Maturin Ballou.

History of Cuba: or, Notes of a Traveller in the Tropics

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The great value and wealth of the island has been kept comparatively secret by this Japan-like watchfulness; and hence, too, the great lack of reliable information, statistical or otherwise, relating to its interests, commerce, products, population, modes and rates of taxation, etc. Jealous to the very last degree relative to the possession of Cuba, the home government has exhausted its ingenuity in devising restrictions upon its inhabitants; while, with a spirit of avarice also goaded on by necessity, it has yearly added to the burthen of taxation upon the people to an unparalleled extent. The cord may be severed, and the overstrained bow will spring back to its native and upright position! The Cubans are patient and long-suffering, that is sufficiently obvious to all; and yet Spain may break the camel's back by one more feather!

The policy that has suppressed all statistical information, all historical record of the island, all accounts of its current prosperity and growth, is a most short-sighted one, and as unavailing in its purpose as it would be to endeavor to keep secret the diurnal revolutions of the earth. No official public chart of the harbor of Havana has ever been issued by the Spanish government, no maps of it given by the home government as authentic; they would draw a screen over this tropical jewel, lest its dazzling brightness should tempt the cupidity of some other nation. All this effort at secrecy is little better than childishness on their part, since it is impossible, with all their precautions, to keep these matters secret. It is well known that our war department at Washington contains faithful sectional and complete drawings of every important fortification in Cuba, and even the most reliable charts and soundings of its harbors, bays and seaboard generally.

The political condition of Cuba is precisely what might be expected of a Castilian colony thus ruled, and governed by such a policy. Like the home government, she presents a remarkable instance of stand-still policy; and from one of the most powerful kingdoms, and one of the most wealthy, is now the humblest and poorest. Other nations have labored and succeeded in the race of progress, while her adherence to ancient institutions, and her dignified scorn of "modern innovations," amount in fact to a species of retrogression, which has placed her far below all her sister governments of Europe. The true Hidalgo spirit, which wraps itself up in an antique garb, and shrugs its shoulders at the advance of other countries, still rules over the beautiful realm of Ferdinand and Isabella, and its high-roads still boast their banditti and worthless gipsies, as a token of the declining power of the Castilian crown.



Probably of all the governors-general that have filled the post in Cuba none is better known abroad, or has left more monuments of his enterprise, than Tacon. His reputation at Havana is of a somewhat doubtful character; for, though he followed out with energy the various improvements suggested by Aranjo, yet his modes of procedure were so violent, that he was an object of terror to the people generally, rather than of gratitude.

He vastly improved the appearance of the capital and its vicinity, built the new prison, rebuilt the governor's palace, constructed a military road to the neighboring forts, erected a spacious theatre and market-house (as related in connection with Marti), arranged a new public walk, and opened a vast parade ground without the city walls, thus laying the foundation of the new city which has now sprung up in this formerly desolate suburb. He suppressed the gaming-houses, and rendered the streets, formerly infested with robbers, as secure as those of Boston or New York. But all this was done with a bold military arm. Life was counted of little value, and many of the first people fell before his orders.

Throughout all his career, there seemed ever to be within him a romantic love of justice, and a desire to administer it impartially; and some of the stories, well authenticated, illustrating this fact, are still current in Havana. One of these, as characteristic of Tacon and his rule, is given in this connection, as nearly in the words of the narrator as the writer can remember them, listened to in "La Dominica's."

During the first year of Tacon's governorship, there was a young Creole girl, named Miralda Estalez, who kept a little cigar-store in the Calle de Mercaderes, and whose shop was the resort of all the young men of the town who loved a choicely-made and superior cigar. Miralda was only seventeen, without mother or father living, and earned an humble though sufficient support by her industry in the manufactory we have named, and by the sales of her little store. She was a picture of ripened tropical beauty, with a finely rounded form, a lovely face, of soft, olive tint, and teeth that a Tuscarora might envy her. At times, there was a dash of languor in her dreamy eye that would have warmed an anchorite; and then her cheerful jests were so delicate, yet free, that she had unwittingly turned the heads, not to say hearts, of half the young merchants in the Calle de Mercaderes. But she dispensed her favors without partiality; none of the rich and gay exquisites of Havana could say they had ever received any particular acknowledgment from the fair young girl to their warm and constant attention. For this one she had a pleasant smile, for another a few words of pleasing gossip, and for a third a snatch of a Spanish song; but to none did she give her confidence, except to young Pedro Mantanez, a fine-looking boatman, who plied between the Punta and Moro Castle, on the opposite side of the harbor.

