Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Tacon the Governor and Marti the Smuggler

In 1834 Don Miguel Tacon, one of the most vigorous and tyrannical of the governor-generals of Cuba, took control of the island, which he ruled with a stern will and an iron hand. One of the purposes in which he was most earnest was that of suppressing the active smuggling on the coast, all the naval vessels under his command being ordered to patrol the coast night and day, and to have no mercy on these lawless worthies. As it proved, all his efforts were of no avail, the smugglers continuing to ply their trade in spite of Tacon and his agents.

The despoilers of the revenue were too daring and adroit, and too familiar with the shoals and rocks of the coast waters, to be readily caught, and the lack of pilots familiar with his difficult navigation prevented any close approach to their haunts. In this dilemma Tacon tried the expedient of offering a large and tempting reward to any one who would desert the fraternity and agree to pilot the government vessels through the perilous channels which they frequented. Double this reward, an almost princely prize, was offered for the person of one Marti, dead or alive.

Tacon had good reason to offer a special reward for the arrest of Marti, who was looked upon as the leader and chief offender of the smugglers. A daring and reckless man, notorious as a smuggler and half pirate, his name was as well known in Cuba as that of the governor-general himself. The admirers of his daring exploits grew to know him as the King of the Isle of Pines, this island being his principal rendezvous, from which he sent his fleet of small, swift vessels to ply their trade on the neighboring coast. As for Tacon's rewards, they were long as ineffective as his revenue cutters and gunboats, and the government officials fell at length into a state of despair as to how they should deal with the nefarious and defiant band.

One dark, dull night, several months after the placards offering these rewards had been posted in conspicuous places in Havana and elsewhere, two sentinels were pacing as usual before the governor's palace, which stood opposite the grand plaza of the capital city. Shortly before midnight a cloaked individual stealthily approached and slipped behind the statue of the Spanish king near the fountain in the plaza. From this lurking-place he watched the movements of the sentinels, as they walked until they met face to face, and then turned back to back for their brief walk in the opposite direction.

It was a delicate movement to slip between the soldiers during the short interval when their eyes were turned from the entrance, but the stranger at length adroitly effected it, darting lightly and silently across the short space and hiding himself behind one of the pillars of the palace before they turned again. During their next turn he entered the palace, now safe from their espionage, and sought the broad flight of stairs which led to the governor's rooms with the confidence of one thoroughly familiar with the place.

At the head of the stairs there was another guard to be passed, but this the stranger did with a formal military salute and an air of authority as if his right to enter was beyond question. His manner quieted all suspicion in the mind of the sentinel, and the newcomer entered the governor's room unchallenged, closing the door behind him.

Governor's palace in Havana


Before him sat the governor-general in a large easy-chair, quite alone and busily engaged in writing. On seeing him thus unattended the weather-beaten face of the stranger took on a look of satisfaction. Evidently his secret plans had worked fully to his desire. Taking off his cloak, he tossed it over his arm, making a noise that attracted the governor's attention. Tarn looked up in surprise, fixing his eyes keenly upon his unlooked-for visitor.

"Who is this that enters, at this late hour, without warning or announcement?" he sternly asked, looking in doubt at the unknown face.

"One who brings information that the governor-general wants. You are he, I believe?"

"I am. What do you want? And how did you, a stranger, pass my guard without challenge?"

"That is not the question. Your Excellency, I understand, has offered a handsome reward to any one who will put you on the track of the rovers of the gulf?"

"Ha! is that your errand?" exclaimed Tacon, with sudden interest. "What know you of them?"

"Excellency, I must speak with caution," said the stranger. "I have my own safety to consider."

"That you need not fear. My offer of reward also carries pardon to the informant. If you are even a member of the confederation itself you will be safe in speaking freely."

"I understand you offer an additional reward, a rich one, for the discovery of Captain Marti, the chief of the smugglers?"

"I do. You may fully trust in my promise to reward and protect any one who puts me on the track of that leader of the villains."

