A ghost hunter in deep waters Looking for traces of 1850s war in Cuba

December 08, 1996|By TOM CHAFFIN

ONE SPLENDID Sunday afternoon not long ago, I found myself trudging through chest-deep waters off the northwestern coast of Cuba - arms raised, with camera, pen and note-pad in hand. As I negotiated a path along a long, thin sandbar, my eyes remained fixed on a postage-stamp island about 200 yards offshore; a small obelisk rose from its center.

I had come to the quiet fishing village of El Morrillo to see where, a century and a half earlier, a military adventurer named Narciso Lopez came ashore with a clandestine army of hireling soldiers from the United States - a "yanqui" invasion of Cuba, more than 100 years before the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster.

Narciso Lopez was a handsome, swashbuckling, mustachioed former Spanish army general who, after a series of personal reversals, became obsessed with severing the island from Madrid. After fleeing to the United States in the wake of a failed rebellion, he led a series of privately financed military expeditions to Cuba.

Between 1849 and 1851, working mainly from New York and New Orleans, Lopez organized four separate expeditionary armies: Two were broken up by the U.S. government before they could depart; two reached Cuba and fought the Spanish army. After Lopez's final landing, at El Morrillo in the summer of 1851, he and an army of 500 marched into Cuba's interior highlands, where they hoped to rally indigenous reinforcements. But the reinforcements never showed, and over the next few weeks all of the invaders were either killed or captured by the Spanish army. Lopez was taken to Havana and, at age 54, publicly garroted.

Cuba's current government officially proscribes Lopez. Indeed,

many Cubans regard him as a traitor. His professed intention of making Cuba part of the United States hardly squared with the goals of Cuban nationalists. Yet many Cubans still venerate him. He did, after all, lead the first military challenge to Spain's dominion over the island. And, in 1902, the banner of Lopez's expedition was adopted as - and today remains - the Republic of Cuba's official flag.

In Havana, concluding research for a book on Lopez, I already had visited Cuba's national library and archives. But I also wanted to visit the places where Lopez had landed. I longed, however fleetingly, to sample the gestalt of 19th century Cuba. I longed for ghosts.

In the city of Cardenas, the first landing site, I had found several landmarks associated with Lopez. But no ghosts. The docks where the soldiers had landed were long gone, cleared away for a grimly modern industrial center. Whole ridges in the city had been carted away. Cardenas, which lies east of Havana, looked nothing like - felt nothing like - the crisp black-and-white engravings I had seen in the various 19th century journals that had chronicled Lopez's exploits. Even the local statue of him had been taken down soon after the 1959 revolution.

So, the next afternoon, it came as a wholly welcome surprise when, upon arriving at El Morrillo, I met villagers who were knowledgeable about Lopez and eager to talk, with proprietary affection, about him. And when I met three local children, who told me about the off-shore obelisk and offered to take me there, I didn't hesitate: I'd worn my bathing suit underneath my jeans that day. I stripped and followed them into the sea.

As the warm tropical waters rose around me, I thought of all the places I'd been, following Lopez's paper trail over the past few years - from Kentucky to California, from New York to Havana. But in all those years, this was the first time that my work as a historian had called me into the water. Here, on Cuba's northwestern coast, the long paper trail had run out into the sea.

The island off El Morrillo that we eventually climbed onto that afternoon - just a rocky speck in the surrounding flat sea - was no bigger in area than the average back yard. The obelisk that rose from it was only about 4 feet high. It had once been about a foot or so higher, before the elements - or someone - knocked off its top. At its base was a simple inscription: "General Narciso Lopez landed here on August 12, 1851 with the heroic project of liberating Cuba." The monument had been erected in 1951, eight years before the revolution, by cadets from the Cuban naval academy.

By the time we got back to the beach, word of the foreign historian had gotten out, and about 20 more villagers were waiting for us.

"Now," said one of the children as we reached the water's edge, "do you want to see Narciso's ship?"

"Well ... uh ... sure."

We - it seemed like the entire village - walked a little farther down the beach. As we rounded a bend on the edge of a mangrove swamp, several children who had run ahead of the rest of us suddenly stopped. They were pointing to a murky outline in the ankle-deep water. "Pampero, Pampero," they shouted, savoring the expression on my face as I heard them call the name of Lopez's ship.

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