492 Years – Havana’s Fidelity and Nobility

noviembre 23, 2011

Por: Magda Resik Aguirre

The ceiba (kapok) tree has been one of the focal points of our city’s anniversary celebrations, to which men and women from Havana return every year. Why has a ceiba tree become the symbol of Havana?
Two sorts of maps were found, first in the 1980’s and later in 1996. The former, in the Archive of the Indies in Seville, showed the layout of an essential Parade Ground (Plaza de Armas), with the plan of the Royal Force Castle (Castillo de la Real Fuerza), and a great ceiba tree standing alone and free. According to tradition, which is vox populi – and we say that vox populi suprema lex (let the popular sentiment be the supreme law) -, it was under the shade of that tree, the most solid tree existing in the woodland around the port of Havana, that Spanish conquistadors found the best place. It was inside the port channel, sheltered from storms by the hills where San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress stands today, and next to the admirable port which was known since 1508 thanks to Sebastián de Ocampo’s voyage around the island, by order of the Commander of Lares and Governor of Santo Domingo. The purpose of that voyage was to destroy Christopher Columbus’ last opinion that beyond that wonderful and magnificent sight described during the first days after his discovery of the big island, there was a desolate view of the south coast, of countless cays, probably of Zapata Swamp and the least hospitable area in Cuba, that made him turn back when he was relatively near the Cape of San Antonio, and state that Cuba was part of a desolate and inhospitable continent.
That opinion was destroyed thanks to the voyage around the island in 1508, and the subsequent landing of the Castilian expedition at Maisí point, on the easternmost end of Cuba, which lead to the founding of the first town – Our Lady of Assumption of Baracoa. Celebrations have also been held recently in Baracoa next to a tree that was turned into a cross, as the Cross of Parra in Baracoa was made of a European tree and is not only the symbol of the founding of that town – the first town – but also a symbol of evangelization on the continent.
Now, the earliest settlement of Havana was not where the ceiba tree is today, but on the south coast. And we would need to examine why, after Baracoa, the towns of Santiago de Cuba, San Salvador de Bayamo and Santísima Trinidad de Cuba were facing south. Where were conquering Spain’s main expectations at that time if not on the mainland? The town of Havana in 1519 corresponded to a new direction for the Spanish conquest: sailings through the Strait of Florida were becoming increasingly frequent, and the Mexican Empire was discovered – Mexican land at the very heart of the Gulf of the same name.
From that moment on, there emerged the idea of cities, towns and settlements moving from south to north. Where was that settlement with its first Major Parish Church, the City Hall and main houses, the graveyard with the bodies of those who died there? Where is it?
It is said that the earliest settlement was located near the mouth of Almendares River.
No, there was another much earlier. That settlement must have been located at an undetermined point of Broa Inlet, in a midway location between Batabanó and Melena del Sur. However, the site that has over the years been considered by generations the earliest settlement of Havana, is in Melena del Sur, in today’s Mayabeque province.
The other day, I went from Melena to Mayabeque beach, and that mysterious road is under a thorough study by archeologists and researchers trying to find that lost Atlantis, which is the original small village of Havana.

I referred to one first settlement on the north. What I mean is, when the town was moved to the north, it is said that the earliest settlement was located there. And then what happened to the city?
Probably they coexisted; in fact, something very important coexisted in the south, because two churches are still shown on 1610 and 1620 charts and maps of Cuba and the Antilles – one under the name of San Cristóbal (St. Christopher), to the south, and the other saying Havana, to the north. It was in north Havana that San Cristóbal and Havana came together. All the events described in the still-surviving July 1550 Town Council Minutes took place in this city of Saint Christopher of Havana – and Havana is spelled with an H and a v; that is, we are talking about Indian Chief Habaguanex’s Havana, hence the question of finding the origin of the word Habana.
Actually, with the exception of Santiago de Cuba, Santísima Trinidad and Espíritu Santo, all the other cities were given Castillian names and indigenous surnames: Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa, San Salvador del Bayamo, Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe del Camagüey and San Cristóbal de La Habana. In letters sent to the King, Velázquez gives an account of the towns founded by him, his trips and battles, and clearly refers to his meeting with Indian Chief Habaguanex, who hospitably welcomed the newcomers in this region.
According to archeological research on today’s Havana – that is, studies systematically conducted by our Archeology Department, not to mention other background studies – the most beautiful dujo in the Montané Anthropology Museum, for instance, is not from eastern Cuba. It is possible that such Taíno dujo came here as an exchange item, or was brought by a Taíno community moving in at some point, or by someone carrying that piece of furniture, as we would do nowadays. And where was it found? In Santa Fe River. First it was thought to be a beached shark’s fin, and what certainly happened was that when the river level rose, the mud at the bottom was disturbed, carrying the indigenous dujo with it. At the Plaza de Armas (Parade Ground), we have found shells; Cypraeacervus and Strombus gigas, cut valves and necklace beads, indicating that the indigenous community was there.

