The Tampa Bay Rays’ recent trip to Cuba brings to mind the many connections between the island nation and this area. By virtue of geography, economics and sociology, Florida often has had as much of a connection to the Caribbean as to the United States. Tampa and Havana represent that connection well, and people and trade goods have traveled between the two port cities for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
In the 16th century, during Spain’s age of exploration, several voyages were completed between Cuba and the Tampa Bay area. The expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez was the first of these. Narváez departed Spain in late 1527 and arrived in Havana to resupply and recruit more sailors and adventurers for his final destination — La Florida. He reached the shores of today’s Pinellas Peninsula and made his way to the north end of Tampa Bay. Narváez and half of the members of his expedition, totaling around 200 people, left the Tampa Bay area on foot in May 1528 to look for food and gold in north Florida. Only four members of that group survived what became an eight-year journey across what is now the southern and southwestern United States, all the way to the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Juan Ortiz was part of the ship-borne portion of the Narváez expedition. When they didn’t rendezvous with Narváez and the rest of the land party, they followed their contingency orders and returned to Havana. Ortiz was sent back to the Tampa Bay area with five others in an attempt to locate Narváez and the rest of the expedition. Five out of the six were killed almost immediately by the local Indians — retribution for what Narváez and his men had done to the tribe. Ortiz was spared through the efforts of the tribal chief’s daughter. He lived among them — and then another group in today’s southern Hillsborough County — for over 10 years.
Following in the footsteps of Narváez, Hernando DeSoto launched an expedition to the west coast of Florida via Havana in 1539. Most historians agree that he made landfall on the southern shore of Tampa Bay near the mouth of the Manatee River. It was there that he found Ortiz living among the local Indians as a slave — the first European-born person to live in Florida. DeSoto’s treatment of the indigenous people of Tampa Bay was no better than Narváez’s, and he remained in the area for only a short time before embarking on what would become the first European exploration of the southeastern portion of North America.
For over 200 years, there was very little interaction between the Spanish and the American Indians of Tampa Bay. This changed in the late 1700s with the advent of the fishing rancho. Fishermen from Cuba traveled north to the Tampa Bay area and fished in the region’s abundant waters. They salted their catch of mullet, pompano, redfish, trout and other species and shipped them back down to Cuba.
One such rancho was located on the northern shore of Hillsborough Bay, just to the west of the mouth of the Hillsborough River on the banks of a small creek. When soldiers from the U.S. Army, led by Col. George Mercer Brooke, arrived in the area in 1824, they dubbed the settlement “Spanishtown” and the adjacent creek “Spanishtown Creek.” The creek eventually became part of Hyde Park and was filled in by the city of Tampa in the 1910s.
Capt. James McKay, the Scottish-born entrepreneur, started the cattle trade between Tampa and Cuba in the 1850s. Florida cattle originated from breeds brought to the area by the Spanish in the 1500s. McKay knew the Cuban market was desperate for beef and that Florida’s hardy and lean “yellow hammer” cows could survive the journey to the island. Other cattle ranchers, including the Lesleys, Hendrys and Hookers, followed suit, and soon a thriving trade took hold. The Civil War interrupted this trade, but it resumed after the end of hostilities.
McKay’s daughter Almeria married Howell Tyson Lykes, and Lykes and his seven sons greatly expanded on the cattle trade between Florida and Cuba.
Another war, this one Cuba’s first war for independence, connected Tampa with the Caribbean island. Joseph Fry was among the first Anglo births at Fort Brooke, coming into this world on June 14, 1826. He graduated from the second class of the newly established U.S. Naval Academy but resigned his commission at the outset of the Civil War and accepted a commission with the Confederate States Navy. After the war, Fry was left without a country and, perhaps more importantly, without a job. In 1873, he was hired to captain the Virginius, a former Confederate blockade runner, to run supplies into Cuba for the revolutionary army during Cuba’s Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). The ship was captured by a Spanish vessel, and all the crew were arrested as pirates. The Tampa-born Fry was executed, becoming one of the first martyrs for Cuban liberty.
One of the unintended consequences of the Ten Years’ War was the shift in the cigar industry from Havana to Key West. The island city proved inadequate, so Vicente Martinez Ybor and Ignacio Haya both opened cigar factories in a new company town just to the northeast of downtown Tampa in April 1886. They chose Tampa because it was close enough to Cuba, the source of both the tobacco for cigars and the craftsmen and women to make those cigars. Henry B. Plant had just connected Tampa to the rest of the U.S. east coast via his railroad, and his steamships helped further connect Tampa to the gulf coast and the Caribbean. The change in Tampa was dramatic. The town’s population in 1880 was 720; by 1890 the newly reincorporated city of Tampa had over 5,500 citizens. At some point in the late 1880s, Spanish was likely the majority language spoken because of the incredible influx of cigar makers from Cuba. The Latin population of Tampa, which consisted of Cubans, Spaniards and Italians, helped to make the city one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the United States. The industry survived strikes, economic depression, world wars and changing tastes, but it could not survive the Cuban embargo placed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Today, there is only one large-scale cigar factory remaining in Tampa.
The figure most often tied to Cuba’s 1895 revolution is Jose Marti. Often called the Apostle of Cuban Liberty, Marti traveled to Tampa at least 20 times in the early 1890s to raise money, support and troops for the coming war with Spain. It is said he sent the message containing the date he wanted the new revolution to begin to Cuba by way of Tampa. The note was allegedly wrapped inside of a cigar in the O’Halloran Brothers West Tampa cigar factory. That cigar was successfully taken from Tampa to Gen. Calixto Gomez in Cuba.
The 1895 revolution turned into the 1898 Spanish-American War, and Tampa was the main point of embarkation for U. S. troops headed to fight in Cuba. Over 30,000 troops converged on Tampa during the summer of 1898, with close to half making it all the way to Cuba. Because of this and, more importantly, the work done before on behalf of the Cuban revolution, Tampa became known as the Cradle of Cuban Liberty.
A little-known connection between Tampa and Havana is found in the old neighborhood of Palma Ceia Park. Developed in the 1910s by James Taylor, the neighborhood features street names heavily borrowed from the streets of Old Havana. Credit for this is given to Angel Cuesta Sr., one of Tampa’s prominent cigar manufacturers, who had just returned from a trip to Havana when he met with Taylor. Taylor asked for advice on street names, and Cuesta provided him with the map of Havana he had with him. Most of the names remain today, though a few have been altered slightly and others have been changed altogether.
The mid-20th century continued to provide connections between Tampa and Cuba. Tampa’s Santo Trafficante Jr. ran numerous businesses in Cuba, including The Tropicana Club, during Fulgencio Batista’s presidency. One of Batista’s many outspoken critics was a young baseball-player-turned attorney, Fidel Castro. Castro traveled to Tampa to raise money and awareness for his political cause, following (in his mind, at least) in the footsteps of Jose Martí.
Castro’s reception was lukewarm but not overly antagonistic. His revolutionary rhetoric, which seemed like fantasy in 1955, became reality in 1959. Many of Tampa’s businessmen lost money and property in Cuba, including the Lykes family and Trafficante (who was briefly jailed by Castro as well). Hundreds of thousands fled Cuba since Castro took power, including one of Cuba’s best known and most celebrated pianists and composers, Ernesto Lecuona, who moved to Tampa in 1960 because of his dissatisfaction with the Castro regime.
Looking forward, it is easy to see a time when Tampa and Cuba are officially — and completely — reconnected. Only time will tell when that will happen, how it will happen and who will benefit.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments. Email [email protected] .org or call (813) 228-0097.