African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Arthur Schomburg (Arturo Schomburg), "Placido--A Cuban Martyr" (1910)

Editor's Note: Apparent typos and misspellings have been silently corrected here and there.--AS

Plácido: A Cuban Martyr                                                      
By A. A. Schomburg

New York, N. Y.


By Arthur A. Schomburg

"Oh Liberty, What crimes are
Committed in [thy] name."
--Madame Roland

There is a sad and tragic chapter in the history of Cuba under Spanish rule, that seems to circle with pathetic recollections the dreadful wrongs' done to innocent men. Like the furious gusts of wind in a storm that blow upon the surrounding country, lashes the trees and plants to and fro unmercifully and forces men to seek shelter viiiile the heavens join with their terrifying batteries of thunder, and illuminating flashes of lightning brighten up the entire sphere spreading awe and terror. Akin to this was the condition in Cuba during the year 1844. A calm generally precedes these conditions and I will attempt to Carry you through the events as they were ushered into existence by the break of day.

In the year 1809 on April 6th there was born in the city of Havana, from the free union of a mulatto father D. F. Matoso, and a fair daughter, Concepcion Vazquez from the city of Burgos, Spain, (famous for having one of the finest examples of Gothic art represented in the Cathedral that bears its name, ) a boy who was afterwards christened Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdez. During the early life of the child little happened to excite the interest, in which he was so unfortunately to be placed. His grandmother cared for him tenderly and gave him that moral training that soon blossomed out in the delicate paths of rectitude, and sobriety, for which he was well liked by his contemporaries.

He left school soon after attending an elementary department due to adversity in the family, and was sent to a  printing office where he soon learned the trade, but received no pay to even purchase necessities of life, and the family decided that he should learn the comb trade undev Mr. N. Bota. In.those days as in this, there was.quitea demand for a variety of articles made of tortoise-shell.

His early studies in drawing under the Master Escobar, became useful to Valdez, for it is -said he became well-known for his     delicate and exquisite workmanship, and there is still to be found in Matanzas beautiful tortois-shell portrait frames which are held in high esteem as precious works of arts and in memory of this lamented poet. In the dull times he used to solicit subscriptions for whichever books were about to be placed on the market. He was known among the literary men of his day, and in the evenings he would be seen around their council table hearing their literary discussions; and this early training to listen attentively to their politics, must have had much to do with the extensive classical field which our poet covered in his book of poetry. Valdez commenced to write poems when eleven years of age. His first was entitled "To a Beauty" according to the poet, I. Maria Acosta who certifies it was composed when learning his trade. 

Mr. Sebastian Morales to whose-indefatigable and tireless efforts we owe the Spanish publication of the complete book of poetry in 1886, and who has always shown the deepest friendship for the poet, says "Many persons used to hear and applaud the extemporaneous versifications of Placido, full of Pindaric vim and poetry, for in truth that Colored Cuban was indeed a poet-- all heart and phantasy, all inspiration and sentiment. There was within him an aesthetic soul great and heroic with more wings than space and with more genius and heroism than fatherland. He was of wonderful memory to the extent of conserving entirely for days whatever extempore compositions he had rendered. Nothing was for him difficult in poetry; at any hour he was ready to rhyme any theme which his compatriots were ready to hand him."

When Valdez reached his 16th birthday he was. known in Havana as a poet under the sobriquet of "Plácido" and by this name he used to be tailed whenever referenee was made to his poems. Many of these early poems had been published in periodicals of the principal cities of the Island and South America, His muse sand graciously and with much life and love. The tome contains more than 300 compositions covering the realm of poetry. The well-known Cubn critic M. Sanguily in his 'Literary Sheets,' wrote a severe arraignment of the poet, in which he castigated him and unmercifully characterized him with the ungrateful name of 'plagiarist' of ideas belonging to poets of the past, and ended by saying that there were only five excellent poems in the book worthy of mention. The several poems composed in the chapel under sentence of death were of doubtful origin. Sanguily brings to mind the publication of Lord Byron's first poetical effort while still at college, which was criticized by Mr. F. Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review. The difference in this case was that Lord Byron lived to flay in his satire of English Bards and Scottish Reviewers the very hand that was inflexible towards his poems. 