That indigenous community – because we always speak of the Havana that was known to the world with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors; but there was a previous Havana – that of Habaguanex, the indigenous community. Now, since when has Havana been known to be inhabited?
Well, Habaguanex’s lands or domains, and their settlement in Havana remain a mystery. Actually, as you well know, the island of Cuba was apparently settled in successive waves from east to west – and that view has not changed to date. So much so, that the last waves arrived almost at the same time as Christopher Columbus. They were highly developed Taíno people coming from Santo Domingo and Haiti, on the island that is shared today by both nations. They settled in eastern Cuba – in the Baracoa area, the Caujerí Valley – which was so fertile. All of that area was inhabited by native Indians. I travelled to Baracoa myself, all the way to Punta de Maisí, to interview farmer Abigaíl Lores, who is still alive – nearly a hundred years old – and has been for years the guardian of the only surviving baseball field used by Cuban native Indians in the Caribbean. Mr. Abigaíl showed me how petaloid axes, arrowheads and idols that he used to keep zealously for Manuel Rivero de la Calle or Ramón Dacal’s regular visits to eastern Cuba, appear with large raindrops when it rains.
We should not forget, however, the great work by Professor José Manuel Warsh at Chorro de Maita in Holguín Province, where he found [remains of] a native community – an impressive and unique testimony in Cuba – and the big axe, of which a replica is presented by the city of Holguín [on special occasions]. It was kept by the Holguín City Historian for many years, and eventually donated by him to the city. Such a big axe indicates the development achieved by that Taíno community, whilst on this part of the island, we find communities whose development was pottery- and farming-oriented. However, they did not yet have significant surplus production, which would have turned them into a more stratified society with the passing of time.
The detailed description by Bartolomé de Las Casas, of Cuba’s western part – its trees and birds, indigenous life style, its canoes and fishing methods, and finally the meeting with Habaguanex who is portrayed as a smiling, elderly Indian Chief, hospitably offering turtles and the fruits of the field to the newcomers (the poor thing, he was so naïve!) –, absolutely testifies to the fact that this whole region was inhabited by small indigenous communities, and that Havana – the town or community that would be later founded – was named after Habaguanex. And here it is!
Leal, please tell me what that early Havana was like. How could it be described today to a young person willing to know about it? Who were its early settlers, apart from those indigenous communities?

