Cuba owes its political importance to a variety of circumstances, among which may be enumerated the extent of its surface, the fertility of its soil, its naval establishments, and the nature of its population, of which three-fifths are free men. All these advantages are heightened by the admirable position of the Havannah. The northern part of the Caribbean Sea, known by the name of the Gulf of Mexico, forms a circular basin more than two hundred and fifty leagues in diameter: it is a Mediterranean with two outlets. The island of Cuba, or rather its coast between Cape St. Antonio and the town of Matanzas, situated at the opening of the old channel, closes the Gulf of Mexico on the south-east, leaving the ocean current known by the name of the Gulf Stream, no other outlet on the south than a strait between Cape St. Antonio and Cape Catoche; and no other on the north than the channel of Bahama, between Bahia–Honda and the shoals of Florida. Near the northern outlet, where the highways of so many nations may be said to cross each other, lies the fine port of the Havannah, fortified at once by nature and by art. The fleets which sail from this port and which are partly constructed of the cedrela and the mahogany of the island of Cuba, might, at the entrance of the Mexican Mediterranean, menace the opposite coast, as the fleets that sail from Cadiz command the Atlantic near the Pillars of Hercules. In the meridian of the Havannah the Gulf of Mexico, the old channel, and the channel of Bahama unite. The opposite direction of the currents and the violent agitations of the atmosphere at the setting-in of winter impart a peculiar character to these latitudes at the extreme limit of the equinoctial zone.
The island of Cuba is the largest of the Antilles.* Its long and narrow form gives it a vast development of coast and places it in proximity with Hayti and Jamaica, with the most southern province of the United States (Florida) and the most easterly province of the Mexican Confederation (Yucatan).* This circumstance claims serious attention when it is considered that Jamaica, St. Domingo, Cuba and the southern parts of the United States (from Louisiana to Virginia) contain nearly two million eight hundred thousand Africans. Since the separation of St. Domingo, the Floridas and New Spain from the mother-country, the island of Cuba is connected only by similarity of religion, language and manners with the neighbouring countries, which, during ages, were subject to the same laws.
[* Its area is little less in extent than that of England not including Wales.]
[* These places are brought into communication one with another by a voyage of ten or twelve days.]
Florida forms the last link in that long chain, the northern extremity of which reaches the basin of St. Lawrence and extends from the region of palm-trees to that of the most rigorous winter. The inhabitant of New England regards the increasing augmentation of the black population, the preponderance of the slave states and the predilection for the cultivation of colonial products as a public danger; and earnestly wishes that the strait of Florida, the present limit of the great American confederation, may never be passed but with the views of free trade, founded on equal rights. If he fears events which may place the Havannah under the dominion of a European power more formidable than Spain, he is not the less desirous that the political ties by which Louisiana, Pensacola and Saint Augustin of Florida were heretofore united to the island of Cuba may for ever be broken.
The extreme sterility of the soil, joined to the want of inhabitants and of cultivation, have at all times rendered the proximity of Florida of small importance to the trade of the Havannah; but the case is different on the coast of Mexico. The shores of that country, stretching in a semicircle from the frequented ports of Tampico, Vera Cruz, and Alvarado to Cape Catoche, almost touch, by the peninsula of Yucatan, the western part of the island of Cuba. Commerce is extremely active between the Havannah and the port of Campeachy; and it increases, notwithstanding the new order of things in Mexico, because the trade, equally illicit with a more distant coast, that of Caracas or Columbia, employs but a small number of vessels. In such difficult times the supply of salt meat (tasajo) for the slaves is more easily obtained from Buenos Ayres and the plains of Merida than from those of Cumana, Barcelona and Caracas. The island of Cuba and the archipelago of the Philippines have for ages derived from New Spain the funds necessary for their internal administration and for keeping up their fortifications, arsenals and dockyards. The Havannah was the military port of the New World; and, till 1808, annually received 1,800,000 piastres from the Mexican treasury. At Madrid it was long the custom to consider the island of Cuba and the archipelago of the Philippines as dependencies on Mexico, situated at very unequal distances east and west of Vera Cruz and Acapulco, but linked to the Mexican metropolis (then a European colony) by all the ties of commerce, mutual aid and ancient sympathies. Increased internal wealth has rendered unnecessary the pecuniary succour formerly furnished to Cuba from the Mexican treasury. Of all the Spanish possessions that island has been most prosperous: the port of the Havannah has, since the troubles of St. Domingo, become one of the most important points of the commercial world. A fortunate concurrence of political circumstances, joined to the intelligence and commercial activity of the inhabitants, have preserved to the Havannah the uninterrupted enjoyment of free intercourse with foreign nations.
I twice visited this island, residing there on one occasion for three months, and on the other for six weeks; and I enjoyed the confidence of persons who, from their abilities and their position, were enabled to furnish me with the best information. In company with M. Bonpland I visited only the vicinity of the Havannah, the beautiful valley of Guines and the coast between Batabano and the port of Trinidad. After having succinctly described the aspect of this scenery and the singular modifications of a climate so different from that of the other islands, I will proceed to examine the general population of the Island of Cuba; its area calculated from the most accurate sketch of the coast; the objects of trade and the state of the public revenue.
The aspect of the Havannah, at the entrance of the port, is one of the gayest and most picturesque on the shore of equinoctial America north of the equator. This spot is celebrated by travellers of all nations. It boasts not the luxuriant vegetation that adorns the banks of the river Guayaquil nor the wild majesty of the rocky coast of Rio de Janeiro; but the grace which in those climates embellishes the scenes of cultivated nature is at the Havannah mingled with the majesty of vegetable forms and the organic vigour that characterizes the torrid zone. On entering the port of the Havannah you pass between the fortress of the Morro (Castillo de los Santos Reyes) and the fort of San Salvador de la Punta: the opening being only from one hundred and seventy to two hundred toises wide. Having passed this narrow entrance, leaving on the north the fine castle of San Carlos de la Cabana and the Casa Blanca, we reach a basin in the form of a trefoil of which the great axis, stretching from south-south-west to north-north-east, is two miles and one-fifth long. This basin communicates with three creeks, those of Regla, Guanavacoa and Atares; in this last there are some springs of fresh water. The town of the Havannah, surrounded by walls, forms a promontory bounded on the south by the arsenal and on the north by the fort of La Punta. After passing beyond some wrecks of vessels sunk in the shoals of La Luz, we no longer find eight or ten, but five or six fathoms of water. The castles of Santo Domingo de Atares and San Carlos del Principe defend the town on the westward; they are distant from the interior wall, on the land side, the one 660 toises, the other 1240. The intermediate space is filled by the suburbs (arrabales or barrios extra muros) of the Horcon, Jesu–Maria, Guadaloupe and Senor de la Salud, which from year to year encroach on the Field of Mars (Campo de Marte). The great edifices of the Havannah, the cathedral, the Casa del Govierno, the house of the commandant of the marine, the Correo or General Post Office and the factory of Tobacco are less remarkable for beauty than for solidity of structure. The streets are for the most part narrow and unpaved. Stones being brought from Vera Cruz, and very difficult of transport, the idea was conceived a short time before my voyage of joining great trunks of trees together, as is done in Germany and Russia, when dykes are constructed across marshy places. This project was soon abandoned and travellers newly arrived beheld with surprise fine trunks of mahogany sunk in the mud of the Havannah. At the time of my sojourn there few towns of Spanish America presented, owing to the want of a good police, a more unpleasant aspect. People walked in mud up to the knee; and the multitude of caleches or volantes (the characteristic equipage of the Havannah) of carts loaded with casks of sugar, and porters elbowing passengers, rendered walking most disagreeable. The smell of tasajo often poisons the houses and the winding streets. But it appears that of late the police has interposed and that a manifest improvement has taken place in the cleanliness of the streets; that the houses are more airy and that the Calle de los Mercadores presents a fine appearance. Here, as in the oldest towns of Europe. an ill-traced plan of streets can only be amended by slow degrees.
There are two fine public walks; one called the Alameda, between the hospital of Santa Paula and the theatre, and the other between the Castillo de la Punta and the Puerta de la Muralla, called the Paseo extra muros; the latter is deliciously cool and is frequented by carriages after sunset. It was begun by the Marquis de la Torre, governor of the island, who gave the first impulse to the improvement of the police and the municipal government. Don Luis de las Casas and the Count de Santa Clara enlarged the plantations. Near the Campo de Marte is the Botanical Garden which is well worthy to fix the attention of the government; and another place fitted to excite at once pity and indignation — the barracoon, in front of which the wretched slaves are exposed for sale. A marble statue of Charles III has been erected since my return to Europe, in the extra muros walk. This spot was at first destined for a monument to Christopher Columbus whose ashes, after the cession of the Spanish part of St. Domingo, were brought to the island of Cuba.*
[* Columbus lies buried in the cathedral of the Havannah, close to the wall near the high altar. On the tomb is the following inscription:
O restos y Imagen del grande Colon;
Mil siglos duran guardados en la Urna,
Y en remembranca de nuestra Nacion.
Oh relics and image of the great Colon (Columbus)
A thousand ages are encompassed in thy Urn,
And in the memory of our Nation.
His remains were first deposited at Valladolid and thence were removed to Seville. In 1536 the bodies of Columbus and of his son Diego (El Adelantado) were carried to St. Domingo and there interred in the cathedral; but they were afterwards removed to the place where they now repose.]
The same year the ashes of Fernando Cortez were transferred in Mexico from one church to another: thus, at the close of the eighteenth century, the remains of the two greatest men who promoted the conquest of America were interred in new sepulchres.
The most majestic palm-tree of its tribe, the palma real, imparts a peculiar character to the landscape in the vicinity of the Havannah; it is the Oreodoxa regia of our description of American palm-trees. Its tall trunk, slightly swelled towards the middle, grows to the height of 60 or 80 feet; the upper part is glossy, of a delicate green, newly formed by the closing and dilatation of the petioles, contrasts with the rest, which is whitish and fendilated. It appears like two columns, the one surmounting the other. The palma real of the island of Cuba has feathery leaves rising perpendicularly towards the sky, and curved only at the point. The form of this plant reminded us of the vadgiai palm-tree which covers the rocks in the cataracts of the Orinoco, balancing its long points over a mist of foam. Here, as in every place where the population is concentrated, vegetation diminishes. Those palm-trees round the Havannah and in the amphitheatre of Regla on which I delighted to gaze are disappearing by degrees. The marshy places which I saw covered with bamboos are cultivated and drained. Civilization advances; and the soil, gradually stripped of plants, scarcely offers any trace of its wild abundance. From the Punta to San Lazaro, from Cabana to Regla and from Regla to Atares the road is covered with houses, and those that surround the bay are of light and elegant construction. The plan of these houses is traced out by the owners, and they are ordered from the United States, like pieces of furniture. When the yellow fever rages at the Havannah the proprietors withdraw to those country houses and to the hills between Regla and Guanavacoa to breathe a purer air. In the coolness of night, when the boats cross the bay, and owing to the phosphorescence of the water, leave behind them long tracks of light, these romantic scenes afford charming and peaceful retreats for those who wish to withdraw from the tumult of a populous city. To judge of the progress of cultivation travellers should visit the small plots of maize and other alimentary plants, the rows of pine-apples (ananas) in the fields of Cruz de Piedra and the bishop’s garden (Quinta del Obispo) which of late is become a delicious spot.
