Maturin Ballou.

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

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But the article of food most required in the island is flour, while the importation of it is made so unreasonably expensive as to amount to a positive prohibition upon the article. On foreign flour there is a fixed duty of ten dollars, to which if we add the one and a half per cent., with other regular charges, the duty will amount to about ten dollars and fifty cents per barrel. This enormous tax on flour prevents its use altogether in the island, except by the wealthier classes. True, there is a home-made, Spanish article, far inferior, which costs somewhat less, being imported from far-off Spain without the prohibitory clause. The estimate of the consumption of flour in this country gives one and a half barrel per head, per annum; but let us suppose that the free population consume but one. The free population – that is, the whites exclusively, not including the large number of free negroes – numbers over six hundred thousand; if the island belonged to this country, there would immediately arise a demand for six hundred thousand barrels of flour per annum, for the duty would no longer exist as a prohibition upon this necessary article. At four dollars and fifty cents per barrel, this would make the sum of two million seven hundred thousand dollars; and if we allow half a barrel each to the slaves and free blacks, which would be the natural result, being not only the best but cheapest food, we have an annual demand of from four to five hundred thousand barrels more of the great staple production of the United States. This is an item worth considering by political economists. At the present time, the imports into this country from thence exceed our exports to Cuba to the amount of nearly one million of dollars annually.

But we were writing of the vegetable productions of the island, when this digression occurred.

The Royal Palm is the noblest tree of Cuba, rising from thirty to fifty feet, and sometimes even twice this height, with a straight stem, while from the top spring the broad and beautiful leaves, in a knot, like a plume of ostrich feathers. The bark is equally divided by ornamental ringlets encircling it, each one marking a year of its age. A peculiarity of this tree is, that it has no substance in the interior of the trunk,5050
  It is remarkable that the palm tree, which grows so lofty, has not a root as big as a finger of the human hand. Its roots are small, thread-like, and almost innumerable.

yet the outside, to the thickness of an inch and more, makes the finest of boards, and, when seasoned, will turn a board nail with one stroke of the hammer. The top of the palm yields a vegetable which is much used upon the table, and, when boiled, resembles in flavor our cauliflower.

The cocoanut tree very much resembles the palm, the branches diverging, like the ribs of an umbrella, from one common centre, among which the fruit hangs in tempting clusters far out of reach from the ground. The plantain, with its profuse clusters of finger-like fruit, grows low like the banana, which it vastly resembles, and the entire trunk of both are renewed yearly; the old stock, after yielding its crop, decaying rapidly, and forming the most nutritious matter for the soil that can be had. Many of the hedges through the plantations are formed of aloes, of a large and luxuriant growth, with dagger-like points, and stiff, long leaves, bidding defiance to ingress or egress, yet ever ornamented with a fragrant cup-like flower. Lime hedges are also very abundant, with their clusters of white blossoms, and there is a vast supply of mahogany and other precious woods, in the extensive forests.

It is somewhat remarkable that there is not a poisonous reptile or animal of any sort in Cuba. Snakes of various species abound, but are said to be perfectly inoffensive, though sometimes destructive to domestic fowls. During a pleasant trip between San Antonio and Alquizar, in a volante with a planter, this subject happened to be under discussion, when the writer discovered a snake, six feet long, and as large at the middle as his arm, directly before the volante. On suddenly exclaiming, and pointing it out, the planter merely replied by giving its species, and declaring that a child might sleep with it unharmed. In the meantime, it was a relief to see the innocent creature hasten out of the way and secrete itself in a neighboring hedge. Lizards, tarantulas and chameleons, abound, but are considered harmless. The writer has awakened in the morning and found several lizards creeping on the walls of his apartment. Only one small quadruped is found in Cuba that is supposed to be indigenous, and that is called the hutia, much resembling a mouse, but without the tail.

