The Pearl of the Antilles, or An Artist in Cuba
The Pearl of the Antilles, or An Artist in Cuba
The Pearl of the Antilles, or An Artist in Cuba
Cuba having lately become a prominent object of attention, both to Europe and America, I venture to think that any trustworthy information that can be given respecting it, may prove acceptable to the reader. I approach my task with no great pretensions, but yet with an experience acquired by many years' residence in the Island, and an intimate intercourse with its inhabitants. I arrived there in 1864, when Cuba was enjoying uninterrupted peace and prosperity, and my departure took place in the first year of her adversity. Having thus viewed society in the Island under the most opposite conditions, I have had various and ample opportunities of studying its institutions, its races and its government; and in availing myself of these opportunities I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to avoid those matters which are alike common to life in Spain and in Cuba.
As I write, Cuba is passing through a great crisis in her history. For this reason my experiences may prove more interesting than they might otherwise have done; nor do I think that they will be found less attractive, because it has been my choice to deal with the subject before me from the point of view rather of an artist than of a traveller or a statistician.
Perhaps I may be allowed to add, that the matter contained in these pages will be almost entirely fresh to the reader; for, although I have included a few papers which I have from time to time contributed to All the Year Round, Cassell's Magazine, and London Society, I have taken care to introduce them in such a manner as not to break the continuity with which I have endeavoured to connect the various parts of my subject.
In explanation of the title chosen for this volume, I may remark that 'the Pearl of the Antilles' is one of the prettiest in that long series of eulogistic and endearing titles conferred by poets and others on the Island of Cuba, which includes 'the Queen of the Antilles,' 'the Jewel in the Spanish Crown,' 'the Promised Land,' 'the Summer Isle of Eden,' 'the Garden of the West,' and 'the Loyal and Ever-faithful Isle.'
22 Lancaster Road,
A CUBAN WELCOME
Our Reception at Santiago de Cuba – Spanish Law – A Commemorative Feast – Cuban Courtesy – Coffee-House Politeness
My companion and brother-artist, Nicasio Rodriguez y Boldú, is a native of Cuba, and as he has signified his intention to visit his birthplace in the West Indies, we bid 'addio' to fair Florence, where for three years we have dwelt together and followed our profession, and, embarking in a French steamer at St. Nazaire, we set sail for the Pearl of the Antilles.
Our official reception at Santiago de Cuba is far from cordial. Before we land, the Spanish authorities meet us on board, and, after a careful inspection of our passports, present each of us with what they call a 'permit of disembarcation,' for which we have to pay sixteen reales 'fuertes.' Having, so to speak, purchased 'tickets of admission' to the Spanish colony, and having also deposited our luggage in the 'cloak-room' of the establishment – which in this instance is represented by a custom-house – we naturally expect to be favoured with a 'bill' of tropical performances. No such bill is, however, presented to us; but as a substitute, we obtain full particulars by application, within a month after our arrival, to the chief of police. From this functionary we learn that our 'tickets of admission' are available only for one quarter's sojourn in the island, and that if we desire to remain for a longer period, an official 'season-ticket' must be procured. The authorised programme of the 'Loyal and Ever-faithful Isle' is divided into a great many Acts. One of these acts announces that 'no foreigner is allowed to reside more than three months in the island without procuring first a carta de domicilio (habitation license), which he may obtain by a petition supported by the consul of his nation.' The carta de domicilio will enable the foreigner in question to dwell unmolested in this strangely governed country for a period not exceeding five years; but he may not leave the island, neither may he remove to another town, without a pass from a Capitan de Partido, a Celador, or some such official.
The chief of police moreover tells us that, conformably with another act or article in his code, the 'applicant' must represent himself as a Catholic; that he must take the oaths of fidelity and vassalage before the governor, and that within the prescribed five years 'a foreigner must be either naturalised, or he must leave the country.'
Yet another act proclaims that during the first five years of his residence, 'the said foreigner may not carry on nor may he possess a shop, a warehouse, or become a captain of a vessel. He may, however, have a share in a company or firm of Spaniards.'
But the strangest mandate of all is that which denies to 'any inhabitant whatsoever' the privilege of moving from one house to another 'without giving notice of such removal to the chief of police!'
Thus much for our welcome by the authorities of Cuba!
