This blogpost for Explore Your Archive week looks into the connection between a St George’s alumnus and a former Cuban slave in the 19th century. St George’s historical connections to slavery are being reviewed as part of the Institutional Review of Race Equality. Please note that this post contains language that may upset or offend readers. This has been included where necessary as used within the original sources for illustrative purposes. This blogpost is written by St George’s Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi.
The poet Juan Francisco Manzano (1797-1853/54) was born in enslavement on a sugar plantation in Cuba. Richard Robert Madden (1798-1888) was born in Ireland, the youngest of 21 children of a wealthy silk manufacturer, and an alumnus of St George’s.
How did the paths of these two men cross?
Title page of ‘Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated’, 1840.
Manzano’s parents, Sofia del Pilar Manzano and Toribio de Castro, were enslaved under Señora Beatriz de Justiz de Santa Ana. Sofia was the chief handmaid of Señora Beatriz, allegedly a relatively privileged position that meant Manzano was not allowed to play with the other slave children at the plantation, although it did not save him from various forms of mental and physical abuse. At some point, Manzano was sold to María de la Concepción, Marquesa del Prado Ameno, who by all accounts was particularly cruel and abusive.
Extract from ‘Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated’, 1840.
The accounts on how Manzano escaped slavery are vague and contradictory. Somehow, however, Manzano managed to buy his freedom in 1837, aged 40. Although he had had little power over his life, he had been taught to read and write in his childhood. In one version of the story, his literacy proved to be his salvation, and a group of Cuban reformists, including a plantation owner called Domingo Del Monte, were so impressed by the poetry he had been writing that they eventually bought his freedom.
Del Monte asked him to write down the narrative of his life, although it seems unlikely he was paid for the work. The book could not, however, be published in Cuba or in other Spanish colonies, even after the end of the Spanish rule in 1898 – Cuban economy depended on slave labour on the sugar plantations to such an extent that any accounts that might have a negative impact were banned. It was finally published in 1937 in Cuba, having been passed to the National Library in Havana by Del Monte’s estate.
English translation of Manzano’s poem ‘Mis treinta años’ (‘Thirty years’). Translation by Madden.
Madden, in the meanwhile, had moved to London in 1828, following several years in Italy and the Middle East. He had received £220 for accompanying a tuberculosis patient to England; this money he spent to further his medical studies at St George’s.
Advertisements for lectures at the School of Anatomy and Medicine adjoining St George’s Hospital, 1835. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
He settled down to practice medicine in London, having married Harriet Elmslie, the youngest daughter of a West India merchant and slave owner John Elmslie. In London he joined the Anti-Slavery Society, and eventually gave up the practice of medicine, becoming instead a government civil servant.
He had been educated in Dublin, Paris and London, including at St George’s where he studied at two occasions. The student registers show he enrolled first in 1823 for six months, and returned to St George’s in 1828. On both occasions, Benjamin Brodie was his tutor.
The entry for Richard Robert Madden in St George’s Medical School student register, 1828. SGHMS/4/1/16, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
In 1833 he travelled to Jamaica to work as a special magistrate for the British Colonial Office: his role was to help resolve disputes between ‘apprentices’, as former enslaved people were known as, and the slave owners, also known as planters. His account describing his experiences was published in 1835 as ‘A Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies, During the Transition from Slavery to Apprenticeship’. Allegedly he visited a plantation owned by his uncle, where he discovered ‘two mulatto cousins’ and learned that another cousin of his had been sold as a slave. In his book and in evidence given to a British parliamentary select committee he denounced the apprenticeship system.
In 1836 Madden was appointed commissioner of liberated slaves in Havana, Cuba, a Spanish colony beholden to Britain since 1814: it is likely in this role that he first met Manzano through Domingo del Monte, who occupied a powerful position as a plantation owner (and hence probably an enslaver as well) in the society.
He took it upon himself to translate Manzano’s account into English. The resulting book was published in Britain in 1840, and was called ‘Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated: Translated from the Spanish by R.R. Madden, with the History of the early Life of the Negro Poet Written by Himself’. Madden himself writes that the text
Part of the glossary in ‘Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated’, 1840.
