Estaban Montejo (1860-1973) was enslaved in 1860 in Cuba. In 1963 at the age of 103 his story was recorded by writer Miguel Barnet. Montejo details his experience of life on the sugar plantations in Cuba, his failed attempt at escape, and his successful try when he ran away to live as a maroon in the woods until the abolition of slavery.
After the abolition in 1886 Estaben worked as a paid sugar worker on the plantations and later joined the Mambises to fight in the War of Independence (1895-1898) also known as the Spanish-Cuban-American War. He later witnessed the transformation and take over of Cuba by U.S. Troops.
This is truly one man’s story of not only his life as a slave the but also the story of the social development of the late nineteenth century in Cuba. It is also an account of how African culture was introduced to the Caribbean through enslavement. Montejo recalls his time on the plantation and in the woods among the maroons observing the various African belief systems and traditions strongly implemented within the enslaved community and at the same time used as a form of resistance to the institution of enslavement.
The narrative is divided into three sections: Slavery, The Abolition of Slavery and The War of Independence. In Slavery Montejo recalls the work and living conditions endured by the enslaved as well as the brutal treatment inflicted by their masters. He also speaks on the various African traditions enslaved people brought with them, using herbs and potions for healing. The Abolition of Slaveryrecalls Montejo’s life in the woods living among the maroons. After the abolition of slavery Montejo returns to the plantations to work for wages. He notes that the conditions had not changed and blacks were treated the same as before… life was just as hard their movements were controlled with pass books.
Esteban Montejo began life enslaved in 1860 on a Cuban sugar plantation. Montejo always longed to be free and independent – from birth he was destined to be a cimarron, a runaway. After enduring the horrors of enslavement -living in the cramped suffocating barracoons, the living quarters, witnessing the breeding of the strongest and tallest, and suffering the extraordinarily cruel punishments, like being flogged until the skin was lacerated and being locked in the stocks for months at a time. He ran away only to be caught and put in shackles. But the desire to be free consumed him and the second time he escaped he was triumphant. Montejo made a life in the woods as a cimarron or maroon (people who escaped to live independently in remote areas) and when enslavement was abolished he returned to the plantations as a paid laborer.
I have never forgotten the first time I tried to run away. That time I failed and spent a number of years enslaved by the fear they would put the shackles on me again. But I had the spirit of a cimarron in me, and it didn’t go away. I kept quiet about things so nobody could betray me because I was always thinking about escaping. That idea went around in my head more than any other. I always had the fantasy that I would enjoy being in the forest. And I knew that working in the fields was like living in hell. You couldn’t do anything on your own. Everything depended on the master’s orders.
One day I began to watch the overseer. I had already been studying him. That dog got stuck in my eyes, and I couldn’t get him out. I think he was a Spaniard. I remember that he was tall and never took his hat off. All the blacks had respect for him because one of the whippings he gave could strip the skin off of just about anybody. The thing is, one day I was riled up, and I don’t know what got into me, but I was mad, and just seeing him set me off. I whistled at him from a distance, and he looked around and then turned his back. That’s when I picked up a rock and threw it at his head. I know it hit him because he shouted for someone to grab me. But he never saw me again because that day I made it into the woods.
I traveled many days without any clear direction. I was sort of lost. I had never left the plantation. I walked up hill and downhill, all around. My feet were full of blisters and my hands were swollen. I camped under a tree. I stayed there no more than four or five days. All I had to do was hear the first human voice close by, and I would take off fast.
I came to hide in a cave for a time. I lived there for a year and a half. . ..I was careful about all the sounds I made, And of the fires. If I left a track, they could follow my path and catch me. I climbed up and down so many hills that my legs and arms got as hard as sticks. Little by little I got to know the woods. And I began to like them. Sometimes I would forget I was a cimarron, and I would start to whistle. Early on I used to whistle to get over the fear. They say that when you whistle, you chase away the evil spirits. But being a cimarron in the woods you had to be on the lookout. I didn’t start whistling again because the guajiros or the slave catchers would come. Since the cimarron was a slave who had escaped, the masters sent a posse of rancheadores after them. Mean guajiros with hunting dogs so they could drag you out of the woods in their jaws. I never ran into any of them. I never seen any of those dogs up close. They were trained to catch blacks… When a slave catcher caught a black. the master or the overseer gave him an ounce of gold or more.
Truth is that I lived well as a cimarron, very hidden, very comfortable. I didn’t even allow other cimarrones to spot me: “cimarron with cimarron sells a cimarron.” For a long time I didn’t speak a word to anyone. I liked that tranquility. …You live half wild when you’re a cimarron.
I found out about the end of slavery from all the people shouting. . . They shouted, “We’re free now.” But I wasn’t affected. To my mind, it was a lie… When I came out of the woods I started in walking, and I met an old woman with two children in her arms. I called to her from a distance, and when she came up to me I asked her: “Tell me, is it true that we’re no longer slaves?” She answered me: “No, son, now we’re really free.” And, with that, as quickly as I became a cimarron… I stopped being a cimarron. And became myself…a man…again.
In 1963, at the age of 103, Esteban Montejo recounted his experiences to Cuban writer and ethnologist Miguel Barnet. Montejo had suffered the lash and toiled as an enslaved man. He had escaped into the wilderness and lived for years as a Cimmaron/Maroon, and had fought as a soldier in the Cuban War of Independence. His story is a rare and remarkable window into the history of Cuba.
Voice-over by Ted Lange