Monsters by Trade: Slave Traffickers in Modern Spanish Literature and Culture
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Transatlantic studies have begun to explore the lasting influence of Spain on its former colonies and the surviving ties between the American nations and Spain. In Monsters by Trade, Lisa Surwillo takes a different approach, explaining how modern Spain was literally made by its Cuban colony. Long after the transatlantic slave trade had been abolished, Spain continued to smuggle thousands of Africans annually to Cuba to work the sugar plantations. Nearly a third of the royal income came from Cuban sugar, and these profits underwrote Spain's modernization even as they damaged its international standing.
Surwillo analyzes a sampling of nineteenth-century Spanish literary works that reflected metropolitan fears of the hold that slave traders (and the slave economy more generally) had over the political, cultural, and financial networks of power. She also examines how the nineteenth-century empire and the role of the slave trader are commemorated in contemporary tourism and literature in various regions in Northern Spain. This is the first book to demonstrate the centrality of not just Cuba, but the illicit transatlantic slave trade to the cultural life of modern Spain.
baldón contra la civilizacion cristiana y perpetúa la barbarie del Africa, y para el cual es de temer que no puede haber esperanza de completo remedio, mientras Cuba continúe siendo una colonia española. (“Parte Política,” February 22, 1853) (I must not fail to mention an evil of the greatest degree, that is, the commerce in African slaves, whose suppression is of vital interest to France and England; an evil that today constitutes the greatest harm to Christian civilization and perpetuates the
María’s anagnorisis very well may be such an embellishment of the narrator’s more account book-entry recollections, all the more convincing for its sharpened emotion. The anagnorisis is plausible, to be sure, especially given José María’s carefully crafted moral position on the edge of imperial Spain, which he has maintained throughout the novel. Nevertheless, what is at stake is not the ethical bounds of José María’s confessions but the narrative possibilities of such an event in the realist
crimes as well as reconciling them with the present and with official versions of history. Formally, history is a composite of multiple voices, each with a unique perspective and ideology. For example, the conversation with a vascofrancés sailor and shopkeeper provides Shanti with an eyewitness account of his uncle’s adventures with a coterie of Basque sailors; later access to Juan’s deathbed letter to his illegitimate son corroborates the testimony. Shanti comes to understand history as a
Spain’s overseas legacy; however, in keeping with the current veneration of the self-made Postimperial Detours and Retours man, the rutas often treat the past in ways that simplify the complexities explored in nineteenth-century literature. For example, an exquisitely photographed guidebook published in December 2010 suggests nine routes to discover the “nueva y esplendorosa conquista de América” (Braña, 5; new and splendid conquest of the Americas) by Asturians in the tobacco, sugar, and
Madrid’s urban topography [that] can be read as emblematic of Spain’s ambivalence towards its imperial past” (2). The locus for imperial nostalgia is lodged solidly in the north of the country. This tourism promotes the triumphal story, ridiculed by Clarín, that the original indianos had proclaimed in their houses. For example, one Postimperial Detours and Retours very popular book, Indianos: La gran aventura, repeats stories from Ramón Argüelles’s great-granddaughters, who report that