A travel log of Edification and Condescension from
Mid-nineteenth century Cuba
This essay in essence is an expose of some surprising aspects of Joseph Dimock’s travel diary: Impressions of Cuba in the Nineteenth Century,, with inclusive commentary on some of his frequently derogatory remarks and arrogant opinions. While the critique of his writings is based on 21st century opinions, it is important to bear in mind that Dimock’s political and racial views were considered ordinary in some parts of society in the United States during the mid to late 1850s, and as such, not subject to substantial negative critique. Some aspects of these political views remain nonetheless, and much to the exasperation and vexation of many countries, unchanged to this date. In further defense of his strongly derogatory remarks, it is also necessary to reflect upon the likelihood that it was not his intention to publish his travel diary on his return to the US, but rather retain it as a private reminder of his journey.
Joseph Dimock’s journey to Cuba took place between February 2 and March 28, 1859, beginning and ending in New York City. For someone not familiar with the history of Cuba or the United States during the 1850’s and the lush tropical beauty of the Caribbean Islands, his journal will be found revealing and full of both pleasant and unpleasant surprises. Dimock’s powers of observation rivals that of a seasoned travel writer and his remarkable ability to describe the flora, fauna and physiography of the landscapes must be applauded, especially given that he had no training as a naturalist. His perceptive assessment of the culture, customs and daily lives of both the Spanish and non-Spanish inhabitants is a clear indication of his significant ability to observe the environment and people around him and pen his observations in a highly readable style. Some of the information and impressions of the island’s beauty could have been obtained from other travel journeys available at the time, covering roughly the same time period and indeed, Dimock made use of some of these during his journey.
A surprising and unusual aspect of his travel dairy, however, is the kind of unrestrained,contemptuous criticism of the extant political, racial and social conditions and his unabashed, radical and arrogant opinions of what is best for Cuba. In defense of these, however, it must be said that not all of them were completely groundless. Equally surprising is perhaps Dimock’s conceited attitude and his persistent conviction that everything American was superior and the only requirement to solve Cuba’s problems was American intervention or better still, complete annexation of the island and incorporation into The United States. This sentiment no doubt reflects the general expansionist views held by many in the US, following the war with Mexico (1846-1848) and the subsequent annexation of Upper California, New Mexico and Texas under the treaty with Mexico, February 2, 1818.
Dimock arrived in Cuba on February 9, 1859 and his first debasing comments are made on February 11, when he remarks on the labouring people of Cuba:
The Negroes are most of them pictures of ugliness, frightful to behold, of the true baboon class, projecting muzzle and retreating chin and forehead. They are rarely more than half clothed and their general appearance is very repulsive. They are of inky blackness and would probably rejoice in the heart of any true amalgamationist.” (JJD: 12)
Dimock is no doubt comparing the slaves’ attire in Cuba with those of the US, where modesty and climate dictated that they be better dressed. The climate in Cuba is completely comparable to many African countries, where both men and women, at that time, wore a simple loincloth. The Spanish and Creole slave owners in Cuba apparently did not consider the sight of a scantly dressed Negro slave offensive. His comments however, clearly reveal his unabashed racist attitude, no doubt a reflection of his birth and early upbringing in Virginia, where slaves were extensively utilized. He also shows a clear contempt for the view held by the so-called ‘amalgamationist’ in the US, who advocated interracial marriage and were against slavery.
The same day, on passing by some sugar warehouses, he noted a great number of Chinese coolies, dressed in only straw hats and pantaloons or cloth wrapped around their loins and hips. He is obviously repulsed by the site and writes:
“They are apparently little better than idiots in point of intellect and it is said that even niggers feel above them.” (JJD 14)
The import of Chinese labour to Cuba began in June of 1847, when the first boatload arrived. This was in response to the growing problem with African slaves and the fear that, due to their huge number, they might rebel. The Chinese were not treated any better than the Negroes and although theoretically working under eight-year renewable contracts for pay, they often didn’t get paid. In 1860, all coolies were forced to sign a new eight-year contract when the first expired or leave Cuba. Suicide was very common amongst them. The last shipload of Chinese coolies arrived in Cuba in 1874.
On February 14th, he discusses with his friends the idea of annexation and ‘how much better Cuba would be if belonging to the States’ thus exhibiting his American superiority complex. There was never any doubt that the States viewed Cuba with envious eyes. In 1848, President James K. Polk and his administration had offered Spain 100 million dollars for the island, but to no avail. Narciso López a military freebooter or filibuster, tried unsuccessfully three times (1848, 1849 and 1851) to invade Cuba from the States and, also to no avail, President Franklin Pierce offered Spain $130 million for Cuba in 1854, which was $30 million more than the previous offer from President Polk. This offer became known as “The thirty million dollar bill”.
