A Cuban Newspaper Office Local
Intelligence The Cuban
Volunteers A Recruit With Bimba –
a Fire Cuban Firemen.
‘We are in a state of siege!’
says my friend, Don Javier, editor of a Cuban periodical
called El Sufragio Universal.
‘Y bien, amigo mio; how
does the situation affect you?’
Don Javier, offering me a seat at his editorial table.
‘The maldito censor,’ he whispers,
’has suppressed four columns of to-day’s
paper; and there remains little in the way of information,
besides the feuilleton, some advertisements, and
a long sonnet addressed to ‘Lola’ on the
occasion of her saint’s day, by an amorous Pollo-poet.
The weather is sultry and oppressive.
The huge doors and windows of El Sufragio Universal
office are thrown wide open. Everybody is dressed
in a coat of white drill, a pair of white trousers,
is without waistcoat, cravat, or shirt-collar, wears
a broad-brimmed Panama, and smokes a long damp cigar.
The sub-editor a lean,
coffee-coloured person, with inky sleeves is
seated at a separate table making up columns for to-morrow’s
‘tirada,’ or impression. Before him
is a pile of important news from Puerto Rico and San
Domingo, besides a voluminous budget from that indefatigable
correspondent, Mr. Archibald Cannie, of Jamaica.
More than half of this interesting news has been already
marked out by the censor’s red pencil, and the
bewildered sub looks high and low for material wherewith
to replenish the censorial gaps. Small, half-naked
negroes, begrimed with ink veritable printer’s
devils appear and crave for ‘copy,’
but in vain.
‘Give out the foreign blocks,’
says the editor, in the tone of a commander.
The foreign blocks are stereotyped
columns, supplied by American quacks and other advertisers
to every newspaper proprietor throughout the West
Indies. On account of their extreme length and
picturesque embellishments, these advertisements are
used only in cases of emergency.
While the foreign blocks are being
dispensed, the ‘localista,’ or general
reporter, enters in breathless haste. He has brought
several fragments of local information. Four
runaway negroes have been captured by the police.
Two English sailors have died of yellow fever in the
Casa de Salud. A coolie has stabbed another
coolie at the copper mines, and has escaped justice
by leaping into an adjacent pit. A gigantic cayman,
or shark, has been caught in the harbour. The
localista has also some items of news about the Cuban
insurrection. The rebels have increased in numbers.
They have occupied all the districts which surround
our town, destroyed the aqueduct, cut the telegraph
wire, and intercepted the land mails to Havana.
There is now no communication with the capital, save
by sea. Troops have again been dispatched to the
interior, but their efforts have proved ineffectual.
Upon their appearance, the rebels vanish into the
woods and thickets, and there exhaust the patience
and the energy of the military.
The sub-editor notes everything down,
taking care to eschew that which is likely to prove
offensive to the sensitive ears of the authorities.
The material is then given out for printing purposes;
for his worship the censor will read nothing until
it has been previously set up in type. As many
hours will elapse before the proof sheets are returned
with censorial corrections, Don Javier proposes a saunter
through the town.
On the way, Don Javier entertains
me with an account of the revolution.
‘The first grito de independencia,’
says he, ’took place on October the tenth (1868),
at La Demajagua an ingenio, or sugar
estate, belonging to Don Carlos Manuel Cespedes, a
wealthy Cuban planter and a distinguished advocate.
One hundred and forty-seven men, armed with forty-five
fowling-pieces, four rifles and a few pistols and machetes,
constituted the rebellious band which, under Senor
Cespedes’ leadership, had ventured to raise
the standard of independence. Two days after,
their numbers were increased to 4,000.
’When our governor was first
told that a party of Cubans had risen in open revolt,
not many leagues from our town, he publicly proclaimed
that the rebellious band consisted of a small crowd
of “descamisados,” or ragged vagrants,
and runaway negroes, whom a dozen policemen could
easily disperse. In spite of this pretended indifference,
he nevertheless thought fit to communicate with the
Captain-General of Havana. That mighty functionary
thought more seriously of the outbreak; he was perfectly
aware of the heavy taxes which had been imposed upon
the inhabitants of our island; of the state of ruin
into which many of our leading planters had been thrown
by these taxes; and conscious also of the oppression
and despotism which had been exercised over our colony
during the reign of the lately dethroned Queen of Spain,
he doubtless calculated that the revolutionary mania
inaugurated in the Mother Country would naturally
be imitated in the Loyal and Ever-faithful Isle.
But whatever may have been his speculations, certain
it is that as soon as he heard of the rebellious movement,
he telegraphed to our governor, commanding him to
dispatch to the scene of the outbreak as many troops
as could be safely spared from the garrison at Santiago.
Meanwhile, he himself dispatched a battalion of tried
warriors from the capital.
