Placido, the Slave Poet, by John
Old Portraits and
I have been greatly interested in the fate of Juan Placido, the black
revolutionist of Cuba, who was executed in Havana, as the alleged
instigator and leader of an attempted revolt on the part of the slaves in
that city and its neighborhood.
Juan Placido was born a slave on the estate of Don Terribio de Castro.
His father was an African, his mother a mulatto. His mistress treated
him with great kindness, and taught him to read. When he was twelve
years of age she died, and he fell into other and less compassionate
hands. At the age of eighteen, on seeing his mother struck with a heavy
whip, he for the first time turned upon his tormentors. To use his own
words, "I felt the blow in my heart. To utter a loud cry, and from a
downcast boy, with the timidity of one weak as a lamb, to become all at
office like a raging lion, was a thing of a moment." He was, however,
subdued, and the next morning, together with his mother, a tenderly
nurtured and delicate woman, severely scourged. On seeing his mother
rudely stripped and thrown down upon the ground, he at first with tears
implored the overseer to spare her; but at the sound of the first blow,
as it cut into her naked flesh, he sprang once more upon the ruffian,
who, having superior strength, beat him until he was nearer dead than
After suffering all the vicissitudes of slavery,—hunger, nakedness,
stripes; after bravely and nobly bearing up against that slow, dreadful
process which reduces the man to a thing, the image of God to a piece of
merchandise, until he had reached his thirty-eighth year, he was
unexpectedly released from his bonds. Some literary gentlemen in Havana,
into whose hands two or three pieces of his composition had fallen,
struck with the vigor, spirit, and natural grace which they manifested,
sought out the author, and raised a subscription to purchase his freedom.
He came to Havana, and maintained himself by house-painting, and such
other employments as his ingenuity and talents placed within his reach.
He wrote several poems, which have been published in Spanish at Havana,
and translated by Dr. Madden, under the title of Poems by a Slave.
It is not too much to say of these poems that they will bear a comparison
with most of the productions of modern Spanish literature. The style is
bold, free, energetic. Some of the pieces are sportive and graceful;
such is the address to The Cucuya, or Cuban firefly. This beautiful
insect is sometimes fastened in tiny nets to the light dresses of the
Cuban ladies, a custom to which the writer gallantly alludes in the
"Ah!—still as one looks on such brightness and bloom,
On such beauty as hers, one might envy the doom
Of a captive Cucuya that's destined, like this,
To be touched by her hand and revived by her kiss!
In the cage which her delicate hand has prepared,
The beautiful prisoner nestles unscared,
O'er her fair forehead shining serenely and bright,
In beauty's own bondage revealing its light!
And when the light dance and the revel are done,
She bears it away to her alcove alone,
Where, fed by her hand from the cane that's most choice,
In secret it gleans at the sound of her voice!
O beautiful maiden! may Heaven accord
Thy care of the captive a fitting reward,
And never may fortune the fetters remove
Of a heart that is thine in the bondage of love!"
In his Dream, a fragment of some length, Placido dwells in a touching
manner upon the scenes of his early years. It is addressed to his
brother Florence, who was a slave near Matanzas, while the author was in
the same condition at Havana. There is a plaintive and melancholy
sweetness in these lines, a natural pathos, which finds its way to the
"Thou knowest, dear Florence, my sufferings of old,
The struggles maintained with oppression for years;
We shared them together, and each was consoled
With the love which was nurtured by sorrow and tears.
"But now far apart, the sad pleasure is gone,
We mingle our sighs and our sorrows no more;
The course is a new one which each has to run,
And dreary for each is the pathway before.
"But in slumber our spirits at least shall commune,
We will meet as of old in the visions of sleep,
In dreams which call back early days, when at noon
We stole to the shade of the palm-tree to weep!
"For solitude pining, in anguish of late
The heights of Quintana I sought for repose;
And there, in the cool and the silence, the weight
Of my cares was forgotten, I felt not any woes.
"Exhausted and weary, the spell of the place
Sank down on my eyelids, and soft slumber stole
So sweetly upon me, it left not a trace
Of sorrow o'ercasting the light of the soul."
The writer then imagines himself borne lightly through the air to the
place of his birth. The valley of Matanzas lies beneath him, hallowed by
the graves of his parents. He proceeds:—
"I gazed on that spot where together we played,
Our innocent pastimes came fresh to my mind,
Our mother's caress, and the fondness displayed
In each word and each look of a parent so kind.
"I looked on the mountain, whose fastnesses wild
The fugitives seek from the rifle and hound;
Below were the fields where they suffered and toiled,
And there the low graves of their comrades are found.
"The mill-house was there, and the turmoil of old;
But sick of these scenes, for too well were they known,
I looked for the stream where in childhood I strolled
When a moment of quiet and peace was my own.
"With mingled emotions of pleasure and pain,
Dear Florence, I sighed to behold thee once more;
I sought thee, my brother, embraced thee again,
But I found thee a slave as I left thee before!"
Some of his devotional pieces evince the fervor and true feeling of the
Christian poet. His Ode to Religion contains many admirable lines.
Speaking of the martyrs of the early days of Christianity, he says
"Still in that cradle, purpled with their blood,
The infant Faith waxed stronger day by day."
I cannot forbear quoting the last stanza of this poem:—
"O God of mercy, throned in glory high,
On earth and all its misery look down:
Behold the wretched, hear the captive's cry,
And call Thy exiled children round Thy throne!
There would I fain in contemplation gaze
On Thy eternal beauty, and would make
Of love one lasting canticle of praise,
And every theme but Thee henceforth forsake!"
His best and noblest production is an ode To Cuba, written on the
occasion of Dr. Madden's departure from the island, and presented to that
gentleman. It was never published in Cuba, as its sentiments would have
subjected the author to persecution. It breathes a lofty spirit of
patriotism, and an indignant sense of the wrongs inflicted upon his race.
