The tropical garden which we visited just outside of Cienfuegos embraced a remarkable variety of trees, including some thrifty exotics. Here the mango, with its peach-like foliage, was bending to the ground with the weight of its ripening fruit; the alligator pear was marvelously beautiful in its full blossom, suggesting, in form and color, the passion-flower; the soft delicate foliage of the tamarind was like our sensitive plant; the banana trees were in full bearing, the deep green fruit (it is ripened and turns yellow off the tree) being in clusters of a hundred, more or less, tipped at the same time by a single, pendent, glutinous bud nearly as large as a pineapple. The date-palm, so suggestive of the far East, and the only one we had seen in Cuba, was represented by a choice specimen, imported in its youth. There was also the star-apple tree, remarkable for its uniform and graceful shape, full of the green fruit, with here and there a ripening specimen; so, also, was the favorite zapota, its rusty-coated fruit hanging in tempting abundance. From low, broad-spreading trees depended the grape-fruit, as large as an infant's head and yellow as gold, while the orange, lime, and lemon trees, bearing blossoms, green and ripe fruit all together, met the eye at every turn, and filled the garden with fragrance. The cocoanut palm, with its tall, straight stem and clustering fruit, dominated all the rest. Guava, fig, custard-apple, and bread-fruit trees, all were in bearing. Our hospitable host plucked freely of the choicest for the benefit of his chance visitors. Was there ever such a fruit garden before, or elsewhere? It told of fertility of soil and deliciousness of climate, of care, judgment, and liberal expenditure, all of which combined had turned these half a dozen acres of land into a Gan Eden. Through this orchard of Hesperides we were accompanied also by the proprietor's two lovely children, under nine years of age, with such wealth of promise in their large black eyes and sweet faces as to fix them on our memory with photographic fidelity.
Before leaving the garden we returned with our intelligent host once more to examine his beautiful specimens of the banana, which, with its sister fruit the plantain, forms so important a staple of food in Cuba and throughout all tropical regions. It seems that the female banana tree bears more fruit than the male, but not so large. The average clusters of the former comprise here about one hundred, but the latter rarely bears over sixty or seventy distinct specimens of the cucumber-shaped product. From the centre of its large broad leaves, which gather at the top, when it has reached the height of twelve or fifteen feet there springs forth a large purple bud ten inches long, shaped like a huge acorn, though more pointed. This cone hangs suspended from a strong stem, upon which a leaf unfolds, displaying a cluster of young fruit. As soon as these are large enough to support the heat of the sun and the chill of the rain, this sheltering leaf drops off, and another unfolds, exposing its little brood of fruit; and so the process goes on until six or eight rings of young bananas are started, forming, as we have said, bunches numbering from seventy to a hundred. The banana is a herbaceous plant, and after fruiting its top dies; but it annually sprouts up again fresh from the roots. From the unripe fruit, dried in the sun, a palatable and nutritious flour is made.
No matter where one may be, in town or country, in the east or west end of the island, Santiago or Havana, the lottery-ticket vender is there. Men, women, and children are employed to peddle the tickets, cripples especially being pressed into the service in the hope of exciting the sympathies of strangers and thus creating purchasers. It may be said to be about the only prosperous business at present going on in this thoroughly demoralized island. Half the people seem to think of nothing else, and talk of dreaming that such and such combinations of numbers will bring good luck. Some will buy only even numbers, others believe that the odd ones stand the best chance of winning; in short, all the gambling fancies are brought to bear upon these lotteries. Enough small prizes are doled out to the purchasers of tickets, by the cunning management, to keep hope and expectation ever alive in their hearts, and to coax out of them their last dollar in further investments. "If," said a native resident of Matanzas to us, "these lotteries, all of which are presided over by the officials, are honestly conducted, they are the one honest thing in which this government is concerned. Venal in everything else, why should they be conscientious in this gambling game?" No one believes in the integrity of the government, but, strange to say, the masses have implicit faith in the lotteries.
At one corner of our hotel in Cienfuegos, there sat upon the sidewalk of the street a blind beggar, a Chinese coolie, whose miserable, poverty-stricken appearance elicited a daily trifle from the habitues of the house. Early one morning we discovered this representative of want and misery purchasing a lottery ticket. They are so divided and subdivided, it appears, as to come even within the means of the street beggars! Speaking of blindness, the multiplicity of people thus afflicted, especially among negroes and coolies, led to the enumeration of those met with in a single day; the result was seventeen. On inquiry it was found that inflammation of the eyes is as common here as in Egypt, and that it runs a rapid and fatal course,—fatal to the sight after having once attacked a victim, unless it receives prompt, judicious, and scientific treatment.
The Chinese coolies, who are encountered in all parts of the island, but more especially in the cities, are almost invariably decrepit, poverty-stricken mendicants, and very frequently blind. They are such as have been through their eight years' contract, and have been brought to their present condition by ill-treatment, insufficient food, and the troubles incident to the climate. In the majority of cases these coolies have been cheated out of the trifling amount of wages promised to them, for there is no law in Cuba to which they can appeal. There are laws which will afford the negro justice if resorted to under certain circumstances, but none for the coolies. There are some few Chinamen who have survived every exigency, and are now engaged in keeping small stores or fruit stands, cigar making, and other light employments, their only hope being to gain money enough to carry them back to their native land, and to have a few dollars left to support them after getting there. There are no Chinese laundries in Cuba; John cannot compete with the black women in this occupation, for they are natural washers and ironers. John is only a skillful imitator. He proves most successful in the cigarette and cigar factories, where his deft fingers can turn out a more uniform and handsome article than the Cubans themselves. Machinery is fast doing away with hand-made cigarettes. At the famous establishment of La Honradez, in Havana, which we visited some weeks later, one machine was seen in operation which produced ten thousand complete cigarettes each hour, or a million per day! Still this same establishment employed some fifty Chinese in order to supply its trade with the hand-made article, for home consumption. The Cubans prefer to unroll and readjust a cigarette before lighting it. This cannot be done with the machine-made article, which completes its product by a pasting process. The three machines (an American patent) at the Honradez factory turn out three millions of cigarettes per day, and this is in addition to those which are hand-made by the Chinese.
The landlord of the Hotel Union, at Cienfuegos, will give you plenty of fruit and cheap Cataline wine, but the meat which is served is poor and consists mostly of birds. Any other which may be set before you will hardly be found to be a success, but then one does not crave much substantial food in this climate. There is a small wild pigeon which forms a considerable source of food in Cuba, and which breeds several times in a year. They are snared and shot in large numbers for the table, but do not show any signs of being exterminated. Ducks and water-fowl generally abound, and are depended upon to eke out the short supply of what we term butcher's meat. Three quarters of the people never partake of other meat than pigeons, poultry, and wild ducks. Eggs are little used as food, being reserved for hatching purposes. All families in the country and many in the cities make a business of raising poultry, but the product is a bird of small dimensions, not half the size of our common domestic fowls. They are very cheap, but they are also very poor. The practice is to keep them alive until they are required for the table, so that they are killed, picked, and eaten, all in the same hour, and are in consequence very tough. As the climate permits of hens hatching every month in the year, the young are constantly coming forward, and one mother annually produces several broods; chickens, like tropical fruits, are perennial.
Sunday is no more a day of rest in Cienfuegos than it is in other Roman Catholic countries; indeed, it seemed to be distinguished only by an increase of revelry, the activity of the billiard saloons, the noisy persistency of the lottery-ticket venders, the boisterousness of masquerade processions, and a general public rollicking. The city is not large enough to support a bull-ring, but cock-pits are to be found all over the island, and the Sabbath is the chosen day for their exhibitions. It must be a very small and very poor country town in Cuba which has not its cock-pit. The inveterate gambling propensities of the people find vent also at dominoes, cards, checkers, and chess in the bar-rooms, every marble table being in requisition for the purpose of the games on Sundays. Having noticed the sparse attendance at the cathedral, we remarked to Jane that the church was quite empty, whereupon she replied with a significant leer, "True, Senor, but the jail is full." More than once an underlying vein of sarcasm was observed in the very pertinent remarks of which Jane was so happily delivered.
