Maturin Ballou.

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

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Probably no place on the earth has a finer or more desirable climate than has the main portion of Cuba;1414
  According to Dr. Finlay, a resident physician on the island, its hottest months are July and August, when the mean temperature is from 80° to 83° Fahrenheit.

with the clear atmosphere of the low latitudes, no mist, the sun seldom obscured, and the appearance of the stars and sky at night far brighter and more beautiful than at the north.1515
  "The nights are very dark, but the darkness is as if transparent; the air is not felt. There could not be more beautiful nights in Paradise." —Miss Bremer's Letters.

The atmosphere does not seem to lose its transparency with the departure of day. Sunset is ever remarkable for its soft, mellow beauty here, and the long twilight that follows it. For many years the island has been the resort of the northern invalid in search of health, especially of those laboring under pulmonary affections; the soft, soothing power of the climate having a singularly healing influence, as exercised in the balmy trade-winds.1616
  When consumption originates in Cuba, it runs its course so rapidly that there is, perhaps, no wonder the Creoles should deem it, as they universally do, to be contagious.

The climate so uniformly soft and mild, the vegetation so thriving and beautiful, the fruits so delicious and abundant, seem to give it a character almost akin to that we have seen described in tales of fairy land.

The declining health of a beloved companion was the motive which induced the author of these pages to visit the delightful climate of Cuba, with the hope that its genial and kindly influence might revive her physical powers; nor were these hopes disappointed; for, transplanted from the rough climate of our own New England, immediate and permanent improvement was visible. To persons in the early stages of pulmonary complaints the West Indies hold forth great promise of relief; and, at the period when invalid New Englanders most require to avoid their own homes, namely, during the prevailing east winds of April, May and June, the island of Cuba is in the glory of high summer, and enjoying the healthiest period of its yearly returns.

After the early part of June, the unacclimated would do well to take passage up the gulf to New Orleans, and come gradually north with the advancing season. From the proximity of Cuba in the north-western parts to our own continent, the climate is variable, and a few hundred feet above the level of the sea ice is sometimes formed, but snow never falls upon the island, though it is occasionally visited in this region by hail storms. In the cities and near the swamps, the yellow fever, that scourge of all hot climates, prevails from the middle of June to the last of October; but in the interior of the island, where the visitor is at a wholesome distance from humidity and stagnant water, it is no more unhealthy than our own cities in summer. It is doubtful if Havana, even in the fever season, is as unhealthy as New Orleans during the same period of the year.

The principal cities of the island are Havana, with a population of about two hundred thousand; Matanzas, twenty-five thousand; Puerto Principe, fourteen thousand; Santiago de Cuba, thirty thousand; Trinidad, thirteen thousand; St. Salvador, eight thousand; Manzanilla, three thousand; Cardenas, Nuevitas, Sagua la Grande, Mariel, etc. etc. Cuba abounds in fine large harbors; those of Havana, Niepe and Nuevitas, are among the best. The bay of Matanzas is also capacious; Cardenas and the roadstead of Sagua la Grande have plenty of water for brigs and schooners. Matanzas,1717
  The first lines of this city were traced on Saturday, the 10th of October, 1693, by Se?or Manzaneda, under whose government it was founded. It was named San C?rlos Alc?zar de Matanzas; the last word, that by which it is known, signifying the slaughter of a battle-field.

though second to Puerto Principe in point of inhabitants, yet stands next to Havana in commercial importance, and is said to be much healthier than the capital. It is located in a valley in one of the most fertile portions of the island, the city extending from the flat sea-shore up to the picturesque and verdant heights by which the town is surrounded in the form of an amphitheatre. The fortifications are of rather a meagre character. The custom-house is the most prominent building which strikes the eye on approaching the city by water, and is an elegant structure of stone, but one story high, built at the early part of the present century. On the heights above the city, the inhabitants have planted their country seats, and from the bay the whole scene is most delightfully picturesque. There are two fine churches in Matanzas, and a second-class theatre, cock-pit, etc. Statistics show the custom-house receipts of the port to exceed the large sum of a million and a half dollars annually. Besides the railroad leading to Havana, there is another leading to the interior and bearing southward, of some thirty or forty miles in length. On all the Cuban railroads you ride in American-built cars, drawn by American-built engines, and conducted by American engineers. The back country from Matanzas is rich in sugar and coffee plantations.

Puerto Principe is the capital of the central department of the island, and is situated in the interior. The trade of the place, from the want of water-carriage, is inconsiderable, and bears no proportion to the number of inhabitants. What ever portion of the produce of Puerto Principe and its immediate neighborhood is exported, must find its way first to Nuevitas, twelve and a half leagues distant, from whence it is shipped, and from whence it receives in return its foreign supplies. It is situated about one hundred and fifty miles from Havana. Its original locality, when founded by Velasquez, was Nuevitas, but the inhabitants, when the place was feeble in numbers and strength, were forced to remove to this distance inland, to avoid the fierce incursions of the Buccaneers, who thronged the coast.

