Consumption of Tobacco. — The Delicious Fruits of the Tropics. — Individual Characteristics of Cuban Fruits. — The Royal Palm. — The Mulberry Tree. — Silk Culture. — The Island once covered by Forests. — No Poisonous Reptiles. — The Cuban Bloodhound. — Hotbed of African Slavery. — Spain's Disregard of Solemn Treaties. — The Coolie System of Slavery. — Ah-Lee draws a Prize. — Native African Races. — Negroes buying their Freedom. — Laws favoring the Slaves. — Example of St. Domingo. — General Emancipation.
The consumption of tobacco in the form of cigars is almost incredibly large in Cuba, and for the city of Havana alone it has been estimated to amount to an aggregate cost of five million dollars per annum. Every man, woman, and child appears to be addicted to the habit. It strikes a Northerner as rather odd for a lady to sit smoking her cigarette in her parlor, but this is not at all rare. The men of all degrees smoke everywhere, in the dwelling-house, in the street, in the theatre, in the cafes, and in the counting-room; eating, drinking, and truly it would also seem, sleeping, they smoke, smoke, smoke. At the tables d'hote of the hotels it is not unusual to see a Cuban take a few whiffs of a cigarette between the several courses, and lights are burning close at hand to enable him to do so. If a party of gentlemen are invited to dine together, the host so orders that a packet of the finest cigarettes is frequently passed to his guests, with a lighted taper, in the course of the meal, and at its close some favorite brand of the more substantial cigar is furnished to all. Thus, tobacco is consumed on every occasion, in the council-chamber, the court, at funerals, in the domestic circles, at feasts, and on the out-door drive. The slave and his master, the maid and her mistress, boy and man, all, all smoke. It seems odd that one does not scent Havana far out at sea before the land is sighted.
We were told that gentlemen who have the means to procure them smoke on an average what is equivalent to a dozen cigars per day, and those of the other sex addicted to the habit consume half that quantity. Of late the larger proportion, however, takes the form of cigarettes, which are far more subtle in effect when used to excess. The consequence of this large home consumption, in addition to the export of the article, is that a very numerous class of the population is engaged in the manufacture, and little stores devoted solely to this business are plentifully sprinkled all about the metropolis. The imperial factory of La Honradez, already described, occupies a whole city square, and is one of its curiosities, producing from three to four million cigarettes per diem. This house enjoys special governmental protection, and makes its annual contribution to the royal household of Madrid of the best of its manufactured goods. A snuff-taker is rarely to be met with, and few, if any, chew the weed, if we except the stevedores and foreign sailors to be seen about the shore and shipping. Havana has no wharves, properly speaking; vessels are loaded and discharged by means of lighters or scows. The negroes become passionately fond of the pipe, inhaling into their lungs the rich, powerful narcotic and driving it out again at their nostrils in slow, heavy clouds, half dozing over the dreamy effect. The postilion who waits for a fare upon the street passes half his time in this way, dreaming over his pipe of pure Havana, or renewing constantly his cigarette. The price of manufactured tobacco in Cuba is about one half that which we pay for the same article in America, either at wholesale or retail, as shipping expenses, export duty, and import duty must be added to the price charged to the consumer.
In discussing this habit one naturally looks back about four hundred years, recalling the amazement of the Spanish discoverers, when they first landed here, at seeing the Indians smoking a native weed which was called tobacco. The practice was, at that time, entirely unknown in Europe, though now indulged in as a luxury by nearly half the population of the globe.
We have only a partial idea at the North of the true character of tropical fruits, since only a small portion of them are of such a nature as to admit of exportation, and such as are forwarded to us must be gathered in an unripe condition in order to survive a short sea-voyage. The orange which we eat in Boston or New York, therefore, is a very different-flavored fruit from the same when partaken of in Havana or Florida. The former has been picked green and ripened on shipboard, as a general thing; the latter was perhaps on the tree an hour before you ate it, ripened under its native skies and upon its parent stem. So of the banana, one of the most delightful and nutritious of all West Indian fruits, which grows everywhere in Cuba with prodigal profuseness,—though we are told that as regards this fruit it is claimed that, like some varieties of our pear, it ripens as well off the tree as on it; and the same is the case with some other fleshy fruits. After the banana has attained its full growth, the final process of ripening commences, as it were, within itself; that is to say, the fruit ceases to depend upon the tree for sustenance or farther development. The pulp becomes gradually sweetened and softened, chiefly by the change of the starch into more or less of soluble sugar. When the bananas are shipped to our Northern markets they are as green as the leaves of the trees on which they grew. Most of us have seen cartloads of them in this condition landing at our city wharves. Placed in an even temperature and in darkness they will ripen and become as yellow as gold in a very few days.
The banana and plantain differ from each other much as an apple and a potato differ; the latter should always be cooked before eating, but the former may be either eaten raw or cooked, according to the taste. The banana is gathered at three different stages of its growth. At a quarter of its maturity it is rather milky, and contains much starch. Roasted in ashes, or boiled in water, it forms a very nourishing food, and is a good substitute for bread. If eaten at three fourths of its growth it is less nourishing, but contains more sugar. Lastly, when perfectly ripe, it develops an acrid principle, both wholesome and palatable. The fig banana is a favorite species, and forms a universal dessert in the ripe state with the Creoles. A frequent reference is made to it in these notes because of its importance. The enormous productiveness of the plant and its nutritious character assure to the humble classes an abundant subsistence. People may go freely into the wild lands and find edible bananas at any time, without money and without price. In the cities the charge for them is so moderate that a person must be poor indeed who cannot afford a liberal quantity of them daily.
Some of the other fruits are the mango, pomegranate, pineapple, zapota, tamarind, citron, fig, cocoa, lemon, rose-apple, and breadfruit. Japan, India, and Ceylon afford nothing more fascinating or strange in their vegetable kingdoms than this favored isle. The fruits are simply wonderful in variety and perfection. One eats eggs, custard, and butter off the trees. Though all these fruits are universally eaten, the orange seems to be the Creole's favorite, and if he be a person of even ordinary means, he seldom rises in the morning until he has drunk his cup of coffee and eaten a couple of oranges, brought fresh and prepared for him by a servant. The practice is one into which the visitor falls very pleasantly, and finds it no less refreshing than agreeable. It seems to rain oranges in Havana. They are scarcely less cheap than the luscious banana.
The rose-apple grows on one of the most symmetrical trees in Cuba, with strong, oval, glossy leaves. The blossoms are large, white, and of pleasant odor, followed by a round fruit about as large as a well-developed California peach, with a smooth skin, cream-colored within and without. The pulp is as firm as a ripe seckel pear, and the taste is so strong of otto-of-rose that more than one at a time palls upon the palate. It is much used among the Cubans as an agreeable flavoring for soups and puddings. Of the fruit trees the lemon is perhaps the most attractive to the eye; for though small and dwarfish, yet it presents the flowers, small green lemons, and the ripe yellow fruit all together, reminding one of the Eastern alma. The green leaves when young are nearly as fragrant as the lemon verbena.
The mammee is a curious fruit growing on lofty, umbrageous trees, appearing as musk-melons would look if seen hanging in elm-trees. Large and high-flavored, the fruit is solid in texture like the American quince. The flavor of the mammee resembles our peach, though not quite so delicate. Its color when ripe is a light yellow.
The mango is nearly as abundant and prolific as the banana, and yet it came originally from the far East. It grows upon a very handsome tree, the leaves being long, lanceolate, polished, and hanging in dense masses of dark-green foliage. In size it is like a full-grown New England apple tree. The mango is about thrice the size of an egg plum, and when ripe is yellow in color, and grows in long pendant bunches. When this fruit is at its best it is very juicy, and may be sucked away like a grape. The negroes are immoderately fond of it, and when permitted to do so are apt to make themselves ill by their greediness.
The cocoa-nut tree grows to the height of fifty feet and more, differing from the royal palm by its drooping nature. At its summit is a waving tuft of dark green, glossy, pinnate leaves, from ten to fifteen feet in length, like mammoth plumes, immediately under which are suspended the nuts in heavy bunches, often weighing three hundred pounds. When the nut has attained nearly its full size, it is said to be in the milk, and it then furnishes a delightful, cooling, and healthful beverage. In taste it is sweetish, and its effect is that of a slight diuretic.
The sapotilla is a noble fruit tree, with feathery, glossy leaves. The blossoms are white and bell-shaped, with an agreeable perfume like an apple-blossom. The fruit is round, about the size of a peach, the skin being rough and dark like a russet apple or a potato, but when fully ripe it is delicious, and melts away in the mouth like a custard.
The pineapple, that king of fruits, though in itself presenting such a fine appearance, is the plainest of all in its humble manner of growth. It is found wild in Cuba, and there are several varieties cultivated, none quite equal, it seemed to us, to those found in Singapore and other equatorial islands. Its style of growth is the same in either hemisphere. It grows singly upon its low stem, reaching to a height of eighteen or twenty inches above the ground. A single fruit-stem pushes up from the earth, blossoms, and in about eighteen months from the planting it matures a single apple, weighing three or four pounds and upwards; and what a royal fruit it is! A field well covered with the yellow, ripening apples is a very beautiful sight. Though the plant produces but one apple at a time, it will continue to yield an annual crop for three or four years, if cultivated. It is raised from slips, planted much as our farmers set out young cabbages or lettuce.