There are comparatively few slaves to be found on the plantations or elsewhere in the vicinity of Cienfuegos: in fact, slavery is rapidly disappearing from the island. "Slave labor is more costly than any other, all things considered," said a sugar planter to us. "I do not own one to-day, but I have owned and worked six hundred at a time," he added. "We pay no tax on the laborers we hire, but on slaves we pay a heavy head-tax annually." An edict has been promulgated by the home government, which went into force last year, and which frees one slave in every four annually, so that on January 1, 1888, all will have become free. In the mean time the commercial value of slaves has so decreased in view of their near emancipation that they are not appraised on an average at over fifty or sixty dollars each. The law has for a period of many years provided that any slave who pays to his master his appraised value shall at once receive his free papers. Many purchase their liberty under this law, and then hire themselves to the same master or to some other, as they may choose,—at low wages, to be sure, but including food and shelter. Slaves have always been entitled by law in Cuba to hold individual property independent of their masters, and there are few smart ones who have not accumulated more or less pecuniary means during their servitude. They have had no expenses to meet in the way of supporting themselves. That has devolved upon their owners, so that whatever money they have realized by the several ways open to them has been clear profit. Many slaves have anticipated the period of their legal release from servitude, and more will do so during the present year. We also heard of planters who, realizing the inevitable, have manumitted the few slaves whom they still held in bondage, and hiring them at merely nominal wages, believed they saved money by the operation.
It will be seen, therefore, that slavery as an institution here is virtually at an end. Low wages will prevail, and this is necessary to enable the planters to compete with the beet sugar producers of Europe. In truth, it is a question how long they will be able to do so at any rate of wages. The modern machinery being so generally adopted by the sugar-cane planters, while remarkably successful, both, as to the quality and the quantity of the juice it expresses from the cane, not only is expensive in first cost, but it requires more intelligent laborers than were found serviceable with the old process. To supply the places of the constantly diminishing slaves, emigrants, as they were called, have heretofore been introduced from the Canary Islands; men willing to contract for a brief period of years, say eight or ten, as laborers, and at moderate wages. These people have proved to be good plantation hands, though not so well able to bear the great heat of the sun as were the negroes; otherwise they were superior to them, and better in all respects than the Chinese coolies, who as workers on the plantations have proved to be utter failures. The mortality among these Mongolians, as we learned from good authority, had reached as high as sixty-seven per cent, within eight years of their date of landing in Cuba, that being also the period of their term of contract. None have been introduced into the island for several years. This coolie importation, like the slave-trade with Africa, was a fraud and an outrage upon humanity, and never paid any one, even in a mercenary point of view, except the shipowners who brought the deceived natives from the coast of China. Slavery in Cuba and slavery in our country were always quite a different thing, and strange to say the laws of the Spanish government were far more favorable and humane towards the victims of enforced labor than were those established in our Southern States. When the American negro ceased to be a slave, he ceased to cultivate the soil for his master only to cultivate it for himself. Not so in the tropics. The Cuban negro, in the first place, is of a far less intelligent type than the colored people in the States; secondly, the abundance of natural food productions in the low latitudes, such as fruit, fish, and vegetables, requires of the negro only to pluck and to eat; clothing and shelter are scarcely needed, and virtually cost nothing where one may sleep in the open air without danger every night in the year; and finally, the negro of the tropics will not work unless he is compelled to.
There is a certain class of the Spanish slaveholders who have always fought against negro emancipation in any form,—fought against manifest destiny as well as against sound principles, fought indeed against their own clear interest, so wedded were they to the vile institution of slavery. Yet to every thinking man on the island, it is clearly apparent that human slavery in Cuba, as everywhere else, has proved to be a disturber of the public peace, and has retarded more than anything, else the material and moral progress of the entire people. It is but a short time since that the editor of a Havana newspaper, the "Revista Economica," was imprisoned in Moro Castle, and without even the pretense of a trial afterwards banished from the island, because he dared to point out the fact in print that the freeing of the slaves would prove a mutual benefit to man and master, besides being a grand act of humanity. Two years since the slaves on a large plantation near Guines refused to work on a holiday which had always heretofore been granted to them; whereupon the soldiery were called in to suppress what was called a mutiny of the blacks, resulting in nine negroes being shot dead, and many others put in chains to be scourged at leisure. Doomed as we have shown slavery to be, still it dies hard in Cuba.
In the vicinity of Cienfuegos, Santiago, and Trinidad, in the mountain regions of the eastern district, there are many lawless people,—banditti, in fact, who make war for plunder both upon native and foreign travelers, even resorting in some cases to holding prisoners for ransoms. Several aggravating instances of the latter character came to our knowledge while we were on the spot. Since these notes were commenced five of these robbers have been captured, including the leader of the band to which they belonged, a notorious outlaw named Clemente Martinez. They were taken by means of a stratagem, whereby they were decoyed into an ambush, surrounded, and captured red-handed, as they fought furiously, knowing that they had no mercy to expect at the hands of the soldiers. It was the civil guard at Rancho Veloz who made this successful raid into the hills, and every one of the prisoners was summarily shot. Such, off-hand punishment is dangerous, but in this instance it was no more prompt than just. It is necessary, therefore, to carry arms for self-defense upon the roads in some parts of the island, and even the countrymen wear swords when bringing produce to market. Residents having occasion to go any distance inland take a well-armed guard with them, to prevent being molested by the desperate refugees who lurk in the hill country. Undoubtedly many of these lawless bands are composed of former revolutionists, who are driven to extremes by want of food and the necessities of life.
Our journey was continued from Cienfuegos to Havana, by way of Matanzas, crossing the island nearly at right angles. The traveler plunges at once by this route into the midst of luxuriant tropical nature, where the vegetation is seen to special advantage, characterized by a great variety of cacti and parasitic growth, flowering trees and ever graceful palms, besides occasional ceibas of immense size. Though the landscape, somehow, was sad and melancholy, it gave rise to bright and interesting thoughts in the observer: doubtless the landscape, like humanity, has its moods. Vegetation, unlike mankind, seems here never to grow old, never to falter; crop succeeds crop, harvest follows harvest; nature is inexhaustible,—it is an endless cycle of abundance. Miles upon miles of the bright, golden-green sugar-cane lie in all directions, among which, here and there, is seen the little cluster of low buildings constituting the negroes' quarters attached to each plantation, and near by is the tall white chimney of the sugar-mill, emitting its thick volume of wreathing smoke, like the funnel of a steamboat. A little on one side stands the planter's house, low and white, surrounded by beautiful shade trees and clustering groups of flowers. Scores of dusky Africans give life to the scene, and the sturdy overseer, mounted on his little Cuban pony, dashes back and forth to keep all hands advantageously at work. One large gang is busy cutting the tall cane with sharp, sword-like knives; some are loading the stalks upon ox-carts; some are driving loads to the mill; some feeding the cane between the great steel crushers, beneath which pours forth a ceaseless jelly-like stream, to be conducted by iron pipes to the boilers; men, women, and children are spreading the crushed refuse to dry in the sun, after which it will be used for fuel. Coopers are heading up hogsheads full of the manufactured article, and others are rolling up empty ones to be filled.
Some years ago, when the author first visited Cuba, the overseer was never seen without his long, cutting whip, as well as his sword and pistols. The latter he wears to-day, but the whip is unseen. The fact is, the labor on the plantations is now so nearly free labor that there is little if any downright cruelty exercised as of yore. Or, rather, we will qualify the remark by saying that there has been a vast improvement in this respect on the side of humanity. The shadow of the picture lies in the past. One could not but recall in imagination the horrors which so long characterized these plantations. The bloodthirsty spirit of the Spanish slaveholders had free scope here for centuries, during which time the invaders sacrificed the entire aboriginal race; and since then millions of Africans have been slowly murdered by overwork, insufficient food, and the lash, simply to fill the pockets of their rapacious masters with gold. Few native Cubans are sugar-planters. These estates are almost universally owned and carried on by Spaniards from the European peninsula, or other foreigners, including Englishmen and Americans.