The Cuban blood-hound, 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 longer nose and limbs. He is naturally a fierce, blood-thirsty animal, but the particular qualities which fit him for tracing the runaway slaves are wholly acquired by careful and expert training. This training of the hounds to fit them for following and securing the runaway negroes is generally entrusted to a class of men who go about from one plantation to another, and who are usually Monteros or French overseers out of employment. Each plantation keeps more or less of these dogs, more as a precautionary measure, however, than for actual use, for so certain is the slave that he will be instantly followed as soon as he is missed, and easily traced by the hounds, of whose instinct he is fully aware, that he rarely attempts to escape from his master. In one respect this acts as a positive advantage to the negroes themselves, for the master, feeling a confidence relative to their possession and faithfulness, and well knowing the ease with which they can at once be secured should they run away, is thus enabled to leave them comparatively free to roam about the plantation, and they undergo no surveillance except during working hours, when an overseer is of course always somewhere about, looking after them, and prompting those that are indolent.

The blood-hounds are taken when quite young, tied up securely, and a negro boy is placed to tease and annoy them, occasionally administering a slight castigation upon the animals, taking care to keep out of the reach of their teeth. This whipping is generally administered under the direction of the trainer, who takes good care that it shall not be sufficiently severe to really hurt the dogs or crush their spirit of resistance. As the dogs grow older, negro men, in place of boys, are placed to fret and irritate them, occasionally administering, as before, slight castigations upon the dogs, but under the same restrictions; and they also resort to the most ingenious modes of vexing the animals to the utmost, until the very sight of a negro will make them howl. Finally, after a slave has worried them to the last degree, he is given a good start, and the ground is marked beforehand, a tree being selected, when the dogs are let loose after him. Of course they pursue him with open jaws and the speed of the wind; but the slave climbs the tree, and is secure from the vengeance of the animals.

This is the exact position in which the master desires them to place his runaway slave – "tree him," and then set up a howl that soon brings up the hunters. They are never set upon the slaves to bite or injure them, but only placed upon their track to follow and hunt them. So perfect of scent are these animals, that the master, when he is about to pursue a runaway, will find some clothing, however slight, which the missing slave has left behind him, and giving it to the hounds to smell, can then rely upon them to follow the slave through whole plantations of his class, none of whom they will molest, but, with their noses to the ground, will lead straight to the woods, or wherever the slave has sought shelter. On the plantations these dogs are always kept chained when not in actual use, the negroes not being permitted to feed or to play with them; they are scrupulously fed by the overseer or master, and thus constitute the animal police of the plantation. In no wise can they be brought to attack a white man, and it would be difficult for such to provoke them to an expression of rage or anger, while their early and systematic training makes them feel a natural enmity to the blacks, which is of course most heartily reciprocated.

Cuba has been called the hot-bed of slavery; and it is in a certain sense true. The largest plantations own from three to five hundred negroes, which establishments require immense investments of capital successfully to manage. A slave, when first landed, is worth, if sound, from four to five hundred dollars, and more as he becomes acclimated and instructed, their dull natures requiring a vast deal of watchful training before they can be brought to any positive usefulness, in doing which the overseers have found kindness go a vast deal farther than roughness. Trifling rewards, repaying the first efforts at breaking in of the newly imported negro, establishes a good understanding at once, and thus they soon grow very tractable, though they do not for a long time understand a single word of Spanish that is addressed to them.

These negroes are from various African tribes, and their characteristics are visibly marked, so that their nationality is at once discernible, even to a casual observer. Thus the Congos are small in stature, but agile and good laborers; the Fantee are a larger race, revengeful, and apt to prove uneasy; those from the Gold Coast are still more powerful, and command higher prices, and when well treated make excellent domestic servants. The Ebros are less black than the others, being almost mulatto. There is a tribe known as the Ashantees, very rare in Cuba, as they are powerful at home, and consequently are rarely conquered in battle, or taken prisoners by the shore tribes in Africa, who sell them to the slave factories on the coast. They are prized, like those from the Gold Coast, for their strength. Another tribe, known as the Carrobalees, are highly esteemed by the planters, but yet they are avoided when first imported, from the fact that they have a belief and hope, very powerful among them, that after death they will return to their native land, and therefore, actuated by a love of home, these poor exiles are prone to suicide. This superstition is also believed in by some other tribes; and when a death thus occurs, the planter, as an example to the rest, and to prevent a like occurrence among them, burns the body, and scatters the ashes to the wind!

