Maturin Ballou.

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



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We have remarked that the Spanish troops are in a state of rigid discipline, and exhibit much efficiency. They are to the eye firm and serviceable troops, – the very best, doubtless, that Spain can produce; but it must be remembered that Spanish valor is but a feeble shadow of what it was in the days of the Cid and the middle ages. A square of Spanish infantry was once as impregnable as the Macedonian phalanx; but they have sadly degenerated. The actual value of the Spanish troops in Cuba may be estimated by their behavior in the Lopez invasion. They were then called upon, not to cope with a well-appointed and equal force, but with an irregular, undisciplined band of less than one-fourth their number, armed with wretched muskets, entirely ignorant of the simplest tactics, thrown on a strange shore, and taken by surprise. Yet nearly a full regiment of infantry, perfectly drilled and equipped, flank companies, commanded by a general who was styled the Napoleon of Cuba, were driven from the field by a few irregular volleys from their opponents. And when again the same commanding officer brought a yet greater force of every arm, – cavalry, rifles, infantry and artillery, – against the same body of insurgents, fatigued and reduced in numbers and arms, they were again disgracefully routed. What dependence can be placed upon such troops? They are only capable of overawing an unarmed population.

The Cubans seem to fear very little from the power or efforts of the Spanish troops in connection with the idea of any well-organized revolutionary attempt, and even count (as they have good reason to do) upon their abandoning the Spanish flag the moment there is a doubt of its success. They say that the troops are enlisted in Spain either by glowing pictures of the luxury and ease of a military life in Cuba, or to escape the severity of justice for the commission of some crime. They no sooner arrive in the island than the deception of the recruiting sergeants becomes glaringly apparent. They see themselves isolated completely from the people, treated with the utmost cruelty in the course of their drills, and oppressed by the weight of regulations that reduce them to the condition of machines, without any enjoyments to alleviate the wretchedness of their situation. Men thus treated are not to be relied upon in time of emergency; they can think, if they are not permitted to act, and will have opinions of their own.

Soldiers thus ruled naturally come to hate those in authority over them, finding no redress for their wrongs, and no sympathy for their troubles. Their immediate officers and those higher in station are equally inaccessible to them, and deaf to their complaints; and when, in the hour of danger, they are called upon to sustain the government which so cruelly oppresses them, and proclamations, abounding in Spanish hyperbole, speak of the honor and glory of the Spanish army and its attachment to the crown, they know perfectly well that these declarations and flatteries proceed from the lips of men who entertain no such sentiments in their hearts, and who only come to Cuba to oppress a people belonging to the same Spanish family as themselves.

Thus the despotic system of the Spanish officers, combined with the complete isolation of the troops from the Creole population, has an effect directly contrary to that contemplated, and only creates a readiness on the part of the troops to sympathize with the people they are brought to oppress. The constant presence of a large military force increases the discontent and indignation of the Creoles. They know perfectly well its object, and regard it as a perpetual insult, a bitter, ironical commentary on the epithet of "ever faithful" with which the home government always addresses its western vassal. The loyalty of Cuba is indeed a royal fiction. As well might a highwayman praise the generosity of a rich traveller who surrenders his purse, watch and diamonds, at the muzzle of the pistol. Cuban loyalty is evinced in an annual tribute of some twenty-four millions of hard money; the freedom of the gift is proved by the perpetual presence of twenty-five to thirty thousand men, armed to the teeth!2525
  "Can it be for the interest of Spain to cling to a possession that can only be maintained by a garrison of twenty-five thousand or thirty thousand troops, a powerful naval force, and an annual expenditure, for both arms of the service, of at least twelve million dollars? Cuba, at this moment, costs more to Spain than the entire naval and military establishment of the United States costs the federal government." —Edward Everett, on the tripartite treaty proposition.


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The complete military force of Cuba must embrace at the present time very nearly thirty thousand troops, – artillery, dragoons and infantry, – nearly twenty thousand of which force is in and about Havana. To keep such a body of soldiers in order, when governed by the principles we have described, the utmost rigor is necessary, and military executions are very frequent. The garrote is the principal instrument of capital punishment used in the island, – a machine contrived to choke the victim to death without suspending him in the air. The criminal is placed in a chair, leaning his head back upon a support prepared for it, when a neck-yoke or collar of iron is drawn up close to the throat. At the appointed moment, a screw is turned behind, producing instantaneous death, the spinal cord being crushed where it unites with the brain. This, though a repulsive idea, is far more merciful than hanging, it would seem, whereby life is destroyed by the lingering process of suffocation. The most common mode of execution, however, in the army, is the legitimate death of a soldier; and, when he is condemned, he always falls by the hands of his comrades.

