[Editorial note: the following is a guest essay by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez]
A Trans-American Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe Among Cubans
by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez
Through numerous translations, adaptations, and performances, sentimental communities across the world in the mid-nineteenth-century embraced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appeal to “feel right” in defying slavery as “a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality.” During the 1850s, chattel slavery was still rampant in the U.S., Brazil, and the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Moved by the novel’s affecting depiction of the horrors of enslavement, a transatlantic public coalesced around the universalist values through which Stowe expressed her call for abolition in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? Or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of world policy?” In the pursuit of a “right” feeling determined by the universal spirit of “Christianity,” the ideal sympathetic subject transcends the artificial divisions fostered by the political sphere (“world policy”). Even as Stowe dedicates Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the people of the United States, her rhetoric invokes a public that transcends the boundaries of her country. The novel’s Protestant brand of sentimentalism strives to touch all hearts across the globe, beyond the “sophistries” of modern politics and capitalist production. In this sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues the tradition of the sentimental novel, a genre that, as Margaret Cohen puts it, represented “the vanguard of formulating the notion of an affectively charged association among distanced readers.” Yet, as critics ranging from Hortense S. Spillers to Lauren Berlant have noted, the universalist thrust that connects Stowe’s abolitionist politics with the “sympathies of Christ”—embodied in the sacrificial spectacle of Uncle Tom’s passive death—erases the singularity of enslaved black subjects and occludes the history of chattel slavery itself.
Among the numerous figures from Latin America who intervened in the transnational network of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Andrés Avelino de Orihuela, who wrote the first full translation of the novel into Castilian Spanish, only months after it was first published in book form. Orihuela’s translation circulated widely: editions were published in Argentina, Colombia, and Spain a year later. Born in 1818 in the Canary Islands, Orihuela lived his formative years in Havana, where he studied law and became active among local liberal and anticolonial circles, which led to his political exile. As he traveled through the U.S South, Spain, and France, and back again to Cuba, Orihuela engaged in debates about Spanish colonialism and slavery, writing pamphlets, novels, and poems where he often criticized colonial repression and supported the gradual abolition of slavery. He spent the last years of his life defending the republican cause in Spain, where it is presumed died in 1873.