Slavery and the Black Presence in Spanish Golden-Age Literature

So far, scholars have had surprisingly little to say about Zaide, a black character that appears in the famous novel Lazarillo de Tormes. So how does the figure of a black slave fit into a canonical work of Spanish Golden-Age letters?

“Son of a b…!” A rude but loving exclamation of surprise, this is one of the first lines of dialogue in the short, anonymous Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes. Published in 1554, Lazarillo de Tormes is not always a subtle text. Nevertheless, this particular curse deserves some extra attention for the character whose voice we hear: a “hombre moreno” or sub-Saharan slave. The narrator calls him Zaide.

Considered as the origin of the picaresque novel – a genre of satirical stories centered on the adventures of a roguish hero with low social status – Lazarillo de Tormes is a canonical piece of literature. In it, Lazarillo, a boy from Salamanca who is growing up without his biological father, is taken on by a wily blind beggar at the request of his mother. Zaide, a slave who works in the stables, is Lazarillo’s stepfather. The lover of Lazarillo’s mother Antona, Zaide is also the father of her second child, Lázaro’s half-brother.

Readers and scholars have been quite tight-lipped about Zaide, while other characters such as a blind beggar, a gluttonous priest or impoverished nobleman have entered the popular image of Early Modern Spanish society. Just like his mere presence, the black slave’s words may surprise readers at first. So how do these words fit into a canonical work of Spanish Golden-Age letters?

Slavery and Spain

African slaves were a common sight in 16th-century Iberia. In the 1570s, sub-Saharan slaves made up about 10 percent of the population in Western Andalusia. Merchants (who had not yet specialized exclusively on slaves) operated in literally any Andalusian port, as well as Valencia, Seville or Lisbon. They satisfied the varying demands of the market: domestic and sexual slavery, mining or agriculture.

The Peninsular and transatlantic routes of the slave trade quickly became separate. Nevertheless, the colonial dimension of slavery remains a factor: As early as the 1560s, transatlantic written correspondence discusses the practical aspects of slavery in Spanish. Colonists ask emigrating relatives from the Peninsula to buy an African slave or two as they pass through Seville. At the same time, they worry about their women’s honor on the cramped ships.

In the Early Modern period, the perceived threat of dishonorable sexual encounters haunted the Peninsular as well as the American public. Golden-Age literature, especially the picaresque, thrives on the threat of murky or ‘tainted’ genealogies and relationships. Lazarillo’s “negrito” half-brother is born in servants’ quarters connected to a clerical estate in Spain. The episode’s wider implications must have been obvious to any 16th-century reader.

Politics of Memory on the Iberian Peninsula

“When it comes to slavery, Spain has largely remained under the radar.”

Preceding the Enlightenment and scientific racism by centuries, Lazarillo de Tormes anticipates a transatlantic, Early Modern racial imaginary. Later developments have led readers to overlook this simple but fascinating fact. California-based scholar Barbara Fuchs is correct in pointing out that posterior imperial politics shaped perceptions of the Spanish Golden Age. An idea of Spanish difference implied that readers considered certain themes like Counter-Reformation Catholicism, paternalistic honor, melodramatic heroism, or the so-called Moorish legacy typical of Spanish literature and culture.

When it comes to slavery, these traditional patterns of reception have also worked in Spain’s favor. While other European powers like France have begun to acknowledge and commemorate slavery in their ports, Spain’s cultural politics have remained focused on other issues.

Spanish philology within and outside the Peninsula, for instance, has been much more interested in questions of religious conflict or the intra-peninsular strife leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Centuries of imperial politics, economic exchange and aesthetics have received much less attention in metropolitan literary studies. Thus, when it comes to slavery, Spain has largely remained under the radar.

A Spanish ‘Black Atlantic’

So what is really at stake here? Is slavery merely a matter of national shame? Should Spain happily leave the matter to the more violently modern powers of northern Europe? Obviously, Early Modern slavery on the Iberian Peninsula was not as horrific as the Middle Passage and plantation slavery in the Americas. But is that an excuse?

The short episode in the novel ends when Zaide is caught stealing. He is whipped and burned with boiling lard. Though Lazarillo de Tormes is a piece of fiction, we know from other sources that Early Modern Peninsular slavery was hardly humane. It was also an important step towards the far more violent and horrific things to come.

