History of Cuba: or, Notes of a Traveller in the Tropics
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There is one fact highly creditable to the Monteros, and that is their temperate habits, as it regards indulgence in stimulating drinks. As a beverage, they do not use ardent spirits, and seem to have no taste for the article, though at times they join the stranger in a social glass. I doubt if any visitor ever saw one of this class in the least intoxicated. This being the fact, they are a very reliable people, and can be counted upon in an emergency. As to the matter of temperance, it needs no missionaries in the island, for probably there is not so large a tract of territory in Europe or America, as this island, where such a degree of temperance is observed in the use of intoxicating drinks. Healths are drunk at table, but in sparing draughts, while delicious fruits fill up the time devoted to dessert.
There is probably but one vice that the Monteros may be said to be addicted to, or which they often indulge in, and that is one which is so natural to a Spaniard, and the appliances for which are so constantly at hand, in the shape of the cock-pit, that it is not a wonder he should be seduced by the passion of gambling. Many of the more intelligent avoid it altogether, but with others it appears to be a part and parcel of their very existence. In the cities, as we have already shown, the government encourage and patronize the spirit of gaming, as they derive from its practice, by charging exorbitant licences, etc., a heavy sum annually.
The sugar plantations are the least attractive in external appearance, but the most profitable, pecuniarily, of all agricultural investments in the tropics.They spread out their extensive fields of cane without any relief whatever to the eye, save here and there the tall, majestic and glorious palm bending gracefully over the undergrowth. The income of some of the largest sugar plantations in Cuba is set down as high as two hundred thousand dollars per annum, the lowest perhaps exceeding one hundred thousand dollars. Some of them still employ ox-power for grinding the cane; but American steam-engines are fast taking the place of animal power, and more or less are monthly exported for this purpose from New York, Philadelphia and Boston. This creates a demand for engineers and machinists, for whom the Cubans are also dependent upon this country; and there are said to be at this time two hundred Bostonians thus engaged, at a handsome remuneration, upon the island. A Spaniard or Creole would as soon attempt to fly as he would endeavor to learn how properly to run a steam-engine. As this happens to be a duty that it is not safe to entrust to even a faithful slave, he is therefore obliged to send abroad for foreign skill, and to pay for it in round numbers.
During the manufacturing season a large, well-managed sugar plantation exhibits a scene of the utmost activity and unremitting labor. The planter must "make hay while the sun shines;" and when the cane is ripe no time must be lost in expressing the juice. Where oxen are employed, they often die of over-work before the close of the season, and the slaves are allowed but five hours for sleep, though during the rest of the year the task of the negroes is comparatively light, and they may sleep ten hours if they choose.4343
A coffee plantation is one of the most beautiful gardens that can well be conceived of; in its variety and beauty baffling correct description, being one of those peculiar characteristics of the low latitudes which must be seen to be understood. An estate devoted to this purpose usually covers some three hundred acres of land, planted in regular squares of eight acres, and intersected by broad alleys of palms, mangoes, oranges, and other ornamental and beautiful tropical trees.4444
The three great staples of production and exportation are sugar, coffee and tobacco. The sugar-cane (arundo saccharifera) is the great source of the wealth of the island. Its culture requires, as we have remarked elsewhere, large capital, involving as it does a great number of hands, and many buildings, machines, teams, etc. We are not aware that any attempt has ever been made to refine it on the island. The average yield of a sugar plantation affords a profit of about fifteen per cent. on the capital invested. Improved culture and machinery have vastly increased the productiveness of the sugar plantations. In 1775 there were four hundred and fifty-three mills, and the crops did not yield quite one million three hundred thousand arrobas (an arroba is twenty-five pounds). Fifty years later, a thousand mills produced eight million arrobas; that is to say, each mill produced six times more sugar. The Cuban sugar has the preference in all the markets of Europe. Its manufacture yields, besides, molasses, which forms an important article of export. A liquor, called aguadiente, is manufactured in large quantities from the molasses. There are several varieties of cane cultivated on the island. The Otaheitian cane is very much valued. A plantation of sugar-cane requires renewal once in about seven years. The canes are about the size of a walking-stick, are cut off near the root, and laid in piles, separated from the tops, and then conveyed in carts to the sugar-mill, where they are unladen. Women are employed to feed the mills, which is done by throwing the canes into a sloping trough, from which they pass between the mill-stones and are ground entirely dry. The motive power is supplied either by mules and oxen, or by steam. Steam machinery is more and more extensively employed, the best machines being made in the vicinity of Boston. The dry canes, after the extraction of the juice, are conveyed to a suitable place to be spread out and exposed to the action of the sun; after which they are employed as fuel in heating the huge boilers in which the cane-juice is received, after passing through the tank, where it is purified, lime-water being there employed to neutralize any free acid and separate vegetable matters. The granulation and crystallization is effected in large flat pans. After this, it is broken up or crushed, and packed in hogsheads or boxes for exportation. A plantation is renewed by laying the green canes horizontally in the ground, when new and vigorous shoots spring up from every joint, exhibiting the almost miraculous fertility of the soil of Cuba under all circumstances.