The city of Matanzas was noted during the Spanish-American war as the port Admiral Sampson bombarded and was able to kill a mule which the Spaniards with cleverness to conceal the number of soliders injured and killed, cabled to the world that they had buried the mule with military pomp, to the merriment of Americans. 

In the outskirts of the city, Mr. Alonzo tells us of a Negro by name Francisco Manxana who was born a slave on the plantation of his owners, was liberatd from servitude through the charitable influences of learned Havenese gentlemen; and who distinguished himself by his poetical writings in the same manner as the-unfortunate Plácido. 

We next hear of Plácido living happily watt his wife in Matanzas, his time was entirely devoted to his trade and his muse, which had bronght him new glories; he was called the "Cisne of Yumuri" and the "Cuban Pindar." His poems were published freely, many are found in the 'Anthology of Spanish-American Poets" published by the Spanish Royal Academy of Madrid; "Horace in Spain" by M.M. Pelays and in other works. 

Plácido became famous in a rather unexpected manner, In the year 1834 several poets and prosists had prepared a literary feast in honor 9f Spain's distinguished literati and poet, Martinez de la Rosa. In that learned and brilliant gathering of the best men of the day, Placido appeared and recited his splendid octaves [17] "The Evergreens" which caused considerable comment and was proclaimed the hero of the feast. Every:poet had his loved one present to give the crown which Apollo tendered to the singer of the muses, but as Placido's loved one was dead, he returned his crown twice, improvising an octave which brought the distinguished gathering to their feet, for by this he had shown the fertility of his natural talents. 

There appeared to be a feeling of unrest manifested among the Negroes in the said city, which spread to the capital and gather under its influence power to increase the silent cause due to the activity of the Negro proselyters. Governor O'Donnell was apprised that there was something of unusual importance going the rounds to change the attitude of the Negroes. There was observed in the streets of Havana and Mantanzas,.Negroes who met each other and spoke in whispers, and the jovial countenance would change. for a more serious; aspect. The Governor detailed several spies to endeavor to unravel at all hazards, what was really on foot; the espionage was carried on for several months in diverse places but no material evidence was gathered which could inculpate any of the well-known Negroes of the island. 

There was living in Cuba at that time, a Mr. David Turnbull, consular representative of Great Britain, who the Spaniards claimed was the chief instigator in the conspiracy to free the slaves. Turnbull had no trouble in getting the intelligent Negroes under his banner by the roseate promise, which he made of ample reward and reparation, and at the same time demonstrated how England had liberated her slaves. It is said, Louis Guizot, a mulatto of marked intelligence, was Turnbull's chief emissary. By deception a Negro sergeant of the militia named Joseph Eric, informed his superior officers that there were meetings being held among the Negroes in the city of Matanzas, where they spoke of preparations to fight for their liberty and that they usually met in the house of George Lopez. The officers lost no time in bringing this information before Governor O'Donnell, who in turn immediately placed his spies over the field to cover the footsteps of every individual implicated. it is necessary to remark that the Spaniards are very adroit in matters where they desire to keep the outer world in ignorance. They characterized this attempt at liberation as a conspiracy to exterminate the white race, and i am sorry to say there are Spaniards who even at this day are gullible enough to believe this gross calumny given out by the government representatives. There is an example in the eight innocent students basely shot down in Havana, to satisfy the bloodthirsty desire of Spanish volunteers. If Mr. Turnbull was in any way affiliated with the movement, it must have been in sympathy for the unfortunate slaves; not that he contemplated any desire to undertake or be in any way connected with so dastardly a crime as the Spaniards want us to believe and asserted that the Negroes of Matanzas intended consummating. There is no record of the numberless innocent men killed, scourged, maltreaded with inquistorial tools. may God grant peace of mind to all those descendents of Torquemada and Alva who took part in the crimes of Cuba. 

