One neither departs from nor approaches the Cuban shore without crossing that marvelous ocean river, the Gulf Stream, with banks and bottom of cold water, while its body and surface are warm. Its color, in the region of the gulf where it seems to have its rise, is indigo blue, so distinct that the eye can follow its line of demarkation where it joins the common waters of the sea in their prairie-green. Its surface temperature on the coast of the United States is from 75 deg. to 80 deg. Fahrenheit. Its current, of a uniform speed of four to five miles per hour, expends immense power in its course, and moves a body of water in the latitude of the Carolina coast fully two hundred miles wide. This aqueous body exceeds in quantity the rivers of the Mississippi and the Amazon multiplied one thousand times. Its temperature diminishes very gradually, while it moves thousands of leagues, until one branch loses itself in Arctic regions, and the other breaks on the coast of Europe. It is well known to navigators that one branch of the Gulf Stream finds its outlet northward from the Caribbean Sea through the Windward Passage, and that here the current extends to the depth of eight hundred fathoms; the width, however, in this section is not over ten miles. It will be nothing new to tell the reader that the sea, especially in its proximity to the continents, has a similar topographical conformation beneath its surface. The bottom consists of hills, mountains, and valleys, like the surface of the earth upon which we live. A practical illustration of the fact is afforded in the soundings taken by the officers of our Coast Survey in the Caribbean Sea, where a valley was found giving a water depth of three thousand fathoms, twenty-five miles south of Cuba. The Cayman islands, in that neighborhood, are the summit of mountains bordering this deep valley at the bottom of the sea. It is known to extend over seven hundred miles, from between Cuba and Jamaica nearly to the head of the bay of Honduras, with an average breadth of eighty miles. How suggestive the subject of these submarine Alps! Thus the island of Grand Cayman, scarcely twenty feet above sea level, is the top of a mountain twenty thousand five hundred and sixty-eight feet above the bottom of the submarine valley beside which it rises,—an altitude exceeding that of any mountain on the North American continent. A little more than five miles, or say twenty-seven thousand feet, is the greatest depth yet sounded at sea.
With an extensive coast-line particularly well adapted for the purpose, smuggling is at all times successfully carried on in Cuba, stimulated by an almost prohibitory tariff. It is well understood that many of the most prosperous merchants in Havana are secretly engaged in this business. The blindness of minor officials is easily purchased. The eastern department of the island is most notorious for this class of illegal trade. It was through these agencies that the revolutionists were so well supplied with arms, ammunition, and other necessities during the eight years of civil war. While we are writing these lines, the cable brings us news of a fresh landing of "filibusters" on the shores in this immediate neighborhood.
Cuba is the most westerly of the West Indian isles, and compared with the others has nearly twice as much superficial extent of territory, being about as large as England proper, without the principality of Wales. Its greatest length from east to west is very nearly eight hundred miles; its narrowest part is over twenty miles, and its average width about forty miles. The circumference of the island is set down at two thousand miles, and it is supposed to contain thirty-five thousand square miles. The face of the interior is undulating, with an average level of three hundred feet above the surface of the sea. The narrow form of the island, and the chain of mountains which divides it throughout its whole length, leave a limited course for its rivers, and consequently most of these in the rainy season become torrents, and during the rest of the year are nearly dried up. Those streams which sustain themselves at all seasons are well stocked with fine fish, and afford to lovers of the piscatory art admirable sport. Near their mouths some of the rivers, like those of the opposite coast of Florida, are frequented by crocodiles.
The chain of mountains running through the centre of the island, more or less broken in its course, is lofty in the east, but gradually diminishes in elevation towards the west, until it becomes a series of gently undulating hills of one or two hundred feet above sea level, ceasing as a connected range in the vicinity of Matanzas. On the easterly end this range of mountains approaches the south coast between Puerto Principe and Trinidad. The country lying between Cape Cruz, Cape Maysi, and the town of Holguin has the highest elevations; the most lofty point, Turquino, lately measured, has a height of ten thousand eight hundred feet. Illustrative of the great revolutions which the globe has undergone in its several geological epochs, petrified shells and bivalves are found on the summits of these highest peaks, surrounded by coral rocks, both of which differ entirely from those at present existing on the shores of the Antilles. An immense bowlder was pointed out to us on the summit of La Gran Piedra, at an elevation of five thousand feet, of totally different composition from any other rocks on the island. The great mystery is how such a mass of solid stone could have got there. Most of these mountains are thickly wooded, some of them to their very tops, and appear to be in a perpetual state of verdure. There are mahogany trees in these hills reported to be of almost fabulous dimensions, besides other trees of great age. Some idea of the excellence of the timber grown in Cuba may be had from the fact that over one hundred Spanish ships of war—some of which were of the largest size, mounting a hundred and twenty guns—have been built from native stock at the port of Havana.
Copper ore is found in abundance, as well as silver and iron, in the mountains. Snow is never known to fall even in these elevated districts, and of course in no other part of the island. In the interior, the extreme heat of the low-lying sea-coast and cities is not experienced, and the yellow fever is unknown. Low, level swampy land is found only on the southern coast, where there are some wild deer, wild cats and dogs, which are hunted; the former introduced into Cuba half a century since, the two latter descended from domestic animals. Large tracts of undulating country are without trees, affording good pasturage. In some of the mountains are extensive caves, not unlike the caves of Bellamar near the city of Matanzas, in which are still to be found the bones of an unknown race, while several of these elevations are so precipitous as to be nearly inaccessible.
Travelers who have visited the Bay of Biscay, on the French and Spanish shore near Biarritz, have observed how the rocks have been worn into caverns, arches, alcoves, and honeycombed formations by the action of the waters for centuries. Just so the soft limestone strata beneath the surface of Cuba, in many portions of the island, have been hollowed out, tunneled, and formed into caves, by the tremendous downpour and wash of tropical rains. So the action of the sea has created a cave under Moro Castle, at the mouth of the harbor of Havana, as well as under that other Moro which stands guard over the entrance of Santiago de Cuba. The existence of these subterranean caverns has often led to serious accidents. In some instances buildings which were by chance erected just over them have suddenly been swallowed up as though by an earthquake.
Many of the rivers are navigable for short distances. The longest is the Cauto, in the eastern department, which, rising in the Sierra del Cobre, passes between Holguin and Jiguani, and empties on the south coast a little north of Manzanillo. It is navigable for half its length, between fifty and sixty leagues. The river Ay has falls in its course two hundred feet high, and a natural bridge spanning it, nearly as remarkable as that of Virginia. The Sagua le Grande is navigable for five leagues, and the same may be said of the river Sasa. The Agabama, emptying on the south coast near Trinidad, is also partially navigable. There are two hundred and sixty rivers in all, independent of rivulets and torrents. So abundantly is the island supplied with fresh-water springs, especially on the south side, that the pure liquid filters through the fissures of the stratified rock in such quantities as to form, by hydrostatic pressure, springs in the sea itself some distance from the shore. The sulphurous and thermal springs of San Diego are the resort of numerous invalids annually, who come hither from Europe and America.
The coast and harbors of Cuba are carefully marked for the purpose of navigation by eighteen well-placed lighthouses, visible from fifteen to twenty miles at sea, according to the importance of the surrounding points. That which stands in Moro Castle, on the south side of the harbor's entrance at Havana, is eighty feet in height and about a hundred and fifty from the level of the sea. It is visible in clear weather twenty miles from shore. In honor of a former Governor-General this lighthouse bears the inscription "O'Donnell, 1844," in mammoth letters. So plain and safe is the entrance to this harbor, which in the narrowest part is some hundred yards wide, that a pilot is hardly necessary, though foreign vessels generally take one. There is little or no tide on this part of the coast, the variations never exceeding two feet. No regular ebb and flow is therefore observable, but when the land breeze rises there is a very slight tide-way setting out of the harbor. No country in the world of the size of this island has so many large and fine harbors. They number twenty-nine on its northern side and twenty-eight on the southern. The well-defined water-line along the yellow, rusty rocks of the coast shows the mark of ages, and also that there has been no upheaval since the land took its present shape. Where there are no regular harbors the shore is indented with numerous deep channels forming inlets, safe only for native boatmen, as the winding course of the blue waters covers myriads of sunken rocks. On the southern side, opposite the Isle of Pines, there are some beautiful reaches of beach, over which the gentle surf rolls continuously with a murmur so soft as to seem like the whispered secrets of the sea. Yet what frightful historic memories brood over these deep waters of the Archipelago, where for nearly two centuries floated and fought the ships of sea-robbers of every nationality, and where the cunning but guilty slave-clippers, fresh from the coast of Africa, loaded with kidnapped men and women, made their harbor! With all their dreamy beauty, the tropics are full of sadness, both in their past and present history.