The Cubans themselves are, however, more obsequious. Long before we have anchored in the Cuban bay, the news of our arrival has reached the ears of my companion's friends, who hasten to greet us from little canoes with white awnings to ward off the rays of the scorching sun. Having landed, and satisfied the authorities, we are escorted by a number of these friends to our future residence, which we had decided should be an hotel. But my partner's friends will not hear of our lodging at a strange place, and one of their number, who claims close relationship with Nicasio, succeeds in persuading us both to become his guests. He accordingly hails his two-wheeled quitrin, and drives us to his dwelling. The rest of our friends follow on foot, and are invited by our host, Don Benigno, to partake of the sumptuous banquet which has been prepared in honour of Nicasio's return to his native country. Several ladies are present, and with these in light muslin dresses – the gentlemen in their suits of white drill – the long table with its white covering – the spacious dining-hall with its white-washed walls – and the glare of the sun which pours in from numerous windows and open doors – the scene is enlivening, to say the least of it; while a singular contrast is supplied by the sombre appearance of the slaves who serve round the condiments.
Of course my companion is lionised and made much of on this occasion, and his friend – whom everybody addresses, on account of his nationality, as 'el Caballero Inglés,' is treated with every show of attention. Being fresh from Europe we are both examined and cross-examined upon the questions of news, and to satisfy all demands requires no inconsiderable amount of oratory. Healths are drunk and responded to by some of the company, and Don Benigno's nephew, Tunicú, delivers some appropriate verses of his own composition, which he has dedicated to his kinsman Nicasio.
It is not the custom in this country for the ladies to retire after a meal, and leave their lords to their cups and conversation, but everybody remains seated until black coffee and big Havana cigars are handed, the cloth has been removed, and our host's baby – a girl ten months old attired in nature's vestments – has been placed for general inspection and approval in the centre of the festive board.
When everybody has sufficiently devoured with his or her eyes this kind of human dessert, Don Benigno's lady – Doña Mercedes – proposes to adjourn for music and dancing to the reception-room – an apartment which is little better than a continuation of the dining-hall; the boundary line between the two chambers being defined by a narrow slip of wall.
The musical entertainments begin with a performance on the piano by a sun-burnt young lady attired in a low-necked, short-sleeved dress, who accompanies another young lady who essays a patriotic song commencing:
Cuba, Cuba! mi patria querida,
in which she assures her audience, in Spanish verse, that there is no place like Cuba, and no country more fertile and picturesque than the Pearl of the Antilles. This favourite ditty is called a Melopea, or words without a melody – the words being simply 'spoken,' and closely followed on the piano by lively music.
This song and another having been disposed of, partners are selected and the Danza Criolla – a popular Cuban valse – is for the rest of the afternoon (for it is still broad daylight) performed. The guests then depart; and after a little conversation with Don Benigno and his family, Nicasio and I are conducted by a black domestic to our dormitories. Here we indulge in a siesta, and otherwise refresh ourselves till the hour of dinner.
Those of Nicasio's friends who have been foiled in their attempt to secure us for their guests, console themselves by exhibiting their hospitality in other ways. We are overwhelmed with invitations to pass the temporada, or season, at their estates in the country, and so numerous are these invitations that, were we to accept them all, two years would scarcely suffice for the fulfilment of our engagements.
During the first weeks of our residence in Santiago, the hospitality which we receive in various ways is sometimes overpowering. Wherever we may wander some unknown friend has anticipated our arrival, and secretly provided for our wants. We turn into a café for refreshments, and when we offer to pay for what we have ordered, the waiter refuses to take our coin, while he assures us that our repast has already been paid for! Subsequently we discover that the proprietors of all the restaurants and cafés in the town have been instructed by some mysterious person or persons not to accept payment from 'Don Nicasio Rodriguez y Boldú and his English companion,' but to 'put it down to the account.' Whenever we visit the theatre, the same pecuniary objections are raised; and upon one occasion, the haberdasher to whom we apply for a dozen shirts à la créole actually refuses to favour us with a bill!
These attentions are, however, short-lived, for my partner, after permitting them to exist for a reasonable length of time, publicly gives out that unless this overpowering hospitality altogether ceases, he and el Caballero Inglés will remove to a less demonstrative town. This warning takes effect, but still the tendency to 'stand treat' – which is a special weakness in Cuba – manifests itself in other ways.
