Habano: The Great Ambassador


27/02/2012

Despite a thirst for adventures that could render in royal recognition and a launch into new dimensions, at the very onset Columbus’s journey was set out to snatch away the trade monopoly on Asia and Arabia from the great merchants out of Florence, Venice, Pisa and Genoa – the latter was said to be the birthplace of the seasoned sailor in 1541. Those were the lands manufactured goods and crops used to be imported from, items that were eventually sold at extremely high prices in other parts of the then impoverished Europe.
Knowledge of those lands was just secular. But the maritime trips to them through the Cape of Good Hope and all the way down Africa’s Atlantic coast, only to sail into the Indic Ocean, took months in the perilous seas. The south coast of Arabia, India or the anchorages of China were way too far, so there was an urgent need to come up with a shorter route that could eventually cut down on the risk of running out of goods and the threat posed by Berber pirates, always on the lookout for new vessels to assail and ransack.
Regardless of short-haul sailing in open seas, Columbus wound up in some kind of unknown place and hit upon a beautiful land inhabited by people who spoke tongues they had never heard before, brown-skinned and friendly dwellers who used to offer windfalls from the woods, their catch of the day or the animals they had hunted down.
Especially on the islands, the culture was clearly lagging behind those that had thriven in the Old World, civilizations that hadn’t even learned advanced farming techniques and that in quite a number of cases resorted to recollecting what Mother Nature could provide rather than to developing agriculture. Rich soils blessed with plentiful rainfall and teeming with untapped jungles, featuring exuberant wildlife, provided islanders with everything they needed to get food, even with a balanced and healthy diet.
Far from the Arabian sandy borders or the chaotic climate brought on by the Asian trade winds, this was a different world, even though Columbus thought it was exactly the same world Marco Polo had previously discovered, yet viewed from a different perspective.
In spite of the impression caused by the rare and surprising species of the American wildlife, the explorers couldn’t help but being dazzled: the natives really had a generous diet and were well-built, let alone very healthy.
Due to their kindheartedness or perhaps as a reaction before those beings who wore shining armors and unsharpened halberds that spit fire, the aboriginals were open to offering their delicious foodstuffs to the newcomers: jutia or manjuari, dishes based on maize, tapioca or cassava, and a universally-consumed item (potato) like such others as pepper and tomato, not to mention sweet and wonderful fruits like papayas, mameyes, sapodillas and avocados, washed down with an energizing liquid extracted from cacao.
A brownish leaf of peculiar aroma, always burning on one twisted end while being inhaled from the other – originally called coiba by Cuba’s first dwellers – quickly struck the Europeans’ attention. It turned out to be so luring and curious that they took some back home as something that was supposed to be inexorably shown to the members of the court and to the Catholic monarchs, the ones who had given the go-ahead to the 1492 expedition.
Those early encounters panned out to be the start of a to-and-fro exchange of products between the “civilized” lands and the West Indies. Yet idiosyncrasy, circumstances, likings or preferences eventually took their toll. Only through the long years of a piecemeal colonization and settling process, people from across the pond started taking in what had been odd to them as the blend of races was giving way to half-breeding and the customary mixture came out in the form of a transcultural phenomenon.
Gold-driven greediness and a thirst for precious gems eventually made those first centuries of cultural exchange – so mutually beneficial at the onset- skew off course, even though it’s widely known that in that American land, later nicknamed the New World, there was no such thing as reciprocity or exchange, but rather imposition and force.
But time stands tall as both judge and juror. The Americas inherited out of the enlightened Europe much of the livestock and crops people thought were hailing from that part of the world, though they had actually come from Africa, Arabia or Asia. Pigs, horses, cows, goats, hens, wheat, citrus fruits, rice, coffee, bananas and sugarcane are some good cases in point.
In the same breath, something similar came to pass in these American lands – with the sole exception of the date palm and a handful other crops that never adapted to the new continent’s tropical soils – people with less information on this topic might venture to say that beans and grapes hail from Chile, that coffee was discovered in Colombia and Brazil, bananas in Central America and the Antilles, that sugarcane comes from Cuba, and that wheat and rice – they continue to be as Asian as ever – were first found in North America and other lands of the western hemisphere where they are produced in colossal amounts, not to mention citrus fruits.
However, tobacco, that bunch of bundled leaves that Christopher Columbus himself took back to Europe from his first journey as an oddity of the new lands’ traditions, is no doubt one of the most impacting items of that cultural identification that resulted from the conquest and eventually spread across the globe, though clinging strongly to its place of origin as something exclusively hailing from that environment.
This was probably owed to its own history because tobacco was in the beginning demonized as a drug by the dogmatic inquisitors. However, that reaction turned out to be something positive because it’s well known that human beings hold on to those things that happen to be banned or forbidden. Then, as some sort of escape to the impossible, tobacco was said to have medicinal properties and it was prescribed as a cure for certain ailments, either in the form of snuff or as poultice.
It might be suitable now to think, imagine or dream this when 520 years of the Europeans’ first encounter with tobacco in Cuba have rolled on. Among the gentlemen who made up the first town hall in Havana, one of the them probably thought that, following the foundational prayers, it was high time for his skillful hands to knead clay into building elements, while another one opted to install a pier for both the heavy caravels and the much lighter galleys coming from far away to dock in. And so a third individual foresaw the possibility of developing a thriving market for agricultural products, cattle and sugarcane molasses. And it was right there when some guy addicted to the nicotine contained in that tobacco bundle devised a workshop to roll the leaves of the aromatic plant in an effort to give it better shape and tack a higher price tag on it.
And yes, it was indeed one of the humblest crops from the pre-Hispanic Americas, from a heterogeneous land stripped of cultural unity or identification in terms of technological breakthroughs, but also one of the most dependent on its original environment and, therefore, less adaptable to grow in other soils.
And so the humble green leaf worshipped by some beings whose primitivism and kindness led to their own extermination, so Cuban in every way, has lived out through the centuries as a posthumous tribute to a harmless and good race. It has changed entire lifestyles and has landed in the after-meal of both ordinary people and rulers, magistrates, noblemen and kings, but now as an inevitable detail to wrap up happy moments and functions, or just the most sublime moments in which an unrepeatable reference to Habano is made, as the pinnacle of that first encounter and acting as Cuba’s greatest ambassador anywhere under the sun