The paintings at the Templete (Small Temple) portray an idyllic image of the event. Reference is made to the transfer of the town council, but there is one unanswered question – that of the old community that remained along the way, and whose members must have refused to leave the southern settlement and decided to stay where they had their land and certainly other properties. On the other hand, there is also what you referred to: in the area where the Hotel Rivera is situated today, at the mouth of the river, there was a very important piece of land that [Diego] Velázquez had kept for himself. And it is in this place, next to a river of what used to be crystal-clear waters, where cattle were raised and where arable land was farmed, that a second settlement of Havana was located.
Along the road there is a high point – Puentes grandes – where another group of settlers, farms and places are said to have existed. Finally, there is the ceremony for the transferring of the town council headquarters – which is what must have happened in 1519, according to [Dr. Emilio] Roig and everyone else – to the site where the Templete is located, with evidence cut into the stone, together with word of mouth and the incongruity of [the founding of the city] being celebrated on 16 November, instead of 25 July – when festive celebrations in honor of Apostle Santiago, San Felipe and San Cristóbal are held. Veneration of San Cristóbal (St. Christopher) is a very old sailors’ tradition. Nowadays, it has been disqualified and it is considered as a noble legend of primitive Christianity; that is, St. Christopher’s historical existence cannot be sustained, because it is in people’s memory as a giant from Capadocia, in today’s Turkey, so big he would walk using a tree trunk as a crutch. In Cuba, a palm tree was actually adopted. In many European cathedrals, like that of Seville, for instance, he would appear leaning on an African palm tree. At Havana Cathedral, he was portrayed with a local palm, because this is a country of palm trees.
People would then find shelter under that massive tree representing St. Christopher. And Father Las Casas said that they found ceiba trees under whose shade 500 knights could camp; and it is true that a ceiba tree is massive. Which ceiba tree could I mention? Well, there is one in Fontanar that is huge, but the most beautiful of all, I think, is in San Antonio de los Baños – a wonderful, extraordinary, and legendary ceiba tree.
Well, that ceiba tree of ours, the last one of which is the one we see today, was planted in 1960, because I recall that when the Revolution triumphed, the old tree was dying together with the old order, and there was a huge sign saying: “Havana City Green Areas. Havana Municipality. Therapeutic Treatment to Save the Ceiba Tree.”  Some kind of serum injections were given to the tree, but eventually the tree died, and was piously cut into pieces. People took chips of that cut tree, and even I kept one for myself.
Well now, that tree is the successor of those that preceded it over time. And, as a matter of fact, bishop Morel said something really funny, which is also vox populi; he said that the original tree dried out because of a lunatic’s urine who used that tree as a landmark every day. The truth is that when there is a high tide, the aquifer is contaminated due to the waters’ salinity, and when it reaches a certain point of the root, the tree is poisoned, and dies. I think it is a nice idea that different generations have planted a new tree from time to time. Of course, when the Templete was erected in 1828, that was already a pilgrims’ meeting point, where ceremonies were held, and a commemorative column with an image of the virgin [Pilar] on top had been placed in the first half of the 18th century – in 1754, I think – by order of governor Cagigal.
It was there that the first city group met, but who were they?
Well, they were Castilians – or at least they were Spanish arriving under the Castilian flag, and it was they who moved all around. There were two expeditions: that of Velázquez – moving around the eastern part of the island, and that of Pánfilo de Narváez and Father Las Casas – resolutely advancing westward.  So Brother Bartolomé [de Las Casas] is very likely to be the most memorable and rememberable person from that event, and the final founding of the town in the north. He is considered to be a righteous man par excellence, and is described in Martí’s Golden Age as a model man full of virtues, a defender of the Indians, a man whose mission was to convert the Encomienda, that is, Indians granted to him to be “converted to Christianity,” and yet he renounced his mission and became the Father Protector of the Indians, together with other Dominican fathers. Because this is very important, when you arrive in Santo Domingo, by the river Sama, you see a huge statue of one of the greatest missionaries on the continent and these islands, preaching his famous sermon against encomenderos [colonists granted control of land and Indians who were set to work for them], saying “I am the voice of those who preach in the wilderness,” – a great Dominican friar. And so did others, like Pedro de Rentería and many others, who came in that group. But here in Cuba, and in Havana, it was [Father] Las Casas. That is why the painter of the Templete, embracing that tradition, portrayed the election of the first mayor in this place and, at the same time and on the opposite side, the second act – the first mass said at the Templete – the civil and the religious act. This is the first mass that could be called the town baptism, – the town baptism!
