First President Of The Cuban Republic
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
GENERAL TOMAS ESTRADA PALMA, the first President of the Republic of Cuba, has had his home for nearly twenty years at Central Valley, New York, a village about forty miles from New York City. Electors favorable to his candidacy were chosen without opposition on December 31, 1901, and two days later I had the pleasure of an interview with him at his New York residence. The estate comprises twenty-five or thirty acres, beautifully situated at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains. The house is a large four-story, modern building, occupied in part by a school—the Estrada Palma Institute. In front of the house is a row, of weeping-willow trees, and in proximity is a pretty pond, on which skaters were having great sport on the day of my visit.
The porch door was opened by General Palma, whose greeting was democratic and cordial. Had I not made a study of his picture, I should have been surprised at his appearance.
In complexion, and in color of hair and eyes, he is far from being a typical Cuban ; but, nevertheless, he is a thoroughbred one. Physically, he is below the average height, but is well built, with broad shoulders. He was so polite and so modest, and at the same time so dignified, that I felt myself in the company of a man not only kind in spirit, but also of large intellectual and moral stature, and two hours of conversation with him confirmed this impression.
Seated in his office, I said to him : " General, I wish to congratulate you on your election, and I am glad that the people have shown a just recognition of your lifelong devotion to the cause of Cuban freedom." He thanked me.
It is well known that the general dislikes to talk about himself ; but I told him that I had come to obtain some information about him, personal as well as political, and that, as he belonged to the public in a wider sense than ever before, the world desired to know more about him.
" Very well," he replied, " I will give you my story briefly. I was born in Bayamo, Province of Santiago, in 1835. My father died when I was a boy, and I was left entirely to the care and training of my mother.
" After my preliminary education, I prepared for the law at the University of Havana. Before graduation from the law school, however, my guardian died, and I was compelled to return home and take charge of the large properties which my father had left me. As a young man, I took a deep interest in the general movement on the island to secure more liberal reforms from Spain. We were not planning insurrection, but internal reform. The Spanish government refusing, however, to grant any concessions, we concluded that is was necessary to appeal to arms to redeem the island from the oppression of the Spanish yoke. The war for Cuban independence broke out in 1868. I was elected a member of the Chamber of Representatives of the republic just proclaimed. This legislative body appointed some of its members delegates to the army, and they were often called upon to take part in the conflicts on the field. I was one of those military delegates. In 1876, I was elected president of the republic, and in October, 1877, after several days of severe fighting, I was taken prisoner and sent to Spain, where I was imprisoned in the famous castle of Figueras, not far from the Pyrenees. I had spent about nine years in the saddle of war, and was dreary of heart at the outlook for my country. In February, 1878, the Cubans, and Spaniards made an agreement of peace, called the compact of Lanjon, and in June of the same year I was set free. I must say that during my imprisonment I was treated kindly. The Spanish government wished me to go to Cuba to aid the Captain-General in affirming the treaty of peace and in promoting the work of reconstruction, and many flattering promises were made to me if I would comply with the request. Among other things promised was that I should have restored to me my estates, which had been levied upon by the Spanish government. But I brushed all the fair promises aside, and resolved that I would never set foot on the soil of Cuba so long as it should be under Spanish rule. Being convinced of my inability to do anything for Cuba in the United States, I went to Honduras, where I was appointed postmaster-general ; afterwards I was principal of the Normal School supported by the government.
" In the capital of the country, I married the daughter of President Quardiola, who had died in 1863. But my heart was all the while longing for my native island, and I determined to return to the United States, where I might possibly render some service in its liberation. I established this school in Central Valley, for boys and young men of the Spanish-American countries, and it has been successful. This house has been a home for my family, and, from the start, has been the scene of incessant plans for the liberation of Cuba. About the time I came here, I united with José Marti in plans for another uprising. The last steps for the movement which broke the power of Spain in Cuba were arranged in this house by Marti, General Gomez, and myself. According to those plans, a second war began February 24, 1895. Marti was killed May 11, 1895, and I was elected, in the beginning of July, delegate of the Cuban Emigration, to look after the interest of the Revolution.
" In September, the Cuban provisional government appointed me its general agent and diplomatic representative in the Exterior. For four years I was head of the delegation, doing my best, sending munitions of war, and working in Washington to secure the notice and favor of the United States government, and its help in our struggle for freedom. In the providence of God, that help came, and the rule of Spain in Cuba was broken forever. In June, 1899, I closed my office in New York, and retired to private life, feeling that my work for Cuba was done."
I asked the general on what grounds he based his hope of the ultimate success of the Cuban Republic.
" To begin with," he replied, " we have an island materially rich, with a fertile soil, and salubrious climate. The people are industrious, especially those in the country districts ; all that they ask is to have plenty of work at reasonable compensation. They are fond of home, and by nature are law-abiding. They love liberty and are brave, but relentless when stirred by oppression. The Cubans are anxious for their children to be educated. One of the reasons assigned in the Declaration of the Ten Years' War was that Spain treated us so murderously in order to pay the standing army that oppressed us, and would not furnish schools sufficient to educate our children. The Cuban people are singularly hospitable. A stranger, visiting a home, is not only treated with kindness, but is offered a cup of coffee as an evidence of good-will. They have what is called the Southern type of hospitality. Though our people are hard workers, they are not, as a rule, as provident as people of industrial habits ought to be. They have a free and easy way, spending their money on the present rather than saving for a rainy day. They are just and honest in their dealings and have faith in God."
I asked the general whether or not he had permanently lost his properties in Cuba.
" My wealth," he said, " originally consisted of vast lands, large, ample houses and barns, and slaves. When I entered the Ten Years' War, I called my slaves together and told them to go free. That war resulted in the extinction of slavery on the island. My houses and barns and fences were destroyed by the pillaging of war. When the United States took the hand of Spain off the island. it was taken off my land, of course, and I have the title to it again."
General Palma spoke good English, but now and then, during our conversation, the Spanish accent would leave me in doubt as to his exact meaning, when he would say the same thing in Spanish to his sons, José and Tomas, Jr., who would repeat the sentence to me in a little plainer English.
General Tomas Estrada Palma, with his ability, his political sagacity, his patriotism, his bravery, his domestic fidelity, his integrity, his modesty, his kindness, and his faith in the Almighty, will make an ideal first President of the Cuban Republic.
The singleness of purpose of General Palma accomplished miracles. The deep soul-consuming determination of his life was to set Cuba free. Though defeated in the field his spirit was unconquered. While teaching school and sup-porting his family in our land, he was all the while patiently winning the favor of the United States to his cause, and finally he secured the intervention of our government which broke the power of Spain in Cuba.
There is no such thing as failure to an imperial will, especially if it be coupled with a strong faith in the living God.