The Island of Cuba: A Political Essay

Winner of the Lydia Cabrera Award

This book remains an up-to-date and engrossing document more than one hundred fifty years after its initial publication. The Island of Cuba is a key source for studies of 19th-century Cuba and slavery in the Caribbean, and has appeared in translated editions throughout the world.

Humboldt’s description of the island, which brings together the fields of anthropology, geography, agriculture, demographics, commerce, and communications, provides a context in which to trace the history of Cuba-U.S. relations as well as a basis for modern Cuban studies.

Cubans celebrate Humboldt as the second “discoverer” of the island (after Columbus), and the controversial publication history of this book mirrors Cuba’s history. The Spanish version was banned in colonial Cuba, and the American translation created an international controversy because of the translator J.S. Thrasher’s open call for the American annexation of Cuba. Thrasher also deleted a chapter in which Humboldt condemned slavery, in order to please the pro-slavery party.

This new edition restores the missing chapter on slavery in a new translation and provides the text of the letter by Humboldt condemning the omission as well as Thrasher’s response (both published in the New York Daily Times) and his polemical preface. In the additional section of this edition, Luis Martínez-Fernández analyzes the publication history of Humboldt’s book on Cuba, including an anniversary edition published under Fidel Castro, and follows the Cuban point of view on Humboldt over the course of the book’s multifaceted history.


Alexander von Humboldt, one of the first modern geographers and an author, naturalist, and explorer, was a significant contributor to the field of botanical geography.

Frank Argote-Freyre, formerly at Rutgers University, is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Kean University.

Luis Martínez-Fernández (University of Central Florida) is a leading expert on Caribbean history. He is the author of several books, including Protestantism and Political Conflict in the Nineteenth-Century Hispanic Caribbean and Fighting Slavery in the Caribbean.