The custard-apple grows wild, but is also cultivated and thereby much improved. Its color externally is green, and it has a tough skin, is of a subacid flavor, and as full of little flat black seeds as a shad is of bones. It is much used in Cuba for flavoring purposes, and is soft and juicy, each specimen weighing from a pound to a pound and a half. The star-apple is so called because when cut through transversely its centre presents the figure of a star. Even when quite ripe the interior is green in color. Its flavor is exquisite, like strawberries and cream, and it is eaten with a spoon, the outside skin forming as it were a shell or cup.
The guava tree is small and resembles our young cherry trees. The fruit is about the size of the lime, which it much resembles. It is made little use of in its natural condition, but is in universal demand as a preserve; the jelly made from it is famous all over the world. When it is freshly cut, one will scent a whole room for hours with its distinctive flavor.
The pomegranate, a general favorite in the torrid zone, flourishes in Cuba, but is seen in much greater perfection in Africa. It is doubtful if it is indigenous here, though it is now found in such abundance, and as much depended upon for a food supply as apples are with us. Doubtless the reader has seen the bush in bearing in our hothouses, the fruit when cut being full of red seeds glistening like rubies.
The tamarind is a universal and thrifty tree in the island, lofty and umbrageous, a quick grower and yet long-lived. The fruit is contained in a pod,—like a full, ripe pea-pod,—covering mahogany-colored seeds. The pulp when ripe and fresh is as soft as marmalade, and quite palatable; its flavor is sugared acid. Steeped in water it forms a delightful and cooling beverage, much used as a drink in the tropics.
The orange, lime, lemon, and citron are too well known to require detailed description. The wild or bitter orange is much used for hedges: its deep green glossy foliage and its fragrant blossoms and its golden fruit make such hedges strikingly effective. The rind of the bitter orange is used to make a sweetmeat with which we are all familiar.
More than once the Moorish garden of the Alcazar, at Seville, and the garden of Hesperides, at Cannes, were recalled in hours of delightful wanderings among the orange groves of Cuba. Yet these latter are neglected, or at least not generously cultivated, no such care being given to them as is bestowed upon the orange orchards of Florida; but the glowing sun and ardent breath of the tropics ask little aid from the hand of man in perfecting their products. The fruits and flowers of the American Archipelago—"air-woven children of light"—are not only lavishly prolific, but perfect of their kind. No wonder that scientists and botanists become poetical in their descriptions of these regions.
The royal palm, so often alluded to, grows to the height of seventy feet, more or less. It is singular that it should have no substance in the interior of its trunk, though the outside to the thickness of a couple of inches makes the finest of boards, and when seasoned is so hard as to turn a board-nail at a single stroke of the hammer. It is remarkable also that a palm tree which grows so high has such tiny, thread-like roots, which, however, are innumerable. The top of the palm yields a vegetable which is used as food and when boiled is nutritious and palatable, resembling our cauliflower. Though there are many species of palm in Cuba, one seldom sees the fan-palm, which forms such a distinctive feature in equatorial regions as at Penang and Singapore.
Humboldt thought that the entire island was once a forest of palms, mingled with lime and orange trees. The mulberry tree, if not indigenous, was found here at so early a period that it is a matter of doubt as to its having been imported from other lands. It grows to great perfection, and has led to several attempts in the direction of silk-raising, the silkworm also proving more prolific even than in Japan. Some of the fine, hard fancy woods of Cuba were employed in the finish of apartments in the Escurial palace near Madrid. Ebony, rosewood, fustic, lancewood, mahogany, and other choice woods are very abundant, especially the mahogany, which grows to enormous size. The exportation of them has only taken place where these woods were best located for river transportation to harbors on the coast. The interior of the island is so inaccessible that it has hardly been explored. There are fertile valleys there of two hundred miles in length and thirty in width, with an average temperature of 75 deg., a maximum of 88 deg., and a minimum of 52 deg., thus affording a most perfect and healthful climate, favorable to human and to vegetable life, and it should be remembered that malarial diseases or yellow fever are unknown in the districts removed from the coast, and no one ever heard of sunstroke in Cuba.
It is somewhat remarkable that there should be no poisonous animals or reptiles in the island, but so we were creditably informed. Snakes of various species abound, but are considered entirely harmless, though they are sometimes destructive to domestic fowls. During a pleasant trip between San Antonio and Alquizar in a volante with a hospitable planter of that region, this subject happened to be under discussion, when we saw in the roadway a snake six or eight feet long, and as large round as the middle of one's arm. On pointing it out to our friend, he merely told us its species, and declared that a child might sleep with it unharmed. In the mean time it was a relief to see the innocent creature hasten to secrete itself in a lime hedge close at hand. Lizards, tarantulas, and chameleons are frequently seen, but are considered to be harmless. One often awakes in the morning to see lizards upon his chamber wall, searching for flies and insects, upon which they feed.
The Cuban bloodhound, of which we hear so much, is not a native of the island, but belongs to an imported breed, resembling the English mastiff, though with larger head and limbs. He is by nature a fierce, bloodthirsty animal, but the particular qualities which fit him for tracing the runaway slaves are almost entirely acquired by careful training. This is accomplished by experts in the business, who are sometimes Monteros, and sometimes French overseers of plantations who are out of work or regular engagement. Each estate keeps some of these dogs as a precautionary measure, but they are seldom called into use of late, for so certain is the slave that he will be instantly followed as soon as missed, and inevitably traced by the hounds, that he rarely attempts to escape from his master unless under some peculiarly aggravating cause. It may even be doubted whether a slave would be pursued to-day were he to attempt to escape, because slavery is so very near its last gasp. In one respect this is an advantage to the negroes, since the master, feeling this indifference, grants the blacks more freedom of action. So perfect of scent is the Cuban bloodhound that the master has only to obtain a bit of clothing left behind by the runaway and give it to the hound to smell. The dog will then follow the slave through a whole population of his class, and with his nose to the ground lead straight to his hiding-place.
For three centuries Cuba has been the hotbed of African slavery. Few, if any, have been imported during the last thirty years, that is to say since 1855, during which year some cargoes were successfully run. In 1816, the Spanish government, in a solemn treaty, declared its conviction of the injustice of the slave trade. On the 23d of September, 1817, in consideration of four hundred thousand pounds sterling paid as an equivalent by Great Britain, Spain ratified a treaty proclaiming that the slave trade should cease throughout all the dominions of that country on the 30th day of May, 1820, and that it should not afterwards be lawful for any Spanish subject to purchase slaves. It was further declared by the home government that all blacks brought from Africa subsequent to that date should be at once set free, and the vessel on which they were transported should be confiscated, while the captain, crew, and others concerned should be punished with ten years' penal servitude. Yet, as all the world knows, this was nothing more than a dead letter so far as Cuba was concerned, and so late as 1845, statistics show an arrival of imported slaves from Africa of fifteen thousand negroes annually, for the previous twenty years. Tacon, Governor-General from June, 1834, until April, 1838, like his predecessors and successors made no secret of receiving seventeen dollars per head,—that is one doubloon,—on every slave landed. Other officials spent their fees on themselves or hoarded them for a fortune to be enjoyed on returning home to Spain, but Tacon expended his in beautifying Havana and its environs. That the home government secretly fostered the slave trade, notwithstanding the solemn treaty entered into with Great Britain, no one pretends to deny.
The coolie system, which was latterly substituted for that of the importation of Africans, was commenced in 1847, but it was only slavery under another form, being in point of humanity even more objectionable. Fully seventy per cent. of the Chinese coolies died during the eight years they were bound by their contract to serve their masters! Even after that period was completed, unjust laws and schemes were adopted to retain their services whenever the planters desired it; but the truth is, the planters, after a thorough experience, were generally glad to get rid of the Mongolians. All of them were decoyed from home under false pretenses and large promises, and only arrived in Cuba to find themselves virtually slaves. But there was no help for them. They were thousands of miles from China, in a land of whose language they knew nothing, and so they were obliged to submit. If after their term of service expired they succeeded in reaching Havana, or other Cuban cities, and by becoming fruit peddlers or engaging in any other occupation tried to earn sufficient money to carry them back to their native land, they still were brutally treated by all parties, and were ever at the mercy of the venal police. On the plantations they received perhaps a little more consideration than the blacks, simply because they were less tractable and more dangerous on account of their greater degree of intelligence and keener sense of the wrong done them. The planter, always short of laborers, has heretofore been willing to pay the shipping-agencies four hundred dollars for a newly-arrived coolie, whose services he thus secured for eight years, the coolies at the expiration of the period to receive a mere nominal sum, out of which they have mostly been cheated by some means or other. The whole business of coolie importation is vile beyond measure, and must have included in its aggregate over three hundred thousand Chinese. There are still believed to be some sixty thousand left upon the island, most of whom remain because they have no means of returning to their native land. Half of these subsist by begging. Broken in health and spirits, they await the coming of that final liberator who is the last friend of suffering humanity.