Withal, it has something of the grandeur and stateliness of the old
"Cuba!—of what avail that thou art fair,
Pearl of the Seas, the pride of the Antilles,
If thy poor sons have still to see thee share
The pangs of bondage and its thousand ills?
Of what avail the verdure of thy hills,
The purple bloom thy coffee-plain displays;
The cane's luxuriant growth, whose culture fills
More graves than famine, or the sword finds ways
To glut with victims calmly as it slays?
"Of what avail that thy clear streams abound
With precious ore, if wealth there's, none to buy
Thy children's rights, and not one grain is found
For Learning's shrine, or for the altar nigh
Of poor, forsaken, downcast Liberty?
Of what avail the riches of thy port,
Forests of masts and ships from every sea,
If Trade alone is free, and man, the sport
And spoil of Trade, bears wrongs of every sort?
"Cuba! O Cuba!—-when men call thee fair,
And rich, and beautiful, the Queen of Isles,
Star of the West, and Ocean's gem most rare,
Oh, say to those who mock thee with such wiles:
Take off these flowers; and view the lifeless spoils
Which wait the worm; behold their hues beneath
The pale, cold cheek; and seek for living smiles
Where Beauty lies not in the arms of Death,
And Bondage taints not with its poison breath!"
The disastrous result of the last rising of the slaves—in Cuba is well
known. Betrayed, and driven into premature collision with their
oppressors, the insurrectionists were speedily crushed into subjection.
Placido was arrested, and after a long hearing was condemned to be
executed, and consigned to the Chapel of the Condemned.
How far he was implicated in the insurrectionary movement it is now
perhaps impossible to ascertain. The popular voice at Havana pronounced
him its leader and projector, and as such he was condemned. His own
bitter wrongs; the terrible recollections of his life of servitude; the
sad condition of his relatives and race, exposed to scorn, contumely, and
the heavy hand of violence; the impunity with which the most dreadful
outrages upon the persons of slaves were inflicted,—acting upon a mind
fully capable of appreciating the beauty and dignity of freedom,—
furnished abundant incentives to an effort for the redemption of his race
and the humiliation of his oppressors. The Heraldo, of Madrid speaks of
him as "the celebrated poet, a man of great natural genius, and beloved
and appreciated by the most respectable young men of Havana." It accuses
him of wild and ambitious projects, and states that he was intended to be
the chief of the black race after they had thrown off the yoke of
He was executed at Havana in the seventh month, 1844. According to the
custom in Cuba with condemned criminals, he was conducted from prison to
the Chapel of the Doomed. He passed thither with singular composure,
amidst a great concourse of people, gracefully saluting his numerous
acquaintances. The chapel was hung with black cloth, and dimly lighted.
He was seated beside his coffin. Priests in long black robes stood
around him, chanting in sepulchral voices the service of the dead. It is
an ordeal under which the stoutest-hearted and most resolute have been
found to sink. After enduring it for twenty-four hours he was led out to
execution. He came forth calm and undismayed; holding a crucifix in his
hand, he recited in a loud, clear voice a solemn prayer in verse, which
he had composed amidst the horrors of the Chapel. The following is an
imperfect rendering of a poem which thrilled the hearts of all who heard
"God of unbounded love and power eternal,
To Thee I turn in darkness and despair!
Stretch forth Thine arm, and from the brow infernal
Of Calumny the veil of Justice tear;
And from the forehead of my honest fame
Pluck the world's brand of infamy and shame!
"O King of kings!—my fathers' God!—who only
Art strong to save, by whom is all controlled,
Who givest the sea its waves, the dark and lonely
Abyss of heaven its light, the North its cold,
The air its currents, the warm sun its beams,
Life to the flowers, and motion to the streams!
"All things obey Thee, dying or reviving
As thou commandest; all, apart from Thee,
From Thee alone their life and power deriving,
Sink and are lost in vast eternity!
Yet doth the void obey Thee; since from naught
This marvellous being by Thy hand was wrought.
"O merciful God! I cannot shun Thy presence,
For through its veil of flesh Thy piercing eye
Looketh upon my spirit's unsoiled essence,
As through the pure transparence of the sky;
Let not the oppressor clap his bloody hands,
As o'er my prostrate innocence he stands!
"But if, alas, it seemeth good to Thee
That I should perish as the guilty dies,
And that in death my foes should gaze on me
With hateful malice and exulting eyes,
Speak Thou the word, and bid them shed my blood,
Fully in me Thy will be done, O God!"
On arriving at the fatal spot, he sat down as ordered, on a bench, with
his back to the soldiers. The multitude recollected that in some
affecting lines, written by the conspirator in prison, he had said that
it would be useless to seek to kill him by shooting his body,—that his
heart must be pierced ere it would cease its throbbings. At the last
moment, just as the soldiers were about to fire, he rose up and gazed for
an instant around and above him on the beautiful capital of his native
land and its sail-flecked bay, on the dense crowds about him, the blue
mountains in the distance, and the sky glorious with summer sunshine.
"Adios, mundo!" (Farewell, world!) he said calmly, and sat down. The
word was given, and five balls entered his body. Then it was that,
amidst the groans and murmurs of the horror-stricken spectators, he rose
up once more, and turned his head to the shuddering soldiers, his face
wearing an expression of superhuman courage. "Will no one pity me?" he
said, laying his hand over his heart. "Here, fire here!" While he yet
spake, two balls entered his heart, and he fell dead.
Thus perished the hero poet of Cuba. He has not fallen in vain. His
genius and his heroic death will doubtless be regarded by his race as
precious legacies. To the great names of L'Ouverture and Petion the
colored man can now add that of Juan Placido.