Maturin Ballou.

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



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The agriculturists of the island confine their attention almost solely to the raising of sugar, coffee and tobacco, almost entirely neglecting Indian corn (which the first settlers found indigenous here), and but slightly attending to the varieties of the orange.3131
  Three years after the seed of the orange tree is deposited in the soil, the tree is twelve or fifteen feet high, and the fourth year it produces a hundred oranges. At ten years of age it bears from three to four thousand, thus proving vastly profitable.


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It is scarcely creditable that, when the generous soil produces from two to three crops annually, the vegetable wealth of this island should be so poorly developed. It is capable of supporting a population of almost any density, and yet the largest estimate gives only a million and a half of inhabitants. On treading the fertile soil, and on beholding the clustering fruits offered on all sides, the delicious oranges, the perfumed pine-apples, the luscious bananas, the cooling cocoanuts, and other fruits for which our language has no name, we are struck with the thought of how much Providence, and how little man, has done for this Eden of the Gulf. We long to see it peopled by men who can appreciate the gifts of nature, men who are willing to do their part in reward for her bounty, men who will meet her half way and second her spontaneous efforts.3232
  "This favored land wants nothing but men to turn its advantages to account, and enjoy their results, to be acknowledged as the garden of the world." —Alexander H. Everett.


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Nowhere on the face of the globe would intelligent labor meet with a richer reward, – nowhere on the face of the globe would repose from labor be so sweet. The hour of rest here sinks upon the face of nature with a peculiar charm; the night breeze comes with its gentle wing to fan the weary frame, and no danger lurks in its career. It has free scope through the unglazed windows. Beautifully blue are the heavens, and festally bright the stars of a tropical night. Pre?minent in brilliancy among the constellations is the Southern Cross, a galaxy of stars that never greets us in the north. At midnight its glittering framework stands erect; that solemn hour passed, the Cross declines.3333
  Humboldt tells us that he has often heard the herdsmen in South America say, "Midnight is past – the Southern Cross begins to bend."


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How glorious the night where such a heavenly sentinel indicates its watches! Cuba is indeed a land of enchantment, where nature is beautiful, and where mere existence is a luxury, but it requires the infusion of a sterner, more self-denying and enterprising race to fully test its capabilities, and to astonish the world with its productiveness.

We have thus dilated upon the natural resources of Cuba, and depicted the charms that rest about her; but every picture has its dark side, and the political situation of the island is the reverse in the present instance.

Her wrongs are multifarious, and the restrictions placed upon her by her oppressors are each and all of so heinous and tyrannical a character, that a chapter upon each would be insufficient to place them in their true light before the world. There is, however, no better way of placing the grievances of the Cubans, as emanating from the home government, clearly before the reader, than by stating such of them as occur readily to the writer's mind in brief: —

She is permitted no voice in the Cortes; the press is under the vilest censorship; farmers are compelled to pay ten per cent. on all their harvest except sugar, and on that article two and a half per cent.; the island has been under martial law since 1825; over $23,000,000 of taxes are levied upon the inhabitants, to be squandered by Spain; ice is monopolized by the government; flour is so taxed as to be inadmissible; a Creole must purchase a license before he can invite a few friends to take a cup of tea at his board; there is a stamped paper, made legally necessary for special purposes of contract, costing eight dollars per sheet; no goods, either in or out of doors, can be sold without a license; the natives of the island are excluded entirely from the army, the judiciary, the treasury, and the customs; the military government assumes the charge of the schools; the grazing of cattle is taxed exorbitantly; newspapers from abroad, with few exceptions, are contraband; letters passing through the post are opened and purged of their contents before delivery; fishing on the coast is forbidden, being a government monopoly; planters are forbidden to send their sons to the United States for educational purposes; the slave-trade is secretly encouraged by government; no person can remove from one house to another without first paying for a government permit; all cattle (the same as goods) that are sold must pay six per cent. of their value to government; in short, every possible subterfuge is resorted to by the government officials to swindle the people,3434
  "No such extent of taxation, as is now enforced in Cuba, was ever known or heard of before in any part of the world; and no community, relying solely on the products of its own labor, could possibly exist under it." —Alexander H. Everett.


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everything being taxed, and there is no appeal from the decision of the captain-general!

CHAPTER X

The volante and its belongings – The ancient town of Regla – The arena for the bull-fights at Havana – A bull-fight as witnessed by the author at Regla – A national passion with the Spanish people – Compared with old Roman sports – Famous bull-fighters – Personal description of Cuban ladies – Description of the men – Romance and the tropics – The nobility of Cuba – Sugar noblemen – The grades of society – The yeomanry of the island – Their social position – What they might be – Love of gambling.