The occasional hurricanes, which prove so disastrous to the Bahamas and other isles in the immediate vicinity of Cuba, rarely extend their influence to its shores, but the bursts of fury which these usually tranquil seas sometimes indulge in are not excelled in violence in the worst typhoon regions.
The nearest port of the island to this continent is Matanzas, lying due south from Cape Sable, Florida, a distance of a hundred and thirty miles. Havana is located some sixty miles west of Matanzas, and it is here that the island divides the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, whose coast-line, measuring six thousand miles, finds the outlet of its commerce along the shore of Cuba, almost within range of the guns in Moro Castle. Lying thus at our very door as it were, this island stands like a sentinel, guarding the approaches of the Gulf of Mexico, whose waters wash the shores of five of the United States, and by virtue of the same position barring the entrance of the great river which drains half the continent of North America. Nor does the importance of the situation end here. Cuba keeps watch and ward over our communication with California by way of the isthmus. The peculiar formation of the southeastern shore of this continent, and the prevalence of the trade-winds, with the oceanic current from east to west, make the ocean passage skirting the shore of Cuba the natural outlet for the commerce also of Venezuela, New Granada, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. It is not surprising, therefore, when we realize the commanding position of the island, that so much of interest attaches to its ultimate destiny.
Cuba seems formed to become the very button on Fortune's cap. No wonder that the Abbe Raynal pronounced it to be the boulevard of the New World, or that the Spanish historian called it the fairest emerald in the crown of Ferdinand and Isabella. Under any other government in Christendom than that of Spain, the island would to-day have been one vast smiling garden, for its natural advantages are absolutely unequaled. To oppress and rob its inhabitants has been the unvarying policy of the home government from first to last. The undisguised system has been to extort from them every farthing possible in the way of taxes. No legitimate business could sustain itself against the enormous exactions of the Spanish rule. Coffee and cotton planting have been absolutely driven out of the island by the taxes imposed upon their production. In short, the mother country has carried her system of oppression and despotism in Cuba to the utmost stretch of human audacity.
Probably no place has a finer or more desirable climate than has the main portion of Cuba, with the clear atmosphere of the low latitudes, no mist, the sun seldom obscured, and a season of endless summer. We do not wonder that the Northern invalid turns instinctively towards so inviting a clime, where Nature in all her moods is so regal. The appearance of the sky at night is far brighter and more beautiful than at the North. The atmosphere does not seem to lose its transparency with the departure of the day. Sunset is remarkable for its soft mellow beauty, all too brief to a New England eye accustomed to the lingering brilliancy of our twilights. For more than half a century the island has been the resort of invalids from colder climes in search of health, especially those laboring under pulmonary affections. Such have rarely failed to realize more or less benefit from the mild and equable temperature. The climate so uniformly soft and soothing, the vegetation so thriving and beautiful, the fruits so delicious and abundant, give it a character akin to fairyland. Here Nature seems ever in a tender, loving mood, the very opposite of her cold temperament at the North.
The best time to visit the island, for those who do so in search of health, is from the beginning of January to the middle of May. It is imprudent to remain in the cities of Cuba later than the latter period, as the fever season then commences. The invalid will find that very many physical comforts, and some things deemed imperative at home, must be sacrificed here as quite unattainable: such, for instance, as good beds, strict cleanliness, good milk, and sweet butter. The climatic advantages must suffice for such deprivations. During the greater portion of the year it is dry and hot, the rainy season commencing in June and ending in September. The northeast trade-winds blow over the island from March to October, and though it is especially important to avoid all draughts in the tropics, still one can always find a sufficiently cool and comfortable temperature somewhere, when the trade-wind prevails. To persons in the early stages of consumption this region holds forth great promise of relief; the author can bear witness of remarkable benefit having been realized in many instances. At the period of the year when New England invalids most require to avoid the rigors of the prevailing east winds, namely, in February, March, April, and early May, the island of Cuba is in the glory of high summer, and enjoying the healthiest period of its annual returns. When consumption originates in the island,—as was also found to be the case at Nassau,—it runs its course to a fatal end with such rapidity that the natives consider it to be a contagious disease. Early in May the unacclimated would do well to leave, taking passage up the Gulf to New Orleans, or across the Gulf Stream, which here runs thirty-two miles in width, to Key West, Florida, thence by boat to Tampa Bay, and by railroad to Sanford, and by the St. John's River to St. Augustine, enjoying a brief stay at the latter places, where every requisite convenience can be enjoyed. Jacksonville should not be missed, and by coming north thus slowly and pleasantly, the change of climate is not realized, and June weather will greet the returning traveler with genial warmth.
Owing to the proximity of the northwestern part of Cuba to our own continent, the climate is somewhat variable, and at a height of five hundred feet above the level of the sea, ice is sometimes, though rarely formed; but, as has already been said in these notes, snow never falls upon the island. At long intervals Cuba has been visited by brief hailstorms, and persons who tell you this will add, "but we never have known it in our day." In the cities and near the swamps, the yellow fever, that scourge of all hot climates, prevails from the middle of June to the last of October; but in the interior of the island, where the visitor is at a wholesome distance from humidity and stagnant water, it is no more unhealthy than our own cities in summer. It is doubtful if Havana, even in the fever season, is any more unhealthy than New Orleans at the same period of the year. Fevers of different degrees of malignity prevail from May to November, and occasionally throughout the year. Among these the yellow fever is the most dangerous, and sooner or later all resident foreigners seem to suffer from it, as a sort of acclimation; once experienced, however, one is seldom attacked a second time. In the ports yellow fever is often induced by carelessness and exposure; excesses on the part of foreign sailors are frequently the cause of its fatal attack upon them. The thermometer is never known to rise so high in Havana or Santiago, the opposite extremes of the island, as it does sometimes in New York and Boston. The average temperature is recorded as being 77 deg., maximum 89 deg., minimum 50 deg. Fahrenheit. We have been thus elaborate as regards this matter because it is of such general interest to all invalids who annually seek an equable clime.
The principal cities are Havana, with a population of nearly three hundred thousand; Matanzas, with fifty thousand; Puerto Principe, thirty thousand; Cienfuegos, twenty-five thousand; Trinidad, fourteen thousand; San Salvador, ten thousand; Manzanillo, Cardenas, Nuevitas, Sagua la Grande, and Mariel. Among its largest and finest harbors those of Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Nipe, and Nuevitas are the best; the bay of Matanzas is also large, but shallow. This city stands next to Havana in population, but not in commercial importance. It is said to be healthier than the capital, but it lacks those attractions of life and gayety which are essential even to invalids to render them contented. The streets are wide, and many of the Moorish characteristics of Spanish cities, so common in both this island and the European peninsula, are wanting here. It was built much later and more under foreign direction than Havana. The secret of the superior health of Matanzas over that of the capital is undoubtedly because of its better drainage and general cleanliness.
Located in one of the most fertile portions of the island, the city extends up the picturesque and verdant hills by which the bay is surrounded, in the form of an amphitheatre. The fortifications are of rather a meagre character, and could not withstand a well organized attack for half an hour. Modern improvements in the construction of heavy guns and projectiles have rendered all the forts in Cuba of no importance as a means of defense against a first-class invading fleet. The custom house is the most prominent building which strikes the eye on approaching the city by water; though built of stone, it is only one story in height, and was erected at the commencement of the present century. On the heights above the city the inhabitants have planted their country seats, from whence the view of the widespreading bay forms a delightful picture. The climate is thought to be especially adapted for the cure of throat and lung diseases, and the city is annually resorted to by those seeking relief from these troubles, as also by those afflicted with neuralgia and rheumatism. The first land made by southern-bound steamers from Boston and New York is the Monte del Pan, or Bread Mountain, forming a lofty background for the city. There are three large churches in Matanzas, a well appointed and spacious theatre, a bull-ring, and cock-pits. Statistics show that the custom-house receipts of the port reach about two million dollars annually. There are two railroads connecting the city with Havana, one of which runs also to the interior southeasterly to Cienfuegos, Sagua, and Villa Clara, intersecting a rich sugar-producing country, from whence it brings a large amount of freight to the coast for shipment. On these Cuban roads one rides in American-built cars, drawn by American engines, and often run by American engineers. Railroads were in use in Cuba before they were adopted in any other Spanish-speaking country, and there are now nearly a thousand miles in active operation on the island.
