Maturin Ballou.

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

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The Sabbath in Havana breaks upon the citizens amid the ringing of bells from the different convents and churches, the firing of cannon from the forts and vessels, the noise of trumpets, and the roll of the drum. Sunday is no day of physical rest here. The stores are open as usual, the same cries are heard in the streets, and the lottery tickets are vended as ever at each corner. The individual who devotes himself to this business rends the air with his cries of temptation to the passing throng, each one of whom he earnestly assures is certain to realize enormous pecuniary returns by the smallest investment, in tickets, or portions of tickets, which he holds in sheets, while he brandishes a huge pair of scissors, ready to cut in any desired proportion. The day proves no check to the omnipresent "organ grinders," the monkey shows, and other characteristic scenes. How unlike a New England Sabbath is all this, how discordant to the feelings of one who has been brought up amid our Puritanic customs of the sacred day! And yet the people of Havana seem to be impressed with no small degree of reverence for the Catholic faith. The rough Montero from the country, with his long line of loaded mules, respectfully raises his panama with one hand, while he makes the sign of the cross with the other, as he passes the church. The calisero or postilion, who dashes by with his master in the volante, does not forget, in his hurry, to bend to the pommel of his saddle; and even the little negro slave children may be observed to fold their arms across their breasts and remain reverentially silent until they have passed its doors.

The city abounds in beautifully arranged squares, ornamented by that king of the tropical forest, the Royal Palm, with here and there a few orange trees, surrounded by a luxuriant hedge of limes. The largest and most beautiful of these squares is the Plaza de Armas, fronting which is the Governor's palace, and about which are the massive stone barracks of the Spanish army. This square is surrounded by an iron railing and divided into beautiful walks, planted on either side with gaudy flowers, and shadowed by oranges and palms, while a grateful air of coolness is diffused around by the playing of a copious fountain into a large stone basin, surmounted by a marble statue of Ferdinand. Public squares, parks and gardens, are the lungs of great cities, and their value increases as the population becomes dense. Heap story upon story of costly marble, multiply magazines and palaces, yet neglect to provide, in their midst, some glimpse of nature, some opening for the light and air of heaven, and the costliest and most sumptuous of cities would prove but a dreary dwelling-place. The eye wearies, in time, of the glories of art, but of the gifts of nature never, and in public squares and gardens both may be happily combined.

Human culture brings trees, shrubs and flowers to their fullest development, fosters and keeps green the emerald sward, and brings the bright leaping waters into the midst of the graces of nature.

Nowhere does a beautiful statue look more beautiful than when erected in a framework of deep foliage. These public squares are the most attractive features of cities. Take from London Hyde Park, from Paris the Champs Elys?es and the Tuilleries gardens, the Battery and the Park from New York, and the Common from Boston, and they would be but weary wildernesses of brick, stone and mortar. The enlightened corporation that bestows on a young city the gift of a great park, to be enjoyed in common forever, does more for posterity than if it raised the most sumptuous columns and palaces for public use or display.

The Plaza de Armas of Havana is a living evidence of this, and is the nightly resort of all who can find time to be there, while the governor's military band performs always from seven to nine o'clock. The Creoles call it "the poor man's opera," it being free to all; every class resorts hither; and even the ladies, leaving their volantes, sometimes walk with husband or brother within the precincts of the Plaza. We are told that "the man who has not music in his soul is fit for treason, stratagem and spoils." It is undoubtedly from motives of policy that the Havanese authorities provide this entertainment for the people. How ungrateful it would be to overthrow a governor whose band performs such delightful polkas, overtures and marches; and yet, it requires some circumspection for the band-master to select airs for a Creole audience. It would certainly never do to give them "Yankee Doodle;" their sympathies with the "Norte Americanos" are sufficiently lively without any such additional stimulus; and it is well for the authorities to have a care, for the power of national airs is almost incredible. It was found necessary, in the times of the old Bourbons, to forbid the performance of the "Ranz des Vaches," because it so filled the privates of the Swiss guards with memories of their native home that they deserted in numbers. The Scotch air of "Lochaber no more" was found to have the same effect upon the Highland regiments in Canada; and we are not sure that "Yankee Doodle," performed in the presence of a thousand Americans on the Plaza de Armas, would not secure the annexation of the island in a fortnight.