The town of the Havannah, properly so called, surrounded by walls, is only 900 toises long and 500 broad; yet more than 44,000 inhabitants, of whom 26,000 are negroes and mulattoes, are crowded together in this narrow space. A population nearly as considerable occupies the two great suburbs of Jesu–Maria and La Salud.* The latter place does not verify the name it bears; the temperature of the air is indeed lower than in the city but the streets might have been larger and better planned. Spanish engineers, who have been waging war for thirty years past with the inhabitants of the suburbs (arrabales), have convinced the government that the houses are too near the fortifications, and that the enemy might establish himself there with impunity. But the government has not courage to demolish the suburbs and disperse a population of 28,000 inhabitants collected in La Salud only. Since the great fire of 1802 that quarter has been considerably enlarged; barracks were at first constructed, but by degrees they have been converted into private houses. The defence of the Havannah on the west is of the highest importance: so long as the besieged are masters of the town, properly so called, and of the southern part of the bay, the Morro and La Cabana, they are impregnable because they can be provisioned by the Havannah, and the losses of the garrison repaired. I have heard well-informed French engineers observe that an enemy should begin his operations by taking the town, in order to bombard the Cabana, a strong fortress, but where the garrison, shut up in the casemates, could not long resist the insalubrity of the climate. The English took the Morro without being masters of the Havannah; but the Cabana and the Fort Number 4 which commands the Morro did not then exist. The most important works on the south and west are the Castillos de Atares y del Principe, and the battery of Santa Clara.
[* Salud signifies Health.]
We employed the months of December, January and February in making observations in the vicinity of the Havannah and the fine plains of Guines. We experienced, in the family of Senor Cuesta (who then formed with Senor Santa Maria one of the greatest commercial houses in America) and in the house of Count O’Reilly, the most generous hospitality. We lived with the former and deposited our collections and instruments in the spacious hotel of Count O’Reilly, where the terraces favoured our astronomical observations. The longitude of the Havannah was at this period more than one fifth of a degree uncertain.* It had been fixed by M. Espinosa, the learned director of the Deposito hidrografico of Madrid, at 5° 38′ 11″, in a table of positions which he communicated to me on leaving Madrid. M. de Churruca fixed the Morro at 5 hours 39 minutes 1 second. I met at the Havannah with one of the most able officers of the Spanish navy, Captain Don Dionisio Galeano, who had taken a survey of the coast of the strait of Magellan. We made observations together on a series of eclipses of the satellites of Jupiter, of which the mean result gave 5 hours 38 minutes 50 seconds. M. Oltmanns deduced in 1805 the whole of those observations which I marked for the Morro, at 5 hours 38 minutes 52.5 seconds — 84° 43′ 7.5 seconds west of the meridian of Paris. This longitude was confirmed by fifteen occultations of stars observed from 1809 to 1811 and calculated by M. Ferrer: that excellent observer fixes the definitive result at 5° 38′ 50.9 seconds. With respect to the magnetic dip I found it by the compass of Borda (December 1800) 53° 22′ of the old sexagesimal division: twenty-two years before, according to the very accurate observations made by Captain Sabine in his memorable voyage to the coasts of Africa, America and Spitzbergen, the dip was only 51° 55′; it had therefore diminished 1 degree 27 minutes.
[* I also fixed, by direct observations, several positions in the interior of the island of Cuba: namely Rio Blanco, a plantation of Count Jaruco y Mopex; the Almirante, a plantation of the Countess Buenavista; San Antonio de Beitia; the village of Managua; San Antonio de Bareto; and the Fondadero, near the town of San Antonio de los Banos.]
The island of Cuba being surrounded with shoals and breakers along more than two-thirds of its length, and as ships keep out beyond those dangers, the real shape of the island was for a long time unknown. Its breadth, especially between the Havannah and the port of Batabano, has been exaggerated; and it is only since the Deposito hidrografico of Madrid published the observations of captain Don Jose del Rio, and lieutenant Don Ventura de Barcaiztegui, that the area of the island of Cuba could be calculated with any accuracy. Wishing to furnish in this work the most accurate result that can be obtained in the present state of our astronomical knowledge, I engaged M. Bauza to calculate the area. He found, in June, 1835, the surface of the island of Cuba, without the Isla dos Pinos, to be 3520 square sea leagues, and with that island 3615. From this calculation, which has been twice repeated, it results that the island of Cuba is one-seventh less than has hitherto been believed; that it is 32/100 larger than Hayti, or San Domingo; that its surface equals that of Portugal, and within one-eighth that of England without Wales; and that if the whole archipelago of the Antilles presents as great an area as the half of Spain, the island of Cuba alone almost equals in surface the other Great and Small Antilles. Its greatest length, from Cape San Antonio to Point Maysi (in a direction from west-south-west to east-north-east and from west-north-west to east-south-east) is 227 leagues; and its greatest breadth (in the direction north and south), from Point Maternillo to the mouth of the Magdalena, near Peak Tarquino, is 37 leagues. The mean breadth of the island, on four-fifths of its length, between the Havannah and Puerto Principe, is 15 leagues. In the best cultivated part, between the Havannah and Batabano, the isthmus is only eight sea leagues. Among the great islands of the globe, that of Java most resembles the island of Cuba in its form and area (4170 square leagues). Cuba has a circumference of coast of 520 leagues, of which 280 belong to the south shore, between Cape San Antonio and Punta Maysi.
The island of Cuba, over more than four-fifths of its surface, is composed of low lands. The soil is covered with secondary and tertiary formations, formed by some rocks of gneiss-granite, syenite and euphotide. The knowledge obtained hitherto of the geologic configuration of the country, is as unsatisfactory as what is known respecting the relative age and nature of the soil. It is only ascertained that the highest group of mountains lies at the south-eastern extremity of the island, between Cape Cruz, Punta Maysi, and Holguin. This mountainous part, called the Sierra or Las Montanas del Cobre (the Copper Mountains), situated north-west of the town of Santiago de Cuba, appears to be about 1200 toises in height. If this calculation be correct, the summits of the Sierra would command those of the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, and the peaks of La Selle and La Hotte in the island of San Domingo. The Sierra of Tarquino, fifty miles west of the town of Cuba, belongs to the same group as the Copper Mountains. The island is crossed from east-south-east to west-north-west by a chain of hills, which approach the southern coast between the meridians of La Ciudad de Puerto Principe and the Villa Clara; while, further to the westward towards Alvarez and Matanzas, they stretch in the direction of the northern coast. Proceeding from the mouth of the Rio Guaurabo to the Villa de la Trinidad, I saw on the north-west, the Lomas de San Juan, which form needles or horns more than 300 toises high, with their declivities sloping regularly to the south. This calcareous group presents a majestic aspect, as seen from the anchorage near the Cayo de Piedras. Xagua and Batabano are low coasts; and I believe that, in general, west of the meridian of Matanzas, there is no hill more than 200 toises high, with the exception of the Pan de Guaixabon. The land in the interior of the island is gently undulated, as in England; and it rises only from 45 to 50 toises above the level of the sea. The objects most visible at a distance, and most celebrated by navigators, are the Pan de Matanzas, a truncated cone which has the form of a small monument; the Arcos de Canasi, which appear between Puerto Escondido and Jaruco, like small segments of a circle; the Mesa de Mariel, the Tetas de Managua, and the Pan de Guaixabon. This gradual slope of the limestone formations of the island of Cuba towards the north and west indicates the submarine connection of those rocks with the equally low lands of the Bahama Islands, Florida and Yucatan.
Intellectual cultivation and improvement were so long restricted to the Havannah and the neighbouring districts, that we cannot be surprised at the ignorance prevailing among the inhabitants respecting the geologic formation of the Copper Mountains. Don Francisco Ramirez, a traveller versed in chemical and mineralogical science, informed me that the western part of the island is granitic, and that he there observed gneiss and primitive slate. Probably the alluvial deposits of auriferous sand which were explored with much ardour* at the beginning of the conquest, to the great misfortune of the natives came from those granitic formations; traces of that sand are still found in the rivers Holguin and Escambray, known in general in the vicinity of Villa–Clara, Santo Espiritu, Puerto del Principe de Bayamo and the Bahia de Nipe. The abundance of copper mentioned by the Conquistadores of the sixteenth century, at a period when the Spaniards were more attentive than they have been in latter times to the natural productions of America, may possibly be attributed to the formations of amphibolic slate, transition clay-slate mixed with diorite, and to euphotides analogous to those I found in the mountains of Guanabacoa.
[* At Cubanacan, that is, in the interior of the island, near Jagua and Trinidad, where the auriferous sands have been washed by the waters as far as the limestone soil. Martyr d’Anghiera, the most intelligent writer on the Conquest, says: “Cuba is richer in gold than Hispaniola (San Domingo); and at the moment I am writing, 180,000 castillanos of ore have been collected at Cuba.” Herrera estimates the tax called King’s-fifth (quinto del Rey), in the island of Cuba, at 6000 pesos, which indicates an annual product of 2000 marks of gold, at 22 carats; and consequently purer than the gold of Sibao in San Domingo. In 1804 the mines of Mexico altogether produced 7000 marks of gold; and those of Peru 3400. It is difficult, in these calculations, to distinguish between the gold sent to Spain by the first Conquistadores, that obtained by washings, and that which had been accumulated for ages in the hands of the natives, who were pillaged at will. Supposing that in the two islands of Cuba and San Domingo (in Cubanacan and Cibao) the product of the washings was 3000 marks of gold, we find a quantity three times less than the gold furnished annually (1790 to 1805) by the small province of Choco. In this supposition of ancient wealth there is nothing improbable; and if we are surprised at the scanty produce of the gold-washings attempted in our days at Cuba and San Domingo, which were heretofore so prolific, it must be recollected that at Brazil also the product of the gold-washings has fallen, from 1760 to 1820, from 6600 gold kilogrammes to less than 595. Lumps of gold weighing several pounds, found in our days in Florida and North and South Carolina, prove the primitive wealth of the whole basin of the Antilles from the island of Cuba to the Appalachian chain. It is also natural that the product of the gold-washings should diminish with greater rapidity than that of the subterraneous working of the veins. The metals not being renewed in the clefts of the veins (by sublimation) now accumulate in alluvial soil by the course of the rivers where the table-lands are higher than the level of the surrounding running waters. But in rocks with metalliferous veins the miner does not at once know all he has to work. He may chance to lengthen the labours, to go deep, and to cross other accompanying veins. Alluvial soils are generally of small depth where they are auriferous; they most frequently rest upon sterile rocks. Their superficial position and uniformity of composition help to the knowledge of their limits, and wherever workmen can be collected, and where the waters for the washings abound, accelerate the total working of the auriferous clay. These considerations, suggested by the history of the Conquest, and by the science of mining, may throw some light on the problem of the metallic wealth of Hayti. In that island, as well as at Brazil, it would be more profitable to attempt subterraneous workings (on veins) in primitive and intermediary soils than to renew the gold-washings which were abandoned in the ages of barbarism, rapine and carnage.]
