Modern Slavery and Water Spirituality

A Critical Debate in Africa and Latin America

by Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger (Author)
Monographs 261 Pages


This book contains close readings of contemporary literary texts and art work by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking authors from Africa and Latin America. The readings reveal a critical debate that understands reflections on the slave trade and current migrations from Africa to Europe as continuity since early modern history. This part of cultural history is firmly rooted in the Black Atlantic, although the book’s primary concern is a discussion of situations in which water spirituality functions as a backdrop. This critical inquiry of social inequality and injustice is based on a theoretical framework that addresses migrations overseas and forced labor. Therefore, the readings are placed within the cultural tradition of seven countries: Brazil, Angola, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Principe, and Guinea-Bissau.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Sprachen – Literaturen – Kulturen Aachener Beiträge zur Romania
  • Table of Contents
  • Exploring the Ocean: Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Trafficking Human Bodies
  • Modernity: A Reflective Process
  • Coloniality of Power
  • Literature and the Ocean
  • Toward a Blue Cultural Studies
  • Chapter 2: The Urban Sea in Brazil
  • Jorge Amado and Brazil’s Intellectual History
  • An Invincible Memory by João Ubaldo Ribeiro
  • Ana Maria Gonçalves’ Dream of Communication
  • Yemaya’s Interventions
  • Chapter 3: The New Sea in Angola
  • The Introduction of a Water Spirit
  • From Slavery to Forced Labor
  • Memories in Contemporary Luanda
  • The Future of Kianda
  • Chapter 4: ‘Black Tears’ in Cuba
  • The mambí and Africa
  • The Return of the Drowned
  • The Everlasting Balsa
  • Prisoners of Water
  • Illustration: Kcho: Lágrimas negras (Black Tears), 1994, Private Collection, 120 x 170 cm.
  • Chapter 5: L’éducation sentimentale in Equatorial Guinea
  • Past and Present Migration
  • Stagnation
  • Annobon in the 1970s
  • Transoceanic Connections
  • Chapter 6: Creoles from Cape Verde
  • The Slave on the Island of Santiago
  • Is Migration a “Must”?
  • The First Atlantic Elite
  • Femme Fatale
  • Intermezzo
  • Letters from São Tomé 1952/53
  • Province Cape Verde Central Government Department of Civil Administrative Services To Note Down per Copy, 21 May 1953
  • Província de Cabo Verde Repartição Central dos Serviços de Administração Civil Anotar por copia 21.05.1953
  • Chapter 7: Poets from São Tomé and Príncipe
  • The African Studies Center (CEA)
  • The Poet’s Compromise
  • Foundational Poetics
  • The Seas on the Porch
  • Chapter 8: Idealism and Disillusionment in Guinea-Bissau
  • The Birth of Cultural Institutions
  • The Worker for Freedom
  • Novelistic Experiments
  • The Tragedy of Power
  • Chapter 9: What Are They Heading for? A Critical Inquiry
  • Bibliography
  • Works by Selected Authors
  • Works Cited
  • Register of Names
  • Series Index

← 12 | 13 →

Exploring the Ocean: Introduction

The original idea for this book is to explore the ocean (or the sea) as a metaphor for social change in literary texts of the so-called Global South. The sea as a metaphor has been studied predominantly in the anglophone fictional domain and has been less emphasized in critical analyses of literature written in Spanish and Portuguese. However, in the times of Iberian colonial expansion, the ocean was the main connecting link between the continents. Accordingly, the hypothesis of my research is that this central role has also influenced the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking literatures and cultures in Africa and Latin America until the present day.

Without a doubt, in recent decades, Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic”1 has fueled countless studies and artistic work about this metaphor of the sea. Meanwhile, however, the oceanic focus has been brought up in a broader sense. In a special issue of The Geographical Review,2 the editors Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen call for giving a “maritime response” to area studies, a well-established academic field since World War II. They argue that area studies are characterized by an interdisciplinary approach, contextualizing different fields, but that they leave the seas out of consideration. Therefore, these editors call for situating the ocean in the center rather than at the margins of the research perspective.

