Tag Archives: Cristóbal Mádan

Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker? The Case for Cristóbal Mádan

Cristóbal Mádan y Mádan meets the criteria I set out in my June 21st blog post for identifying the first true Cuban New Yorker. He was already in the city when Félix Varela arrived. He was involved in movements to sever Cuba from Spain, so he thought of himself as a Cuban, and he certainly had an enduring (if not always continuous) presence in New York City that possibly spanned as many as seven decades.  In fact, Mádan is a Zelig-type of figure in the history of Cuban New York. Or perhaps he is closer to Forrest Gump.

I don’t mean by that comparison that he was a comic figure (and I certainly do not mean any disrespect). What I mean by the comparison is that, like Forrest Gump, or Zelig, Mádan was a fairly nondescript low-profile sort of guy who was not among the most prominent historical figures, yet managed to be connected with all the major players of his day, his name surfacing almost unexpectedly at various critical points from 1823 all the way to the 1870s. In other words, he was a recurring background figure in the story of Cuban New York.

I suspect that in large measure he had a low profile because he preferred it that way. He published his political essays under a pseudonym, for example. As with most behind-the-scenes personages he was not doubt a much more important player than what the historical record reveals. But the fact is that I cannot post here a drawing, painting, or a photograph of him because I have not been able to find one, nor do I know exactly when or how or where he died or where he is buried. [If anyone can fill those gaps I would appreciate hearing from you].

The Mádans originated in Waterford, Ireland, where the name was probably spelled Madden. Cristobal’s grandfather migrated to Havana by way of the Canary Islands around the time of the British occupation of the city, the right moment to get in on the ground floor of the sugar boom. The family lived in Havana, but their mills were in the Matanzas region.

Cristóbal was named after his maternal grandfather, who was also his father’s uncle. Cristóbal’s father, Joaquín, had married a first cousin, Josefa Nicasia Mádan (not unusual among landed elites everywhere, like, say, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton). Joaquín and Josefa had six children, of which Cristóbal was the youngest and the only male. After his wife died, Joaquín married yet another first cousin, Josefa’s sister. They had no children.

As with most of the newly-rich sugarocacy, the Madans sold their sugar in New York, where the “counting houses” that lined South Street acted as the selling agents, keeping accounts for them and investing their money. When he was about to turn sixteen, in the summer of 1822, Cristobal was sent to New York to learn English, study, and gain experience in the city’s mercantile world. Arrangements were made for him to intern as a clerk in the counting house of Jonathan Goodhue at 44 South Street, just south of Maiden Lane. Goodhue was

“View of South Street, From Maiden Lane,” by William James Bennett, 1827

a New Englander who was engaged in importing sugar from the mills of the Madans and other Cuban producers. It was there that “Cristobalito” greeted his former teacher, Father Félix Varela, when the priest arrived in Manhattan on December 15, 1823. One week later, Mádan also welcomed to the city a friend from Matanzas: the poet José María Heredia. Cristóbal helped both of those prominent Cubans find housing and establish a foothold in the city.

José María Heredia

Heredia would address him facetiously as “My Dear Consul,” referring in a letter to Mádan to the “laborious and sterile job the Republic has entrusted to you” in New York (a “Republic” that at that time existed only in the thoughts of Varela and Heredia).

But an independent Cuban Republic was probably not in the mind of Cristóbal Mádan. By the time he was in his forties he emerged again in the history of Cuban New York as a committed advocate of Cuba’s annexation to the United States. The 1850 U.S. Census found him living in the fashionable Madison Square Park area with his second wife Mary, six children, and eight servants. That same year he also became a U.S. citizen. That is not to say that he

lived continuously in New York. Mádan led what we would call today a transnational life, dividing his time between New York, Havana, and Matanzas. All of his children, for example, were born in Cuba.

Cristóbal Mádan played an important behind-the-scenes role in the movement that so many of his fellow sugar producers favored: annexationism. The sugarocracy believed it was in their best interest for Cuba to join the Union as a slave state. Cristóbal wrote anonymously for the annexationist newspaper in New York, La Verdad, which he probably also helped to bankroll. And he was

also responsible for connecting his fellow sugarocrats with influential Americans who favored annexing Cuba. It is not difficult to see why he was the point man for that connection. His second wife Mary was a New York Irish-American named Mary O’Sullivan, the sister of John L. O’Sullivan, an influential New York Democrat and a committed expansionist who is credited with coining the term “Manifest Destiny.”   O’Sullivan convinced President James Polk to make an offer to Spain to buy Cuba, an offer that was, of course, roundly rejected by Madrid.

