How Havana Got Its Market

: 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 u
der 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

smugglers and--ah----"

"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

the world.