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Isabela Fraga, PhD Student, Romance Languages and Literatures

Alfonso Congo was only 17 years old when he died. He was a slave to María del Carmen Cabanillas, a Cuban woman who, with her husband, owned some of the most important sugar plantations in the Cienfuegos region (located southeast of Havana). As is often the case with chattel slavery, there is little information pertaining to Alfonso’s life. All we seem to know is that he was born in the Kingdom of Congo (hence his last name) and that Cabanillas had contracted an insurance policy on his life (“number 16,892”) that obligated the company La Providencia to pay her 560 pesos upon his death on May 7, 1860. We also happen to know the cause of Alfonso’s death: nostalgia.

All of this I learned by consulting La Providencia’s monthly administrative bulletins preserved at the Cuban National Library and National Archive, which contain a list of all the insured slaves who died in that period, the causes of death, and the monetary compensations paid to their owners (see Figures 1 and 2). I found some of those documents on my recent trips to Cuba in 2017 and 2018, unaware that the old, rotten papers of a company specializing in slave insurance could reveal such unique traces of lives and experiences largely erased from the archive.


Figure 1. First page of the La Providencia bulletin that contains the register of Alfonso Congo’s death (Credit: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, La Habana, Cuba)


From the little there is to learn about Alfonso, one specific piece of information called my attention: Alfonso did not die of “dysentery,” “pulmonary phthisis” or some other organic disease that killed so many slaves at the time. Instead, he died of nostalgia: an illness of the mind.

In his 1794 medical treatise, Francisco Barrera y Domingo, a Spanish surgeon working in Cuba at the time, wrote that nostalgia is “a great sadness that takes over the slaves’ mind” in the form of a deep longing for a “return to their beloved homeland.”[1] How odd… It turned out that nostalgia, which we know today as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” had been an illness that affected African slaves throughout the Atlantic world. They would refuse to eat, drink or work (an important problem to planters), and would ultimately die of starvation or commit suicide.

Nostalgia and its many names—banzo, melancholia, fixed melancholy—appear surprisingly often in both Cuban and Brazilian (the countries I study more closely) as well as French and North-American archives. In the second edition of his best-seller Diccionario de Medicina Popular (1851)—which, incidentally, I just found in the Brazilian National Library—the Polish-Brazilian physician Pedro Luiz Napoleão Chernoviz states that nostalgia was a very common affliction among “blacks newly-arrived from the African coast.” He adds that the illness worsened when slaves were badly treated by their masters. The cure, we learn, is not achieved through “pharmacy recipes” but through “a simpler, more elevated medicine”: good treatment.[2]

Unlike other common organic illnesses that required “pharmacy” treatments or a change in the physical condition of the enslaved, nostalgia invited physicians to imagine in their own medical idiom how the enslaved felt, thought, and reacted to the horrible experience of enslavement. In Cuba, Barrera, for instance, proposed “affability, humanity, tenderness” as one of the treatments to nostalgia, so that the ill slave would understand that their master (or the master’s proxy) regretted treating them poorly. Chernoviz, in Brazil, offers a similar method: at the onset of the illness, the sick slave should be “treated with care, easing on the punishments, and giving her permission to have fun.” No drug, herb, nor pill would suffice. In order to cure nostalgia, one must demonstrate care because one recognizes that the enslaved suffers from being forcibly taken from their homeland and losing their freedom. It is worth noticing that this gesture of looking beyond the aching surface of the enslaved body into the slave’s ailing mind appears in a moment in which their deaths—and thus their lives—only amounted to the “compensatory value” eventually paid to their owners by insurance companies.


Figure 2. Detail of the La Providencia bulletin from 1860 with the note on Alfonso Congo. This is how much we know about him. (Credit: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, La Habana, Cuba)


No wonder nineteenth-century British and French abolitionists came to adopt this illness as the basis of their discourse. As Thomas Dodman writes in his recent book about nostalgia, these abolitionists flooded the streets with “gruesome stories of men and women jumping overboard in the Atlantic or of plantation owners mutilating their slaves to shame them out of wanting to return home.”[3] After all, nostalgia was far from being unknown at the time. Surely, educated individuals in the American colonies had heard of this European disease that had long afflicted young soldiers, servers, and students leaving home to work elsewhere.

The question, however, is to understand how this seventeenth-century-military-born condition came to be one integral to nineteenth-century racial slavery. More importantly yet, I wonder if this dramatic shift allowed, perhaps, for the creation of a new type of subjectivity otherwise forestalled by the realities of enslavement. This is something I would like to explore in my dissertation. And to do so, Alfonso’s story—one that remains buried behind policy numbers and compensatory values—may in fact be a good starting point.


[1] See Barrera y Domingo, Reflexiones Histórico Físico Naturales Médico Quirúrgicas: prácticos y especulativos entretenimientos acerca de la vida, usos, costumbres, alimentos, bestidos, color, y enfermedades a que propenden los negros de Africa, venidos a las Américas. Havana: Ediciones C. R., [1798] 1953.

[2] See Chernoviz, Diccionario de Medicina Popular, em que se descrevem, em linguagem acommodada à intelligência das pessoas estranhas à arte de curar, vol. III. Eduardo & Enrique Lammaert, 1851, pp. 92-93.

[3] See Dodman, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion. University of Chicago Press, 2018, p. 90.