The central and western parts of the island contain two formations of compact limestone; one of clayey sandstone and another of gypsum. The former has, in its aspect and composition, some resemblance to the Jura formation. It is white, or of a clear ochre-yellow, with a dull fracture, sometimes conchoidal, sometimes smooth; divided into thin layers, furnishing some balls of pyromac silex, often hollow (at Rio Canimar two leagues east of Matanzas), and petrifications of pecten, cardites, terebratules and madrepores.* I found no oolitic beds, but porous beds almost bulbous, between the Potrero del Conde de Mopox, and the port of Batabano, resembling the spongy beds of Jura limestone in Franconia, near Dondorf, Pegnitz, and Tumbach. Yellowish cavernous strata, with cavities from three to four inches in diameter, alternate with strata altogether compact,* and poorer in petrifications. The chain of hills that borders the plain of Guines on the north and is linked with the Lomas de Camua, and the Tetas de Managua, belongs to the latter variety, which is reddish white, and almost of lithographic nature, like the Jura limestone of Pappenheim. The compact and cavernous beds contain nests of brown ochreous iron; possibly the red earth (tierra colorada) so much sought for by the coffee planters (haciendados) owes its origin to the decomposition of some superficial beds of oxidated iron, mixed with silex and clay, or to a reddish sandstone* superposed on limestone. The whole of this formation, which I shall designate by the name of the limestone of Guines, to distinguish it from another much more recent, forms, near Trinidad, in the Lomas of St. Juan, steep declivities, resembling the mountains of limestone of Caripe, in the vicinity of Cumana. They also contain great caverns, near Matanzas and Jaruco, where I have not heard that any fossil bones have been found. The frequency of caverns in which the pluvial waters accumulate, and where small rivers disappear, sometimes causes a sinking of the earth. I am of opinion that the gypsum of the island of Cuba belongs not to tertiary but to secondary soil; it is worked in several places on the east of Matanzas, at San Antonio de los Banos, where it contains sulphur, and at the Cayos, opposite San Juan de los Remedios. We must not confound with this limestone of Guines, sometimes porous, sometimes compact, another formation so recent that it seems to augment in our days. I allude to the calcareous agglomerates, which I saw in the islands of Cayos that border the coast between the Batabano and the bay of Xagua, principally south of the Cienega de Zapata, Cayo Buenito, Cayo Flamenco and Cayo de Piedras. The soundings prove that they are rocks rising abruptly from a bottom of between twenty and thirty fathoms. Some are at the water’s edge, others one-fourth or one-fifth of a toise above the surface of the sea. Angular fragments of madrepores, and cellularia from two to three cubic inches, are found cemented by grains of quartzose sand. The inequalities of the rocks are covered by mould, in which, by help of a microscope, we only distinguish the detritus of shells and corals. This tertiary formation no doubt belongs to that of the coast of Cumana, Carthagena, and the Great Land of Guadaloupe, noticed in my geognostic table of South America.* MM. Chamiso and Guiamard have recently thrown great light on the formation of the coral islands in the Pacific. At the foot of the Castillo de in Punta, near the Havannah, on shelves of cavernous rocks,* covered with verdant sea-weeds and living polypi, we find enormous masses of madrepores and other lithophyte corals set in the texture of those shelves. We are at first tempted to admit that the whole of this limestone rock, which constitutes the principal portion of the island of Cuba, may be traced to an uninterrupted operation of nature — to the action of productive organic forces — an action which continues in our days in the bosom of the ocean; but this apparent novelty of limestone formations soon vanishes when we quit the shore, and recollect the series of coral rocks which contain the formations of different ages, the muschelkalk, the Jura limestone and coarse limestone. The same coral rocks as those of the Castillo and La Punta are found in the lofty inland mountains, accompanied with petrifications of bivalve shells, very different from those now seen on the coasts of the Antilles. Without positively assigning a determinate place in the table of formations to the limestone of Guines, which is that of the Castillo and La Punta, I have no doubt of the relative antiquity of that rock with respect to the calcareous agglomerate of the Cayos, situated south of Batabano, and east of the island of Pinos. The globe has undergone great revolutions between the periods when these two soils were formed; the one containing the great caverns of Matanzas, the other daily augmenting by the agglutination of fragments of coral and quartzose sand. On the south of the island of Cuba, the latter soil seems to repose sometimes on the Jura limestone of Guines, as in the Jardinillos, and sometimes (towards Cape Cruz) immediately over primitive rocks. In the lesser Antilles the corals are covered with volcanic productions. Several of the Cayos of the island of Cuba contain fresh water; and I found this water very good in the middle of the Cayo de Piedras. When we reflect on the extreme smallness of these islands we can scarcely believe that the fresh-water wells are filled with rain-water not evaporated. Do they prove a submarine communication between the limestone of the coast with the limestone serving as the basis of lithophyte polypi, and is the fresh water of Cuba raised up by hydrostatic pressure across the coral rocks of Cayos, as it is in the bay of Xagua, where, in the middle of the sea, it forms springs frequented by the lamantins?
[* I saw neither gryphites nor ammonites of Jura limestone nor the nummulites and cerites of coarse limestone.]
[* The western part of the island has no deep ravines; and we recognize this alternation in travelling from the Havannah to Batabano, the deepest beds (inclined from 30 to 40° north-east) appear as we advance.]
[* Sandstone and ferruginous sand; iron-sand?]
[* M. Moreau de Jonnes has well distinguished, in his Histoire physique des Antilles Francoises, between the Roche a ravets of Martinique and Hayti, which is porous, filled with terebratulites, and other vestiges of sea-shells, somewhat analogous to the limestone of Guines and the calcareous pelagic sediment called at Guadaloupe Platine, or Maconne bon Dieu. In the cayos of the island of Cuba, or Jardinillos del Rey y del Reyna, the whole coral rock lying above the surface of the water appeared to me to be fragmentary, that is, composed of broken blocks. It is, however, probable, that in the depth it reposes on masses of polypi still living.]
[* The surface of these shelves, blackened and excavated by the waters, presents ramifications like the cauliflower, as they are observed on the currents of lava. Is the change of colour produced by the waters owing to the manganese which we recognize by some dendrites? The sea, entering into the clefts of the rocks, and in a cavern at the foot of the Castillo del Morro, compresses the air and makes it issue with a tremendous noise. This noise explains the phenomena of the baxos roncadores (snoring bocabeoos), so well known to navigators who cross from Jamaica to the mouth of Rio San Juan of Nicaragua, or to the island of San Andres.]
The secondary formations on the east of the Havannah are pierced in a singular manner by syenitic and euphotide rocks united in groups. The southern bottom of the bay as well as the northern part (the hills of the Morro and the Cabana) are of Jura limestone; but on the eastern bank of the two Ensenadas de Regla and Guanabacoa, the whole is transition soil. Going from north to south, and first near Marimelena, we find syenite consisting of a great quantity of hornblende, partly decomposed, a little quartz, and a reddish-white feldspar seldom crystallized. This fine syenite, the strata of which incline to the north-west, alternates twice with serpentine. The layers of intercalated serpentine are three toises thick. Farther south, towards Regla and Guanabacoa, the syenite disappears, and the whole soil is covered with serpentine, rising in hills from thirty to forty toises high, and running from east to west. This rock is much fendillated, externally of a bluish-grey, covered with dendrites of manganese, and internally of leek and asparagus-green, crossed by small veins of asbestos. It contains no garnet or amphibole, but metalloid diallage disseminated in the mass. The serpentine is sometimes of an esquillous, sometimes of a conchoidal fracture: this was the first time I had found metalloid diallage within the tropics. Several blocks of serpentine have magnetic poles; others are of such a homogeneous texture, and have such a glossiness, that at a distance they may be taken for pechstein (resinite). It were to be wished that these fine masses were employed in the arts as they are in several parts of Germany. In approaching Guanabacoa we find serpentine crossed by veins between twelve and fourteen inches thick, and filled with fibrous quartz, amethyst, and fine mammelonnes, and stalactiforme chalcedonies; it is possible that chrysoprase may also one day be found. Some copper pyrites appear among these veins accompanied, it is said, by silvery-grey copper. I found no traces of this grey copper: it is probably the metalloid diallage that has given the Cerro de Guanabacoa the reputation of riches in gold and silver which it has enjoyed for ages. In some places petroleum flows* from rents in the serpentine. Springs of water are frequent; they contain a little sulphuretted hydrogen, and deposit oxide of iron. The Baths of Bareto are agreeable, but of nearly the same temperature as the atmosphere. The geologic constitution of this group of serpentine rocks, from its insulated position, its veins, its connection with syenite and the fact of its rising up across shell-formations, merits particular attention. Feldspar with a basis of souda (compact feldspar) forms, with diallage, the euphotide and serpentine; with pyroxene, dolerite and basalt; and with garnet, eclogyte. These five rocks, dispersed over the whole globe, charged with oxidulated and titanious iron, are probably of similar origin. It is easy to distinguish two formations in the euphotide; one is destitute of amphibole, even when it alternates with amphibolic rocks (Joria in Piedmont, Regla in the island of Cuba) rich in pure serpentine, in metalloid diallage and sometimes in jasper (Tuscany, Saxony); the other, strongly charged with amphibole, often passing to diorite,* has no jasper in layers, and sometimes contains rich veins of copper; (Silesia, Mussinet in Piedmont, the Pyrenees, Parapara in Venezuela, Copper Mountains of North America). It is the latter formation of euphotide which, by its mixture with diorite, is itself linked with hyperthenite, in which real beds of serpentine are sometimes developed in Scotland and in Norway. No volcanic rocks of a more recent period have hitherto been discovered in the island of Cuba; for instance, neither trachytes, dolerites, nor basalts. I know not whether they are found in the rest of the Great Antilles, of which the geologic constitution differs essentially from that of the series of calcareous and volcanic islands which stretch from Trinidad to the Virgin Islands. Earthquakes, which are in general less fatal at Cuba than at Porto Rico and Hayti, are most felt in the eastern part, between Cape Maysi, Santiago de Cuba and La Ciudad de Puerto Principe. Perhaps towards those regions the action of the crevice extends laterally, which is believed to cross the neck of granitic land between Port-au-Prince and Cape Tiburon and on which whole mountains were overthrown in 1770.
[* Does there exist in the Bay of the Havannah any other source of petroleum than that of Guanabacoa, or must it be admitted that the betun liquido, which in 1508 was employed by Sebastian de Ocampo for the caulking of ships, is dried up? That spring, however, fixed the attention of Ocampo on the port of the Havannah, where he gave it the name of Puerto de Carenas. It is said that abundant springs of petroleum are also found in the eastern part of the island (Manantialis de betun y chapapote) between Holguin and Mayari, and on the coast of Santiago de Cuba.]
[* On a serpentine that flows like a penombre, veins of greenstone (diorite) near Lake Clunie in Perthshire. See MacCulloch in Edinburgh Journal of Science 1824 July pages 3 to 16. On a vein of serpentine, and the alterations it produces on the banks of Carity, near West–Balloch in Forfarshire see Charles Lyell l.c. volume 3 page 43.]