The Chinese are best adapted to the work of the cigar factories, where they excel in the occupation of cigar and cigarette making, and many hundreds are thus employed in Havana. But they are totally unfit for plantation labor, under the hardships of which their feeble frames succumb. They prove themselves very good servants in the cities, being very quick to learn, and ready to adapt themselves to any light occupation. A Chinaman is sly, cunning, and, to a certain degree, enterprising; but he must be trusted cautiously. As a house-servant, footman, cook, or waiter he is admirable. Here, in this to him foreign land, he cannot suppress his instinct for gambling; it seems to be born in him, and he will often lose in an hour the hard accumulation of months, or even years. As to the lottery, he is always the purchaser of portions of tickets at every drawing, and occasionally becomes a winner. A thrifty Chinaman, for there are some such even in Havana, bearing the characteristic name of Ah-Lee, connected with a bricabrac store on the Calzada de la Reina, held a lucky number in the lottery drawn during our brief stay at the Hotel Telegrafo. When the prizes were announced, he found that he was entitled to five hundred dollars. The agents tried to pay Ah-Lee in Cuban currency, but he was too smart for them, and showed them their own announcement promising to cash all prizes, with the usual discount, in gold. So Ah-Lee got his prize finally in gold. We were told by one whose experience was extensive, and whose testimony was worthy of respect, that the coolies would lie and steal with such apparent innocence as to deceive the most wary, and that as regards their moral nature it seemed to be totally undeveloped. For our own part we still sympathize with John. He has been so outrageously cheated and abused from the hour when he stepped on board the transport ship which brought him from China up to the present time that he has learned the trick of it. If he is not strong enough to demand his rights, we certainly hope that he may have sufficient cunning to obtain them by outwitting his adversaries.
In their slave condition the Chinese coolies and the negroes were at times so affected by a spirit of superstition as to cause them to commit suicide, the latter actuated, as it seemed, by a feeling of despair, the former through a vindictive spirit towards their masters. Both were also moved by a superstitious conviction that their spirits would at once be returned to their native land, to inhabit a sort of spirit paradise or intermediate state between earth and heaven. It is very strange that so peculiar and so similar a belief should be indigenous in the minds of such distinctive races. At the period when the free importation from Africa was carried on, the most difficult thing the planters had to contend with was a proneness to suicide on the part of those slaves who were newly imported, and who entertained this same remarkable idea.
Though we abhor the entire system of Cuban labor, yet it cannot be denied that the slaves, so far as material comfort goes, are better lodged, fed, and cared for than four fifths of the population of Ireland and India, and, furthermore, this comparison will hold good as regards a large portion of continental Europe. A well-fed, well-kept negro is twice as valuable, twice as serviceable to his master as a neglected one, and no one knows this better than the master who governs his slaves on purely mercenary grounds, and is yet very careful to supply liberally their physical wants. These slaves are descended from various African tribes, whose characteristics are so marked as to be easily discernible even by strangers. The Congoes are small in stature, but very agile and good workers, and in past years they have been a favorite tribe. The Fantees are a larger race of negroes, hard to manage, and possessing a revengeful nature. Those from the Gold Coast are still more powerful in body, but are good-natured and well-liked by planters. The Ebros are less black than those already named, almost mulatto in complexion, and make favorite house servants. The Ashantees are of another prominent tribe, and are also popular as plantation hands, but not numerous.
The tattooed faces, bodies, and limbs of a large portion of the slaves, especially of the hands upon the plantations, shows their African nativity, while the smooth skin and generally greater degree of intelligence of others show them to have been born in slavery upon the island. These latter are mostly sought for service in the cities. They are remarkably healthy when not overworked, and form the most vigorous part of the population. When an epidemic breaks out among the blacks, it seems to carry them off by wholesale, proving much more fatal than among the whites. Cholera, small-pox, and pneumonia sometimes sweep them off at a fearful rate. It is a curious fact that if a negro is really ill, he requires just twice as much medicine to affect him as a white person.
There are said to be three hundred thousand free negroes on the island, of whom comparatively few are found inland upon the plantations; they are all inclined to congregate in the cities and large towns, where, truth compels us to say, they prove to be an idle and vicious class, and as a body useless both to themselves and to the public. There are believed to be at present in Cuba about one hundred and forty thousand male and about sixty thousand female slaves. To carry on the great industry of the island as systematized by the planters, this number of hands is entirely inadequate. It is sometimes asked how there came to be so many free negroes in the island. It should be clearly understood that the laws which govern Cuba are made by the home government, not by the planters or natives of Cuba, and that indirectly these laws have long favored emancipation of the blacks. For many years any slave has enjoyed the right to go to a magistrate and have himself appraised, and upon paying the price thus set upon himself he can receive his free papers. The valuation is made by three persons, of whom the master appoints one, and the magistrate two. The slave may pay by installments of fifty dollars at a time, but he owes his full service to his master until the last and entire payment is made. If the valuation be twelve hundred dollars, after the slave has paid one hundred he owns one twelfth of himself, and the master eleven twelfths, and so on. Until all is paid, however, the master's dominion over the slave is complete. There has also long been another peculiar law in operation. A slave may on the same valuation compel his master to transfer him to any person who will pay the money in full, and this has often been done where slave and master disagree. This law, as will be seen, must have operated as it was designed to do, as a check upon masters, and as an inducement for them to remove special causes of complaint and dissatisfaction. It has also enabled slaveholders of the better class, in the case of ill-usage of blacks, to relieve them by paying down their appraised value and appropriating their services to themselves. All this relates to the past rather than the present, since, as we have explained, the relationship of slave and master is now so nearly at an end as to render such arrangements inoperative.
There was a law promulgated in 1870,—the outgrowth of the revolution of 1868, which dethroned Isabella II.,—declaring every slave in Cuba to be free after reaching the age of sixty, and also freeing the children of all slaves born subsequent to that year. But that law has been ignored altogether, and was not permitted even to be announced officially upon the island. In the first place, few hard worked slaves survive to the age of sixty; and in the second place, the children have no one to look after or to enforce their rights. Spain never yet kept troth with her subjects, or with anybody else, and the passage of the law referred to was simply a piece of political finesse, designed for the eye of the European states, and more particularly to soothe England, which country had lately showed considerable feeling and restlessness touching the disregard of all treaties between herself and Spain.
The slaves who still remain upon the plantations appear in all outward circumstances to be thoughtless and comparatively content; their light and cheerful nature seems to lift them above the influence of brutal treatment when it is encountered. That they have been called upon to suffer much by being overtasked and cruelly punished in the past, there is no doubt whatever, but it may be safely stated that their condition has been greatly improved of late. The owners are obliged by law to instruct the slaves in the Catholic faith, but this has never been heeded to any extent by the planters, though all the children are baptized in infancy. The law relative to the treatment of the negroes also prescribes a certain quantity and quality of food to be regularly furnished to them, but the masters are generally liberal in this respect, and exceed the requirements of the law, as their mercenary interest is obviously in that direction. The masters know by experience that slaves will not work well unless well fed. With no education or culture whatever, their intelligence remains at the lowest ebb. "With plenty of food and sleep," said an owner to us, "they are as easily managed as any other domestic animals."
Until latterly the slaves have been carefully watched at night, but nearly all these precautions against their escaping from servitude seem to have been dropped. They are no longer locked up in corral, their special night quarters. Of course they are kept within certain bounds, but the rigorous surveillance under which they have always lived is no longer in force. The two sexes are nominally separated, but as there is no strict recognition of the marital relation, and free intercommunication between them really exists, the state of morality may be imagined. It has always been customary for mothers to receive certain consideration and partial relief from hard labor during a reasonable period prior to and subsequent to their confinement, with encouraging gifts from the masters, which has caused them generally to covet the condition of maternity. Still the proportion of female slaves on the plantations has always been so small, compared with that of the other sex, that not nearly so many children are born as would be supposed. Female slaves have generally been sent to town service, even when born on the plantations.
It has always been clearly understood that the births on the part of the negroes in Cuba have not nearly kept pace with the number of deaths among them, even under apparently favorable circumstances. One has not far to look for the reason of this. Promiscuous intercourse is undoubtedly the predisposing cause, which is always an outgrowth of a largely unequal division of the sexes. On the plantations the male negroes outnumber the females ten to one. In the cities the males are as five to one. When the slave trade was carried on between Africa and the island, the plan was to bring over males only, but it was hardly practicable to adhere strictly to the rule, so women were not declined when a cargo was being made up and nearly completed. Thus a disparity was inaugurated which has continued to the present day, with only a slight equalizing tendency.