Occasionally, in the trip across the island, we passed through a crude but picturesque little hamlet having the unmistakable stamp of antiquity, with low straggling houses built of rude frames, covered at side and roof with palm bark and leaves; chimneys there were none,—none even in the cities,—charcoal only being used for cooking purposes, and which is performed in the open air. About the door of the long, rambling posada, a dozen or more horses were seen tied to a long bar, erected for the purpose, but no wheeled vehicles were there. The roads are only fit for equestrians, and hardly passable even for them. At rare intervals one gets a glimpse of the volante, now so generally discarded in the cities, and which suggested Dr. Holmes's old chaise, prepared to tumble to pieces in all parts at the same time. The people, the cabins, and the horses, are all stained with the red dust of the soil, recalling the Western Indians in their war paint. This pigment, or colored dirt, penetrates and adheres to everything, filling the cars and decorating the passengers with a dingy brick color. It was difficult to realize that these comparatively indifferent places through which we glided so swiftly were of importance and the permanent abode of any one. When the cars stop at the small way-stations, they are instantly invaded by lottery-ticket sellers, boys with tempting fruit, green cocoanuts, ripe oranges, and bananas,—all cheap for cash. And here too is the guava seller, with neatly sealed cans of the favorite preserve. Indeed, it seems to rain guava jelly in Cuba. Others offer country cheese, soft and white, with rolls, while in a shanty beside the road hot coffee and "blue ruin" are dealt out to thirsty souls by a ponderous mulatto woman. There are always a plenty of the denizens of the place, in slovenly dresses and slouched hats, hands in pockets, and puffing cigarettes, who do the heavy standing-round business. Stray dogs hang about the car-wheels and track to pick up the crumbs which passengers throw away from their lunch-baskets. Just over the wild-pineapple hedge close at hand, half a score of naked negro children hover round the door of a low cabin; the mother, fat and shining in her one garment, gazes with arms akimbo at the scene of which she forms a typical part. The engineer imbibes a penny drink of thin Cataline wine and hastens back to his machine, which has been taking water from an elevated cistern beside the track, the bell rings, the whistle sounds, and we are off to repeat the process and the picture, six or eight leagues further on. Take our advice and don't attempt to make a meal at one of these stations. The viands are wretchedly poor, and the price charged is a swindle.
As we approach Matanzas the scene undergoes a radical change. Comfortable habitations are multiplied, passable roads appear winding gracefully about the country, groves and gardens spring into view, with small and thrifty farms. Superb specimens of the royal palm begin to appear in abundance, always suggestive of the Corinthian column. Scattered over the hills and valleys a few fine cattle are seen cropping the rank verdure. There is no greensward in the tropics, and hay is never made. The scenery reminds one of Syria and the Nile.
One sees some vegetable and fruit farms, but sugar raising absorbs nearly every other interest, the tobacco leaf coming next, now that coffee is so neglected. The farmer ploughs with the crooked branch of a tree, having one handle with which to guide the crude machine,—just such an instrument as is used for the purpose in Egypt to-day, and has been used there for thousands of years. The cattle are mostly poor, half-starved creatures,—starved amid a vegetation only too rank and luxuriant. The dairy receives no attention in Cuba. Butter is seldom made; the canned article from this country, thin and offensive, is made to answer the purpose. The climate is too hot to keep butter or cream without ice, and that is expensive. Human beings, men, women, and children, look stunted and thin, possessing, however, wonderfully fine eyes, large, lustrous, and ebony in hue; eyes that alone make beauty; but the physiognomists have long since learned that eyes of themselves are no indication of character or moral force.
The thermometer had stood since early morning at 83 deg., during the long ride from Cienfuegos. It was hot and dusty. Notwithstanding the ceaseless novelty of the scene, one became a little fatigued, a little weary; but as we approached Matanzas, the refreshing air from off the Gulf of Mexico suddenly came to our relief, full of a bracing tonic, and rendering all things tolerable. The sight of the broad harbor, lying with its flickering surface under the afternoon sun, was beautiful to behold.
After all, these tropical regions lack the delicious freshness of the greensward, of new foliage, and the fine fragrance of the rural North; they need the invigorating sleep of the seasons from which to awake refreshed and blooming. Where vegetation is growing and decaying at the same time, there can never be general freshness and greenness; eternal summer lacks interest; we crave the frost as well as the sunshine. Compensation follows fast upon the heels of even a Northern winter. The tropical loveliness of the vegetation in this attractive land indicates what Cuba should be, but is not.
Having accompanied the reader across many degrees of latitude, effecting a landing and reaching the interior of Cuba, let us now pass to other considerations of this interesting and important island.
The Great Genoese Pilot. — Discovery of Cuba. — Its Various Names. — Treatment of the Natives. — Tobacco! — Flora of the Island. — Strange Idols. — Antiquity. — Habits of the Aborigines. — Remarkable Speech of an Indian King. — A Native Entertainment. — Paying Tribute. — Ancient Remains. — Wrong Impression of Columbus. — First Attempt at Colonization. — Battle with the Indians. — First Governor of Cuba. — Founding Cities. — Emigration from Spain. — Conquest of Mexico.
The island of Cuba was discovered by the great Genoese pilot, on the 28th day of October, 1492. The continent of America was not discovered until six years later,—in 1498. The name of Columbus flashes a bright ray over the mental darkness of the period in which he lived, for the world was then but just awakening from the dull sleep of the Middle Ages. The discovery of printing heralded the new birth of the republic of letters, and maritime enterprise received a vigorous impulse. The shores of the Mediterranean, thoroughly explored and developed, had endowed the Italian States with extraordinary wealth, and built up a very respectable mercantile marine. The Portuguese mariners were venturing farther and farther from the peninsula, and traded with many distant ports on the extended coast of Africa.
To the west lay what men supposed to be an illimitable ocean, full of mystery, peril, and death. A vague conception that islands hitherto unknown might be met afar off on that strange wilderness of waters was entertained by some minds, but no one thought of venturing in search of them. Columbus alone, regarded merely as a brave and intelligent seaman and pilot, conceived the idea that the earth was spherical, and that the East Indies, the great El Dorado of the century, might be reached by circumnavigating the globe. If we picture to ourselves the mental condition of the age and the state of science, we shall find no difficulty in conceiving the scorn and incredulity with which the theory of Columbus was received. We shall not wonder that he was regarded as a madman or as a fool; we are not surprised to remember that he encountered repulse upon repulse as he journeyed wearily from court to court, and pleaded in vain to the sovereigns of Europe for aid to prosecute his great design. The marvel is that when door after door was closed against him, when all ears were deaf to his earnest importunities, when day by day the opposition to his views increased, when, weary and footsore, he was forced to beg a bit of bread and a cup of water for his fainting and famishing boy at the door of a Spanish convent, his reason did not give way, and his great heart did not break with disappointment.
But he felt himself to be the instrument of a higher power, and his soul was then as firm and steadfast as when, launched in his frail caravel upon the ocean, he pursued day after day and night after night, amidst a murmuring, discontented, and even mutinous crew, his westward path across the trackless waters. No doubt he believed himself to be inspired, or at least specially prompted from above. This was shown by his tenacious observance of all ceremonies of the Church, in his unaffected piety, and in that lofty and solemn enthusiasm which was a characteristic of his whole life. This must have been the secret in no small degree of the power he exerted so successfully over his semi-barbarous followers, who were more affected by awe than by fear. It was the devout and lofty aspect of their commander which controlled his sailors under circumstances so trying. We can conceive of his previous sorrows, but what imagination can form an adequate conception of his hopefulness and gratitude when the tokens of the neighborhood of land first greeted his senses? What rapture must have been his when the keel of his barque first grounded on the shore of San Salvador, and he planted the royal standard in the soil, as the Viceroy and High-Admiral of Spain in the New World! No matter what chanced thereafter, a king's favor or a king's displeasure, royal largesses or royal chains, that moment of noble exultation was worth a lifetime of trials.
