Inside, out

A remnant of Havana’s old city wall.

EVERY night at 9 o’clock, regardless of season or weather, a detachment of cadets fires a cannon across Havana harbor at the heart of the old town. Begun centuries ago to warn residents of the nightly closing of the city gates, the cañonazo is now a pageant played out year-round for tourists. Acting the part of Spanish artillerymen, the recruits open a brief window onto Cuba’s long colonial past. The nightly boom of the cannon, meanwhile, reminds citizens across the bay that the capital was once enclosed by a wall, and that past the hour of curfew there was no way in or out.

Only a few small sections remain of a bulwark that, while never called on to resist an invading army, has defined Havana and its people for most of its history. The wall’s utility was limited well before gradual demolition began in the 1860s. Its paucity of gates could be frustrating but failed to deter a relentless to and fro of people and goods during daylight hours, or slow the inevitable concentration of settlements in the Extramuros, the territory outside the walls. Estimating the 1838 population to be 150,000, William Whitehead guessed that “the City proper, or ‘within the walls,’ does not contain but about one fourth of it.”1

The walled city and its nearby suburbs in 1826, according to Alexander von Humboldt.

Havana’s suburbs were burgeoning for decades beforehand. The Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt, sometimes called the “true discoverer” of America and arguably this hemisphere’s most conscientious and perceptive explorer, recorded human exploitation of the hinterland already at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and lamented its consequences.2 The arc of the city wall with its nine unevenly spaced bastions is plainly described on a map published to accompany his Political essay on the island of Cuba. But not far to the west of that line begins the march of the “arrabales or barrios extra muros,” inhabited districts he saw encroaching annually on the open space between.3 The year prior to Whitehead’s first visit, another American looked approvingly on this surge of development: “Yet what is Havana now, to Havana in the distant prospect? The country makes the town.”4 It took the prescience of a Humboldt to see that the making of a town could be the countryside’s undoing.

The city inside the wall stood on level ground, its streets and alleys regular and straight. But its entire expanse, calculated by Whitehead at “about two miles in extent from North to South, and one mile from East to West,” was “compactly built upon” and highly congested. Going on foot as he loved to do placed one’s clothes, if not one’s person, “always in danger” from the carriages and carts that thronged its narrow streets.5 While the old city had undeniable historic interest, Whitehead found little architecture there worth mentioning and even less natural beauty. To enjoy the delights of nature with some measure of tranquility, he would have to head for the Extramuros.

On many an evening a procession of volantes and quitrines, as seen in this view outside the Monserrate gates, flowed along the Paseo de Extramuros and, later, the Paseo de Tacón.

The journey was most safely and comfortably made in a volante, a conveyance so uniquely Cuban that nearly every foreign observer took pains to describe it.6 Like other visitors Whitehead remarked upon its enormous wheels and its spacious interior, screened on the front by “a curtain extending from the fore-part of the top to the dash board, so as to admit of the occupants only seeing out the sides.” If the top could be let down, the vehicle was properly called a quitrín. The way in which it was driven seemed oddest of all: the ends of its long shafts were chained to a small horse, its tail tied up in a club and sometimes attached to the saddle “in a most ridiculous manner.” He goes on:

One of these animals placed before a heavy Volante or Quitrine seems to be very much out of place, and one feels disposed to doubt the propriety of adding to the weight of the vehicle, particularly when it is seen that a postilion or ‘calesero,’ in the person of a stout negro, is to burthen the poor animal still more by getting astride of him.

The burly calesero mounted on this diminutive animal, decked out in jacket, high boots, spurs and a whip, rounded out the puzzling picture. At several places in Havana’s old city a volante or quitrín could be hired by the hour, and Whitehead went on many an outing in just this fashion.7

Exiting one of the city gates and traversing a wide ditch designed to be flooded “in time of war,” Whitehead made his early excursions by way of the Paseo de Extramuros, a tree-lined public promenade that Humboldt also knew and admired. Providing a healthy respite from the dirt and overcrowding of the old town, the Paseo also gave fashionable Habaneros an orderly environment in which to socialize, see and be seen.

Statue of King Carlos III that once stood in the Paseo de Extramuros.

The effect was a blend of open-air museum and theater, in which the young women and men of Havana played the leads. Music emanated from bands stationed at several points along the mile-long carriageway. At its center rose the god Neptune “surrounded by dolphins spouting water in every direction,” and at one end stood a marble figure of King Carlos III. Carved in Spain and dedicated in 1803, this was the only one of four planned statues to be executed.8 Nearby attractions included a botanical garden and herbarium, the lush gardens of Bishop Espada y Landa, and a wooden arena that hosted bullfights. The whole route was lined with paths and benches for those alighting from their volantes or arriving on foot. In Humboldt’s time, at least, those entering or leaving the Paseo from its north end met a distressing spectacle quite at variance with the fresh air and freedom of the Extramuros: a cluster of barracks where slaves newly introduced from Africa were housed, and from which they were sold. Whitehead, fully aware of the slave trade’s persistence in Cuba, mentions no such horror in this place.9

The Paseo as Whitehead encountered it in 1829 would be radically remade and renamed by the time of his last Havana sojourn nine years later. The Bishop’s gardens had begun to languish after Espada’s death in 1832, the bull-ring had been converted to a parade ground, and the 1834 arrival on the island of a reforming Captain General, Miguel Tacón, led to the disappearance of some of the old Paseo’s most cherished statuary. The fountain of Neptune vanished, although by 1838 something vaguely similar had appeared in its stead. Whitehead especially missed the figure of the late king, now unseated in spite of “the flattering inscription which it bore.” (Whitehead captured this inscription in an English rendering, and the statue itself resurfaced in another location after his final return to the north.) “Poor Carlos,” he grumbled, “has been obliged to succumb to the greater fame of a viceroy of a successor,” the pleasant grounds over which he had reigned now superseded by the more impressive Paseo de Tacón.10