The present plan of freeing the slaves recommends itself to all persons who fully understand the position, and if it be honestly carried out will soon obliterate the crime of enforced labor upon the island. A sudden freeing of the blacks, that is, all at once, would have been attended with much risk to all parties, although justice and humanity demand their liberation. France tried the experiment in St. Domingo, and the result was a terrible state of anarchy. Not only did she lose possession of the island, but the people settled down by degrees into all the horrors of African savagery, even to cannibalism. England followed, and generously paid the British planters of Jamaica for all their slaves, giving the latter unconditional freedom. Of course this ruined the island commercially, but it was strict justice, nevertheless. Extreme measures are open to objection even in behalf of justice. It was hoped that the freed negroes of Jamaica would become thrifty and industrious, earning fair wages, and that crops would still be remunerative, but it was not so. The negro of the tropics will only work when he is compelled, and in the West Indies he has scarcely more to do, as it regards sustaining life, than to pluck of the wild fruits and to eat. The sugar plantations of Jamaica have simply ceased to exist.
Every reasonable Cuban has long realized that the freedom of the blacks was but a question of time, and that it must soon be brought about, but how this could be accomplished without rendering them liable to the terrible consequences which befell St. Domingo was a serious problem. The commercial wreck of Jamaica had less terror for them as an example, since of late their own condition could in that respect hardly be worse. Therefore, the manumitting of one slave in every four annually, so organized that all shall be free on January 1, 1888, is considered with great favor by the people generally, except the most radical of old Spaniards. All are thus prepared for the change, which is so gradually brought about as to cause no great shock. It is not unreasonable to believe that the instantaneous freeing of all the slaves would have led to mutual destruction of whites and blacks all over the island.
Slave Trade with Africa. — Where the Slavers made their Landing. — An Early Morning Ride. — Slaves marching to Daily Labor. — Fragrance of the Early Day. — Mist upon the Waters. — A Slave Ship. — A Beautiful but Guilty Brigantine. — A French Cruiser. — Cunning Seamanship. — A Wild Goose Chase. — A Cuban Posada. — Visit to a Coffee Estate. — Landing a Slave Cargo. — A Sight to challenge Sympathy and Indignation. — Half-Starved Victims. — Destruction of the Slave Ship.
The author's first visit to the island of Cuba was during the year 1845, at a period when the slave traffic was vigorously, though surreptitiously carried on between Africa and the island. The trade was continued so late as 1853, and occasional cargoes were brought over even later, slavers having been captured on the south coast two years subsequent to the last named date. The slave vessels generally sought a landing on the south side, both as being nearest and safest for them, but when they were hard pressed they made a port wherever it could be most easily reached. A favorite point at the time of which we speak, was in the Bay of Broa, on the south coast, nearly opposite to the Isle of Pines. It was here in 1845 that the author witnessed a scene which forms the theme of the following chapter. A superior knowledge of all the hidden bays and inlets of the south side gave the contrabandists great advantages over any pursuing vessel, and their lighter draught of water enabled them to navigate their small crafts where it was impossible for a heavy ship to follow.
We were on a brief visit to the coffee estate of Don Herero, near Guines, and having expressed a desire to visit the southern coast, our host proposed that we should do so together on the following day. We were to start on horseback quite early in the morning, so as to accomplish the distance before the heat of the sun should become oppressive.
The early day is almost as beautiful as the evenings of this region, a fact to which we were fully awakened at an early hour, after a refreshing night's sleep. Don Herero was already awaiting us on the broad piazza, which we reached in time to see the slaves, directed by an overseer, file past the house towards the field. "A couple of hours before sunrise," said our host, "is the best time for them to work, and we add these two hours to their noon rest, so that it divides the labor to better advantage and avoids the midday heat." There were perhaps seventy or eighty of this gang of slaves, one fifth only being women. Don Herero went among them and exchanged some pleasant words, mostly with the women, one of whom, evidently in a delicate situation, he singled out and led aside, directing her to return to the huts. It seemed that she had prepared to go to the field, but he did not approve of it, and she acquiesced good naturedly. It was observed also that he gave her a piece of money with a pleasant word, bidding her to purchase some coveted piece of finery,—probably a gaudy "bandana," of whose bright colors the negro women are very fond, binding them turban-fashion about their curly heads. Another passion among the Cuban negresses is a desire for large hoop earrings. Silver, or even brass will answer, if gold cannot be obtained.
As we rode off that delicious morning towards our destination, mounted upon a couple of bright little easy-going Cuban ponies, with their manes and tails roached (that is, trimmed closely, after a South American fashion), the cool, fresh air was as stimulating as wine. At first we passed down the long avenue of palms which formed the entrance of the plantation, and which completely embowered the road, like the grand old oaks one sometimes sees lining the avenues to rural English estates. The delicious fragrance of the morning atmosphere, still moist with dew, the richness of the foliage, and the abundance of fruit and flowers were charming beyond description. We glided along at an easy gait over the roads, which in this thickly populated district were smooth and admirably kept, lined on either side by hedges of the flowering aloe, intermingled with many sweet-scented shrubs, all trimmed with mathematical precision. But the gayest and prettiest hedges were composed of the bitter orange, all aglow with small yellow fruit, hanging in almost artificial regularity and abundance. This immediate district was at that time in possession of wealthy owners, who vied with each other in rendering their surroundings attractive to the eye. Now and again we met little gangs of trusted slaves, who had been sent out on special errands, all of whom recognized Don Herero, and made him a respectful obeisance, which he very carefully returned. There is a strict degree of etiquette sustained in regard to these small matters between the slaves and whites, which goes far in maintaining respect and discipline.
A ride of a couple of leagues or more brought us finally to a gentle rise of ground, which opened to our view the ocean, and a line of coast extending for many miles east and west. It was still quite early, and a morning mist hung over the quiet Caribbean Sea, which stretches away southward towards the Isle of Pines and the more distant isle of Jamaica. A gentle breeze began at that moment to disperse the mist and gradually in conjunction with the sun to lift the veil from the face of the waters. For a considerable time, however, only a circumscribed view was to be had, but Don Herero observed that the mist was quite unusual; indeed, that he had seen such a phenomenon but once or twice before on Cuban shores. He assured us that with the exercise of a little patience we should soon be rewarded by a clear and extensive view. So dismounting and lighting our cigars we leaned upon the saddles of the horses and watched the wreaths of the mist bank gradually dissolving. To the eastward there jutted out a promontory with a considerable elevation, behind which the sun began to show his florid countenance. Presently the indistinct outline of a graceful tracery of spars and cordage greeted the eye through the misty gauze, growing steadily more and more distinct and gradually descending towards the sea level, until at last there lay before us in full view, with a look of treacherous tranquillity, the dark, low hull of a brigantine.
"A slaver!" was the mutual and simultaneous exclamation which burst from our lips as we gazed intently on the small but symmetrical vessel.
Don Herero looked particularly intelligent, but said nothing. There could be no doubt as to the trade which engaged such a clipper craft. No legitimate commerce was suggested by her appearance, no honest trade demanded such manifest sacrifice of carrying capacity. It was very natural that her guilty character should add interest to her appearance and cause us to examine her very minutely. A short distance from where we stood there was gathered a group of a dozen or more persons, who silently regarded the brigantine, but they evinced no surprise at her appearance there so close to the shore. She was of a most graceful model, perfect in every line, with bows almost as sharp as a knife. The rig was also quite unusual and entirely new to us. Her deck was flush fore and aft. Not so much as an inch of rise was allowed for a quarter-deck, a style which gave large stowage capacity below deck, the level of which came up to within a couple of feet of the cappings of the bulwarks. As we have before intimated, it required no interpreter to indicate what business the brigantine was engaged in. A single glance at her, lying in so unfrequented a place, was enough. The rakish craft was of Baltimore build, of about two hundred tons measurement, and, like many another vessel turned out by the Maryland builders, was designed to make successfully the famous middle passage to or from the coast of Cuba, loaded with kidnapped negroes from the shores of Africa. The two requisites of these clippers were great speed and large stowage capacity for a human freight.
At first it appeared as though Don Herero had purposely brought us here to witness the scene, but this he insisted was not the case, declaring that the presence of the slaver was a surprise to him. Be that as it may, it was clear that a cargo of negroes was about to be landed, and certain rapid signals had been exchanged by flags from a neighboring hut ever since the mist lifted. Repulsive as the idea was to a Northerner, still it would do no good to avoid the sight, and so we resolved to witness the disembarkation. Our friend, though a slaveholder, was so more by force of circumstances than through his own choice; he did not defend the institution at all. His solemn convictions were entirely against slavery, and he more than once said he heartily wished that some means might be devised which should gradually and effectually relieve the planters from the entire system and its many troubles. Don Herero now lies in one of the tombs in the Campo Santo, near Havana, but were he living he would doubtless rejoice at the present manner of solving a question which was so involved in perplexity during the last of his days.
While we were exchanging some remarks upon the subject, our attention was suddenly drawn towards another striking object upon the waters of the bay.
Nearly a league beyond the slaver, looming up above the mist, we could now make out three topmasts, clearly defined, the stately set of which, with their firm and substantial rig, betrayed the fact that there floated beneath them the hull of a French or an English man-of-war, such as was commissioned at that time to cruise in these waters for the purpose of intercepting and capturing the vessels engaged in the African slave trade.
