By Ariel Glaria
HAVANA TIMES — On August 10, 1861, US President Abraham Lincoln appointed Mr. Elisha T. Wallace consul in Santiago de Cuba. He arrived in Havana in September that year and, in the early morning of October 6, 1861, stepped off the Vapor Cuba steamship and onto the city of Santiago de Cuba. His name, though not discredited, can today only be found in the bowels of Cuba’s official archives, which say nothing of the fact that this illustrious gentleman did not make this journey alone.
Caroline Wallace was only a little girl when she saw the rock fortress at the entrance to Santiago de Cuba’s port for the first time. She was accompanying her father, the new US consul to the Caribbean city, where she lived with hum for six years. With naïve objectivity, she was to leave us with the most unique account of Santiago de Cuba society that we know of today.
The bothersome insects, the popular lingo combining Spanish and creole, “assailing the visitor’s ears like the music from different instruments,” the slow pace with which the inhabitants of the city do everything, these are the colors of a world that this US child experienced with intensity and love.
With wise credulity, and despite her Protestant upbringing, she does not hesitate to narrate her visit to El Cobre. First, she visits the mines, the richest copper mines in the world at the time, the first to be excavated in the Americas by Europeans in 1524. There, she sees the “dirt and soot-covered” miners emerging from the 1000-feet-deep mines, in cages hoisted up with ropes. She then visits the El Cobre Shrine, where the miraculous Lady of Charity is worshipped. Here, her eloquence knows no bounds. Her instincts constrain her imagination and, with serene objectivity, she describes all that she hears and sees.
She tells of the legend of the virgin’s appearance, the coming and going of the devout throughout the day, up the brick steps leading to the shrine, the abundance of comfortable hotels for travellers who come from far, on foot or on horseback. Once inside the shrine, she tells us that the greatest attraction is, of course, the Lady of Charity. However, she claims to have been more impressed by the enormous silver chains that hang inside the shrine, holding up large metal bowls full of oil, holding hundreds of lit candles. The devout arrive with a long spoon, scoop up some oil and, after praying, proceed to drink it.
In the interests of historical accuracy, I should point out that the current shrine is not the same one that welcomed our young traveler. That one was torn down in 1906 and, towards the mid-20th century, the one we know today was built in its place.
With the same precision and keen eye for detail, Caroline offers a detailed description of the beauty of Cuban women, their vivacious gestures, their expressive faces, their fresh and affectionate demeanor and other customs inherent to Cuban females, none of which she hesitates to narrate, as features unknown to her in native New York.
Her immense interest in all of these new experiences would afford the US public, more than 30 years after her return to New York and on the eve of the Spanish-Cuban-American War, a glimpse at a world of singular beauty where different races, religions and habits mingled in a culture of contrasts. “Santiago de Cuba before the war.” It is not only a memoir, it is the memoirs a child kept in her diary.