Because towns were baptized.
Yes, they came and established an order. An outline was sketched, always based on a pattern; a log or other symbol was placed in the ground and they would say: “This is the center.” And then, from that point on the Plaza de Armas (Parade Ground) land was distributed – this is for the governor, this piece is for the prison, this is for the butcher’s shop, this is for the Royal Force (the defense contingent); this piece is for the church, this is for neighbours…That is why the layout is based on a Roman camp square, and generally shaped like a checkerboard. This is how Spanish towns are laid out in Ibero-America.
Havana was a special case. I mean, when you contemplate Havana from a distance, as compared to many other cities that you have visited, apart from its layout or development, which is said to have been different, where does that special nature lie?
Yes, but that goes beyond the city walls. That is, that new Havana… everything is new, because we should not forget that the city’s inner world is given by the cultural influence arriving with newcomers. Then architecture will reveal, regardless of strict Ordinances, how the town is designed – from north to south or from east to west, in the case of streets; which side each house should face – here’s our Father San Francisco’s house, here’s our Father Santo Domingo’s house, here’s the Major Parish Church, here goes this or that. Irrespective of this, an important event occurred in the case of Havana, which is that it had an early Ordinance. A request was made around 1570 – and even prior to that date – to the governor of Santo Domingo, for a lawyer to be sent and draft regulations for Havana. On this continent, these regulations are, if not the oldest, amongst the oldest municipal Ordinances drafted by lawyer Alonso de Cáceres, showing how things should be done.
How should things be done, as regards urban development; and what else?
Regarding urban development and people’s behavior, it was even established that the butcher could not be related in any way to the mayor or the authorities. Meat was so important, because European cattle had not become acclimatized to our weather, nor had they reproduced in Cuba yet. The first head of cattle were still being raised, and they would be very useful to Havana and Cuba as a strategic point of supply for expeditions both south and northward. They came to Havana’s port for supplies – leather and fruit. It was also good for illegal trade or contraband, with buccaneers and Spain’s rivals stealthily moving in the Caribbean Sea.
Now, the city is always original. You may wonder: “What Spanish Cathedral does Havana’s Cathedral resemble?” And you would say: “Actually, none.” This is the smallest of all cathedrals, and there are those who have found some resemblance to the Murcia Cathedral, but that is not even close. Jesuits designed their church – as this is San Ignacio’s church – later turned into a cathedral – because it was not complete. It is a very original church in Havana.
When you go out and see St. Francis of Assisi Square, for instance, you find a St. Francis Convent that is one of the biggest in the Americas. If all of its cloisters were complete, this convent would be as big as the one in Lima, for example, but the truth is that it is different. The stone, the decoration, and the materials used are different – Cuban stones, and wood, which was abundant back then.
People’s homes display various influences. For example, there is a huge influence coming with the conquest from southern Spain and northern Africa that was deeply influenced by Muslim architecture. Hence Havana’s wood ceilings, church ceilings such as Christ Church, the Holy Spirit Church, or private homes having those ceilings, such as those on Tacón No. 4 or 12. Some have stars or demi-lunes, which clearly recall the Eastern world. They are also greatly influenced by the Canary Islands – the Islands – which became part of the Spanish Crown’s heritage.  Shortly before Christopher Columbus’ voyage, Spaniards were conquering the Islands, where their style of architecture had an impact on Havana in the 17th century, and perhaps in the late 16th century. All those rows of balconies in Havana and Santiago de Cuba are like those in Cartagena de Indias. In Havana, almost all of them had been lost; there were only two or three houses left. But continuous balconies and porch roofs have been renovated. It’s the influence of architecture from the Canary Islands – the Orotava, Isla de la Palma.