Columbus first named Cuba "Juana," in honor of Prince John, son of Ferdinand and Isabella. Subsequently the king named it Fernandina. This was changed to Santiago, and finally to Ave Maria; but the aboriginal designation has never been lost, Cuba being its Indian and only recognized name. The new-comers found the land inhabited by a most peculiar race, hospitable, inoffensive, timid, fond of the dance and the rude music of their own people, yet naturally indolent, from the character of the climate they inhabited. They had some definite idea of God and heaven, and were governed by patriarchs or kings, whose word was their only law, and whose age gave them undisputed precedence. They spoke the dialect of the Lucayos, or Bahamas, from which islands it is presumed by historians they originated; but it would seem more reasonable to suppose that both the people of the Bahamas and of the West India isles came originally from the mainland; that is, either north or south of the Isthmus of Panama. In numbers they were vaguely estimated at a million, a calculation the correctness of which we cannot but doubt. Reliable local authority, Cubans who have made a study of the early history of the island, assured the author that the aborigines at the time of Velasquez's first settlement, say in 1512, could not have exceeded four hundred thousand. They had but few weapons of offense or defense, and knew not the use of the bow and arrow. Being a peaceful race and having no wild animals to contend with, their ingenuity had never been taxed to invent weapons of warfare against man or beast. The natives were at once subjected by the new-comers, who reduced them gradually to an actual state of slavery, and proving hard task-masters, the poor overworked creatures died by hundreds, until they had nearly disappeared. The home government then granted permission to import negroes from the coast of Africa to labor upon the soil and to seek for gold, which was known to exist in the river courses. Thus commenced the foreign slave-trade of the West Indies, King Ferdinand himself sending fifty slaves from Seville to labor in the mines, and from that time this plague spot upon humanity has festered on the island. It should be remembered in this connection that previous to the discoveries of Columbus, negro slavery had been reduced to a system by the Moors, and thus existed in Spain before the days of the great Genoese.
The Spaniards were not content with putting the aborigines to labor far beyond their power of endurance on the soil where they were born, but shipped them by hundreds to Spain to be sold in the slave-market of Seville, the proceeds being turned into the royal treasury. Columbus himself was the promoter of this outrageous return for the hospitality he had received at the hands of the natives. Irving apologetically says he was induced to this course in order to indemnify the sovereigns of Castile and Leon for the large expense his expedition had been to them. The fact that the great navigator originated the slave-trade in the New World cannot be ignored, though it detracts in no small degree from the glory of his career.
Although the conquerors have left us but few details respecting these aborigines, still we know with certainty from the narrative of Columbus, and those of some of his most intelligent followers, that they were docile, artless, generous, but inclined to ease; that they were well-formed, grave, and far from possessing the vivacity of the natives of the south of Europe. They expressed themselves with a certain modesty and respect, and were hospitable to the last degree. Reading between the lines of the records of history, it is manifest that after their own rules and estimates, their lives were chaste and proper, though it was admissible for kings to have several wives. Moreover, though living in a state of nudity, they religiously observed the decencies of life, and were more outraged by Spanish lasciviousness than can be clearly expressed. This debasing trait, together with the greed for gold exhibited by the new-comers, disabused the minds of the natives as to the celestial origin of their visitors, a belief which they at first entertained, and which the Spaniards for mercenary purposes strove to impress upon them. The labor of this people was limited to the light work necessary to provide for the prime wants of life, beyond which they knew nothing, while the bounteous climate of the tropics spared the necessity of clothing. They preferred hunting and fishing to agriculture; beans and maize, with the fruits that nature gave them in abundance, rendered their diet at once simple, nutritious, and entirely adequate to all their wants. They possessed no quadrupeds of any description, except a race of voiceless dogs, as they were designated by the early writers,—why we know not, since they bear no resemblance to the canine species, but are not very unlike a large rat. This animal is trapped and eaten by the people on the island to this day, having much of the flavor and nature of the rabbit.
The native Cubans were of tawny complexion and beardless, resembling in many respects the aborigines of North America, and as Columbus described them in his first communication to his royal patrons, were "loving, tractable, and peaceable; though entirely naked, their manners were decorous and praiseworthy." The wonderful fecundity of the soil, its range of noble mountains, its widespread and well-watered plains, with its extended coast line and excellent harbors, all challenged the admiration of the discoverers, so that Columbus recorded in his journal these words: "It is the most beautiful island that eyes ever beheld,—full of excellent ports and profound rivers." And again he says; "It excels all other countries, as far as the day surpasses the night in brightness and splendor." The spot where the Spaniards first landed is supposed to be on the east coast, just west of Nuevitas. "As he approached the island," says Irving, "he was struck with its magnitude and the grandeur of its features: its airy mountains, which reminded him of Sicily; its fertile valleys and long sweeping plains, watered by noble rivers; its stately forests; its bold promontories and stretching headlands, which melted away into remotest distance."
Excursions inland corroborated the favorable impression made by the country bordering upon the coast. The abundance of yams, Indian corn, and various fruits, together with the plentifulness of wild cotton, impressed the explorers most favorably. Their avarice and greed were also stimulated by the belief that gold was to be found in large quantities, having received enough to convince them of its actual presence in the soil, but in the supposition that the precious metal was to be found in what is termed paying quantities they were mistaken.
The Spaniards were not a little surprised to see the natives using rude pipes, in which they smoked a certain dried leaf with apparent gratification. Tobacco was indigenous, and in the use of this now universal narcotic, these simple savages indulged in at least one luxury. The flora was strongly individualized. The frangipanni, tall and almost leafless, with thick fleshy shoots, decked with a small white blossom, was very fragrant and abundant; here also was the wild passion-flower, in which the Spaniards thought they beheld the emblems of our Saviour's passion. The golden-hued peta was found beside the myriad-flowering oleander, while the undergrowth was braided with cacti and aloes. The poisonous manchineel was observed, a drop of whose milky juice will burn the flesh like vitriol. Here the invaders also observed and noted the night-blooming cereus. They were delighted by fruits of which they knew not the names, such as the custard-apple, mango, zapota, banana, and others, growing in such rank luxuriance as to seem miraculous. We can well conceive of the pleasure and surprise of these adventurous strangers, when first partaking of these new and delicate products. This was four hundred years ago, and to-day the same flora and the same luscious food grow there in similar abundance. Nature in this land of ceaseless summer puts forth strange eagerness, ever running to fruits, flowers, and fragrance, as if they were outlets for her exuberant fecundity.
The inoffensive, unsuspicious natives shared freely everything they possessed with the invaders. Hospitality was with them an instinct, fostered by nature all about them; besides which it was a considerable time before they ceased to believe their guests superior beings descended from the clouds in their winged vessels. The Indians lived in villages of two or three hundred houses, built of wood and palm-leaf, each dwelling containing several families, the whole of one lineage, and all were governed by caciques or kings, the spirit of the government being patriarchal.
We are told by Las Casas, who accompanied Velasquez in all his expeditions, that "their dances were graceful and their singing melodious, while with primeval innocence they thought no harm of being clad only with nature's covering." The description of the gorgeous hospitality extended to these treacherous invaders is absolutely touching in the light of our subsequent knowledge. They reared no sacred temples, nor did they seem to worship idols, and yet some few antiquities have been preserved which would seem to indicate that the natives possessed grotesque images, half human and half animal, like Chinese gods in effect. These were wrought so rudely out of stone as hardly to convey any fixed idea; vague and imperfect, it is not safe to define them as idolatrous images. They might have been left here by a previous race, for, as we are all aware, respectable authorities hold that this part of the world was originally peopled by Carthaginians, Israelites, Egyptians, Hindoos, and Africans. Columbus, in his second voyage to the West Indies, found the stern-post of a vessel lying on the shore of one of the Leeward isles, which was strongly presumptive evidence that a European ship had been in these waters before him. The fact that at this writing, as already described, there lies in the harbor of Santiago the wreck of the old St. Paul, which must be over three centuries old, shows how long a piece of marine architecture may last, submerged in salt water.
An idol similar to those referred to was dug up in Hayti, and is now believed to be in the British Museum, drawings of which the author has seen, and which resemble original religious emblems examined by him in the caves of Elephanta, at Bombay. This emblem, carved by a people unacquainted with the use of edge tools, is believed by antiquarians to afford a degree of light as to the history of worship of the ancient inhabitants of Hispaniola, and also to form a collateral support of the conjecture that they sprang from the parent stock of Asia. According to Las Casas, the native Cubans had a vague tradition of the formation of the earth, and of all created things; of the deluge, of the ark, the raven, and the dove. They knew the tradition of Noah also, according to the same high authority, but for our own part we do not believe that the aborigines had any knowledge of this Biblical story. Their priests were fanatics and kept the people in fear by gross and extravagant means; but as to any formulated system of religious worship, it may be doubted if the aborigines of Cuba recognized any at the time of its discovery by Columbus. Unbroken peace reigned among them, and they turned their hands against no other people.