The tattooed faces, bodies and limbs, of the larger portion of the slaves, especially those found inland upon the plantations, indicate their African birth; those born upon the island seldom mark themselves thus, and being more intelligent than their parents, from mingling with civilization, are chosen generally for city labor, becoming postilions, house-servants, draymen, laborers upon the wharves, and the like, presenting physical developments that a white man cannot but envy on beholding, and showing that for some philosophical reason the race thus transplanted improves physically, at least. They are remarkably healthy; indeed, all classes of slaves are so, except when an epidemic breaks out among them, and then it rages more fearfully far than with the whites. Thus the cholera and small-pox always sweep them off by hundreds when these diseases get fairly introduced among them. If a negro is sick he requires just twice as much medicine as a white man to affect him, but for what reason is a mystery in the practice of the healing art. The prevailing illness with them is bowel complaints, to which they are always more or less addicted, and their food is therefore regulated to obviate this trouble as far as possible, but they always eat freely of the fruits about them, so ripe and inviting, and so plentiful, too, that half the crop and more, usually rots upon the ground ungathered. The swine are frequently let loose to help clear the ground of its overburdened and ripened fruits.

The slaves upon the plantations in all outward circumstances seem quite thoughtless and happy; the slave code of the island, which regulates their government, is never widely departed from. The owners are obliged to instruct them all in the Catholic faith, and they are each baptized as soon as they can understand the signification of the ceremony. The law also provides that the master shall give a certain quantity and variety of food to his slaves; but on this score slaves rarely if ever have cause of complaint, as it is plainly for the planter's interest to keep them in good condition. There is one redeeming feature in Spanish slavery, as contrasted with that of our southern country, and that is, that the laws favor emancipation. If a slave by his industry is able to accumulate money enough to pay his first cost to his master, however unwilling the planter may be to part with him, the law guarantees him his freedom. This the industrious slave can accomplish at farthest in seven years, with the liberty and convenience which all are allowed. Each one, for instance, is permitted to keep a pig, and to cultivate a small piece of land for his own purposes, by raising corn; the land yielding two crops to the year, they can render a pig fat enough, and the drovers pay fifty dollars apiece to the slaves for good ones. This is a redeeming feature, but it is a bitter pill at best.

There are doubtless instances of cruelty towards the slaves, but the writer is forced to acknowledge that he never witnessed a single evidence of this during his stay in the island,5151
  "I believe the lash is seldom applied; I have never seen it, nor have I seen occasion for it." —Rev. Abiel Abbot's Letters.

and, while he would be the last person to defend slavery as an institution, yet he is satisfied that the practical evils of its operation are vastly overrated by ignorant persons. It is so obviously for the planter's interest to treat his slaves kindly, and to have due consideration for their health and comfort – that he must be a very short-sighted being not to realize this. What man would under-feed, ill-treat, or poorly care for a horse that he expected to serve him, in return, promptly and well? We have only to consider the subject in this light for a moment, to see how impossible it is that a system of despotism, severity and cruelty, would be exercised by a Cuban master towards his slaves. Let no ingenious person distort these remarks into a pro-slavery argument. God forbid!


Pecuniary value of the slave-trade to Havana – The slave clippers – First introduction of slaves into Cuba – Monopoly of the traffic by England – Spain's disregard of treaty stipulations – Spanish perfidy – Present condition of Spain – Her decadence – Influence upon her American possessions – Slaves upon the plantations – The soil of Cuba – Mineral wealth of the island – The present condition of the people – The influences of American progress – What Cuba might be.

Like Liverpool and Boston, in their early days, Havana has drawn an immense wealth from the slave-trade; it has been the great commercial item in the business for the capital year after year, and the fitting out of ventures, the manning of vessels, and other branches of trade connected therewith, have been the sources of uncounted profit to those concerned. The vessels employed in this business were built with an eye to the utmost speed. Even before the notion of clipper ships was conceived, these crafts were built on the clipper model, more generally known as Baltimore clippers. Over these sharp hulls was spread a quantity of canvas that might have served as an outfit for a seventy-four. The consummate art displayed in their construction was really curious, and they were utterly unfit for any legitimate commerce. Nor are these vessels by any means yet extinct. They hover about the island here and there at this very hour; now lying securely in some sheltered bay on the south side, and now seeking a rendezvous at the neighboring Isle of Pines. The trade still employs many crafts. They mount guns, have a magazine in accordance with their tonnage, with false decks that can be shipped and unshipped at will.