The cavernous texture of the limestone formations (soboruco) just described, the great inclination of the shelvings, the smallness of the island, the nakedness of the plains and the proximity of the mountains that form a lofty chain on the southern coast, may be considered as among the principal causes of the want of rivers and the drought which is felt, especially in the western part of Cuba. In this respect, Hayti, Jamaica, and several of the Lesser Antilles, which contain volcanic heights covered with forests, are more favoured by nature. The lands most celebrated for their fertility are the districts of Xagua, Trinidad, Matanzas and Mariel. The valley of Guines owes its reputation to artificial irrigation (sanjas de riego). Notwithstanding the want of great rivers and the unequal fertility of the soil, the island of Cuba, by its undulated surface, its continually renewed verdure, and the distribution of its vegetable forms, presents at every step the most varied and beautiful landscape. Two trees with large, tough, and glossy leaves, the Mammea and the Calophyllum calaba, five species of palm-trees (the palma real, or Oreodoxa regia, the common cocoa-tree, the Cocos crispa, the Corypha miraguama and the C. maritima), and small shrubs constantly loaded with flowers, decorate the hills and the savannahs. The Cecropia peltata marks the humid spots. It would seem as if the whole island had been originally a forest of palm, lemon, and wild orange trees. The latter, which bear a small fruit, are probably anterior to the arrival of Europeans,* who transported thither the agrumi of the gardens; they rarely exceed the height of from ten to fifteen feet. The lemon and orange trees are most frequently separate; and the new planters, in clearing the ground by fire, distinguish the quality of the soil according as it is covered with one or other of those groups of social plants; they prefer the soil of the naranjal to that which produces the small lemon. In a country where the making of sugar is not sufficiently improved to admit of the employment of any other fuel than the bagasse (dried sugar-cane) the progressive destruction of the small woods is a positive calamity. The aridity of the soil augments in proportion as it is stripped of the trees that sheltered it from the heat of the sun; for the leaves, emitting heat under a sky always serene, occasion, as the air cools, a precipitation of aqueous vapours.
[* The best informed inhabitants of the island assert that the cultivated orange-trees brought from Asia preserve the size and all the properties of their fruits when they become wild. The Brazilians affirm that the small bitter orange which bears the name of loranja do terra and is found wild, far from the habitations of man, is of American origin. Caldcleugh, Travels in South America.]
Among the few rivers worthy of attention, the Rio Guines may be noticed, the Rio Armendaris or Chorrera, of which the waters are led to the Havannah by the Sanja de Antoneli; the Rio Canto on the north of the town of Bayamo; the Rio Maximo which rises on the east of Puerto Principe; the Rio Sagua Grande near Villa Clara; the Rio de las Palmas which issues opposite Cayo Galiado; the small rivers of Jaruco and Santa Cruz between Guanabo and Matanzas, navigable at the distance of some miles from their mouths and favourable for the shipment of sugar-casks; the Rio San Antonio which, like many others, is engulfed in the caverns of limestone rocks; the Rio Guaurabo west of the port of Trinidad; and the Rio Galafre in the fertile district of Filipinas, which throws itself into the Laguna de Cortez. The most abundant springs rise on the southern coast where, from Xagua to Punta de Sabina, over a length of forty-six leagues, the soil is extremely marshy. So great is the abundance of the waters which filter by the clefts of the stratified rock that, from the effect of an hydrostatic pressure, fresh water springs far from the coast, and amidst salt water. The jurisdiction of the Havannah is not the most fertile part of the island; and the few sugar-plantations that existed in the vicinity of the capital are now converted into farms for cattle (potreros) and fields of maize and forage, of which the profits are considerable. The agriculturists of the island of Cuba distinguish two kinds of earth, often mixed together like the squares of a draught-board, black earth (negra o prieta), clayey and full of moisture, and red earth (bermeja), more silicious and containing oxide of iron. The tierra negra is generally preferred (on account of its best preserving humidity) for the cultivation of the sugarcane, and the tierra bermeja for coffee; but many sugar plantations are established on the red soil.
The climate of the Havannah is in accordance with the extreme limits of the torrid zone: it is a tropical climate, in which a more unequal distribution of heat at different parts of the year denotes the passage to the climates of the temperate zone. Calcutta (latitude 22° 34′ north), Canton (latitude 23° 8′ north), Macao (latitude 22° 12′ north), the Havannah (latitude 23° 9′ north) and Rio Janeiro (latitude 22° 54′ south) are places which, from their position at the level of the ocean near the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, consequently at an equal distance from the equator, afford great facilities for the study of meteorology. This study can only advance by the determination of certain numerical elements which are the indispensable basis of the laws we seek to discover. The aspect of vegetation being identical near the limits of the torrid zone and at the equator, we are accustomed to confound vaguely the climates of two zones comprised between 0 and 10°, and between 15 and 23° of latitude. The region of palm-trees, bananas and arborescent gramina extends far beyond the two tropics: but it would be dangerous to apply what has been observed at the extremity of the tropical zone to what may take place in the plains near the equator. In order to rectify those errors it is important that the mean temperature of the year and months be well known, as also the thermometric oscillations in different seasons at the parallel of the Havannah; and to prove by an exact comparison with other points alike distant from the equator, for instance, with Rio Janeiro and Macao, that the lowering of temperature observed in the island of Cuba is owing to the irruption and the stream of layers of cold air, borne from the temperate zones towards the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The mean temperature of the Havannah, according to four years of good observations, is 25.7° (20.6° R.), only 2° centigrade above that of the regions of America nearest the equator. The proximity of the sea raises the mean temperature of the year on the coast; but in the interior of the island, when the north winds penetrate with the same force, and where the soil rises to the height of forty toises, the mean temperature attains only 23° (18.4° R.) and does not exceed that of Cairo and Lower Egypt. The difference between the mean temperature of the hottest and coldest months rises to 12° in the interior of the island; at the Havannah and on the coast, to 8°; at Cumana, to scarcely 3°. The hottest months, July and August, attain 28.8°, at the island of Cuba, perhaps 29.5° of mean temperature, as at the equator. The coldest months are December and January; their mean temperature in the interior of the island, is 17°; at the Havannah, 21°, that is, 5 to 8° below the same months at the equator, yet still 3° above the hottest month at Paris.
It will be interesting to compare the climate of the Havannah with that of Macao and Rio Janeiro; two places, one of which is near the limit of the northern torrid zone, on the eastern coast of Asia; and the other on the eastern coast of America, towards the extremity of the southern torrid zone.
The climate of the Havannah, notwithstanding the frequency of the north and north-west winds, is hotter than that of Macao and Rio Janeiro. The former partakes of the cold which, owing to the frequency of the west winds, is felt in winter along all the eastern coast of a great continent. The proximity of spaces of land covered with mountains and table-lands renders the distribution of heat in different months of the year more unequal at Macao and Canton than in an island bounded on the west and north by the hot waters of the Gulf-stream. The winters are therefore much colder at Canton and Macao than at the Havannah: yet the latitude of Macao is 1 degree more southerly than that of the Havannah; and the latter town and Canton are, within nearly a minute, on the same parallel. The thermometer at Canton has sometimes almost reached the point zero; and by the effect of reflection, ice has been found on the terraces of houses. Although this great cold never lasts more than one day, the English merchants residing at Canton like to make chimney-fires in their apartments from November to January; while at the Havannah, the artificial warmth even of a brazero is not required. Hail is frequent and the hail-stones are extremely large in the Asiatic climate of Canton and Macao, while it is scarcely seen once in fifteen years at the Havannah. In these three places the thermometer sometimes keeps up for several hours between 0 and 4° (centigrade); and yet (a circumstance which appears to be very remarkable) snow has never been seen to fall; and notwithstanding the great lowering of the temperature, the bananas and the palm-trees are as beautiful around Canton, Macao and the Havannah as in the plains nearest the equator.
In the island of Cuba the lowering of the temperature lasts only during intervals of such short duration that in general neither the banana, the sugar-cane nor other productions of the torrid zone suffer much. We know how well plants of vigorous organization resist temporary cold, and that the orange trees of Genoa survive the fall of snow and endure cold which does not more than exceed 6 or 7° below freezing-point. As the vegetation of the island of Cuba bears the character of the vegetation of the regions near the equator, we are surprised to find even in the plains a vegetable form of the temperate climates and mountains of the equatorial part of Mexico. I have often directed the attention of botanists to this extraordinary phenomenon in the geography of plants. The pine (Pinus occidentalis) is not found in the Lesser Antilles; not even in Jamaica (between 17 3/4 and 18 1/2° of latitude). It is only seen further north, in the mountains of San Domingo, and in all that part of the island of Cuba situated between 20 and 23° of latitude. It attains a height of from sixty to seventy feet; and it is remarkable that the cahoba* (mahogany) and the pine vegetate at the island of Pinos in the same plains. We also find pines in the south-eastern part of the island of Cuba, on the declivity of the Copper Mountains where the soil is barren and sandy. The interior table-land of Mexico is covered with the same species of coniferous plants; at least the specimens brought by M. Bonpland and myself from Acaguisotla, Nevado de Toluca and Cofre de Perote do not appear to differ specifically from the Pinus occidentalis of the West India Islands described by Schwartz. Now those pines which we see at sea level in the island of Cuba, in 20 and 22° of latitude, and which belong only to the southern part of that island, do not descend on the Mexican continent between the parallels of 17 1/2 and 19 1/2°, below the elevation of 500 toises. I even observed that, on the road from Perote to Xalapa in the eastern mountains opposite to the island of Cuba, the limit of the pines is 935 toises; while in the western mountains, between Chilpanzingo and Acapulco, near Quasiniquilapa, two degrees further south, it is 580 toises and perhaps on some points 450. These anomalies of stations are very rare in the torrid zone and are probably less connected with the temperature than with the nature of the soil. In the system of the migration of plants we must suppose that the Pinus occidentalis of Cuba came from Yucatan before the opening of the channel between Cape Catoche and Cape San Antonio, and not from the United States, so rich in coniferous plants; for in Florida the species of which we have here traced the botanical geography has not been discovered.
[* Swieteinia Mahogani, Linn.]
About the end of April, M. Bonpland and myself, having completed the observations we proposed to make at the northern extremity of the torrid zone, were on the point of proceeding to Vera Cruz with the squadron of Admiral Ariztizabal; but being misled by false intelligence respecting the expedition of Captain Baudin, we were induced to relinquish the project of passing through Mexico on our way to the Philippine Islands. The public journals announced that two French sloops, the Geographe and Naturaliste, had sailed for Cape Horn; that they were to proceed along the coasts of Chili and Peru, and thence to New Holland. This intelligence revived in my mind all the projects I had formed during my stay in Paris, when I solicited the Directory to hasten the departure of Captain Baudin. On leaving Spain, I had promised to rejoin the expedition wherever I could reach it. M. Bonpland and I resolved instantly to divide our herbals into three portions, to avoid exposing to the risks of a long voyage the objects we had obtained with so much difficulty on the banks of the Orinoco, the Atabapo and the Rio Negro. We sent one collection by way of England to Germany, another by way of Cadiz to France, and a third remained at the Havannah. We had reason to congratulate ourselves on this foresight: each collection contained nearly the same species, and no precautions were neglected to have the cases, if taken by English or French vessels, remitted to Sir Joseph Banks or to the professors of natural history at the Museum at Paris. It happened fortunately that the manuscripts which I at first intended to send with the collection to Cadiz were not intrusted to our much esteemed friend and fellow traveller, Fray Juan Gonzales, of the order of the Observance of St. Francis, who had followed us to the Havannah with the view of returning to Spain. He left the island of Cuba soon after us, but the vessel in which he sailed foundered on the coast of Africa, and the cargo and crew were all lost. By this event we lost some of the duplicates of our herbals, and what was more important, all the insects which M. Bonpland had with great difficulty collected during our voyage to the Orinoco and the Rio Negro. By a singular fatality, we remained two years in the Spanish colonies without receiving a single letter from Europe; and those which arrived in the three following years made no mention of what we had transmitted. The reader may imagine my uneasiness for the fate of a journal which contained astronomical observations and barometrical measurements, of which I had not made any copy. After having visited New Grenada, Peru and Mexico, and just when I was preparing to leave the New Continent, I happened, at a public library of Philadelphia, to cast my eyes on a scientific Publication, in which I found these words: “Arrival of M. de Humboldt’s manuscripts at his brother’s house in Paris, by way of Spain!” I could scarcely suppress an exclamation of joy.