These aborigines exhibited many of the traits universally evinced by savage races, such as painting their bodies with red earth and adorning their heads with the feathers of brilliant birds. Much of the soil is red, almost equal to a pigment, for which purpose it was employed by the natives. They lived mostly in the open air, weaving themselves hammocks in which they slept, suspended among the trees. The cotton which they spun grew wild, but tobacco they planted and cultivated after a rude fashion. The iguana and the voiceless dog, already spoken of, were hunted and eaten, the former of the lizard family, the latter scarcely more than fifteen inches long. They had domestic birds which they fattened and ate. Their only arms were lances tipped with sea-shells, and a sort of wooden sword, both of which were more for display than for use. Fish they caught in nets and also with hooks made of bones. Their boats, or canoes, were formed of the dug-out trunks of trees, and some of these canoes, as Columbus tells us, were sufficiently large to accommodate fifty men. An ancient writer upon this subject says the oars were well formed and properly fitted, but were used only with the power of the arms, that is as paddles, no rowlocks being cut in the boat. The speed attained by them was remarkable, reaching four leagues an hour when an effort to that end was made by the occupants. A large canoe, made from the straight trunk of a mahogany tree, is described as having been five feet in width and seventy-five feet long. This craft was propelled by twenty-five oarsmen on each side, a steersman in the stern, and a lookout at the prow. This was a cacique's barge, in which he made visits of state along shore and up the rivers.
History has preserved a remarkable and characteristic speech made by a venerable cacique, who approached Columbus with great reverence on the occasion of his second visit to Cuba, and who, after presenting him with a basket of ripe fruit, said: "Whether you are divinities or mortal men, we know not. You have come into these countries with a force, against which, were we inclined to resist, it would be folly. We are all therefore at your mercy; but if you are men, subject to mortality like ourselves, you cannot be unapprised that after this life there is another, wherein a very different portion is allotted to good and bad men. If therefore you expect to die, and believe, with us, that every one is to be rewarded in a future state according to his conduct in the present, you will do no hurt to those who do none to you." This was duly interpreted to Columbus by a native whom he had taken to Spain, and who had there acquired the Spanish language. His name was Didacus, and the date of the speech was July 7, 1492. The truth of this version is attested by Herrera and others.
The reception which Bartholomew Columbus, who was appointed Deputy Governor in the absence of the Admiral, afterwards met with in his progress through the island to collect tribute from the several caciques manifested not only kindness and submission, but also munificence. Having heard of the eagerness of the strangers for gold, such of them as possessed any brought it forth and freely bestowed it upon the Spaniards. Those who had not gold brought abundance of cotton. One cacique in the interior, named Behechio, invited the Deputy Governor to a state entertainment, on which occasion he was received with great ceremony. As he approached the king's dwelling, the royal wives, thirty in number, carrying branches of palm in their hands, came forth to greet the guest with song and dance. These matrons were succeeded by a train of virgins. The first wore aprons of cotton, the last were arrayed only in the innocence of nature, their hair flowing long and freely about their shoulders and necks. Their limbs were finely proportioned, and their complexions, though brown, were smooth, shining, and lovely. The Spaniards were struck with admiration, believing that they beheld the dryads of the woods and the nymphs of the ancient fables. The branches which they bore were delivered to the strangers with low obeisance, indicating entire submission. When the Spaniards entered the rural palace, amid songs and the rude music of the people, they found there a plentiful and, according to the Indian mode of living, a sumptuous banquet prepared for them.
After the repast the guests were each conducted to separate lodgings, and each provided with a cotton hammock. On the next day feasting and games were resumed; dancing and singing closed each evening for four consecutive days, and when the Deputy Governor and his people departed, they were laden with gifts by their generous entertainers, who also accompanied them far on their way. This episode will perhaps serve better to give us a just insight into the condition and character of the aborigines of Cuba at that early period than any amount of detailed description possibly could.
These aborigines, according to Las Casas, had no tradition even, touching their own origin, and when asked about it only shook their heads and pointed to the sky. Antiquarians have endeavored to draw some reliable or at least reasonable deductions from the collection of bones and skeletons found in the mountain caves of the island, but no conclusion worthy of record has ever been arrived at. Still, upon these evidences some scientists pin their faith that Cuba was a portion of the primitive world. Speaking of these caves, there are many subterranean openings on the island, down which rivers of considerable size abruptly disappear, not again to be met with, though it is reasonably presumed that they find their way through the rocks and soil to the sea-coast.
During the ten years subsequent to its discovery, Columbus visited and partially explored the island at four different times, the last being in 1502, four years previous to his death, which took place at Valladolid in 1506. It seems singular to us that his investigations left him still ignorant of the fact that Cuba was an island, and not a part of a new continent. This conviction remained with him during his lifetime. It was not until 1511 that the Spaniards commenced to colonize the island, when Diego Columbus, then Governor of San Domingo, sent an expedition of three hundred men for the purpose, under the command of Diego Velasquez, whose landing was disputed by the natives. A period of ten years had served to open their eyes to Spanish lust and lore of gold, and from having at first regarded them as superior beings, entitled to their obedience, they were finally thus driven to fight them in self-defense. But what could naked savages, armed only with clubs and spears, accomplish against Europeans, trained soldiers, furnished with firearms, protected by plate armor, and accompanied by bloodhounds,—men who had learned the art of war by fighting successfully with the valiant Moors? The natives were at once overpowered and hundreds were slaughtered. From that time forth they became the slaves of their conquerors; a fact which reconciles us in some degree in the light of poetical justice to the fact that Amerigo Vespucci, who followed in the footsteps of others, yet took the honors of discovery so far as to give his name to the largest quarter of the globe.
Diego Velasquez, the earliest Governor of the island, appears to have been an energetic and efficient magistrate, and to have administered affairs with vigor and intelligence. He did not live, however, in a period when justice ever erred on the side of mercy, and his harsh and cruel treatment of the aborigines will always remain a stain upon his memory. The native population soon dwindled away under the sway of the Spaniards, who imposed tasks upon them far beyond their physical powers of endurance. The victims of this hardship had no one to befriend them at that time, and no one has done them justice in history. The few glimpses of their character which have come down to us are of a nature greatly to interest us in this now extinct race. Their one fault was in trusting the invaders at all. At the outset they could have swept them from the face of the earth, but, once permitted to establish themselves, they soon became too powerful to be driven out of the land. A native chief, whose only crime was that of taking up arms in defense of the integrity of his little territory, fell into the hands of Velasquez, and was cruelly burned at the stake, near what is now the town of Yara, as a punishment for his patriotism. The words of this unfortunate but brave chief (Hatuey), extorted by the torments which he suffered, were: "I prefer hell to heaven, if there are Spaniards in heaven!"
In point of energetic action and material progress, Velasquez reminds us of a later Governor-General, the famous Tacon. In a single decade, Velasquez founded the seven cities of Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Bayamo, Puerto del Principe, St. Spiritus, and, on the south coast near Batabano, Havana, since removed to its present site. He caused the mines to be opened and rendered them profitable, introduced valuable breeds of cattle, instituted agricultural enterprise, and opened a large trade with San Domingo, Jamaica, and the Spanish peninsula. Population increased rapidly, thousands of persons emigrating annually from Europe, tempted by the inviting stories of the returned explorers. Emigration schemes were approved and fostered by the home government, and thus a large community was rapidly divided among the several cities upon the island. Still this new province was considered mainly in the light of a military depot by the Spanish throne, in its famous operations at that period in Mexico. The fact that it was destined to prove the richest jewel in the Castilian crown, and a mine of wealth to the Spanish treasury, was not dreamed of at that date in its history. Even the enthusiastic followers of Cortez, who sought that fabulous El Dorado in the New World, had no promise for this gem of the Caribbean Sea; but, in spite of every side issue and all contending interests, the island continued to grow in numbers and importance, while its native resources were far beyond the appreciation of the home government.
Thus Cuba became the headquarters of the Spanish power in the West, forming the point of departure for those military expeditions which, though circumscribed in numbers, were yet so formidable in the energy of the leaders, and in the arms, discipline, courage, fanaticism, and avarice of their followers, that they were amply adequate to carry out the vast scheme of conquest for which they were designed. It was hence that Cortez embarked for the conquest of Mexico; a gigantic undertaking, a slight glance at which will recall to the mind of the reader the period of history to which we would direct his attention.
