Travelers in Havana

/ 1 December, 2018

Traveler is a term that can be attributed to a crowded series of transhumances and human concerns. It can comprise the act of exploring, the movement of the colonizer, the long journey of the historian (…); but also the aesthetic experience and education of the criterion attained with the education of the cultural pilgrimage. (…)

In the long journey to the New World, the bay of Havana with its access surrounded by imposing fortresses, recreated and magnified in the European engravings, had to be a paradise for travelers arriving from the stormy waters of the Atlantic. The hazardous journey found its haven of glory in the large pocket bay, protected from the winds, which offered the pilgrim the panorama of a city devoted to its port. At the cry of land (…) a traveler arrived in Havana in 1697, who carried away by his century’s taste for honnêtes gens, ventured into the lands of America in his insatiable desire to see the world. Giovanni Francesco Gemelli offrs few details in the short chapter he dedicated to the port city, through which he travels like an accountant describing the temples and convents according to the amount and arrangement of their altars (…).

If Gemelli’s memoirs were a success of travel literature and they were published in three languages, another type of pilgrim would arrive during the 18th century. (…) Precisely before the taking of Havana by the English, the city received in the second half of the century painter and engraver Pierre Charles Cannot ready to register on metal the significant aspects of the city with suspicious details: the access to the fortresses, the entrances by sea and land, the vulnerable points of its defense. Chance, confluence? These engravings will be the direct antecedent of the series made with the theme of the taking and occupation of Havana by the English, based on the drawings made in the city by Dominique Serres and Elías Dunford between 1762 and 1763. The latter would give the insular iconography the first views of the principal city’s colonial plazas. And although the city only lived 11 months under British rule, the commercial opening and the economic boom that came after the historic event would attract new travelers who now spoke Shakespeare’s language.

(…) This year (1800) would mark a before and an after for the city because of the arrival of its most illustrious visitor, German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Considered the second discoverer of the island, Humboldt traveled accompanied by French Aimé Bonpland (…) were feted by the most notable insular families during their rural excursions. From the rooftop of his host’s mansion, Humboldt determined the exact length of the city and there he wrote the notes that would later be published in 1807 as part of the Voyage aux regions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (…)

The cultured society that received him undoubtedly has an influence on the special esteem he has for this Spanish colony, providing news about the physical aspect of its nature, its climate and its economic activities, its unknown territories and its trade.

This empathy will not have a similar echo in the stories of other travelers from the early 19th century. For British Francis Robert Jameson, who visited us in 1820, as for American Abiel Abbot, who recovered his health around 1828 (…) there is a fist religious impact whose criticisms are centered on the celibacy the Catholic ecclesiastical state professes (…). They are actually not very interested in the erudition they find, but they are in the economic structure, amount of imported slaves, annual profits from trade (…)

Abiel Abbot shared a transcendental event in Havana’s history, which was the inauguration of the Templete (…). rmay painted in 1828. Already by that time the lithographic workshops introduced by the French were spreading throughout Havana (…). With them the influx of books of illustrations would arrive, in vogue by romanticism in Europe, and which are published in the form of album with the views of Federico Mialhe and Eduardo Laplante, becoming guides for future excursionists. These engravings represent a new chapter in the itinerary of the profound island, caricatured by some, studied by others, but which, little by little acquire the physiognomy that starts giving shape to Cuban identity. (…)

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