Pedro was a manly and courageous young fellow, rather above his class in intelligence, appearance and associations, and pulled his oars with a strong arm and light heart, and loved the beautiful Miralda with an ardor romantic in its fidelity and truth. He was a sort of leader among the boatmen of the harbor for reason of his superior cultivation and intelligence, and his quick-witted sagacity was often turned for the benefit of his comrades. Many were the noble deeds he had done in and about the harbor since a boy, for he had followed his calling of a waterman from boyhood, as his fathers had done before him. Miralda in turn ardently loved Pedro; and, when he came at night and sat in the back part of her little shop, she had always a neat and fragrant cigar for his lips. Now and then, when she could steal away from her shop on some holiday, Pedro would hoist a tiny sail in the prow of his boat, and securing the little stern awning over Miralda's head, would steer out into the gulf, and coast along the romantic shore.

There was a famous rou?, well known at this time in Havana, named Count Almonte, who had frequently visited Miralda's shop, and conceived quite a passion for the girl, and, indeed, he had grown to be one of her most liberal customers. With a cunning shrewdness and knowledge of human nature, the count besieged the heart of his intended victim without appearing to do so, and carried on his plan of operations for many weeks before the innocent girl even suspected his possessing a partiality for her, until one day she was surprised by a present from him of so rare and costly a nature as to lead her to suspect the donor's intentions at once, and to promptly decline the offered gift. Undismayed by this, still the count continued his profuse patronage in a way to which Miralda could find no plausible pretext of complaint.

At last, seizing upon what he considered a favorable moment, Count Almonte declared his passion to Miralda, besought her to come and be the mistress of his broad and rich estates at Cerito, near the city, and offered all the promises of wealth, favor and fortune; but in vain. The pure-minded girl scorned his offer, and bade him never more to insult her by visiting her shop. Abashed but not confounded, the count retired, but only to weave a new snare whereby he could entangle her, for he was not one to be so easily thwarted.

One afternoon, not long after this, as the twilight was settling over the town, a file of soldiers halted just opposite the door of the little cigar-shop, when a young man, wearing a lieutenant's insignia, entered, and asked the attendant if her name was Miralda Estalez, to which she timidly responded.

"Then you will please to come with me."

"By what authority?" asked the trembling girl.

"The order of the governor-general."

"Then I must obey you," she answered; and prepared to follow him at once.

Stepping to the door with her, the young officer directed his men to march on; and, getting into a volante, told Miralda they would drive to the guard-house. But, to the surprise of the girl, she soon after discovered that they were rapidly passing the city gates, and immediately after were dashing off on the road to Cerito. Then it was that she began to fear some trick had been played upon her; and these fears were soon confirmed by the volante's turning down the long alley of palms that led to the estate of Count Almonte. It was in vain to expostulate now; she felt that she was in the power of the reckless nobleman, and the pretended officer and soldiers were his own people, who had adopted the disguise of the Spanish army uniform.

Count Almonte met her at the door, told her to fear no violence, that her wishes should be respected in all things save her personal liberty, – that he trusted, in time, to persuade her to look more favorably upon him, and that in all things he was her slave. She replied contemptuously to his words, and charged him with the cowardly trick by which he had gained control of her liberty. But she was left by herself, though watched by his orders at all times to prevent her escape.

She knew very well that the power and will of Count Almonte were too strong for any humble friend of hers to attempt to thwart; and yet she somehow felt a conscious strength in Pedro, and secretly cherished the idea that he would discover her place of confinement, and adopt some means to deliver her. The stiletto is the constant companion of the lower classes, and Miralda had been used to wear one even in her store against contingency; but she now regarded the tiny weapon with peculiar satisfaction, and slept with it in her bosom!

Small was the clue by which Pedro Mantanez discovered the trick of Count Almonte. First this was found out, then that circumstance, and these, being put together, they led to other results, until the indefatigable lover was at last fully satisfied that he had discovered her place of confinement. Disguised as a friar of the order of San Felipe, he sought Count Almonte's gates at a favorable moment, met Miralda, cheered her with fresh hopes, and retired to arrange some certain plan for her delivery. There was time to think now; heretofore he had not permitted himself even an hour's sleep; but she was safe, – that is, not in immediate danger, – and he could breathe more freely. He knew not with whom to advise; he feared to speak to those above him in society, lest they might betray his purpose to the count, and his own liberty, by some means, be thus jeopardized. He could only consider with himself; he must be his own counsellor in this critical case.