Matanzas is bounded on the north by the river Yumuri, and on the south by that of San Juan. The town is built upon the site of a former Indian village, known to the early discoverers by the name of Yucayo. It is upon the whole a well-built city, containing some small public squares and a pretty Plaza de Armas, like that of Havana, ornamented with choice trees and flowers, with a statue of Ferdinand VII. in its centre. It was in this square that Gabriel Concepcion de la Valdez, a mulatto poet and patriot of Cuba, was shot by the soldiers of the line. He was accused of complicity with the slave insurrection of 1844, when the blacks attempted to gain their freedom. At the time of his execution the first volley fired by the troops failed to touch a vital spot, and the brave victim, bleeding from many wounds, still stood erect, facing his executioners. He then pointed to his heart, and said in a calm clear voice, "Aim here!" The order was at once obeyed, and the second volley sent the heroic man to that haven where there is no distinction as to color. This martyr, of whom comparatively little is known to the public, possessed all the true elements of a poet. Many of his productions have been preserved in print, and some were translated and republished in England a few years since.
The Plaza of Matanzas is small, smaller even than that of Cienfuegos, but it presents within its circumscribed space a great variety of tropical trees and flowers, over which stand, sentinel-like, a few royal palms with their ashen-gray stems and concentric rings. The star of Bethlehem, fifteen feet high, was here seen full of lovely scarlet blossoms; the southern jasmine, yellow as gold, was in its glory; mignonette, grown to a graceful tree of twenty feet in height, was fragrant and full of blossoms, close beside the delicate vinca, decked in white and red. Some broad-leaved bananas were thriving in the Plaza, while creeping all over that tree and shrub combined, the Spanish bayonet, were pink, purple, and white morning-glories, at once so familiar and suggestive. Opposite the Plaza are several government offices, and two or three very large, fine club-houses, remarkable for the excellence of their appointments and the spaciousness of the public rooms. Club life prevails in Matanzas, as usual at the expense of domestic life, just as it does in Havana, being very much like London in this respect. It is forbidden to discuss politics in these clubs, the hours being occupied mostly over games of chance, such as cards, dominoes, chess, and checkers. Gambling is as natural and national in Cuba as in China. Many Chinese are seen about the streets and stores of Matanzas, as, indeed, all over the island—poor fellows who have survived their apprenticeship and are now free. They are peaceful, do not drink spirits, work from morning until night, never meddle with politics, and live on one half they can earn, so as to save enough to return to their beloved native land. You may persuade him to assent to any form of religion as a temporary duty, but John is a heathen at heart, and a heathen he will die.
The famous afternoon drive of Matanzas was formerly the San Carlos Paseo. It has fine possibilities, and is lined and beautifully ornamented with thrifty Indian laurels. It overlooks the spacious harbor and outer bay, but is now utterly neglected and abandoned; even the roadway is green with vegetation and gullied with deep hollows. It is the coolest place in the city at the evening hour, but the people have become so poor that there are hardly a dozen private vehicles owned in the city, and, consequently, its famous drive is deserted. Matanzas, like all the cities of Cuba, is under the shadow of depressed business, the evidences of which meet one on all hands.
The two objects of special interest to strangers who visit Matanzas are, first, the valley of the Yumuri, which may be described briefly as a narrow gorge four miles long, through which flows the river of the same name. The view of this lovely valley will recall, to any one who has visited Spain, the Vega of Granada. There are several positions from which to obtain a good view of the valley, but that enjoyed from the Chapel of Monserrate, on the hill just back of the town, is nearest, and was most satisfactory to us. The view includes a valley, peaceful, tropical, and verdant, embracing plantations, groves, and farms, in the midst of which the river glides like a silver thread through the verdure, and empties into the Bay of Matanzas. The universal belief is that this vale was once a vast, deep lake, walled across the present seaward opening of the valley, from whence a fall may have existed as a natural overflow. Some fearful convulsion of nature rent this bowl and precipitated the lake into the ocean, leaving only the river's course.
The second object of note which the visitor will not willingly miss is a sight of the famous caves of Bellamar, situated about two leagues from the city proper. It is customary to make this trip in a volante, and it is quite the thing to ride, at least once, in this unique vehicle, the only article ever invented in Cuba. The road to the caves is extremely rough, and this vehicle is best adapted to pass over the irregularities. If there are only gentlemen of the party, go on horseback. On entering the caves the visitor should throw off any extra clothing that can conveniently be left behind, as it is very warm within, and on coming out, unless one has an extra garment to put on, too great a change of temperature will be realized. These singular caves lead three hundred feet and more beneath the surface, and present beauties to the eye incident to all such subterranean formations. They were discovered accidentally, a few years since, by some stone quarriers, who, on opening into them, imagined they had broken the crust of the earth. In driving to the caves the Bay Street road, through the city, should be taken, which forms one of the finest thoroughfares of any Cuban town. The architecture of the dwellings is that of combined Italian, Grecian, and Moorish, ornamented with colonnades and verandas of stone and iron. Fine as the facades of these houses are,—none above one story in height,—they present a faded and forlorn aspect, a sort of dead-and-alive appearance, yet in accordance with life and business, not only in Matanzas, but all over the island. This one boulevard of Matanzas ends by the shore of the bay, where the fine marine view will cause you to forget all other impressions for the moment, but you will not tarry here. Turning eastward you soon strike the road to the caves, and such a road—it is like the bed of a dry mountain torrent.
Persons visiting Matanzas must make up their minds to be content with indifferent hotel accommodations. In fact there are no really good hotels in Cuba; those which exist are poor and expensive. On the inland routes away from the cities there are none, and the humble hostelries, or posadas, as they are called, are so indifferent in point of comforts as not to deserve the name of inns. As a rule, invalids rarely go beyond the cities to remain over night. Brief and pleasant sojourns may be made at Havana, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, and Sagua la Grande, from whence excursions can be made by rail or otherwise and return on the same day. Let us qualify these remarks, as applied to the Hotel Louvre at Matanzas. There was a degree of picturesqueness about this establishment which was not without its attraction, and it was certainly the most cleanly public house in which we found a temporary home while on the island. Its rooms surrounded a bright clean court, or patio, planted with creeping vines, palmettos, bananas, and some fragrant flowering shrubs. The dining-room is virtually out of doors, being open on all sides, and opposite the hotel is a small plaza with tropical trees, backed by an old, musty church, whose bell had the true Spanish trick of giving tongue at most inopportune moments. The rooms of the Louvre are quite circumscribed as to space, and the partitions separating the apartments do not reach to the ceiling, so that privacy, night or day, is out of the question. The floors are all tiled in white marble, and the attendance is courteous. One does not look for a choice bill of fare in Cuba, and therefore will not be disappointed on that score. You will be charged Fifth Avenue prices, however, if you do not get Fifth Avenue accommodations. If you have learned in your travels to observe closely, to study men as well as localities, to enjoy Nature in her ever-varying moods, and to delight in luxurious fruits, flowers, and vegetation, you will find quite enough to occupy and amuse the mind, and make you forget altogether the grosser senses of appetite.
Puerto Principe is the capital of the central department of Cuba, and is located well inland. The trade of the place, from the want of water carriage, is inconsiderable, and bears no proportion to the number of its inhabitants, which aggregates nearly thirty-one thousand. The product of the neighborhood, to find means of export, must first make its way twelve and a half leagues to Nuevitas, from whence, in return, it receives its foreign supplies. The two places are now, however, connected by a railroad. Puerto Principe is about one hundred and fifty leagues from Havana. Its original location, as founded by Velasquez in 1514, was at Nuevitas, but the inhabitants, when the place was feeble in numbers, were forced to remove from the coast to avoid the fierce incursions of the pirates, as did the people of Trinidad, who removed from the harbor of Casilda.