Santiago de Cuba has a noble harbor, and is defended by a miniature Moro Castle, being a well-planned fortress after the same style, and known as El Moro. This city was founded in 1512, and is the capital of the eastern department of the island, but has at various times suffered severely from earthquakes, and within a couple of years was visited by the cholera, which swept off some five or six thousand of its population in about the same number of weeks. Santiago, though it now presents many features of decay, and its cathedral is closed for fear of disaster occurring if it should be occupied, is yet the third city on the island in a commercial point of view. The immediate neighborhood of the city being mountainous and somewhat sterile, produces little sugar, but the many fine coffee estates, and several vast copper mines of uncomputed extent and value, which have been worked by English companies, give it much importance. It is two hundred and thirty leagues from Havana, on the south coast.

Trinidad, situated about a league from Casilda, on the south coast, and ninety miles from Havana, is probably one of the healthiest and pleasantest locations for invalids on the island. It lies at the base of a ridge of mountains that protect it from the north wind, and is free from all humidity, with that great blessing, good water, at hand, an article which unfortunately is very scarce in Cuba.

Our first view of Moro Castle was gained from the quarter-deck, after a fifteen days' voyage; it was just as the sun was dipping into the sea, too late for us to enter the harbor, for the rules of the port are rigorously observed, and we were obliged to stand off and on through the night. At early morning our jack was set at the fore as a signal for a pilot, and at noon we had answered the rough peremptory hail from the castle, and dropped anchor in the safe and beautiful harbor of the capital. The scene was absorbingly interesting to a stranger. Around us floated the flags of many nations, conspicuous among which were the gallant stars and stripes. On the one side lay the city, on a low, level plain, while the hills that make the opposite side of the harbor presented a beautiful picture of the soft green sward and the luxuriant verdure that forms the constant garb of the tropics.

As Paris is said to be France, so is Havana Cuba, and its history embraces in no small degree that of all the island, being the centre of its talent, wealth and population. Every visible circumstance proclaims the great importance of the city, even to the most casual observer. Moro Castle1818
  Moro Castle was first built in 1633; the present structure was erected on the ruins of the first, destroyed by the English in 1762.

frowning over the narrow entrance of the harbor, the strong battery answering to it on the opposite point, and known as La Punta, the long range of cannon and barracks on the city side, the powerful and massive fortress of the Cabanas1919
  Built by Charles III., and said to have cost the sum of $7,000,000. According to Rev. L.L. Allen's lecture on Cuba, it was more than forty years in building.

crowning the hill behind the Moro, all speak unitedly of the immense importance of the place. Havana is the heart of Cuba, and will never be yielded unless the whole island be given up; indeed, the possessors of this strong-hold command the whole Spanish West Indies. The bay, shaped like an outspread hand, the wrist for the entrance, is populous with the ships of all nations,2020
  The port of Havana is one of the best harbors in the world. It has a very narrow entrance, but spreads immediately into a vast basin, embracing the whole city, and large enough to hold a thousand ships of war. —Alexander H. Everett.

and the city, with its 200,000 inhabitants, is a depot of wealth and luxury. With an enormous extent of public buildings, cathedrals, antique and venerable churches and convents, with the palaces of nobles and private gentlemen of wealth, all render this capital of Cuba probably the richest place for its number of square rods in the world.

Beside the Royal University of Havana, a medical and law school, and chairs on all the natural sciences, it contains many other institutions of learning. It is true that, in spite of their liberal purpose and capability, there is a blight, as it were, hanging over them all. Pupils enlist cautiously, suffer undue restraint, and in spite of themselves seem to feel that there is an unseen influence at work against the spirit of these advantages. Among the schools are a Royal Seminary for girls, a free school of sculpture and painting, a mercantile school, also free, with many private institutions of learning, of course not to be compared in ability or general advantages to like institutions with us. There is a fine museum of Natural History, and just outside the city walls a very extensive botanical garden. No one, even among the islanders, who would be supposed to feel the most pride in the subject, will for a moment deny, however, that the means for education are very limited in Cuba. An evidence of this is perceptibly evinced by the fact that the sons of the planters are almost universally sent abroad, mostly to this country, for educational purposes. An order was not long since promulgated, by direction of the home government, in which the inhabitants are forbidden to send their children to the United States, for the purpose of education. A bold, decided order.

