Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Question Of Atrocities

One of the questions that is most frequently asked of those who have been in Cuba is how much truth exists in the reports of Spanish butcheries. It is safe to say in answer to this that while the report of a particular atrocity may not be true, other atrocities just as horrible have occurred and nothing has been heard of them. I was somewhat skeptical of Spanish atrocities until I came to Cuba, chiefly because I had been kept sufficiently long in Key West to learn how large a proportion of Cuban war news is manufactured on the piazzas of the hotels of that town and of Tampa by utterly irresponsible newspaper men who accept every rumor that finds its way across the gulf, and pass these rumors on to some of the New York papers as facts coming direct from the field.

It is not surprising that one becomes skeptical, for if one story proves to be false, how is the reader to know that the others are not inventions also? It is difficult to believe, for instance, the account of a horrible butchery if you read in the paragraph above it that two correspondents have been taken prisoners by the Spanish, when both of these gentlemen are sitting beside you in Key West and are, to your certain knowledge, reading the paragraph over your shoulder. Nor is it unnatural that one should grow doubtful of reported Cuban victories if he reads of the taking of Santa Clara and the flight of the Spanish garrison from that city, when he is living at Santa Clara and cannot find a Cuban in it with sufficient temerity to assist him to get out of it through the Spanish lines.

But because a Jacksonville correspondent has invented the tale of one butchery, it is no reason why the people in the United States should dismiss all the others as sensational fictions. After I went to Cuba I refused for weeks to listen to tales of butcheries, because I did not believe in them and because there seemed to be no way of verifying them--those who had been butchered could not testify and their relatives were too fearful of the vengeance of the Spaniards to talk about what had befallen a brother or a father. But towards the end of my visit I went to Sagua la Grande and there met a number of Americans and Englishmen, concerning whose veracity there could be no question. What had happened to their friends and the laborers on their plantations was exactly what had happened and is happening to-day to other pacificos all over the island.

Sagua la Grande is probably no worse a city than others in Cuba, but it has been rendered notorious by the presence in that city of the guerrilla chieftain, Benito Cerreros.

Early in last December Leslie's Illustrated Weekly published half-tone reproductions of two photographs which were taken in Sagua. One was a picture of the bodies of six Cuban pacificos lying on their backs, with their arms and legs bound and their bodies showing mutilation by machetes, and their faces pounded and hacked out of resemblance to anything human. The other picture was of a group of Spanish guerrillas surrounding their leader, a little man with a heavy mustache. His face was quite as inhuman as the face of any of the dead men he had mutilated. It wore a satisfied smile of fatuous vanity, and of the most diabolical cruelty. No artist could have drawn a face from his imagination which would have been more cruel. The letter press accompanying these photographs explained that this guerrilla leader, Benito Cerreros, had found six unarmed pacificos working in a field near Sagua, and had murdered them and then brought their bodies in a cart to that town, and had paid the local photographer to take a picture of them and of himself and his body guard. He claimed that he had killed the Cubans in open battle, but was so stupid as to forget to first remove the ropes with which he had bound them before he shot them. The photographs told the story without any aid from the letter press, and it must have told it to a great many people, judging from the number who spoke of it. It seemed as if, for the first time, something definite regarding the reported Spanish atrocities had been placed before the people of the United States, which they could see for themselves. I had this photograph in my mind when I came to Sagua, and on the night that I arrived there, by a coincidence, the townspeople were giving Cerreros a dinner to celebrate a fresh victory of his over two insurgents, a naturalized American and a native Cuban.

The American was visiting the Cuban in the field, and they were lying in hiding outside of the town in a hut. The Cuban, who was a colonel in the insurgent army, had captured a Spanish spy, but had given him his liberty on the condition that he would go into Sagua and bring back some medicines. The colonel was dying of consumption, but he hoped that, with proper medicine, he might remain alive a few months longer. The spy, instead of keeping his word, betrayed the hiding place of the Cuban and the American to Cerreros, who rode out by night to surprise them. He took with him thirty-two guerrillas, and, lest that might not be enough to protect him from two men, added twelve of the Guarda Civile to their number, making forty-four men in all. They surrounded the hut in which the Cuban and the American were concealed, and shot them through the window as they sat at a table in the light of a candle. They then hacked the bodies with machetes. It was in recognition of this victory that the banquet was tendered to Cerreros by admiring friends.

Civilized nations recognize but three methods of dealing with prisoners captured in war. They are either paroled or exchanged or put in prison; that is what was done with them in our rebellion. It is not allowable to shoot prisoners; at least it is not generally done when they are seated unconscious of danger at a table. It may be said, however, that, as these two men were in arms against the government, they were only suffering the punishment of their crime, and that this is not a good instance of an atrocity. There are, however, unfortunately, many other instances in which the victims were non-combatants and their death simply murder. But it is extremely difficult to tell convincingly of these cases, without giving names, and the giving of names might lead to more deaths in Sagua. It is also difficult to convince the reader of murders for which there seems to have been no possible object.

And yet Cerreros and other guerrillas are murdering men and boys in the fields around Sagua as wantonly and as calmly as a gardener cuts down weeds. The stories of these butcheries were told to me by Englishmen and Americans who could look from their verandas over miles of fields that belonged to them, but who could not venture with safety two hundred yards from their doorsteps. They were virtually prisoners in their own homes, and every spot of ground within sight of their windows marked where one of their laborers had been cut down, sometimes when he was going to the next central on an errand, or to carry the mail, and sometimes when he was digging potatoes or cutting sugar cane within sight of the forts. Passes and orders were of no avail. The guerrillas tore up the passes, and swore later that the men were suspects, and were at the moment of their capture carrying messages to the insurgents. The stories these planters told me were not dragged from them to furnish copy for a newspaper, but came out in the course of our talk, as we walked over the small extent which the forts allowed us.

