Maturin Ballou.

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



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"First, Excellency, do you give me your knightly word that you will grant a free pardon to me, if I reveal all that you require to know, even embracing the most secret hiding-places of the rovers?"

"I pledge you my word of honor," said the commander.

"No matter how heinous in the sight of the law my offences may have been, still you will pardon me, under the king's seal?"

"I will, if you reveal truly and to any good purpose," answered Tacon, weighing in his mind the purpose of all this precaution.

"Even if I were a leader among the rovers, myself?"

The governor hesitated for a moment, canvassing in a single glance the subject before him, and then said:

"Even then, be you whom you may; if you are able and will honestly pilot our ships and reveal the secrets of Marti and his followers, you shall be rewarded as our proffer sets forth, and yourself receive a free pardon."

"Excellency, I think I know your character well enough to trust you, else I should not have ventured here."

"Speak, then; my time is precious," was the impatient reply of Tacon.

"Then, Excellency, the man for whom you have offered the largest reward, dead or alive, is now before you!"

"And you are – "

"Marti!"

The governor-general drew back in astonishment, and cast his eyes towards a brace of pistols that lay within reach of his right hand; but it was only for a single moment, when he again assumed entire self-control, and said, "I shall keep my promise, sir, provided you are faithful, though the laws call loudly for your punishment, and even now you are in my power. To insure your faithfulness, you must remain at present under guard." Saying which, he rang a silver bell by his side, and issued a verbal order to the attendant who answered it. Immediately after, the officer of the watch entered, and Marti was placed in confinement, with orders to render him comfortable until he was sent for. His name remained a secret with the commander; and thus the night scene closed.

On the following day, one of the men-of-war that lay idly beneath the guns of Moro Castle suddenly became the scene of the utmost activity, and, before noon, had weighed her anchor, and was standing out into the gulf stream. Marti, the smuggler, was on board, as her pilot; and faithfully did he guide the ship, on the discharge of his treacherous business, among the shoals and bays of the coast for nearly a month, revealing every secret haunt of the rovers, exposing their most valuable depots and well-selected rendezvous; and many a smuggling craft was taken and destroyed. The amount of money and property thus secured was very great; and Marti returned with the ship to claim his reward from the governor-general, who, well satisfied with the manner in which the rascal had fulfilled his agreement, and betrayed those comrades who were too faithful to be tempted to treachery themselves, summoned Marti before him.

"As you have faithfully performed your part of our agreement," said the governor-general, "I am now prepared to comply with the articles on my part.

In this package you will find a free and unconditional pardon for all your past offences against the laws. And here is an order on the treasury for – "

"Excellency, excuse me. The pardon I gladly receive. As to the sum of money you propose to give to me, let me make you a proposition. Retain the money; and, in place of it, guarantee to me the right to fish in the neighborhood of the city, and declare the trade in fish contraband to all except my agents. This will richly repay me, and I will erect a public market of stone at my own expense, which shall be an ornament to the city, and which at the expiration of a specified number of years shall revert to the government, with all right and title to the fishery."

Tacon was pleased at the idea of a superb fish-market, which should eventually revert to the government, and also at the idea of saving the large sum of money covered by the promised reward. The singular proposition of the smuggler was duly considered and acceded to, and Marti was declared in legal form to possess for the future sole right to fish in the neighborhood of the city, or to sell the article in any form, and he at once assumed the rights that the order guaranteed to him. Having in his roving life learned all the best fishing-grounds, he furnished the city bountifully with the article, and reaped yearly an immense profit, until, at the close of the period for which the monopoly was granted, he was the richest man on the island. According to the agreement, the fine market and its privilege reverted to the government at the time specified, and the monopoly has ever since been rigorously enforced.

Marti, now possessed of immense wealth, looked about him, to see in what way he could most profitably invest it to insure a handsome and sure return. The idea struck him if he could obtain the monopoly of theatricals in Havana on some such conditions as he had done that of the right to fish off its shores, he could still further increase his ill-gotten wealth. He obtained the monopoly, on condition that he should erect one of the largest and finest theatres in the world, which he did, as herein described, locating the same just outside the city walls. With the conditions of the monopoly, the writer is not conversant.

Many romantic stories are told of Marti; but the one we have here related is the only one that is authenticated, and which has any bearing upon the present work.

CHAPTER IX

The lottery at Havana – Hospitality of the Spaniards – Flattery – Cuban ladies – Castilian, Parisian and American politeness – The bonnet in Cuba – Ladies' dresses – The fan – Jewelry and its wear – Culture of flowers – Reflections – A most peculiar narcotic – Cost of living on the island – Guines – The cock-pit – Training of the birds – The garden of the world – Birds of the tropics – Condition of agriculture – Night-time – The Southern Cross – Natural resources of Cuba – Her wrongs and oppressions.