Then you get to the Captains-General Palace, and the Palacio del Segundo Cabo [the former residence of the Spanish lieutenant governor], and you come across something that is greatly inspired by the best of Spanish classical architecture. That courtyard could be like those in Andalusia, but of course not; it is more like courtyards in Cadiz, it’s true, and yet it is a different thing. The stone is different as is its spatial distribution. You notice that something new was emerging, that there was a mystery being incubated in that type of architecture. And it was the emergence of an identity, a city that, as you wondered, is just one more city, but a different one – a city that was very important for its geographic location, and for what it has undergone.
And I am very much interested in celebrating Havana’s anniversary, not just because of its founding on the north coast – that far-off and almost universally admitted event of which there is no documentary evidence to date -, but what interests me most is the accumulation of events that have taken place here.

The philosophy of the people of Havana.
Of course; that way of thinking that Alejandro de Humboldt found so amazing when he arrived in the city, and spoke of the rare culture and erudition of people in Havana. Clearly, that culture referred to that of Havana’s elites. And he was welcomed, and addressed, about the things he found surprising.
It is, at the same time, the emergence of very important cultural institutions, such as St. Ambrose Seminary – later St. Charles and St. Ambrose Seminary, when it reached its greatest significance in the early 19th century; and the University that was founded on 5 January 1728. It is an accumulation of knowledge. It is the art that was always undermined, but today it has been given its rightful place; a very important form of art emanating from Havana.
At the World Exhibition in Seville in 1992, the Christian world’s most beautiful filigree cross – so they said – was on display at the Vatican’s pavilion. That cross was borrowed from Spain, and was in a church in Icod de los Vinos on the Canary Islands. Now, where was it made? Well, that cross was sent by Presbyter Estévez Borges, a prelate from the Major Parish Church in Havana, who also had an extraordinary library. But let us say that it could have been commissioned by him to be made in Mexico or Portugal by the best Portuguese silversmiths, as it was made of filigree silver and weighs 100 lbs. However, documentary research conducted by the late Leandro Romero – one of the founders of the Havana City Historian’s Office – has categorically shown that the Cross of Icod de los Vinos was made in Havana, by silversmith Jerónimo Espellosa, as evidenced in photographs of Espellosa working on that wonder in Havana.
When the Santa Clara Convent was erected after an open town meeting, one of the most beautiful Mudejar roofs was made – and it is signed by the master carpenter who made it. When a builder was hired to whitewash the Morro Castle or its lighthouse, or when another builder was commissioned to erect the highest tower – that of St. Francis of Assisi Convent – a number of trades had been developed in town, such as that of painters. We used to believe that there was only José Nicolás de la Escalera, but today the existence of other artists remains a mystery.
Does that mean that it could be said that perhaps the distance from the Metropolis, or something that has to do with Bishop Espada, or the important figures who settled in Havana, gave the city a freer, freethinking character?
Well, it was bound by royal ordinance until Seville’s trade monopoly was dissolved, and trade was opened. Ferdinand VII was abominable, but Havana is indebted to him for having taken such a decision – Havana’s tradespeople were set free. In fact, they were free to do trade after the siege and taking of Havana, by the English, which will be commemorated next year. And I must say in advance, that I will commemorate what is never commemorated by anyone – the defense of Havana. I am not celebrating the taking, but the defense, of Havana. I will celebrate the defense of Havana because, irrespective of its flaws, it took the English two months – yes, two months! – to finally seize the city; and I will celebrate the resistance put up by the people in Havana, which was of utmost importance. Resistance by Pepe Antonio in Guanabacoa, and later in Jesús del Monte, by alderman Aguiar up there in La Chorrera, by Luis de Velasco – who was not from Havana, but heroically defended the Morro Castle together with Marquess González and other comrades-in-arms, and by Havana-born blacks who were members of the artillery battalions, and later asked King Charles III to grant them freedom for their loyalty and for what they did to prevent their city from falling to the British.
So back then, that conquest led to trade with the United States – the English colonies from the north, which would almost immediately become the United States (1762-1776). The fact that Spain had recognized the United States – to take revenge on England – and had signed a political and trade agreement in El Escorial with them – with the new colonies turned into a State-, would bring to Havana trade in goods with the north. Trade was subsequently opened with the European Hansa, and all of that brought about a flourishing city, in terms of products, greater exchange and so on.
And you mentioned the free-thinking sentiment. Well, I think that it took shape with the passing of time. Humboldt sensed an antislavery sentiment among learned people here, which was already a reality when [Bishop] Espada arrived in Havana in 1801; he was appointed in 1800, around the close of the century, and became promoter of the arts and thinking. The founding of the Royal Economic Society of the Country’s Friends by Mr. Luis de las Casas – the best governor of Cuba during that period – as rightly claimed by Emilio Roig, had in Father Varela and [Tomás] Romay two of its most outstanding figures – just to mention a few.  Mr. Luis de las Casas took interest in vaccination, the newspaper, public libraries, and the creation of institutions that accumulated an important cultural and scientific heritage, albeit belatedly in relation to the American continent.
It has almost become a ritual, Leal, that you send a message to the people of Havana asking them, perhaps from the depth of your commitment to your city, what you wish or dream them to do. In the light of this anniversary, what do you ask from us this time?
Nowadays, the situation in our city is cause for deep concern. What I mean by this is that Havana, as an urban and built-up aggregate, is showing signs of great fatigue. There are whole municipalities such as 10 de Octubre, Cerro, Centro Habana, a great deal of Habana Vieja, Vedado showing the ravages of time, and they require the development of a city policy to address this. In all modesty, I think that we have worked toward this, – and I will not speak on behalf of this institution, but on my own behalf as a historian and a citizen born here, in this capital city. I can say that I am as proud of being from Havana as I am proud to have been born in Cuba. If I were to be posted to Baracoa tomorrow, I would not accept, because Hartman is there and he is the most brilliant [historian]; and neither would I accept if I were appointed to Camagüey, which would be a great honor, but José is there; or if I were posted to Cienfuegos, where Irán is. Therefore, I will not be posted anywhere else, perhaps to a small town, and from that moment on, that small town would become the center of Cuba, and of the world to me, because that is what vocation is about, what I think we have been taught, and what the Revolution and Fidel, in particular, has wanted to teach us.
But what do we do in the face of a hurricane, for instance, things being the way they are? That is why we need every citizen’s cooperation, and the new laws and regulations being passed should be in support of people’s initiatives to build and save our city. And when I say to “build”, I mean to do it well, because deplorable construction models are being entrenched. There is a need for stronger actions by those in charge of proposed new models, who should say: “this is the way this should be done, or it would be better or nicer like this.” It’s the same as a seamstress or a tailor would do with their clients, they would tell them: “look, this fits you better than that, though I will do as you please,” but you should always make a suggestion.
I believe that, from the City Historian’s Office position, we have tried and wanted to assume the responsibility of rebuilding, and giving an example of what can be done, and how, on behalf of the State, and as part of the State – as the Historian’s Office is the Cuban State. There are solutions that have been applied to Old Havana which are not applicable to other places, because architecture is different and there are large conurbations; the number of people living here is disproportionate to the area occupied by the Historical Core – a World Heritage Site.

