Mary Peabody Mann's Juanita and Martin R. Delany's Blake: Cuba, urban slavery, and the construction of nation

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Author: John C. Havard
Date: Summer 2016
From: College Literature(Vol. 43, Issue 3)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,864 words
Lexile Measure: 1460L

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This essay compares the depiction of Havanese slavery in two nineteenth-century US novels, Mary Peabody Mann's Juanita and Martin R. Delany's Blake. I contextualize these depictions of Havana in terms of contemporaneous discourses regarding the incompatibility of urbanity and slavery. Juanita's representation of a chaotic Havana, I contend, underpins Mann's nationalist argument that the absence of problems endemic to Cuban slaveholding entails the superiority of US liberal democracy. Various moments in the text, though, compromise this nationalist logic by revealing similarities between US Southern and Cuban slaveholding. In Blake, Delany seizes on this tension, suggesting that the meaningful division is not that between nations but rather a transnational conflict between US and Caribbean white elites and the black slaves they exploit. For Delany's protagonist Blake, Havana offers opportunity, as its large, heterogeneous black population makes possible successful slave revolt. In conclusion, this contrast in attitudes towards urban slavery focalizes meaningful differences between Mann's white paternalist and Delany's black nationalist approaches to abolition.


In recent years, scholars have increasingly highlighted the manner in which US discussions of slavery fixated on Cuba (e.g., Perez 1990; Schoultz 2009). On the one hand, pro-slavery annexationists viewed the island as an opportunity for expanding the United States' slave power. On the other hand, abolitionists saw a despotic, underdeveloped Cuba as a specter of slavery's horrors and thus opposed annexationism. One aspect of this story that deserves additional attention regards Havanese slavery. Although debates over the nature and propriety of urban slavery were prominent in the antebellum period, popular and scholarly discussions have long construed slavery as a rural institution. Recently scholars have begun addressing urban slavery to understand better the different ways bondage took shape via geographic and cultural space (e.g., Canizares-Esguerra, Childs, and Sidbury 2013; Dantas 2008).

This paper investigates the depiction of Havanese urban slavery in two antislavery novels. The first is Mary Peabody Mann's Juanita: A Romance of Real Life in Cuba 50 Tears Ago. Mann's novel was mostly written in the antebellum period and attests to its concerns, but it was finished in the 1880s and published posthumously in 1887 (Ard 2000, xii, xvi; Marshall 2005, 527). (1) The second is Martin R. Delany's Blake; or, the Huts of America. Delany's work was published serially from 1859-62, although Delany likely began writing the work a few years earlier, as it varyingly reflects his rapidly shifting 1850s and early 1860s views (Chiles 2008, 343; Levine 1997, 177-223; Levine 2003, 7-10; Okker 2003, 98-108). Comparison of the works' representations of Havana illuminates meaningful contrasts in their approach to abolition. Like her husband Horace Mann, for much of the antebellum period Mary Mann favored policies that would enable gradual emancipation, such as encouraging slaveholders voluntarily to emancipate slaves and to repatriate them in Liberia. However, pro-slavery radicalism prompted her to take a stronger stance in favor of immediate emancipation in the 1840s and especially the 1850s. Her views, which reflect a common shift among liberal white New Englanders during the period, share in common...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A459722740