’Before our apathetic governor
had had time to obey the orders of his chief, an encounter
had already taken place at Yara, in the district of
Manzanillo, between some of the rebels and a column
of the Crown regiment who were quartered at the town
’Our governor was now alive
to the gravity of the situation, and in due course
began to take what he called “active measures.”
Following the example set by the governor of Manzanillo,
he declared our town in a state of siege; and you
will now have an opportunity of judging for yourself
what a siege in Cuba is like.’
The usual military precautions against
assault on an unfortified place have been taken.
The entrances to the streets have been barricaded with
huge hogsheads containing sand and stones; small cannon
stand in the plaza and principal thoroughfares.
At every corner that we turn, we are accosted by a
sentry, who challenges us three times over: ’Who
goes there?’ ‘Spain.’ ‘What
kind of people?’ ‘Inoffensive.’
And so forth. The theatre, the bull-ring, the
promenade, are all closed for the season. The
masquerading and carnival amusements are at an end.
Payments have been suspended, and provisions have
become scarce and dear. The people whom we meet
have grown low-spirited, and the sunny streets look
gloomy and deserted. We glance in at the warehouses
and manufactories, and find everybody within attired
in military costume; for many of the inhabitants have
enrolled themselves as volunteers for the pleasure
of wearing a uniform at their own expense, and of
sporting a rifle provided by the government.
The names of those who object to play at soldiers
have been noted down, and their proceedings are narrowly
The Plaza de Armas is crowded with
volunteers; their uniform consists of a blue and white
striped blouse, white drill trousers, and a Panama
hat, to the band of which is attached a vermilion-coloured
cockade embellished with silver lace. The majority
of these amateur warriors are Catalan shopkeepers,
and clerks from Spanish warehouses.
Don Javier tells me that these gentlemen,
together with the Havana volunteers, represent a very
formidable army; and that in the event of affairs
taking a more serious turn, the volunteers would take
an active part in the hostilities.
‘The Catalan shopkeepers,’
says Don Javier, ’are even more interested than
Spain in preserving our colony under its present administration.’
’Under a more just and humane
government, together with the abolition of slavery,
these traders would be considerable losers; for most
of them are large slave-owners, and enjoy certain
mercantile privileges, which would be denied them
under a new policy.’
I remind Don Javier that these said
Catalans are after all Spaniards born, and that, whatever
their private object may be, for patriotic reasons
it seems only natural that they should desire to maintain
order in the Spanish colony.
‘No muy! not a bit
of it,’ says my friend; ’they are not prompted
by any feeling of patriotism. They have been
too long estranged from their home at Barcelona, and
love Cuba and her rich resources too much, to make
that a consideration. I have heard them say that
they would take up arms against their own government,
rather than that Cuba should enjoy the privileges
to which I have alluded.’
While we are conversing, a couple
of volunteers approach and salute us.
One of them is my friend Bimba,
who tells me that he has enlisted, partly for the
‘fun’ of wearing a uniform, and partly
to ensure himself against arrest.
‘Well, Don Javier,’ says
he,’are you not one of us yet? And you too,
Don Gualterio, surely you will help to protect our
I plead, as an excuse, my nationality.
exclaims Bimba; ’why, your countryman, the
clerk in B ’s warehouse,
is a volunteer; and so are the S
’s from the German house in the Calle de la
Don Javier observes that our numerous
duties prevent us from joining the corps.
‘Car! Que duties y
duties?’ says Bimba; ’business is
slack with all of us now. You, Don Javier, will
have an easy time of it, notwithstanding your trade
of news-disseminator; for you know, only “official”
accounts of the war are fit for publication in your
paper! As for you, amigo Gualterio, there will
be no more triumphal arches wanted for the present;
and no more “monos” (portraits) of
defunct people, till the revolution is over, and then
I have no doubt there will be more than enough to
occupy you and your partner Nicasio! The theatre,
too, is closed until further notice, so there will
be no more theatricals.’
Leaving Don Javier to chat with the
other volunteer, I withdraw with Bimba to a quiet
corner of the square and converse with him in private.
Bimba is one of the favoured
few who is aware of my connection with an American
newspaper, because, for obvious reasons, I have always
been careful to preserve my incognito. Now, more
than ever, it behoves me to adopt this precaution.
As a blind to the authorities and
in order to facilitate my journalistic operations,
Bimba suggests that I should join the volunteers.
He tells me that our governor has signified his intention
to make another sally with the troops, and that he
has invited some of the volunteers to accompany the
expedition. Enrolled as a volunteer, my friend
says that it will not be difficult to obtain permission
to follow with others in the rear of the Spanish regulars,
and that by so doing I shall be able to ‘report
Our mutual friend Tunicu has not yet enlisted, I find.
‘That gentleman is otherwise
engaged,’ says Bimba; ’his leisure
moments are occupied at the house of his uncle Don
Benigno, in the enjoyment of the society of his little
mulatto-lady, who is, as you know, Don Benigno’s
‘What! the pretty Ermina?’