I go into a café where some creoles – utter strangers to me – are grouped around one of the marble tables. If I happen to be accompanied by a lady, every man rises and salutes us. If alone, I am offered a seat and refreshments; for under no circumstances, and in no locality, does a Cuban eat and drink without first inviting his neighbours to partake of his fare. 'Usted gusta?' (Will you partake of this?) or 'Gusta usted tomar algo?' (Won't you take something?) is a Cuban's grace before meat.
These, attentions are not, however, confined to feeding. They are adapted to everything that a Cuban possesses. If I admire any article or individual belonging to a Cuban – no matter whether the object of my admiration be a watch-guard – a handsome cane – a horse – a gun – a slave, or a pretty child – I am invariably assured that it is mine (Es para usted), or that it is my servant (Un servidor de usted). When I ask a Cuban where he lives, he promptly replies: 'At your house,' in such-and-such a street, number so-and-so; and whenever such an individual favours me with a letter, I always find the document addressed: 'From your house' (Su casa).
In short, I never know what politeness means, nor what extensive West Indian possessions are at my disposal, till I live amidst the luxuries of the Pearl of the Antilles!
DAILY LIFE IN CUBA
A Cuban Home – My Bed-Room – A Creole Breakfast – Don Benigno and his Family – A Cuban Matron – Church-going in connection with Shopping – An Evening Tertulia – A Tropical Moon
Like most of his neighbours, Don Benigno keeps 'open house' in more than one way. The huge street-door of his habitation remains unclosed at all hours of the day and evening, and anyone who pleases may walk in and partake of the Don's hospitality.
Don Benigno's house is constructed after the pattern of the good, old-fashioned Cuban dwellings, with an eye to earthquake, heavy rains, and excessive heat. So careful is a creole to provide against these casualties, that his residence serves less as an abode for comfort than as a place of shelter. It has a single storey, and is roofed with Roman tiles. The walls are of lath and plaster, or mamposteria, as it is called, and the beams which support the roof are visible from the interior as they are in a barn. Some of the apartments are paved with marble, while others are paved with brick. In the centre of the spacious reception-room, or sala, is laid a small square of carpet, like a misplaced hearth-rug, on which stand twelve rocking-chairs, arranged face to face like seats in a railway carriage. They are accompanied by a few footstools and some spittoons. The rooms are not overcrowded with furniture and ornaments, and these scarce commodities stand out in bold relief against the white-washed walls and bare flooring. The chairs and sofas are all cane-backed and cane-bottomed. Tables are not plentiful, and curtains are employed as adornments for some of the doors instead of the windows, which are also devoid of glass. An elegant gas chandelier is suspended from one of the cross-beams of the sloping roof, and a couple of unserviceable console tables, with their corresponding pier-glasses, complete the decorations of the sala.
No fire-stoves are required in any chamber except the kitchen, and the latter being situated in the patio, or court-yard, at the back of the premises, the residents in a Cuban house are never troubled with any other smoke than that which is generated by tobacco.
As for the dormitories – the one which I occupy might belong to a holy friar. There is an aspect of cell and sanctity about everything in it. The furniture is nothing to speak of, and the bed, which is called a catre, closely resembles a tressled apple-stall with a canvas tray. When not in use, the catre is shut up and whisked away into an obscure corner. When required for sleeping purposes, it is opened, and the bed having been 'made' with a couple of sheets and a pillow, it is planted in a cool place, which often happens to be the centre of the apartment.
The monotonous appearance of the white-washed walls is relieved by coloured lithograph drawings of saints and virgins, and against one of the walls is placed a table decorated like a small altar with a white lace-trimmed cloth upon which stand some gilded candlesticks, vases containing artificial flowers, and a large wooden statuette, gorgeously painted and embellished. This image represents the patron saint, Santiago, beneath whose feet burns night and day a small oil lamp. The object for which this luminary is intended is ignored by me for many days, and meanwhile I use it, when nobody is looking, for the lighting of my cigarettes. My authority for this sacrilegious act is derived from my companion, Nicasio, who is a liberal-minded Catholic, and as I find he also performs the same ceremony in his own dormitory, my conscience is relieved. Equally mysterious are a couple of dry fonts which have in all respects the appearances of china watch-pockets. I make use of one for the accommodation of my time-piece, until I am informed that only holy water is allowed to repose within its sacred embraces.
