“You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” This is the well-known cry with which Caliban curses Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611). In 1971, in a climate profoundly studded by the new wave of anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa and by the institutionalization of the Cuban Revolution, Roberto Fernández Retamar dedicates to Caliban and his “curse” an essay that, in a short time, was to gain great influence in the Caribbean and in the whole of South America. According to Fernández Retamar, the fact that two years earlier three Caribbean writers, Aimé Césaire, Edward Brathwaite, and Fernández Retamar himself – “each of whom expressed himself in one of the three great colonial languages of the Caribbean” – took Caliban up with pride as their symbol inaugurates a completely new age in the representation of the Caribbean and South America: “Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood. What else can Caliban do but use the same language to curse him, to wish that the ‘red plague’ would fall on him? I know no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, of our reality … What is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?” ( Fernández Retamar 1989 : 14). Starting from
Roberto Fernández Retamar-poet, essayist, and professor of philology at the University of Havana-has long served as the Cuban Revolution’s primary cultural and literary voice. An erudite and widely respected hispanist, Retamar is known for his meticulous efforts to dismantle Eurocentric colonial and neocolonial thought. Since its publication in Cuba in 1971, “Caliban”-the first and longest of the five essays in this book-has become a kind of manifesto for Latin American and Caribbean writers; its central figure, the rude savage of Shakespeare’s Tempest, becomes in Retamar’s hands a powerful metaphor of their cultural situation-both its marginality and its revolutionary potential.
Retamr finds the literary and historic origins of Caliban in Columbus’s Navigation Log Books, wher the Carib Indian becomes a cannibal, a bestial human being situated on the margins of civilization. The concept traveled from Montaigne to Shakespeare, on down to Ernest Renan and, in the twentieth century, to Aimé Césaire and other writers who consciously worked with or against the vivid symbolic figures of Prospero, Calivan, and Ariel. Retamar draws especially upon the life and work of José Marti, who died in 1895 in Cuba’s revolutionary struggle against Spain; Marti’s Calibanesque vision of “our America” and its distinctive mestizo culture-Indian, African, and European-is an animating force in this essay and throughout the book.