Of course the reason for this is quite apparent, and is openly acknowledged in Havana, viz: – that these youths, during their residence here, adopt liberal ideas and views of our republican policy, which become fixed principles with them; nor is there any doubt of this being the case, for such students as have thus returned, unhesitatingly (among friends) avow their sentiments, and most ardently express a hope for Cuban independence; and this class, too, upon the island are far more numerous than might at first be supposed. Those who have been educated in France, Germany, and England, seem at once to imbibe the spirit of those youths who have returned from the United States, and long before there was any open demonstration relative to the first Lopez expedition, these sons of the planters had formed themselves into a secret society, which is doubtless still sustained, with the avowed purpose of exercising its ability and means to free Cuba, sooner or later, from the Spanish yoke.

The city of Havana is surrounded by a high wall and ditch, and its gates are always strictly guarded by soldiery, no stranger being permitted to pass unchallenged. The streets, which are extremely narrow, are all Macadamized, and cross each other at right angles, like those of Philadelphia and some other American cities. There are no sidewalks, unless a narrow line of flag-stones which are level with the surface of the street may be so called. Indeed, the people have little use for sidewalks, for they drive almost universally about town in place of walking, being thus borne about in that peculiar vehicle, a volante. A woman of respectability is never seen on foot in the streets, and this remark, as singular as it may sound to our Broadway and Washington-street belles, is applicable even to the humblest classes; unless, indeed, it be the fruit women from the country, with their baskets richly laden upon their heads, while they cry the names of their tempting burdens in the long drawling Spanish style.

The architecture of the city houses is exceedingly heavy, giving to them an appearance of great age. They are constructed so as almost universally to form squares in their centres, which constitutes the only yard which the house can have, and upon which the lofty arches of the corridor look down. The lower story is always occupied as storeroom, kitchen, and stable, (think of a suite of drawing-rooms over a stable!) while the universal volante blocks up in part the only entrance to the house. From this inner court-yard a wide flight of steps leads to the second story, from the corridor of which all the rooms open, giving them an opening front and rear on two sides at least. As peculiar as this mode of building may seem, it is nevertheless well adapted to the climate, and one becomes exceedingly well satisfied with the arrangement.

An air of rude grandeur reigns over all the structure, the architecture being mainly Gothic and Saracenic. The rooms are all lofty, and the floors are stuccoed or tiled, while the walls and ceilings are frequently ornamented in fresco, the excellence of the workmanship of course varying in accordance with the owner's or occupant's means, and his ability to procure an artist of high or mediocre talent. But the most striking peculiarity of the town house in Cuba, is the great care taken to render it safe against assault. Every man's house is literally his castle here, each accessible window being barricaded with iron bars, while large massive folding doors secure the entrance to the house, being bullet proof and of immense strength. No carpets are seen here, and from the neighboring Isle of Pines, which lies off the southern shore of Cuba, a thick slate is found, also marble and jasper of various colors, which are cut in squares, and form the general material for floors in the dwelling-houses. The heat of the climate renders carpets, or even wooden floors, quite insupportable, and they are very rarely to be found.

We have said that the Creole ladies never stir abroad except in the national volante, and whatever their domestic habits may be, they are certainly, in this respect, good house-keepers. A Cuban belle could never, we fancy, be made to understand the pleasures of that most profitless of all employments, spinning street-yarn. While our ladies are busily engaged in sweeping the sidewalks of Chestnut-street and Broadway with their silk flounces, she wisely leaves that business to the gangs of criminals who perform the office with their limbs chained, and a ball attached to preserve their equilibrium. It is perhaps in part owing to these habits that the feet of the Cuban se?orita are such a marvel of smallness and delicacy, seemingly made rather for ornament than for use. She knows the charm of the petit pied bien chauss? that delights the Parisian, and accordingly, as you catch a glimpse of it, as she steps into the volante, you perceive that it is daintily shod in a French slipper, the sole of which is scarcely more substantial in appearance than writing paper.2121
  "Her hands and feet are as small and delicate as those of a child. She wears the finest satin slippers, with scarcely any soles, which, luckily, are never destined to touch the street." —Countess Merlin's Letters.


The feet of the Havana ladies are made for ornament and for dancing. Though with a roundness of figure that leaves nothing to be desired in symmetry of form, yet they are light as a sylph, clad in muslin and lace, so languid and light that it would seem as if a breeze might waft them away like a summer cloud. They are passionately fond of dancing, and tax the endurance of the gentlemen in their heroic worship of Terpsichore. Inspired by the thrilling strains of those Cuban airs, which are at once so sweet and brilliant, they glide or whirl through the mazes of the dance hour after hour, until daylight breaks upon the scene of fairy revel. Then, "exhausted but not satiated," they betake themselves to sleep, to dream of the cadences of some Cuban Strauss, and to beat time in imagination to the lively notes, and to dream over the soft words and winning glances they have exchanged.