The writer witnessed one of these military executions in the rear of the barracks that make the seaward side of the Plaza de Armas, one fine summer's morning. It was a fearful sight, and one that chilled the blood even in a tropical summer day! A Spanish soldier of the line was to be shot for some act of insubordination against the stringent army rules and regulations; and, in order that the punishment might have a salutary effect upon his regiment, the whole were drawn up to witness the scene. The immediate file of twelve men to which the prisoner had belonged when in the ranks, were supplied with muskets by their officer, and I was told that one musket was left without ball, so that each one might hope that his was not the hand to slay his former comrade, and yet a sense of mercy would cause them all to aim at the heart. The order was given; the bright morning sun shone like living fire along the polished barrels of the guns, as the fatal muzzles all ranged in point at the heart of the condemned. "Fuego!" (fire) said the commanding officer. A report followed, accompanied by a cloud of smoke, which the sea breeze soon dispersed, showing us the still upright form of the victim. Though wounded in many places, no vital part was touched, nor did he fall until his sergeant, advancing quickly, with a single reserved shot blew his brains over the surrounding green-sward! His body was immediately removed, the troops were formed into companies, the band struck up a lively air, and thus was a human being launched into eternity.

A very common sight in the cities or large towns of Cuba early in the morning, is to meet a Montero from the country, riding his donkey, to the tail of which another donkey is tied, and to this second one's tail a third, and so on, up to a dozen, or less. These animals are loaded with large panniers, filled with various articles of produce; some bearing cornstalks for food for city animals; some hay, or straw; others oranges, or bananas, or cocoanuts, etc.; some with bunches of live fowls hanging by the feet over the donkey's back. The people live, to use a common phrase, "from hand to mouth," – that is, they lay in no stores whatever, and trust to the coming day to supply its own necessities. Hay, cornstalks, or grain, are purchased only in sufficient quantity for the day's consumption. So with meats, so with fruits, so with everything. When it is necessary to send to the market, the steward or stewardess of the house, always a negro man or woman, is freely entrusted with the required sum, and purchases according to his or her judgment and taste. The cash system is universally adopted, and all articles are regularly paid for when purchased. The Monteros, who thus bring their produce to market, wear broad palm-leaf hats, and striped shirts over brown pantaloons, with a sword by their side, and heavy spurs upon their heels. Their load once disposed of, with a strong cigar lighted in their mouths, they trot back to the country again to pile up the panniers, and on the morrow once more to supply the wants of the town. They are an industrious and manly race of yeomanry.

Few matters strike the observant stranger with a stronger sense of their peculiarity than the Cuban milk-man's mode of supplying that necessary aliment to his town or city customers. He has no cart filled with shining cans, and they in turn filled with milk (or what purports to be milk, but which is apt strongly to savor of Cochituate or Croton), so there can be no deception as to the genuine character of the article which he supplies. Driving his sober kine from door to door, he deliberately milks just the quantity required by each customer, delivers it, and drives on to the next. The patient animal becomes as conversant with the residence of her master's customers as he is himself, and stops unbidden at regular intervals before the proper houses, often followed by a pretty little calf which amuses itself by gazing at the process, while it wears a leather muzzle to prevent its interference with the supply of milk intended for another quarter. There are doubtless two good reasons for this mode of delivering milk in Havana and the large towns of Cuba. First, there can be no diluting of the article, and second, it is sure to be sweet and fresh, this latter a particular desideratum in a climate where milk without ice can be kept only a brief period without spoiling. Of course, the effect upon the animal is by no means salutary, and a Cuban cow gives but about one third as much milk as our own. Goats are driven about and milked in the same manner.

Glass windows are scarcely known even in the cities. The finest as well as the humblest town houses have the broad projecting window, secured only by heavy iron bars (most prison-like in aspect), through which, as one passes along the narrow streets, it is nearly impossible to avoid glancing upon domestic scenes that exhibit the female portion of the family engaged in sewing, chatting, or some simple occupation. Sometimes a curtain intervenes, but even this is unusual, the freest circulation of air being always courted in every way.2626
  "Doors and windows are all open. The eye penetrates the whole interior of domestic life, from the flowers in the well-watered court to the daughter's bed, with its white muslin curtains tied with rose-colored ribbons." —Countess Merlin's Letters.


