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November 2008
THE YEAR CUBA WAS BRITISH

Chris Rose
Long before the sickly peppery smell of over-ripe guayaba and fruta bomba mixed with that of leady smog in the markets,
cuba-rose-

and in the time when you could still swim in the sea along the Malecon, when there were boys who learned to ride horses by jumping on their bare backs and trying to get away as quickly as possible and when children kept birds of prey as pets and went looking for lizards hiding under leaves that their birds would eat with one sudden dart of the head, unblinking, their gaze fixing you as you watched their casual cruelty, in the time when the clouds that gathered over the Sierra del Escambray looked like solidified rocks, like vast swirls of spilt white paint and when there were storms which would split open the sky and let you see the infinite white light beyond for a fraction of a second before it closed up again and made a sound like the sky itself was shattering and falling down around you, when nothing lined the one road that runs like a backbone along the caiman-shaped island but a few reedy, pale royal palms, when young girls with heavy black eyebrows sat at tall windows in the cooler evening air and looked out from behind barred windows as if from huge gilded birdcages and unfurled fans as beautiful and as intricate as the spread wings of the moths which hid in the shadowy eaves high up in their high-ceilinged houses, and before the fields started to be taken over with the rich green sugar cane that would later make their Spanish owners rich enough to build mansions bigger than those in Seville or Madrid, before all this, there was a year when Cuba was British.

In the year Cuba was British the clouds would have amassed, in much the same way as they do today, over the mountains that surround the town of Trinidad so as to look like a version of them, upside down, so that if the aeroplane you fly in on flipped over you wouldn’t be able to tell which was mountain and which was cloud. Behind the mountains that look like weighted down cloud ranges drawing a curtain across the road that leads to Havana, lived the family Maznaga Iznaga.

Don Julio Maznaga Iznaga inherited the family estates after having poisoned Don Juan Iznaga and marrying his widow, Dona Blanquita Iznaga. Don Julio often considers poisoning Dona Blanquita as well, but, as yet, he has not arrived at this juncture.

In the year Cuba was British the bars over the full-length windows in the roughly-cobbled streets of Trinidad would have looked like immense birdcages just as they do today, except in the house where the heavy eyebrows of Maria de la Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga were sometimes visible peering over her intricate unfurled fan, framing coal-black eyes which would give smouldering glances to attractive passers-by from behind bars which would have been newer, polished to look like gold, perhaps.

Maria de la Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga considers herself to be Spanish, like her father and mother and stepfather before her, even though she was not born in Spain, has never been there and, in fact, will never go there before the end of her brief life. Maria de la Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga has never, in fact, ever been further than the boundaries of her father’s tobacco plantations which stretch as far as the feet of the purple sierra which looks like solidified cloud anchored to the horizon and from behind which the road goes as far as the city of Havana.

In the year Cuba was British, Cuba wasn’t really British at all. It would, in fact, be more correct to say ‘In the year Havana was English’, since few of the red-jacketed soldiers got any further than the thick white limestone walls that surrounded the city built on a swamp, spending ten months of the year Cuba was British shoring them up, seven thousand of them dying of malaria and yellow fever in the attempt. In the year Havana was English, however, the British made their influence felt all over the caiman-shaped island of Cuba.

The British brought in business, the English economy, blasting away old world monopolies with cannons and mines, breaching open the walls to free enterprise, for stocks, shares and sugarcane. A modern world order was forced onto an ancient hierarchy, diversity onto monopoly. An island filled with nothing but old cattle and drying tobacco leaves was filled with the cocaine rush of the white powder from the sweet leaf at a time when sugar was worth its weight in petrol. The British sink money into armaments and ship in slaves to change the face of the timeless fields, widen the mountain roads for newer, heavier carriages and dig deeper harbours for bigger ships to sink in. Yet in a place where the struggle between companies and governments will continue for centuries to come, modernity is not a force to be welcomed and the Spanish landowners have a pull like gravity which lurks like the malevolent ghosts they still fear the slaves harbour, calling them up with the chants they sometimes hear out in the trees at night.

In the year Havana was English, however, an expeditionary force was sent out to make the entire island bend to being British. The island took remarkably little notice of them, and they of the island. At nine in the evening on the 6th of July in 1763, tired and bedraggled and horribly lost, having become separated from the other nine hundred and ninety-nine soldiers who were heading for Cienfuegos, Richard de Vere rode into roughly-cobbled Trinidad, the feared Spanish having simply ignored him.

