A Canadian on the Island of Pines

On Island of Pines, at the beginning of the 20th century, was very easy for the locals («Pineros») to distinguish people from the Cayman Islands from among the other foreign residents on that islet

By: Ciro Bianchi Ross

Email: ciro@jrebelde.cip.cu

2007-10-16 | 13:47:24 EST
Photo: LAZZoom

On Island of Pines, at the beginning of the 20th century, was very easy for the locals («Pineros») to distinguish people from the Cayman Islands from among the other foreign residents on that islet. Things got complicated with the Asians and people of other nationalities; they called Japanese residents “Chinese,” while Canadians and European settlers were invariably seen as «Americans.»

This added complications for historian Juan Colina La Rosa in determining the existence of a colony made up of more than fifty families that came from Canada to the island in search of fortune. They were taken as Americans, as was William Joseph Mills, the most conspicuous in these individuals. He was perceived as one of the biggest US investors in the area.

However, the fact is that William Joseph Mills was born in Bingranton, Ontario, Canada, though he spent the last forty years of his life on the Island of Pines. He was the owner and president of the Isle of Pines Steamship Company, the shipping line that connected New Gerona with the Surgidero of Batabanó (in Cuba proper). His descendants ultimately lost the company in 1955, when —pressured by the Batista government— they were forced to sell it. I discovered this information in a 2004 copy of the islet’s Carapachibey magazine, and I don't want to pass up this occasion to share this with the readers of this web page.

The house along the river

Mills arrived in Cuba in 1901 with all of his family. He was then 42 and had accomplished much outside of his country. In Syracuse, New York, he had gotten married, in 1889, with Anne Benneth Tomlinso. They had three children, among them Robert Davis, the first-born. By his death he had become the head of a steamship company.

Upon arriving on the Island of Pines, Mills immediately built a wooden house, and in the style that existed in his native country. It was constructed beside the Callejón River, near the town of Santa Bárbara. There he would reside until the end of his life, recounted Colina La Rosa, adding that Mills’ company was one of the most important companies in the area because it completely dominated marine traffic to and from the “Big Island.”

His fleet was made up of: the ship Protector, leased by its owners and was a vessel that had provided services since the 19th century; the James J. Cambell which was moved by a propeller wheel located on one of its sides; and also the Veguero, the Isla and the Cuba. Beginning in 1905, the Christopher Columbus became the flagship of the company. In these, pointed out Colina La Rosa, many of the first North American colonists moved to the Island of Pines. Five pesos was the price of second class passage in those crafts, though this did not include on-board food service -- the first that included this charged seven pesos and sixty cents.

The Hurricane of26

The hurricane of October 20, 1926 was terrible for Havana. It is also the greatest natural tragedy suffered by the Island of Pines. It crossed the island from south to north with sustained winds of more than 200 kilometers per hour. It razed all buildings and cleared all fields that it found along its path. Mills ships did not have better luck.

Such was the havoc that officials of the British embassy in Havana visited the islet to learn of the fate the Canadian colony settled there. There were then some 55 families, almost all grapefruit growers; farmers, in the majority, from Ontario and Midwest Canada, although there was also a group of army retirees. Each one of those families was the owner of the earth they cultivated, or at least a part of it. “Very hard-working, diligent and of good character,” said the British officials on their visit.

Historian Colina La Rosa mentioned in his article in the Carapachibey magazine part of the report of the diplomats:

"... all of the human establishments are destroyed to a greater or lesser extent. The port of New Gerona is in ruins. The trees have been demolished, eight or ten ships are totally destroyed, most of the buildings are no more than foundations and many of those that were not demolished have suffered damage so severe that they are virtually uninhabitable."

Other towns also evidence the havoc. "Santa Bárbara's village, where the great percentage of the Canadians live, there is nothing left but the foundations of houses, and the conditions in Santa Fe are worse... ten percent of the houses of the planters that I interviewed cannot even be repaired."

The losses were also considerable for Mills. The waters of the Las Casas River were forced from their bed and the power of the wind transformed several of the ships into tangled heaps; others were blown far from the bank. Nonetheless, the manager knew how to overcome the difficulties and reconstructed them so as to retain his monopoly over marine transportation.