Landing upon the continent (1518) with a little band scarcely more than half the complement of a modern regiment, Cortez prepared to traverse an unknown country, thronged by savage tribes with whose character, habits, and means of defense he was wholly unacquainted. This romantic adventure, worthy of the palmiest days of chivalry, was finally crowned with success, though checkered with various fortunes, and stained with bloody episodes that prove how the threads of courage and ferocity are inseparably blended in the woof and warp of Spanish character. It must be remembered, however, that the spirit of the age was harsh, relentless, and intolerant, and that if the Aztecs, idolaters and sacrificers of human victims, found no mercy at the hands of the fierce Catholics whom Cortez commanded, neither did the Indians of our own section of the continent fare much better at the hands of men professing to be disciples of a purer faith, and coming to these shores, not as warriors, but themselves persecuted fugitives.
The Spanish generals who invaded Mexico encountered a people who had attained a far higher point of civilization than their red brethren of the outlying Caribbean Islands, or those of the northeastern portion of the continent. Vast pyramids, imposing sculptures, curious arms, fanciful garments, various kinds of manufactures, the relics of which strongly interest the student of the past, filled the invaders with surprise. There was much that was curious and startling in their mythology, and the capital of the Mexican empire presented a strange and fascinating spectacle to the eyes of Cortez. The rocky amphitheatre in the midst of which it was built still remains unchanged, but the great lake which surrounded it, traversed by causeways and covered with floating gardens laden with flowers, is gone.
The star of the Aztec dynasty set in blood. In vain did the inhabitants of the conquered city, roused to madness by the cruelty and extortion of the victors, expel them from their midst. Cortez refused to flee farther than the shore; the light of his burning galleys rekindled the desperate valor of his followers, and Mexico fell, as a few years after did Peru under the perfidy and sword of Pizarro, thus completing the scheme of conquest, and giving Spain a colonial empire far more splendid than that of any other power in Christendom.
Of the agents in this vast scheme of territorial aggrandizement, we see Cortez dying in obscurity and Pizarro assassinated in his palace, while retributive justice has overtaken the monarchy at whose behest the richest portions of the Western Continent were violently wrested from their native possessors.
Baracoa, the First Capital. — West Indian Buccaneers. — Military Despotism. — A Perpetual State of Siege. — A Patriotic Son of Cuba. — Political Condition of the Island. — Education of Cuban Youths. — Attempts at Revolution. — Fate of General Narciso Lopez. — The Late Civil War and its Leader. — Terrible Slaughter of Spanish Troops. — Stronghold of the Insurgents. — Guerrillas. — Want of Self-Reliance. — Spanish Art, Literature, and Conquest. — What Spain was. — What Spain is. — Rise and Fall of an Empire.
Baracoa lies one hundred miles northeast from Santiago, and was the capital of the island as first established by Velasquez. Here Leo X. erected in 1518 the first cathedral in Cuba. The town is situated on the north coast, near the eastern extremity of the island, having a small but deep harbor, and a considerable trade in the shipping of sugar and fruits to this country. The population at present numbers about six thousand. Five years after the settlement of Baracoa, the capital was moved to Santiago de Cuba, where it remained until 1589, when Havana was formally declared to be the capital of the island, its first Captain-General being Juan de Tejada. The city was captured and partially destroyed by a French pirate in 1638, and afterwards suffered a like catastrophe at the hands of the buccaneers of combined nationality, embracing some disaffected Spaniards. So late as 1760 Havana was captured and held by the English, under the Duke of Albemarle, but was restored to Spain, after a brief occupancy, in 1763. The first grand impulse to the material prosperity of the city, anomalous though it may seem, was given through its capture by the British. It is true that the victors seized everything by force, but they also taught the listless people how to repair their losses, and how to multiply prosperity. The port of Havana, accustomed heretofore to receive the visits of half a score of European vessels annually, suddenly became the rendezvous of a thousand ships in the same period of time, much to the surprise of the inhabitants. Bourbon in nature as the Spaniards were and still are, they could not but profit by the brilliant example of their enemies, and from that time forward the city grew rapidly in commercial importance, and has continued to do so, notwithstanding the rivalry of Matanzas, Santiago, Cienfuegos, and other ports, as well as the drawbacks of civil war and business stagnation.
These buccaneers of the West Indies, to whom we have so often alluded, were composed mostly of English, French, and Dutch adventurers, whose bitter hatred the Spaniards early incurred. They were for a long time their terror and scourge, being the real masters of the ocean in these latitudes. They feared no enemy and spared none, while by shocking acts of needless cruelty they proved themselves fiends in human shape. Among these rovers there were often found men particularly fitted for the adventurous career they had adopted, men who combined remarkable executive ability with a spirit of daring bravery and a total disregard of all laws, human and divine. By a few such leaders the bands of freebooters were held in hand, and preserved their organization for many years; obedience to the word of their chief, after he was once chosen as such, being the one inviolable law of their union. The romance of the sea owes its most startling chapters to the career of these pirates. Sometimes their principal rendezvous was at the Isle of Pines; at others further north among the Bahamas, Nassau being one of their favorite resorts.
In the mean time, under numerous and often changed Captains-General, the island of Cuba increased in population by free emigration from Spain, and by the constant importations of slaves from Africa. It may be said to have been governed by a military despotism from the very outset to the present time; and nothing short of such an arbitrary rule could maintain the connection between the island and so exacting a mother country, more than three thousand miles across the ocean. Accordingly we find the Captain-General invested with unlimited power. He is in fact a viceroy appointed by the crown of Spain, and accountable only to the reigning sovereign for his administration of the colony. His rule is absolute. He has the power of life and death in his hands. He can by his arbitrary will send into exile any person who resides in the island whom he considers inimical to the interests of the home government. Of the exercise of this power instances are constantly occurring, as in the case of the editor of the "Revista Economica," already recorded. He can at will suspend the operation of the laws and ordinances, can destroy or confiscate property, and in short, the island may be said to be in a perpetual state of siege.
Such is the infirmity of human nature that few individuals can be safely trusted with despotic power; accordingly we find no Captain-General whose administration will bear the test of rigid examination. Indeed, the venality of a majority of these officials has been so gross as to have passed into a proverb. It is not to be expected that officers from Spain should consult the true interests of the Cubans; they are not sent hither for that purpose, but merely to look after the revenue of the crown, and to swell it to the very uttermost. The office of Governor-General is of course a brilliant prize, for which there are plenty of aspirants eagerly struggling, while the means by which a candidate is most likely to succeed in obtaining the appointment presupposes a character of an inferior order. This official knows that he cannot count on a long term of office, and hence he makes no effort to study the interests or gain the good-will of the people over whom he presides. He has a twofold object only in view: namely, to keep the revenue well up to the mark, and to enrich himself as speedily as possible. The princely salary he receives—fifty thousand dollars per annum, with a palace and household attendants supplied—is but a portion of the income which, by a system of peculation, he is enabled to divert to his private coffers. As a rule, the Captain-General comes out to Cuba a poor man, and returns a rich one, however brief his term of office.
Occasionally during the lapse of years a true and patriotic man has filled this important post, when the remarkable elements of prosperity contained within the limits of this peerless land were rapidly developed and advanced. Such an one was Don Luis de las Casas, whose name is cherished by all patriotic Cubans, as also is that of Don Francisco de Arrango, an accomplished statesman and a native of Havana. He was educated in Spain, and designed to follow the law as a profession. This man, being thoroughly acquainted with the possibilities of the island and the condition and wants of his countrymen, succeeded in procuring the amelioration of some of the most flagrant abuses of the colonial system. In his argument for reform before the home government, he told them that serious dissent permeated every class of the community, and was bid in return to employ a still more stringent system of rule. To this Arrango replied that force was not remedy, and that to effectually reform the rebellious they must first reform the laws. His earnest reason carried conviction, and finally won concession. By his exertions the staple productions of the island were so much increased that the revenue, in place of falling short of the expenses of the government as his enemies had predicted, soon yielded a large surplus. He early raised his voice against the iniquitous slave trade, and suggested the introduction of white labor, though he admitted that the immediate and wholesale abolition of slavery was impracticable. This was the rock on which he split, as it regarded his influence with the Spaniards in Cuba, that is, with the planters and rich property holders. Slavery with them was a sine qua non. Many of them owned a thousand Africans each, and the institution, as an arbitrary power as well as the means of wealth, was ever dear to the Spanish heart. Former and subsequent Captains-General not only secretly encouraged the clandestine importation of slaves, after issuing an edict prohibiting it, but profited pecuniarily by the business. It was owing to his exertions that the duty on coffee, spirits, and cotton was remitted for a period of ten years, and that machinery for the sugar plantations was allowed to be imported into Cuba from the United States free of all duty.