Cardenas is situated a hundred and twenty miles from Havana on the north coast, and is the youngest town of note in Cuba, having been founded so late as 1827. It has a population of between four and five thousand. Its prosperity is mostly owing to the great fertility of the land by which it is surrounded. It is called the American city, because of the large number of Americans doing business here, and also because the English language is so universally spoken by the people who reside in the place. The Plaza contains an excellent marble statue of Columbus, and is tastefully ornamented with tropical verdure. In the harbor of Cardenas is seen one of those curious springs of fresh water which bubble up beneath the salt sea. The city is the centre of a sugar-producing district, and a considerable portion of the sugar crop of the vicinity of Havana is also shipped from this port to America. It is connected with both the metropolis and Matanzas by rail, and is well worthy of a visit by all who can find the necessary time for doing so.
Between Havana and Nuevitas, along the northern slope of the island, are many vast tracts of unimproved land of the best quality. Much of it is overgrown with cedar, ebony, mahogany, and other valuable timber; but a large proportion is savanna or prairie, which might, with little difficulty, be reduced to cultivation. The timber alone, which is often found in large compact bodies, would pay the cost of the land and the expense of clearing it. Many branches of agriculture are neglected which might be made very remunerative, but it will never be brought about except by foreign capital and tact. The natives have not the requisite enterprise and industry. While these chapters are passing through the press, the home government is discussing in the Cortes the propriety of making a large loan to the Cubans for the purpose of bringing the lands above referred to into market, as well as rendering others accessible. But it is doubtful if anything practical is accomplished, unless foreign interest should be enlisted.
City of Havana. — First Impressions. — The Harbor. — Institutions. — Lack of Educational Facilities. — Cuban Women. — Street Etiquette. — Architecture. — Domestic Arrangements. — Barred Windows and Bullet-Proof Doors. — Public Vehicles. — Uncleanliness of the Streets. — Spanish or African! — The Church Bells. — Home-Keeping Habits of Ladies. — Their Patriotism. — Personal Characteristics. — Low Ebb of Social Life. — Priestcraft. — Female Virtue. — Domestic Ties. — A Festive Population. — Cosmetics. — Sea-Bathing.
Havana is a thoroughly representative city,—Cuban and nothing else. Its history embraces in no small degree that of all the island, being the centre of its talent, wealth, and population. It has long been reckoned the eighth commercial capital of the world. Moro Castle, with its Dahlgren guns peeping out through the yellow stones, and its tall sentinel lighthouse, stands guard over the narrow entrance of the harbor; the battery of La Punta on the opposite shore answering to the Moro. There are also the long range of cannon and barracks on the city side, and the massive fortress of the Cabanas crowning the hill behind the Moro. All these are decorated with the red and yellow flag of Spain,—the banner of blood and gold. So many and strong fortifications show how important the home government regard the place.
The harbor or bay is shaped like one's outspread hand, with the wrist for an entrance, and is populous with the ships of all nations. It presents at all times a scene of great maritime activity. Besides the national ships of other countries and those of Spain, mail steamers from Europe and America are coming and going daily, also coasting steamers from the eastern and southern shores of the island, added to regular lines for Mexico and the islands of the Caribbean Sea. The large ferry steamers plying constantly between the city and the Regla shore, the fleet of little sailing boats, foreign yachts, and rowboats, glancing in the burning sunlight, create a scene of great maritime interest.
The city presents a large extent of public buildings, cathedrals, antique and venerable churches. It has been declared in its prosperity to be the richest place for its number of square miles in the world, but this cannot be said of it at the present time. There is nothing grand in its appearance as one enters the harbor and comes to anchor, though Baron Humboldt pronounced it the gayest and most picturesque sight in America. Its multitude of churches, domes, and steeples are not architecturally remarkable, and are dominated by the colossal prison near the shore. This immense quadrangular edifice flanks the Punta, and is designed to contain five thousand prisoners at a time. The low hills which make up the distant background are not sufficiently high to add much to the general effect. The few palm trees which catch the eye here and there give an Oriental aspect to the scene, quite in harmony with the atmospheric tone of intense sunshine. Unlike Santiago or Matanzas, neither the city nor its immediate environs is elevated, so that the whole impression is that of flatness, requiring some strength of background to form a complete picture. The martial appearance of the Moro and the Cabanas, bristling with cannon, is the most vivid effect of the scene, taken as a whole. It might be a portion of continental Spain broken away from European moorings, and floated hither to find anchorage in the Caribbean Sea. One is also reminded of Malta, in the farther Mediterranean, and yet the city of Valetta, bright, sunny, and elevated, is quite unlike Havana, though Fortress St. Angelo overlooks and guards the place as the Moro does this tropical harbor, and Cuba is the Italy of America.
The waters of the harbor, admittedly one of the finest in the world, are most of the time extremely dirty. Many years ago a canal was commenced which was designed to create a flowage calculated to keep the harbor clear of the constantly accumulating filth, but it was never finished, and there remains an evidence of Spanish inefficiency, while the harbor continues to be a vast cesspool. It would be supposed that in a fever-haunted region, great attention would be bestowed upon the matter of drainage, but this is not the case in Havana, or other cities of the island. Most of the effort made in this direction is surface drainage, the liquid thus exposed quickly evaporating in the hot sunshine, or being partially absorbed by the soil over which it passes.
Havana contains numerous institutions of learning: a Royal University, founded in 1733, a medical and law school, and chairs of all the natural sciences. In spite of their liberal purposes and capabilities, however, there is a blight hanging over them. Pupils enlist cautiously and reluctantly. Among other schools there is a Royal Seminary for girls, scarcely more than a name, a free school of sculpture and painting, and a mercantile school, with a few private institutions of learning. There is a fairly good museum of natural history, and just outside the city a botanical garden. Still the means of education are very limited in Cuba, an evidence of which is the fact that so many of her youth of both sexes are sent to this country for educational purposes. An order was at one time issued by the government prohibiting this, but its arbitrary nature was so very outrageous, even for a Spanish government, that it was permitted to become a dead letter. What are called free schools, as we use the term, are not known in the island; the facilities for obtaining even the simplest education are very poor. Boys and girls, so far as any attempt is made to educate them, are taught separately, and really under the eye of the Church. Priests and nuns are the agents, the former notoriously making a cloak of their profession for vile and selfish purposes. If we speak decidedly upon this subject, yet we do so with less emphasis than do the Cubans. The girls are taught embroidery and etiquette, considered to be the chief and about the only things necessary for them to know. These young girls are women at the age of thirteen or fourteen, and frequently mothers of families before they are twenty. Of course they fade early. In domestic life the husband is literally lord and master, the wife, ostensibly at least, is all obedience. There is no woman's rights association on the island, nor even a Dorcas society. While young and unmarried, the ladies are strict adherents to all the conventionalities of Spanish etiquette, which is of the most exacting character, but after marriage the sex is perhaps as French as the Parisians, and as gay as the Viennese, under the stimulus of fast and fashionable society.
The reason of the edict issued by the government forbidding parents to send their children to this country for educational purposes was obvious. The young Cubans during their residence here imbibed liberal ideas as to our republican form of government, which they freely promulgated and advocated on their return to their native island. Even those who had been educated in France or England, and they were numerous, readily sympathized with the pupils returned from America, and became a dangerous element. Long before the first Lopez expedition, these sons of planters and rich merchants had formed themselves into a secret society, with the avowed purpose of freeing Cuba sooner or later from the Spanish yoke.
The low-lying, many-colored city of Havana, called San Cristobel, after the great discoverer, was originally surrounded by a wall, though the population has long since extended its dwellings and business structures far into what was, half a century since, the suburbs. A portion of the old wall is still extant, crumbling and decayed, but it has mostly disappeared. The narrow streets are paved or macadamized, and cross each other at right angles, like those of Philadelphia, but in their dimensions reminding one of continental Toledo, whose Moorish architecture is also duplicated here. There are no sidewalks, unless a narrow line of flagstones can be so called, and in fact the people have less use for them where nearly every one rides in a victoria, the fare being but sixteen cents per mile. A woman of respectability is scarcely ever seen walking in the streets, unless she is a foreigner, or of the lower class, such as sellers of fruit, etc. Those living in close proximity to the churches are sometimes seen proceeding to early mass, accompanied by a negress carrying a portable seat, or a bit of carpet on which to kneel upon the marble floor of the cathedral. But even this is exceptional. Cuban etiquette says that a lady must not be seen on the streets except in a vehicle, and only Americans, English, and other foreigners disregard the rule.
