As is already well known in the United States, General Weyler issued an order some months ago commanding the country people living in the provinces of Pinar del Rio, Havana and Matanzas to betake themselves with their belongings to the fortified towns. His object in doing this was to prevent the pacificos from giving help to the insurgents, and from sheltering them and the wounded in their huts. So flying columns of guerrillas and Spanish soldiers were sent to burn these huts, and to drive the inhabitants into the suburbs of the cities. When I arrived in Cuba sufficient time had passed for me to note the effects of this order, and to study the results as they are to be found in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas and Santa Clara, the order having been extended to embrace the latter province.
It looked then as though General Weyler was reaping what he had sown, and was face to face with a problem of his own creating. As far as a visitor could judge, the results of this famous order seemed to furnish a better argument to those who think the United States should interfere in behalf of Cuba, than did the fact that men were being killed there, and that both sides were devastating the island and wrecking property worth millions of dollars.
The order, apart from being unprecedented in warfare, proved an exceedingly short-sighted one, and acted almost immediately after the manner of a boomerang. The able-bodied men of each family who had remained loyal or at least neutral, so long as they were permitted to live undisturbed on their few acres, were not content to exist on the charity of a city, and they swarmed over to the insurgent ranks by the hundreds, and it was only the old and infirm and the women and children who went into the towns, where they at once became a burden on the Spanish residents, who were already distressed by the lack of trade and the high prices asked for food.
The order failed also in its original object of embarrassing the insurgents, for they are used to living out of doors and to finding food for themselves, and the destruction of the huts where they had been made welcome was not a great loss to men who, in a few minutes, with the aid of a machete, can construct a shelter from a palm tree.
So the order failed to distress those against whom it was aimed, but brought swift and terrible suffering to those who were and are absolutely innocent of any intent against the government, as well as to the adherents of the government.
It is easy to imagine what happened when hundreds of people, in some towns thousands, were herded together on the bare ground, with no food, with no knowledge of sanitation, with no covering for their heads but palm leaves, with no privacy for the women and young girls, with no thought but as to how they could live until to-morrow.
It is true that in the country, also, these people had no covering for their huts but palm leaves, but those huts were made stoutly to endure. When a man built one of them he was building his home, not a shelter tent, and they were placed well apart from one another, with the free air of the plain or mountain blowing about them, with room for the sun to beat down and drink up the impurities, and with patches of green things growing in rows over the few acres. I have seen them like that all over Cuba, and I am sure that no disease could have sprung from houses built so admirably to admit the sun and the air.
I have also seen them, I might add in parenthesis, rising in sluggish columns of black smoke against the sky, hundreds of them, while those who had lived in them for years stood huddled together at a distance, watching the flames run over the dry rafters of their homes, roaring and crackling with delight, like something human or inhuman, and marring the beautiful sunlit landscape with great blotches of red flames.
The huts in which these people live at present lean one against the other, and there are no broad roads nor green tobacco patches to separate one from another. There are, on the contrary, only narrow paths, two feet wide, where dogs and cattle and human beings tramp over daily growing heaps of refuse and garbage and filth, and where malaria rises at night in a white winding sheet of poisonous mist.
The condition of these people differs in degree; some are living the life of gypsies, others are as destitute as so many shipwrecked emigrants, and still others find it difficult to hold up their heads and breathe.
In Jaruco, in the Havana province, a town of only two thousand inhabitants, the deaths from small-pox averaged seven a day for the month of December, and while Frederic Remington and I were there, six victims of small-pox were carried past us up the hill to the burying ground in the space of twelve hours. There were Spanish soldiers as well as pacificos among these, for the Spanish officers either know or care nothing about the health of their men.
There is no attempt made to police these military camps, and in Jaruco the filth covered the streets and the plaza ankle-deep, and even filled the corners of the church which had been turned into a fort, and had hammocks swung from the altars. The huts of the pacíficos, with from four to six people in each, were jammed together in rows a quarter of a mile long, within ten feet of the cavalry barracks, where sixty men and horses had lived for a month. Next to the stables were the barracks. No one was vaccinated, no one was clean, and all of them were living on half rations.
Jaruco was a little worse than the other towns, but I found that the condition of the people is about the same everywhere. Around every town and even around the forts outside of the towns, you will see from one hundred to five hundred of these palm huts, with the people crouched about them, covered with rags, starving, with no chance to obtain work.
In the city of Matanzas the huts have been built upon a hill, and so far neither small-pox nor yellow fever has made headway there; but there is nothing for these people to eat, either, and while I was there three babies died from plain, old-fashioned starvation and no other cause.
The government's report for the year just ended gives the number of deaths in three hospitals of Matanzas as three hundred and eighty for the year, which is an average of a little over one death a day. As a matter of fact, in the military hospital alone the soldiers during several months of last year died at the rate of sixteen a day. It seems hard that Spain should hold Cuba at such a sacrifice of her own people.
In Cardenas, one of the principal seaport towns of the island, I found the pacíficos lodged in huts at the back of the town and also in abandoned warehouses along the water front. The condition of these latter was so pitiable that it is difficult to describe it correctly and hope to be believed.