The coffee-plant (caffea Arabica) is less extensively cultivated on the island than formerly, being found to yield only four per cent. on the capital invested. This plant was introduced by the French into Martinique in 1727, and made its appearance in Cuba in 1769. It requires some shade, and hence the plantations are, as already described, diversified by alternate rows of bananas, and other useful and ornamental tropical shrubs and trees. The decadence of this branch of agriculture was predicted for years before it took place, the fall of prices being foreseen; but the calculations of intelligent men were disregarded, simply because they interfered with their own estimate of profits. When the crash came, many coffee raisers entirely abandoned the culture, while the wiser among them introduced improved methods and economy into their business, and were well rewarded for their foresight and good judgment. The old method of culture was very careless and defective. The plants were grown very close together, and subjected to severe pruning, while the fruit, gathered by hand, yielded a mixture of ripe and unripe berries. In the countries where the coffee-plant originated, a very different method is pursued. The Arabs plant the trees much further apart, allow them to grow to a considerable height, and gather the crop by shaking the trees, a method which secures only the ripe berries. A coffee plantation managed in this way, and combined with the culture of vegetables and fruits on the same ground, would yield, it is said, a dividend of twelve per cent. on the capital employed; but the Cuban agriculturists have not yet learned to develop the resources of their favored island.
Tobacco. This plant (nicotiana tabacum) is indigenous to America, but the most valuable is that raised in Cuba. Its cultivation is costly, for it requires a new soil of uncommon fertility, and a great amount of heat. It is very exhausting to the land. It does not, it is true, require much labor, nor costly machinery and implements. It is valued according to the part of the island in which it grows. That of greatest value and repute, used in the manufacture of the high cost cigars, is grown in the most westerly part of the island, known popularly as the Vuelta de Abajo. But the whole western portion of the island is not capable of producing tobacco of the best quality. The region of superior tobacco is comprised within a parallelogram of twenty-nine degrees by seven. Beyond this, up to the meridian of Havana, the tobacco is of fine color, but inferior aroma (the Countess Merlin calls this aroma the vilest of smells); and the former circumstance secures it the preference of foreigners. From Consolacion to San Christoval, the tobacco is very hot, in the language of the growers, but harsh and strong, and from San Christoval to Guanajay, with the exception of the district of Las Virtudes, the tobacco is inferior, and continues so up to Holguin y Cuba, where we find a better quality. The fertile valley of Los Guines produces poor smoking tobacco, but an article excellent for the manufacture of snuff. On the banks of the Rio San Sebastian are also some lands which yield the best tobacco in the whole island. From this it may be inferred how great an influence the soil produces on the good quality of Cuban tobacco; and this circumstance operates more strongly and directly than the slight differences of climate and position produced by immediate localities. Perhaps a chemical analysis of the soils of the Vuelta de Abajo would enable the intelligent cultivator to supply to other lands in the island the ingredients wanting to produce equally good tobacco. The cultivators in the Vuelta de Abajo are extremely skilful, though not scientific. The culture of tobacco yields about seven per cent. on the capital invested, and is not considered to be so profitable on the island as of yore.
Cacao, rice, plantains, indigo, cotton, sago, yuca (a farinaceous plant, eaten like potatoes), Indian corn, and many other vegetable productions, might be cultivated to a much greater extent and with larger profit than they yield. We are astonished to find that with the inexhaustible fertility of the soil, with an endless summer, that gives the laborer two and three crops of some articles a year, agriculture generally yields a lower per centage than in our stern northern latitudes. The yield of a caballeria (thirty-two and seven-tenths acres) is as follows:
It must be remembered that there are multitudes of fruits and vegetable productions not enumerated above, which do not enter into commerce, and which grow wild. No account is taken of them. In the hands of a thrifty population, Cuba would blossom like a rose, as it is a garden growing wild, cultivated here and there in patches, but capable of supporting in ease a population of ten times its density.