At last, as if in despair, he started to his feet, one day, and exclaimed to himself, "Why not go to head-quarters at once? why not see the governor-general, and tell him the whole truth? Ah! see him? – how is that to be effected? And then this Count Almonte is a nobleman! They say Tacon loves justice. We shall see. I will go to the governor-general; it cannot do any harm, if it does not do any good. I can but try." And Pedro did seek the governor. True, he did not at once get audience of him, – not the first, nor the second, nor third time: but he persevered, and was admitted at last. Here he told his story in a free, manly voice, undisguisedly and open in all things, so that Tacon was pleased.

"And the girl?" asked the governor-general, over whose countenance a dark scowl had gathered. "Is she thy sister?"

"No, Excelencia, she is dearer still; she is my betrothed."

The governor, bidding him come nearer, took a golden cross from his table, and, handing it to the boatman, as he regarded him searchingly, said,

"Swear that what you have related to me is true, as you hope for heaven!"

"I swear!" said Pedro, kneeling and kissing the emblem with simple reverence.

The governor turned to his table, wrote a few brief lines, and, touching a bell, summoned a page from an adjoining room, whom he ordered to send the captain of the guard to him. Prompt as were all who had any connection with the governor's household, the officer appeared at once, and received the written order, with directions to bring Count Almonte and a young girl named Miralda immediately before him. Pedro was sent to an anteroom, and the business of the day passed on as usual in the reception-hall of the governor.

Less than two hours had transpired when the count and Miralda stood before Tacon. Neither knew, the nature of the business which had summoned them there. Almonte half suspected the truth, and the poor girl argued to herself that her fate could not but be improved by the interference, let its nature be what it might.

"Count Almonte, you doubtless know why I have ordered you to appear here."

"Excelencia, I fear that I have been indiscreet," was the reply.

"You adopted the uniform of the guards for your own private purposes upon this young girl, did you not?"

"Excelencia, I cannot deny it."

"Declare, upon your honor, Count Almonte, whether she is unharmed whom you have thus kept a prisoner."

"Excelencia, she is as pure as when she entered beneath my roof," was the truthful reply.

The governor turned, and whispered something to his page, then continued his questions to the count, while he made some minutes upon paper. Pedro was now summoned to explain some matter, and, as he entered, the governor-general turned his back for one moment as if to seek for some papers upon his table, while Miralda was pressed in the boatman's arms. It was but for a moment, and the next, Pedro was bowing humbly before Tacon. A few moments more and the governor's page returned, accompanied by a monk of the church of Santa Clara, with the emblems of his office.

"Holy father," said Tacon, "you will bind the hands of this Count Almonte and Miralda Estalez together in the bonds of wedlock!"

"Excelencia!" exclaimed the count, in amazement.

"Not a word, Se?or; it is your part to obey!"

"My nobility, Excelencia!"

"Is forfeited!" said Tacon.

Count Almonte had too many evidences before his mind's eye of Tacon's mode of administering justice and of enforcing his own will to dare to rebel, and he doggedly yielded in silence. Poor Pedro, not daring to speak, was half-crazed to see the prize he had so long coveted thus about to be torn from him. In a few moments the ceremony was performed, the trembling and bewildered girl not daring to thwart the governor's orders, and the priest declared them husband and wife. The captain of the guard was summoned and despatched with some written order, and, in a few subsequent moments, Count Almonte, completely subdued and broken-spirited, was ordered to return to his plantation. Pedro and Miralda were directed to remain in an adjoining apartment to that which had been the scene of this singular procedure. Count Almonte mounted his horse, and, with a single attendant, soon passed out of the city gates. But hardly had he passed the corner of the Paseo, when a dozen musketeers fired a volley upon him, and he fell a corpse upon the road!

His body was quietly removed, and the captain of the guard, who had witnessed the act, made a minute upon his order as to the time and place, and, mounting his horse, rode to the governor's palace, entering the presence chamber just as Pedro and Miralda were once more summoned before the governor.

"Excelencia," said the officer, returning the order, "it is executed!"

"Is the count dead?"

"Excelencia, yes."

"Proclaim, in the usual manner, the marriage of Count Almonte and Miralda Estalez, and also that she is his legal widow, possessed of his titles and estates. See that a proper officer attends her to the count's estate, and enforces this decision." Then, turning to Pedro Mantanez, he said, "No man nor woman in this island is so humble but that they may claim justice of Tacon!"

The story furnishes its own moral.