The military government lost no time getting active and arrested for conspiracy: Jorge Lopez, Santiago Pimiento,. Pedro de la Torre, Miguel. Naranjo, Jose Dodge, dentist;  Antonio Abad, Jose O. Garcia,. Bruno Izquierdo, Jose M. Roman, M. Quinones and Placido, whom it was rumored had been charged with being the President of the General Junta, leader of the propaganda and one o the.first conspirators. His first accusation was one of s:poems called "My Oath," which it was claimed implicated him,. the second for having been born in Cuba with intelligence; those two charges were the only tangible evidence for which the poet was on the 15th day of June, sentenced by. the Military court to be shot in the back with the other ten already named.  The sentence was affirmed on the 22nd and took place-on the 27th day of June 1844, in the early hours of the morning.                           

The night of the 26th the men were conducted from the jail to the chapel in the St. Elizabeth Hospital to offer up their prayers before expiating their lives. Armed soldiers were much in evidence for the tragic performance which the Nation was to enact. Placido took occasion to compose several poems which remain to this day vivid in the minds of all Cuban lovers of freedom and justice. One was to his disconsolate mother, another "Goodby to my Lyre" and the famous "My Prayers to God." The last moments of the poet were spent in prayer and reflection which is so beautifully expresses in his ode, and he expted to receive from God, the sacred ointment that purifies the iniquities of human transgressions. By danw preparations had begun by the military to carry out the sentence, the eleven men were escorted by a double file of argmed soldiers to the place designated for the execution. D'Israeli in his book says that Andre Chenier while waiting his turn to be executed recited his last good-by to his muse, but our lamented poet was resolute, determined, calom and resigned to his fate. He no sooner left the sacred precint of sepulchral silence, the sombre shadows and reverberating sounds of the priests chanting for the repose of the men's souls, then he began to recite in clear tones the ode which will live as long as his memory in the heart of Buans. I publish the poem which has been rendered into English close to the original by A. P. in Anti-Slavery Rep. Sept. 6, 1844.) 

                          MY PRAYERS TO GOD.
 Almighty God! whose goodness knows moiboundo
To Thee I flee in my severe distress;
O let thy potent arm my wrongs redress,
Arid rend the odious veil by slander wound
About my, brow. the base world's arm confound,
Who on my front would now the seal of shame impress.

   God of my sires, to whom all kings must yield,
    Be thou alone my shield, protect me now
   All power is His, to whom the sea loth owe
    His countless stores; who clothed with light heaven's field,
   And made the Sun, and air, and polar seas congeal'd;
    All plants with life endow'd, and made the rivers flow.

   All power is thine, 'it was thy creative might
    This godly frame of things from chaos brought,
   Which unsustain'd by Thee would still be naught;
    As era it lay deep in the womb of night,
   Ere thy dread word first called it into light;
    Obedient to Thy call it lived, and moved- and thought.

 Thou know'st my heart, O God, supremely wise,
    Thine eye, all-seeing, cannot be deceived;
   By Thee my inmost soul is clear perceived,
    As objects gross are through transparent skies
   By mortal ken. Thy mercy exercise,
    'Lest slander foul exult o'er innocence aggrieved.

   But if 't fixed by the decree divine,
    That I must bear the pain of guilt and shame,
   And that my foes this cold and senseless frame
    Shall rudely treat with scorn and shouts malign;
   Give thou the word, and I my breath resign
    Obedient to thy will; blest be thy holy name.

   The eleven men blindfolded and seated upon benches near each other, a file of soldiers at attention stood back of them. Presently the word of command was given to fire and as the volleys rang out, ten men fell to the ground. Before the smoke had cleared away, their bodies were saturated with their own blood. Placido wounded in the right shoulder arose and facing the soldiers and the twenty thousand people who had come from all over the island to see him, raised his hands to his forehead and said: "Goodbye world, there is no mercy for me. Fire here!" Four soldiers advanced and with their murderous weapons, stilled the life of the great poet.

Reprint from THE NEW CENTURY. Norfolk, VA, December 25, 1909


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