While M. Bonpland laboured day and night to divide and put our collections in order, a thousand obstacles arose to impede our departure. There was no vessel in the port of the Havannah that would convey us to Porto Bello or Carthagena. The persons I consulted seemed to take pleasure in exaggerating the difficulties of the passage of the isthmus, and the dangerous voyage from Panama to Guyaquil, and from Guyaquil to Lima and Valparaiso. Not being able to find a passage in any neutral vessel, I freighted a Catalonian sloop, lying at Batabano, which was to be at my disposal to take me either to Porto Bello or Carthagena, according as the gales of Saint Martha might permit.* The prosperous state of commerce at the Havannah and the multiplied connections of that city with the ports of the Pacific would facilitate for me the means of procuring funds for several years. General Don Gonzalo O’Farrill resided at that time in my native country as minister of the court of Spain. I could exchange my revenues in Prussia for a part of his at the island of Cuba; and the family of Don Ygnacio O’Farrill y Herera, brother of the general, concurred kindly in all that could favour my new projects. On the 6th of March the vessel I had freighted was ready to receive us. The road to Batabano led us once more by Guines to the plantation of Rio Blanco, the property of Count Jaruco y Mopox.
[* The gales of Saint Martha blow with great violence at that season below latitude 12°.]
The road from Rio Blanco to Batabano runs across an uncultivated country, half covered with forests; in the open spots the indigo plant and the cotton-tree grow wild. As the capsule of the Gossypium opens at the season when the northern storms are most frequent, the down that envelops the seed is swept from one side to the other; and the gathering of the cotton, which is of a very fine quality, suffers greatly. Several of our friends, among whom was Senor de Mendoza, captain of the port of Valparaiso, and brother to the celebrated astronomer who resided so long in London, accompanied us to Potrero de Mopox. In herborizing further southward, we found a new palm-tree with fan-leaves (Corypha maritima), having a free thread between the interstices of the folioles. This Corypha covers a part of the southern coast and takes the place of the majestic palma real and the Cocos crispa of the northern coast. Porous limestone (of the Jura formation) appeared from time to time in the plain.
Batabano was then a poor village and its church had been completed only a few years previously. The Sienega begins at the distance of half a league from the village; it is a tract of marshy soil, extending from the Laguna de Cortez as far as the mouth of the Rio Xagua, on a length of sixty leagues from west to east. At Batabano it is believed that in those regions the sea continues to gain upon the land, and that the oceanic irruption was particularly remarkable at the period of the great upheaving which took place at the end of the eighteenth century, when the tobacco mills disappeared, and the Rio Chorrera changed its course. Nothing can be more gloomy than the aspect of these marshes around Batabano. Not a shrub breaks the monotony of the prospect: a few stunted trunks of palm-trees rise like broken masts, amidst great tufts of Junceae and Irides. As we stayed only one night at Batabano, I regretted much that I was unable to obtain precise information relative to the two species of crocodiles which infest the Sienega. The inhabitants give to one of these animals the name of cayman, to the other that of crocodile; or, as they say commonly in Spain, of cocodrilo. They assured us that the latter has most agility, and measures most in height: his snout is more pointed than that of the cayman, and they are never found together. The crocodile is very courageous and is said to climb into boats when he can find a support for his tail. He frequently wanders to the distance of a league from the Rio Cauto and the marshy coast of Xagua to devour the pigs on the islands. This animal is sometimes fifteen feet long, and will, it is said, pursue a man on horseback, like the wolves in Europe; while the animals exclusively called caymans at Batabano are so timid that people bathe without apprehension in places where they live in bands. These peculiarities, and the name of cocodrilo, given at the island of Cuba, to the most dangerous of the carnivorous reptiles, appear to me to indicate a different species from the great animals of the Orinoco, Rio Magdalena and Saint Domingo. In other parts of the Spanish American continent the settlers, deceived by the exaggerated accounts of the ferocity of crocodiles in Egypt, allege that the real crocodile is only found in the Nile. Zoologists have, however, ascertained that there are in America caymans or alligators with obtuse snouts, and legs not indented, and crocodiles with pointed snouts and indented legs; and in the old continent, both crocodiles and gaviales. The Crocodilus acutus of San Domingo, in which I cannot hitherto specifically distinguish the crocodiles of the great rivers of the Orinoco and the Magdalena, has, according to Cuvier, so great a resemblance to the crocodile of the Nile,* that it required a minute examination to prove that the rule laid down by Buffon relative to the distribution of species between the tropical regions of the two continents was correct.
[* This striking analogy was ascertained by M. Geoffroy de Saint Hilaire in 1803 when General Rochambeau sent a crocodile from San Domingo to the Museum of Natural History at Paris. M. Bonpland and myself had made drawings and detailed descriptions in 1801 and 1802 of the same species which inhabit the great rivers of South America, during our passage on the Apure, the Orinoco and the Magdalena. We committed the mistake so common to travellers, of not sending them at once to Europe, together with some young specimens.]
On my second visit to the Havannah, in 1804, I could not return to the Sienega of Batabano; and therefore I had the two species, called caymans and crocodiles by the inhabitants, brought to me, at a great expense. Two crocodiles arrived alive; the oldest was four feet three inches long; they had been caught with great difficulty and were conveyed, muzzled and bound, on a mule, for they were exceedingly vigorous and fierce. In order to observe their habits and movements,* we placed them in a great hall, where, by climbing on a very high piece of furniture, we could see them attack great dogs. Having seen much of crocodiles during six months, on the Orinoco, the Rio Apure and the Magdalena, we were glad to have another opportunity of observing their habits before our return to Europe. The animals sent to us from Batabano had the snout nearly as sharp as the crocodiles of the Orinoco and the Magdalena (Crocodilus acutus, Cuv.); their colour was dark-green on the back, and white below the belly, with yellow spots on the flanks. I counted, as in all the real crocodiles, thirty-eight teeth in the upper jaw, and thirty in the lower; in the former, the tenth and ninth; and in the latter, the first and fourth, were the largest. In the description made by M. Bonpland and myself on the spot, we have expressly marked that the lower fourth tooth rises over the upper jaw. The posterior extremities were palmated. These crocodiles of Batabano appeared to us to be specifically identical with the Crocodilus acutus. It is true that the accounts we heard of their habits did not quite agree with what we had ourselves observed on the Orinoco; but carnivorous reptiles of the same species are milder and more timid, or fiercer and more courageous, in the same river, according to the nature of the localities. The animal called the cayman, at Batabano, died on the way, and was not brought to us, so that we could make no comparison of the two species.* I have no doubt that the crocodile with a sharp snout, and the alligator or cayman with a snout like a pike,* inhabit together, but in distinct bands, the marshy coast between Xagua, the Surgidero of Batabano, and the island of Pinos. In that island Dampier was struck with the great difference between the caymans and the American crocodiles. After having described, though not always with perfect correctness, several of the characteristics which distinguish crocodiles from caymans, he traces the geographical distribution of those enormous saurians. “In the bay of Campeachy,” he says, “I saw only caymans or alligators; at the island of Great Cayman, there are crocodiles and no alligators; at the island of Pinos, and in the innumerable creeks of the coast of Cuba, there are both crocodiles and caymans.”* To these valuable observations of Dampier I may add that the real crocodile (Crocodilus acutus) is found in the West India Islands nearest the mainland, for instance, at the island of Trinidad; at Marguerita; and also, probably, at Curacao, notwithstanding the want of fresh water. It is observed, further south, in the Neveri, the Rio Magdalena, the Apure and the Orinoco, as far as the confluence of the Cassiquiare with the Rio Negro (latitude 2° 2′), consequently more than four hundred leagues from Batabano. It would be interesting to verify on the eastern coast of Mexico and Guatimala, between the Mississippi and the Rio Chagres (in the isthmus of Panama), the limit of the different species of carnivorous reptiles.
[* M. Descourtils, who knows the habits of the crocodile better than any other author who has written on that reptile, saw, like Dampier and myself, the Crocodilus acutus often touch his tail with his mouth.]
[* The four bags filled with musk (bolzas del almizcle) are, in the crocodile of Batabano, exactly in the same position as in that of the Rio Magdalena, beneath the lower jaw and near the anus. I was much surprised at not perceiving the smell of musk at the Havannah, three days after the death of the animal, in a temperature of 30°, while at Mompox, on the banks of the Magdalena, living crocodiles infected our apartment. I have since found that Dampier also remarked an absence of smell in the crocodile of Cuba where the caymans spread a very strong smell of musk.]
[* Crocodilus acutus of San Domingo. Alligator lucius of Florida and the Mississippi.]
[* Dampier’s Voyages and Descriptions, 1599.]
We set sail on the 9th of March, somewhat incommoded by the extreme smallness of our vessel, which afforded us no sleeping-place but upon deck. The cabin (camera de pozo) received no air or light but from above; it was merely a hold for provisions, and it was with difficulty that we could place our instruments in it. The thermometer kept up constantly at 32 and 33° (centesimal.) Luckily these inconveniences lasted only twenty days. Our several voyages in the canoes of the Orinoco, and a passage in an American vessel laden with several thousand arrobas of salt meat dried in the sun had rendered us not very fastidious.
The gulf of Batabano, bounded by a low and marshy coast, looks like a vast desert. The fishing birds, which are generally at their post whilst the small land birds, and the indolent vultures (Vultur aura.) are at roost, are seen only in small numbers. The sea is of a greenish-brown hue, as in some of the lakes of Switzerland; while the air, owing to its extreme purity, had, at the moment the sun appeared above the horizon, a cold tint of pale blue, similar to that which landscape painters observe at the same hour in the south of Italy, and which makes distant objects stand out in strong relief. Our sloop was the only vessel in the gulf; for the roadstead of Batabano is scarcely visited except by smugglers, or, as they are here politely called, the traders (los tratantes). The projected canal of Guines will render Batabano an important point of communication between the island of Cuba and the coast of Venezuela. The port is within a bay bounded by Punta Gorda on the east, and by Punta de Salinas on the west: but this bay is itself only the upper or concave end of a great gulf measuring nearly fourteen leagues from south to north, and along an extent of fifty leagues (between the Laguna de Cortez and the Cayo de Piedras) inclosed by an incalculable number of flats and chains of rocks. One great island only, of which the superficies is more than four times the dimensions of that of Martinique, with mountains crowned with majestic pines, rises amidst this labyrinth. This is the island of Pinos, called by Columbus El Evangelista, and by some mariners of the sixteenth century, the Isla de Santa Maria. It is celebrated for its mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) which is an important article of commerce. We sailed east-south-east, taking the passage of Don Cristoval, to reach the rocky island of Cayo de Piedras, and to clear the archipelago, which the Spanish pilots, in the early times of the conquest, designated by the names of Gardens and Bowers (Jardines y Jardinillos). The Queen’s Gardens, properly so called, are nearer Cape Cruz, and are separated from the archipelago by an open sea thirty-five leagues broad. Columbus gave them the name they bear, in 1494, when, on his second voyage, he struggled during fifty-eight days with the winds and currents between the island of Pinos and the eastern cape of Cuba. He describes the islands of this archipelago as verdant, full of trees and pleasant* (verdes, llenos de arboledas, y graciosos).
[* There exists great geographical confusion, even at the Havannah, in reference to the ancient denominations of the Jardines del Rey and Jardines de la Reyna. In the description of the island of Cuba, given in the Mercurio Americano, and in the Historia Natural de la Isla de Cuba, published at the Havannah by Don Antonio Lopez Gomez, the two groups are placed on the southern coast of the island. Lopez says that the Jardines del Rey extend from the Laguna de Cortez to Bahia de Xagua; but it is historically certain that the governor Diego Velasquez gave his name to the western part of the chain of rocks of the Old Channel, between Cayo Frances and Le Monillo, on the northern coast of the island of Cuba. The Jardines de la Reyna, situated between Cabo Cruz and the port of the Trinity, are in no manner connected with the Jardines and Jardinillos of the Isla de Pinos. Between the two groups of the chain of rocks are the flats (placeres) of La Paz and Xagua.]
A part of these so-styled gardens is indeed beautiful; the voyager sees the scene change every moment, and the verdure of some of the islands appears the more lovely from its contrast with chains of rocks, displaying only white and barren sands. The surface of these sands, heated by the rays of the sun, seems to be undulating like the surface of a liquid. The contact of layers of air of unequal temperature produces the most varied phenomena of suspension and mirage from ten in the morning till four in the afternoon. Even in those desert places the sun animates the landscape, and gives mobility to the sandy plain, to the trunks of trees, and to the rocks that project into the sea like promontories. When the sun appears these inert masses seem suspended in air; and on the neighbouring beach the sands present the appearance of a sheet of water gently agitated by the winds. A train of clouds suffices to seat the trunks of trees and the suspended rocks again on the soil; to render the undulating surface of the plains motionless; and to dissipate the charm which the Arabian, Persian, and Hindoo poets have celebrated as “the sweet illusions of the solitary desert.”
We doubled Cape Matahambre very slowly. The chronometer of Louis Berthoud having kept time accurately at the Havannah, I availed myself of this occasion to determine, on this and the following days, the positions of Cayo de Don Cristoval, Cayo Flamenco, Cayo de Diego Perez and Cayo de Piedras. I also employed myself in examining the influence which the changes at the bottom of the sea produce on its temperature at the surface. Sheltered by so many islands, the surface is calm as a lake of fresh water, and the layers of different depths being distinct and separate, the smallest change indicated by the lead acts on the thermometer. I was surprised to see that on the east of the little Cayo de Don Cristoval the high banks are only distinguished by the milky colour of the water, like the bank of Vibora, south of Jamaica, and many other banks, the existence of which I ascertained by means of the thermometer. The bottom of the rock of Batabano is a sand composed of coral detritus; it nourishes sea-weeds which scarcely ever appear on the surface: the water, as I have already observed, is greenish; and the absence of the milky tint is, no doubt, owing to the perfect calm which pervades those regions. Whenever the agitation is propagated to a certain depth, a very fine sand, or a mass of calcareous particles suspended in the water, renders it troubled and milky. There are shallows, however, which are distinguished neither by the colour nor by the low temperature of the waters; and I believe that phenomenon depends on the nature of a hard and rocky bottom, destitute of sand and corals; on the form and declivity of the shelvings; the swiftness of the currents; and the absence of the propagation of motion towards the lower layers of the water. The cold frequently indicated by the thermometer, at the surface of the high banks, must be traced to the molecules of water which, owing to the rays of heat and the nocturnal cooling, fall from the surface to the bottom, and are stopped in their fall by the high banks; and also to the mingling of the layers of very deep water that rise on the shelvings of the banks as on an inclined plane, to mix with the layers of the surface.
Notwithstanding the small size of our bark and the boasted skill of our pilot, we often ran aground. The bottom being soft, there was no danger; but, nevertheless, at sunset, near the pass of Don Cristoval, we preferred to lie at anchor. The first part of the night was beautifully serene: we saw an incalculable number of falling-stars, all following one direction, opposite to that from whence the wind blew in the low regions of the atmosphere. The most absolute solitude prevails in this spot, which, in the time of Columbus, was inhabited and frequented by great numbers of fishermen. The inhabitants of Cuba then employed a small fish to take the great sea turtles; they fastened a long cord to the tail of the reves (the name given by the Spaniards to that species of Echeneis*). The fisher-fish, formerly employed by the Cubans by means of the flattened disc on his head, furnished with suckers, fixed himself on the shell of the sea-turtle, which is so common in the narrow and winding channels of the Jardinillos. “The reves,” says Christopher Columbus, “will sooner suffer himself to be cut in pieces than let go the body to which he adheres.” The Indians drew to the shore by the same cord the fisher-fish and the turtle. When Gomara and the learned secretary of the emperor Charles V, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, promulgated in Europe this fact which they had learnt from the companions of Columbus, it was received as a traveller’s tale. There is indeed an air of the marvellous in the recital of d’Anghiera, which begins in these words: Non aliter ac nos canibus gallicis per aequora campi lepores insectamur, incolae [Cubae insulae] venatorio pisce pisces alios capiebant. (Exactly as we follow hares with greyhounds in the fields, so do the natives [of Cuba] take fishes with other fish trained for that purpose). We now know, from the united testimony of Rogers, Dampier and Commerson, that the artifice resorted to in the Jardinillos to catch turtles is employed by the inhabitants of the eastern coast of Africa, near Cape Natal, at Mozambique and at Madagascar. In Egypt, at San Domingo and in the lakes of the valley of Mexico, the method practised for catching ducks was as follows: men, whose heads were covered with great calabashes pierced with holes, hid themselves in the water, and seized the birds by the feet. The Chinese, from the remotest antiquity, have employed the cormorant, a bird of the pelican family, for fishing on the coast: rings are fixed round the bird’s neck to prevent him from swallowing his prey and fishing for himself. In the lowest degree of civilization, the sagacity of man is displayed in the stratagems of hunting and fishing: nations who probably never had any communication with each other furnish the most striking analogies in the means they employ in exercising their empire over animals.
[* To the sucet or guaican of the natives of Cuba the Spaniards have given the characteristic name of reves, that is, placed on its back, or reversed. In fact, at first sight, the position of the back and the abdomen is confounded. Anghiera says: Nostrates reversum appellant, quia versus venatur. I examined a remora of the South Sea during the passage from Lima to Acapulco. As he lived a long time out of the water, I tried experiments on the weight he could carry before the blades of the disk loosened from the plank to which the animal was fixed; but I lost that part of my journal. It is doubtless the fear of danger that causes the remora not to loose his hold when he feels that he is pulled by a cord or by the hand of man. The sucet spoken of by Columbus and Martin d’Anghiera was probably the Echeneis naucrates and not the Echeneis remora.]
Three days elapsed before we could emerge from the labyrinth of Jardines and Jardinillos. At night we lay at anchor; and in the day we visited those islands or chains of rocks which were most easily accessible. As we advanced eastward the sea became less calm and the position of the shoals was marked by water of a milky colour. On the boundary of a sort of gulf between Cayo Flamenco and Cayo de Piedras we found that the temperature of the sea, at its surface, augmented suddenly from 23.5 to 25.8° centigrade. The geologic constitution of the rocky islets that rise around the island of Pinos fixed my attention the more earnestly as I had always rather doubted of the existence of those huge masses of coral which are said to rise from the abyss of the Pacific to the surface of the water. It appeared to me more probable that these enormous masses had some primitive or volcanic rock for a basis, to which they adhered at small depths. The formation, partly compact and lithographic, partly bulbous, of the limestone of Guines, had followed us as far as Batabano. It is somewhat analogous to Jura limestone; and, judging from their external aspect, the Cayman Islands are composed of the same rock. If the mountains of the island of Pinos, which present at the same time (as it is said by the first historians of the conquest) the pineta and palmeta, be visible at the distance of twenty sea leagues, they must attain a height of more than five hundred toises: I have been assured that they also are formed of a limestone altogether similar to that of Guines. From these facts I expected to find the same rock (Jura limestone) in the Jardinillos: but I saw, in the chain of rocks that rises generally five to six inches above the surface of the water, only a fragmentary rock, in which angular pieces of madrepores are cemented by quartzose sand. Sometimes the fragments form a mass of from one to two cubic feet and the grains of quartz so disappear that in several layers one might imagine that the polypi have remained on the spot. The total mass of this chain of rocks appears to me a limestone agglomerate, somewhat analogous to the earthy limestone of the peninsula of Araya, near Cumana, but of much more recent formation. The inequalities of this coral rock are covered by a detritus of shells and madrepores. Whatever rises above the surface of the water is composed of broken pieces, cemented by carbonate of lime, in which grains of quartzose sand are set. Whether rocks formed by polypi still living are found at great depth below this fragmentary rock of coral or whether these polypi are raised on the Jura formation are questions which I am unable to answer. Pilots believe that the sea diminishes in these latitudes, because they see the chain of rocks augment and rise, either by the earth which the waves heave up, or by successive agglutinations. It is not impossible that the enlarging of the channel of Bahama, by which the waters of the Gulf-stream issue, may cause, in the lapse of ages, a slight lowering of the waters south of Cuba, and especially in the gulf of Mexico, the centre of the great current which runs along the shores of the United States, and casts the fruits of tropical plants on the coast of Norway.* The configuration of the coast, the direction, the force and the duration of certain winds and currents, the changes which the barometric heights undergo through the variable predominance of those winds, are causes, the concurrence of which may alter, in a long space of time, and in circumscribed limits of extent and height, the equilibrium of the seas.* When the coast is so low that the level of the soil, at a league within the island, does not change to extent of a few inches, these swellings and diminution of the waters strike the imagination of the inhabitants.
[* “The Gulf-stream, between the Bahamas and Florida, is very little wider than Behring’s Strait; and yet the water rushing through this passage is of sufficient force and quantity to put the whole Northern Atlantic in motion, and to make its influence be felt in the distant strait of Gibraltar and on the more distant coast of Africa.” Quarterly Review February 1818.]
[* I do not pretend to explain, by the same causes, the great phenomena of the coast of Sweden, where the sea has, on some points, the appearance of a very unequal lowering of from three to five feet in one hundred years. The great geologist, Leopold von Buch, has imparted new interest to these observations by examining whether it be not rather some parts of the continent of Scandinavia which insensibly heaves up. An analogous supposition was entertained by the inhabitants of Dutch Guiana.]
The Cayo bonito (Pretty Rock), which we first visited, fully merits its name from the richness of its vegetation. Everything denotes that it has been long above the surface of the ocean; and the central part of the Cayo is not more depressed than the banks. On a layer of sand and land shells, five to six inches thick, covered by a fragmentary madreporic rock, rises a forest of mangroves (Rhizophora). From their form and foliage they might at a distance be mistaken for laurel trees. The Avicennia, the Batis, some small Euphorbia and grasses, by the intertwining of their roots, fix the moving sands. But the characteristic distinction of the Flora of these coral islands is the magnificent Tournefortia gnaphalioides of Jacquin, with silvered leaves, which we found here for the first time. This is a social plant and is a shrub from four feet and a half to five feet high. Its flowers emit an agreeable perfume; and it is the ornament of Cayo Flamenco, Cayo Piedras and perhaps of the greater part of the low lands of the Jardinillos. While we were employed in herborizing,* our sailors were searching among the rocks for lobsters. Disappointed at not finding them, they avenged themselves by climbing on the mangroves and making a dreadful slaughter of the young alcatras, grouped in pairs in their nests. This name is given, in Spanish America, to the brown swan-tailed pelican of Buffon. With the want of foresight peculiar to the great pelagic birds, the alcatra builds his nest where several branches of trees unite together. We counted four or five nests on the same trunk of a mangrove. The young birds defended themselves valiantly with their enormous beaks, which are six or seven inches long; the old ones hovered over our heads, making hoarse and plaintive cries. Blood streamed from the tops of the trees, for the sailors were armed with great sticks and cutlasses (machetes). In vain we reproved them for this cruelty. Condemned to long obedience in the solitude of the seas, this class of men feel pleasure in exercising a cruel tyranny over animals when occasion offers. The ground was covered with wounded birds struggling in death. At our arrival a profound calm prevailed in this secluded spot; now, everything seemed to say: Man has passed this way.
[* We gathered Cenchrus myosuroides, Euphorbia buxifolia, Batis maritima, Iresine obtusifolia, Tournefortia gnaphalioides, Diomedea glabrata, Cakile cubensis, Dolichos miniatus, Parthenium hysterophorus, etc. The last-named plant, which we had previously found in the valley of Caracas and on the temperate table-lands of Mexico, between 470 and 900 toises high, covers the fields of the island of Cuba. It is used by the inhabitants for aromatic baths, and to drive away the fleas which are so numerous in tropical climates. At Cumana the leaves of several species of cassia are employed, on account of their smell, against those annoying insects.]
The sky was veiled with reddish vapours, which however dispersed in the direction of south-west; we hoped, but in vain, to discern the heights of the island of Pinos. Those spots have a charm in which most parts of the New World are wanting. They are associated with recollections of the greatest names of the Spanish monarchy — those of Christopher Columbus and of Hernan Cortez. It was on the southern coast of the island of Cuba, between the bay of Xagua and the island of Pinos, that the great Spanish Admiral, in his second voyage, saw, with astonishment, “that mysterious king who spoke to his subjects only by signs, and that group of men who wore long white tunics, like the monks of La Merced, whilst the rest of the people were naked.” “Columbus in his fourth voyage found in the Jardinillos, great boats filled with Mexican Indians, and laden with the rich productions and merchandise of Yucatan.” Misled by his ardent imagination, he thought he had heard from those navigators, “that they came from a country where the men were mounted on horses,* and wore crowns of gold on their heads.” “Catayo (China), the empire of the Great Khan, and the mouth of the Ganges,” appeared to him so near, that he hoped soon to employ two Arabian interpreters, whom he had embarked at Cadiz, in going to America. Other remembrances of the island of Pinos, and the surrounding Gardens, are connected with the conquest of Mexico. When Hernan Cortes was preparing his great expedition, he was wrecked with his Nave Capitana on one of the flats of the Jardinillos. For the space of five days he was believed to be lost, and the valiant Pedro de Alvarado sent (in November 1518) from the port of Carenas* (the Havannah) three vessels in search of him. In February, 1519, Cortes assembled his whole fleet near cape San Antonio, probably on the spot which still bears the name of Ensenada de Cortes, west of Batabano and opposite to the island of Pinos. From thence, believing he should better escape the snares laid for him by the governor, Velasquez, he passed almost clandestinely to the coast of Mexico. Strange vicissitude of events! the empire of Montezuma was shaken by a handful of men who, from the western extremity of the island of Cuba, landed on the coast of Yucatan; and in our days, three centuries later, Yucatan, now a part of the new confederation of the free states of Mexico, has nearly menaced with conquest the western coast of Cuba.
[* Compare the Lettera rarissima di Christoforo Colombo, di 7 di Julio, 1503; with the letter of Herrera, dated December 1. Nothing can be more touching and pathetic than the expression of melancholy which prevails in the letter of Columbus, written at Jamaica, and addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. I recommend to the notice of those who wish to understand the character of that extraordinary man, the recital of the nocturnal vision, in which he imagined that he heard a celestial voice, in the midst of a tempest, encouraging him by these words: Iddio maravigliosamente fece sonar tuo nome nella terra. Le Indie que sono pa te del mondo cosi ricca, te le ha date per tue; tu le hai repartite dove ti e piaciuto, e ti dette potenzia per farlo. Delli ligamenti del mare Oceano che erano serrati con catene cosi forte, ti dono le chiave, etc. [God marvellously makes thy name resound throughout the world. The Indies, which are so rich a portion of the world, he gives to thee for thyself; thou mayest distribute them in the way thou pleasest, and God gives thee power to do so. Of the shores of the Atlantic, which were closed by such strong chains, he gives thee the key.] This fragment has been handed down to us only in an ancient Italian tradition; for the Spanish original mentioned in the Biblioteca Nautica of Don Antonio Leon has not hitherto been found. I may add a few more lines, characterized by great simplicity, written by the discoverer of the New World: “Your Highness,” says Columbus, “may believe me, the globe of the earth is far from being so great as the vulgar admit. I was seven years at your royal court, and during seven years was told that my enterprise was a folly. Now that I have opened the way, tailors and shoemakers ask the privilege of going to discover new lands. Persecuted, forgotten as I am, I never think of Hispaniola and Paria without my eyes being filled with tears. I was twenty years in the service of your Highness; I have not a hair that is not white; and my body is enfeebled. Heaven and earth now mourn for me; all who have pity, truth, and justice, mourn for me (pianga adesso il cielo e pianga per me la terra; pianga per me chi ha carita, verita, giustizia).” Lettera rarissima pages 13, 19, 34, 37.]
[* At that period there were two settlements, one at Puerto de Carenas in the ancient Indian province of the Havannah, and the other — the most considerable — in the Villa de San Cristoval de Cuba. These settlements were only united in 1519 when the Puerto de Carenas took the name of San Cristoval de la Habana. “Cortes,” says Herrera, “paso a la Villa de San Cristoval que a la sazon estaba en la costa del sur, y despues se paso a la Habana.” [Cortes proceeded to the town of San Cristoval, which at that time was on the sea-coast, and afterwards he repaired to the Havannah.]]
On the morning of the 11th March we visited Cayo Flamenco. I found the latitude 21° 59′ 39″. The centre of this island is depressed and only fourteen inches above the surface of the sea. The water here is brackish while in other cayos it is quite fresh. The mariners of Cuba attribute this freshness of the water to the action of the sands in filtering sea-water, the same cause which is assigned for the freshness of the lagunes of Venice. But this supposition is not justified by any chemical analogy. The cayos are composed of rocks, and not of sands, and their smallness renders it extremely improbable that the pluvial waters should unite in a permanent lake. Perhaps the fresh water of this chain of rocks comes from the neighbouring coast, from the mountains of Cuba, by the effect of hydrostatic pressure. This would prove a prolongation of the strata of Jura limestone below the sea and a superposition of coral rock on that limestone.*
[* Eruptions of fresh water in the sea, near Baiae, Syracuse and Aradus (in Phenicia) were known to the ancients. Strabo lib. 16 page 754. The coral islands that surround Radak, especially the low island of Otdia, furnish also fresh water. Chamisso in Kotzebue’s Entdekkungs–Reise volume 3 page 108.]
It is too general a prejudice to consider every source of fresh or salt water to be merely a local phenomenon: currents of water circulate in the interior of lands between strata of rocks of a particular density or nature, at immense distances, like the floods that furrow the surface of the globe. The learned engineer, Don Francisco Le Maur, informed me that in the bay of Xagua, half a degree east of the Jardinillos, there issue in the middle of the sea, springs of fresh water, two leagues and a half from the coast. These springs gush up with such force that they cause an agitation of the water often dangerous for small canoes. Vessels that are not going to Xagua sometimes take in water from these ocean springs and the water is fresher and colder in proportion to the depth whence it is drawn. The manatees, guided by instinct, have discovered this region of fresh waters; and the fishermen who like the flesh of these herbivorous animals,* find them in abundance in the open sea.
[* Possibly they subsist upon sea-weed in the ocean, as we saw them feed, on the banks of the Apure and the Orinoco, on several species of Panicum and Oplismenus (camalote?). It appears common enough, on the coast of Tabasco and Honduras, at the mouths of rivers, to find the manatees swimming in the sea, as crocodiles do sometimes. Dampier distinguishes between the fresh-water and the salt-water manatee. (Voyages and Descr. volume 2) Among the Cayos de las doce leguas, east of Xagua, some islands bear the name of Meganos del Manati.]
Half a mile east of Cayo Flamenco we passed close to two rocks on which the waves break furiously. They are the Piedras de Diego Perez (latitude 21° 58′ 10″.) The temperature of the sea at its surface lowers at this point to 22.6° centigrade, the depth of the water being only about one fathom. In the evening we went on shore at Cayo de Piedras; two rocks connected together by breakers and lying in the direction of north-north-west to south-south-east. On these rocks which form the eastern extremity of the Jardinillos many vessels are lost, and they are almost destitute of shrubs because shipwrecked crews cut them to make fire-signals. The Cayo de Piedras is extremely precipitous on the side near the sea; and towards the middle there is a small basin of fresh water. We found a block of madrepore in the rock, measuring upwards of three cubic feet. Doubtless this limestone formation, which at a distance resembles Jura limestone, is a fragmentary rock. It would be well if this chain of cayos which surrounds the island of Cuba were examined by geologists with the view of determining what may be attributed to the animals which still work at the bottom of the sea, and what belongs to the real tertiary formations, the age of which may be traced back to the date of the coarse limestone abounding in remains of lithophite coral. In general, that which rises above the waters is only breccia, or aggregate of madreporic fragments cemented by carbonate of lime, broken shells, and sand. It is important to examine, in each of the cayos, on what this breccia reposes; whether it covers edifices of mollusca still living, or those secondary and tertiary rocks, which judging from the remains of coral they contain, seem to be the product of our days. The gypsum of the cayos opposite San Juan de los Remedios, on the northern coast of the island of Cuba, merits great attention. Its age is doubtless more remote than historic times, and no geologist will believe that it is the work of the mollusca of our seas.
From the Cayo de Piedras we could faintly discern in the direction of east-north-east the lofty mountains that rise beyond the bay of Xagua. During the night we again lay at anchor; and next day (12th March), having passed between the northern cape of the Cayo de Piedras and the island of Cuba, we entered a sea free from breakers. Its blue colour (a dark indigo tint) and the heightening of the temperature proved how much the depth of the water had augmented. We tried, under favour of the variable winds on sea and shore, to steer eastward as far as the port of La Trinidad so that we might be less opposed by the north-east winds which then prevail in the open sea, in making the passage to Carthagena, of which the meridian falls between Santiago de Cuba and the bay of Guantanamo. Having passed the marshy coast of Camareos,* we arrived (latitude 21° 50′) in the meridian of the entrance of the Bahia de Xagua. The longitude the chronometer gave me at this point was almost identical with that since published (in 1821) in the map of the Deposito hidrografico of Madrid.
