Return to Index
A Survival of the Centuries in Interior Cuba

By Elisa Armstrong Bengough

Published in the June 1905 issue of "The Four-Track NewsóAn Illustrated Magazine of Travel and Education," Vol VIII, No. 6, by George H. Daniels, New York.

Camaguey, quaintest and least known of Cuban cities, is a store-house of delight to the casual visitor and a source of undying joy to the man behind the camera, for in CamagŁey the sixteenth century clasps hands with the twentieth, across streets so narrow that each carriage driver should possess a pilot's license to navigate them in safety.

The Spaniards who built the town were influenced by the Moors in their architecture and domestic art; the Cubans who added to it were influenced by both, and during the American occupation still another national influence has been added to the cosmopolitan tangle.

"Corridor of the old Mercedes Monastery, now used by the barefooted Carmelites"
Until recently Camaguey was so isolated and its accommodations for travelers were so unique in their discomforts that it remained well-nigh unexplored. Even to-day it is unknown to the average winter visitor, though it is easily reached now from Havana or Santiago by way of the Cuba Railroad, which has its chief offices in this least modern of towns. A large and comfortable hotel has recently been opened for tourists, and soon the medieval streets will resound with the voices of American visitors, enjoying the picturesqueness which has hitherto been the privilege of the few who braved the unknown horrors of the small Cuban hotel in search of the new and the quaint.

"The poorer classes carry the coffin through the streets"
As yet the city is Americanized only in its greater civic cleanliness, its paved streets and the bringing in of the telephone and electric light. The traveler may rummage in quaint, dark shops for souvenirs of the old Spanish regime, and add a wholly novel series of figures, vehicles and landmarks to the camera record of his winter trip; he may see a cock-fight, a party of Cuban boys playing what they fondly imagine is base-ball, and a number of washerwomen cleansing the family linen in a stream and drying it upon adjacent bushes. And these are but a few of the daily scenes which will help to gaily furnish forth his letters home.

And so Camaguey, queer jumble of all the centuries from the sixteenth to the twentieth, will remain to many a distinct picture long after the encroachments of the new have forced the old into the remote country districts.

The town was moved inland to its present location early in the sixteenth century, that its inhabitants might escape the visits of the pirates who infested the coast.
Altar in Mercedes Churchó"Richly and quaintly decorated in silver"
It is still frequently known by its ancient name of Puerto Principe, which it bore when it stood upon the site of the scarcely less medieval town of Nuevitas, some fifty miles away.

The early history of Camaguey is shrouded in fascinating mystery, since the Spaniards here, as elsewhere, were allowed to take with them their records, when driven overseas. In consequence the exact date of the founding of the town is unknown; certain it is, however, that it was among the first settlements of note in Cuba, and the gray, old cathedral is said to have been erected in 1530 ó two years before Havana was declared the capital of the island.

The history of the Cuban town is always written in its churches and other religious buildings, and no town has a more interesting one than this. The cathedral has, ere now, served as a fort; from its square tower a cannon has belched forth; soldiers have slept and fought where now the congregation prays, and its huge, heavy wooden doors show the marks of bullets.

Perhaps more interesting yet is the Church of the Mercedes, built in 1748 by the monks of that order. The altar is richly and quaintly decorated in silver, which produces a beautiful effect under the light of the candles in the arched gloom of the church. Here, as elsewhere, the women form the bulk of the congregation, but across the threshold of the monastery, next the church, no female foot may step.

The order was founded centuries ago for the purpose of converting the Moors to Christianity, but, its usefulness long gone, it has been permitted to die out in Cuba. The monastery is now in possession of the bare-footed Carmelites, quaint figures moving shadow-like, or cloistered in dim cells.

The houses are extremely picturesque; gay with coloróblue, mauve, orange and pink. White houses are forbidden by law and, indeed, under the brilliant Cuban sunshine they would be dazzling to the eye. The windows have either gracefully wrought iron bars or queer Moorish screens, gay with paint or perhaps tarnished gilding, and the kitchen, with its stove of blue and white tiles and especial little charcoal fire for each vessel, is a thing to see and remember.

"The Cuban looks his best in the saddle"
Camaguey retains its conservatism; courtship is still conducted with the lady on the balcony and the lover in the street below, and society as we know it, is undreamed of. Perhaps for this reason the scene in the plaza when the band plays, upon stated evenings, is especially gay. About the plaza circle carriages containing women in festal attire, while the enclosure is filled with gay groups of carefully chaperoned girls and white-clad youths admiring from a decorous distance.

The plaza at Camaguey has at each of its four corners a royal palm which has a curious history. These palms were planted after the Ten Years' War, in memory of four Cuban patriots; martyrs to the cause. The trees were carefully tended by the Cubans, by whom their history was generally known, the facts, however, being carefully kept from the Spanish officials.

"The shoe pedler"
The Rural Guard is a picturesque sight, in its uniform of trim and natty khaki, with wide-rimmed hat, for the Cuban looks his best in the saddle.

The funeral of Camaguey is not its least picturesque sight. The poorer classes carry the coffin through the streets, with heads uncovered, and instantly the head of the passer-by is also uncovered out of respect to the dead. On foot, follow the mourners, in humble every-day garb; and yet the coffin is decorated with silver and banked with flowers. The mourners are all males, for no Cuban woman follows even her dearest to the grave.

The pedler is a useful personage in Camaguey; a welcome visitor at many a door. He has his regular route and is a man of business. Sometimes he is a charcoal seller, with his wares tied in huge bags across the back of a mule; sometimes he is a vender of eggs and fowls; the former carried in a large flat basket on his arm, the latter tied together in each hand, alive but apparently indifferent to their fate.

The shoe pedler is seen so often that it would seem as if the whole of Camaguey purchased its shoes at its own front door. His wares are carried on a huge wooden frame from which they depend in tiers. The shoes are of a surprisingly gay appearance, among which the slipper of red, or blue, or even yellow is much in evidence, for, after all, the shoe in Cuba is most frequently a slipper.

"A miniature department store"
Some pedlers carry a miniature department store to their customers, on small carts piled high with household needs from lace to tinware, from calico to face powder, and drawn by a sturdy goat, comically dwarfed by his load, which seems to cause him no distress.

The babies of the poorer classes in Camaguey, as elsewhere in Cuba, seem to enjoy a pleasant immunity from clothes, for they play about the streets and doorways in Nature's garb in perfect comfort and Edenic innocence, wearing, at most, a single garment or perhaps a pair of shoes. And this is possible throughout the sunny year; for there are no winter winds to chill; Camaguey is a city of Summer!