"A cruiser has scented the brigantine," said Don Herero.
"It certainly appears so," we affirmed.
"Unless there be sharp eyes on board the little craft, the cruiser will be down upon her before her people even suspect their danger."
"The brigantine can hardly escape, at any rate," we suggested.
"Don't be too sure," said Don Herero.
It was impossible for our friend to suppress the nervous anxiety which so manifestly actuated him as he viewed the new phase of affairs.
"Look! Look!" he exclaimed.
While he spoke, a drapery of snow-white canvas fell like magic from the spars of the slaver, ready to catch the first breath of the breeze which the stranger was bringing down with him, though the larger vessel was still partially wrapped in a thin bank or cloud of fog. A couple of long sweeps were rigged out of either bow of the brigantine, and her prow, which just before was heading shoreward, was swung to seaward, while her canvas was trimmed to catch the first breath of the on-coming breeze.
"This looks like business," said Don Herero with emphasis, at the same time shading his eyes with both hands to get a better view of the situation.
"Can you define the new-comer's nationality?" we asked.
"See! she is now in full sight."
"French!" exclaimed Don Herero, as the tri-colors were clearly visible hanging from her peak.
"What will the cruiser do with the brigantine?" we asked.
"First catch your hare," said our friend.
Our host then explained that the slaver had evidently intended to land her cargo under cover of the night, but had been prevented by the mist from coming to anchor in time. Fog, being so seldom known on this coast, had not entered into their calculations. She had most likely felt her way towards the shore by soundings, and was waiting for full daylight when we discovered her.
While this explanation was being made, the brigantine had already got steerage way upon her, aided by the steady application of the sweeps, and her sharp bow was headed off shore. Nothing on the sea, unless it were a steamer, could hold speed with these fly-aways, which were built for just such emergencies as the present. The gradually freshening breeze had now dispersed the mist, and the two vessels were clearly in view from the shore and to each other. The remarkable interest of the scene increased with each moment. Don Herero, with all the excitability of his nationality, could hardly contain himself as he walked rapidly back and forth, always keeping his eyes towards the sea.
The cruiser had come down under an easy spread of canvas, wearing a jib, three topsails, fore, main, and mizzen, and her spanker. It did not appear as if she had any previous intimation of the presence of the slaver, but rather that she was on the watch for just such a quarry as chance had placed within reach of her guns. The moment she discovered the brigantine, and at a signal which we could not hear upon the land, a hundred dark objects peopled her shrouds and spars, and sail after sail of heavy duck was rapidly dropped and sheeted home, until the mountain of canvas began to force the large hull through the water with increasing speed.
In the mean time the lesser craft had been by no means idle. In addition to the regular square and fore and aft sails of a brigantine, she had a mizzen-mast stepped well aft not more than four feet from her taffrail, upon which she had hoisted a spanker and gaff-topsail, thus completing a most graceful and effective rig, and spreading a vast amount of canvas for a vessel of her moderate tonnage. It was quite impossible to take one's eyes off the two vessels. It was a race for life with the slaver, whose people worked with good effect at the sweeps and in trimming their sails to make the most out of the light but favorable wind that was filling them. The larger vessel would have made better headway in a stiff breeze or half a gale of wind, but the present moderate breeze favored the guilty little brigantine, which was every moment forging ahead and increasing the distance between herself and her enemy.
"Do you see that commotion on the cruiser's bow?" asked our friend eagerly.
"Some men are gathered on the starboard bow," was our answer.
"Ay, and now she runs out a gun!"
That was plain enough to see. The cruiser trained a bow-chaser to bear on the slaver, and the boom of the gun came sluggishly over the sea a few seconds after the puff of smoke was seen. A quick eye could see the dash of the shot just astern of the brigantine, where it must have cast the spray over her quarter-deck. After a moment's delay, as if to get the true range, a second, third, and fourth shot followed, each ricochetting through and over the slight waves either to starboard or port of the slaver, without any apparent effect. The brigantine, still employing her sweeps, and with canvas well trimmed, took no notice of the shots.
Every time the gun was discharged on board the cruiser, it became necessary to fall off her course just a point or two in order to get a proper aim, and her captain was quick to see the disadvantage of this, as he was only assisting the slaver to widen the distance between them. It would seem to the uninitiated to be the easiest thing possible to cripple the brigantine by a few well directed shots, but when sailing in the wake of an enemy this is by no means so easily done. Besides, the distance between the two vessels, which was considerable, was momentarily increasing. Notwithstanding that the broad spread of canvas on board the slaver made her a conspicuous mark, still, so far as could be seen or judged of by her movements, she remained untouched by half a dozen shots, more or less, which the cruiser sent after her as she slipped away from her big adversary. We could even see that the sweeps were now taken in, showing that the master of the slaver considered the game to be in his own hands.
"The brigantine steers due south," said our friend, rubbing his hands together eagerly. "She will lead the Frenchman a wild goose chase among the Cayman Isles, where he will be most likely to run aground with his heavy draught of water. The sea round about for leagues is underlaid by treacherous coral reefs. We shall see, we shall see," he reiterated.
"But they must certainly have a good pilot on board the cruiser," we ventured to say.
"Undoubtedly," replied Don Herero, "but the brigantine is built with a centre-board, thus having, as it were, a portable keel, and can sail anywhere that a man could swim, while the cruiser, with all her armament, must draw nearly three fathoms. A ship will sometimes follow a chase into dangerous water."
"True," we responded, "the brigantine's safety lies in seeking shoal water."
"You are right, and that will be her game."
In half an hour both vessels were hull down in the offing, and were soon invisible from our point of view. The early ride and subsequent excitement had developed in us a healthy appetite, and we were strongly reminded of the fact that we had not breakfasted. We were near the little hamlet of Lenore, where there was a small inn, which we had passed on the way, and towards which we now turned our horses' heads. A breakfast of boiled eggs, fried plantains, and coffee was prepared for us and well served, much to our surprise, supplemented by a large dish of various fruits, ripe and delicious. Don Herero had left us for a few moments while the breakfast was preparing, and it must have been owing to his intelligent instructions that we were so nicely served, for, as a rule, country posadas in Cuba are places to be avoided, being neither cleanly nor comfortable. For strangers they are not entirely safe, as they are frequented by a very rough class of people. These idlers do not indulge in spirituous liquors to excess, partaking only of the light Cataline wine in universal use both in Spain and her colonies. Intemperance is little seen outside the large cities, but gambling and quarreling are ever rampant among the class who frequent these posadas. In the present instance there were a dozen and more individuals in the Lenore inn who were more or less connected with the expected arrival of the slave brigantine, and the disappointment caused by the arrival upon the scene of the French cruiser had put them all in a very bad humor. Angry words were being exchanged among them in the large reception apartment, and Don Herero suggested that we should finish our cigars under an inviting shade in the rear of the posada.
At our host's suggestion a neighboring coffee plantation was visited, and its floral and vegetable beauties thoroughly enjoyed. It was in the very height of fragrance and promise, the broad expanse of the plantation, as far as the eye could extend, being in full bloom. Some hours were agreeably passed in examining the estate, the slaves' quarters, and the domestic arrangements, and also in partaking of the hospitalities of the generous owner, after which we rode back to Lenore.
"We must not miss the closing act of our little drama," said Don Herero, significantly.
"The closing act?" we inquired.
"Certainly. You do not suppose we have yet done with the brigantine?"
"Oh, the brigantine. Will she dare to return, now the cruiser has discovered her?"
"Of course she will, after dropping her pursuer. Strange that these French cruisers do not understand these things better; but so it is."
And Don Herero explained that the French cruisers watched the southern coasts of the island, while the English cruised on the northern shore, attempted to blockade it, and also cruised farther seaward, on the line between Africa and Cuba. A couple of American men-of-war, engaged in the same purpose of suppressing the slave trade, patrolled the African coast. It was nearly night before we got through our dinner at the posada. Just as we were preparing to leave the table, the landlord came in and announced to Don Herero that if we desired to witness the close of the morning's business in the bay, we must hurry up to the plateau.
We hastened to our former position, reaching it just in time to see the brigantine again rounding the headland. She now ran in close to the shore, where there seemed to be hardly water sufficient to float her, but the exactness and system which characterized her movements showed that her commander was not a stranger to the little bay in which he had brought his vessel. All was instantly bustle and activity, both on board and on shore. There were not more than twenty people to be seen at the shore, but each one knew his business, and went about it intelligently. There was no more loud talking or disputation. These men, all armed, were accustomed to this sort of thing, and had evidently been awaiting the slaver's arrival for some days. They were a rough-looking set of desperadoes, among whom we recognized several who had been at the posada.