Cristóbal emerges again in New York among the refugees from the war for independence that started in 1868. Already in his sixties, his economic situation was in a tailspin with the embargo of properties that the Spanish leveled against Cubans who left the island. The war had created a large community of displaced Cubans in New York, and Cristóbal returned to his role as the city’s “unofficial Cuban Consul,” using his longstanding contacts with city officials and with the Catholic archdiocese to help Cubans in need.

Mádan probably returned to Cuba after the end of the war in 1878 to try to recover his embargoed properties, something many other Cuban New Yorkers also tried to do, with no success. The treaty that ended the war guaranteed amnesty and a safe return to exiled Cubans, but was silent on returning embargoed properties.

Cristóbal probably lived out his life in Havana attending to his law practice, which also tied him to the next stage in the development of Cuban New York. His law office once hired a young teenaged intern by the name of José Martí.

So the case for Mádan as the first Cuban New Yorker is a strong one. He arrived before – in fact greeted – two of the towering figures of Cuban New York: Varela and Heredia. He had a deep and abiding, if not always permanent, connection with the city his entire life. His political activities make clear that he identified not as Spanish, but as Cuban. Of course, he did not have the impact that Varela had on New York. And we would need to be reconciled to the idea that the first Cuban New Yorker was an annexationist and a slave owner.

In a future blog, the case for Varela.

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Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker?

It’s an important question without a clear answer. I’m using three criteria to try to answer it:

1.    Chronology, of course: Who was the first Cuban in New York? But chronology shouldn’t be the only factor. It should be considered, I argue, in light of the other two criteria below.

2.    The first Cuban New Yorker should be a clearly identifiable Cuban, not just someone born in Cuba. I’m sure there must have been Cuban-born persons traipsing through Manhattan not too long after Henry Hudson’s Half Moon entered New York harbor in 1609 (especially when you consider La Habana was already nearly a century old by then). But the first Cuban New Yorker should be someone who gave every indication that he thought of him/herself as a Cuban, not as a Spaniard, and certainly not as a loyalist of the Spanish Crown.

3.     The first Cuban New Yorker should be a New Yorker, that is, someone who lived in the city and not simply a sojourner passing through.

With those criteria in mind, I have two candidates, both arrivals in Manhattan in 1823: Cristóbal Mádan y Mádan and Félix Varela y Morales. Mádan was a

New York City as seen from Brooklyn, ca. 1824

teenager that year and he would not even be competing with the venerable Varela for the honor of the first Cuban New Yorker, except that, well, he did arrive a few months before the priest. In fact, it was “Cristobalito” who served as Varela’s one-person welcoming committee, finding a rooming house for his former teacher and getting him oriented around the city. José Luis Rodríguez, the author of the excellent 1878 biography of Varela, describes how Mádan would hold Varela’s arm, steadying him as the two strolled around lower Manhattan until the priest could get used to walking on his own on the icy streets, a totally new experience for him (Varela arrived in New York on December 15thof that year, reportedly during a blizzard).

William Street, ca. 1820

I am not considering some prominent Cubans who meet criteria one and two, but, not, as far as I can tell, criterion three. One of the first Cuban exiles in the city was José Aniceto Iznaga, a young man from a wealthy landowning family of Basque origins that had established itself in Trinidad, in southern Cuba, in the early part of the eighteenth century. The young Iznaga had run afoul of the authorities in the island for his subversive activities against Spanish rule and moved to New York in 1819. Together with his brother Antonio and a young Cuban student named Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros (he will later figure prominently in Cuban history), Iznaga hatched plans for wresting Cuba from Spain with the support of Simón Bolívar.

Two months before Varela arrived in the city, Iznaga and his co-conspirators boarded a ship for the northwest coast of South America for their meeting with the famed liberator. Obviously, nothing came of the initiative, and it is not clear if the group returned to New York. Little is known of Iznaga’s days in New York and there is no evidence that he remained in the city beyond his relatively brief stay as an exile.

So here’s what I am proposing to do. In a subsequent blog post (not necessarily the next one) I will make the case for Mádan as the first Cuban New Yorker. In another post, I will make the case for Varela. Frankly, I have not made up my mind, so I will invite readers of CNY to weigh in and maybe we can reach a consensus (or maybe not).  But two things are certain: 1) we’ll learn something about the beginnings of Cuban New York; and 2) neither candidate will get upset if he is not picked.