The volante, that one vehicle of Cuba, has been several times referred to in the foregoing pages. It is difficult without experience to form an idea of its extraordinary ease of motion or its appropriateness to the peculiarities of the country.3535
  "When I first saw the rocking motion of the volante as it drove along the streets, I thought 'that must be an extremely disagreeable carriage!' but when I was seated in one, I seemed to myself rocked in a cloud. I have never felt an easier motion." —Miss Bremer's Letters.


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It makes nothing of the deep mud that accompanies the rainy season, but, with its enormous wheels, six feet in diameter, heavy shafts, and low-hung, chaise-like body, it dashes over and through every impediment with the utmost facility. Strange as it may seem, it is very light upon the horse, which is also bestridden by the postilion, or calisero. When travelling any distance upon the road, a second horse is added on the left, abreast, and attached to the volante by an added whiffletree and traces. When there are two horses in this style, the postilion rides the one to the left, leaving the shaft horse free of other weight than that of the vehicle.

When the roads are particularly bad and there is more than usual weight to carry, of baggage, etc., a third horse is often used, but he is still placed abreast with the others, to the right of the shaft horse, and guided by a bridle rein in the hands of the calisero. The Spaniards take great pride in these volantes, especially those improved for city use, and they are often to be met with elaborately mounted with silver, and in many instances with gold, wrought with great skill and beauty. There were volantes pointed out to the writer, of this latter character, in Havana, that could not have cost less than two thousand dollars each, and this for a two-wheeled vehicle. A volante equipped in this style, with the gaily dressed calisero, his scarlet jacket elaborately trimmed with silver braid, his high jack-boots with silver buckles at the knee, and monstrous spurs upon his heels, with rowels an inch long, makes quite a dashing appearance, especially if a couple of blackeyed Creole ladies happen to constitute the freight. Thus they direct their way to the Tacon Paseo, to meet the fashion of the town at the close of the day – almost the only out-door recreation for the sex.

Of all the games and sports of the Cubans, that of the bull-fight is the most cruel and fearful, and without one redeeming feature in its indulgence. The arena for the exhibitions in the neighborhood of Havana is just across the harbor at Regla, a small town, having a most worn and dilapidated appearance.3636
  Regla new contains some seven thousand inhabitants, and is chiefly engaged in the exportation of molasses, which is here kept in large tanks.


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This place was formerly the haunt of pirates, upon whose depredations and boldness the government, for reasons best known to itself, shut its official eyes; more latterly it has been the hailing place for slavers, whose crafts have not yet entirely disappeared, though the rigor of the English and French cruisers in the Gulf has rendered it necessary for them to seek a less exposed rendezvous. Of the Spanish marine they entertain no fear; there is the most perfect understanding on this point, treaty stipulations touching the slave-trade, between Spain, England and France, to the contrary notwithstanding.3737
  An intelligent letter-writer estimates the present annual importation of slaves at not less than 10,000 souls, direct from Africa.


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But we were referring to the subject of the bull-fights. The arena at Regla, for this purpose, is a large circular enclosure of sufficient dimensions to seat six thousand people, and affording perhaps a little more than half an acre of ground for the fight.

The seats are raised one above another in a circle around, at a secure height from the dangerous struggle which is sure to characterize each exhibition. On the occasion when the writer was present, after a flourish of trumpets, a large bull was let loose from a stall opening into the pit of the enclosure, where three Spaniards (toreadors), one on foot and two on horseback, were ready to receive him, the former armed with a sword, the latter with spears. They were three hardened villains, if the human countenance can be relied upon as shadowing forth the inner man, seemingly reckless to the last degree, but very expert, agile, and wary. These men commenced at once to worry and torment the bull until they should arouse him to a state of frenzy. Short spears were thrust into his neck and sides with rockets attached, which exploded into his very flesh, burning and affrighting the poor creature. Thrusts from the horsemen's spears were made into his flesh, and while he was bleeding thus at every pore, gaudy colors were shaken before his glowing eyes; and wherever he turned to escape his tormentors, he was sure to be met with some freshly devised expedient of torment, until at last the creature became indeed perfectly infuriated and frantically mad. Now the fight was in earnest!