The brigantine was quickly moored as near to the shore as possible, and a broad gangway of wood was laid from her deck to a projecting rock, over which a long line of dark objects was hurried, like a flock of sheep, and nearly as naked as when born into the world. We walked down to the landing-place, in order to get a closer view. The line of human beings who came out from below the deck of the slaver were mostly full-grown men, but occasionally a woman or a boy came out and hastened forward with the rest. As we drew nearer, one or two of the women, it was observed, had infants in their arms, little unconscious creatures, sound asleep, and so very young that they must have been born on the voyage. How the entire scene appealed to our indignation and sympathy! What misery these poor creatures must have endured, cooped up for twenty-one days in that circumscribed space! They were all shockingly emaciated, having sustained life on a few ounces of rice and a few gills of water daily distributed to them. The atmosphere, thoroughly poisoned when so confined, had proved fatal to a large number. As we stood there, one dark body was passed up from below the deck and quietly dropped into the bay. Life was extinct. It was quite impossible to suppress a shudder as we looked upon the disgraceful scene, which being observed Don Herero said,—
"They look bad enough now, but a few days in the open air, with a plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and sweet water to drink, will bring them round. They will get a good bath directly at the first river they cross, which is the thing they most require."
While our friend was speaking, four tall, gaunt, fierce-looking negroes passed us, shackled two by two at the wrists. Their eyes rolled curiously about, full of wonder at all they saw, everything was to them so strange. They knew no more than children just born what was in store for them.
"Poor fellows!" we ejaculated. Perhaps they detected sympathy in the tone of voice in which the words were uttered. They could not understand their purport, but all four were observed to turn their eyes quickly towards us, with an intelligent expression.
"These are Ashantees," said Don Herero. "They have thriven but poorly on their small allowance of nourishment, but they will improve rapidly like the rest, now they have landed. They belong to a powerful tribe in Africa, and are rarely captured and sold to the factories on the coast. They are sturdy and serviceable fellows, but they must be humored. The lash will not subdue them. They bring a high price in Havana for harbor workers."
Hastening back to the posada, a large basket of cassava bread and an abundance of ripe bananas and oranges, with half a dozen bottles of wine, were procured. With these, carried by a couple of colored boys, we hastened back to the landing-place in time to distribute the refreshments to all the women and boys. The balance of the provisions were dealt out to the few men who had not already been hurried away from the spot. It is impossible to describe the surprise and grateful expression upon those dusky faces among the half-famished creatures, as they eagerly swallowed a portion of the wine, and ate freely of the delicious fruit and nourishing bread.
We were told afterwards that there were about three hundred and fifty of these poor creatures originally embarked, and over three hundred were landed. Perhaps between thirty and forty had died on the passage, unable to sustain life under such awful circumstances, packed, as they necessarily were, almost like herring in a box. Once a day, in fair weather, thirty or forty at a time were permitted to pass a half hour on deck. That was all the respite from their confinement which they enjoyed during the three weeks' voyage. The horrors of the "middle passage" have not been exaggerated.
"They must have lost many of their number by death, on the voyage," we suggested to Don Herero, as we observed their weak and tremulous condition.
"Doubtless," was the response.
"And what do they do in that case?"
"They have the ocean always alongside," was his significant reply.
"They throw them over as they did that body just now?" we asked.
"Exactly. And many a poor sick creature is cast into the sea before life is extinct," he continued.
"That is adding murder to piracy," was our natural and indignant rejoinder.
"Hush!" said Don Herero, "these are sensitive people, and desperate ones, as well. I should find it difficult to protect you if they were to overhear and understand such words."
We realized that his remarks were true enough. We were in a land of slavery, and that meant that everything evil was possible.
The last of the living freight had been landed, and arranged in marching trim they were turned with their faces inland, staggering as they went, their swollen and cramped limbs hardly able to sustain the weight of their bodies. They were all secured with handcuffs, twenty in a lot, between whom,—there being ten on a side,—a pole was placed, and each was fastened by a chain running through the steel handcuffs to the pole. An armed Spaniard directed each lot. The faces of all were quite expressionless. They had just endured such horrors packed beneath the deck of the brigantine that the present change must have been welcome to them, lame as they were.
We had been so completely engaged in watching the colored gangs and in moving up to our lookout station of the early morning that our thoughts had not reverted to anything else, but as the last lot filed by there boomed over the waters of the bay the heavy report of a gun, at once calling our attention seaward. A change had come over the scene. That which has taken some space to relate had transpired with great rapidity. Night had settled over the scene, but the moon and stars were so marvelously bright as to render objects almost as plain as by day. The ocean lay like a sheet of silver, luminous with the reflected light poured upon it by the sparkling skies. Looking towards the southeast, we saw the French cruiser rounding the headland which formed the eastern arm of the little bay, and she had already sent a shot across the water aimed at the brigantine. Don Herero had prognosticated correctly. The slaver had led the cruiser a fruitless chase and lost her among the islands, and then returning to her former anchorage had successfully discharged her cargo. Her tactics could not have been anticipated by the cruiser, yet had an armed party been left behind in boats, the brigantine might have been captured on her return. But then again, if the cruiser had left a portion of her crew at this point, the slaver would have been notified by the friends on shore, and would have sought a landing elsewhere.
The brigantine had cast off her moorings and was now standing seaward, with her sails filled. We could distinctly see a quarter boat leave her side manned by some of her crew, who at once pulled towards the nearest landing. At the same time a bright blaze sprang up on board the slaver just amidships, and in a moment more it crept, like a living serpent, from shroud to shroud and from spar to spar, until the graceful brigantine was one sheet of flame! It was dazzling to look upon, even at the distance where we stood, the body of high-reaching flame being sharply defined against the background of sky and blue water.
While we watched the glowing view the cruiser cautiously changed her course and bore away, for fire was an enemy with which she could not contend. Presently there arose a shower of blazing matter heavenward, while a confused shock and a dull rumbling report filled the atmosphere, as the guilty brigantine was blown to atoms! Hemmed in as she was there could be no hope of escape. Her mission was ended, and her crew followed their usual orders, to destroy the ship rather than permit her to fall a prize to any government cruisers.
Antique Appearance of Everything. — The Yeomen of Cuba. — A Montero's Home. — Personal Experience. — The Soil of the Island. — Oppression by the Government. — Spanish Justice in Havana. — Tax upon the Necessities of Life. — The Proposed Treaty with Spain. — A One-Sided Proposition. — A Much Taxed People. — Some of the Items of Taxation. — Fraud and Bankruptcy. — The Boasted Strength of Moro Castle. — Destiny of Cuba. — A Heavy Annual Cost to Spain. — Political Condition. — Pictures of Memory.
Everything in Cuba has an aspect of antiquity quite Egyptian. The style of the buildings is not unlike that of the Orient, while the trees and vegetable products increase the resemblance. The tall, majestic palms, the graceful cocoanut trees, the dwellings of the lower classes and many other peculiarities give to the scenery an Eastern aspect quite impressive. It is impossible to describe the vividness with which each object, artificial or natural, house or tree, stands out in the clear liquid light where there is no haze to interrupt the view. Indeed, it is impossible to express how essentially everything differs in this sunny island from our own country. The language, the people, the climate, the manners and customs, the architecture, the foliage, the flowers, all offer broad contrasts to what the American has so lately left behind him. It is but a long cannon shot, as it were, off our southern coast, yet once upon its soil the stranger seems to have been transported to another quarter of the globe. It would require but little effort of the imagination to believe one's self in distant Syria, or some remoter part of Asia.
One never tires of watching the African population, either in town or country. During the hours which the slaves are allowed to themselves, they are oftenest seen working on their own allotted piece of ground, where they raise favorite fruits and vegetables, besides corn for fattening the pig penned up near by, and for which the drover who regularly visits the plantations will pay them in good hard money. Thus it has been the case, in years past, that thrifty slaves have earned the means of purchasing their freedom, after which they have sought the cities, and have swelled the large numbers of free negroes who naturally tend towards these populous centres. Some become caleseros, some labor upon the water-front of the town as stevedores, porters, and the like, but the majority are confirmed idlers. In the cities even the slaves have always had a less arduous task to perform than those on the plantations. They are less exposed to the sun, and are as a rule allowed more freedom and privileges. The women never fail to exhibit the true negro taste for cheap jewelry. A few gaudy ribbons and a string of high-colored glass beads about the neck are greatly prized by them. Sometimes the mistress of a good looking negress takes great pleasure in decking her immediate attendant in grand style, with big gold finger rings, large hoop earrings, wide gold necklace, and the like. A bright calico gown and a flaring bandana kerchief bound about the head generally complete the costume of these petted slaves. There was one sight observed in the church of Santa Clara of significance in this connection. Before the altar all distinction ceased, and the negress knelt on the same bit of carpet beside the mistress.