Beautiful as eastern houris, there is a striking and endearing charm about the Cuban ladies, their very motion being replete with a native grace; every limb elastic and supple. Their voices are sweet and low, "an excellent thing in woman," and the subdued tone of their complexions is relieved by the arch vivacity of night-black eyes that alternately swim in melting lustre or sparkle in expressive glances. Their costume is never ostentatious, though costly; the most delicate muslin, the finest linen, the richest silk, the most exquisitely made satin shoes, – these, of course, render their chaste attire exceedingly expensive. There are no "strong-minded" women among them, nor is it hardly possible to conceive of any extremity that could induce them to get up a woman's right convention – a suspension of fans and volantes might produce such a phenomenon, but we very much doubt it.

The Creole ladies lead a life of decided ease and pleasure. What little work they do is very light and lady-like, a little sewing or embroidery; the bath and the siesta divide the sultry hours of the day. They wait until nearly sunset for the drive in the dear volante, and then go to respond by sweet smiles to the salutations of the caballeros on the Paseos, and after the long twilight to the Plaza de Armas, to listen to the governor's military band, and then perhaps to join the mazy dance. Yet they are capable of deep and high feeling, and when there was a prospect of the liberation of the island, these fair patriots it will be remembered gave their most precious jewels and ornaments as a contribution to the glorious cause of liberty.


Contrast between Protestant and Catholic communities – Catholic churches – Sabbath scenes in Havana – Devotion of the common people – The Plaza de Armas – City squares – The poor man's opera – Influence of music – La Dominica – The Tacon Paseo – The Tacon Theatre – The Cathedral – Tomb of Columbus over the altar – Story of the great Genoese pilot – His death – Removal of remains – The former great wealth of the church in Cuba – Influence of the priests.

On no occasion is the difference between the manners of a Protestant and Catholic community so strongly marked as on the Sabbath. In the former, a sober seriousness stamps the deportment of the people, even when they are not engaged in devotional exercises; in the latter, worldly pleasures and religious exercises are pursued as it were at the same time, or follow each other in incongruous succession. The Parisian flies from the church to the railway station, to take a pleasure excursion into the country, or passes with careless levity from St. Genevieve to the Jardin Mabille; in New Orleans, the Creole, who has just bent his knee before the altar, repairs to the French opera, and the Cuban from the blessing of the priest to the parade in the Plaza. Even the Sunday ceremonial of the church is a pageant; the splendid robe of the officiating priest, changed in the course of the offices, like the costumes of actors in a drama; the music, to Protestant ears operatic and exciting; the clouds of incense that scatter their intoxicating perfumes; the chants in a strange tongue, unknown to the mass of worshippers; – all these give the services a holiday and carnival character.2222
  The influence of fifteen minutes in the church, if salutary, seems soon dissipated by the business and amusements without its walls. The shops are open; the cock-pit fuller than on busier days of the week; and the streets thronged with volantes; the theatres and ball rooms crowded; and the city devoted to pleasure. —Rev. Abiel Abbot's Letters.


Far be it from us to charge these congregations with any undue levity; many a lovely Creole kneels upon the marble floor, entirely estranged from the brilliant groups around her, and unconscious for the time of the admiration she excites; many a caballero bows in reverence, forgetful, for the time being, of the bright eyes that are too often the load-star of attraction to the church; and there are very many who look beyond the glittering symbols to the great truths and the great Being they are intended to typify. But we fear that a large portion of the community who thus worship, attach more importance to the representation than to the principles or things represented. The impression made by the Sabbath ceremonies of the church strikes us as evanescent, and as of such a character as to be at once obliterated by the excitement of the worldly pleasures that follow. Still, if the Sabbath in Catholic countries be not wholly devoted to religious observances, neither are the week days wholly absorbed by business and pleasure. The churches and chapels are always open, silently but eloquently inviting to devotion; and it is much to be able to step aside, at any moment, from the temptations, business and cares of life, into an atmosphere of seclusion and religion. The solemn quiet of an old cathedral on a week-day is impressive from its very contrast with the tumult outside.

Within its venerable walls the light seems chastened as it falls through storied panes, and paints the images of Christian saints and martyrs on the cold pavement of the aisles. Who can tell how many a tempest-tossed soul has found relief and strength from the ability to withdraw itself at once from the intoxicating whirl of the world and expand in prayer in one of these hospitable and ever open sanctuaries? The writer is a firm Protestant, by education, by association and feeling, but he is not so bigoted as not to see features in the Catholic system worthy of commendation. Whether the Catholic church has accomplished its mission, and exhausted its means of good, is a question open to discussion, but that in the past it has achieved much for the cause of true religion cannot be denied. Through the darkest period in the history of the world, it was the lamp that guided to a higher civilization, and the bulwark of the people against the crushing force of feudalism; and with all the objections which it discovers to a Protestant eye, it still preserves many beautiful customs.

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