Born in Bayamo, Cuba on May 7 of 1797, José Antonio Saco López Cisneros, was the first born of three children who were orphaned at a young age. As landowners, his family held a prominent position in Bayamese society. However, the death of his parents resulted in the loss of most of these assets. By 14 years old, Saco was involved in a longstanding legal battle to protect an inheritance that was ultimately lost. In Obras, Dr. Eduardo Torres-Cuevas introduces his works suggesting that this early struggle with the legal mechanisms of the colonial government might have influenced his subversive politics. Like his father, he studied law, but was not fond of that field as he was of Philosophy. Saco finished a degree in Civil Law, but it was his Philosophy education under the tutelage of Félix Varela in the Seminario de San Carlos in Havana that he found his lifelong passion for seeking truth, which he applied to social justice and the development of Cuba. To that end, he founded the periodical, El Mensajero Semanal, along with his beloved teacher. He was married twice in his life; once, briefly, to his cousin Juana Cisneros, and in 1856, to the widow of Narciso López, Dolores Frias.
After being exiled from Cuba in 1834, he lived in Paris where he published several radical texts advocating for the abolition of slavery in Cuba. Because of this, he attracted many enemies. However, as we can see in the history of his correspondence, Saco also found many loving allies as well while in exile. In 1879, the year he published his most celebrated abolitionist text, Historia de la esclavitud, he died in Barcelona, Spain, and his remains were sent to be buried in Cuba under the inscription:
“Here lies José Antonio Saco, who was not an annexationist, because he was more Cuban than all annexationists.”
Historia de la esclavitud (1879) explores Cuba’s investment in the slave trade. Such was a controversial debate at the time, and one of his most celebrated contributions to abolitionist writing. Trained in Civil Law and Philosophy under the notable tutelage of Félix Varela, much of his writing involves critically assessing a social problem and prescribing a solution using rhetorical appeals. Through such argumentative writing, he pursued the dangerous task of convincing Cuba’s landed elite to abandon slave labor. He argued that slavery was a mechanism of wealth accumulation–only the Spanish Crown and the aristocracy benefitted from it.Such radical thinking resulted in his expulsion from the island in 1834. In Spain, he was denied of his seat as a representative of Cuba in the Spanish Court, though he was elected on three occasions.
Nevertheless, he continued to publish abroad, and through the creation of El Mensajero Semanal, for instance, a periodical dedicated to issues concerning cuban society, as well as his role as editor of La Revista Bimestre Cubana, he maintained an influential political role in Cuba. Saco never directly called for Independence, but his abolitionist and anti-axionist writings paved the way towards a Cuban nationalist consciousness. In fact, in Obras, Dr. Eduardo Torres-Cuevas argues that when Saco stayed in the US from 1828 to 1832, he became a fierce opponent of US’ annexation of Cuba and focused on applying the merits of the two most developed nations at the time, the US and England, towards the development of Cuba’s own capitalist economy.
In Memorias sobre caminos en la isla de Cuba (1829) (starts in page 257), for example, Saco describes the current infrastructure of the island and proposes the construction, funded by Cuban landowners and foreign investment, of various roads to foster industrial development. A year later, Saco also published Memorias sobre la vagancia en la Isla de Cuba (1830) (starts in page 7), in which he exposes social vices like gambling, encouraged by those in power, that he believes to be obstacles towards a culture of development. Notably, he maintains that slavery further promotes idleness, since so much of the labor is carried by the enslaved population alone.