Africa and Puerto Rico: Reflections on Loiza and Hacienda La Esperanza By Heather Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University

On June 2 and 4, the students in my travel course ‘Themes in Puerto Rican History’ visited two field sites with deep historical connections to Africa: Loiza, one of the most prominent Afro-Puerto Rican cities (chronicled in my previous blog entry), and Hacienda La Esperanza, a 19th century sugar plantation.  Here are the reflections of one of the student, Heather Smith, who is majoring in History, Medieval Studies and Music.

Jeff Grischow, Tshepo Institute, Wilfrid Laurier University

Loíza: June 2, 2017

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see a diversity of sites in Loíza. From a cathedral with a prominently featured St. Patrick, to the house of Samuel Lind, to learning to dance the bomba—it was a fascinating experience which is quite possibly my favorite day thus far. In terms of my overall impressions of the day’s events, one of the most significant aspects of the Puerto Rican narrative I noticed today was the difference in the depiction of the Taino origins. Samuel Lind himself emphasized the idea that the goddess after which the town is named – Loíza, or Yoisa, was present in the lands and could be felt in the caves. To this point, Lind’s depiction of the Loíza in clay looked very different from depictions we have seen in earlier days, and appeared much more “African” and less stereotypically Spanish. This was fascinating to see. Lind brings business and tourism to Loíza through his work, as our visit exemplified. Thus, the narratives which he both speaks and depicts through his art carry weight in terms of public perception. As such, he can be viewed as a cultural intermediary of sorts, communicating Loíza’s story to those who visit him and purchase his work. A cursory view of his facebook page reveals again, this emphasis upon Puerto Rico’s African roots and his mission to bringing awareness to that vision, as well as how this aligns with his view of the Taino culture as perhaps implicitly being connected to this African heritage. At the cave was a circle of stones with “Taino” drawings and symbols. This, alongside the drummers playing off to the side implicitly connected African culture and the site, with the Taino narrative.

samuel-lind-studio

Samuel Lind’s Studio, Loíza

What struck me the most across all of the cultural sites was the regional pride of Loíza. In contrast to our previous visit to Caguas which emphasized the Taino roots of Puerto Rican culture in conjunction with Spanish and African cultures, this Loíza vision very much deemphasized the Spanish: there was no mention of colonialism in all of our tours and events, except in association with slavery and Smith the bomba as an escape from oppressive day-to-day conditions. Altogether, the colours of Loíza, the patron St. Patrick (whom Lind depicts as African, and refers to as ‘our boss’ on his facebook page), and the sense of triumph over slavery, combine to create the sense that Loíza is perhaps a microcosm of still another vision of Puerto Rican nationalism. This might more aptly be referred to as “regionalism” if such a term could be coined. I am very interested to further diversify this Puerto Rican idea of “African” through our tours in the coming days.

Hacienda la Esperanza: June 4, 2017

On June 4, I our Laurier group visited Haceinda La Esperanza.  Our guide delved very deeply into the history of slavery at the site (much more than the guide the coffee plantation Hacienda Buena Vista, which we visited the day before) and was willing to answer virtually any question. Representing the slaves’ voices, as well as social classes using a collection of knives was an innovative approach as this provided a tangible and tactile way of conveying the concept of social class and slavery through material culture. Our guide explained how the knives with ornate handles would have belonged to wealthy citizens, while the most basic and unornamented belonged to the slaves. It was also fascinating to have the story of the slave Cecilio, whom we read about in an article by Astrid Cubano Iquina’s article,* recounted by our tour guide in the physical location where these events occurred.

McInnis Esperanza 2

Sugar Mill Steam Engine, Hacienda La Esperanza

One interesting aspect of the site which more closely resembled the approach at Hacienda Buena Vista, was the emphasis on technology by the slave owners. Of all of the questions asked, our tour guide bristled somewhat at the question surrounding the legalities of importing the machinery to build the steam mill engine machine. Afterward Papo revisited this by mentioning that as this machinery was illegal, it was not discovered by the U.S. during the Second World War. Thus, it appears that the curators of the site may have specifically omitted this fact in the attempts to keep the focus on promoting the technological innovations of the past. Overall, the site was more balanced in its focus upon both the history and the conservation elements of the site than Hacienda Buena Vista. Still, the overarching focus was on the technology and the processes used at both sites. Thus, it is somewhat a missed opportunity to tell more of the stories of the slaves, as Iquina’s article did admirably.