Consumption of tobacco – The universal cigar – Lady smokers – The fruits of Cuba – Flour a prohibited article – The royal palm – West Indian trees – Snakes, animals, etc. – The Cuba blood-hound – Mode of training him – Remarkable instinct – Importation of slaves – Their cost – Various African tribes – Superstitious belief – Tattooing – Health of the negroes – Slave laws of the island – Food of the negroes – Spanish law of emancipation – General treatment of the slaves.

The consumption of tobacco,4747
  The name tobacco is said to have been that of the pipe used by the native Indians to inhale the smoke with, consisting of a small tube, with two branches intended to enter the nostrils.

in the form of cigars, is absolutely enormous in the island. Every man, woman and child, seems to smoke; and it strikes one as rather peculiar, to say the least of it, to see a lady smoking her cigarito in the parlor, or on the verandah; but this is very common. The men, of all degrees, smoke, and smoke everywhere; in the houses, in the street, in the theatre, in the caf?s, in the counting-room; eating, drinking, and, truly, it would seem, sleeping, they smoke, smoke, smoke. The slave and his master, the maid and her mistress, boy and man, – all, all smoke; and it is really odd that vessels don't scent Havana far out at sea before they heave in sight of its headlands. No true Havanese ever moves a foot without his portable armory of cigars, as indispensable to him as is his quiver to the wild Indian, and he would feel equally lost without it. Some one has facetiously said that the cigar ought to be the national emblem of Cuba.

The gentlemen consume from ten to twelve cigars per day, and many of the women half that number, saying nothing of the juvenile portion of the community. The consequence of this large and increasing consumption, including the heavy export of the article, is to employ a vast number of hands in the manufacture of cigars, and the little stores and stalls where they are made are plentifully sprinkled all over the city, at every corner and along the principal streets. It is true that the ladies of the best classes in Havana have abandoned the practice of smoking, or at least they have ostensibly done so, never indulging absolutely in public; but the writer has seen a noted beauty whose teeth were much discolored by the oil which is engendered in the use of the paper cigars, thus showing that, although they no longer smoke in public, yet the walls of their boudoirs are no strangers to the fumes of tobacco. This is the only form in which the weed is commonly used here. You rarely meet a snuff-taker, and few, if any, chew tobacco. It is astonishing how passionately fond of smoking the negroes become; with heavy pipes, well filled, they inhale the rich narcotic, driving it out at the nostrils in a slow, heavy stream, and half dozing over the dreamy and exhilarating process. They are fully indulged in this taste by their masters, whether in town, or inland upon the plantations. The postilions who wait for fare in the streets pass four-fifths of their time in this way, and dream over their pipes of pure Havana.

We can have but a poor idea, at the north, of tropical fruits, for only a portion of them are of a nature to admit of exportation, and those must be gathered in an unripe condition in order to survive a short sea voyage. The orange in Boston, and the orange in Havana, are vastly different; the former has been picked green and ripened on ship-board, the latter was on the tree a few hours before you purchased it, and ripened upon its native stem. So of the bananas, one of the most delightful of all West India fruits, and which grow everywhere in Cuba with prodigal profuseness. The principal fruits of the island are the banana, mango, pomegranate, orange, pine-apple,4848
  This highly-flavored and excellent fruit is so abundant in Cuba that the best sell in the market at a cent apiece.

zapota, tamarind, citron, fig, cocoa, lemon, rose-apple and bread-fruit. Though any of these are eaten freely of at all hours, yet the orange seems to be the Creole's favorite, and he seldom rises from his bed in the morning until he has drank his cup of strong coffee, and eaten three or four oranges, brought fresh and prepared to him by a slave. The practice is one which the visitor falls very naturally into, and finds most agreeable. They have a saying that "the orange is gold in the morning, silver at noon, and lead at night." The most singular of these varieties of fruits (by no means embracing all) is the rose-apple, which, when eaten, has the peculiar and very agreeable flavor of otto of rose, and this is so strong that to eat more than one at a time is almost unpleasant. It has a very sweet taste, and flavors some soups finely. Of these fruit trees, the lemon is decidedly the most ornamental and pretty, for, though small and dwarfish, like the American quince, yet it hangs with flowers, small lemons, and ripe fruit, all together, reminding one of the eastern Alma,4949
  "You never can cast your eyes on this tree, but you meet there either blossoms or fruit." —Nieuhoff.

and forming an uncommon and beautiful sight. This agreeable phenomenon will surprise you at every turn upon the coffee plantations.

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