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Hispanic American Historical Review 81.1 (2001) 160-161

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Book Review

Tragedy in Havana:
November 17, 1871

Tragedy in Havana: November 17, 1871. By FERMÍN VALDÉS DOMÍNGUEZ. Edited and translated by CONSUELO E. STEBBINS. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000. Illustrations. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xxi, 224 pp. Cloth, $49.95.

On 27 November 1871 Spanish colonial authorities executed eight first-year University of Havana medical students and sentenced three-dozen more to jail terms. Their ages ranged from 16 to 19. Newspaper accounts of this mind-numbing tragedy repeated the distorted, rumor-based allegations that resulted in the senseless slaughter of Cuban youths. According to the charges presented at the court-martial, the students had desecrated the burial place of Gonzalo Castañón, newspaper editor and loyalist hero who died defending Spain's authority over her colonies. Specifically, the prosecution claimed that in an act of deliberate disrespect, they had broken the window of the burial vault and tossed aside a wreath placed next to the coffin. Had the allegations been substantiated, they scarcely warranted so severe a punishment.

Fermín Valdés Domínguez shared the terror of arrest, trial and conviction, but was spared death by firing squad. The court sentenced him to six years of work in the quarries. After six months of exhausting physical labor, punishment by prison guards, and appalling living conditions, the authorities pardoned Valdés Domínguez and other students and shipped them off to Spain. There he met up with old friend José Martí, who had been accused of anti-Spanish sentiments and exiled from Cuba.

Still mourning the loss of his friends and angered by the cruelty of Spain's representatives in Havana, Fermín Valdés Domínguez set out to reinstate the good names of his fellow University of Havana medical students, and his own. Over the next two decades, he published five editions of the exonerative Tragedy in Havana, adding additional exculpatory material in the 1887 and 1890 versions. This book is a translation into English of the 1890 edition.

Valdés Domínguez recalled that on 23 November 1871, 45 first-year medical students awaited their professor in a lecture hall bordering on the Espada Cemetery, a courtyard surrounded by high walls in which the bodies of the deceased were interred in vaults (as in a mausoleum). The professor had been delayed, and the students grew impatient. A few of the boys spotted a cart that carried cadavers intended for their dissection class and drove the cart around the plaza in front of the lecture hall. Someone took a flower from the cemetery's garden. The student prank formed the basis of rumors; which escalated to include desecration of burial sites, particularly that of Castañón. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the flow of events proceeded quickly to trial, conviction, sentencing, and execution, propelled by a pro-Spanish mob. [End Page 160]

The circumstances surrounding the Havana tragedy have been integrated into the history of Cuban independence: the chaotic nature of governance in Madrid, the power and unruliness of the pro-Spanish Volunteers in Cuba, the tension caused by rebellion on the eastern end of the island, and the fears of the planters that an independence movement might instigate a slave revolt. The abhorrent nature of the killings has also been recorded. Historian Hugh Thomas termed the executions as "the most outrageous single injustice of the war" (see his Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, p. 259).

Given the nature and extent of atrocities committed during Cuba's struggle against Spain, one might quibble with Thomas's ranking, but editor-translator Consuelo Stebbins never hints at any challenge to Valdés's unrelenting condemnation of the action of the court-martial, the mob, and the press as a reason to revisit his text. She simply states that a cousin provided her with a copy of Valdés's 1890 work, which led to this translation.

Valdés's expose, while useful to José Martí's organizational efforts among Cuban exiles in the United States in...


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