The patriotic services of Arrango were appreciated by the court of Madrid, although he was at times the inflexible opponent of its selfish schemes. The Cross of Charles III. showed the esteem in which he was held by that monarch. With a modesty which did him honor he declined to accept a title of nobility which was afterwards tendered to him by his king. This patriotic son of Cuba was at heart a republican, and declared that the king could make noblemen, but God only could make gentlemen. In 1813, when, by the adoption of the Constitution of 1812, Cuba became entitled to representation in the general Cortes,—a privilege but briefly enjoyed,—he went to Madrid as a deputy, and there achieved the crowning glory of his useful life: namely, the opening of the ports of the island to foreign trade. In 1817 he returned to his native land with the rank of Counselor of State and Financial Intendant of Cuba, also possessing the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella. He died in 1837, at the age of seventy-two, after a long and eminently useful life, bequeathing large sums of money for various public purposes in his native isle.
When the invasion of Spain, which took place in 1808, produced the Constitution of 1812, Cuba was considered entitled, as we have stated, to enjoy its benefits, and it was so announced by royal statute; but political revolution at home and a manifest restiveness upon the island finally led in 1836 to the revoking of this royal statute, which had never been practically operative, and the old Constitution was proclaimed.
Up to this period of time the various political events at home had disturbed but slightly the tranquillity of this rich province of Spain. The Cubans, although sensible of the progress of public intelligence and wealth under the protection of a few enlightened governors and through the influence of some distinguished and patriotic individuals, still felt that these advances were slow, partial, and limited. The most intelligent realized that there was no regular system; that the public interests were sure to suffer, confided to officials entrusted with unlimited power. They frequently saw themselves betrayed by a cupidity which impelled the authorities to enrich themselves in every possible way at the expense of general suffering. Added to these sources of discontent was the powerful influence exerted by the spectacle of the rapidly increasing greatness of the United States, where a portion of the Cuban youths were wont to receive their education. No matter in what political faith these youths had left home, they were sure to return republicans.
There also were the examples of Mexico and Spanish South America, which had recently conquered with their blood their emancipation from monarchy. Liberal ideas were naturally diffused by Cubans who had traveled either in Europe or North America, there imbibing the spirit of modern civilization. But with a fatuity and obstinacy which has always characterized her, the mother country resolved to ignore all causes of discontent, and their significant influence as manifested by the people of the island. In place of yielding to the popular current and introducing a liberal and mild system of government, she drew the reins yet tighter, curtailing many former privileges. Thus it was that blind persistence in the fatal principle of despotic domination relaxed the natural bonds uniting Cuba and the mother country, and infused gall into the hearts of the governed. Obedience still continued, but it was the dangerous obedience of terror, not the secure and instinctive spirit of loyalty.
This severity on the part of the home government has naturally given rise to several attempts to cast off the Spanish yoke. The first occurred in 1823, when Simon Bolivar offered to aid the disaffected party by throwing an invading force into the island. Another was made in 1826, and a third in 1828. In 1848 a conspiracy was formed at Cienfuegos and Trinidad to establish Cuban independence, under the leadership of General Narciso Lopez; but finding that his plans were premature, he escaped to this country, and here arranged a descent upon the island, which he led in person: this was in 1850. General Lopez, however, was not seconded by the timid natives, though they had freely pledged themselves to do so, and his expedition, after winning one decisive battle and several important skirmishes, was at last overpowered and its leader promptly executed. General Lopez was an adopted citizen of Cuba, and was married to one of her daughters. He was executed at the age of fifty-two.
The Lopez expedition would seem to have been the most serious and best organized attempt at revolution in Cuba by invasion, though there have been formidable attempts since. From 1868 to 1876 Cuba may be said to have been in a state of chronic civil war. This outbreak was led by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, an able lawyer and wealthy planter of Bayamo, in the eastern department of the island. He raised the standard of independence on his estate, Demajagua, supported at the outset by less than fifty men. This was in October, 1868, and by the middle of November he had an organized army of twelve thousand men; poorly armed, it must be admitted, but united in purpose and of determined will. That portion of the island contiguous to Santiago, and between that city and Cienfuegos, was for a long period almost entirely in possession of the patriot forces. Here many sanguinary battles were fought with varying fortune, at terrible sacrifice of life, especially on the part of the government troops, over one hundred thousand of whom, first and last, are known to have perished in that district. Spain actually sent one hundred and forty-five thousand enlisted men to Cuba during the eight years of active warfare. Of this number those who finally returned to the European peninsula were but a few hundreds! It was publicly stated in the Cortes of Madrid that not enough of that immense force ever returned to fill a single regiment! The climate was far more fatal to these soldiers than were patriot bullets. The warfare was conducted by the native Cubans mostly on the guerrilla plan, and was ten times more destructive to the imported soldiers than to themselves. Discipline counted for little or nothing in contending with men who fought single-handed and from ambush, decimating the ranks of an invading column, who in turn could only fire at random.
Exhaustion and promised concessions, which were, as usual with the Spanish government, never fulfilled, finally brought this struggle to an end; but it cost Spain many millions of dollars and the lives of over a hundred and fifty thousand men, saying nothing of the destruction of an enormous amount of property on the island, belonging to loyal Spaniards. Miles upon miles of thrifty plantations, with all their buildings and machinery, were laid waste, and remain so to this day.
Since 1876 there have been roving bands of insurgents in existence, causing the authorities more or less serious trouble, leading them at times to make serious attempts at their entire suppression. But the mountains and half-inaccessible forests of the eastern department still serve to secrete many armed and disaffected people, whose frequent outbreaks are made public by the slow process of oral information. The press is forbidden to publish any news of this character. Thus it will be seen that, although the spirit of liberty may slumber in the island, it is by no means dead, nor is the intense hatred which exists between the home-born Spaniard and the native Cuban growing less from year to year. Indeed, the insurrection of Trinidad and Cienfuegos (1868) still smoulders, and any extreme political exigency would be liable to cause it to blaze forth with renewed force. The region where the insurgents have always made their rendezvous, and which they have virtually held for years, is nearest to Guantanamo and Santiago. This mountainous district is the resort of all runaway slaves, escaped criminals, and those designated as insurgents. These together form at the present time a roving community of several hundred desperate men. These refugees, divided into small bands, make predatory raids upon travelers and loyal planters, as we have described, to keep themselves supplied with the necessities of life other than those afforded by the prolific hand of Nature. Occasionally they are organized by some fresh leader, some daring native, stimulated by a spirit of patriotism, and possessing some executive ability; then follows a systematic outbreak of just sufficient importance to harass the government, and to form, perhaps, an excuse for demanding a fresh regiment of victims from the European peninsula. Such a guerrilla contest engages the worst passions of the combatants, and quarter is neither asked nor given when they come face to face. The bloodthirsty acts of both sides, as related to the author during his late visit to the spot, are too horrible to record in these pages. It is not legitimate warfare, but rather wholesale murder, which characterizes these occasions, and there is no expedient of destruction not resorted to by both the refugees and the pursuing soldiers. The nature of the country favors the revolutionists, and determines their mode of conflict. Thus far, when the irregular bands have been strong enough to meet these detachments of regulars sent into their neighborhood to capture them, they have nearly always beaten them gallantly, and this has served to perpetuate their hopes, desperate as is a cause which only outlaws, escaped criminals, and slaves dare to fight for. These people appear to be well supplied with arms and ammunition, which it is said are smuggled to them from sympathizers in this country, particularly from Florida. Though their ranks are supposed to embrace but small numbers, still they form a nucleus at all times, about which discontented spirits may gather. Thus it is found necessary to quarter a foreign army of thirty thousand soldiers upon the people at the present time, while half the navy of Spain lies anchored in the ports of the island.