On February 18, he describes the work done by Negro slaves during the sugar cane grinding season and comments:
“They are constitutionally indolent and have no more judgment than an animal, consequently, there are always some in the hospital.” (JJD: 45)
Treatment of the slaves in Cuba ranked as the worst there was. They were often worked 18 hours a day and their diet was insufficient to maintain them, giving rise to their frequently emancipated appearance. It is difficult to comprehend why Dimock opines that they are indolent, assuming that he means they are lazy. Four hours of sleep per day combined with a poor diet is hardly conducive of great vigor or ambition, quite aside from the fact that an unwillingness to work hard must, for obvious reasons, be an inherent trait in any slave. Apparently, the only place they were treated on an equal footing with others was in the hospitals, an enigma in a society that had no other care for slaves than to maximize the amount of labour and profit they could achieve from them.
Dimock seem to hold the impression that they (the slaves) are well fed and treated, but much evidence point to the contrary as indicated by Louis A. Perez, 1995.
“Those who worked at night in the boiling-house worked also next day in the field. The treatment of the slaves was terrible. Dimock contradicts himself on the point of the slaves being “well fed” in his entry for March the 13th:
“The prevailing sickness among the Negroes is diseases of the bowels, and for this reason, their food is regularly rationed out to them, but they eat fruit immoderately, where it grows in such profusion, and the consequence is, there are always more or less in the hospital.” (JJD: 99)
The fact the slaves ate a great deal of fruit is probably an indication that the planters did not feed them sufficiently. The additional diet of fruit is unlikely to cause diseases of the bowels. Contaminated water and unsanitary conditions are more probable causes.
Some of the more justifiable critique in his travel dairy is well illustrated in his journal entry for February 28, where he discusses funeral rights and burials:
The burial grounds are most disgusting spectacles, being full of bones and parts of decayed bodies, but very few graves remain untouched more than three month, and it is considered by that time the body has gone to dust again (or ought to), and the ground is dug over again for another occupant.”(JJD: 70)
Even the most hardened soul would find the vision of such a scene repulsive in the extreme and it is incredibly surprising that the Catholic Church would condone this practice. It is completely out of character when considering the religious piety that existed in Spain at the time. Even in the most primitive societies, respect for the dead far exceeds the contemptible comportment shown them by the Spanish and so graphically described by Dimock.
His contempt for the Spanish was not confined to the people alone. On March 20th, he wrote: “I see from the balcony of our hotel the flags of nearly every maritime nation. Conspicuous are the stars and stripes, and the red cross of St. George, the sickly looking flag of Spain, with its broad yellow stripes, reminding one of a quarantine and yellow fever.” JJD: 120)
On the day of his departure for the US, March 24, 1859, he expressed his desire to see Cuba annexed by the States in the following, somewhat elegiac manner:
“May I live to see this favoured island represented by one of the galaxy of stars, which glisten in the blue field of the flag of the free.” (JJD: 140)
There is little doubt that Dimock became genuinely fond of Cuba during his short visit, thus his desire to see the island become part of the United States may have been as much a personal wish as a reflection of the US pursuing its policy of Manifest Destiny. It should be noted that “the free” did not include the millions of slaves residing there against their will, and whose destiny within two short years would be the cause of the Civil War in the states. John L. O’Sullivan, an editor and apparently influential democrat in 1845, coined the phrase “manifest destiny”. In his attempt to justify American territorial ambitions, he wrote the following:”
The right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth. (Brinkley: 352) quoted from Michael T. Lubragge: Manifest Destiny, 1/6 The Philosophy That Created A Nation.
The use of the words: “Providence has given us” is rather arrogant, since most of it was taken by force, rather than given to them. In the United States’ constitution, a special provision for uniting Canada with the US is still present, perhaps an ominous reminder that the US philosophy of manifest destiny is still on the books.
Sidestepping for a moment, it is interesting to note that “The right of our manifest destiny” has unequivocal parallels in Hitler’s philosophy of “Lebensraum”
For it is not in colonial acquisitions that we must see the solution of this problem, but exclusively in the acquisition of a territory for settlement, which will enhance the area of the mother country, and hence not only keep the new settlers in the most intimate community with the land of their origin, but secure for the total area those advantages which lie in its unified magnitude. (Hitler, Mein Kampf, 653);
It is ironic that Dimock chose to fight for the north, considering his racial opinions. Destiny, however, did not allow him to witness the outcome of the war, nor later events that nearly brought Cuba into the bosom of the US, whose citizens, to this date, still so tenaciously refer to as “The Land of The Free”, and which, to an uninitiated foreigner, invokes the idea that freedom is the exclusive reserve of the United States.
For those intrested in Cuba as it was in the 19th century, click on the following link to see a large collection of photos from that period.
There is also an interesting website about slavery in Cuba in the mid 1800’s
Not published due to copy rights of this essay
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