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Slave Nostalgia: When the Plantation Doctor Tries to Read the Minds of the Enslaved

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.

Havana in Miniature: Nostalgia, Utopia and City Ruins in a Scale Model

María A. Gutiérrez Bascón, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures 

It was on a rainy afternoon in Havana, in the summer of 2012, that I set out to visit a rather intriguing object that several people had mentioned to me. La Maqueta de La Habana was one of the largest scale models of a city in the entire world, if not the largest!, I had been told. But where was this seemingly impressive rendition of a Havana in miniature? Nobody had been able to tell me the exact location, besides the fact that the city replica was somewhere in the neighborhood of Miramar, between 1st and 3rd Avenue. I carefully looked through my comprehensive visitor’s guide of Havana in search of more information, but there was no mention to this huge scale model. The only maqueta referenced was the relatively small one located in one of the touristy streets in Old Havana.

As interested as I am in the ways in which the city of Havana has been imagined and portrayed by writers, filmmakers, visual artists, architects, and urban planners after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I knew I had to visit the Maqueta de La Habana before leaving the island. My time in Cuba was coming to an end, so I decided to embark on a trip from my apartment in Old Havana to Miramar. Crossing Havana in the rain can become quite a task sometimes, as I was reminded that afternoon. Bus delays and a pouring rain that often flooded certain parts of the city put me in the neighborhood of Miramar at a later time than I had planned, but I still thought I had made it on time. I seemed to be on the right street, but I couldn’t find the maqueta. After asking at the nearby bar, I was given more concrete directions. When I finally found the building, I saw that the doors were closed. Very, very closed, as if they hadn’t been opened in quite some time. “They’re probably closed today because of the rain,” the friend that came with me that afternoon told me. “Well, I guess I’ll never know,” I said. I was leaving Havana the next day!

Fortunately, I was lucky to go back to Havana the following summer. The very gracious Gina Rey, Havana-based architect, received me in her house that summer. I had met her the year before, but I wasn’t aware that she had been one of the creators of La Maqueta de La Habana in the late 1980s. Architect Rey told me that the scale model was indeed closed to the public, and had been for some time, because the pavilion that hosts the maqueta was in an advanced state of disrepair. “There are some problems in the ceiling, and they don’t want anybody to get hurt,” she said, “so they don’t let tourists in anymore.” A quick Internet search about the maqueta retrieved a comment from a Canadian tourist who had been able to visit the small-scale Havana before it was indefinitely closed to the public: “I was told that it is ‘under renovation’ because a tourist had an accident there last year.” It is not without irony that this idealized depiction of Havana—as all scale models are, in their abstract, almost utopian character—was being threatened by the ruinous pavilion that hosts it. The ideal city could perish under the ruin of a crumbling ceiling.

This contradiction between the ideal character of a Havana in miniature and the rubble that the pavilion could potentially turn it into made the maqueta all the more captivating. Architect Gina Rey was very kind in arranging a visit for me. She would call the security guard and tell him to let me in the pavilion so that I could take pictures of the model. When I got there the next day, I noticed that the enormous panels of the maqueta had been disassembled. As if the scale model was acquiring part of the ruinous condition belonging to the ceiling above it, its panels stood a few inches apart from each other. It was a striking view —the city in miniature looked fractured, as if it had been affected by some unexpected catastrophe. It was a huge scale model indeed, as I had been told. Approximately 144 square meters (472 square feet) in size, the model took 18 years to build, according to one of the brochures left on a table at the maqueta pavilion. According to Cuban writer Antonio José Ponte, who has reflected upon this small-scale Havana in several of his texts, the maqueta would be the second largest of its kind in the world, only surpassed by “The Panorama City of New York.” In addition to its size, the color code of the maqueta is probably one of its most salient aspects. Each building is colored according to the time when it was built. Constructions built in the colonial period appear in terracotta, while buildings from the republican era are painted in ochre and edifications planned by the Revolution are beige. Interestingly enough, both cemeteries and projects that have not yet been built are painted in white. Antonio José Ponte has noted that there’s some irony in the fact that both the past— those who have passed—and what is yet to be born share the same color in the scale model (1). Does this somehow point to the relative constructive paralysis that affected the period after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, linking revolutionary architecture in Havana to stagnation, or to death? In fact, as the maqueta shows, Havana has a lot of ochre—buildings from the pre-revolutionary period—and not so much beige (revolutionary architecture) in it.

This relative constructive inactivity during the revolutionary period has been the perfect backdrop for numerous depictions of Havana as a city frozen in time, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not having suffered any major renovations in a few decades, the Cuban capital seemed like the perfect projection screen for those affected by a feeling of nostalgia for a time when certain utopian projects were still thought possible. Various glossy photographic albums that portrayed Havana as a crumbling city stuck in time started to circulate widely in the early 1990s, with the onset of the so-called Special Period on the island. And however cliché the image of a Havana suspended on the verge of collapse might be, there is a certain truth to the claims of disrepair that many have raised when referring to the Cuban capital during the last twenty years. Even by conservative governmental accounts, more than 52% of the buildings in the country—not only in Havana—are facing decay (2). To address these issues, the Office of the Historian of Havana put in place a plan to restore the old city. While successful in recovering and protecting a number of buildings of great architectural value, the scope of the plan has been limited to the intramural city. The rest of the city is left to fend for itself, facing serious problems such as poor housing, overcrowding, and deteriorated infrastructure.