About the coffee plantations, and, indeed, throughout the rural parts of the island, there is an insect called a cucullos, answering in its nature to our fire-fly, though quadruple its size, which floats in phosphorescent clouds over the vegetation. One at first sight is apt to compare them to a shower of stars. They come in multitudes, immediately after the wet or rainy season sets in, and there is consequently great rejoicing among the slaves and children, as well as children of a larger growth. They are caught by the slaves and confined in tiny cages of wicker, giving them sufficient light for convenience in their cabins at night, and, indeed, forming all the lamps they are permitted to have. Many are brought into the city and sold by the young Creoles, a half-dozen for a paseta (twenty-five cents). Ladies not unfrequently carry a small cage of silver attached to their bracelets, containing four or five of them, and the light thus emitted is like a candle. Some ladies wear a belt of them at night, ingeniously fastened about the waist, and sometimes even a necklace, the effect thus produced being highly amusing. In the ball-rooms they are sometimes worn in the flounces of the ladies' dresses, and they seem nearly as brilliant as diamonds. Strangely enough, there is a natural hook near the head of the Cuban fire-fly, by which it can be attached to any part of the dress without any apparent injury to the insect itself; this the writer has seen apparently demonstrated, though, of course, it could not be strictly made clear. The town ladies pet these cucullos, and feed them regularly with sugar cane, of which the insects partake with infinite relish; but on the plantations, when a fresh supply is wanted, they have only to wait until the twilight deepens, and a myriad can be secured without trouble.
The Cubans have a queer, but yet excellent mode of harnessing their oxen, similar to that still in vogue among eastern countries. The yoke is placed behind the horns, at the roots, and so fastened to them with thongs that they draw, or, rather, push by them, without chafing. The animals always have a hole perforated in their nostrils, through which a rope is passed, serving as reins, and rendering them extremely tractable; the wildest and most stubborn animals are completely subdued by this mode of controlling them, and can be led unresisting anywhere. This mode of harnessing seems to enable the animal to bring more strength to bear upon the purpose for which he is employed, than when the yoke is placed, as is the case with us, about the throat and shoulders. It is laid down in natural history that the greatest strength of horned animals lies in the head and neck, but, in placing the yoke on the breast, we get it out of reach of both head and neck, and the animal draws the load behind by the mere force of the weight and impetus of body, as given by the limbs. Wouldn't it be worth while to break a yoke of steers to this mode, and test the matter at the next Connecticut ploughing-match? We merely suggest the thing.
The Cuban horse deserves more than a passing notice in this connection. He is a remarkably valuable animal. Though small and delicate of limb, he can carry a great weight; and his gait is a sort of march, something like our pacing horses, and remarkably easy under the saddle. They have great power of endurance, are small eaters, and very docile and easy to take care of. The Montero inherits all the love of his Moorish ancestors for the horse, and never stirs abroad without him. He considers himself established for life when he possesses a good horse, a sharp Toledo blade, and a pair of silver spurs, and from very childhood is accustomed to the saddle. They tell you long stories of their horses, and would make them descended direct from the Kochlani,4545
The visitor, as he passes inland, will frequently observe upon the fronts of the clustering dwelling-houses attempts at representations of birds and various animals, looking like anything but what they are designed to depict, the most striking characteristic being the gaudy coloring and remarkable size. Pigeons present the colossal appearance of ostriches, and dogs are exceedingly elephantine in their proportions. Especially in the suburbs of Havana may this queer fancy be observed to a great extent, where attempts are made to depict domestic scenes, and the persons of either sex engaged in appropriate occupations. If such ludicrous objects were met with anywhere else but in Cuba, they would be called caricatures, but here they are regarded with the utmost complacency, and innocently considered as ornamental.4646
One of the most petty and annoying experiences that the traveller upon the island is sure to meet with, is the arbitrary tax of time, trouble and money to which he is sure to be subjected by the petty officials of every rank in the employment of government; for, by a regular and legalized system of arbitrary taxation upon strangers, a large revenue is realized. Thus, the visitor is compelled to pay some five dollars for a landing permit, and a larger sum, say seven dollars, to get away again. If he desires to pass out of the city where he has landed, a fresh permit and passport are required, at a further expense, though you bring one from home signed by the Spanish consul of the port where you embarked, and have already been adjudged by the local authorities. Besides all this, you are watched, and your simplest movements noted down and reported daily to the captain of police, who takes the liberty of stopping and examining all your newspapers, few of which are ever permitted to be delivered to their address; and, if you are thought to be a suspicious person, your letters, like your papers, are unhesitatingly devoted to "government purposes."
An evidence of the jealous care which is exercised to prevent strangers from carrying away any information in detail relative to the island, was evinced to the writer in a tangible form on one occasion in the Paseo de Isabella. A young French artist had opened his portfolio, and was sketching one of the prominent statues that grace the spot, when an officer stepped up to him, and, taking possession of his pencil and other materials, conducted him at once before some city official within the walls of Havana. Here he was informed that he could not be allowed to sketch even a tree without a permit signed by the captain-general. As this was the prominent object of the Frenchman's visit to the island, and as he was really a professional artist sketching for self-improvement, he succeeded, after a while, in convincing the authorities of these facts, and he was then, as a great favor, supplied with a permit (for which he was compelled to pay an exorbitant fee), which guaranteed to him the privilege of sketching, with certain restrictions as to fortifications, military posts, and harbor views; the same, however, to expire after ninety days from the date.
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