The native soil of Cuba is so rich that a touch of the hoe prepares it for the plant. It is said to be unsurpassed in the world in this respect, and only equaled by Australia. The Monteros have little more to do than to gather produce, which they carry daily to the nearest market, and which also forms their own healthful and palatable food. Nowhere are the necessities of life so easily supplied, or are men so delicately nurtured. And yet to our Northern eye these Monteros seemed rather a forlorn sort of people, forming a class by themselves, and regarded with disdain by the Spaniards and most Creoles, as our Southern slaveholders used to regard the poor whites of the South. If one may judge by appearances they are nearly as poor in purse as they can be. Their home, rude and lowly, consists generally of a cabin with a bamboo frame, covered by a palm-leaf roof, and with an earthen floor. There are a few broken hedges, and numbers of ragged or naked children. Pigs, hens, goats, all stroll ad libitum in and out of the cabin. The Montero's tools—few and poorly adapted—are Egyptian-like in primitiveness, while the few vegetables are scarcely cultivated at all. The chaparral about his cabin is low, tangled, and thorny, but it is remarkable what a redeeming effect a few graceful palms impart to the crudeness of the picture.
The Montero raises, perhaps, some sweet potatoes, which, by the bye, reach a very large size in Cuban soil. He has also a little patch of corn, but such corn. When ripe it is only three or four feet in height, or less than half the average of our New England growth, the ears mere nubbins. This corn grows, however, all the year round, and is fed green to horses and cattle. All this is done upon a very small scale. No one lays in a stock of anything perishable. The farmer's or the citizen's present daily necessities alone are provided for. Idleness and tobacco occupy most of the Montero's time, varied by the semi-weekly attractions of the cock-pit. The amount of sustaining food which can be realized from one of these little patches of ground, so utterly neglected, is something beyond credence to those who have not looked bountiful nature in the face in Cuba.
While traveling in the vicinity of Guines, the author stopped at one of these lonely Montero homes to obtain water and refreshment for his horse. These were promptly furnished in the form of a pail of water and a bundle of green cornstalks. In the mean time the rude hospitality of the cabin was proffered to us, and we gladly sat down to partake of cocoanut milk and bananas. One of the family pets of the cabin consisted of a tall white bird of the crane species, which, regardless of goat, kid, hens, chickens, and children, came boldly to our side as though accustomed to be petted, and greedily devoured the banana which was peeled for him and cut into tempting bits. One wing had evidently been cut so that the bird could not fly away, but his long, vigorous legs would have defied pursuit, had he desired to escape. Four children, two of each sex, two of whom were white and two mulatto, quite naked, and less than ten years of age, kept close to the Montero's Creole wife, watching us with big, wondering eyes, and fingers thrust into their mouths. What relationship they bore to the household was not clearly apparent. On rising to depart and attempting to pay for the entertainment, the master of the cabin, with true Cuban hospitality, declined all remuneration; but a handful of small silver divided among the children satisfied all, and we parted with a hearty pressure of the hand.
The richest soil of the island is black, which is best adapted to produce the sugar-cane, and is mostly devoted, if eligibly located, to that purpose. To a Northerner, accustomed to see so much enrichment expended upon the soil to force from it an annual return, this profuseness of unstimulated yield is a surprise. The red soil of Cuba, which is impregnated with the oxide of iron, is less rich, and is better adapted to the coffee plantation. The mulatto-colored earth is considered to be inferior to either of the others named, but is by no means unproductive, being preferred by the tobacco growers, who, however, often mingle a percentage of other soils with it, as we mingle barnyard refuse with our natural soil. Some tobacco planters have resorted by way of experiment to the use of guano, hoping to stimulate the native properties of the soil, but its effect was found to be not only exhausting to the land, but also bad for the leaf, rendering it rank and unfit for delicate use.
Coal is found near Havana, though it is of rather an inferior quality, and, so far as we could learn, is but little used, the planters depending mostly upon the refuse of the cane with which to run their boilers and engines. Trees have been only too freely used for fuel while accessible, but great care is now taken to utilize the cane after the juice is expressed. Trees, which are so much needed in this climate for shade purposes, have mostly disappeared near Havana. When Columbus first landed here he wrote home to Spain that the island was so thickly wooded as to be impassable.
The lovely climate and beautiful land are rendered gloomy by the state of oppression under which they suffer. The exuberant soil groans with the burdens which are heaped upon it. The people are not safe from prying inquiry at bed or board. Their every action is watched, their slightest words noted and perhaps distorted. They can sing no song of liberty, and even to hum an air wedded to republican verse is to provoke suspicion. The press is muzzled by the iron hand of power. Two hours before a daily paper is distributed on the streets of Havana, a copy must be sent to the government censor. When it is returned with his indorsement it may be issued to the public. The censorship of the telegraph is also as rigorously enforced. Nor do private letters through the mails escape espionage. No passenger agent in Havana dares to sell a ticket for the departure of a stranger or citizen without first seeing that the individual's passport is indorsed by the police. Foreign soldiers fatten upon the people, or at least they eat out their substance, and every town near the coast is a garrison, every interior village a military depot.
Upon landing, if well advised, one is liberal to the petty officials. Chalk is cheap. A five-dollar gold-piece smooths the way wonderfully, and causes the inspector to cross one's baggage with his chalk and no questions asked. No gold, no chalk! Every article must be scrupulously examined. It is cheapest to pay, humiliating as it is, and thus purchase immunity.
As a specimen of the manner in which justice is dispensed in Havana to-day, a case is presented which occurred during our stay at the Telegrafo Hotel. A native citizen was waylaid by three men and robbed of his pocket-book and watch, about fifty rods from the hotel, at eight o'clock in the evening. The rascal who secured the booty, threatening his victim all the while with a knife at his throat, instantly ran away, but the citizen succeeded in holding on to the other two men until his outcries brought the police to the spot. The two accomplices were at once imprisoned. Three days later they were brought before an authorized court, and tried for the robbery. Being taken red-handed, as it were, one would suppose their case was clear enough, and that they would be held until they gave up their accomplice. Not so, however. The victim of the robbery, who had lost a hundred and sixty dollars in money and a valuable gold watch, was coolly rebuked for carrying so much property about his person, and the case was dismissed! Had the sufferer been a home Spaniard possibly the result would have been different. The inference is plain and doubtless correct, that the official received half the stolen property, provided he would liberate the culprits. Sometimes, as we were assured, the victim outbids the rogues, and exemplary punishment follows!
Flour of a good commercial quality sells at present in Boston for six dollars per barrel. Why should it cost fourteen dollars in Havana and other ports of Cuba? Because Spain demands a tax of one hundred per cent. to be paid into the royal treasury upon this prime necessity of life. This one example is sufficient to illustrate her policy, which is to extort from the Cubans every possible cent that can be obtained. The extraordinary taxation imposed upon their subjects by the German and Austrian governments is carried to the very limit, it would seem, of endurance, but taxation in Cuba goes far beyond anything of the sort in Europe. Spain now asks us to execute with her a "favorable" reciprocity treaty. Such a treaty as she proposes would be of very great benefit to Spain, no doubt, but of none, or comparatively none, to us. Whatever we seemingly do for Cuba in the matter of such a treaty we should do indirectly for Spain. She it is who will reap all the benefit. She has still upon her hands some fifty to sixty thousand civil and military individuals, who are supported by a miserable system of exaction as high and petty officials in this misgoverned island.
It is for the interest of this army of locusts in possession to keep up the present state of affairs,—it is bread and butter to them, though it be death to the Cubans. Relieved of the enormous taxation and oppression generally which her people labor under in every department of life, Cuba would gradually assume a condition of thrift and plenty. But while she is so trodden upon, so robbed in order to support in luxury a host of rapacious Spaniards, and forbidden any voice in the control of her own affairs, all the treaty concessions which we could make to Spain would only serve to keep up and perpetuate the great farce. Such a treaty as is proposed would be in reality granting to Spain a subsidy of about thirty million dollars per annum! This conclusion was arrived at after consultation with three of the principal United States consuls on the island. Cuba purchases very little from us; she has not a consuming population of over three hundred thousand. The common people, negroes, and Chinese do not each expend five dollars a year for clothing. Rice, codfish, and dried beef, with the abundant fruits, form their support. Little or none of these come from the United States. The few consumers wear goods which we cannot, or at least do not produce. A reciprocity treaty with such a people means, therefore, giving them a splendid annual subsidy.
Taxed by the government to the very last extreme, the landlords, shopkeepers, and all others who work for hire have also learned the trick of it, and practice a similar game on every possible victim. Seeing a small desirable text book in a shop on the Calle de Obrapia, we asked the price.
"Two dollars, gold, senor," was the answer.
"Why do you charge just double the price one would pay for it in Madrid, Paris, or New York?" we asked.
"Because we are so heavily taxed," was the reply, and the shopman went on to illustrate.
Each small retail store is taxed three hundred dollars for the right to do business. As the store increases in size and importance the tax is increased. A new tax of six per cent. on the amount of all other taxation has just been added, to cover the cost of collecting the whole! A war tax of twenty-five per cent. upon incomes was laid in 1868, and though the war has been ended ten years it is still collected. Every citizen or resident in Havana is obliged to supply himself with a document which is called a cedula, or paper of identification, at an annual cost of five dollars in gold. Every merchant who places a sign outside of his door is taxed so much per letter annually. Clerks in private establishments have to pay two and one half per cent. of their quarterly salaries to government. Railroads pay a tax of ten per cent. upon all passage money received, and the same on all freight money. Petty officials invent and impose fines upon the citizens for the most trifling things, and strangers are mulcted in various sums of money whenever a chance occurs, generally liquidating the demand rather than to be at the cost of time and money to contest their rights. The very beggars in the streets, blind, lame, or diseased, if found in possession of money, are forced to share it with officials on some outrageous pretext. All these things taken into consideration show us why the shopkeeper of Havana must charge double price for his merchandise. We have only named a few items of taxation which happen to occur to us, and which only form a commencement of the long list.
