How Havana Got Its Market
Category: IN THE CARIBBEAN
Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate
Among the Spanish governors of Cuba, some of whom managed by strict
economy to save a million dollars out of a salary of forty thousand
dollars,--men of Weyler's stamp,--it is pleasant to know of one or
two who really had the good of the island at heart. Such was the
honest Blanco, and such was Tacon, to whom Havana owes much of its
beauty and architectural character. He did what he could to abolish
brigandage, which under preceding administrations had become common. He
organized a force of night watchmen; he dealt with offenders according
to their deserts, and if at times he was too severe it was because he
believed that a lesson in the impartiality of justice was needed by
certain favored classes. He had a Latin's love of the sensational
and spectacular, though in conduct, rather than in appearance,
and in these days some of his acts would be set down to a love of
self-advertising. As they had their effect, those who profited by
increased safety could afford to be incurious of reasons. He startled
the populace on the very day he landed. Cuba had been overrun with
bandits, some masquerading as insurgents, while others prowled through
the towns cutting throats in the shadow of the church. Cries of "Stop
thief!" and "Murder!" were common at midday. More than one hundred
people had been stabbed to death before the Chapel of Our Lord of the
Good Death. Police and soldiery were terrorized, and no man cheerfully
went through the side streets after dark. Startling depravity was
instanced. Jose Ibarra, a mulatto, had killed seventeen people before
he was hanged at the age of seventeen. It was supposed that Tacon
would arrive with a flourish of trumpets and would try to impress
the public. The Spanish army was represented at the landing-place by
generals and colonels bedizened with bullion and buttons; there were
troops with silken flags and glittering sabres and bayonets; there was
a copious exhibit of bunting; society was there in carriages, with
liveried footmen and outriders; foreign diplomats were in uniform,
as if to meet royalty, and the clergy had a place of honor. The boat
touched the pier. A small man in civilian dress walked smartly to the
land. He had a riding-whip in his hand,--symbol of his rule: for this
was Tacon, and within a month he was to whip crime into its dens and
make the capital of Cuba safe. His first order carried consternation
to the advocates of fuss and feathers. It was to dismiss the parade,
remove the decorations, send the police to their posts, and declare
Havana in a state of siege. This was startling, but it gratified
and assured those who had long begged for an honest and watchful
government, and had continued not to get it. Crime recognized and
feared this master. "In a little while," says a Cuban, "you could
have gone about the streets at any hour of the night with diamonds
in your open hands and nobody would have touched you, not even the
Spanish Robert Macaire or Robin Hood, who is remembered bitterly in
Andalusia,--Diego Corrientes." Merchants going to and from the bank
with money had formerly been compelled to hire soldiers as guards,
and when they complained of violence the magistrates had said, "Go to
bed at seven, as we do, and you'll have no trouble." Thieves bought
their liberty from jailers. Tacon arrested the jailers in that case.
It does not take long to erect a reputation when it has a basis of
desert. An odd modern instance is told in the case of an American
newspaper reporter, John C. Klein, who, after ten years of absence,
was canonized by the Samoans, among whom he had lived for some years,
as a hero in battle, a slayer of Germans, and a wizard who closed
his own wounds by magic. The gods approved him, and the people in
their trouble prayed for the return of Talaini o le Meleke (Klein,
the American) to rescue them. And with Tacon it took hardly longer to
become a sort of national hero. The qualities he showed in reforming,
building, extending, and protecting Havana were so unusual that the
people willingly credited others to him he may not have possessed. He
has become legendary already.
Tacon, after gathering in two thousand of the riff-raff and putting
them at work on roads, piers, and prisons, applied himself with
special energy to the suppression of Marti, the most daring, yet the
slyest and most cautious of all the robbers in the country. He and
his band thought no more of splitting the weasand of a soldier than
tossing off a glass of brandy, and the people were more than half
his friends, because he joined smuggling to his other industries,
and was therefore able to provide them with many necessities, such
as wine and bandanas, at a price much lower than they commanded in
the shops. Yet the secret agents, the constabulary, and the troops
began to make it perilous for these law-breakers, and General Tacon
was hopeful of their speedy capture. On a certain morning he looked
up abstractedly from some letters he was writing on the case of
Marti and was astonished to see a burly but well-dressed stranger
standing before his desk. "How in the devil did you get in here, sir,
unannounced?" he asked, in some irritation.
"I come on secret business," replied the other, in a lower tone.
"Ha! About ----"
"Exactly. About Marti."
"Speak, then. You will not be overheard. What do you know?"
"First, your Excellency, let us understand the situation. There is
a large reward for this man, is there not?"
"There is. Capture him and the money is yours. Ah, I see! You wish
to turn state's evidence. So much the better. You shall be protected."
"But suppose I had been associated with the worst of these men? Suppose
I had committed crimes? Suppose I had been a leader?"
"Even in that case you shall be protected."
"Give me your word, as an officer and a gentleman, that, no matter
what my offences have been, I shall have an official pardon when I
put you on the track of the outlaws."
"You must earn the pardon. If you know the haunts of the smugglers
we shall expect you to pilot us to every one of them."
"I will do it. I am tired of an evil life, tired of hiding, tired of
fear, tired of hate. I wish to come back and live among men."
"Well spoken. And Marti?"
"I shall be pardoned, absolutely, when I bring him here?"
"Absolutely. When may we expect him?"
"What! To-day? This Marti ----"
"You are looking at him."
Tacon started, and his glance fell on a couple of pistols that
lay on the desk before him. He always kept them there, primed and
loaded. Marti smiled, drew from beneath his coat two larger ones,
handsomely mounted with silver, and placed them on the desk. "I am
through with them," said he.
Tacon looked at him almost with admiration. "You begin well,"
he admitted, "and you shall have your pardon. But until you have
fulfilled your promise and helped us to break up these bands of
"Oh, speak out: Thieves! That is right."
"Well, thieves,--we must keep you under guard."
"I am satisfied; only, let us get to work as soon as possible, and
have the business over."
"We will start to-morrow."
Marti was placed in a large room in a hotel under watch of the
constabulary, but free to order any comfort or luxury he could pay
for. On the very next morning he set out with a posse of soldiers and
visited all the resorts of his former associates in the vicinity. The
fellows had evidently suspected something, for they had made off. Their
haunts being thus disclosed, however, much of their plunder was
afterward recovered, and Marti's surrender having left them without
a leader, they retreated to distant provinces, and safety and peace
were restored to the island.
If Marti had any misgivings as to the certainty of his pardon after
this exploit, he did not show them. He returned to General Tacon's
office as cool and self-possessed as if he were running a boat-load
of spirits under the noses of the customs officers.
"You have been true to your part of the agreement," said the general,
"and I will be to mine. Here is your pardon, signed and sealed, and
this is my order on the treasury for the reward for your arrest. Sly
"I accept the pardon with gratitude, your Excellency, but I do not need
the money. My country is poor. Let her keep it. I am rich. Never mind
how I became so. Yet, if I may claim a reward, give me a monopoly of
the fisheries on this coast. Havana will not suffer if your generosity
takes this form."
And it did not. He got the fisheries, but he spent his profits freely,
and one of the first of his benefactions was the construction of
a market that had no superior in beauty and fitness elsewhere in
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