For the Portuguese-speaking regions, the “maritime response” is prominently given by Luís de Camões’ founding epos Os Lusíadas (published in 1572, probably concluded in 1556). In his descriptions of the heroic navigators in ten long chants in melodious octosyllables, Camões mentions shipwrecks, storms, false and confident local pilots, and various civilizations along the routes from Portugal around the Cape of Good Hope to India. He mentions several sea gods from Antiquity and even addresses the god of the ocean personally: “And you, father Ocean, who surrounds / ← 13 | 14 → the universal world and holds it enclosed”.3 This quotation exemplifies Camões’ hardly surprising global approach to history. In his lifetime, the ocean’s role was evident in Lisbon, the center of art and science in the period of the Portuguese Renaissance. Ships left for Africa, America, Asia, and Europe, and this glorious era of Portuguese navigation is still remembered. In Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s Navegações (Navigations), a volume she conceived when traveling by plane to Macau in 1977, the poet invokes some images of sixteenth-century navigators on their way to the Asian coasts.4 Andresen’s perceptions of the sea are so prevalent in her work that a selection of her poetic lines is reproduced on the walls of the Oceanário in Lisbon and a conference room is named after her.

Meanwhile, in Spanish literature, the “maritime response” was confronted with the Mare Clausum5 and is more implicit. After 1492, Seville was the organizational and ideological center for controlling the “New World”. Bernard Siegert argues in Passagiere und Papiere (Passengers and papers)6 that Seville was the first “modern” city in feudal Spain, in that it suggested social mobility as a concrete possibility overseas. In his opinion, the voyage to the “New World” meant the transit from feudalism to modernity; and the enormous piles of written papers, letters, documents, orders, catalogues, or lists demonstrate the “incredible bureaucracy” of the times of the “Rey Papelero” (Paperwork King), as Philip II is called, with the Casa de Contratación and the Inquisition as his controlling instances. Their archives ← 14 | 15 → contained thousands of “ritualized autobiographical narrative schemes” of people who had to register before travelling to the “Indies”. In Siegert’s opinion, the contents of these documents are a veritable virtual world of autobiographical data that are impossible to relate to the real biographical facts. He emphasizes the existence of this “short circuit” between the symbolic and the real dimension of the texts written in Spanish:

What Ángel Rama in view of the Latin American “raster cities” characterized as “La ciudad letrada” (“City of writers” but also “Lettercity”), is less a “cultural model of modernity” than a visual excess still perceptible today, of the short circuit between the symbolic and the real that was so characteristic of the Spanish bureaucracy.7

When conceiving literary texts as an imaginative link between the symbolic and the real, we can see that Spanish and Portuguese texts set the tone for what Svetlana Alpers characterizes as the “art of describing”,8 of creating a visual catalogue of nature and civil society. Alpers addresses Dutch art in the seventeenth century, when it was influenced by the “revolution of sight”, by the technological development of optical instruments such as the telescope, the lens, and the microscope. The pictures in this visual catalogue were different from those of the Italian Renaissance style because they lack a narrative motif. These artworks seem to portray the vulgar nature of the subject matter and, thus, Alpers asks what this art “can help us to see”.9 Its meanings are hidden beneath its descriptive surface, and, to illustrate this underlying dimension, Alpers gives many examples in accordance with the organizational rules of visual representation in that period.

In the present book, I will adapt Alpers’ concept to the analysis of contemporary literary texts in Spanish and Portuguese, assuming that they hide their reflections on social change and oceanic connections beneath the narrative and poetic surface. The authors were born in Brazil, Angola, Cuba, ← 15 | 16 → Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Guinea-Bissau, countries once profoundly involved in the slave trade until the end of the nineteenth century. The memory of its dynamics is the underlying motif for reflecting on oceanic connections. In the first chapter, I will discuss some theoretical approaches in this respect. Thereafter, each of the following seven chapters will analyze traces of this overseas slave trade in the literatures of the selected countries. I do not intend to give an overall view of their literary histories but, instead, to situate my readings within the framework of their respective cultural traditions. The criteria for the selection of the texts are not genre-bound; my search addresses prose, poetry, essays, and even images of visual art when applicable.