In fine weather my slumbers at night are uninterrupted, but when it rains – and in Cuba it never rains but it pours in bucketfuls – my rest is at intervals sorely disturbed. I dream that a thousand belligerent cats are at civil war on the Roman-tiled roof above me, and that for some unknown reason I alone expiate their bloodthirsty crimes, by enduring a horrible penance, which consists in the historical torture of a slow and perpetual stream of liquid which dribbles upon my bare cranium. I awake suddenly to find that my nightmare has not been unfounded. Something damp, proceeding from the sloping roof, drops at regular intervals upon my forehead. By the light of the patron saint who watches over me I perceive that the rain has found an inlet through a gotera in the roof. A gotera is a hole in the tiles, formed during the day by the action of the baking sun upon the mortar, which yields to its cracking influence and leaves an aperture. Rising hurriedly in the dead of night, I remove my catre to a dry corner, and at the same time place a basin beneath the spot from whence the drops of rain issue. Once more I awake under the same moistening influence. A fresh gotera has arisen over my dry place of repose. Again I shift my ground, and use an empty pail for the accommodation of the intrusive element; but fresh goteras appear wherever I pitch my catre, until, having circumnavigated all the safe coasts of my tempestuous apartment and exhausted every receptacle for water, I take up my bed and deposit it in an adjoining chamber, which happening to be unoccupied and free from goteras, allows my slumbers to remain undisturbed till morning.
Don Benigno's family take what we should call breakfast, but which they term 'tienta pie,' in their respective sleeping chambers. At six A.M. a dark domestic enters my dormitory with a cup of black coffee and a cigarette. Later, this is followed by a larger cup of milk qualified with coffee, or, if I prefer chocolate, the latter in an extraordinary thick form is brought. The beverage is accompanied by a Cuban bun or a milk roll with foreign butter: for as the native cow does not supply the material for that luxury, the butter used in Cuba is all imported in bottles like preserves.
Eleven o'clock is the hour appointed for breakfast. This is a substantial meal and appears to be breakfast, dinner, and supper rolled into one. Every item of food is served as a separate course, of which there are more than fourteen different 'fuentes,' or dishes, on the table. A plate of eggs and sliced bananas fried in butter constitutes the first course. A second course is represented by a dish containing a combination of boiled rice and dried cod-fish, or 'bacalao,' with tomato sauce. 'Serence,' with 'congri,' is a Creole dish composed of Indian corn, rice, and red beans, and forms course number three. Sambumbia, anis, and chimbombó, are native vegetables prepared in a variety of palatable ways. An olla podrida of sweet yams, pumpkins, white beans, bacon, sausage, and cabbage is another favourite dish; and, lastly, fish, flesh, and fowl in a dozen different guises complete the bill of fare. This sumptuous repast having been washed down with Catalan claret, some West Indian fruits and solid-looking preserves are partaken of, and the indispensable cigar or cigarette and wholesome café noir are handed round.
Breakfast over, the Don's family disperse, each to his or her occupation. The children retire to their schoolroom, where the different masters (for in Cuba there are no 'out-door' governesses) engaged for their instruction arrive at their prescribed hours, give their lessons, and depart. A master is provided for every branch of learning and for teaching every art except that of dancing, this accomplishment being naturally and easily acquired by the graceful little ladies and gentlemen themselves.
Don Benigno retreats, after breakfast, to his office, where he transacts his business affairs, which seem to consist chiefly in lolling in an easy chair with a long cigar between his lips, while he watches his escribano, or clerk, as that functionary makes up accounts and writes letters.
As for the Don's lady, Doña Mercedes, she may be described broadly as a sleeping partner, her department in the firm being literally the sleeping department. After disposing of her housekeeping duties, which are briefly accomplished by handing the black cook a certain sum daily for marketing purposes, the worthy lady passes the rest of the day with a fan in a rocking chair, in which she sways and fans herself cool. Doña Mercedes has a youthful appearance from her neck upwards, but being somewhat corpulent, her figure scarcely corresponds with the attractions of her face. Being, however, attired in a loose linen gown which falls like a sack, ungirdled and uninterrupted, from her fair shoulders to her remarkably small shoes, the protuberances of her person escape notice, and, with her jet-black hair neatly and tastefully arranged, she may be said to represent an agreeable type of the Cuban matron.
It is often a matter for wonder with me, how Señora Mercedes and her friends contrive to keep their hair in such perfect order. Cuban ladies being gifted by nature with a wealth of hair require no artificial aid; but I am told that their heads being once 'dressed' for the day remain intact till night, a fact which I can easily credit, seeing that no ceole lady assumes either bonnet, hat, or other covering for the head, when she takes her walks abroad.