Tampa  y Cuba:  B.C. (before cigars)

Maura Barrios


           When ships ruled the world, protected inlets grew into international port-cities.  Havana became the crossing guard between the Old and New Worlds; every ship stopped at its harbor.  The first conquistadores embarked from Cuba to explore Mexico and La Florida.  La Florida did not offer civilizations with gold or silver mines; but many Spanish colonists and friars “settled” the peninsula to raise cattle alongside native peoples and runaway slaves.   The first Governors of Florida lived in Havana, the capital of Spain’s Caribbean colonies.  Most of the records of Florida’s early colonial history might be found in Havana or in the Archivos de las Indias in Seville.  Two hundred years later,  English settlers advanced southward and so did the “civilized tribes” of Creeks, who became known as the Seminoles.  The Spanish colony defended by forts at St. Augustine and the African-held Fort Mosé could not resist.   The Spaniards evacuated the peninsula taking the last original natives of Florida to Cuba in 1762.   However, many Spanish and Cuban settlers remained in La Florida to continue their fishing, farming and cattle-raising ventures.  The peninsula returned to Spanish hands eventually; but Spain could no longer maintain its vast empire against the forces of the English, French, and Dutch pirates that picked away at its vulnerable edges.

            When ships were king, they traveled around the Gulf of Mexico – from Havana to Tampa Bay to Mobile to New Orleans.  The peoples and goods exchanged via these ports left layers of cultural identities that mixed in each place.  Tampa Bay’s abundance lured Cuban fishermen who established fishing villages around the Bay.  The village at Tampa’s bayshore was known as “Spanish Creek”.  The United States purchase of  La Florida in 1819 brought soldiers to fight the Seminoles in two major wars and the establishment of a fort at Tampa – Fort Brooke. 

The Ft. Brooke soldiers mistrusted the Cubans who sold arms to the Seminoles.  “Cuban Seminoles” were shipped off to the Indian Nation along with Indians.  When they arrived at New Orleans their speech was recognized as Spanish and so they were sent back home.  (See James Covington)

            Tampa’s shipping and trade expanded in the 1850s, exporting lumber and cattle to the sugar plantations of Cuba.  Many Tampa pioneer-family empires may be traced to this early trade between Tampa and Cuba.

           When ships crossed oceans, tobacco consumption flourished thanks to European sailors who picked up the natives’ habit from Cuban slaves.  Tobacco farms (vegas) grew rapidly in the small towns surrounding Havana.  Eventually these vega towns like Bejucal and Santiago de las Vegas gave way to King Sugar.  Tobacco’s move farther west to Pinar del Rio proved to be a god-send, the region continues to be world-renowned for its kind treatment of the tobacco plant.  

Tobacco played a major role in the development of the Cuban nation, balancing the sugar plantocracy’s conservative tendencies with more progressive values.  As Cuba’s premier anthropologist, Fernando Ortiz, wrote in his classic study, Cuban Counterpoint:  Tobacco and Sugar, “Sugar enslaves -- tobacco liberates.”   The tobacco Cubans organized the first protests against the Spanish Crown’s economic monopoly and supported independence movements.  When the Crown’s policies became intolerable, they moved their tobacco manufacturing enterprises from Havana to Key West, Florida with many establishing sales offices in New York City.  Those 19th century exiles supported independence; funding and arming the Cuban rebellion through ten years of war from 1868 to 1878.  [See Gerald Poyo]

           Though a Cuban female slave working for Count Odet Felipe produced the first hand-rolled cigars in the Tampa area; little note was made of the event.   Ironically, Mr. Plant’s railroad and Mr. Gutierrez’ search for guava land led to the founding of a new cigar city on the West Coast of Florida.  The forward-thinking and internationalist Tampa Board of Trade invited Gutierrez’ friend Vicente Martinez Ybor (née Ibor) and other Key West cigar barons to the small village of Tampa.  They promised infrastructure and security to tame the cigar workers’ radical labor activism.  They delivered on both promises.


Maura Barrios Álvarez,  Máster en Artes,  es la Historiadora de la Comunidad Cubana de Tampa y directora del proyecto Voces de West Tampa, una autobiografía de la comunidad cubana/latina de West Tampa.