Although slavery had officially been abolished in Britain and the British colonies in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act (following the Slave Trade Act of 1807 prohibiting slave trade), the transitional concept of ‘apprenticeship’ however in many ways was simply a continuation of slavery. Nor did the market for sugar and other goods produced with slave labour cease, and Britain continued to trade with countries such as Cuba, where slavery was not abolished until 1886.
In 1840, Madden spoke at first World Anti-Slavery Convention, delivering a report on Cuban slavery. He had stated as his aim in publishing Manzano’s work to ‘vindicate in some degree the character of the negro intellect, at least the attempt affords me an opportunity of recording my conviction, that the blessings of education and good government are only wanting to make the Natives of Africa, intellectually and morally, equal to any people on the surface of the globe’.
Both Del Monte and Madden appropriated Manzano’s work for their own purposes, which for Del Monte may have included using abolitionism as a means of ensuring that the numbers of black Africans in Cuba would not surpass the number of white Europeans. Madden tailored his translation to his British audience, who wanted to distance themselves from slavery: it was easier to read about atrocities committed by other nations, in an exotic location and via a translated text from another language. His edition omitted certain details, including names, places and dates, as well as instances of brutality.
By highlighting his own role in the edition (where the title does not even include Manzano’s name) Madden placed himself in the position of authority and power: as a white saviour. Moreover, in the book he first presents two of his own poems, ‘The Slave Trade Merchant’ and ‘The Sugar Estate’, turning himself into the author in the process. From the perspective of a British abolitionist, it is almost as if British slavery never existed.
Table of contents of ‘Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated’, 1840.
What happened to Manzano and Madden after this?
Madden went on to work for the British Colonial Office, first as a special commissioner of inquiry in the British colonies on the western coast of Africa on Gambia River and the Gold Coast (hub for slave trade since the 17th century), and then as colonial secretary in Western Australia. He published several more books on a variety of subjects, including burial practices and the United Irishmen. In 1849 he returned to Dublin, where he spent the rest of his life as the secretary of the Loan Fund Board at the Dublin Castle: he never appears to have returned to medical practice. He died in 1886, aged 87.
We know much less of what happened to Manzano. A play written by him, Zafira, was published in 1842. He was married, twice, first to Marcelina Campos, then, in 1835, to María del Rosario, whose family, according to some sources, disapproved of the marriage due to Manzano’s status as an enslaved person and his dark skin colour. He was arrested in 1844 and jailed for about a year, along with thousands of others, suspected of involvement in a revolutionary conspiracy. He died in 1853 or 1854. Although much has been written about Manzano, these accounts tend to focus on his writing and not on his life, and details of his later life are difficult to find.
Sources and further reading:
Almeida, Joselyn. 2011. ‘Translating a Slave’s Life: Richard Robert Madden and the Post-Abolition Trafficking of Juan Manzano’s Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba’. Romantic Circles.
Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. ‘John Elmslie senior’.
Encyclopedia.com. ‘Manzano, Juan Francisco’
Engle, Margarita. 2006. ‘Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano’
Manzano, Juan Francisco and Madden, Richard Robert. 1840. ‘Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated: Translated from the Spanish by R.R. Madden, with the History of the early Life of the Negro Poet Written by Himself’.
Molloy, Sylvia. 1989. ‘From Serf to Self: The Autobiography of Juan Francisco Manzano’. MLN 104(2): 393-417.
Miller, Marilyn Grace, 2010. ‘Reading Juan Francisco Manzano in the wake of Alexander von Humboldt’. Atlantic Studies 7(2):163-189.
Moore, Raymond. 2012. Edited by Laurel Howard, Austin Arminio, W.J. Shepherd, 2018. ‘Richard Robert Madden: An inventory of the Richard Robert Madden Papers at the Special Collections of the University Libraries at the Catholic University of America’. The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C
Murray, David R. 1972. ‘Richard Robert Madden: His Career as a Slavery Abolitionist’. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 61(241):41-53.
Salama, Carmen. 2020. ‘Between Subject and Object: The Identity of a Slave in Juan Francisco Manzano’s Autobiography’. Journal of Global Initiatives 15 (1):6-15
The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), San Francisco. ‘Juan Francisco Manzano’.
Wikipedia. ‘Juan Francisco Manzano’
Woods, C.J. 2009. ‘Madden, Richard Robert’. Dictionary of Irish Biography.