There is a monthly lottery in Havana, with prizes amounting to one hundred and ten thousand dollars, and sometimes as high as one hundred and eighty thousand dollars, under the immediate direction and control of the authorities, and which is freely patronized by the first mercantile houses, who have their names registered for a certain number of tickets each month. The poorer classes, too, by clubbing together, become purchasers of tickets, including slaves and free negroes; and it is but a few years since, that some slaves, who had thus united and purchased a ticket, drew the first prize of sixty thousand dollars; which was honestly paid to them, and themselves liberated by the purchase of their freedom from their masters. Honestly and strictly conducted as these lotteries are, yet their very stability, and the just payment of all prizes, but makes them the more baneful and dangerous in their influence upon the populace. Though now and then a poor man becomes rich through their means, yet thousands are impoverished in their mad zeal to purchase tickets, though it cost them their last medio. The government thus countenances and fosters a taste for gambling, while any one acquainted at all with the Spanish character, must know that the people need no prompting in a vice to which they seem to take intuitively.

The Spaniards receive credit for being a very hospitable people, and to a certain extent this is due to them; but the stranger soon learns to regard the extravagant manifestations which too often characterize their etiquette, as quite empty and heartless. Let a stranger enter the house of a Cuban for the first time, and the host or hostess of the mansion says at once, either in such words or their equivalent, "All that we have is at your service; take what you will, and our right hand with it." Yet no one thinks of understanding this literally. The family volante is at your order, or a saddle horse; and in such small kindnesses they are indeed polite; but when they beg of you to accept a ring, a book, a valuable toy, because you have happened to praise it, you are by no means to do so. Another trait of character which suggests itself in this connection, is their Universal habit of profuse compliment.2828
  The common salutation, on being introduced or meeting a lady, is, "A los pies de usted se?ora" (at the feet of your grace, my lady).


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The ladies listen to them, as a matter of course, from their countrymen, or from such Frenchmen as have become domesticated in the island; but if an American takes occasion to compliment them, they are at once delighted, for they believe them to be sincere, and the matter is secretly treasured to be repeated.

The Cuban ladies, with true feminine acuteness, estimate correctly the high-flown compliments of their countrymen; and the kindred French, Castilian and Parisian politeness is of about equal value, and means the same thing, – that is, nothing. To strangers it is very pleasant at first, but the moment it is apparent that these profuse protestations of friendship and offers of service are transparent devices, and that if you take them at their word they are embarrassed, perhaps offended, that you must be constantly on your guard, and be very careful to consider every fine phrase as a flower of rhetoric, it becomes positively disagreeable. Good manners go a great way; and if a person does you a favor, the pleasure you experience is much enhanced by the grace with which the obligation is conferred; but there is a vast difference between true and false politeness. The former springs only from a good and true heart; the latter is especially egotistical. Both the French and Spanish are extremely gallant to women; and yet the condition of women in both France and Spain is vastly inferior to that of our fair countrywomen, notwithstanding the Spanish caballero and the Parisian elegant can couch their heartless compliments in terms our plain people would vainly attempt to imitate. But what cares a woman for fine phrases, if she knows that the respect due to her sex is wanting? The condition of the women of Cuba is eminently Spanish, and she is here too often the slave of passion and the victim of jealousy.

The bonnet, which forms so important a part of the ladies' costume in Europe and American cities, is entirely unknown, or, rather, never worn by the Creole ladies; and strangers who appear with this article of dress are regarded with as much curiosity as we should be exercised by to meet in our own streets a Tuscarora chief in his war-paint. In place of the bonnet the Cuban ladies wear a long black veil, gathered at the back of the head upon the clustered braid of hair (always dark and luxuriant), and drawn to one side of the face or the other, as circumstances may require. More frequently, however, even this appendage is not seen, and they ride in the Paseos and streets with their heads entirely uncovered, save by the sheltering hood of the volante. When necessity calls them abroad during the early or middle hours of the day, there is a canvas screen buttoning to the dasher, and extending to the top of the vehicle, forming a partial shelter from the sun. This apparatus is universally arranged upon the volantes which stand at the corners of the streets for common hire; but the private vehicles are rarely seen much abroad before the early twilight, or just before sunset.