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Once inside of the dwelling houses there are few doors, curtains alone, shutting off the communication between chambers and private rooms, and from the corridor upon which they invariably open. Of course, the curtain when down is quite sufficient to keep out persons of the household or strangers, but the little naked negro slave children (always petted at this age), male and female, creep under this ad libitum, and the monkeys, parrots, pigeons, and fowls generally make common store of every nook and corner. Doors might keep these out of your room, but curtains do not. One reason why the Cubans, of both sexes, possess such fine expansive chests, is doubtless the fact that their lungs thus find full and unrestrained action, living, as it were, ever in the open air. The effect of this upon the stranger is at once visible in a sense of physical exhilaration, fine spirits and good appetite. It would be scarcely possible to inhabit a house built after our close, secure style, if it were placed in the city of Havana, or even on an inland plantation of the island. The town houses are always accessible upon the roofs, where during the day the laundress takes possession, but at evening they are frequently the family resort, where the evening cigar is enjoyed, and the gossip of the day discussed, in the enjoyment of the sea breeze that sweeps in from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Just outside the city walls of Havana, and on the immediate sea-coast, lies the Campo Santo, or public cemetery, not far from the city prison. It is approached by a long street of dilapidated and miserable dwellings, and is not attractive to the eye, though the immediate entrance is through cultivated shrubbery. A broad, thick wall encloses the cemetery, in which oven-like niches are prepared for the reception of the coffins, containing the better or more wealthy classes, while the poor are thrown into shallow graves, sometimes several together, not unfrequently negroes and whites, without a coffin, quicklime being freely used to promote decomposition. In short, the whole idea, and every association of the Campo Santo, is of a repulsive and disagreeable character.

This irreverent treatment of the dead, and the neglected condition of their place of sepulture, is a sad feature in a Christian country, contrasting strongly with the honors paid to the memory of the departed by semi-civilized and even savage nations. We all know the sacredness that is attached by the Turks to their burial grounds, how the mournful cypresses are taught to rise among the turbaned tombstones, and how the survivors are wont to sit upon the graves of the departed, musing for hours over the loved and lost, and seeming to hold communion with their liberated spirits. How different is it here with the Campo Santo! The bitterest pang that an Indian endures when compelled to leave his native hunting grounds, is that he must abandon the place where the ashes of his ancestors repose. The enlightened spirit which removes cemeteries from the centre of dense population is worthy of all commendation – the taste that adorns them with trees and flowers, beautifying the spot where the "last of earth" reposes, is a proof of high-toned feeling and a high civilization. Nothing of this spirit is manifested at Havana. The establishment of the cemetery without the walls of the city was a sanitary measure, dictated by obvious necessity, but there the march of improvement stopped. No effort has been made to follow the laudable example of other countries; no, the Spanish character, arrogant and self-sufficient, will not bend to be taught by others, and will not admit a possibility of error, and they are as closely wedded to national prejudices as the Chinese. Spain is, at this moment, the most old-fashioned country of Christendom, and it is only when pressed upon by absolute necessity that she reluctantly admits of innovation.

Tacon, during his rule in the island, erected outside the city walls, and near the gate of La Punta, on the shore, a spacious prison, capable of accommodating five thousand prisoners. It is quadrangular, each side being some three hundred feet long and fifty high, enclosing a central square, planted with shrubbery and watered by a cooling and graceful fountain. The fresh breeze circulates freely through its walls, and it is considered one of the healthiest spots in the vicinity of the capital, while it certainly presents a strong contrast to the neglected precincts of the Campo Santo, hard by.

The fish-market of Havana affords probably the best variety of this article of any city in the world. The long marble counters display the most novel and tempting array that one can well imagine; every hue of the rainbow is represented, and a great variety of shapes. But a curse hangs over this species of food, plenty and fine as it is, for it is made a government monopoly, and none but its agents are permitted to sell or to catch it in the vicinity of the city. This singular law, established under Tacon, is of peculiar origin, and we cannot perhaps do better than tell the story, as gathered on the spot, for the amusement of the reader.