The warehouses are built on wooden posts about fifty feet from the water's edge. They were originally nearly as large in extent as Madison Square Garden, but the half of the roof of one has fallen in, carrying the flooring with it, and the adobe walls and one side of the sloping roof and the high wooden piles on which half of the floor once rested are all that remain.
Some time ago an unusually high tide swept in under one of these warehouses and left a pool of water a hundred yards long and as many wide, around the wooden posts, and it has remained there undisturbed. This pool is now covered a half-inch thick with green slime, colored blue and yellow, and with a damp fungus spread over the wooden posts and up the sides of the walls.
Over this sewage are now living three hundred women and children and a few men. The floor beneath them has rotted away, and the planks have broken and fallen into the pool, leaving big gaps, through which rise day and night deadly stenches and poisonous exhalations from the pool below.
The people above it are not ignorant of their situation. They know that they are living over a death-trap, but there is no other place for them. Bands of guerrillas and flying columns have driven them in like sheep to this city, and, with no money and no chance to obtain work, they have taken shelter in the only place that is left open to them.
With planks and blankets and bits of old sheet iron they have, for the sake of decency, put up barriers across these abandoned warehouses, and there they are now sitting on the floor or stretched on heaps of rags, gaunt and hollow-eyed. Outside, in the angles of the fallen walls, and among the refuse of the warehouses, they have built fireplaces, and, with the few pots and kettles they use in common, they cook what food the children can find or beg.
One gentleman of Cardenas told me that a hundred of these people called at his house every day for a bit of food.
Old negroes and little white children, some of them as beautiful, in spite of their rags, as any children I ever saw, act as providers for this hapless colony. They beg the food and gather the sticks and do the cooking. Inside the old women and young mothers sit on the rotten planks listless and silent, staring ahead of them at nothing.
I saw the survivors of the Johnstown flood when the horror of that disaster was still plainly written in their eyes, but destitute as they were of home and food and clothing, they were in better plight than those fever-stricken, starving pacíficos, who have sinned in no way, who have given no aid to the rebels, and whose only crime is that they lived in the country instead of in the town. They are now to suffer because General Weyler, finding that he cannot hold the country as he can the towns, lays it waste and treats those who lived there with less consideration than the Sultan of Morocco shows to the murderers in his jail at Tangier. Had these people been guilty of the most unnatural crimes, their punishment could not have been more severe nor their end more certain.
I found the hospital for this colony behind three blankets which had been hung across a corner of the warehouse. A young woman and a man were lying side by side, the girl on a cot and the man on the floor. The others sat within a few feet of them on the other side of the blankets, apparently lost to all sense of their danger, and too dejected and hopeless to even raise their eyes when I gave them money.
A fat little doctor was caring for the sick woman, and he pointed through the cracks in the floor at the green slime below us, and held his fingers to his nose and shrugged his shoulders. I asked him what ailed his patients, and he said it was yellow fever, and pointed again at the slime, which moved and bubbled in the hot sun.
He showed me babies with the skin drawn so tightly over their little bodies that the bones showed through as plainly as the rings under a glove. They were covered with sores, and they protested as loudly as they could against the treatment which the world was giving them, clinching their fists and sobbing with pain when the sore places came in contact with their mothers' arms. A planter who had at one time employed a large number of these people, and who was moving about among them, said that five hundred had died in Cardenas since the order to leave the fields had been issued. Another gentleman told me that in the huts at the back of the town there had been twenty-five cases of small-pox in one week, of which seventeen had resulted in death.
I do not know that the United States will interfere in the affairs of Cuba, but whatever may happen later, this is what is likely to happen now, and it should have some weight in helping to decide the question with those whose proper business it is to determine it.
Thousands of human beings are now herded together around the seaport towns of Cuba who cannot be fed, who have no knowledge of cleanliness or sanitation, who have no doctors to care for them and who cannot care for themselves.
Many of them are dying of sickness and some of starvation, and this is the healthy season. In April and May the rains will come, and the fever will thrive and spread, and cholera, yellow fever and small-pox will turn Cuba into one huge plague spot, and the farmers' sons whom Spain has sent over here to be soldiers, and who are dying by the dozens before they have learned to pull the comb off a bunch of cartridges, are going to die by the hundreds, and women and children who are innocent of any offense will die with them, and there will be a quarantine against Cuba, and no vessel can come into her ports or leave them.
All this is going to happen, I am led to believe, not from what I saw in any one village, but in hundreds of villages. It will not do to put it aside by saying that "War is war," and that "All war is cruel," or to ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
In other wars men have fought with men, and women have suffered indirectly because the men were killed, but in this war it is the women, herded together in the towns like cattle, who are going to die, while the men, camped in the fields and the mountains, will live.
It is a situation which charity might help to better, but in any event it is a condition which deserves the most serious consideration from men of common sense and judgment, and one not to be treated with hysterical head lines nor put aside as a necessary evil of war.