The arrival of the 19th century found the Caribbean in transition. Many of the former European colonies (mainly the Spanish ones) achieved independence at the beginning of this era. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) abolished slavery and made Haiti the only country born from a slave revolt. The century was marked, on one hand, by the abolition of slavery, the system on which the economic interests of the colonizing countries depended, and on the other hand by the construction of nations in those countries that gained independence and had been both economically and culturally dependent on the European colonial powers that ruled them. It was, without doubt, a century of changes and awakenings.

According to critic Doris Sommer, the 19th century was a period of “foundational fiction,” of novels that were part of Romanticism and Naturalism that tried to establish a sense of national identity. They were old territories conceptualizing themselves as young nations, emerging from a mixture of cultures and languages, struggles and survival.

In the Spanish Caribbean, the absence of a solid, native middle class, along with geographic circumstances, kept these islands from joining in the general insurrection against Spain that took place during the first half of the 19th century.

Cuba and Puerto Rico remained as Spain’s only possessions in the Americas after the period of the wars of independence that ran from 1810 to 1825. The Spanish government repression of these colonies reached such an extreme that in 1887 a type of torture, known as the compontes, was imposed to discourage the people from wanting to participate in any effort aimed at independence.

All of these factors influenced the literature of the era, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico’s exposure to Spanish control and the fact that slavery was a solid economic and social system on these islands (even though it had disappeared both in other parts of the Caribbean and in the former Spanish colonies). Notably, slavery was not abolished in Puerto Rico until 1873 and in Cuba in 1886.

In Cuba, literary production was affected during this era as many writers had to go into exile for political reasons, due to their opposition to both the Spanish colonial rule and to slavery. One of those writers was José Martí, a prominent figure in Spanish letters, who never had a book published on his home island while he was alive.

During the first 30 years of the 19th century, the most common genre on the island was the cuadros or customs and traditions articles. These were usually published in newspapers. The origins of the genre date to Romanticism and the Enlightenment. These writings had a pedagogical purpose (they usually had a moral) and identified the styles and customs that represented the essence or tradition of Cuba. They also served as instruments of the nation-building project that was developing.

There are various anthologies of cuadros, including El paseo pintoresco por la isla de Cuba (1841) and Los cubanos pintados por sí mismos (1852). Many novelists and poets tried the genre, but there were other authors who dedicated themselves exclusively to the form, such as Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros, José María de Cárdenas and Luis Victoriano Betancourt.

One of the most influential cultural associations of the century consisted of a group of artists and intellectuals who gathered around the figure of Domingo del Monte, one of the most fervent opponents of slavery, which he considered anachronistic and inhuman.

Among the publications that emerged from this group were the Francisco (1838) novels by Anselmo Suárez y Romero, Autobiografía de un esclavo (1839) by Juan Francisco Manzano, a former slave freed by the Del Monte group, and the famous Cecilia Valdés (the first part was published in 1839 and the second in 1882) by Cirilio Villaverde.

In the genre of the novels, historical novels were most common. Among these were Guatimozín (1846), which was set during the conquest of Mexico, and El cacique Turmeque (1860), which was set in Colombia. Both were written by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda.

Literary work in Cuba during the second half of the 19th century was closely tied to the deterioration of the island’s colonial situation and to the struggle for independence (the so-called First War of Independence occurred between 1868 and 1878). The writings of the era criticized and satirized the Spanish government. Two literary figures from this period represent Cuban literature: Nicolás Heredia, who wrote Un hombre de negocios (1883), and Ramón Meza, who wrote Mi tío el empleado (1887).

Cuban writers also published in exile in that era, including José Martí with his novel Amistad funesta (1885), a clear antecedent to modernist prose, and Antonio Zambrana, with El negro Francisco (1873), which addresses the issue of slavery.

Martín Morúa Delgado, who was called “Zola negro” because of his naturalist writings, wrote the novels Sofía (1891) and La familia Unzúazu (1901). This writer saw Naturalism as the ideal vehicle for exploring the effects of slavery and discrimination on the individual and on society.

Martí also published another book in exile, this time a collection for children that was titled La edad de oro (1889). Another recognized writer of the era who tried various literary genres was Julián del Casal.

In Puerto Ricodue to the island’s status as a secondary military post, the press came late to the island, in 1806. That year, publication began of La Gaceta de Puerto Rico, an organ that published much of the literary output of the time.

Aguinaldo puertorriqueño was published in 1843, followed in 1846 by Cancionero de Borinquen. Both were collections of poems and descriptions in prose, written by students. These books paved the way for the publication of El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso in 1882. It was divided into scenes that depicted cockfights, rural weddings, folk dances, etc.