The Creoles are passionately fond of music. Their favorite airs, besides the Castilian ones, are native dances, which have much sweetness and individuality of character. They are fond of the guitar and flageolet, and are often proficients in their use, as well as possessing fine vocal powers. The voice is cultivated among the gentlemen as often as with the ladies. Music in the open air and in the evening has an invincible effect everywhere, but nowhere is its influence more deeply felt than in a starry tropical night. Nowhere can we conceive of a musical performance listened to with more delightful relish than in the Plaza at Havana, as discoursed by the governor's band, at the close of the long tropical twilight.

In the immediate neighborhood of the Plaza, near the rear of the governor's palace, is a superb confectionary, – really one of the notabilities of the city, and only excelled by Taylor's saloon, Broadway, New York. It is called La Dominica, and is the popular resort of all foreigners in Havana, and particularly of Americans and Frenchmen. It is capable of accommodating some hundreds of visitors at a time, and is generally well filled every afternoon and evening. In the centre is a large open court, paved with white marble and jasper, and containing a fountain in the middle, around which the visitors are seated. Probably no establishment in the world can supply a larger variety of preserves, bon-bons and confectionaries generally, than this, the fruits of the island supplying the material for nearly a hundred varieties of preserves, which the proprietor exports largely to Europe and America, and has thereby accumulated for himself a fortune.

Following the street on which is this famous confectionary, one is soon brought to the city walls, and, passing outside, is at once ushered into the Tacon Paseo, where all the beauty and fashion of the town resort in the after part of the day. It is a mile or more in length, beautifully laid out in wide, clean walks, with myriads of tropical flowers, trees and shrubs, whose fragrance seems to render the atmosphere almost dense. Here the ladies in their volantes, and the gentlemen mostly on foot, pass and repass each other in a sort of circular drive, gayly saluting, the ladies with a coquettish flourish of the fan, the gentlemen with a graceful wave of the hand.

In these grounds is situated the famous Tacon Theatre. In visiting the house, you enter the first tier and parquette from the level of the Paseo, and find the interior about twice as large as any theatre in this country, and about equal in capacity to Tripler Hall, New York, or the Music Hall, Boston. It has five tiers of boxes, and a parquette with seats, each separate, like an arm-chair, for six hundred persons. The lattice-work in front of each box is light and graceful, of gilt ornament, and so open that the dresses and pretty feet of the se?oras are seen to the best advantage. The decorations are costly, and the frescoes and side ornaments of the proscenium exceedingly beautiful. A magnificent cut-glass chandelier, lighted with gas, and numerous smaller ones extending from the boxes, give a brilliant light to this elegant house. At the theatre the military are always in attendance in strong force, as at all gatherings in Cuba, however unimportant, their only perceptible use, however, being to impede the passages, and stare the ladies out of countenance. The only other noted place of amusement is the Italian opera-house, within the city walls, an oven-shaped building externally, but within appropriately and elegantly furnished with every necessary appurtenance.

No object in Havana will strike the visitor with more of interest than the cathedral, situated in the Calle de Ignacio. Its towers and pillared front of defaced and moss-grown stone call back associations of centuries gone by. This cathedral, like all of the Catholic churches, is elaborately ornamented with many fine old paintings of large size and immense value. The entire dome is also decorated with paintings in fresco. The chief object of interest, however, and which will not fail to attract the attention, is a tablet of marble inlaid in the wall at the right of the altar, having upon its face the image of Christopher Columbus, and forming the entrance to the tomb where rest the ashes of this discoverer of a western world; here, too, are the iron chains with which an ungrateful sovereign once loaded him. How great the contrast presented to the mind between those chains and the reverence bestowed upon this tomb!2323
  There is now being completed, at Genoa, an elaborate and most classical monument to the memory of Columbus. The work hag been entrusted to a Genoese, a pupil of Canova; and, according to Prof. Silliman, who visited it in 1851, promises to be "one of the noblest of historical records ever sculptured in marble."