One great drawback and defect in the character of the native Cubans is a want of self-reliance. The remedy for the outrageous oppression under which they have so long struggled lies within themselves; "for they can conquer who believe they can." In the consciousness of strength is strength, but the Creole republicans have never yet evinced the necessary degree of true manhood to challenge general outside sympathy, or to command the respect of other nationalities. The numerous revolutionary outbreaks upon the island—so frequent in the last half century as to be chronic—have all been of the most insignificant character, compared with the importance of the occasion and the object in view. These efforts have mostly been made from without, almost entirely unsupported from within the borders of Cuba, with the exception of that of 1868. It appears incredible that an intelligent people, within so short a distance of our Southern coast, constantly visited by the citizens of a free republic, and having the example of successful revolt set them by the men of the same race, both in the North and the South, weighed down by oppression almost without parallel, should never have aimed an effectual blow at their oppressors. It would seem that the softness of the unrivaled climate of those skies, beneath which it is luxury only to exist, has unnerved this people, and that the effeminate spirit of the original inhabitants had descended in retribution to the posterity of their conquerors.
In closing these brief chapters relating to the early history of the island of Cuba, and in bringing the record up to our own period, some natural reflections suggest themselves as to the present condition of the mother country. We follow with more than passing interest the condition of Spain, whose history is so closely interwoven with our own. From the close of the fifteenth century our paths have run on in parallel lines, but while we have gone on increasing in power and wealth, she has sunk in the scale of decadence with a rapidity no less surprising than has been the speed of our own progress. At the commencement of the sixteenth century Spain threatened to become the mistress of the world, as Rome had been before her. She may be said to have at that period dominated Europe. In art she was in the very foremost position: Murillo, Velasquez, Ribera, and other famous painters were her honored sons. In literature she was also distinguished: both Cervantes and Lope de Vega contributed to her greatness and lasting fame. While, in discoverers and conquerors, she sent forth Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro. The banners of Castile and Aragon floated alike on the Pacific and the margin of the Indian Ocean. Her ships sailed in every sea, and brought home freights of fabulous value from all the regions of the earth. Her manufacturers produced the richest silks and velvets; her soil yielded corn and wine; her warriors were adventurous and brave; her soldiers inherited the gallantry of the followers of Charles V.; her cities were the splendid abodes of luxury, refinement, and elegance. She was the court of Europe, the acknowledged leader of chivalry and of grandeur.
This is the picture of what Spain was at no remote period of time, but in her instance we have an example showing us that states are no more exempt than individuals from the mutability of fate. So was it with Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome, though in their case we look far back into the vista of history to recall the change, whereas in the instance of Spain we are contemporary witnesses. From a first-class power, how rapidly she has sunk into comparative insignificance! She has been shorn of her wealthy colonies, one after another, in the East and in the West, holding with feeble grasp a few inconsiderable islands only besides this gem of the Antilles, the choicest jewel of her crown. Extremely poor and deeply indebted, she has managed for years to extort by means of the most outrageous system of taxation a large share of her entire revenue from the island of Cuba, her home population having long since become exhausted by over-burdensome imposts. Her nobles of to-day are an effeminate, soulless, and imbecile race, while the common people, with some excellent qualities, are yet ignorant, cruel, and passionate. The whole country is divided against itself, the tottering throne being with difficulty upheld. Even the elements have of late seemed to combine against her, decimating whole cities of her southern possessions by earthquakes, and smiting her people with pestilence.
This simple statement of her present situation is patent to all who read and observe. It is not an overdrawn picture. In it the moralist beholds the retributive justice of providence. As Spain in the plenitude of her power was ambitious, cruel, and perfidious, so has the measure which she meted out to others been in return accorded to herself. As with fire and sword she swept the Aztec and the Incas from Mexico and Peru, so was she at last driven from these genial countries by their revolted inhabitants. The spoiler has been despoiled, the victor has been vanquished, and thus has Spain met the just fate clearly menaced by the Scriptures to those who smite with the sword.
Geographical. — A Remarkable Weed. — Turtle-Hunting. — Turtle-Steaks in Olden Times. — The Gulf Stream. — Deep-Sea Soundings. — Mountain Range of Cuba. — Curious Geological Facts. — Subterranean Caverns. — Wild Animals. — The Rivers of the Island. — Fine Harbors. — Historic Memories of the Caribbean Sea. — Sentinel of the Gulf. — Importance of the Position. — Climate. — Hints for Invalids. — Matanzas. — Execution of a Patriot. — Valley of Yumuri; Caves of Bellamar; Puerto Principe; Cardenas.
Having thus briefly glanced at the historical and political story of Cuba,—whose very name seems bathed in sunshine and fragrance, yet bedewed with human tears,—let us now consider its peculiarities of climate, soil, and population, together with its geographical characteristics. The form of the island is quite irregular, resembling the blade of a Turkish scimitar slightly curved back, or that of a long narrow crescent, presenting its convex side to the north. It stretches away in this shape from east to west, throwing its western end into a curve, as if to form a barrier to the outlet of the Gulf of Mexico, and as if at some ancient period it had formed a part of the American continent; severed on its north side from the Florida peninsula by the wearing of the Gulf Stream, and from Yucatan, on its southwestern point, by a current setting into the Gulf. Two broad channels are thus formed, by either of which the Mexican Gulf is entered.
These channels are nearly of the same width, somewhat exceeding a hundred miles each, the northern passage being a few miles the broader. The Bahama Banks extend along its northern coast-line about fifty or sixty miles distant, where commences the group of many small isles known as the Bahamas, and of which we have already treated. On her eastern extreme, near Cape Maysi, Cuba is within about fifty miles of the western shore of Hayti, from which it is separated by the Windward Passage. The southern shore is washed by the Caribbean Sea, which is also here and there interspersed with small islands of little importance. One hundred and fifty miles due south lies the British island of Jamaica, with a superficial area of over four thousand square miles. Still further to the eastward, on the other side of Hayti, lies Porto Rico (like Cuba a Spanish possession), and the two groups of islands known as the Leeward and Windward isles. These are of various nationalities, including English, French, and Dutch, thus completing the entire region familiarly known to us as the West Indies.
In approaching the coast from the Windward isles, the observant traveler will notice the fields of what is called gulf-weed, which floats upon the surface of the sea. It is a unique genus, found nowhere except in these tropical waters, and must not be confounded with the sea-weed encountered by Atlantic steamers off the Banks of Newfoundland, and about the edges of the Gulf Stream in that region. This singular and interesting weed propagates itself on the waves, and there sustains, as on the shore of New Providence, zooephytes and mollusks which also abound in these latitudes. The poetical theory relating to this sargasso, and possibly to the animals that cling to it, is that it marks the site of an Atlantic continent sunk long ages since, and that, transformed from a rooting to a floating plant, it wanders round and round as if in search of the rocks upon which it once grew. The southern shore of Cuba presents much of special interest to the conchologist in the variety and beauty of the sea-shells that abound upon its beaches. The water is of an exquisite color, a brilliant green, very changeable, like liquid opal. Were an artist truthfully to depict it, he would be called color-mad. Northern skies are never reflected in waters of such fanciful hues. Some beautiful specimens of white corals are found here, but they are not a characteristic of the coast.
On that portion bordering the Old Bahama Channel, and also opposite the Isle of Pines, which Columbus named Evangelista,—on this south shore, large numbers of turtles are taken annually, which produce the best quality of tortoise-shell. It is strange that the habits of these creatures down here in the Caribbean Sea should so closely resemble those of the tiny tortoises described by Thoreau as frequenting Walden Pond. The female turtle digs the hole in which to deposit her eggs on the sandy beach, just above the margin of high tide, generally choosing a moonlight night for the purpose. The hole is often so large that the turtle will require an hour of industrious labor to dig it to her entire satisfaction. Observing the strictest silence, the turtle-hunter steals upon the animal, and with a single motion turns it upon its back, rendering it utterly helpless, after which it can be secured at will. Thousands are annually caught in this manner.
It is a curious fact worth recalling to memory that four hundred years ago, when Columbus first landed upon the island, he found that the aborigines kept turtle corrals near the beach, amply supplied with these animals. From them they procured eggs, and also furnished themselves with the only meat which it was possible to obtain, if we except that of the little "voiceless dog" which they hunted, and such birds as they could snare. Probably as many turtles were taken by those Carib Indians in 1492 as are caught by the fishermen this year of our Lord, in the same waters, showing how inexhaustible is the supply of Neptune's kingdom. Modern epicures may not therefore claim any distinction as to the priority of discovery touching turtle soup and turtle steaks, both of which were certainly indulged in by the Caribs in Columbus' time, and probably they were in vogue many centuries previous.