In the year Cuba was British the pirates laid off for a while and the Spanish were, at least, able to breathe more easily for a while. The pirates were quieter because, seeing as they were mostly British themselves, they were having a much easier time of pillaging, looting and free trading and it was now much safer for them to go as far afield as La Cruz and Cartagena on the South American mainland and weigh their ships down with New World riches. Maria de la Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga was at least able to sleep that little bit quieter between the white linen sheets of her bed which would remain unruffled by the invader who had come the year before and locked all the womenfolk of the entire town in their houses. They’d called him the ‘Gentleman’, el caballero, even though he was French. At least he didn’t stink of old sweat and boiled wool and salt beef like the English did. They said that in Camaguey he had locked all of the women in the town in the cathedral for five days until their husbands would reveal where they had stashed their gold, and only then he let all of them out, unharmed. He smelt of rosewater and perfume. Even though they said he was a gentleman, Maria de la Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga was glad that the bars over the windows of their house in the centre of Trinidad made them look like immense birdcages, where she could look out, protected, and others could look in and admire, though she rarely went to sit at the window of an evening as her mother would not allow her to. Every so often she managed to stare out and smoulder.

And with one such stare Maria del Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga catches the attention of the tired, bedraggled and horribly lost Richard de Vere as he rides through the roughly-cobbled streets of Trinidad. Maria del Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga should have already been asleep but due to the fact that her mother was in bed suffering from acute stomach pains, she was free to sit and smoulder at the window, watching a tired and bedraggled English soldier with a French name that she doesn’t understand carelessly tether his horse to a post outside their high-ceilinged house.

And so distracted is Richard de Vere by the sight of coal-black eyes under coal-black eyebrows with a stare that could turn mountains into clouds that he does not hear a thing as someone jumps on his horse and runs and by the time he turns round he catches only the merest glimpse of a childlike figure galloping away to the end of the town and when he turns again Maria del Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga and her smouldering stare are there no more.

‘Dominoes’, says the man. ‘We play dominoes’. The now-stranded Richard de Vere learns quickly and has soon found a man who claims to know where is horse his and how he may get it back. If Richard wins, he gets his horse back. If he loses, he forfeits his last possession, his English rifle. As they sit down to play a huge moth with intricate wings like an unfurled fan flies around Richard and after a knuckle-bleeding dominoes session, he wins but asks his adversary if, instead of his horse, he may be introduced to the girl with the coal-black eyes.

Things happened quickly in the year Cuba was British and even before crowned heads in Europe have sat down around a large table in Paris and agreed to swap Cuba for Florida, Richard has already made a proposal to Maria del Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga, a proposal which, had she accepted it, would have eventually left her a madwoman in the attic of a cruel man in a bleak stone house in the cold coal-black north where the clouds above wouldn’t look so much like pale limestone rocks as grey granite headstones, but she did not know this at the time.

Not that Maria had a chance to accept or decline the proposal. Don Julio Maznaga Iznaga, a modern man, a man keen to get on, a man prepared to learn and learn quickly, has learned quickly from the British. Don Julio has quickly learnt that a stepdaughter may be worth more than her weight in sugar. He briefly considers gambling with his daughter much as he had done with the Englishman’s missing horse, now comfortably bedded in the Maznaga Iznaga stables, but realises that a modern businessman would not resort to such methods. He realises that a daughter worth her weight in sugar or cigars or even the gold that has disappointingly never been found in Cuba, may be used as stock to strike a deal. She will be placed onto the market and sold to the highest bidder.

A grey granite house in the grim north not being enough, Richard de Vere returns to Havana where he dies of malaria or yellow fever like thousands of others without ever being able to explain why he has a French name, and the crisis is averted. A year later, at the age of fifteen, Maria de la Assuncion Maznaga Iznaga marries Don Osvaldo de Maznaga Desengaño and has her first child within a year after which she produces a child a year until she is twenty-two at which age she dies.

Now all that’s left of the year Cuba was British are two crossed black cannons marked ‘GR’ propped up against the wall of the old governor’s palace on the Plaza de Armas, ignored by the tourists but pissed on by the passing local dogs. But there is still a muralist who can include two figures with just a few strokes of his brush into a picture of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, one of whom might be a girl galloping across the plantations which stretch as far as the feet of the purple sierra which looks like solidified cloud tethered to the horizon and from behind which the road goes as far as Havana on a stolen English horse which some people today swear they can still sometimes see.

Now the broken-backed caiman shaped island of Cuba is still a place where storms can shatter the sky in July and where women are still bought and sold and where the powerful still play at dominoes or dice or dare using the lives of others as their currency, where girls still learn to ride horses with their fathers trailing after them on a length of rope and there are still boys who play with birds of prey and go looking for lizards hiding under leaves that their birds will eat with one sudden dart of the head, unblinking, their gaze fixing you as you watch their casual cruelty.




© Chris Rose 2004
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