already aware of a national consciousness, some of which identified with the anti-slavery sentiment of Zafira. His drama reflects the intellectual and political values of the enlightenment such as reason, order, justice and equality. Although it was a subtle criticism of Spanish rule in Cuba, Zafira’s familiar content did not raise concern.[5] Manzano may have found inspiration for Zafira from an earlier Spanish version entitled Tragedia. Cuban playwrights in the 18th and 19th century would take Spanish works and “Cubanize” them. The Spanish hero in the original version,was taken out in favor of the slave Noemi who represents Afro-Cuban slaves. In resistance writing, meaning is hidden in a symbol that appears harmless although it is full of complex double meanings.[5] Manzano’s play was about reaffirming blackness through the ideas of liberty and self-determination, that the letter Selim possessed in the play represented.[5]

Contemporary views of his work

The appeal of Manzano’s work to 20th century scholars was Cuba’s search for its authentic roots following the revolution of 1959. Part of the appeal is that there are few personal accounts by slaves themselves. This is especially true in Latin America where actual slave accounts are rare. Manzano's autobiography is the only one from that region to date. Literary critic Jose Antonio Portoundo's article, written shortly after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Toward a new history of Cuba, says, "there is no history among us that did not study the rise and fall of the dominant hegemonic class: the island bourgeoisie." He recommended to include the exploited class and their struggles into Cuban history.[6] Manzano's autobiography gave rise to testimonial literature which discovered and uncovered the “History of a people without a history.”[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Encyclopedia of Cuba: People, History, Culture. 2003. Print.  This is a tertiary source that clearly includes information from other sources but does not name them.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Molloy, Sylvia. "From Serf to Self: The Autobiography of Juan Francisco Manzano." MLA International Bibliography. 104.2 (1989): 393-417. Web. 23 Apr. 2012:8
  3. ^ a b c Gera Burton. (2004). Ambivalence and the postcolonial subject: the strategic alliance of Juan Francisco Manzano and Richard Robert Madden. Volume 10 of Latin America. Peter Lang Publishing. ISBN 0820470589.
  4. ^ Molloy, Sylvia. "From Serf to Self: The Autobiography of Juan Francisco Manzano." MLA International Bibliography. 104.2 (1989): 393-417. Web. 23 Apr. 2012:409
  5. ^ a b c d e f Olsen, Margaret M. "Manzano's Zafira and the Performance of Cuban Nationhood." Hispanic Review. 75.2 (2007): 135-158. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 April 2012:138-39
  6. ^ Shulman, Ivan A. The Autobiography of a Slave: Autobiografía De Un Esclavo. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996:7
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