CHAPTER VIII

THE STORY OF MARTI, THE SMUGGLER

One of the most successful villains whose story will be written in history, is a man named Marti, as well known in Cuba as the person of the governor-general himself. Formerly he was notorious as a smuggler and half pirate on the coast of the island, being a daring and accomplished leader of reckless men. At one time he bore the title of King of the Isle of Pines, where was his principal rendezvous, and from whence he despatched his vessels, small, fleet crafts, to operate in the neighboring waters.

His story, well known in Cuba and to the home government, bears intimately upon our subject.

When Tacon landed on the island, and became governor-general, he found the revenue laws in a sad condition, as well as the internal regulations of the island; and, with a spirit of mingled justice and oppression, he determined to do something in the way of reform.2727
  Tacon governed Cuba four years, from 1834 to 1838.


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The Spanish marine sent out to regulate the maritime matters of the island, lay idly in port, the officers passing their time on shore, or in giving balls and dances on the decks of their vessels. Tacon saw that one of the first moves for him to make was to suppress the smuggling upon the coast, at all hazards; and to this end he set himself directly to work. The maritime force at his command was at once detailed upon this service, and they coasted night and day, but without the least success against the smugglers. In vain were all the vigilance and activity of Tacon and his agents – they accomplished nothing.

At last, finding that all his expeditions against them failed, partly from the adroitness and bravery of the smugglers, and partly from the want of pilots among the shoals and rocks that they frequented, a large and tempting reward was offered to any one of them who would desert from his comrades and act in this capacity in behalf of the government. At the same time, a double sum, most princely in amount, was offered for the person of one Marti, dead or alive, who was known to be the leader of the lawless rovers who thus defied the government. These rewards were freely promulgated, and posted so as to reach the ears and eyes of those whom they concerned; but even these seemed to produce no effect, and the government officers were at a loss how to proceed in the matter.

It was a dark, cloudy night in Havana, some three or four months subsequent to the issuing of these placards announcing the rewards as referred to, when two sentinels were pacing backwards and forwards before the main entrance to the governor's palace, just opposite the grand plaza. A little before midnight, a man, wrapped in a cloak, was watching them from behind the statue of Ferdinand, near the fountain, and, after observing that the two soldiers acting as sentinels paced their brief walk so as to meet each other, and then turn their backs as they separated, leaving a brief moment in the interval when the eyes of both were turned away from the entrance they were placed to guard, seemed to calculate upon passing them unobserved. It was an exceedingly delicate man?uvre and required great care and dexterity to effect it; but, at last, it was adroitly done, and the stranger sprang lightly through the entrance, secreting himself behind one of the pillars in the inner court of the palace. The sentinels paced on undisturbed.

The figure which had thus stealthily effected an entrance, now sought the broad stairs that led to the governor's suit of apartments, with a confidence that evinced a perfect knowledge of the place. A second guard-post was to be passed at the head of the stairs; but, assuming an air of authority, the stranger offered a cold military salute and pressed forward, as though there was not the most distant question of his right so to do; and thus avoiding all suspicion in the guard's mind, he boldly entered the governor's reception room unchallenged, and closed the door behind him. In a large easy chair sat the commander-in-chief, busily engaged in writing, but alone. An expression of undisguised satisfaction passed across the weather-beaten countenance of the new comer at this state of affairs, as he coolly cast off his cloak and tossed it over his arm, and then proceeded to wipe the perspiration from his face. The governor, looking up with surprise, fixed his keen eyes upon the intruder, —

"Who enters here, unannounced, at this hour?" he asked, sternly, while he regarded the stranger earnestly.

"One who has information of value for the governor-general. You are Tacon, I suppose?"

"I am. What would you with me? or, rather, how did you pass my guard unchallenged?"

"Of that anon. Excellency, you have offered a handsome reward for information concerning the rovers of the gulf?"

"Ha! yes. What of them?" said Tacon, with undisguised interest.

"Excellency, I must speak with caution," continued the new comer; "otherwise I may condemn and sacrifice myself."

"You have naught to fear on that head. The offer of reward for evidence against the scapegraces also vouchsafes a pardon to the informant. You may speak on, without fear for yourself, even though you may be one of the very confederation itself."

"You offer a reward, also, in addition, for the discovery of Marti, – Captain Marti, of the smugglers, – do you not?"

"We do, and will gladly make good the promise of reward for any and all information upon the subject," replied Tacon.



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