In vain did the bull plunge gallantly and desperately at his enemies, they were far too expert for him. They had made this game their business perhaps for years. Each rush he made upon them was easily avoided, and he passed them by, until, in his headlong course, he thrust his horns deep into the boards of the enclosure. The idea, of course, was not to give him any fatal wounds at the outset, and thus dispatch him at once, but to worry and torment him to the last. One of the gladiators now attacked him closely with the sword, and dexterously wounded him in the back of the neck at each plunge the animal made towards him, at the same time springing on one side to avoid the shock. After a long fight and at a grand flourish of trumpets, the most skilful of the swordsmen stood firm and received the infuriated beast on the point of his weapon, which was aimed at a fatal spot above the frontlet, leading direct to the brain. The effect was electrical, and like dropping the curtain upon a play: the animal staggered, reeled a moment, and fell dead! Three bulls were thus destroyed, the last one in his frenzy goring a fine spirited horse, on which one of the gladiators was mounted, to death, and trampling his rider fearfully. During the exhibition, the parties in the arena were encouraged to feats of daring by the waving of handkerchiefs and scarfs in the hands of the fair se?oras and se?oritas. Indeed there is generally a young girl trained to the business, who takes a part in the arena with the matadors against the bull. The one thus engaged, on the occasion here referred to, could not have exceeded seventeen years in age.3838
  "One of the chief features in this sport, and which attracted so many, myself among the number, was a young and beautiful girl, as lovely a creature as Heaven ever smiled upon, being one of the chief actresses in the exciting and thrilling scene." —Rev. L.L. Allen's Lecture.


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Whatever colonial modifications the Spanish character may have undergone in Cuba, the Creole is Castilian still in his love for the cruel sports of the arena, and there is a great similarity between the modern Spaniards and the ancient Romans in this respect. As the Spanish language more closely resembles Latin than Italian, so do the Spanish people show more of Roman blood than the natives of Italy themselves. Panem et circenses (bread and circuses!) was the cry of the old Roman populace, and to gratify their wishes millions of sesterces were lavished, and, hecatombs of human victims slain, in the splendid amphitheatres erected by the masters of the world in all the cities subjected to their sway. And so pan y toros (bread and bulls!) is the imperious demand of the Spaniards, to which the government always promptly responds.

The parallel may be pursued still further: the loveliest ladies of Rome gazed with rapture upon the dying agonies of the gladiators who hewed each other in pieces, or the Christian's who perished in conflict with the wild beasts half starved to give them battle! The beauteous se?oras and se?oritas of Madrid and Havana enjoy with a keen delight the terrible spectacle of bulls speared by the picador, or gallant horses ripped up and disembowelled by the horns of their brute adversaries. It is true that the ameliorating spirit of Christianity is evident in the changes which the arena has undergone; human lives are not sacrificed wholesale in the combats; and yet the bull-fight is sufficiently barbarous and atrocious. It is a national institution, and, as an indication of national character, is well worthy of attention, however repulsive to the sensitive mind. The queen of England is sometimes present on the race-track, so also the queen of Spain occupies the royal box at the great bull-festas of Madrid. A skilful bull-fighter is a man of mark and distinction. Montez was regarded by the Spaniards of this generation with nearly as much respect as Don Rodriguez de Bivar in the days of the Moorish wars, to such a point has the vaunted chivalry of Spain degenerated! Sometimes Spanish nobles enter the arena, and brave peril and death for the sake of the applause bestowed upon the successful torero, and many lives are lost annually in this degrading sport.

Few professional bull-fighters reach an advanced age; their career in the arena is almost always short, and they cannot avoid receiving severe wounds in their dangerous career. Pepe Illo, a famous Spanish picador, was wounded no less than twenty-six times, and finally killed by a bull. This man and another noted torero, named Romero, were possessed of such undaunted courage, that, in order to excite the interest of the spectators, they were accustomed to confront the bull with fetters upon their feet. Another famous picador in the annals of the arena was Juan Sevilla, who on one occasion was charged furiously by an Andalusian bull which overthrew both horse and rider. The savage animal, finding that the legs of his fallen antagonist were so well protected by the iron-ribbed hide of the pantaloons the bull-fighters wear that it was impossible to make an impression on them, lowered his horns with the intention of striking him in the face; but the dauntless picador, seizing one of the bull's ears in his right hand, and thrusting the fingers of the other into his nostrils, after a horrible struggle compelled him to retire. Then, when every one looked to see him borne out of the ring dying, he rose to his feet, called for a fresh horse and lance, and bounding into the saddle, attacked the bull in the centre of the ring, and driving the iron up to the shaft in his neck, rolled him over dead. "O," says an enthusiastic eye-witness of this prodigious feat, "if you had heard the vivas, if you had witnessed the frantic joy, the crazy ecstasy at the display of so much courage and good fortune, like me you would have envied the lot of Sevilla." Such are some of the dangers and excitements of the bull-ring; such is the character of some of the scenes which the gentle ladies of Cuba have learned, not to endure, but to welcome with delight.

To look upon these ladies, you could not possibly imagine that there was in them sufficient hardihood to witness such exhibitions. They are almost universally handsome, in person rather below the height of the sex with us, but with an erect and dignified carriage, and with forms always rounded to a delicate fullness, displaying a tendency to enbonpoint quite perfection itself in point of model.3939
  "The waist is slender, but never compressed by corsets, so that it retains all its natural proportions." —Countess Merlin's Letters.