It is well known that the Americans can produce the fastest vessels in the world; and speed is the grand desideratum with the slaver, consequently Americans are employed to build the fleet crafts that sail for the coast of Africa. The American builder must of course know the purpose for which he constructs these clippers; and, indeed, the writer is satisfied, from personal observation, that these vessels are built on speculation, and sent to Cuba to be sold to the highest bidder. Of course, being in a measure contraband, they bring large prices, and the temptation is strong to construct them, rather than to engage in the more regular models. This reference to the subject as connected with the commerce of the island, leads us to look back to the history of the pernicious traffic in human beings, from its earliest commencement in Cuba, and to trace its beginning, progress and main features.

It has been generally supposed that Las Casas first suggested the plan of substituting African slave labor for that of the Indians in Cuba, he having noticed that the natives, entirely unused to labor, sunk under the hard tasks imposed upon them, while the robuster negroes thrived under the same circumstances. But negro slavery did not originate with Las Casas. Spain had been engaged in the slave trade for years, and long prior to the discovery of America by Columbus; and Zu?iga tells us that they abounded in Seville. Consequently Spanish emigrants from the old world brought their slaves with them to Cuba, and the transportation of negro slaves, born in slavery among Christians, was sanctioned expressly by royal ordinances. Ferdinand sent over fifty slaves to labor in the royal mines: Las Casas pleaded for the further employment of negroes, and consequent extension of the slave trade. "But covetousness," says Bancroft, "and not a mistaken benevolence, established the slave trade, which had nearly received its development before the charity of Las Casas was heard in defence of the Indians. Reason, policy and religion alike condemned the traffic."

Cardinal Ximenes, the grand inquisitor of Spain, protested against the introduction of negroes in Hispaniola, foreseeing the dangers incident to their increase; and three centuries later the successful revolt of the slaves of Hayti, the first place in America which received African slaves, justified his intelligent predictions and forebodings. England embarked largely in the slave trade, and Queen Elizabeth shared in the guilty profits of the traffic. In the year 1713, when, after a period of rest, the slave trade was resumed, the English purchased of Spain a monopoly of the trade with the Spanish colonies, and she carried it on with great vigor and pecuniary success, until she had completely stocked these islands with blacks. In the year 1763 their number was estimated at sixty thousand. This fact will enable us to appreciate as it deserves the extreme modesty of the British government in fomenting abolition schemes in the island of Cuba, after contributing so largely to the creation of an evil which appears almost irremediable. We say a realizing sense of the circumstances of the case will enable us rightly to appreciate the character of the British government's philanthropy. We applaud England for her efforts at the suppression of the slave trade, – a traffic which all the powers of Christendom, Spain excepted, have united to crush, – but we cannot patiently contemplate her efforts to interfere with the internal economy of other countries, when she herself, as in the case of the Spanish colonies and of the United States, has so weighty a share of responsibility in the condition of things as they now exist; to say nothing of the social condition of her own subjects, which so imperatively demands that her charity should begin at home.

We have said that Spain alone, of the great powers, has not done her part in the suppression of the slave trade.5252
  English authorities, – Sir F. Buxton in the van, – declare that the extent of the slave trade has but slightly diminished, while the restrictions under which it is now carried on renders it more fatal than ever to the blacks.

She is solemnly pledged by treaty stipulations, to make unceasing war against it, and yet she tacitly connives at its continuance, and all the world knows that slaves are monthly, almost weekly, landed in Cuba. Notorious is it that the captains-general have regularly pocketed a fee of one doubloon or more for every slave landed, and that this has been a prolific source of wealth to them. The exceptions to this have been few, and the evidences are indisputable. Within a league of the capital are several large barracoons, as they are called, where the newly-imported slaves are kept, and offered for sale in numbers. The very fact that these establishments exist so near to Havana, is a circumstance from which each one may draw his own inference. No one can travel in Cuba without meeting on the various plantations groups of the newly-imported Africans. Valdez, who strenuously enforced the treaty obligations relative to the trade, without regard to private interest, was traduced by the Spaniards, and by their management fell into disfavor with his government at home. O'Donnell deluged the island with slaves during his administration, and filled his coffers with the fees accruing therefrom. Since his time the business has gone on, – to be sure less openly, and under necessary restrictions, but nevertheless with great pecuniary profit.

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