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The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo


When I visited my sister in the summer, I paid a quick visit to the book barn. By a quick visit, I mean I was only lost in the labyrinth of books for a few hours and came out clutching only a dozen or so titles. One of these books was a slim Penguin paperback, published in English in 1970, entitled ‘The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave’. It was one of those books I picked up because I felt it would be good for me to read, but I was a little apprehensive about what reading such a life would entail.

Esteban Montejo was born a slave and grew up working on a Cuban sugar plantation. He escaped, probably as a teenager, and lived wild in the forest, avoiding contact with society from fear of being caught, punished and returned to slavery. He left the forest when, in 1886, Cuba abolished slavery, although on some plantations, as Montejo mentions, the freeing of the slaves took more time than others. He seems to have been an introvert, a quiet rebel, occasionally incredibly stubborn and clearly, he valued his independence and was willing to act to protect it. He talks about listening to his elders, particularly those who had come from Africa who still remembered their homes and who sometimes engaged in cultural practises (particularly magical ones) which hadn’t been incorporated into the Cuban cultures. He’s critical of the Christian god, who he treats with more suspicion than the ‘witchcraft’ of various African gods.  His understanding of some bible stories is mixed up, but some of his observations about religion and humanity are stunningly astute.

There are some things about life I don’t understand. Everything about Nature is obscure to me, and about the gods more so still. The gods are capricious and wilful, and they are the cause of many strange things that happen here and which I have seen for myself. I can remember as a slave I spent half my time gazing up at the sky because it looked so painted.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Montejo returned to plantation work, this time as an employee. He describes his tasks and the options for labourers depending on their ethnicity. He mentions too, women’s work, and how hard the women had to work to maintain their families while the men were cutting cane. He talks a lot about dancing and gambling habits of his companions, but he seems to have not been particularly interested in either. His main interest, and he has no hesitancy in stating this, was women. He has a lot to say about women, courting practises and even fashion.

During the 1898 Cuban war of Independence, Montejo became a soldier. He writes about subjecting himself to the orders of his commanders, but he seems to find this difficult. He is a soldier who signs up because he shares the ideals of the cause, he believes strongly in freedom and independence for Cuba, yet, more than once he disobeys a command and finds himself punished as a result.

In the 1960s, he met the anthropologist, Miguel Barnet, who had heard mention of Montejo in a Cuban newspaper and who became fascinated by the centenarian’s story. This book consists of Montejo’s recollections of his first forty years, recorded and reconstructed by Barnet.

It was not at all what I had expected.

And if you want my opinion, it’s best not to die, because a few days later no one remembers you, not even your closest friends. It’s silly to make such a fuss o the dead, like people do nowadays, but it’s nothing but hypocrisy really. It always has been. For my part, I want my fiestas while I am alive.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave