A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter III - From Nassau to Cuba.

THE breakfast being over, we recall the Captain's parting admonition to be on board by ten o'clock, with the significant gesture and roll of the eye which clearly express that England expects every passenger to do his duty. Now we know very well that the "Karnak" is not likely to weigh anchor before twelve, at the soonest, but we dare not for our lives disobey the Captain. So, passing by yards filled with the huge Bahama sponges, piles of wreck-timber, fishing-boats with strange fishes, red, yellow, blue, and white, and tubs of aldermanic turtle, we attain the shore, and presently, the steamer. Here we find a large deputation of the towns-people taking passage with us for a pleasure excursion to Havana. The greater number are ladies and children. They come fluttering on board, poor things, like butterflies, in gauzy dresses, hats, and feathers, according to the custom of their country; one gentleman takes four little daughters with him for a holiday. We ask ourselves whether they know what an ugly beast the Gulf-Stream is, that they affront him in such light armor. "Good heavens! how sick they will be!" we exclaim; while they eye us askance, in our winter trim, and pronounce us slow, and old fogies. With all the rashness of youth, they attack the luncheon-table. So boisterous a popping of corks was never heard in all our boisterous passage;—there is a chorus, too, of merry tongues and shrill laughter. But we get fairly out to sea, where the wind, an adverse one, is waiting for us, and at that gay table there is silence, followed by a rush and disappearance. The worst cases are hurried out of sight, and going above, we find the disabled lying in groups about the deck, the feather-hats discarded, the muslins crumpled, and we, the old fogies, going to cover the fallen with shawls and blankets, to speak words of consolation, and to implore the sufferers not to cure themselves with brandy, soda-water, claret, and wine-bitters, in quick succession,—which they, nevertheless, do, and consequently are no better that day, nor the next.

But I am forgetting to chronicle a touching parting interview with the Major, the last thing remembered in Nassau, and of course the last to be forgotten anywhere. Our concluding words might best be recorded in the form of a catechism of short questions and answers, to wit:—

"How long did the Major expect to stay in Nassau?"

"About six months."

"How long would he stay, if he had his own way?"

"Not one!"

"What did he come for, then?"

"Oh, you buy into a nigger regiment for promotion."

These were the most important facts elicited by cross-examination. At last we shook hands warmly, promising to meet again somewhere, and the crimson-lined barge with the black Zouaves carried him away. In humbler equipages depart the many black women who have visited the steamer, some for amusement, some to sell the beautiful shell-work made on the island. These may be termed, in general, as ugly a set of wenches as one could wish not to see. They all wear palm-leaf hats stuck on their heads without strings or ribbons, and their clothes are so ill-made that you cannot help thinking that each has borrowed somebody else's dress, until you see that the ill-fitting garments are the rule, not the exception.

But neither youth nor sea-sickness lasts forever. The forces of nature rally on the second day, and the few who have taken no remedies recover the use of their tongues and some of their faculties. From these I gather what I shall here impart as


The principal exports of these favored islands are fruits, sponges, molasses, and sugar. Their imports include most of the necessaries of life, which come to them oftenest in the form of wrecks, by which they obtain them at a small fraction of the original cost and value. For this resource they are indebted to the famous Bahama Banks, which to their way of thinking are institutions as important as the Bank of England itself. These banks stand them in a handsome annual income, and facilitate large discounts and transfers of property not contemplated by the original possessors. One supposes that somebody must suffer by these forced sales of large cargoes at prices ruinous to commerce,—but who suffers is a point not easy to ascertain. There seems to be a good, comfortable understanding all round. The Owners say, "Go ahead, and don't bother yourself,—she's insured." The Captain has got his ship aground in shoal water where she can't sink, and no harm done. The friendly wreckers are close at hand to haul the cargo ashore. The Underwriter of the insurance company has shut his eyes and opened his mouth to receive a plum, which, being a good large one, will not let him speak. And so the matter providentially comes to pass, and "enterprises of great pith and moment" oftenest get no further than the Bahamas.

Nassau produces neither hay nor corn,—these, together with butter, flour, and tea, being brought chiefly from the United States. Politics, of course, it has none. As to laws, the colonial system certainly needs propping up,—for under its action a man may lead so shameless a life of immorality as to compel his wife to leave him, and yet not be held responsible for her support and that of the children she has borne him. The principal points of interest are, first, the garrison,—secondly, Government-House, with an occasional ball there,—and, third, one's next-door neighbor, and his or her doings. The principal event in the memory of the citizens seems to be a certain most desirable wreck, in consequence of which, a diamond card-case, worth fifteen hundred dollars, was sold for an eighth part of that sum, and laces, whose current price ranges from thirty to forty dollars a yard, were purchased at will for seventy-five cents. That was a wreck worth having! say the Nassauese. The price of milk ranges from eighteen to twenty-five cents a quart;—think of that, ye New England housekeepers! That precious article, the pudding, is nearly unknown in the Nassauese economy; nor is pie-crust so short as it might be, owing to the enormous price of butter, which has been known to attain the sum of one dollar per pound. Eggs are quoted at prices not commendable for large families with small means. On the other hand, fruits, vegetables, and sugar-cane are abundant.

The Nassauese, on the whole, seem to be a kind-hearted and friendly set of people, partly English, partly Southern in character, but with rather a predominance of the latter ingredient in their composition. Their women resemble the women of our own Southern States, but seem simpler and more domestic in their habits,—while the men would make tolerable Yankees, but would scarcely support President Buchanan, the Kansas question, or the Filibustero movement. Physically, the race suffers and degenerates under the influence of the warm climate. Cases of pulmonary disease, asthma, and neuralgia are of frequent occurrence, and cold is considered as curative to them as heat is to us. The diet, too, is not that "giant ox-beef" which the Saxon race requires. Meat is rare and tough, unless brought from the States at high cost. We were forced to the conclusion that no genuine English life can be supported upon a régime of fish and fruit,—or, in other words, no beef, no Bull, but a very different sort of John, lantern-jawed, leather-skinned, and of a thirsty complexion. It occurred to us, furthermore, that it is a dolorous thing to live on a lonely little island, tied up like a wart on the face of civilization,—no healthful stream of life coming and going from the great body of the main land,—the same moral air to be breathed over and over again, without renewal,—the same social elements turned and returned in one tiresome kaleidoscope. Wherefore rejoice, ye Continentals, and be thankful, and visit the Nassauese, bringing beef, butter, and beauty,—bringing a few French muslins, to replace the coarse English fabrics, and buxom Irish girls to outwork the idle negro women,—bringing new books, newspapers, and periodicals,—bringing the Yankee lecturer, all expenses paid, and his drink found him. All these good things, and more, the States have for the Nassauese, of whom we must now take leave, for all hands have been piped on deck.

We have jolted for three weary days over the roughest of ocean-highways, and Cuba, nay, Havana, is in sight. The worst cases are up, and begin to talk about their sea-legs, now that the occasion for them is at an end. Sobrina, the chief wit of our party, who would eat sour-sop, sapodilla, orange, banana, cocoa-nut, and sugar-cane at Nassau, and who has lived upon toddy of twenty-cocktail power ever since,—even she is seen, clothed and in her right mind, sitting at the feet of the Prophet she loves, and going through the shawl-and-umbrella exercise. And here is the Morro Castle, which guards the entrance of the harbor,—here go the signals, answering to our own. Here comes the man with the speaking-trumpet, who, understanding no English, yells out to our captain, who understands no Spanish. The following is a free rendering of their conversation:—

"Any Americans on board?"

"Yes, thank Heaven, plenty."

"How many are Filibusteros?"

"All of them."

"Bad luck to them, then!"

"The same to you!"

"Caramba," says the Spaniard.

"—— ——," says the Englishman.

And so the forms of diplomacy are fulfilled; and of Havana, more in my next.

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