*Cubano Iguina, Astrid, “Freedom in the making: the slaves of hacienda La Esperanza, Manatı´, Puerto Rico, on the eve of abolition, 1868–76,” Social History 36(3)(2011): 280-293

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Slavery in West Africa: Review of Abina and the Important Men

Parker Beemer, Wilfrid Laurier University

Historiography has been dominated by researchers gathering information on a particular topic, critically analyzing the material and then presenting their arguments in the form of an article or book. In the past few decades, however, this approach to presenting history has undergone significant evolution, with new methods becoming noticeably more frequent. One of these limited but nonetheless powerful new forms of historical scholarship is the ‘graphic history,’ based on the popular graphic novel format, which combines dialogue and illustrations to recount historical events.

An excellent example of this new genre is Abina and the Important Men by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke. Set in Africa’s Gold Coast (present day Ghana) in 1876, the book follows the story of the wrongfully enslaved young woman Abina Mansah and her battle with the court system to convict her master, Quamina Eddoo. The term ‘Important Men’ refers to Eddo as well as other slave owners and lawyers, but it is not meant to imply that they are superior to Abina. Quite the contrary, as I explain below, Getz and Clarke sympathize with Abina and they want to share the story of her courage – even though she ultimately loses the court battle (she does, however, remains in the capital as a free woman).

By providing a graphic history followed by a second section that presents the actual historical court transcript, readers are given a unique reading experience. The authors’ skills shine particularly in the graphic portion of the text, which provides readers with a visual representation of the individuals, discussion, and questioning that would have taken place in the courtroom. The value of this is twofold: readers can more easily understand the complex court transcript, while simultaneously being entertained. The second part of the text solidifies this understanding further. By providing the actual document, readers can reference and compare the graphic history to the historical framework which it is based on, furthering their understanding of Abina’s story while increasing their ability to understand more complex primary documents like court transcripts.

The books’ strength as a resource also stems from its alternative look at slavery and the slave trade. During the 18th century, roughly 74,000 slaves were exported from the Gold Coast each year. A standard historical analysis of this phenomenon would provide the key facts, but it might fail to develop a deep connection with most readers because the slaves would be reduced to mere statistics. By focusing on a particular individual, Abina and the Important Men develops a personal connection between the reader and Abina. Furthermore, by focusing on a lowly slave girl whose voice was not heard in court, Getz and Clarke provide a grassroots perspective rarely seen in the historiography. Rather than hearing about the important individuals responsible for the slave trade and slavery, readers are introduced to a character who had to suffer through it. In the grand scope of history, Abina Mansah is nothing more than a microscopic watermark. But perhaps that is why her perspective is so valuable. By allowing access into the life of an average person from that time period, readers are able to gain a more thorough understanding of what slavery was like and how it affected society in the Gold Coast. It is also quite likely that the name of the text is meant as an ironic gesture. Perhaps the frequent encounters with ‘important men’ throughout the text and the authors’ choice to portray them as relatively insignificant and bland individuals in comparison with Abina is a poke at other historiographies that view history from only the ‘great men’ approach.

In conclusion, Abina and the Important Men is an immensely valuable resource. Its ability to present an accurate and enjoyable narrative, to provide an alternative look at slavery and its nature in West Africa, and to take a new approach to historiography makes this graphic history very successful. Despite a few minor problems stemming from a slight lack of historical context and bias, on the whole Getz and Clarke’s book makes an important contribution to historiography. As historical methods continue to advance, so will the methods of writing about it. One can only hope that others will take the example set out by Abina and the Important Men and continue to expand on the way in which humans understand their histories.