I exclaim; ‘why, she is a mere child!’
’She was a child five years
ago, when you and your partner were the Don’s
guests,’ says Bimba. ’Now Ermina
is a grown woman of fifteen tropical summers.’
‘There is some mystery connected
with that young lady,’ I observe; ’and
I have never yet been able to fathom it. Can you
‘Not much,’ returns Bimba;
’I strongly suspect but let us not
talk scandal in these warlike times. I only know
that Ermina is a remarkably white mulatto of the octoroon
class; that she has been educated like a lady; and
that she is the bosom companion of Don Benigno’s
My curiosity being aroused, I resolve
to probe Tunicu on the subject of his affaire de coeur,
at our next meeting.
Meanwhile I adopt friend Bimba’s
suggestion and enroll myself in his corps, and, with
others, obtain permission to accompany the troops on
Some days, however, elapse before
our feeble-minded governor can make up his mind to
the sally. A couple of Spanish frigates lie at
anchor in the harbour, in readiness to bombard the
town if the rebels should effect an entrance and stir
up the inhabitants, their countrymen, to revolt.
The garrison has been considerably augmented by the
arrival of fresh troops from Puerto Rico and Spain,
who are quartered indiscriminately in the jail, the
hospitals, and churches, to expire there by the score
of yellow fever, vomito negro, and dysentery.
Meanwhile the besiegers make no attempt at assault,
but occasionally challenge the troops to sally from
their stronghold by firing their sporting rifles within
earshot of the town.
Several foreign vessels of war are
stationed in the bay ready, if necessary, to assist
the foreign residents of the town. Among these
vessels are the American war steamer ‘Penobscot’
and H.B.M.’s steam-ship the ‘Eclipse;’
the latter having been summoned from Port Royal, Jamaica,
by the English vice-consul of Santiago.
One day a great panic is raised, with
cries of’ Los insurrectos! Los insurrectos!’
followed by a charge of mounted military through the
streets. It is reported that the insurgents are
coming; so everybody hastens home, and much slamming
of doors and barring of windows is heard. But
the alarm proves a false one; and, with the exception
of a few arrests made by the police, just to keep
up appearances, no further damage results.
One memorable night, shortly after
the inhabitants have retired, the terrible cry of
‘fire!’ is heard throughout the town, and
a report spreads that the insurgents have at last
effected an entrance, and set fire to several houses.
Sure enough, from the roof of our
studio, Nicasio and I witness what, at our distance,
seems to be the burning of Santiago de Cuba! The
sky is black with smoke, and from the centre of the
town broad flames mount high into the air. Verily,
part of Santiago is in flames, but the cause of the
conflagration is as we afterwards find in
no way connected with the insurrection.
A ‘panadería’ (baker’s
shop) and a linen-draper’s warehouse, called
’El Globo,’ owned by Catalans,
have both caught fire by accident. Under ordinary
circumstances, the disaster would not have created
any other alarm than that which usually accompanies
such a rare event as a fire in Cuba. But having
connected its origin with the pending revolution, the
town is thrown into a state of extreme panic, and until
the truth is made manifest, the greatest confusion
prevails. Mounted guards and policemen armed
to the teeth charge through the streets
in all directions, and the volunteers turn out en
masse and congregate in large numbers before
the scene of the conflagration in the Plaza de Dolores.
Even the foreign consuls share for
the moment in the popular apprehension. Their
national flags are seen to flutter over their respective
consulates, and a few well-armed marines from the ‘Penobscot’
and ‘Eclipse’ war-steamers are despatched
by the captains of these vessels for the protection
of the American and English residents. Passing
the British consulate on our way to the Plaza de Dolores,
we observed a couple of British tars their
cutlasses shouldered and with revolvers in their belts on
guard at the open doors.
Meanwhile the black ‘bomberos,’
or firemen of the town, are at their work. But
they are ill-provided with the machinery for extinguishing
a great fire. Only one engine is available, and
their water is supplied in buckets and by means of
a long hose which communicates with the court-yard
of an opposite house.
The gallant captain of the British
war-steamer offers to provide the firemen with an
engine and men from his vessel; but the bomberos
are able to dispense with this assistance, as their
plan of operations consists chiefly in cutting off
all communication with the fire, by destroying the
If any proof were wanting to show
that the despised, but free and well-paid negro, is
not devoid of ability and energy, these black and
brown bomberos would surely provide ample testimony.
A better conducted, better disciplined body of men
than the coloured firemen of Cuba it has never been
my fortune to meet anywhere. Steady, earnest of
purpose, and perfectly free from excitement, they
work like veritable negroes, and they prove as serviceable
as the whitest of their bombero brethren.
In less than four hours the safety
of the surrounding habitations is ensured, and the
fire, being now confined to the doomed buildings, is
left to burn itself out.