The architecture of the dwelling-houses is exceedingly heavy, giving them the appearance of great age. They are built of the porous stone so abundant upon the island, which, though soft when first worked into suitable blocks, becomes as hard as granite by exposure to the atmosphere. The facades of the town houses are nearly always covered with stucco. Their combination of colors, yellow, green, and blue, harmonizes with the glowing atmosphere of the tropics. This will strike the stranger at first as being very odd; there is no system observed, the tenant of each dwelling following his individual fancy as to the hue he will adopt, a dingy yellow prevailing. Standing upon the Campo de Marte and looking in any direction, these changing colors give a picturesque effect to the range of buildings which surround the broad field. In this vicinity the structures are nearly all of two full stories, and many with rows of lofty pillars supporting broad verandas, including one or two palaces, one fine large club-house, some government offices, and the Telegrafo Hotel. These varying colors are not for fancy alone, they have a raison d'etre; namely, to absorb the sharp rays of the constant sunshine. But for some toning down of the glare, one's eyes would hardly be able to sustain the power of vision. The vividness with which each individual building and object stands out in the clear liquid light is one of the first peculiarities which will strike the stranger.
The dwelling-houses are universally so constructed as to form an open square in the centre, which constitutes the only yard or court that is attached. The house is divided into a living-room, a store-room, chambers, and stable, these all upon one floor, while the family vehicle blocks up in part the only entrance, which is used in common by horses, ladies, slaves, and gentlemen callers. If there is a second story, a broad flight of steps leads to it, and there are the family chambers or sleeping apartments, opening upon a corridor which extends round the court. Peculiar as this manner of building at first seems, it is well adapted to the climate, and one soon becomes satisfied with it.
With such surroundings it is easy to imagine one's self at Granada, in far-off Spain, and it seems almost natural to look about for the Alhambra. An air of rude grandeur reigns over these houses, the architecture being Gothic and Saracenic. In the more ancient portions of the town little picturesque balconies of iron or wood jut out from the second-story windows, where the houses rise to the dignity of two stories. From these balconies hang little naked children, like small performers upon the trapeze, until the passer-by fears for their lives. The travel in the narrow streets is regulated by law, and so divided that only certain ones are used for vehicles going north, and others for those traveling south. Thus, vehicles bound into the city from the Paseo go by the way of Obispo Street, but must return by O'Riley Street, so that no two ever meet in these narrow thoroughfares,—a plan which might be advantageously adopted elsewhere.
The rooms of the houses are lofty and the floors stuccoed or tiled in marble, while the walls and ceilings are frequently ornamented in fresco, the excellence of the workmanship varying in accordance with the owner's means. The most striking peculiarity of the town-house in Cuba is the precaution taken to render it safe against sudden attack. Every man's house is literally his castle here, each accessible window being secured with stout iron bars, reaching from the top to the bottom, while bullet-proof doors bar the entrance,—the whole seriously suggestive of jails and lunatic asylums. No carpets are used even in the parlors, though a long rug is sometimes placed between the inevitable double row of rocking-chairs. The best floors are laid in white marble and jasper. The great heat of the climate renders even wooden floors quite insupportable. The visitor is apt to find his bed rather unsatisfactory, it being formed by stretching a coarse canvas upon a framework, with an upper and under sheet. Mattresses are not used by the natives, who reject them as being too warm to sleep upon, but the liberality evinced in the shape of mosquito netting is as commendable as it is necessary.
The public vehicle called a victoria is a sort of four-wheeled calash, and it has entirely superseded the volante for city use. There are thousands of them about the town, forming a collection of wretchedly wornout carriages, drawn by horses in a like condition. The drivers occupy an elevated seat, and are composed equally of whites and negroes. The charge for a passage from point to point within the city is forty cents in Cuban paper money, equal to sixteen cents of our currency; three times that sum is charged if engaged for the hour. The streets are in a very bad condition and sadly need repairing. The roads leading out to the suburbs in every direction are full of deep holes, and are badly gullied by the heavy rains. The streets, even about the paseos, are so impregnated with filth, here and there, as to be sickening to the senses of the passer-by. Once in three or four weeks somebody is awakened to the exigency of the situation, and a gang of men is put to work to cleanse the principal thoroughfares, but this serves only a temporary purpose. We were told that the reason for this neglect was that no one was regularly paid for work; even the police had not received any pay for seven months, and many refused to serve longer. The soldiery had not been paid their small stipend for nearly a year, but enlisted men sent out from Spain, forming the army, are more easily kept together and more amenable to discipline than any civil body of officials could be. "With everybody and everything so enormously taxed," we ventured to suggest to our informants, "there should be no lack of pecuniary means wherewith to carry on all departments of the government. Pray what becomes of all this money?" The reply was, "Who can say?" with a significant shrug of the shoulders. With all the exactions of the officials, and with the collection of nearly thirty millions of dollars annually, but a moiety finds its way into the national treasury. Peculation is reduced to a science, and is practiced from the highest to the lowest official sent out by the home government. "Spain has squeezed the orange nearly dry," said a distinguished Cuban to us in Matanzas, "and a collapse is inevitable. We are anxiously waiting to see it come; any change would be for the better. We were long threatened with a war of races, if we did not sustain Spanish rule in the island. That is, if we were not loyal to the Madrid authorities, the slaves should be freed to prey upon us. Blood would flow like water. The incendiary torch would be placed in the hands of the negroes, and they should be incited to burn, steal, and ravish! Cuba should be Spanish or African. There was a time when this threat had great force, and its execution was indeed to be dreaded; but that time is past, and no such fear now exists. The slaves are being gradually freed, and are amalgamating with the rest of the populace. The slow liberation of the blacks has accustomed them to freedom, and any organized outrage from that source has ceased to be feared."
Why all the bells in Havana should be rung furiously and continuously every morning about daylight, one cannot exactly understand. There does not seem to be any concert of action in this awful conspiracy against sleep; but the tumult thus brought about would certainly seem to be sufficient to "wake the isle from its propriety." From every square with its church, and every church with its towers, this brazen-tongued clamor is relentlessly poured forth. In most Christian lands one good bell is all-sufficient for a church steeple, but here they have them in the plural, and all striving to excel each other at the same moment. Of course no one is able to sleep amid such an outburst of noise, or within the radius of a league. Bells and mosquitoes are two of the prevailing nuisances of this thrice-sunny city. Nor must we forget to add to these aggravations the ceaseless, triumphant crowing of the game-cocks, the noisiest and most boastful of birds, large numbers of which are kept by the citizens purely for gambling purposes in the cock-pit. Besides these "professional" birds, every nook and corner is filled with fowls kept for brooding purposes, each bird family with its crower.
We have said that the Cuban ladies rarely stir abroad except in a vehicle, and whatever their domestic habits may be, they are certainly good housekeepers in this respect. While our ladies are busy sweeping the city sidewalks with their trailing dresses, these wisely leave that business to the gangs of criminals detailed from prison to fill that office, with their limbs chained and a heavy ball attached to preserve their equilibrium,—though we should qualify this remark by saying that these condemned men, once so common upon the streets and highways, were not seen during our late visit to Havana. It is, perhaps, owing to the home-keeping habits of the ladies that the feet of the Cuban senoritas are such marvels of smallness and delicacy, seemingly made rather for ornament than for use. You catch a glimpse of them as they step into their victorias, and perceive that they are daintily shod in French slippers, the soles of which are scarcely more substantial than brown paper. Their feet are made for ornament and for dancing. Though they possess a roundness of form that leaves nothing to be desired in symmetry of figure, still they are light as a sylph,—so buoyant, clad in muslin and lace, that it would seem as if a breeze might waft them away like a summer cloud. Passionately fond of dancing, they tax the endurance of the gentlemen in their worship of Terpsichore, stimulated by those Cuban airs which are at once so sweet and so brilliant.