After chapter six on Cape Verde, there follows an intermezzo that contains fragments of letters written by Cape Verdeans in São Tomé at the end of 1952 and the beginning of 1953. These Cape Verdeans worked there in the roças, that is, on the cacao plantations, and explained their feelings in writings to their family and friends. These texts by “modern” migrant workers refer to their working conditions after abolition, also discussed in the literatures of the countries mentioned above, as we will see later on. Finally, in the last chapter, I will sum up some general tendencies and thereby elaborate a pattern in the fictional perceptions of social change and its oceanic movements as reflected in these literatures.

This book is the last link in the chain of a long-term research project. A first edited volume, Historias enredadas. Representaciones asimétricas con vista al Atlántico,10 launched a general exploration of overseas entanglements in Spanish and Portuguese on both sides of the ocean. It was also the start of a debate about convergences and differences in this respect in literary criticism in Africa and Latin America.11 As a second step, then, it seemed important to open up the debate to more generally discussed aspects of historiography’s and literature’s “maritime response” to history, that is of placing the ocean at the center. In the workshop “Beyond the Line”, organized with the historian Michael Mann in the Institute for Asian and African Studies (IAAW) of the Humboldt University in Berlin, ideas were ← 16 | 17 → aired about the history of fish, life on ships, piracy, political ideas, and migration in the Indian and Atlantic Ocean. The ocean’s repercussions in literature were conceived as “Indian Ocean imaginaries”,12 “emerging networks of imaginaries”,13 “oceans of pain”,14 or “oceanic modernity”15 in the contributions published in Beyond the Line. Cultural Narratives from the Southern Oceans.16

At the same time, apropos this “oceanic modernity” and in relation to the cultural debate on Latin America and Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, it was equally relevant to look closer at not only the concept of modernity, but also at that of labor migration overseas. This brought me in contact with studies on Global Labor History in the International Research Center “Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History” (IGK re:work) of the Humboldt University in Berlin.17 In the beginning, my collaboration in organizing an International Colloquium on this theme at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, had an exploratory character.18 But then, in the course of further research, this field of Global Labor History turned out to be quite relevant for my project. It brought the debates on cultural history together with those on labor migrations and work in Africa and Latin America. I use the term migration to cover both emigration and immigration in this book. ← 17 | 18 →

It was now time to bring those exploratory stages together in a narrative, for which the close reading of literary texts by contemporary authors who write in Spanish and Portuguese is crucial.19 Previous versions of some chapters have been published in a different and abbreviated form in English, French, and Portuguese.20 Three research trips to Angola and others to Brazil and Cuba provided me with insights and textual material that would have been difficult to obtain otherwise.21 On the invitation of Irmtrud König (University of Chile, Santiago), Ana Pizarro (University of Santiago de Chile, USACH), and Caroline Benavente (University of Valparaíso) I taught graduate courses on the topic of my research and participated in the Colloquium África/América, at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the USACH22 in Chile. Moema Parente Augel (Bielefeld, Germany) was generous in offering material and information about Guinea-Bissau. I thank ← 18 | 19 → Helmut Siepmann (RWTH Aachen) for inviting me to participate in the Interdisciplinary Conferences of the DASP (German Association of the Portuguese-Speaking African Countries). Martin Neumann (University of Hamburg) commented on a first version of my chapter on Guinea-Bissau. With Daiana Nascimento dos Santos (University of Valparaíso, Chile) I continually share many reflections and fruitful exchanges on the topic of her dissertation and research interests.23 Catharina Madruga (University of Lisbon) sent me the 2015 reprints of the publications of the Centro dos Estudantes do Império (CEI) and Benita Sampedro (Hofstra University) an unpublished manuscript written by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel of Equatorial Guinea. Alexander Keese (University of Geneva) provided me with some findings and material from his project “Forced Labour Africa: An Afro-European Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa (1930–1975)”.24 Enrique Martino (Humboldt University Berlin) was a most inspiring source of information about the “entangled” histories of the Guinea Coast in West Africa.25 For the revision of my English text I am grateful to Annette Bretschneider (RWTH Aachen) and Mitch Cohen (Wiko Berlin).

