U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Trans-American Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe Among Cubans

[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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

As a native of the Canary Islands—which Peninsular Spaniards perceived as inferior—who grew up and was educated in a Spanish colony, Orihuela had to deal with a complex process of transatlantic identifications and disidentifications. In the preface to his novel El sol de Jesús del Monte, published in 1853, Orihuela describes himself as a “true cosmopolitan whose homeland is the world, whose brother is the friend, whose family is all humanity”.[5] By identifying as a citizen of the world, Orihuela appears to situate his work outside of the patriotic discourse advanced by most of his fellow Cuban intellectuals. Cosmopolitanism, however, does not necessarily preclude regional or local affiliations.  Many if not of most of Orihuela’s published texts center on his social and political experiences in Cuba.  In addition, Orihuela identified himself with the republican values of the United States, arguing for the U.S. annexation of Cuba in an 1852 pamphlet titled “Dos palabras” and published in Paris. Orihuela’s translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in the same city and year as “Dos palabras”, can be read then as a document that establishes an affinity with the U.S. at the same time that it resignifies the novel for the Cuban liberal elite and Hispanophone readers in Europe and the Americas.  On the one hand, the publication and circulation of La cabaña del Tío Tom shaped a sentimental community around the antislavery vision of Stowe; on the other; it undercut the original’s discourse of Christian morality and romantic racialism, producing a distinctively “transamerican” narrative that entwines the ideals of secular republicanism and cosmopolitanism with Cuba’s racialized colonial order.[6]  Even as Orihuela’s “Cubanization” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin articulates an ambivalent racial politics linked to his gradual abolitionism, it also produces a critique of how both Stowe and the Cuban elite represented blackness.

When La cabaña was published, the U.S. had already become Cuba’s chief trade partner, while many of its entrepreneurs and political leaders contemplated the possibility of annexing the Spanish colony.  Meanwhile, many members of the Cuban elite lived or were educated in the north, professing a profound identification with the United States, even when they did not favor political annexation.  One of the leading Cuban intellectuals of the era, José Antonio Saco wrote in 1837: “if [Cuba] had to throw itself on the arms of a stranger, none would be as honorable and glorious as those of the great North American federation.” Through an image that implicitly feminizes Cuba under the embrace of the chivalrous federation, Saco expresses what was a generalized sentiment among the Cuban elite of the period: an admiration of the republican values of the United States and its growing power in the hemisphere. Through clandestine texts, Cuban intellectuals challenged the colonial authorities and their repressive measures, forming a counterpublic that in the 1840s and 1850s extended to France, Spain, the U.S. and Mexico, publishing their views in their own periodicals and asking assistance from foreign elites.[7] This was a diverse, fluid network that cannot be reduced to a single ideology, except the rejection of both the colonial status quo and blackness. For what was a largely white elite, a reformed Cuba meant a racially and culturally white society.

For Orihuela and the Cuban elite counterpublic in which he participated, La cabaña del Tío Tom represented an intervention in what he called a “revolution of ideas”: a transamerican affiliation with liberal republicanism, moderate abolitionism, and the “bastion of liberty” they admired so much: the United States. This was a process that involved sentimental investment as much as strategic politics, based on the elite’s differing diagnoses of Cuba’s present and future social and economic well-being (which, for most at the time, depended on its relationship with the U.S.). After the U.S. Civil War and the imminent demise of a slavery-based economy, the Cuban elite continued to view race relations as a central issue, but the dominant racial ideology would increasingly shift from a politics of “whitening” –which denied any Cuban identity to the black other—to a project of gradual national inclusion and harmony—which still reproduced its own racial hierarchies by valuing Afro-descendant culture negatively).  In regards to Cuba’s relationship with the U.S., even with the explosion of the Ten Years War in 1868 and the pro-independence revolution that took form later around the figure of José Martí, the United States would still remain an object of attraction and inspiration for many Cubans.  As we witness now the unfolding of a new relationship between the United States and Cuba, it might serve all interested parties to examine how ideas—as well as commodities, just this week Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban rum and cigars!—have circulated between both nations and to what effects.


[1] Denise Kohn, Sarah Meer, and Emily B. Todd, “Reading Stowe as a Transatlantic Writer,”Transatlantic Stowe: Harriet Beecher Stowe and European Culture, ed. Denise Kohn, Sarah Meer, and Emily B. Todd (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), xi-xxxi.

[2] Margaret Cohen, “Sentimental Communities,” in The Literary Channel: The Inter-National Invention of the Novel, ed. Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002), 106.

[3] Hortense J. Spillers, “Changing The Letter: The Yokes, The Jokes Of Discourse: Or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989), 25-61; Lauren Berlant, “Poor Eliza,” American Literature: 70, no. 3 (1998): 635-68.

[4] The biographical information on Orihuela is limited, and few critical works have been published about him.  Details about Orihuela’s life are extracted from Paloma Jiménez del Campo, Escritores canarios en Cuba: literatura de la emigración (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain: Ediciones del Cabildo de Gran Canaria, 2003); Miguel David Hernández Paz, Andrés Orihuela Moreno y El sol de Jesús del Monte: la novela histórica antiesclavista de un canario en la Cuba del siglo XIX, (Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Ediciones Idea, 2007); David Luis-Brown, “Slave Rebellion and the Conundrum of Cosmopolitanism: Plácido and La Escalera in a Neglected Cuban Antislavery Novel by Orihuela,” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 2 (June 2012): 209–43.

[5] Andrés Avelino de Orihuela, preface to El sol de Jesús del Monte: novela de costumbres cubanas, ed. Miguel David Hernández Paz (Tenerife Ediciones Idea, 2007), 7–8.

[6] In calling this narrative “transamerican” I follow the examples of Kirsten Silva Gruezs, Anne Brickhouse, and José David Saldívar, who have illuminated the cross-cultural  flows and networks that have both united and divided U.S. and Latin America. Anna Brickhouse, Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere, (Cambridge, U.K.?; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Kirsten Silva Gruesz, Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2002); José David Saldívar, Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012).

[7] I follow here Michael Warner’s conception of counterpublics as “spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poesis of scene making will be transformative, not replicative merely.” Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 122.  As the example of Cuban intellectuals illustrates, this transformative aspect is not necessarily equivalent to a radical politics of emancipation or equality.  In his useful study of Caribbean public spheres and literatures, Raphael Dalleo proposes an opposition between a “republic of the lettered” that associated itself with transnational abolitionism and “a literary public sphere of anticolonialism.”  However, applied to the Cuban context, this opposition ignores that the Cuban elite that supported the abolition of slavery also produced a literary archive that criticized Spanish colonialism directly: newspapers and journals published by Cuban exiles in U.S. and Europe typically included patriotic poems that often attacked Spain viciously.  Poems like these were compiled in the collection El laúd del desterrado, published in 1858 in New York City. Raphael Dalleo, Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 35.

Kahlil Chaar-Pérez is an independent scholar whose work addresses Caribbean and U.S. Latino aesthetics and politics from the nineteenth century to the present. He has a forthcoming article in the collection Uncle Tom’s Cabins: The Transnational History of America’s Most Mutable Book, to be published by University of Michigan Press.