Instead of bargaining away the blame, we should ask what scholarly mindset allows enslaved characters to disappear (or emerge) in Golden Age letters. To a certain extent, they will always be ‘minor’ characters. Zaide’s short appearance in Lazarillo de Tormes, his brief curse, is typical in this respect. But must we literary scholars therefore overlook or silence these figures?

A seminal piece of scholarship such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) should inspire us not to. In it, Gilroy formulated the idea that there is a shared black Atlantic culture and experience that transcends ethnic and national borders. Though he focused on Great Britain and the Post-Enlightenment world, Gilroy’s insight also matters to earlier phases of Atlantic history and colonial Iberia. For one thing, oceanic linkages and contact zones often diverge from hegemonic perspectives of history. In addition, they produce their own relational form of aesthetic.

Following Gilroy, a small group of literary scholars, including Joseba Gabilondo, John Beusterien, and Nicholas Jones, has acknowledged a specifically Iberian perspective on modernity. It includes many facets of the racialized Other, and it also includes slavery.

African slaves in Spanish letters are proof of long-term transregional, oceanic linkages that mainstream discourse on modernity has largely ignored. Displaced against their will, these characters of Iberian literatures have the potential of unsettling master-narratives about modernity.

Representing ‘Blackness’

Some scholars have noted that, as opposed to pictorial traditions of Renaissance Italy, representations of sub-Saharan Africans were mostly a textual phenomenon on the Iberian Peninsula. Iberian writers have portrayed Africans in various ways. In exceptional cases, we get to know them as heroes of war, saints, scholars or artists.

More often than not, though, sub-Saharan Africans were farcical and minor characters in popular theater. They stood out not only because of the color of their skin but also by the way they expressed themselves. In a famous short story published in 1613, for instance, Miguel de Cervantes painted a farcical image of a black slave in Seville. A benevolent character and easily duped, Cervantes’ slave lives in close vicinity to his master’s stables, i.e. the animals.

Cervantes played with stereotypes of black Africans: The slave is magically attracted to Andalusian music. Despite the derogatory overtones, a kernel of historical truth remains. Recent studies have uncovered strong ties between the African presence in Andalusia and Andalusian – as well as transatlantic – music and dance.

A domestic hero

Let us briefly return to the 1554 Life of Lazarillo de Tormes before coming to a conclusion. Many episodes of the short novel are farcical anecdotes. Undoubtedly, Lazarillo de Tormes and Cervantes’ short story, published 60 years apart, have certain things in common. Zaide and Lazarillo’s mother also meet in the stables. Both texts characterize black characters by placing them in close proximity to animals.

As opposed to Cervantes’ slave, however, Zaide does not dance or sing. What’s more, recounting his own life in hindsight, Lazarillo makes clear that the black slave helped the poor family survive. By fathering a child with Lazarillo’s mother, Zaide becomes part of the family. Finally, his one-word appearance (“¡Hideputa!”) has a rough, local, ‘masculine’ ring to it. It cuts right to the core of the slave’s dire situation.

How exactly, then, does Lazarillo de Tormes represent the African as a racialized Other? A simple man reminiscing on his childhood, Lázaro is recreating ‘little Lázaro’s’ (i.e. Lazarillo’s) perspective as a child. His initial reaction to the new, unfamiliar member of the family is fear. The narrator explicitly states that the slave’s “color” and “ugly face” instilled the child with fear.

Race and Class

On the one hand, this seems plausible. After all, Zaide is a new addition to the family and unfamiliar to Lazarillo at first. On the other, it is also a rude joke. Renaissance readers must have been familiar with racialized Otherness portrayed as ugliness: The black-white binary was already a powerful one in the arts and aesthetic theory.

However, little Lazarillo learns to revise his initial impression: “Once I realized that his presence meant more food, I took a liking to the slave, since he always brought bread, some meat and wood in the winter, to keep us warm.” This provides a very important theme for the entire narrative. The whole point is that Lazarillo wants to build a home for himself.

On the one hand, this distances him from the racialized Other. Though the rogue’s place in society is a precarious one, he is not a black slave. On the other hand, there is no denying that the slave allows for the narrator’s first encounter with domestic stability. Zaide brings food and wood. He plays with his son. In this sense, he is something of a domestic hero. Ultimately, however, the slave must fail. Lázaro, the trickster-rogue, learns what is at stake. He, in turn, is trying to succeed at all costs.