Many thanks to the DFG (German Research Foundation) for its financial support, to the Institute for Asian and African Sciences (IAAW, Humboldt University, Michael Mann), and to re:work (Humboldt University, Andreas Eckert) and their former fellow Babacar Fall (Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar), for their collaboration with the organization of the workshop in Berlin, the International Colloquium in Dakar, and the publications. The Seminar for African Sciences of the IAAW at the Humboldt University (Flora Veit-Wild and Susanne Gehrmann) hosted me during the first term of my DFG project for what, at first sight, seemed to be a subject situated at the margin of their area of specialization. And, finally, I have been in contact ← 19 | 20 → with Anne Begenat-Neuschäfer (RWTH Aachen) since my participation in her section during the Vienna Conference of the Lusitanistentag in 2011, and she has accompanied me through the various stages of my research ever since. Her premature death on 3 March 2017 affects me profoundly and I dedicate this book to the memory of the unusual friendship and loyalty of such an inspiring colleague.

April 2017

1 Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP 1993.

2 Special Issue on “A Maritime Response to the Crisis in Area Studies”, Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen (eds.), The Geographical Review 89, 2 (April 1999), pp. 162–168.

3 In Canto VI: “E tu, padre Oceano, que rodeias / O mundo universal e o tens cercado”, in: Os Lusíadas, intr., notes and glossary Vítor Ramos, São Paulo: Editora Cultrix 1993, p. 172. Luís de Camões lived from 1524 to 1580.

4 Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Navegações, Lisbon: Caminho 1996. Andresen (1919–2004) wrote A menina do mar (The Girl from the Sea), a children’s book famous in Portugal, first published in 1958. See Anne Begenat-Neuschäfer: “Navegações (1983). Raumkonstrukte in der Dichtung von Sophia de Mello Breyner”, in: Poesia do terceiro espaço. Lírica lusófona contemporânea, Anne Begenat-Neuschäfer and Verena Dolle (eds.), Munich: Peter Lang Ed. 2014, pp. 55–64.

5 Falia González Díaz and Pilar Lázaro de la Escosura: Mare Clausum-Mare Liberum. La piratería en la América española, Sevilla: Archivo General de Indias 2010.

6 Bernard Siegert: Passagiere und Papiere. Schreibakte auf der Schwelle zwischen Spanien und Amerika, Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2006.

7 “Was Ángel Rama mit Blick auf die lateinamerikanischen ‘Rasterstädte’ als ‘La ciudad letrada’ (Stadt der Schreiber aber auch Letternstadt) bezeichnet hat, ist weniger ein ‘Kulturmodell der Moderne’ als ein bis heute sichtbarer Auswuchs des für die spanische Bürokratie so charakteristischen Kurzschlusses zwischen dem Symbolischen und dem Realen”, in: ibid., pp. 22–23.

8 Svetlana Alpers: The Art of Describing. Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, London: Penguin Books 1989.

9 Ibid., p. XX.

10 Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger (ed.): Historias enredadas. Representaciones asimétricas con vista al Atlántico, Berlin: Tranvía 2011.

11 Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger: “Introduction”, in: ibid. p. 7–26.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Oceanic Modernity Working Conditions Overseas Migrations Contemporary Literatures Comparative Literatures Africa and Latin America
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 262 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger (Author)

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger was University Lecturer in Germany, the USA, and The Netherlands, as well as in Costa Rica, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Angola. Her research focuses on literature of the Caribbean, Latin America, and Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Africa.


Title: Modern Slavery and Water Spirituality