My host would say, pointing to one of the pacificos huddled in a corner of his machine shop: "That man's brother was killed last week about three hundred yards over there to the left while he was digging in the field." Or, in answer to a question from our consul, he would say: "Oh, that boy who used to take care of your horse--some guerrillas shot him a month ago." After you hear stories like these during an entire day, the air seems to be heavy with murder, and the very ground on which you walk smells of blood. It was the same in the town, where any one was free to visit the cartel, and view the murdered bodies of the pacíficos hacked and beaten and stretched out as a warning, or for public approbation. There were six so exposed while I was in Sagua. In Matanzas they brought the bodies to the Plaza at night when the band was playing, and the guerrillas marched around the open place with the bodies of eighteen Cubans swinging from the backs of ponies with their heads hanging down and bumping against the horses' knees. The people flocked to the sides of the Plaza to applaud this ghastly procession, and the men in the open cafés cheered the guerrilla chief and cried, "Long live Spain!"

Speaking dispassionately, and with a full knowledge of the details of many butcheries, it is impossible for me to think of the Spanish guerrillas otherwise than as worse than savage animals. A wild animal kills to obtain food, and not merely for the joy of killing. These guerrillas murder and then laugh over it. The cannibal, who has been supposed hitherto to be the lowest grade of man, is really of a higher caste than these Spanish murderers--men like Colonel Fondevila, Cerreros, and Colonel Bonita--for a cannibal kills to keep himself alive. These men kill to feed their vanity, in order that they may pose as brave soldiers, and that their friends may give them banquets in hotel parlors.

If what I say seems prejudiced and extravagant it may be well to insert this translation from a Spanish paper, El Pais:

"There are signs of civilization among us; but the truth is that we are uncultured, barbaric and cruel. Although this may not be willingly acknowledged, the fact is that we are committing acts of savagery of which there is no counterpart in any other European country."

"Let us not say a word of the atrocities perpetrated at the Castle of Montjuich; of the iniquitous and miserable massacre of the Novelda republicans; of the shootings which occur daily in Manila; of the arbitrary imprisonments which are systematically made here. We wish now to say something of the respect due to the conquered, of generosity that should be shown to prisoners of war, for these are sentiments which exist even among savage people.

"The Cuban exiles who disembark at Cadiz are sent on foot to the distant castle of Figueras. 'The unfortunate exiles,' a letter from Carpió says, 'passed here barefooted and bleeding, almost naked and freezing. At every town, far from finding rest for their fatigue, they are received with all sorts of insults; they are scoffed and provoked. I am indignant at this total lack of humanitarian sentiment and charity. I have two sons who are fighting against the Cuban insurgents; but this does not prevent me from denouncing those who ill-treat their prisoners. I have witnessed such outrages upon the unfortunate exiles that I do not hesitate to say that nothing like it has ever occurred in Africa.'"

I do not wish what I have said concerning the Florida correspondents to be misunderstood as referring to those who are writing, and have written from the island of Cuba. They suffer from the "fakirs" even more than do the people of the United States who read the stories of both, and who confound the sensation-mongers with those who go to find the truth at the risk of their lives. For these latter do risk their lives, daily and hourly, when they go into these conflicts looking for the facts. I have not been in any conflict, so I can speak of these men without fear of being misunderstood.

They are taking chances that no war correspondents ever took in any war in any part of the world. For this is not a war--it is a state of lawless butchery, and the rights of correspondents, of soldiers and of non-combatants are not recognized. Archibald Forbes, and "Bull Run" Russell and Frederick Villiers had great continental armies to protect them; these men work alone with a continental army against them. They risk capture at sea and death by the guns of a Spanish cruiser, and, escaping that, they face when they reach the island the greater danger of capture there and of being cut down by a guerrilla force and left to die in a road, or of being put in a prison and left to die of fever, as Govin was cut down, as Delgardo died in prison, as Melton is lying in prison now, where he will continue to lie until we have a Secretary of State who recognizes the rights of the correspondent as a non-combatant, or at least as an American citizen.

The fate of these three American correspondents has not deterred others from crossing the lines, and they are in the field now, lying in swamps by day and creeping between the forts by night, standing under fire by the side of Gómez as they stood beside Maceo, going without food, without shelter, without the right to answer the attacks of the Spanish troops, climbing the mountains and crawling across the trochas, creeping to some friendly hut for a cup of coffee and to place their despatches in safe hands, and then going back again to run the gauntlet of Spanish spies and of flying columns and of the unspeakable guerrillas.

When you sit comfortably at your breakfast in New York, with a policeman at the corner, and read the despatches which these gentlemen write of Cuban victories and their interviews with self-important Cuban chiefs, you should remember what it cost them to supply you with that addition to your morning's budget of news. Whether the result is worth the risk, or whether it is not paying too great a price, the greatest price of all, for too little, is not the question. The reckless bravery and the unselfishness of the correspondents in the field in Cuba to-day are beyond parallel.

It is as dangerous to seek for Gómez as Stanley found it to seek for Livingston, and as few men return from the insurgent camps as from the Arctic regions.

In case you do not read a New York paper, it is well that you should know that the names of these correspondents are Grover Flint, Sylvester Scovel and George Bronson Rae. I repeat, that as I could not reach the field, I can write thus freely of those who have been more successful.


Richard Harding Davis

Sorry, no summary available yet.