There is a striking and endearing charm about the Cuban ladies, their every motion being replete with a native grace. Every limb is elastic and supple. Their voices are sweet and low, while the subdued tone of their complexions is relieved by the arch vivacity of night-black eyes, that alternately swim in melting lustre, and sparkle in expressive glances. If their comeliness matures, like the fruits of their native clime, early and rapidly, it is sad to know that it also fades prematurely. One looks in vain for that serene loveliness combined with age which so frequently challenges our admiration at the North. Their costume is never ostentatious, though often costly, and sometimes a little too mixed or variegated when seen in public. At home, however, nothing of this sort is observed. There the dress is usually composed of the most delicate muslin, the finest linen, and richest silks. We must admit that one rarely sees elsewhere such contrasts in colors upon the person of the fair sex as are at times encountered upon the Paseo. It would drive a French modiste wild to see the proprieties so outraged. It requires all the proverbial beauty of these senoras and senoritas to carry off respectably such combinations as scarlet and yellow, blue and purple, orange and green; but they do it by sheer force of their beautiful eyes and finely rounded figures. It must be acknowledged that the element of native refinement is too often wanting, and that the whole exhibition of the sex is just a little prononcee. They have no intellectual resort, but lead a life of decided ease and pleasure much too closely bordering upon the sensuous, their forced idleness being in itself an incentive to immorality and intrigue. The indifferent work they perform is light and simple; a little sewing and embroidery, followed by the siesta, divides the hours of the day. Those who can afford to keep their victorias wait until nearly sunset for a drive, and then go to respond by sweet smiles to the salutations of the caballeros on the paseos; afterwards to the Parque de Isabella II., to listen to the military band, and then, perhaps, to join in the mazy dance. That these ladies are capable of deep feeling and practical sympathy on such occasions as would naturally draw these qualities forth, we know by experience. When the patriot forces were poorly armed, with but scant material, and ammunition was short, these fair patriots gave freely of their most valuable jewels as a contribution to the cause of liberty.
A sad instance illustrative of this fact was told us by a resident of Havana. The young ladies and matrons of a certain circle in the city, at the commencement of the year 1872, had put their diamonds and precious stones together to realize money for forwarding supplies to the insurgents under Cespedes, who was then operating in the vicinity of Santiago. The jewels were secretly intrusted to a brother of one of the ladies, a young man who had just reached the age of twenty-two. His part of the business was the most difficult to perform, but he finally succeeded in realizing over four thousand dollars in gold for the gems intrusted to him. Fortunately the money was at once forwarded to the patriot leader through a safe and reliable channel. Hardly had the business been accomplished to the satisfaction of all concerned when the young Cuban was secretly denounced to the Governor-General as a suspected person. The settings and jewels had all been disposed of so as to be beyond recognition, and it is not known to this day how the brother's complicity with his sisters and their friends was divulged, but presumedly it was through the Jew pawnbrokers. The brother was arrested and thrown into Moro Castle, where he was subjected to the closest examination to find out his accomplices. Loyal and affectionate, he could not be made to speak. He was finally offered his freedom and permission to leave the island if he would divulge all. The government reasoned that if they could make a witness of him they would succeed in serving their own interest best, as by sacrificing one prisoner they might gain knowledge of many disaffected people whom they did not even suspect of disloyalty. One of the sisters of the prisoner determined to assume the guilt, and declare that her brother was the unknowing agent of her purpose; but when at last satisfied that this would not free him, she reluctantly gave up the design. The young Cuban maintained his silence. No publicity was given to the matter. He was brought before a military tribunal—so much is known. The sentence never publicly transpired. Like most political prisoners who pass within the walls of Moro Castle, his fate remains a secret.
There are two sides to every picture; even light casts its shadow, and we feel constrained to speak plainly. Social life in the island is certainly at a very low ebb, and unblushing licentiousness prevails. That there are many and noble exceptions only renders the opposite fact the more prominent. This immorality is more particularly among the home Spaniards, whose purpose it is to remain here long enough to gain a certain amount of money, and then to return to the mother country to enjoy it. They look upon all associations contracted here as of a temporary character, and the matter of morality does not affect them in the least. Domestic comforts are few, and, as we have intimated, literature is hardly recognized. The almost entire absence of books or reading matter of any sort is remarkable. A few daily and weekly newspapers, under rigid censorship, supply all the taste for letters. Married women seem to sink far below their husbands in influence. The domestic affections are not cultivated; in short, home to the average Cuban is only a place to sleep,—not of peaceful enjoyment. His meals are rarely taken with his family, but all spare hours are absorbed at the club. Domestic infidelity is prevalent, and female virtue but little esteemed. Priest-craft and king-craft have been the curse of both Spain and Cuba. Here, as in Italy, the outrageous and thinly-disguised immorality of the priesthood poisons many an otherwise unpolluted fount, and thus all classes are liable to infection. Popery and slavery are both largely to be charged with the low condition of morals, though the influence of the former has of late years been much curtailed, both in Spain and in Cuba. The young women are the slaves of local customs, as already intimated, and cannot go abroad even to church without a duenna,—a fact which in itself proves the debased standard of morals. The men appear to have no religion at all, but the women very generally attend early mass and go periodically to confessional. No one seems to think it strange for a white man to have a colony of mulatto children, even though he be also the father of a white family! Many have only the mulatto family, and seem content. These are generally the home Spaniards, already spoken of, and when their fortunes are secured they recklessly sever all local ties and responsibilities and return to Spain. This is no new thing, as there are many families in Cuba of fair position socially, and often of considerable wealth, whose members are by the right of classification quadroons. Miscegenation has greatly complicated social matters, and in half a century, more or less, it may produce a distinctive class, who will be better able to assert and sustain their rights than those who have preceded them.
The class of home Spaniards who have emigrated to Cuba has always been of a questionable character. The description of them by Cervantes in his time will apply in our own day with equal force. He says: "The island is the refuge of the profligates of Spain, a sanctuary for homicides, a skulking-place for gamblers and sharpers, and a receptacle for women of free manners,—a place of delusion to many, of amelioration to few."
One peculiarity which is sure to strike the stranger unpleasantly, and to which allusion has incidentally been made, whether in public or private houses, in the stores or in the streets, is that the colored children of both sexes, under eight and nine years of age, are permitted to go about in a state of nudity. In the country, among the Montero class, this custom also extends to the white children. The colored men who labor in the streets and on the wharves wear only a short pair of linen pantaloons, displaying a muscular development which any white man might envy. The remarkable contrast in the powerful frames of these dusky Africans and the puny Asiatic coolies is extraordinary. On the plantations and small farms the slaves wear but one garment, just sufficient for decency. The great heat when exposed to the sun is the reason, probably, rather than any economical idea.
The populace of Havana is eminently a festive one. Men luxuriate in the cafe, or spend their evenings in worse places. A brief period of the morning only is given to business, the rest of the day and night to melting lassitude, smoking, and luxurious ease. Evidences of satiety, languor, and dullness, the weakened capacity for enjoyment, are sadly conspicuous, the inevitable sequence of indolence and vice. The arts and sciences seldom disturb the thoughts of such people. Here, as in many European cities, Lazarus and Dives elbow each other, and an Oriental confusion of quarters prevails. The pretentious town-house is side by side with the humble quarters of the artisan, or even the negro hut, about which swarm the naked juveniles of color, a half-clad, slatternly mother appearing now and then. The father of this brood, if there be an acknowledged one, is probably at work upon some plantation not far away, while madame takes in linen to wash, but being possibly herself a slave, pays over one half of her earnings to some city master. High and low life are ever present in strong contrast, and in the best of humor with each other, affording elements of the picturesque, if not of the beautiful. Neatness must be ignored where such human conglomeration exists, and as we all know, at certain seasons of the year, like dear, delightful, dirty Naples, Havana is the hot-bed of pestilence. The dryness of the atmosphere transforms most of the street offal into fine powder, which salutes nose, eyes, ears, and mouth under the influence of the slightest breeze. Though there are ample bathing facilities in and about the city, the people of either sex seem to have a prejudice against their free use. In most hot climates the natives duly appreciate the advantage of an abundance of water, and luxuriate in its use, but it is not so in Cuba. We were told of ladies who content themselves with only wiping neck, face, and hands daily upon a towel saturated with island rum, and, from what was obvious, it is easy to believe this to be true.
Sea-bathing is a luxury which the Northern visitor will be glad to improve, if the natives are not, and for their information let us state that it may be safely enjoyed here. Establishments will be found where baths have been cut in the rock on the shore, west of the Punta fort, along the Calle Ancha del Norte. Here water is introduced fresh from the Gulf Stream, sparkling and invigorating, and characterized by much more salt and iodine than is found in more northern latitudes. It is the purest sea-bathing to be found in any city that we know of, refreshing and healthful, producing a sensation upon the surface of the body similar to that of sparkling soda-water on the palate. The island abounds in mineral springs, both hot and cold, all more or less similar in character, and belonging to the class of sulphur springs. Many of these have considerable local reputation for their curative properties.
