There were times when Florida depended from the General Captainship of Havana, under Spanish colonial rule. At that time, the Cuban capital was a city bigger and more important than other towns like New York and Philadelphia in the United States.
The English, in 1762, did not occupy the Island, they were satisfied with holding on to Havana. One year later, Spain passed on to England all the Florida peninsula in order to get Havana back, hinting at the importance that Madrid attributed to the capital of the largest of the Antilles. Key West was considered part of Florida. Thence, when Spain gave that peninsula to England, the Key was part of the package. But London barely paid attention to the key, which continued to be used as occasional venue for fishermen born in Cuba and other islands of the Caribbean.
When the United States obtained its independence, citizens of the new nation arrived at the Key and for years Washington did not exert any control over Key West nor recognized it as its own. No other government did so either. This circumstance was maybe to blame for the fact that in 1815 the Governor of Havana gave the territory of the Key to Juan Pablo Salas. The sly creole owned the key for a short time. By that time, more U.S. citizens had come to live in Florida and Salas thought it most convenient to sell the Key, so he did. The naughty thing was he sold it twice, first to a John Strong, and later to a John W. Simonton, who did not take long to pass on the property to General John Guedes, former Governor of South Carolina. Eventually, the trick of Juan Pablo Salas was discovered and the case sent to court. Simonton was recognized as rightful owner He had no more right than Strong, but he did have more influence in Washington circles. By that time, the United States government had decided to take action regarding its rights over the Key. In fact, on March 25, 1822, Lt. Matthew C. Perry, Navy officer,landed on that territory and planted the flag of his country and proclaimed U.S. sovereignty over Key West. He proceeded to change its name and baptized the territory as Thompson’s Island, in honor of Smith Thompson, Secretary of the Navy, and named the port as Rodgers, in tribute to a war hero. None of the new names were to take roots in the people. Key West is its official name, although Hispanic descendants keep calling it “Cayo Hueso” because as tradition goes, the first settlers found many parts of human skeletons in its beaches. Be it called one way or the other, the southernmost U.S. locality, three hours south of Miami, is a tourist city by excellence and enjoys the preference of visitors from all over the world.
Several cruiser lines stop there. The facilities for a visitor are so many and extended that it is thought the Key is made for the travel industry. Its restaurants and hotels fit all pockets and exceed all expectations. Its museums are full of treasures saved from terrible shipwrecks and the souvenir stores attract the attention of passers-by. Key West is famous for having been, together with San Francisco and New Orleans, one of the most liberal towns of the United States, where the enthusiasm of its people and the brisk and easygoing pace of existence invites to a bohemian and relaxed stay.
My wife Silvia Mayra and I went once more to Key West, not as a reporter nor as tourist, but as a curious passenger of our history. Because that small island is, as Jorge Mañach would say, is an honorary piece of Cuban land. Bone and marrow of the homeland, as Fina Garcia Marruz uses to describe Cayo Hueso or Key West. A place so close to the emergence of Cuba as a nation was called by Jose Marti ” “the egg yolk of the Republic.” (To be continued)
(by Ciro Bianchi Ross )