Beyond the much altered landscape of the Paseo, Whitehead discovered more of Havana–much more–than was contained within its walls. Here, in common with the locals, he found greater freedom to move and to observe than could be enjoyed in the confines of the old city. The business of the suburbs enlivened the streets, goods spilling out the doors of shops as if in “a vast fair.” Commercial establishments seemed “literally turned inside out,” much as the town itself seemed to have emptied itself into the countryside.11

In the last of his “Letters from Havana” Whitehead makes for higher ground, assuring readers that, if hills in the United States afforded such vistas as those around Havana, they would teem with appreciative spectators. In Cuba, by contrast, the stranger drawn to such scenery “finds himself alone, as if the beauties of nature had but few charms in the eyes of the people about him.” The overlook he found most delightful was a prominence just west of the city “very aptly named Buena Vista.”12 His view from here captured the whole tableau: the harbor, ships’ masts, steeples, the turrets of the city wall, far-off fortifications, sprawling suburbs and the dwindling open space between. Here indeed was “Havana in the distant prospect,” which Whitehead evidently had all to himself.

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Letters from Havana IV,” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 10 August 1838 2:1-2, reprinted in The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 14 August 1838 2:3.

[2] Alexander von Humboldt, Essai politique sur l’île de Cuba (Paris 1826) 1:14-15.

[3] Essai politique 1:10-11.

[4] Abiel Abbot, Letters written in the interior of Cuba, between the mountains of Arcana, to the East, and of Cusco, to the West, in the months of February, March, April, and May, 1828 (Boston 1829) 113.

[5] “Letters from Havana IV.”

[6] Among the many accounts in English that describe the volante are those of Abbot, Letters 3; [Robert Francis Jameson,] Letters from the Havana, during the year 1820; containing an account of the present state of the Island of Cuba, and observations on the slave trade (London 1821) 75-76, 78; James Logan, Notes of a journey through Canada, the United States of America, and the West Indies (Edinburgh 1838) 201-202; Joseph John Gurney, A winter in the West Indies, described in familiar letters to Henry Clay, of Kentucky (London 18402) 204; Charles Augustus Murray, Travels in North America during the years 1834, 1835, & 1836. Including a summer residence with the Pawnee tribe of Indians, in the remote prairies of the Missouri, and a visit to Cuba and the Azore Islands (New York 1839) 2:139n.

[7] “Letters from Havana IV.”

[8] “Letters from Havana IX,” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 29 August 1838 2:1-2, reprinted in The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 4 September 1838 1:5-6. Either from a misapprehension of Whitehead’s or a printing error the monarch is identified, not as Carlos III (who ruled 1759-1788) but as his successor Carlos IV (1788-1808). For the commission and execution of this statue see Francisco G. del Valle, “Documentos para la historia de la escultura en Cuba [I],” Cuba contemporánea 28 (January 1922) 66-76. For the sculptural program that produced it see Sigfrido Vázquez Cienfuegos, “Ejemplos del uso de la historia en el discurso político en La Habana entre 1808 y 1814,” in Josef Opatrný ed. El Caribe hispanoparlante en las obras de sus historiadores (Prague 2014) (81-95) 85-86. For the Fountain of Neptune see Paul B. Niell, “Rhetorics of place and empire in the fountain sculpture of 1830s Havana,” The art bulletin 95:3 (September 2013) (440-464) 445-446. The fountain later commissioned under Miguel Tacón is discussed ibid. 449.

[9] There has been speculation that Humboldt’s placement of the slave barracks on or near the Paseo (Essai politique 1:12-13) may represent a measure of poetic and political license (see Oliver Lubrich, “In the realm of ambivalence: Alexander von Humboldt’s Discourse on Cuba (Relation historique du Voyage aux Régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent),” German studies review 26:1 (February 2003) (63-80) 69 n30 and n31 (text of notes on 78). Their presence is, however, independently attested by Jameson in Letters from the Havana 77. Cf. also the later testimony of the Quaker abolitionist Gurney, A winter in the West Indies 209-211.

[10] According to Whitehead, the Spanish inscription proclaimed that “Carlos IV renowned for a delicate taste designed this undertaking [namely the Paseo de Extramuros]. The noble posterity of Havana, in honor of the signal favor conferred upon them, will perpetuate in its history a grateful remembrance of the author.”  “Letters from Havana IX.”

[11] “Letters from Havana IX.”

[12] “Letters from Havana XV,” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 26 September 1838 2:1-2, reprinted in The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 2 October 1838 1:4-5.

Images: 1) City wall and gate: author’s photograph. 2) Humboldt’s map of Havana: detail of an inset in P. Lapie, Carte de l’île de Cuba redigée sur les observations astronomiques des Navigateurs Espagnols et sur celles de Mr. De Humboldt, 1826, courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba José Martí. 3) Monserrate gates: Pierre Toussaint Frédéric Mialhe, Puertas de Monserrate, chromolithograph, ca. 1853, plate 8 in Album pintoresco de la isla de Cuba (Havana ca. 1855), via  4) Carlos III statue: Cuban Postcard Collection CHC0359, courtesy of University of Miami Library Cuban Heritage Collection.

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