“Mother, the boogeyman!”

Another, more decisive motif has puzzled critics. As Zaide turns out to be supportive of the family, Lazarillo takes a liking to him. We see Zaide toying about with his son, Lazarillo’s half-brother. It is the so-called “negrito” (little black) child that will cause an interpretative conundrum. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, he becomes aware of his father’s Otherness. The infant points to the father’s face: “Mother, the boogeyman!”

We already know of his father’s surprised exclamation. The “negrito” seems to be treating his own father as a racialized Other. The irony is not lost on the narrator. “Many people in the world must be afraid of others because they have no image of themselves,” he concludes, again alluding to skin color.

So is this merely another moralistic anecdote? Is this – as Spanish critics have argued – a ‘popular’, folkloristic yarn? One would have to object that sub-Saharan slavery was a recent phenomenon. How could it have entered folklore so quickly? One might also object that Lazarillo takes Zaide seriously. He is crucial to the indigent family’s survival and even brings food. This distinguishes the Zaide-character from other, more typified characters in the narrative. The other, truly popular characters never do anything to help the rogue. Finally, there is the issue of verisimilitude. Why does Zaide scare his own son so abruptly?

Slaves and sentimentality

So far, in their readings of this episode, scholars have failed to take a step back. In the authoritative edition of Lazarillo de Tormes, Francisco Rico compares the reaction of Zaides son to early reports of sub-Saharan Africans dancing about naked, laughing and pointing fingers.

But this is only a superficial similarity. Allegedly, these Africans are pointing at each other’s nakedness. Caricatures of primitives, unaware of themselves. Rico’s authoritative reference is reminiscent of 15th-century travel reports from sub-Saharan Africa. This alleged source has a farcical, exotic ring to it. It therefore bears little or no intrinsic resemblance to the very domestic Zaide-episode in Lazarillo.

Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic provides a more promising lead. Gilroy mentions a classic treatise of Enlightenment aesthetics: Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Published more than two centuries after Lazarillo, Burke comes up with a very similar scenario. A thirteen or fourteen year-old blind boy, Burke claims, was “couched for a cataract, by which operation he received his sight.” What should the young boy, with no prior experience of the visual world, lay his eyes upon? “[S]ome time after, upon accidentally seeing a negro woman, he was struck with great horror at the sight.”

In this case, recent readers have not overlooked the blunt racism at work in Burke. As in Lazarillo, however, Burke’s anecdote seems to allude to some symbolic order within colonial society. Finally, in both cases, the key concept is the same: fear. Interestingly, fear also recreates a child’s perspective on the outside world.

Fear and Racialized Otherness

Fear is a very strong, very moving sentiment. It has always been an essential part of both political rhetoric and literary poetics. Also, fear and shock literally conjure up an image. This image has the potential to stir the reader’s imagination and create symbolic, figural associations. This simple insight has the potential to unlock the mysterious Zaide-episode.

The sentimental dialectic of fear and affection is at the center of our case study. Obviously, not unlike Burke, our trickster-narrator is also playing games at the racialized Other’s expense. Lázaro drives home the point of the black man’s supposed ugliness. One will also have to note, however, that this is not the narrator’s main intention. During the entire narrative, Lázaro will try to return to the domestic security once provided by his surrogate father, a sub-Saharan slave. In fact, Lázaro’s gratitude to Zaide pervades.

In Lazarillo de Tormes, the racialized Other serves as a catalyst for emotions. An unsettling figure, the characters and readers of the book are now on the same emotional roller coaster of sympathy, pity and fear. When Zaide’s little son points a finger at his father, the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes is also hinting at something. He is pointing out a fundamental mechanism of literary poetics: sentimentality and the passions.

Thus, from a methodological point of view, the black slave from Lazarillo de Tormes reminds us how postcolonial cultural studies, literary poetics and traditional philology should not be considered separate approaches. Instead, we should view them as interrelated heuristic tools, chipping away at the same unsettling questions.

[Title Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)] 

Mark Minnes

Mark Minnes is an assistant professor at the department for Romance Studies, Leibniz University Hannover.

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