But I would urge the people of Havana not to lose hope and work together; to use every opportunity they have to rebuild and build. Demolishing is always easier than putting up; destroying monuments is easier than erecting them, and it is easier to question things than to assert and commit ourselves. I believe that the time has come to think this way, and support the Havana City Government in every initiative it takes, conducive to changing this pressure upon us.

Finally, as you have put it so many times, Havana is a city with a mystery, a charm, something special. Where does that mystery lie?

It’s a combination of its atmosphere and its people. I believe that this is a baroque city, not in an orthodox context of the stylistic definition, but rather due to its customs and traditions, and because its architecture comprises every particular preference. Havana is a fabulous mixture of things which produce a unique outcome; it is a state of mind, an atmosphere, a city covered with a decadent veil – and wherever that veil is torn, the city shows through, saying, “here I am.” If a building in Havana is to be restored, any building from any period, it should be painted the right way; that is, it should never be painted if the inside is in ruins. The idea should be to restore and then paint. Painting is not only meant for decoration, but also for protection; it is a covering to save architecture, in those cases where painting is applicable.
So, I believe that there lies the key – the city is susceptible to change for the better. Our city is there; others have been lost. In particular, Latin American cities have undergone modernism as interpreted in a commercial sense – with some exceptions, and very few examples of notable works found in any other Latin American city. But, the plundering brought about by that sort of pedestrian modernization spared almost no city. Havana, however, is still there; it has survived. We lose what falls apart, but the city is there.
That is why I believe that we need to struggle to revert this trend in any possible way. A process needs to be initiated for the upkeep of our city – for maintaining it, as we say in Cuba. And I would like to elevate the concept of maintaining – which means to maintain things the way they are – to conserve and invigorate our city. And then we will be able to appreciate Havana’s smile that is seen every night in the hundreds and thousands of people sitting along the Malecón wall which is like a big sofa, the big armchair where everybody finds room for free conversation with the world, whilst facing the ocean. We should always remember that we live in a city by the sea, like Alexandria or Cartagena; on an island that is always waiting for what is to come, for what is coming, for something new – a city that has always been a stronghold of the way Cubans, and in this case Havana-born people, think, are and act.


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Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana 2011
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