The story of the great Genoese possesses a more thrilling interest than any narrative which the imagination of poet or romancer has ever conceived. The tales of the Arabian Nights, with all their wealth of fancy, are insipid and insignificant compared with the authentic narrative of the adventures of the Italian mariner and his sublime discovery. Familiar as we are with it from childhood, from the greatness of the empire he gave to Christendom, the tale has still a fascination, however often repeated, while the visible memorials of his greatness and his trials revive all our veneration for his intellect and all our interest in the story of his career. His name flashes a bright ray over the mental darkness of the period in which he lived, for men generally were then but just awakening from the dark sleep of the middle ages. The discovery of printing heralded the new birth of the republic of letters, and maritime enterprise received a vigorous impulse. The shores of the Mediterranean, thoroughly explored and developed, had endowed the Italian states with extraordinary wealth, and built up a very respectable mercantile marine, considering the period. The Portuguese mariners were venturing farther and farther from the peninsula ports, and traded with different stations on the coast of Africa.

But to the west lay what men supposed to be an illimitable ocean, full of mystery, peril and death. A vague conception that islands, hitherto unknown, might be met with afar off on that strange wilderness of waters, like oases in a desert, was entertained by some minds, but no one thought of venturing in quest of them. Columbus alone, regarded merely as a brave and intelligent seaman and pilot, conceived the idea that the earth was spherical, and that the East Indies, the great El Dorado of the century, might be reached by circumnavigating the globe. If we picture to ourselves the mental condition of the age, and the state of science, we shall find no difficulty in conceiving the scorn and incredulity with which the theory of Columbus was received. We shall not wonder that he was regarded as a madman or as a fool; we are not surprised to remember that he encountered repulse upon repulse, as he journeyed wearily from court to court, and pleaded in vain for aid to the sovereigns of Europe and wise men of the cloister. But the marvel is that when gate after gate was closed against him, when all ears were deaf to his patient importunities, when day by day the opposition to his views increased, when, weary and foot-sore, he was forced to beg a morsel of bread and a cup of water for his fainting and famished boy, at the door of a Spanish convent, his reason did not give way, and his great heart did not break beneath its weight of disappointment.

But his soul was then as firm and steadfast as when, launched in his frail caravel upon the ocean, he pursued day after day, and night after night, amidst a discontented, murmuring, and mutinous crew, his westward path over the trackless waters. We can conceive of his previous sorrows, but what imagination can form an adequate conception of his hopefulness and gratitude when the tokens of the neighborhood of land first greeted his senses; of his high enthusiasm when the shore was discovered; of his noble rapture when the keel of his bark grounded on the shore of San Salvador, and he planted the royal standard in the soil, the Viceroy and High Admiral of Spain in the New World! No matter what chanced thereafter, a king's favor or a king's displeasure, royal largesses or royal chains, – that moment of noble exultation was worth a long lifetime of trials. Such were our thoughts before the cathedral altar, gazing on his consecrated tomb, and thus suggestive will the visitor be sure to find this memorial of the great captain amid its sombre surroundings.2424
  The reward of genius is rarely contemporary, and even posterity is frequently most remiss in its justice. "Sebastian Cabot gave England a continent," says Bancroft, "and no one knows his burial-place!"


It will be remembered that Columbus died in Valladolid, in 1506. In 1513 his remains were transferred to Seville, preparatory to their being sent, as desired in his will, to St. Domingo. When that island was ceded to France, the remains were delivered to the Spaniards. This was in 1796, one hundred and three years after they had been placed there; they were then brought with great pomp to Havana, in a national ship, and were deposited in the cathedral in the presence of all the high authorities. The church itself, aside from this prominent feature of interest, is vastly attractive from its ancient character and appearance, and one lingers with mysterious delight and thoughtfulness among its marble aisles and confessionals.

The wealth of the church and of the monks in Cuba was formerly proverbial, but of late years the major portion of the rich perquisites which they were so long permitted to receive, have been diverted in their course, so as to flow into the coffers of the crown. The priests at one time possessed large tracts of the richest soil of the island, and their revenue from these plantations was immense; but these lands were finally confiscated by the government, and, with the loss of their property, the power of the monks has also declined, and they themselves diminished in numbers. Two of their large establishments, St. Augustine and St. Domingo, have been converted into government storehouses, and the large convent of San Juan de Dios is now used solely for a hospital. Formerly the streets were thronged by monks, but now they are only occasionally seen, with their sombre dress and large shovel hats.

The character of this class of men has of former years been a scandal to the island, and the stories that are told by respectable people concerning them are really unfit for print. They led lives of the most unlimited profligacy, and they hesitated not to defy every law, moral or divine. For a long period this existed, but Tacon and subsequent governors-general, aroused to a sense of shame, made the proper representations to the home government, and put a stop to their excesses. Many persons traced the bad condition of public morals and the increase of crime just previous to Tacon's governorship directly to this ruling influence.