In passing through O'Riley, Obispo, Obrapia, or any business streets at about eleven o'clock in the forenoon and glancing into the stores, workshops, business offices, and the like, one is sure to see the master in his shirt-sleeves, surrounded by his family, clerks, and all white employees, sitting in full sight at breakfast, generally in the business room itself. The midday siesta, an hour later, if not a necessity in this climate, is a universal custom. The shopkeeper, even as he sits on duty, drops his head upon his arm and sleeps for an hour, more or less. The negro and his master both succumb to the same influence, catching their forty winks, while the ladies, if not reclining, "lose themselves" with heads resting against the backs of the universal rocking-chairs. One interior seen by the passer-by is as like another as two peas. A Cuban's idea of a well-furnished sitting-room is fully met by a dozen cane-bottom rocking-chairs, and a few poor chromos on the walls. These rocking-chairs are ranged in two even lines, reaching from the window to the rear of the room, with a narrow woollen mat between them on the marble floor, each chair being conspicuously flanked by a cuspidor. This parlor arrangement is so nearly universal as to be absolutely ludicrous.
Sabbath Scenes in Havana. — Thimble-Riggers and Mountebanks. — City Squares and their Ornamentation. — The Cathedral. — Tomb of Columbus. — Plaza de Armas. — Out-Door Concerts. — Habitues of Paseo de Isabella. — Superbly Appointed Cafes. — Gambling. — Lottery Tickets. — Fast Life. — Masquerade Balls. — Carnival Days. — The Famous Tacon Theatre. — The Havana Casino. — Public Statues. — Beauties of the Governor's Garden. — The Alameda. — The Old Bell-Ringer. — Military Mass.
On no other occasion is the difference between the manners of a Protestant and Catholic community so strongly marked as on the Sabbath. In the former, a sober seriousness stamps the deportment of the people, even when they are not engaged in devotional exercises; in the latter, worldly pleasures and religious forms are pursued, as it were, at the same time, or follow each other in incongruous succession. We would not have the day made tedious, and it can only be so to triflers; to the true Christian it will ever be characterized by thoughtfulness and repose. The Parisian flies from the church to the railway station to join some picnic excursion, or to assist at the race-course, or he passes with a careless levity from St. Genevieve to the dance booths of the Champs Elysees. In New Orleans, the Creole who has just bent his knee before the altar repairs to the theatre to pass the evening; and the Cuban goes from the absolution of the priest to the hurly-burly of the bull-ring or the cock-pit.
The influence of fifteen minutes in the church, if salutary, would seem to be quickly dissipated by the attraction of the gaming-table and the masked ball. Even the Sunday ceremonial of the Church is a pageant: the splendid robes of the officiating priest, changed in the course of the service like the costume of actors in a drama; the music, to Protestant ears operatic and exciting; the clouds of incense scattering their intoxicating perfumes; the chanting in a strange tongue, unknown to the majority of the worshipers,—all tend to give the Roman Catholic services a carnival character. Far be it from us, however, to charge these congregations with an undue levity, or a lack of sincerity. Many a lovely Creole kneels upon the marble floor entirely estranged from the brilliant groups around her, and apparently unconscious for the time of the admiration she excites. There are many, no doubt, who look beyond the glittering symbols to the great truths of the Being whom they are intended to typify. The impression made by the Sabbath ceremonials of the Church strikes us as evanescent, more pleasing to the fancy than informing to the understanding. Still, if the Sabbath in Catholic countries is not wholly devoted to religious observances, neither are the week days wholly absorbed by business and by careless pleasures. The churches are always open, silently but eloquently inviting to devotion, and it is much to be able to step aside at any moment from the temptations, business, and cares of life into an atmosphere of seclusion and religion. The solemn quiet of an old cathedral on a week day is impressive from its very contrast to the tumult outside. Within its venerable walls the light seems chastened, as it falls through stained panes and paints the images of Christian saints and martyrs on the pavement of the aisles. A half unwilling reverence is apt to stimulate us on such an occasion, however skeptical we may be.
The Sabbath in Havana breaks upon the citizens amid the ringing of bells, the firing of cannon from the forts, the noise of trumpets, and the roll of the drum. It is no day of physical rest here, and the mechanical trades are uninterrupted. It is the chosen period for the military reviews, the masked ball, and the bull-fight. The stores are open as usual, the same cries are heard on the streets, and the lottery tickets are vended on every corner. The individuals who devote themselves to this business are in numbers like an army with banners. They rend the air with their cries, promising good luck to all purchasers, while they flourish their scissors with one hand, and thrust the sheet of printed numbers in your face with the other, ready to cut any desired ticket or portion of a ticket. The day proves equally propitious for the omnipresent organ-grinder and his ludicrously-dressed little monkey, a la Napoleon; the Chinese peddler; the orange and banana dealer; and the universal cigarette purveyor. Still, the rough Montero from the country, with his long line of loaded mules or ponies, respectfully raises his broad Panama with one hand while he makes the sign of the cross with the other as he passes the church door. The churches of Havana look very old and shabby compared with those of peninsular Spain, where the splendor of church ornamentation reaches its acme.
In and about the commercial part of the town, the out-door gambler forms a conspicuous feature of the Sabbath, seated upon a cloth spread upon the ground, and armed with cards, dice, cups, and other instruments. With voluble tongue and expressive pantomime urging the passer-by to try his luck, he meets with varying success. Many who are drawn into the net are adroitly permitted to win a little, and afterwards to lose much. Sailors on shore for a day's liberty are profitable game for these thimble-riggers, as they are called with us. Both Spaniards and Creoles patronize them, and occasionally a negro tries his luck with a trifle. In open squares, or at the intersection of several streets, one sometimes sees a carpet spread upon the ground, upon which an athlete accompanied by a couple of expert boys, dressed in high-colored tights ornamented with spangles, diverts the throng by exhibiting gymnastics. At the close of the performance, a young girl in a fancy dress and with long, flowing hair passes among the spectators and gathers a few shillings. Not far away is observed Punch and Judy in the height of a successful quarrel to the music of a harp and a violin. The automatic contestants pound and pommel each other after the conventional fashion.
The city abounds in well-arranged squares, often ornamented by the royal palm, always a figure of majesty and beauty, with here and there a few orange, lime, and banana trees, mingled with the Indian laurel, which forms a grateful shade by its dense foliage. The royal palm is strongly individualized, differing from other trees of the same family. It is usually from sixty to eighty feet in height at what may be called its maturity, and not unfrequently reaches a hundred, the tall trunk slightly swelling near the middle and tapering at either extremity. The upper portion is of a fresh and shining green, contrasting with the lower section, which is of a light slate color. It is crowned by a tuft of branches and leaves at its apex, like a bunch of ostrich feathers drooping in all directions. It seems as though the palm could not be out of place in any spot. It imparts great beauty to the scenery in and about Havana. When it is found dotting a broad stretch of country here and there in isolated groups, or even singly, it is always the first object to catch and delight the eye. It is also a marked and beautiful feature where it forms a long avenue, lining the road on either side leading to a sugar or coffee plantation, but it requires half a century to perfect such an avenue.
The Plaza de Armas, fronting the Governor's palace, is a finely kept square, and until the Parque de Isabella was finished, it was the great centre of fashion, and the place of evening resort. At one corner of this Plaza is an insignificant chapel, built upon the spot where Columbus is said to have assisted at the first mass celebrated on the island; an anachronism easily exposed were it worth the while. The great discoverer never landed at Havana during his lifetime, though his body was brought hither for burial, centuries after his death. There is one fact relating to this site in the Plaza de Armas fully authenticated, and which is not without interest. An enormous old ceiba tree originally stood here, beneath whose branches mass was sometimes performed. This remarkable tree having expired of old age was removed by order of the Governor-General, and the chapel was erected on the spot where its widespread branches had cast their shadow for centuries. We did not see the interior of the chapel, as it is opened but once a year to the public,—on the 16th of November, which is the feast day of San Cristobal, when mass is celebrated in honor of the great discoverer. It is said to contain a marble bust of Columbus, and two or three large historical paintings.