Full dress, on all state occasions, with the Cuban ladies, is black; but white is worn on all ordinary ones, forming a rich and striking contrast to the fair olive complexions of the wearers. Jewelry is worn to a great extent, and, by those who can afford it, to the amount of most fabulous sums, of course the diamond predominating; but there is a general fondness for opals, garnets and pearls, worn in bracelets more particularly, or in bands about the hair, at the top of the forehead. There is one article without which the Cuban lady would not feel at home for a single moment; it is the fan, which is a positive necessity to her, and she learns its coquettish and graceful use from very childhood. Formed of various rich materials, it glitters in her hand like a gaudy butterfly, now half, now wholly shading her radiant face, which quickly peeps out again from behind its shelter, like the moon from out a gilded cloud. This little article (always rich and expensive), perfectly indispensable in a Cuban lady's costume, in their hands seems almost to speak; she has a witching flirt with it that expresses scorn; a graceful wave of complaisance; an abrupt closing of it, that indicates vexation or anger; a gradual and cautious opening of its folds, that signifies reluctant forgiveness; in short, the language of the fan in a Cuban's hand is an adroit and expressive pantomime, that requires no foreign interpreter.

It may be owing to the prodigality of nature in respect to Flora's kingdom, which has led to no development among the people of Cuba, in the love and culture of flowers. Of course this remark is intended in a general point of view, there necessarily being exceptions to establish the rule. But it is a rare thing to see flowers under cultivation here, other than such as spring up from the over-fertile soil, unplanted and untended. In New Orleans one cannot pass out of the doors of the St. Charles Hotel, at any hour of the day, without being saluted first by the flavor of magnolias, and then by a Creole flower-girl, with "Buy a bouquet for a dime, sir?" But nothing of the sort is seen in Cuba; flowers are a drug. Nevertheless, I fear that people who lack an appreciation of these "illumined scriptures of the prairie," show a want of delicacy and refinement that even an humble Parisian grisette is not without. Scarcely can you pass from the coast of Cuba inland for half a league, in any direction, without your senses being regaled by the fragrance of natural flowers, – the heliotrope, honeysuckle, sweet pea, and orange blossoms predominating. The jessamine and cape rose, though less fragrant, are delightful to the eye, and cluster everywhere, among the hedges, groves and plantations.

There seems to be, at times, a strange narcotic influence in the atmosphere of the island, more especially inland, where the visitor is partially or wholly removed from the winds that usually blow from the gulf in the after part of the day. So potent has the writer felt this influence, that at first it was supposed to be the effect of some powerful plant that might abound upon the plantations; but careful inquiry satisfied him that this dreamy somnolence, this delightful sense of ease and indolent luxuriance of feeling, was solely attributable to the natural effect of the soft climate of Cuba. By gently yielding to this influence, one seems to dream while waking; and while the sense of hearing is diminished, that of the olfactories appears to be increased, and pleasurable odors float upon every passing zephyr. One feels at peace with all human nature, and a sense of voluptuous ease overspreads the body. Others have spoken to the writer of this feeling of idle happiness, which he has himself more than once experienced in the delightful rural neighborhood of Alquizar. The only unpleasant realizing sense during the enjoyment of the condition referred to, is the fear that some human voice, or some chance noise, loud and abrupt, shall arouse the waking dreamer from a situation probably not unlike the pleasanter effect of opium, without its unpleasant re?ction.

As it regards the cost of living in the island, it may be said to average rather high to the stranger, though it is declared that the expense to those who permanently reside here, either in town or country, is cheaper, all things considered, than in the United States. At the city hotels and best boarding-houses of Havana and Matanzas, the charge is three dollars per day, unless a special bargain is made for a considerable period of time. Inland, at the houses of public entertainment, the charge per diem is, of course, considerably less; and the native style of living is nearly the same within or out of the city. The luscious and healthful fruits of the tropics form a large share of the provision for the table, and always appear in great variety at dessert. Good common claret wine is regularly placed before the guest without charge, it being the ordinary drink of the people. As to the mode of cooking, it seems to be very like the French, though the universal garlic, which appears to be a positive necessity to a Spanish palate, is very apt to form a disagreeable preponderance in the flavor of every dish. Fish, meat and fowl are so disguised with this article and with spices, that one is fain to resort to the bill of fare, to ascertain of what he is partaking. The vegetable soups of the city houses (but for the garlic) are excellent, many of the native vegetables possessing not only admirable flavor, and other desirable properties for the purpose, but being also glutinous, add much to the properties of a preparation answering to the character of our Julian soup. Oysters, though plentiful on the coast, are of inferior quality, and are seldom used for the table; but pickled oysters from the United States are largely used in the cities.