It is nearly impossible at present to collect a note or an account on the island. Several of the guests at the Telegrafo had come from the United States solely upon these fruitless errands, each having the same experience to relate. Dishonest debtors take advantage of the general state of bankruptcy which exists, and plead utter inability to meet their obligations, while others, who would gladly pay their honest debts if it were possible, have not the means to do so.
There is considerable counterfeit paper money in circulation, and we were told that the banks of the city of Havana actually paid it out knowingly over their own counters, mixed in with genuine bills,—a presumed perquisite of the bank officers! This unprecedented fraud was not put a stop to until the merchants and private bankers threatened to have the doors of the banks closed by popular force if the outrage was longer continued. Could such a public fraud be carried on under any other than a Spanish government? It is not pleasant to record the fact, but it is nevertheless true that the Spaniards in Cuba are artful, untruthful, unreliable even in small things, with no apparent sense of honor, and seeking just now mainly how they can best avoid their honest obligations. As evil communications are contagious, the Cubans have become more or less impregnated with this spirit of commercial dishonesty. It must be admitted that of true, conscientious principles neither party has any to spare.
The writer has often been asked about Moro Castle. Much has been said about its "impregnable" character, but modern military science will not recognize any such theory. A thousand chances are liable to happen, any one of which might give the place into the hands of an invading force. Has it not already been twice taken? Though it may be said that auxiliary forts have been added since those experiences, nevertheless modern artillery would make but short work of the boasted defenses of Havana, and would knock the metropolis itself all to pieces in a few hours, while lying out of range from Moro Castle. No invading force need attack from the seaward side, unless it should be found particularly desirable to do so. The place could be easily taken, as the French took Algiers, by landing a sufficient force in the rear. With the exception of the fortresses in and about Havana, the island, with its two thousand miles of coast line and nearly one hundred accessible harbors, is certainly very poorly prepared to resist an invading enemy. Cuba's boasted military or defensive strength is chimerical.
That the island naturally belongs to this country is a fact so plain as to have been conceded by all authorities. In this connection one is forcibly reminded of the words of Jefferson in a letter to President Monroe, so long ago as 1823, wherein he says: "I candidly confess that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could be made to our system of States. The control which, with Florida Point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico and the countries and the isthmus bordering it, would fill up the measure of our political well-being." Is it generally known that Cuba was once freely offered to this government? During the presidency of Jefferson, while Spain was bowed beneath the yoke of France, the people of the island, feeling themselves incompetent to maintain their independence, sent a deputation to Washington city proposing its annexation to the federal system of North America. The President, however, declined to even consider the proffered acquisition. Again, in 1848, President Polk authorized our minister at Madrid to offer a hundred million dollars for a fee simple of the island, but it was rejected by Spain.
Completely divided against itself, the mystery is how Cuba has been so long sustained in its present system. Spain has crowded regiment after regiment of her army into the island. It was like pouring water into a sieve, the troops being absorbed by death almost as fast as they could be landed. The combined slaughter brought about by patriot bullets, hardships, exposure, fever, and every possible adverse circumstance has been enormous beyond belief. In spite of all this sacrifice of human life, besides millions of gold expended annually, what does Spain gain by holding tenaciously to her title of the island? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The time has long passed when the system of extortion enforced upon the Cubans served to recuperate the royal treasury. The tide has entirely changed in this respect, and though the taxation has been increased, still the home government is mulcted in the sum of six or eight millions of dollars annually to keep up the present worse than useless system. The deficit of the Cuban budget for the present year, as we were credibly informed, could not be less than eight millions of dollars. How is Spain to meet this continuous drain upon her resources? She is already financially bankrupt. It is in this political strait that she seeks a one-sided treaty with the United States, by means of which she hopes to eke out her possession of the island a few years longer, through our liberality,—a treaty by which she would gain some thirty millions of dollars annually, and we should be just so much the poorer.
As regards the final destiny of Cuba, that question will be settled by certain economic laws which are as sure in their operation as are those of gravitation. No matter what our wishes may be in the matter, such individual desires are as nothing when arraigned against natural laws. The commerce of the island is a stronger factor in the problem than mere politics; it is the active agent of civilization all over the world. It is not cannon, but ships; not gunpowder, but peaceful freights, which settle the great questions of mercantile communities. Krupp's hundred-ton guns will not control the fate of Cuba, but sugar will. We have only to ask ourselves, Whither does the great commercial interest of the island point? It is in the direction in which the largest portion of her products find their market. If this were England, towards that land her industry and her people would look hopefully, but as it is the United States who take over ninety per cent. of her entire exports, towards the country of the Stars and Stripes she stretches out her hands, and asks for favorable treaties.
At the present moment she has reached a crisis, where her condition is absolutely desperate. The hour is big with fate to the people of Cuba. As long as European soil will produce beets, the product of the cane will find no market on that side of the Atlantic. Cuba must in the future depend as much upon the United States as does Vermont, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, or any other State. The effort to bring about a reciprocal treaty of commerce with us is but the expression of a natural tendency to closer bonds with this country. Thus it will be seen that as regards her commercial existence, Cuba is already within the economic orbit of our Union, though she seems to be so far away politically. The world's centre of commercial gravity is changing very fast by reason of the great and rapid development of the United States, and all lands surrounding the union must conform to the prevailing lines of motion.
It is with infinite reluctance that the temporary sojourner in Cuba leaves her delicious shores. A brief residence in the island passes like a midsummer night's dream, while the memories one brings away seem almost like delusive spots of the imagination. Smiling skies and smiling waters; groves of palms and oranges; the bloom of the heliotrope, the jasmine and the rose; flights of strange and gaudy birds; tropic nights at once luxurious and calm; clouds of fireflies floating like unsphered stars on the night breeze; graceful figures of dark-eyed senoritas in diaphanous drapery; picturesque groups of Monteros, relieved by the dusky faces and stalwart forms of the sons of Africa; undulating volantes, military pageants, ecclesiastical processions, frowning fortresses, grim batteries, white sails, fountains raining silver; all these images mingle in brilliant kaleidoscopic combinations, changing and varying as the mind's eye seeks to fix their features. Long after his departure from the enchanting island, the traveler beholds these visions in the still watches of the night, and again listens to the dash of the sea-green waves at the foot of the Moro and the Punta, the roll of the drum and the crash of arms upon the ramparts, or hears in fancy the thrilling strains of music from the military band in the Paseo de Isabella.
If it were possible to contemplate only the beautiful that nature has so prodigally lavished on this Eden of the Gulf, shutting out all that man has done and is doing to mar the blessings of heaven, while closing our eyes to the myriad forms of human misery that assail them on every hand, then a visit to or a residence in Cuba would present a succession of unalloyed pleasures, delightful as a poet's dream. But the dark side of the picture will force itself upon us. The American traveler, keenly alive to the social and political aspects of life, appreciates in full force the evils that challenge his observation at every step. If he contrasts the natural scenery with the familiar pictures of home, he cannot help also contrasting the political condition of the people with that of his own country. The existence, almost under the shadow of the flag of the freest institutions the earth ever knew, of a government as purely despotic as that of the autocrat of Russia is a monstrous fact that must startle the most indifferent observer.
To go hence to Cuba is not merely to pass over a few degrees of latitude,—it is to take a step from the nineteenth century back into the dark ages. In the clime of sunshine and endless summer, we are in the land of starless political darkness. Lying under the lee of a land where every man is a sovereign is a realm where the lives, liberties, and fortunes of all are held at the will of a single individual, who acknowledges fealty only to a nominal ruler more than three thousand miles across the sea.
In close proximity to a country where the taxes are self-imposed and so light as to be almost unfelt is one where each free family pays over five hundred dollars per annum, directly and indirectly, for the support of a system of bigoted tyranny, scarcely equaled elsewhere,—forming an aggregate sum of over twenty-six millions of dollars. For all this extortion no equivalent is received. No representation, no utterance, for tongue or pen are alike proscribed; no share of public honors, no office, no emolument. The industry of the people is crippled, their intercourse with other nations is hampered in every conceivable manner, and every liberal aspiration of the human soul stifled in its birth. Can good morals and Christian lives be expected of a people who are so down-trodden?
Salubrious in climate, varied in production, and most fortunately situated for commerce, there must yet be a grand future in store for Cuba. Washed by the Gulf Stream on half her border, while the Mississippi pours out its riches on one side and the Amazon on the other, her home is naturally within our own constellation of stars, and some of those who read these pages may live to see such a consummation.