Cuba in 19th Century Letters

Photo Feature by Ariel Glaria Enriquez

HAVANA TIMES — With the need to embrace a larger world, on January 31, 1851, coming from New Orleans on board the steamship “The Philadelphia”, without any other company but her trunks full of books, drawing charcoal and cardboard, Fredrika Bremer arrived in the port of Havana.

The prolific writer, founder of the first women’s organization in Sweden and tireless traveler, this extraordinary Nordic woman lived in Cuba for three months. From the abundance of details, anecdotes and information about traditions, nature, the climate, politics and religion all collected in her book Cartas desde Cuba, those three months seemed rather like the intense experience of years.

Her unique vision, which she offers us at sea even before setting foot in Cuba, draws us in from her very first letter. “If you want to start a new life inside and outside of yourself, travel by sea,” she suggests to her addressee.

Once in Havana, staying at an elegant hotel near the port and enchanted by the light which streamed through doors and windows, she writes “In Cuba, one isn’t afraid of sunlight.” Further into her book, however, she mentions: “The city’s streets are so narrow that during the day, awnings are hung from one house to the one opposite and thus flee from the sunlight which falls on white walls, and so facades are painted blue, yellow, green or orange.”

She tells us of her visit to Havana’s Cathedral and her suspicions, “While praying at the church, I hardly saw anyone. Priests were walking around busy with their different ceremonies, but clearly without devotion,” and when she kisses the bishop’s hand, she tells us: “On getting down on my knees and making the gesture to kiss the Bishop’s hand, I saw one of the city’s great men laugh and the Bishop also laughed, to tell you the truth. Both of them knew that this was just a show.”

Likewise, she doesn’t hesitate in warning later on that, “Religion hasn’t completely died out in Cuba; it still lives on here, in some beautiful charitable foundations… and it’s even stronger than in the United States in one aspect, namely: that they accept black people as well as white people at hospitals and charitable organizations.”

The old wall of Havana.

One night in the Cuban countryside, she writes: “Feeling the delicious night breeze like angel wings,” when she sees an unknown constellation above some hills of palm trees, she writes: “I still don’t know the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations which can be seen in Cuba and I haven’t found anybody who can tell me. Here, they think more about trade and having fun than about the stars.”

While moving from one place to another, traveling in a train, she surprises us with her descriptions of the Yurumi Valley in the province of Matanzas; she sketches and draws plants, birds, people and landscapes.

With an almost mystic bedazzlement and without abandoning her poetic logic, she touches, watches and sees every palm tree in our nature swaying before fertile life which sprouts from our earth in front of our senses, surprising us and enchanting us, with great intensity, all of the living cycle of the plantain tree, or, in her own words, “My dearest banana tree.”

With her, we are also witness to Cuba’s noble nature and its only cruel act: the duel to the death of a tall Ceiba tree and a parasitic plant, “An extraordinary event,” she writes, “and truly dramatic, where in a great embrace, clinging onto the great tree from its roots to its top, like a possessive lover, the parasitic plant finally destroys the tree. It’s the complete image of the tragedy which reminds us of Hercules and Deianira.”

However, it’s the tragedy of slavery which casts a shadow from her very first letter. “Ay, this earthly paradise must always be poisoned by the old snake.” Then, before leaving and putting a full stop to her last letter, she makes her human commitment even more extreme, “I wanted a new life in Cuba, but I could never live here. I could only do that where freedom exists and develops.”

Fredrika Bremer died in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 31st 1865. On October 10th 1868, at a sugar factory to be exact, the institution where the old snake showed absolutely no mercy, the copper bell rang announcing the Cuban peoples pressing right to freedom.

Sensitive and delicate, she knew how to pierce through the Cuban soul, she understood its independence struggle and she denounced the disgrace of slavery. She defended women’s rights and she loved this island’s nature which she identified with paradise.

NOTE: The building where Fredrika Bremer stayed, which was convertied in to a multi-family building many years ago, is located on Oficios and Obrapia Streets, in Havana’s historic center. HT thanks its neighbors friendliness. The plaque in her memory says:
“On January 31st 1851, the well-renowned Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer arrived in Cuba. She stayed in this building which was then a lodge, where she was visited by her fellow Swede, the guest soprano Jenny Lind.”

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One thought on “Cuba in 19th Century Letters

  • Hurry, Hurry, Hurry, Mc Donalds and Burger King……… What ever shall Cuba do without you?

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