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Tragedy of Canarian emigration to Cuba

Havana, Cuba

 “Mañana me voy de aqui, lejos del Teide querido, porque no puedo vivir, en la tierra en que he nacido…” (Tomorrow I'm leaving here, far from Teide dear, because I can't live in the land where I was born…)

The emigration of Canarians to Cuba has manifested itself throughout history. In 1693, the Canarians settled in a sparsely populated area, founding Matanzas

Later, in the 18th century, most Canarians who emigrated to Cuba, settled in the province of Havana, although there were other centres populated by Canarians such as Sancti Spiritus, Remedios, Matanzas, Puerto Príncipe and the entire central region of the country. In the area near the capital, the islanders and their descendants were dedicated to the cultivation of tobacco.

Emigration intensified in the 19th century following the call of the boom in Cuba's sugar trade. However, and despite the great crisis that arose in the 1880s, in the face of competition for the massive planting of cane in areas of Brazil, Jamaica and other Antillean islands, the Canarians intensified their emigration to the Antillean island due to to the general decline of the economy in the islands.

Steamships and mail boats that left almost daily from the ports of Las Palmas, Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Santa Cruz de La Palma, overloaded their structures with Canarians who crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life. Many took their families with them, but others, like Domingo Morales Correa, momentarily left behind their wife and three children in order to, once established, send money and move their family to Cuba. However, the journey was not easy. The Canarians encountered all kinds of dangers, especially due to the tropical storms so frequent in any point of the Caribbean, to which we must add the systematic abuse to which the long-suffering emigrants were subjected, that in order to obtain greater benefits, the shipowners crowded into spaces inappropriate for a guaranteed minimum comfort. During the voyage, deaths on board were frequent, many of them due to the acquisition of tropical diseases, influenza, consumption, etc., without forgetting those caused by the lack of an almost total lack of sanitary conditions in the ship. Domingo was never heard of again. His wife, Francisca Morales Melian, did not know how to support their two sons, Domingo and Jacinto, and their daughter Sofía, so one day she made the brave decision, as so many other women did, to join a ship to go in search of her husband. When she arrived in Havana, she contacted other Canarians but no one knew how to tell her the whereabouts of her husband. Francisca returned to the Canary Islands with empty hands and hopes. The 19th century was fading away and Francisca asked her brothers for help to educate her sons. As for her daughter Sofía, Francisca got a city politician and his wife to take her in and give her the best education. 

SS Valbanera was a steamship operated by the Pinillos Line of Spain from 1905 until 1919, when she sank in a hurricane with the loss of all 488 crew and passengers aboard.

On August 17, 1919, arriving in Las Palmas from Barcelona and with a stopover in Cádiz, was the ship Valbanera of the company Pinillos and Izquierdo and captained by Ramón Martín Cordero. There, 259 passengers who bought a ticket to Cuba were waiting, including Agustina Ramírez Herrera, six months pregnant, who left Telde the day before with her husband, Juan Brito and their five children, in order to arrive in time to embark. The Valbanera had been built in Glasgow in 1906 and had a cruising speed of 12 knots. After leaving the island of Gran Canaria, she picked up 212 passengers in Tenerife and later on the 21st of the same month 106 more passengers who joined in the port of the island of La Palma. The Valbanera left for the Caribbean with 1,142 passengers, most of whom intended to reach Havana, and 88 crew members. During the crossing, Agustina Ramírez gave birth to her sixth child.

After making a stopover in San Juan de Puerto Rico, the Valbanera arrived in Santiago de Cuba on September 5, where 44 passengers were to disembark, however 742 remained. Others were waiting for Mª Concepción Rubio, her parents and siblings at the port, Canarian relatives who were living in the outskirts of Santiago. Pedro Tocino (he embarked on the island of La Palma) got lost drinking in a bar and when he heard the ship's warning he ran to the pier, but was only just in time to see the ship leaving as it took his belongings. 

Meanwhile, Juan Brito and his wife, Agustina, decided to continue to Havana, despite her recent and ill-fated delivery. 

However, a hurricane (the 1919 Florida Keys hurricane) was raging on the western coast of the island. On the 9th at dusk the signs of the port of Havana were turned on indicating that it was closed to the entry of ships. It was night and the Varbanera was barely approaching struggling against the strong hurricane wind. The captain decided to make signals asking for pilot with a morse lamp. The lookouts of the Castillo del Morro, at the entrance of the channel that leads to the port of Havana, distinguished in the midst of the hurricane wind, the lights of the ship that announced a great resistance to the challenges of nature, but suddenly the lights were lost and the Valbanera disappeared. 

The last confirmed radio communication with Valbanera was on September 9.

The ship ran aground capsizing on its starboard side and was covered by the raging waves. The sea swallowed the hopes of 400 passengers, most of them Canarians who were able to reach Cuba, but without being able to know the fate that would have been in store for them if they had landed in Havana. When those who got off in Santiago heard the sad news, they rushed to write to their families in Spain and the Canary Islands to tell them that they were safe. Pedro Tocino, who had missed the boat in Santiago for a few too many drinks, thanked his Virgen de Las Nieves, patron saint of his island, La Palma, for her luck.

Germán Pérez Hidalgo was a nurse on the Valbanera. He was traveling with his three children and his wife, pregnant with their fourth. They all perished in the sinking of the Valbanera. No bodies were seen or recovered.

Stories like this have been part of the lives of emigrants from any country. Today, the descendants of those who arrived in another place search for their roots in the land that bid their ancestors farewell.

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