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  • The Merchant of Havana: The Jew in the Cuban Abolitionist Archive by Stephen Silverstein
  • Alexander Sotelo Eastman
Silverstein, Stephen. The Merchant of Havana: The Jew in the Cuban Abolitionist Archive. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2016. 205 pp.

For much of the nineteenth century, Cuba did not have a commercial bank. Creole planters in need of financing had little recourse other than loans from Spanish merchants who doubled as private bankers. By 1863, a staggering 95 percent of sugar plantations in Cuba were mortgaged, many at exorbitantly high interest rates (83). In his compact and compelling book Stephen Silverstein argues that financing practices and foreign capital were more central to debates about abolitionism and political independence than previous studies have appreciated. He adds an important dimension to the long-standing scholarship about the alleged incompatibility of slavery and industrialized sugar production, arguing that sugar mills failed to industrialize not because of contradictions within the slave system but due to financing constraints. [End Page 278]

To show the inextricability of foreign financial dependence from the creole plantocracy's position vis-à-vis slavery and abolition, The Merchant revisits several literary texts that scholars have categorized as foundational to the Cuban antislavery genre. Silverstein argues that Sab, Cecilia Valdés, and La cuarterona did not actually denounce slavery or promote immediate abolition but critiqued how foreign money-lending merchants displaced the creole plantocracy and threatened to upend the island's social and racial hierarchies. He deftly moves between synthesis of the political and economic binds that led to the creole debt crisis and micro-level character analysis to demonstrate how elite white creoles turned to anti-Semitic tropes such as the Shylock to denounce Spanish predatory lending practices. These authors utilized the notional Jew as a "symbolic receptacle" to critique the capital structure and express "distress about political, economic, and social instability, as well as about racial integrity" (5). By recovering a history of discursive Jewishness in late colonial Cuba and situating it alongside rhetorical Blackness, Silverstein adds nuance to conversations about racialization, surveillance, and the "interior frontiers" of Cubanness.

The first chapter overviews the Cuban plantation economy and the broader socioeconomic reorganization that characterized the island's tumultuous nineteenth century: a sugar boom, the rise of industrial capitalism, and the debt crisis of Creole planters. Although much of this context is commonplace for economic and political histories about late colonial Cuba (he heavily mines Moreno Fraginals's classic El ingenio), by reading canonical "abolitionist" literature through the lens of financing Silverstein sets the stage for his argument that large-scale economic and social change is integral to the fabric of white Creole literary production. The second chapter provides a fresh reading of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda's novel Sab (1841). He joins scholars like Gwen Kirkpatrick who have challenged Gómez de Avellaneda's appropriation of the abolitionist genre to make ideological and political critiques beyond slavery. Whereas Kirkpatrick identified a discourse about female social identity and women's rights, Silverstein argues that the novel took issue with Creole planters' reliance on British capital to finance plantations and the blurring of racial categories as a result of the slave trade. Avellaneda instrumentalizes racially ambiguous characters, including the "Jewish" merchant, as a critique of the liberal turn to foreign finance capitalism and a call to restore the pre-industrial landed aristocracy (42).

Further probing the parameters of the "Cuban antislavery genre," the third chapter analyzes Alejandro Tapia y Rivera's La cuarterona (1867). Written during the "third slavery," a period defined by the ban of the transatlantic slave trade in 1820 and the subsequent proliferation of contraband trade, the Puerto Rican play dramatizes a Cuban national romance between a white landowner and a light-skinned person of color. Silverstein counters claims that the play represents an abolitionist racial utopia to instead consider how the slave trade unevenly shaped ideas of economic and political freedom in Puerto Rico and Cuba. In the 1860s, the former held 41,000 slaves while the latter had 370,000. The booming contraband trade sustained Cuba's agricultural production but also embodied Spain's "equilibrium of races" policy. Fueling fears of an "overwhelming" black population, Spain [End Page...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2164-9308
Print ISSN
0034-818X
Pages
pp. 278-281
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-05
Open Access
No
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