[* Here the celebrated philanthropist Bartolomeo de las Casas obtained in 1514 from his friend Velasquez, the governor, a good repartimiente de Indios (grant of land so called). But this he renounced in the same year, from scruples of conscience, during a short stay at Jamaica.]
The port of Xagua is one of the finest but least frequented of the island. “There cannot be another such in the world,” is the remark of the Coronista major (Antonio de Herrera). The surveys and plans of defence made by M. Le Maur, at the time of the commission of Count Jaruco, prove that the anchorage of Xagua merits the celebrity it acquired even in the first years of the conquest. The town consists merely of a small group of houses and a fort (castillito.) On the east of Xagua, the mountains (Cerros de San Juan) near the coast, assume an aspect more and more majestic; not from their height, which does not seem to exceed three hundred toises, but from their steepness and general form. The coast, I was told, is so steep that a frigate may approach the mouth of the Rio Guaurabo. When the temperature of the air diminished at night to 23° and the wind blew from the land it brought that delicious odour of flowers and honey which characterizes the shores of the island of Cuba.* We sailed along the coast keeping two or three miles distant from land. On the 13th March a little before sunset we were opposite the mouth of the Rio San Juan, so much dreaded by navigators on account of the innumerable quantity of mosquitos and zancudos which fill the atmosphere. It is like the opening of a ravine, in which vessels of heavy burden might enter, but that a shoal (placer) obstructs the passage. Some horary angles gave me the longitude 82° 40′ 50″ for this port which is frequented by the smugglers of Jamaica and the corsairs of Providence Island. The mountains that command the port scarcely rise to 230 toises. I passed a great part of the night on deck. The coast was dreary and desolate. Not a light announced a fisherman’s hut. There is no village between Batabano and Trinidad, a distance of fifty leagues; scarcely are there more than two or three corrales or farm yards, containing hogs or cows. Yet, in the time of Columbus, this territory was inhabited along the shore. When the ground is dug to make wells, or when torrents furrow the surface of the earth in floods, stone hatchets and copper utensils* are often discovered; these are remains of the ancient inhabitants of America.
[* Cuban wax, which is a very important object of trade, is produced by the bees of Europe (the species Apis, Latr.). Columbus says expressly that in his time the inhabitants of Cuba did not collect wax. The great loaf of that substance which he found in the island in his first voyage, and presented to King Ferdinand in the celebrated audience of Barcelona, was afterwards ascertained to have been brought thither by Mexican barques from Yucatan. It is curious that the wax of melipones was the first production of Mexico that fell into the hands of the Spaniards, in the month of November, 1492.]
[* Doubtless the copper of Cuba. The abundance of this metal in its native state would naturally induce the Indians of Cuba and Hayti to melt it. Columbus says that there were masses of native copper at Hayti, of the weight of six arrobas; and that the boats of Yucatan, which he met with on the eastern coast of Cuba, carried, among other Mexican merchandize, crucibles to melt copper.]
At sunrise I requested the captain to heave the lead. There was no bottom to be found at sixty fathoms; and the ocean was warmer at its surface than anywhere else; it was at 26.8°; the temperature exceeded 4.2° that which we had found near the breakers of Diego Perez. At the distance of half a mile from the coast, the sea water was not more than 2.5°; we had no opportunity of sounding but the depth of the water had no doubt diminished. On the 14th of March we entered the Rio Guaurabo, one of the two ports of Trinidad de Cuba, to put on shore the practico, or pilot of Batabano, who had steered us across the flats of the Jardinillos, though not without causing us to run aground several times. We also hoped to find a packet-boat (correo maritimo) in this port, which would take us to Carthagena. I landed towards the evening, and placed Borda’s azimuth compass and the artificial horizon on the shore for the purpose of observing the passage of some stars by the meridian; but we had scarcely begun our preparations when a party of small traders of the class called pulperos, who had dined on board a foreign ship recently arrived, invited us to accompany them to the town. These good people requested us mount two by two on the same horse; and, as the heat was excessive, we accepted their offer. The distance from the mouth of the Rio Guaurabo to Trinidad is nearly four miles in a north-west direction. The road runs across a plain which seems as if it had been levelled by a long sojourn of the waters. It is covered with vegetation, to which the miraguama, a palm-tree with silvered leaves (which we saw here for the first time), gives a peculiar character.* This fertile soil, although of tierra colorada, requires only to be tilled and it would yield fruitful harvests. A very picturesque view opens westward on the Lomas of San Juan, a chain of calcareous mountains from 1800 to 2000 toises high and very steep towards the south. Their bare and barren summits form sometimes round blocks; and here and there rise up in points like horns,* a little inclined. Notwithstanding the great lowering of the temperature during the season of the Nortes or north winds, snow never falls; and only a hoar-frost (escarcha) is seen on these mountains, as on those of Santiago. This absence of snow is difficult to be explained. In emerging from the forest we perceived a curtain of hills of which the southern slope is covered with houses; this is the town of Trinidad, founded in 1514, by the governor Diego Velasquez, on account of the rich mines of gold which were said to have been discovered in the little valley of Rio Arimao.* The streets of Trinidad have all a rapid descent: there, as in most parts of Spanish America, it is complained that the Couquistadores chose very injudiciously the sites for new towns.* At the northern extremity is the church of Nuestra Senora de la Popa, a celebrated place of pilgrimage. This point I found to be 700 feet above the level of the sea; it commands a magnificent view of the ocean, the two ports (Puerto Casilda and Boca Guaurabo), a forest of palm-trees and the group of the lofty mountains of San Juan. We were received at the town of Trinidad with the kindest hospitality by Senor Munoz, the Superintendent of the Real Hacienda. I made observations during a great part of the night and found the latitude near the cathedral by the Spica Virginis, alpha of the Centaur, and beta of the Southern Cross, under circumstances not equally favourable, to be 21° 48′ 20″. My chronometric longitude was 82° 21′ 7″. I was informed at my second visit to the Havannah, in returning from Mexico, that this longitude was nearly identical with that obtained by the captain of a frigate, Don Jose del Rio, who had long resided on that spot; but that he marked the latitude of the town at 21° 42′ 40″.
[* Corypha miraguama. Probably the same species which struck Messrs. John and William Fraser (father and son) in the vicinity of Matanzas. Those two botanists, who introduced a great number of valuable plants to the gardens of Europe, were shipwrecked on their voyage to the Havannah from the United States, and saved themselves with difficulty on the cayos at the entrance of the Old Channel, a few weeks before my departure for Carthagena.]
[* Wherever the rock is visible I perceived compact limestone, whitish-grey, partly porous and partly with a smooth fracture, as in the Jura formation.]
[* This river flows towards the east into the Bahia de Xagua.]
[* It is questionable whether the town founded by Velasquez was not situated in the plain and nearer the ports of Casilda and Guaurabo. It has been suggested that the fear of the French, Portuguese and English freebooters led to the selection, even in inland places, of sites on the declivity of mountains, whence, as from a watch-tower, the approach of the enemy could be discerned; but it seems to me that these fears could have had no existence prior to the government of Hernando de Soto. The Havannah was sacked for the first time by French corsairs in 1539.]
The Lieutenant–Governor (Teniente Governadore) of Trinidad, whose jurisdiction then extended to Villa Clara, Principe and Santo Espiritu, was nephew to the celebrated astronomer Don Antonio Ulloa. He gave us a grand entertainment, at which we met some French emigrants from San Domingo who had brought their talents and industry to Spanish America. The exportation of the sugar of Trinidad, by the registers of the custom-house, did not then exceed 4000 chests.
The advantage of having two ports is often discussed at Trinidad. The distance of the town from Puerto de Casilda and Puerto Guaurabo is nearly equal; yet the expense of transport is greatest in the former port. The Boca del Rio Guaurabo, defended by a new battery, furnishes safe anchorage, although less sheltered than that of Puerto Casilda. Vessels that draw little water or are lightened to pass the bar, can go up the river and approach the town within a mile. The packet-boats (correos) that touch at Trinidad de Cuba prefer, in general, the Rio Guaurabo, where they find safe anchorage without needing a pilot. The Puerto Casilda is more inclosed and goes further back inland but cannot be entered without a pilot, on account of the breakers (arrecifes) and the Mulas and Mulattas. The great mole, constructed with wood, and very useful to commerce, was damaged in discharging pieces of artillery. It is entirely destroyed, and it was undecided whether it would be best to reconstruct it with masonry, according to the project of Don Luis de Bassecourt, or to open the bar of Guaurabo by dredging it. The great disadvantage of Puerto de Casilda is the want of fresh water, which vessels have to procure at the distance of a league.
We passed a very agreeable evening in the house of one of the richest inhabitants, Don Antonio Padron, where we found assembled at a tertulia all the good company of Trinidad. We were again struck with the gaiety and vivacity that distinguish the women of Cuba. These are happy gifts of nature to which the refinements of European civilization might lend additional charms but which, nevertheless, please in their primitive simplicity. We quitted Trinidad on the night of the 15th March. The municipality caused us to be conducted to the mouth of the Rio Guaurabo in a fine carriage lined with old crimson damask; and, to add to our confusion, an ecclesiastic, the poet of the place, habited in a suit of velvet notwithstanding the heat of the climate, celebrated, in a sonnet, our voyage to the Orinoco.
On the road leading to the port we were forcibly struck by a spectacle which our stay of two years in the hottest part of the tropics might have rendered familiar to us; but previously I had nowhere seen such an innumerable quantity of phosphorescent insects.* The grass that overspread the ground, the branches and foliage of the trees, all shone with that reddish and moveable light which varies in its intensity at the will of the animal by which it is produced. It seemed as though the starry firmament reposed on the savannah. In the hut of the poorest inhabitants of the country, fifteen cocuyos, placed in a calabash pierced with holes, afford sufficient light to search for anything during the night. To shake the calabash forcibly is all that is necessary to excite the animal to increase the intensity of the luminous discs situated on each side of its body. The people of the country remark, with a simple truth of expression, that calabashes filled with cocuyos are lanterns always ready lighted. They are, in fact, only extinguished by the sickness or death of the insects, which are easily fed with a little sugar-cane. A young woman at Trinidad de Cuba told us that during a long and difficult passage from the main land, she always made use of the phosphorescence of the cocuyos, when she gave suck to her child at night; the captain of the ship would allow no other light on board, from the fear of corsairs.
[* Cocuyo, Elater noctilucus.]
As the breeze freshened in the direction of north-east we sought to avoid the group of the Caymans but the current drove us towards those islands. Sailing to south 1/4 south-east, we gradually lost sight of the palm-covered shore, the hills rising above the town of Trinidad and the lofty mountains of the island of Cuba. There is something solemn in the aspect of land from which the voyager is departing and which he sees sinking by degrees below the horizon of the sea. The interest of this impression was heightened at the period to which I here advert; when Saint Domingo was the centre of great political agitations, and threatened to involve the other islands in one of those sanguinary struggles which reveal to man the ferocity of his nature. These threatened dangers were happily averted; the storm was appeased on the spot which gave it birth; and a free black population, far from troubling the peace of the neighbouring islands, has made some steps in the progress of civilization and has promoted the establishment of good institutions. Porto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica, with 370,000 whites and 885,000 men of colour, surround Hayti, where a population of 900,000 negros and mulattos have been emancipated by their own efforts. The negros, more inclined to cultivate alimentary plants than colonial productions, augment with a rapidity only surpassed by the increase of the population of the United States.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10