Cantabrian, Cuban beers and other Caribbean pearls

This article takes place between Cantabria and the exoticism of the Antilles. A couple of centuries ago, in a town in the Piélagos valley called Mortera, Ramón Herrera San Cibrián was born. With very modest roots, to achieve the desired economic and social advancement, he emigrated to Cuba. In Havana, he began an ascending career that was culminated with the founding, in 1850, of the company Herrera Vapors. By then he had already married the daughter of a Havana merchant. Little by little, it extended the concession of its navigation line, providing it with greater benefits, until constituting, in 1870, the Ramón Herrera Vapor Company. He was a promoter and one of the main shareholders of Banco Español de La Habana, while he began to stand out in his political facet, becoming mayor of the Cuban capital and a member of its board of directors.

He knew how to take advantage of the existing situation like few others. Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, was an exception in Latin American history, as it was one of the first lands that the Spanish colonized and remained under their command until 1898. In principle, its only function was to meet and refuel for the Atlantic fleets. Tobacco, coffee and sugar cane were exported, but without significant participation in the empire’s economy. The change in its mercantile trajectory took place from the months of British occupation, between 1762 and 1763, as the restrictions imposed by Spain were temporarily lifted. Cuban creoles discovered the economic potential of their island thanks to the fluidity of trade with England and North America. Its important slave society discouraged political radicalism until very late. In the first decades of the 19th century, blacks already made up a quarter of the population.

Ramón Herrera San Cibrián, during the Cuban insurrection, provided resources to the Spanish government for the war, such as the cession of ships to transport troops and armaments. He had already stood out for his actions at the head of the Fifth Battalion of Volunteers of Havana, made up of mountain people living there, during the Ten Years’ War. These facts were considered by King Amadeo of Savoy, who granted him the title of Count de la Mortera on July 16, 1871, a title that was confirmed on January 20, 1876 by Alfonso XII. When he died without issue, his brother Cosme de Herrera San Cibrián continued with dignity, and, after his death in 1893, his nephew Ramón Herrera Gutiérrez. The former Count of La Mortera had arrived in Havana with his cousin Cosme Blanco Herrera in the 1860s. Both were the heirs of the shipping company, which was renamed Nephews of Herrera, as well as an important fortune that was still increasing throughout the century. Within the endogamy typical of the time, anchored in economic interests, Ramón married his first cousin, Manuela de Herrera y Sousa, who, in turn, was the niece of his uncle’s wife, I Count de la Mortera. From this marriage, seven children were born, although only two girls survived. The eldest of them, Julia de Herrera y Herrera, was V Countess de la Mortera and Duchess of Maura, due to her marriage to Antonio Maura’s eldest son.

To understand the immensity of the heritage that that Cantabrian family amassed in Cuban lands, it is necessary to add to the splendid shipping business already mentioned fifty real estate properties spread across the island, as well as multiple bonds and monetary funds. That fleet, which had competed brilliantly with the Transatlantic Company of the Marquis of Comillas, he got rid of to buy, in 1891, a company in the services sector: the New Ice Factory, company dedicated in principle to freezing water for consumption as an essential element in the warm Caribbean climate. Later, with immense success, the business diversified into the production of beer, soda and spirits. Under the brand The Tropical, a beer was made with two-row barley and hops imported from Germany, which formed the main Cuban beer in history. The quality of this product, which was advised by French and German master brewers, was internationally recognized through various European and American awards. The benefits that it reported were immense and ascending during the first decades of the 20th century.

Aware that they were manufacturing the island’s star product, those enterprising minds understood that, to encourage their consumption, they had to provoke the public with scenarios in accordance with the new mentality that was emerging around the development of leisure. This was the origin of the Tropical Gardens, an idyllic space on that Caribbean island. They divided the land of that modernist stage into small private spaces, where dinners and dances could be given. That orchard became the most sought after place for the incipient middle class, who followed the tradition of the place of putting off their young girls at the age of fifteen. The sexual precocity of the indigenous women was thus justified, giving them, from that moment, free passage to the altar. The sublime coldness, the total ignorance of any human passion, is clearly antagonistic to the atmosphere with which the Caribbean intoxicates. Childish whims, laughing grace and silent perseverance: the magical, metaphysical meaning that John Keats found in the song of the nightingale could be applied to the feminine temperament that cultivates the Caribbean pearl.

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