«You going to Cuba

The motor vessel “El Pinero” was the most important of all the crafts of the Mills company. It is inscribed in history as well as in the imagination of Cubans. Everyone, at some time or another, has heard tell of this mythical craft that connected two territories of the archipelago, very close and yet very distant prior to 1959.

Until that date, the Island of Pines was a forgotten place for the Cuban government. The residents —understandably so— saw the rest of the national territory as a strange land that seemed to be the metropolis of the lowly colony about which official concerns concentrated on the National Prison for Men, the so-called «Model Prison» – soldiers and sailors were there sent there to serve time. This would all prompt the question from area residents whenever they saw someone preparing to take the ship heading for Batabanó: "You going to Cuba?»

It is said that the Island of Pines is the “Treasure Island” immortalized by Robert L. Stevenson in his celebrated novel. The English officials who inspected it when their troops took possession of Havana in 1762 appraised it as the «jewel of the southern seas.»

Foreigners considered it good business. They were the owners of the money, the earth and the best citrus plantations, those in which Cubans worked as laborers. The millionaire Hedges, owner of the Ariguanabo textile mill, acquired about 70,000 acres along the southern coast there after 1940. American proprietors surrounded the famous Bibijagua beach, with its black sands, and prohibited entrance to that place of exceptional beauty.

Up to 1945, only two Cuban presidents had ever visited the island. Grau came that same year, and Machado twenty years earlier, to leave it with the damned inheritance of a prison. President Fulgencio Batista, fond of fishing, built a vacation house there, as did several other government officials. In those days, commandant Capote Fiallo said that he had given more to the island than Batista had given to all of Cuba; and he wasn't wrong, since he was, simultaneously, the director of the prison, the head of Squadron 43 of the Rural Guard, a delegate of the minister of Government and Public Works and the de facto mayor – positions that allowed him to accumulate properties valued at three million pesos.

However, we spoke of the boat «The Pinero.» Mills acquired it for 119,000 pesos in 1926. That steel ship, built in Philadelphia in 1901, was rechristened with that name, which until then had been called the Vapor Nuevo (New Steamer). It was 51 meters long.

The coups

Juan Colina La Rosa affirms that the company pier was on the bank of the river Las Casas, but that its crafts could be seen by anyone of the ports in Pinar del Rio Province. Between 1931 and 1940 Mills’ earnings were more than 129,000 pesos.

In 1934, the crash of the National Bank & Trust Company rebounded to affect the owners and merchants who resided on the island. It was the old Isle of Pines Bank, which had been founded in 1905 and had changed its name in 1912. The older Mills had been very linked to that entity, as was his son Robert Davis, who was appointed by local authorities to assess the financial status of the National Bank, which had had problems stemming from much earlier.

Since the establishment of that bank, acting as the legal representative of Mills, he had been charged with buying ships for the company, and their crash was a blow that shook the company. At that time Mills was already 75, and though he remained as administrator and treasurer of the shipping company, he delegated more of the business’ decision-making to his oldest son. He did not have much time to live. He died in 1939 from a heart attack, unable to overcome his wife's death, which had occurred one year earlier.

Robert Davis then took over the full management of the company. In 1944 he acquired for this a new craft, which he named after his father.

This is how the 1950s arrived. After the 1952 coup d’etat, some executives and figures in the Batista government, including Batista himself, “gravitated” toward the Island of Pines. Not only did they build vacation houses there, but they also invested in land, made it a duty free zone, promoted tourism and facilitated other industries, like a grand cigarette factory that stayed in the planning stage. It was then that, among other hotel facilities, the Colony was built. It was formally opened the night of December 31, 1958.

Those big fish ended up eating the kid. Robert Davis Mills could not support the pressures that he was subjected to and was forced to sell the Isle of Pines Steamship Company to cattleman and merchant Francisco Cajigas and to Ramón Rodríguez, the owner of Partagás tobacco.

Unfortunately, historian Juan Colina La Rosa does not divulge in his article written for Carapachibey magazine what became of him. We imagine that once he lost his business he left the Island of Pines, the land in which until then he had spent all his life.

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