Excerpt from Havana by Mark Kurlansky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Subtropical Delirium

by Mark Kurlansky

Havana by Mark Kurlansky X
Havana by Mark Kurlansky
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2017, 272 pages
    Mar 2018, 272 pages


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Barbara Bamberger Scott
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Pánfilo chose to build the town on a western inlet on the island's southern (Caribbean) coast. He was apparently not a good enough sailor—he was eventually lost at sea on an expedition to Florida—to realize that the more desirable location was the northern coast on the Atlantic. He named the settlement San Cristóbal de la Habana, and no one seems to know where the "Habana" came from. It is thought that the Taino chief of the region was named Habaguanex, but why would Pánfilo name a new town after the chief of the people he was killing? Some believe the place he chose was the spot that Columbus called Avan, but only because of the vague similarity in names and the fact that Columbus said Avan was located in the western part of the island. Today the port there is called Batabonó, and it is a small village of little distinction aside from being where Hernán Cortés outfitted his original expedition to Mexico.

Not only was San Cristóbal de la Habana founded on the wrong coast, but it was also situated near an unbearable mosquito-infested, disease-plagued swamp. Settlers endured a harsh existence there for a few years and then moved directly north some thirty miles across what was by chance the narrowest part of the island—to the right coast, where they found another buggy area. There they founded the new San Cristóbal de la Habana at the mouth of a river that the Tainos called Casiguagua but that today is known as the Almendares. The river runs through residential sections of present-day Havana, dividing the once-fashionable neighborhood of Vedado from the newer, also once-fashionable neighborhood of Miramar. The river had good freshwater and has long served as a water supply for change Havana, but aside from that it is unclear why the settlers chose this spot, since it was only a short distance from a superbly sheltered bay with more comfortable and defensible high ground. That spot was known as the Puerto de Carenas because it was used for careening, the term for hauling ships onto dry dock and caulking their hulls with pitch, which was found along the rocky shore.

In San Cristóbal de la Habana II, the settlers were again plagued by insects and disease, and finally in 1519 they relocated to the hill overlooking the bay at Puerto de Carenas, on the spot that is currently the Plaza de Armas, Havana's oldest square. They had finally learned that if you live by the water, you will live a lot better on high ground than low ground. The official founding date of San Cristóbal de la Habana III is November 16, 1519, not because anything in particular happened on that day, but because the pope had switched San Cristóbal Day from July 25 to November 16. According to legend, the colonists observed a mass under a large ceiba, or silk-cotton tree. Then they dropped the saint from the name.

The first houses in this third Havana were temporary mud-walled, thatch-roofed, dirt-floored huts facing the sea. The bay was soon filled with galleons loaded with booty brought in from Mexico and the Americas, to be shipped to Spain. For all the wealth passing through it, however, Havana was not a town of luxuries. There were so many tortoises and crabs crawling through the young town that after dark a tremendous racket of clawing and shuffling was reportedly heard, a gnawing noise that was the sound of Havana at night. In 1655, an English pirate ship sent a raiding party into town, but upon hearing in the dark what sounded like the scuffling of a huge army, they retreated to their ship. They had been pushed back by an army of tortoises.

The early Habaneros killed the tortoises, cut them into strips, and dried them into tasajo, by all accounts an unappealing dish, which could be reconstituted in boiling water for sailors on voyages back to Spain. Apparently, too, drying tortoise has an unpleasant smell, or perhaps the rotting leftover parts do, because eventually, due to the odor, the town government banned tasajo making within the town limits.

Excerpted from Havana by Mark Kurlansky. Copyright © 2017 by Mark Kurlansky. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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