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The hair is always black and profuse, the complexion a light olive, without a particle of carmine, the eyes – a match for the hair in color – are large and beautifully expressive, with a most irresistible dash of languor in them.4040
  "They have plump figures, placid, unwrinkled countenances, well-developed busts, and eyes the brilliant languor of which is not the languor of illness." —W.C. Bryant's Letters.


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It is really difficult to conceive of a homely woman with such eyes as you are sure to find them endowed with in Cuba. They have been justly famed also for their graceful carriage, and, indeed, it is the very poetry of motion, singular as it may seem when it is remembered that for them to walk abroad is such a rarity. It is not simply a progressive move, but the harmonious play of features, the coquettish undulation of the face, the exquisite disposition of costume, and modulation of voice, rich, liquid and sweet as the nightingale's, that engage the beholder, and lend a happy charm to the majestic grace of every attitude and every step. It is a union, a harmonious consort of all these elements, that so beautifies the carriage of the Cuban ladies.

The men are, also, generally speaking, manly and good-looking, though much lighter, smaller and more agile, than the Americans. The lazy life that is so universally led by them tends to make them less manly in physical development than a life of activity would do. It seems to be an acknowledged principle among them never to do that for themselves that a slave can do for them, – a fact that is very plainly demonstrated by the style of the volante, where the little horse is made not only to draw after him the vehicle and its contents, but also to carry upon his back a heavy negro, weighed down with jack-boots and livery, as a driver, when a pair of reins extending from the bridle to the volante would obviate all necessity for the negro's presence at all. But a Creole or Spaniard would think it demeaning to drive his own volante; the thing is never seen on the island. The climate, we know, induces to this sense of ease. With abundance of leisure, and the ever-present influences of their genial clime, where the heart's blood leaps more swiftly to the promptings of the imagination – where the female form earliest attains its wonted beauty and longest holds its sway over the heart – the West Indies seem peculiarly adapted for romance and love. The consequent adventures among the people are very numerous, and not, oftentimes, without startling interest, affording such themes and plots as a French feuilletonist might revel in. An ungraceful woman is not to be found on the island; whether bred in the humble cottage of the Montero, or in the luxuriant mansion of the planter or citizen, she is sure to evince all the ease and grace of polished life. Your heart is bound to them at once, when on parting they give you kindly the Spanish benediction, "Go, se?or, in a good hour."

The nobility of Cuba, so called, is composed of rather original material, to say the least of it, and forms rather a funny "institution." There may be some thirty gentlemen dubbed with the title of Marquis, and as many more with that of Count, most of both classes having acquired their wealth by the carrying on of extensive sugar plantations. These are sneeringly designated by the humbler classes as "sugar noblemen," nearly all of these aristocratic gentlemen having bought their titles outright for money, not the least consideration being had by the Spanish throne as to the fitness of the individual even for this nominal honor, save a due consideration for the amount of the would-be noble's fortune. Twenty-five thousand dollars will purchase either title. And yet, the tone of Cuban society may be said to be eminently aristocratic, and, in certain circles, very exclusive. The native of old Spain does not endeavor to conceal his contempt of foreigners and the Creoles, shielding his inferiority of intelligence under a cloak of hauteur; and thus the Castilians and Creoles form two quite distinct classes in the island, – a distinction which the home government endeavor to foster and promote in every way, for obvious reasons of their own.

The sugar planter, the coffee planter, the merchant, the liberal professions and the literati (this last a meagre class in numbers), stand about in the order in which we have written them, as it regards their relative degrees or social position, but wealth has the same charm here as in every part of Christendom, and the millionaire has the entr?e to all classes. The Monteros, or yeomanry of Cuba, inhabit the less-cultivated portions of the soil, venturing into the cities only to sell their surplus produce, acting as "market-men" for the cities in the immediate neighborhood of their homes. When they stir abroad they are always armed cap-a-pie with sword and pistols,4141
  "The broadsword dangles by the side of the gentleman, and holsters are inseparable from his saddle; the simplest countryman, on his straw saddle, belts on his rude cutlass, and every man with a skin less dark than an African appears ready for encounter." —Rev. Abiel Abbot's Letters.


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and, indeed, every one carries arms upon the inland roads of Cuba. Formerly this was a most indispensable precaution, though weapons are now rarely brought into use. The arming of the Monteros, however, has always been encouraged by the authorities, as they thus form a sort of mounted militia at all times available, and, indeed, not only the most effective, but about the only available arm of defence against negro insurrections. The Montero is rarely a slave-owner himself, but frequently is engaged on the plantations during the busy season as an extra overseer. He is generally a hard taskmaster to the slave, having an intuitive hatred for the blacks.



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