by Carlos Ripoll

A manuscript that was unknown, signed by the Father of the Cuban Nation, invites us to look over moments of his life before the “Grito de Yara”, October 10, 1868, when the Ten-Year War began. The manuscript is a communication by Céspedes about the death of a female slave; it says: “On June 10 of this year, the Black female Francisca, native of Africa, about 50 years of age, died in my house at 14 Sierra Street. According to the practitioner, the death was due to old age. I enclose the death certificate for Your Excellency, Lord Governor. Manzanillo, June 10, 1864. Lieutenant Political Governor of this District. Carlos M. de Céspedes”.

"The Black female Francisca, native of Africa" must have been an old possession of the family. Often slaves were given the name of their masters. One of the most notable cases of that epoch was that of Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Aguilera, who died in the war in 1872, a former slave who served as coachman of the Bayamés patriot Francisco Vicente Aguilera. Carlos Manuel’s mother was named Francisca de Borja (like the holy Duke of Gandía), and was the daughter of Francisco López del Castillo, also Carlos Manuel’s baptismal godfather, who himself had a sister named Francisca de Borja and a brother named Francisco Javier (like the holy apostle of the Indies). And one may ask, although it is known that events precipitated the occurrence: Would the date of the upraising in La Demajagua, chosen by the great master mason, have to do with the fact that the Feast of St. Francisco de Borja is celebrated on October 10th?

For obvious reasons, the age of the slaves brought from Africa was not known. It is said here that “the Black female Francisca” died at “about 50 years of age”. The “practitioner” (a type of medicine man or healer) who determined that her death had been due to “old age” must have based his diagnosis on experience: according to statistics from 1862, in the Jurisdiction of Manzanillo, fewer than 5 percent of male slaves and fewer than 3 percent of female slaves reached the age of 60.

Céspedes’ signature on this document has pen strokes which are also found in those of Washington and Lincoln: running words together, greater pressure on certain aspects of the handwriting; the semi-angular letters, strokes which, according to graphology, indicate tenacity and firm opinions, sensuality and energy, willpower and dominant character, all notable characteristics of the three great persons.

Céspedes had established himself in Bayamo, his city of birth, after studying in Havana, Madrid and Barcelona. In Bayamo he was married, and his children Carlos Manuel, María del Carmen and Oscar were born; the Spaniards shot Oscar in 1870 when Céspedes refused to lay down arms in exchange for his life: “Oscar is not my only son”, he replied to the proposal, “I am the father of all the Cubans who have died for the revolution”; therefore he is known as the Father of the Cuban Nation. In the decade of the 1850s, Céspedes wrote verses and composed music, worked in his law office, and administered his properties; he was the soul of recreational and social meetings, and he practiced horseback riding and fencing; and the local government named him trustee of slaves: a position whose duties he performed with zeal to avoid abuse by the masters.

It was then that he began to denounce Spain’s despotism. When the government held a banquet in 1851 for the execution of Narciso López, Céspedes condemned in public the Spaniards’ lack of nobility. They put him in jail, and he was condemned to his first exile: to Palma Soriano. Shortly he was able to return to Bayamo, and again they exiled him, this time to Manzanillo, later to oblige him to live farther away, in Baracoa, and even later to Santiago de Cuba. The hardship of those punishments is understood better by looking at what those places must have been for the cultured dandy of “gold-handled tortoiseshell cane”, as Martí described him.

Although in Palma Soriana he was with his friend, the poet José Fornaris, in 1860 the place was nothing more than a small settlement of 250 inhabitants with a school for boys and another that was attended by “six white girls and a little Black girl”, according to Pezuela’s description in his Dictionary. In Baracoa, with some 3,000 inhabitants, there was no artistic or social life, and for transportation in the whole city, only one trap one coach were available. In Santiago de Cuba, Céspedes was forced to stay in the port, locked up in a brigantine that served as his jail. In Manzanillo, which was where he settled some time later, his exile may have been less painful for him: with some 5,000 inhabitants including whites and slaves, and free “mulattos and Blacks”, there were 7 lawyers, 4 doctors and 4 schoolmasters; a Philharmonic Society, a theater, 20 traps and 2 coaches.

In 1867, Céspedes bought the La Demajagua sugar plantation and joined the insurrection against Spain. They were discovered, and Céspedes moved up the date of the uprising: October 10, 1868, with a Manifest which denounced the injustices of the governors, freed his slaves who, already as “free men”, armed themselves to also fight for Cuba’s independence. The first encounter with the Spaniards was in the village of Yara: the Ten Year War had begun, in which Céspedes was to give repeated evidence, until his death at the beginning of 1874, firing against the enemy, of his patriotism, his talent, his bravery and his character.

October 9, 2004

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