After having crossed the crumbling Centro Habana to get to Miramar and see the scale model, I reflected upon these questions surrounding nostalgia, ruins, and utopia. As I gazed over the maqueta, I asked myself how a miniature of Havana—this miniature, or any miniature, for that matter—could capture the ruins of a city. In fact, the catalog of the scale model claims that the replica has an absolute faithfulness to the real city. But how can that fidelity even be possible, with the frequent collapses of buildings in Centro Habana after each storm that hits the city? Does a wooden block from the maqueta disappear every time a building partially or completely falls to the ground in the real city?

Interestingly enough, I thought, this Havana in miniature wasn’t shaped with the usual materials of which scale models are made. Built during the Special Period, the maqueta had to be made of a more affordable and readily available material at the time: the discarded wooden boxes of Cuban cigars. If we consider the place that tobacco holds in well-known imaginings of the Cuban nation—which have one of its most important articulations in Fernando Ortiz’s essay Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (1940)—, it’s not hard to see the maqueta as being made, in a quite hopeful gesture, out of the rubbles of the nation.

Perfect in their straight lines, the maqueta blocks made of discarded tobacco boxes seem to point to the (im)possibilities of making utopian gestures towards the (re)construction of a city that holds a significant place in our political dreams and nightmares. How do we imagine and cope with the ruins—not only the ruins of Havana, but of the great utopian projects of the twentieth century, for which the Cuban capital is an important signifier? Ponte has criticized the scale model of Havana for its inability to account for a crumbling city. I would argue, however, that the maqueta does capture the ruin, but in a less obvious way. Within the utopian impulse that any scale model presupposes, there is always a fracture. In the maqueta, the rubble makes its way through the discarded tobacco boxes, as to quietly remind us, perhaps, that utopia is not without its ruins. And that ruins, possibly, may themselves be the material from which to build our new utopias.

Maqueta Picture


(1) Ponte, Antonio José. “Carta de La Habana. La maqueta de la ciudad.” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, 649-659 (2004): 251-255.

(2) Data quoted by Ponte in “La Habana está por inventarse.” El País 21 Jan. 2006.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

A good grasp of US-Cuba relations is elusive, often clouded by partisanship and stale Cold War logic. It then came as a great surprise when Barack Obama announced his intention to lift America’s 54-year-old embargo on Cuba. While President Obama has vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past,” breaking away from decades of isolation and hostility between the two nations, opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both likely Republican presidential candidate frontrunners and both representatives from Florida, made clear their opposition: “a victory for oppressive governments the world over,” Rubio called the decision. Only “the heinous Castro brothers, who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades” will benefit, said Bush. Cuban-American Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart sulked, calling Obama an “appeaser-in-chief.”

María De Los Angeles Torres, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Ana Carbonell, managing partner of The Factor, Inc., a Miami-based political consulting firm, gathered in an event earlier this month co-hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Institute of Politics. They debated the contention that has kept Republicans and Democrats busy over the past few months: whether the United States should lift its embargo on Cuba and normalize relations with the country. The two guests, one in person and one over Skype, disagreed on most questions posed, which is, perhaps, representative of a national conversation.

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   But, encouragingly, national opinion generally supports improving US-Cuba relations, and an opinion poll in Florida demonstrates even higher levels of support. In Cuba, a fifth of the work force is private sector, citizens have unprecedented access to the Internet. All are encouraging signs that Cuba itself seeks normalized diplomatic relations.

Torres challenged logics of the embargo and leveled many of the same points used by President Obama—among them, that after 50 years, America has little to show for isolating the Cuban people. She argued that a minuscule number of diplomatic points have been conceded, relations are, as always, chilly, and few things have changed politically. This last point is important—after all, the purpose of the embargo was to topple to the Castro regime, an objective that has not come close to fruition. Most of Latin America seems to have noticed the manifest failure of the embargo and taken actions to normalize relations with Cuba long ago, a fact that has put America at diplomatic odds with those countries.

But, Carbonell pointed out, we should not usurp the Cuban people’s rights to self-determination. While this line of reasoning seems at odds with the embargo’s original goal—ridding the Cuban people of an undemocratic regime—Carbonell insisted that until all political prisoners are freed, Cubans are guaranteed the right to free association, and internationally-supervised elections are held, lifting the embargo would be unprincipled and unproductive. If borders were opened suddenly, Cuba could become a ‘capitalist-dictatorship’ cocktail like China or Vietnam, which would be, Carbonell claims, a very bad thing.

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   It would not be difficult to leave the event with the impression that this discussion was not really about Cuba. Those who support Obama cheered his latest actions and those who do not said he was “coddling a dictator.” This discussion took place between a Republican strategist and Chicago academic at the Institute of Politics—without knowing any further background, most could guess before the event with which side each speaker would align. But what will happen in the future in Washington, Havana, and Miami, is much harder to guess. With the many developments sure to come in the next few months and years, it will certainly be not only interesting to watch, but also important to stay informed.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.