"Your Excellency, I must have special assurance of this. Do you give me your knightly word that you will grant me a free pardon for all offences against the customs, if I tell all you wish to know, even to the most secret hiding-places of the rovers?"

"I pledge you my full word of honor for that," said the governor, now deeply interested.

"You will grant me full pardon, under the king's seal, no matter how great my offences or crimes, if you call them so, may have been?"

"If what you reveal is to the purpose," said Tacon, wondering why his visitor was so unduly cautious.

"Even if I were a leader among the rovers myself?"

Tacon hesitated a moment, looking closely at the stalwart stranger, while considering the purport of his words.

"Yes," he said, at length. "If you will lead our ships to the haunts of Marti and his followers, you can fully depend on the reward and the pardon."

"Excellency, I know you well enough to trust your word, or I should never have put myself in your power."

"You can trust my word," said Tacon, impatiently. "Now come to the point; I have no time to waste."

"Your Excellency, the man for whom you have offered the largest reward, dead or alive, stands before you."

"Ha! you are—"

"Captain Marti."

The governor started in surprise, and laid his hand hastily on a pistol that lay before him. But he regained his self-possession in a moment, and solemnly said,—

"I shall keep my promise, if you keep yours. You have offended deeply, but my word is my law. But to insure your faithfulness, I must put you for the present under guard."

"As you will, your Excellency," said Marti.

Tacon rang a bell by his side, an attendant entered, and soon after Marti was safely locked up, orders being given to make him comfortable until he was sent for. And so this strange interview ended.

During the next day there was a commotion in the harbor of Havana. An armed revenue cutter, which for weeks had lain idly under the guns of Morro Castle, became the scene of sudden activity; food, ammunition, and other stores being taken on board. Before noon the anchor was weighed and she stood out into the open sea. On her deck was a man unknown to captain or crew, otherwise than as the pilot of their cruise. Marti was keeping his word.

A skilled and faithful pilot he proved,—faithful to them, but faithless and treacherous to his late comrades and followers,—for he guided the ship with wonderful ease and assurance through all the shoals and perils of the coast waters, taking her to the secret haunts of the rovers, and revealing their depots of smuggled goods and secret hiding-places. Many a craft of the smugglers was taken and destroyed and large quantities of their goods were captured, as for a month the raiding voyage continued. The returns to the government were of great value and the business of the smugglers was effectually broken up. At its end Marti returned to the governor to claim the reward for his base treachery.

"You have kept your word faithfully," said Tacon. "It is now for me to keep mine. In this document you will find a free and unconditional pardon for all the offences you have committed against the laws. As for your reward, here's an order on the treasury for—"

"Will your Excellency excuse me for interrupting?" said Marti. "I am glad to have the pardon. But as for the reward, I should like to make you a proposition in place of the money you offer. What I ask is that you grant me the sole right to fish in the waters near the city, and declare the trade in fish contraband to any one except my agents. This will repay me quite well enough for my service to the government. and I shall build at my own expense a public market of stone, which shall be an ornament to the city. At the expiration of a certain teen of years this market, with all right and title to the fisheries, shall revert to the government. "

Tacon was highly pleased with this proposition. He would save the large sum which he had promised Marti, and the city would gain a fine fish-market without expense. So, after weighing fully all the pros and cons, Tacon assented to the proposition, granting Marti in full legal form the sole right to fish near the city and to sell fish in its markets. Marti knew far better than Tacon the value to him of this concession. During his life as a rover he had become familiar with the best fishing-grounds, and for years furnished the city bountifully with fish, reaping a very large profit upon his enterprise. At the close of the period of his monopoly the market and privileges reverted to the government.

Marti had all he needed, and was now a man of large wealth. How he should invest it was the question that next concerned him. He finally decided to try and obtain the monopoly of theatrical performances in Havana on condition of building there one of the largest and finest theatres in the world. This was done, paying the speculator a large interest on his wealth, and he died at length rich and honored, his money serving as a gravestone for his sins.