A fearful condition when those who assume to lead in spiritual affairs proved the fountain-head of crime upon the island, themselves the worst of criminals.


Nudity of children and slaves – The street of the merchants – The currency of Cuba – The Spanish army in the island – Enrolment of blacks – Courage of Spanish troops – Treatment by the government – The garrote – A military execution – The market-men and their wares – The milk-man and his mode of supply – Glass windows – Curtains for doors – The Campo Santo, or burial-place of Havana – Treatment of the dead – The prison – The fish-market of the capital.

One peculiarity which is certain to strike the stranger from the first hour he lands upon the island, whether in public or private houses, in the stores or in the streets, is that the young slaves, of both sexes, under the age of eight or ten years, are permitted to go about in a state of perfect nudity; while the men of the same class, who labor in the streets, wear only a short pair of pantaloons, without any other covering to the body, thus displaying their brawny muscles at every movement. This causes rather a shock to the ideas of propriety entertained by an American; but it is thought nothing of by the "natives." On the plantations inland, the slaves of either sex wear but just enough clothes to appear decently. The almost intolerable heat when exposed to field-labor is the excuse for this, a broad palm-leaf hat being the only article that the negroes seem to desire to wear in the field.

The Calle de Mercaderes, or the street of the merchants, is the Broadway and Washington Street of Havana, and contains many fine stores for the sale of dry goods, china, jewelry, glass-ware, etc. The merchant here does not designate his store by placing his own name on his sign, but, on the contrary, adopts some fancy title, such as the "America," the "Star," the "Bomb," "Virtue," and the like; which titles are paraded in golden letters over the doors. These tradesmen are, generally speaking, thorough Jews in their mode of dealing, and no one thinks of paying the first price asked by them for an article, as they usually make allowances for being beaten down at least one half. The ladies commonly make their purchases in the after part of the day, stopping in their volantes at the doors of the shops, from which the articles they desire to examine are brought to them by the shopmen. No lady enters a shop to make a purchase, any more than she would be found walking in the streets.

There is no paper money known on the island, so that all transactions at these stores must be consummated in specie. The coin generally in use is the Spanish and Mexican dollar, half and quarter dollars, pes?tas, or twenty-cent pieces, and reals de plata, equal to our twelve-and-a-half cent pieces, or York shillings. The gold coin is the doubloon and its fractions. Silver is always scarce, and held at a premium in Havana, say from two to five per cent. As Cuba has no regular bank, the merchant draws on his foreign credit altogether, each mercantile house becoming its own sub-treasury, supplied with the largest and best of iron safes. The want of some legitimate banking system is severely felt here, and is a prominent subject of complaint with all foreign merchants.

The Spanish government supports a large army on the island, which is under the most rigid discipline, and in a state of considerable efficiency. It is the policy of the home government to fill the ranks with natives of old Spain, in order that no undue sympathy may be felt for the Creoles, or islanders, in case of insurrection or attempted revolution. An order has recently been issued by Pezuela, the present governor-general, for the enrolment of free blacks and mulattoes in the ranks of the army, and the devotion of these people to Spain is loudly vaunted in the captain-general's proclamation. The enlistment of people of color in the ranks is a deadly insult offered to the white population of a slave-holding country, – a sort of shadowing forth of the menace, more than once thrown out by Spain, to the effect that if the colonists should ever attempt a revolution, she would free and arm the blacks, and Cuba, made to repeat the tragic tale of St. Domingo, should be useless to the Creoles if lost to Spain. But we think Spain overestimates the loyalty of the free people of color whom she would now enroll beneath her banner. They cannot forget the days of O'Donnell (governor-general), when he avenged the opposition of certain Cubans to the illicit and infamous slave-trade by which he was enriching himself, by charging them with an abolition conspiracy in conjunction with the free blacks and mulattoes, and put many of the latter to the torture to make them confess imaginary crimes; while others, condemned without a trial, were mowed down by the fire of platoons. Assuredly the people of color have no reason for attachment to the paternal government of Spain. And in this connection we may also remark that this attempt at the enrolment of the blacks has already proved, according to the admission of Spanish authority, a partial failure, for they cannot readily learn the drill, and officers dislike to take command of companies.

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