Placido, the Slave Poet, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Old Portraits and Modern Sketches


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 alive.

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 following lines:—

          "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 heart:—

          "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 Spanish muse.

          "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 bondage.

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 it:—

          "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.