One of the pleasantest places of resort for enjoyment on the whole island, is probably the town of Guines, connected with Havana by a railroad (the first built upon the soil of Cuba), and but a few leagues from the capital.2929
  San Julian de los Guines contains from two to three thousand inhabitants.


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This locality is thought to be one of the most salubrious and appropriate for invalids, and has therefore become a general resort for this class, possessing several good public houses, and in many respects is quite Americanized with regard to comforts and the necessities of visitors from the United States. In Guines, and indeed in all Cuban towns, villages, and even small hamlets, there is a spacious cock-pit, where the inhabitants indulge in the sport of cock-fighting, – an absorbing passion with the humble, and oftentimes with the better classes. This indulgence is illustrative of their nature, – that is, the Spanish nature and blood that is in them, – a fact that is equally attested by their participation in the fearful contest of the bull-fight. It is really astonishing how fierce these birds become by training; and they always fight until one or the other dies, unless they are interfered with. The amount of money lost and won by this cruel mode of gambling is very large daily. Ladies frequently attend these exhibitions, the upper seats being reserved for them; and they may, not unfrequently, be seen entering fully into the excitement of the sport.

The cock-pit is a large or small circular building, not unlike, in external appearance, to a New England out-door hay-stack, its dimensions being governed by the populousness of the locality where it is erected. The seats are raised in a circle, around a common centre, where the birds are fought, or "pitted," upon prepared ground, covered with saw-dust or tan. The cocks, which are of a peculiar species of game birds, are subjected from chickenhood, so to speak, to a peculiar course of treatment. Their food is regularly weighed, and so many ounces of grain are laid out for each day's consumption, so that the bird is never permitted to grow fat, but is kept in "condition" at all times. The feathers are kept closely cropped in a jaunty style, and neck and head, to the length of three inches or more, are completely plucked of all feathers, and daily rubbed with aguadiente (island rum), until they become so calloused that they are insensible to any ordinary wound which its antagonist might inflict. Brief encounters are encouraged among them while they are young, under proper restrictions, and no fear is had of their injuring themselves, until they are old enough to have the steel gaffs affixed upon those which nature has given them. Then, like armed men, with swords and daggers, they attack each other, and the blood will flow at every stroke, the conflict being in no degree impeded, nor the birds affrighted, by the noisy cries, jeers, and loud challenges of the excited horde of gamblers who throng all sides of the cock-pit.3030
  The English game-cock is prized in Cuba only for crossing the breed, for he cannot equal the Spanish bird in agility or endurance.


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Cuba has been justly styled the garden of the world, perpetual summer smiling upon its favored shores, and its natural wealth almost baffling the capacity of estimation. The waters which surround it, as we have already intimated, abound with a variety of fishes, whose bright colors, emulating the tints of precious stones and the prismatic hues of the rainbow, astonish the eye of the stranger. Stately trees of various species, the most conspicuous being the royal palm, rear their luxuriant foliage against the azure heavens, along the sheltered bays, by the way-side, on the swells of the haciendas, delighting the eye of the traveller, and diversifying the ever-charming face of the tropical landscape. Through the woods and groves flit a variety of birds, whose dazzling colors defy the palette of the artist. Here the loquacious parrot utters his harsh natural note; there the red flamingo stands patiently by the shore of the lagoon, watching in the waters, dyed by the reflection of his plumage, for his unconscious prey. It would require a volume to describe the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdom of Cuba. Among the most familiar birds, and those the names of which even the casual observer is apt to learn, are the Cuba robin, the blue-bird, the cat-bird, the Spanish woodpecker, the gaudy-plumed parrot, the pedoreva, with its red throat and breast and its pea-green head and body. There is also a great variety of wild pigeons, blue, gray and white; the English ladybird, as it is called, with a blue head and scarlet breast, and green and white back; the indigo-bird, the golden-winged woodpecker, the ibis, the flamingo, and many smaller species, like the humming-bird. Parrots settle on the sour orange trees when the fruit is ripe, and fifty may be secured by a net at a time. The Creoles stew and eat them as we do the pigeon; the flesh is rather tough, and as there are plenty of fine water and marsh birds about the lagoons, which are most tender and palatable, one is at a loss to account for the taste that leads the people to eat the parrot. The brown pelican is very plenty on the sea-coast, like the gull off our own shores, and may be seen at all times sailing lazily over the sea, and occasionally dipping for fish. Here, as among other tropical regions, and even in some southern sections of this country, the lazy-looking bald-headed vulture is protected by law, being a sort of natural scavenger or remover of carrion.



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