The 19th century author in Puerto Rico who was most in tune with Romanticism was Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. This writer tried philosophical poetry, allegorical novels, historical drama and wrote treatises on aesthetics. His legends and novels wavered between his interest in the exotic and exploitation of the possibilities offered by native material. Among his works are La palma del cacique (1852), La leyenda de los veinte años (1874), the historical novel Cofresí (1876) and the novel Póstumo, el trasmigrado (1872).

Another of the great thinkers and writers of the century was Eugenio María de Hostos, who put his thoughts about the relationship between Spain and the Caribbean colonies into novel form with La peregrinación de Bayoán (1863). The first printing of the novel was confiscated in Madrid by the Spanish authorities. It is a composition in poetic prose that tries to promote, through a literary instrument, de Hostos’ dream of an Antillean federation.

In Puerto Rico, there was almost no transition period between Romanticism and the arrival of Naturalism. Among the main proponents of Naturalism on the island were Salvador Brau, with his novel La pecadora (1887), which carried the subtitle estudio del natural, and Francisco del Valle Atiles, who examined a case of pathology in his novel Inocencia (1884). Naturalism’s most important writer, however, was Manuel Zeno Gandía, who wanted to write a series of novels that would be titled “Crónica de un mundo enfermo.” He wrote Garduña (1896) and La charca (1894), his best-known novel. His novels compare favorably with others that belong to the Naturalism movement that were published in the 19th century in other Latin American countries.

In the Dominican Republic, history played a role in the country’s literature in a disastrous form. In 1795, the eastern part of the island passed to France through the Treaty of Basel. One result was a massive exodus of Dominicans to other Spanish possessions. In 1809, Spain recovered the eastern part of the island. Due to the political instability, the first newspapers were published on the island around 1821, when the country became independent from Spain.

In 1822, Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic and cultural entities intensely promoted the use of French. In 1844, the Dominicans rebelled against the Haitians and finally achieved their independence in 1865.

Clearly, all these political events negatively affected the cultural output of the country. Several important works were published, however, especially in the late 19th century. Among these were several that were part of the legend and novella genre, such as La ciguapa (1868) and La fantasma de Higüey (1869), both by Javier Angulo Guridi. The most famous work published in this period was Enriquillo (the first part in 1877 and the complete version in 1882), by Manuel de Jesús Galván. The novel turns to the indigenous past to address the issue of national definition. Another work that should be mentioned is Engracia y Antoñita (1892), a novel about traditions written by Francisco G. Billini.

In Haiti, literature’s point of origin was the country’s independence. It made its debut in 1804 with the work L’Hatien expatrié by Fligneau. Island intellectuals remained submerged in French culture, however. Literature took on a patriotic tone and told of the achievements of the revolution and independence. Among the main Haitian writers of that period were Antoine Dupré, Juste Chanlatte, François-Romain Lhérisson and Jules Solime Milscent, who founded the newspaper L’Abeille haïtienne in 1829.

During this time, newspapers such as Le Républicain and L’Union published the first romantics. L’Observateur, founded in 1819, also published romantic poetry. In 1836, the group Cénacle was formed, which included the poets Ignace Nau and Coriolan Ardouin. Oswald Durand and Massillon Coicou joined later.

Theatrical works were extremely important in Haiti, and the genre explored tragedies, drama and comedies.

In the late 19th century, Haitian literature was written in French, not Creole, and it was almost exclusively aimed at Paris. As a result, it was accessible only to the French-speaking minority in the country and was not a part of the daily lives of Haitians, despite its strong patriotic nature.

In 1895, Pétion Gérome created the magazine La Ronde. The poets around this project (Etzer Vilaire, Georges Sylvain) continued to use France as their point of reference. This continued into the first half of the 20th century with poets such as Dantès Bellegarde and Ida Faubert. This would change later with the indigenist school, which would write the first works in Creole.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the most prominent literary works of the 19th century were Narrative of Louisa Calderon (1803) and Rupert Gray: A Tale of Black and White (1907), by Stephen Cobham, Free Mulatto (1824), by Jean Baptiste Philippe, Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), by Maxwell Philip, the first indigenous novel of these islands, The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar (1869), by J. J. Thomas, and Froudacity (1899). During this period, literary production included various genres: diaries and memoirs, slave narratives, poems, short stories, novels and theatrical works. Many written works by the ruling classes contrasted ideas of “savage” versus “civilization” to undermine the self-discovery process of the colonized peoples.

As we have seen, the development of a Caribbean literature was as complex a process as the creation of Caribbean society. It was influenced by historic events of impressive magnitude that neither writers, nor the works they produced during this convulsive century, could avoid.


Author: Neeltje van Marissing Méndez
Published: April 25, 2012.

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