Cuba: Yanqui doodle dandy

What could a 135-year-old visitor’s guide to Cuba possibly offer to today’s readers? A fascinating glimpse into the island’s social history

Illustration courtesy Signal BooksIllustration courtesy Signal Books

Nothing dates quite as quickly, at least in literary terms, as a guidebook. Scarcely has the text been delivered to the printer than hotels and restaurants have closed or changed hands. Within a couple of years the guide is pretty useless. After a decade it is little more than an exercise in nostalgia.

But then something rather interesting happens. An old guidebook — and by old I mean 50 or 100 years of age — becomes something else: a historical document. What was before just an irritating collection of out-of-date facts and advice is transformed into a sometimes fascinating slice of social history. After a certain time, the anachronistic turns into the historically significant. For this reason, the great classics of the Victorian and Edwardian period — those published by John Murray and Baedeker — have a shelf life far longer than was perhaps originally intended, for they open a window onto places and customs that have changed out of all recognition.

It isn’t just the places they describe that provide the interest. The attitudes and expectations of the people who wrote them are also sometimes so different from our own that they are intriguing in themselves. On reading an antique guidebook, more so than a novel, we realise how far we have travelled in our view of the world.

A visitor to 1860s Cuba, for instance, would have serious trouble recognising today’s island. True, elements of the landscape remain pretty much the same, and the result of 40-plus years of economic embargo has been to keep Havana and other cities mothballed in a crumbling sort of way. But on a day-to-day, human level, the place has undergone, quite literally, a revolution.

Samuel Hazard’s Cuba with Pen and Pencil, first published in 1871, takes us back to a time long before Fidel Castro, but a time when another revolution was in the air. In 1865, when the American author and illustrator arrived, Cuba was in the early stages of a liberation war. The objective was to rid the island of the Spanish colonialists who had controlled Cuba since the early 16th century. The struggle took the form of guerrilla warfare in the mountains and plains; the war rumbled on until 1878, abated briefly, and then flared up again in 1895.

Hazard, who had arrived ill and exhausted after fighting in the American Civil War, was sympathetic to the anti-Spanish rebels. His book hints obliquely at his support, but then makes clear that he is not in favour of independence as such. His preferred outcome is that Spain should be driven out of its colony — to be replaced by the United States.

In this sense, Hazard was part of mainstream thinking in the US, which saw America’s “Manifest Destiny” in terms of controlling, even physically occupying, the Caribbean as a means of heading off European aggression. America’s duty, it was believed, was to liberate colonies such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo from the Spanish yoke and to bring them under the enlightened protection of Washington, DC. US presidents had offered to buy Cuba from the Spanish, but to no avail. Now the Americans watched with interest as Cubans rose up against Spanish colonial rule.

Because of this political and geo-strategic subtext, Hazard’s is clearly a guidebook with a difference. But it is nonetheless still a guidebook, aimed, he says, at the “many Americans who, each year, either for purposes of health, business, or pleasure, flock to Havana, all glad to avoid the inclement weather of the icy north.” Even under Spanish rule, there was a considerable US presence in the island; there were at least 3,000 Americans resident, another 5,000 working under contract, and to these were added many more thousands from the American South who came, with their slaves, after the Civil War. Hazard obviously thought he had a market.

What he intended to provide was practical information useful to what he hoped would be a flood of American visitors. Where were the best, and best-value, hotels? How would one get from A to B? How much would a telegram to the US cost? These questions he answered, imparting also advice on when to go, what to wear, and how to avoid being ill. Alongside these basic considerations, he also wanted to explain to his readership how things were done in Cuba. He was at pains to stress the importance of old-fashioned courtesy, of not bullying the locals; in short, of trying to adapt to a slower pace of life.

This last theme, of course, smacks of a certain North American superiority complex, and Hazard was certainly not immune from the old stereotypes of lazy Latins, more inclined to fiesta and siesta than a hard day’s work. Worse, he was overtly — and probably typically — racist in his attitudes towards Cuba’s black population. What he found most attractive in social terms (and perhaps this is rather paradoxical, given his anti-Spanish feelings) was the old-world charm of Cuba’s white Hispanic elite.

As a result, Hazard is more interested in the graceful lifestyle of Havana’s wealthy, with balls, concerts, and the nightly paseo, than he is in conditions on the sugar plantations. But, as a conscientious guidebook writer should, he goes everywhere and describes everything in considerable detail. Which means that this is a big book, over 600 pages, looking at every major town, every province, and all aspects of urban and rural life. He explains how sugar is produced, what peasant farmers grow, what sorts of flora and fauna one might expect to see. Slavery he describes in the most matter-of-fact terms: indeed, he depicted Cuba’s slaves as rather well-cared for and idle, in contrast to industrious indentured labourers from China.

Hazard was a talented artist as well as a competent writer, and the pencil is as actively deployed as the pen. There are hundreds of drawings — of landscapes, buildings, and people — which bring the text to life.

Six hundred pages of solid information might prove a little indigestible, so it is fortunate that Hazard had an eye for the bizarre and the humorous. He likes to regale the reader with whimsical asides and comic anecdotes, such as when he teams up with a compatriot and they decide to share a hotel room:

“I am going to appropriate this table drawer,” selfishly remarked my friend, as he reached to pull it out with a jerk; but, in so doing, he found he had disturbed a family-nest of roaches, of which there must have been at least fifty of the largest size in the drawer, which he immediately let drop upon the floor, the roaches scattering in every direction, while my poor friend sought madly to stop their flight.

It is reassuring to know that some things do not change, such as the Cuban hotel cockroach.

Insects aside, the value of this book lies in its enormously detailed and often eccentric account of the last days of colonial Cuba. Within 30 years of its publication, the Americans had moved in to prevent the triumph of the independence movement and to impose their own pseudo-colonial rule. Hazard, who died soon after his book appeared — seemingly of tuberculosis, as he complains frequently of fever and coughing — would doubtless have approved.

What he left, however, was not the money-spinning guidebook that would be read by legions of American tourists, but rather a unique snapshot of Spanish-owned Cuba on the very cusp of irreversible change.

Cuba with Pen and Pencil will be republished in May 2006 by Signal Books and Macmillan Caribbean