This square is divided into neatly kept paths, and planted with fragrant flowers, conspicuous among which were observed the white and red camellias, while a grateful air of coolness was diffused by the playing of a fountain into a broad basin, ornamented by a marble statue of Ferdinand VII. The Creoles are passionately fond of music, and this park used to be the headquarters of all out-door concerts. Their favorite airs are waltzes and native dances, with not a little of the Offenbach spirit in them. The guitar is the favorite domestic musical instrument here, as in peninsular Spain, and both sexes are as a rule clever performers upon it. Evening music in the open air is always attractive, but nowhere is its influence more keenly felt than under the mellow effulgence of tropical nights. Nowhere can we conceive of a musical performance listened to with more relish and appreciation than in the Plaza de Armas or the Parque de Isabella in Havana. The latter place on the occasion of the concerts is the resort of all classes. Here friends meet, flirtations are carried on, toilets are displayed, and lovers woo. Even the humble classes are seen in large numbers quietly strolling on the outer portions of the Plaza listening to the fine performances of the band, and quietly enjoying the music, "tamed and led by this enchantress still." The balmy nature of the climate permits the ladies to dispense with shawls or wraps of any sort; bonnets they very seldom wear, so that they sit in their vehicles, or alighting appropriate the chairs arranged for the purpose lining the broad central path, and thus appear in full evening dress, bare arms, and necks supplemented by most elaborate coiffures. Even the black lace mantilla, so commonly thrown over the head and shoulders in the cities of Spain, is discarded of an evening on the Plaza de Isabella.
It was very amusing to sit here near the marble statue of the ex-queen (which is, by the way, a wonderful likeness of Queen Victoria), where the band, composed of sixty instrumental performers, discoursed admirable music, and to observe young Cuba abroad, represented by boys and girls of ten and twelve years dressed like young ladies and gentlemen, sauntering arm in arm through the broad paths. These children attend balls given by grown-up people, and are painted and bedizened and decked out like their elders,—a singular fashion in Cuban cities. It is true they not infrequently fall asleep on such occasions in rocking-chairs and in odd corners, overcome by fatigue, as the hours of festivity creep on towards the morning. Childhood is ignored. Youth of a dozen years is introduced to the habits of people thrice that age. We were sadly told, by one who is himself a parent, that most children in the island but twelve years of age know the delicate relations of the sexes as well as they would ever know them. What else could be expected in an atmosphere so wretchedly immoral? Small boys dressed in stovepipe hats and swallow-tail coats, and little misses in long dresses with low necks look like mountebanks.
Opposite the Plaza de Isabella, on the Tacon Theatre side of the square, are situated the most fashionable cafes and restaurants of the capital, where "life" commences at nine o'clock in the evening and rages fast and furious until the small hours of the morning. In these resorts, which are one blaze of light, every gas-burner reflected by dozens of mirrors, the marble tables are all occupied by vivacious patrons. Some are playing dominoes, some few are engaged at games of chess, others are busy over checkers or cards, and all are gambling. Even the lookers-on at the games freely stake their money on the fortunes of the several players. The whole scene is one of noise and confusion, fifty tongues giving voice at the same time. If a Spaniard or Creole loses a dollar he gesticulates and argues about it as though thousands were involved in the issue. These people represent all classes. Some are in their shirt-sleeves, some roughly clothed, some in full evening dress; Spaniards, Creoles, mulattoes, and occasionally an unmistakable European. They drink often, but not strong liquors, and one is surprised to hear coffee so often called for in place of wine. The games are kept up until two or three o'clock in the morning. Loitering about the doors beggars always form the shadow of the scene; some lame, some blind, mostly negroes and coolies; now and then there is seen among them an intelligent but sad white face, which looks rather than utters its appeal. These are often the recipients of the successful gambler's bounty. Now and again a lottery-ticket vender comes in and makes the circuit of the tables, always disposing of more or less chances, sometimes selling a whole ticket, price one doubloon, or seventeen dollars. As we watch the scene a daintily dressed youth with shining beaver lounges in, accompanied by one of the demi-monde gayly dressed and sparkling with jewelry which betrays her want of modesty. She is of the true Andalusian type, olive complexion, coal-black hair with eyes to match, and long dark lashes; petite in figure and youthful, but aged in experience. Bonnetless, her luxuriant hair is set high upon her head, held by a square tortoise-shell comb, and carelessly thrown off her forehead with a parting on one side. Be sure some sad story underlies her career. She is of just that gypsy cast that painters love to delineate. They sit down at a side table and order ices, cake, and champagne. These are consumed amid jests and laughter, the spurious champagne, at a fabulous cost, is drunk merrily, the hours creep on, and the couple retire to give place to others, after having furnished a picture of the fast, false life of these brilliant, but dissipated haunts.
Some of these cafes are more exclusive than others, where respectable ladies and gentlemen can retire after the band has ceased its performance, and enjoy the cooling influence of an ice. The Louvre, just opposite the Plaza de Isabella and adjoining the Tacon Theatre, is one of such. These establishments couple with their current evening business that of the manufacture of choice preserves for domestic use and also for export, the fruits of the island supplying the basis for nearly a hundred varieties of fruit preserves, which find large sales in our Northern cities and in Europe.
In carnival week these cafes do an immense business; it is the harvest of their year. People who can hardly afford three meals a day pinch themselves and suffer much self-denial that they may have money to spend in carnival week. The public masquerade balls, which then take place, allure all classes. The celebrations of the occasion culminate in a grand public masquerade ball given in the Tacon Theatre. The floor of the parquette is temporarily raised to a level with the boxes and the stage, the entire floor or lower part of the house being converted into a grand ball-room. The boxes and galleries are thrown open free to the public. The music, furnished by two military bands, alternating in their performance, is kept up until broad daylight, while the participants come and go as they please. A little after midnight an organization called the comparzas comes upon the scene. It is composed of men, boys, and women, all masked, who have practiced for the occasion some emblematic dance to perform for their own and the public amusement. The other dancers give way and the new-comers perform, in harlequin fashion, their allotted parts. Towards morning a large paper globe is suspended from the ceiling and lowered to within a certain height from the floor. Blindfolded volunteers of both sexes, furnished with sticks, are permitted to walk towards and try to hit it. Scores fail, others just graze the globe of paper, all amid loud laughter from the spectators. Finally some one hits the globe full and fair, bringing down the contents amid vociferous applause. Then commences a general scramble for the contents, consisting of bonbons, toys, and fancy trinkets.
The celebrated Tacon Theatre faces the Paseo de Isabella, and is built on the corner of San Rafael Street. It is a capacious structure, but extremely plain and unimpressive in its exterior appearance. It has five tiers of boxes and a spacious parquette, the latter furnished with separate arm-chair seats for six hundred persons. The entire seating capacity of the house is a trifle over three thousand, and the auditorium is of the horseshoe shape. The lattice-work finish before the boxes is very light and graceful in effect, ornamented with gilt, and so open as to display the dresses and pretty feet of the fair occupants to the best advantage. The frescos are in good style, and the ornamentation, without being excessive, is in excellent and harmonious taste. A large, magnificent glass chandelier, lighted with gas, and numerous smaller ones extending from the boxes give a brilliant light to this elegant house, which is one of the largest theatres in the world. The scene is a remarkable one when tier upon tier is filled with gayly dressed ladies, powdered and rouged as Cuban women are apt to be, in the most liberal manner. The parquette is reserved for gentlemen, and when the audience is assembled forms a striking contrast to the rest of the house, as they always appear in dark evening dress, and between the acts put on their tall black beaver hats. These audiences have their own special modes of exhibiting appreciation or applause, when captivated by a prima donna's or a danseuse's efforts to please them. At favorable moments during the performance the artist is showered with bouquets; white doves are set free from the boxes, bearing laudatory verses fastened to their wings; gentlemen throw their hats upon the stage, and sometimes even purses weighted with gold. Tiny balloons are started with long streamers of colored ribbon attached; jewelry in the shape of bracelets and rings is conveyed over the footlights; in short, these Spaniards are sometimes extraordinarily demonstrative. A furore has sometimes cost these caballeros large sums of money. But we are describing the past rather than the immediate present, for the scarcity of pecuniary means has put an end to nearly all such extravagances. The Havanese are peculiar in their tastes. While Miss Adelaide Phillips was more than once the recipient of extravagant favors on the Tacon Theatre stage, Jenny Lind did not pay her professional expenses when she sang there.