Reflections on Cuba: Talking Pirates in a Pirate Fortress

[Now that things have calmed down, I wanted to share some personal reminiscences about my time in Havana with the Minnesota Orchestra.]


Like many people, I’ve had a long fascination with pirates. (Well, perhaps I should say like many people in the English-speaking world; people in the Spanish Caribbean tend to have a somewhat different view of the “golden age of piracy.” In these parts of the world, Sir Francis Drake is still remembered as “El Draque,” a monstrous bogeyman used to frighten children.)

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Havana was at the center of the pirates’ world.  So when I visited the city as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s recent tour, I desperately wanted to climb around one of these real-life pirate forts, which are open to the public and serve as museums. But as I’ve alluded to, free time was in short supply and there was no way I could visit them all. So many choices… which one to pick?

Ultimately, I decided to visit the oldest—the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, in the center of Old Havana. Finished in 1577, it had successfully intimidated Francis Drake, who had otherwise looted and sacked his way across the Caribbean. It was, therefore, a pirate fort with some serious street cred.

It was an altogether wonderful experience, which provided a fascinating glimpse into the age of piracy. Plus, my visit also provided a fascinating glimpse into modern Cuban culture, too.


The mighty Castillo de la Real Fuerza, built in 1577. This star-shaped fortress made Sir Francis Drake think twice about attacking Havana.

Right inside the gatehouse, I met a middle-aged woman in what appeared to be an official uniform. We chatted briefly about which way to go in order to visit the museum’s collection, and she complimented me on my Spanish. She then asked, “May I ask where you’re from?”

“I’m from the United States.”

The surprise and joy on her face could not have been greater if I had said, “I’m your long-lost father, come at last to bestow the family fortune upon you.”

Her entire face lit up with delight and she quickly grabbed both my hands in hers. “Really? From the United States? That’s wonderful! Welcome, welcome! How did you arrive? How long are you staying? What brings you here? Are you enjoying yourself?”

I explained who I was and that I was with the Minnesota Orchestra on its historic tour, and she was over the moon, peppering me with additional questions. At some point I explained that I had a background as a historian… and that clinched the deal. She immediately responded, “Really? I must show around the fortress! There is so much history here, and so many people march right through without seeing the best parts.”

She then moved me from room to room, each one filled with miniature wonders. She pointed out all the various artifacts that archaeologists had found from around the grounds—combs, swords, pipes, pistols, goblets and other objects that the soldiers had used while stationed there. But she really glowed with pride in showing what she called “her treasures”… artifacts recovered from shipwrecks in the waters right outside the harbor. And they were impressive: a cache of Colombian emeralds, handfuls of coins, gold ingots, even bars of silver still bearing the stamp of the Potosí, the famous South American silver mine where they originated.


A view from the dungeon.

But in every case she told a story about the object, a personal reminiscence or observation. I think she was thrilled to have an appreciative audience.

She also shooed me up the stairs of the bell tower, saying that that provided the best views of the Morro fortress and the harbor’s entrance (she was right).


View of the mighty Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro fortress guarding the narrow entrance to Havana’s harbor from the bell tower.

Upon this particular tower is perched one of Havana’s most famous symbols, La Giraldita. This is a jaunty weathervane in the form of a woman slightly lifting her dress to show some leg, which was added to the tower in the 1630s. The legend is that the weathervane represents Doña Inés de Bobadilla, Havana’s only female governor; she assumed control from her husband Hernando de Soto when he undertook an expedition to Florida and is said to wait patiently for his return. Perhaps Doña Inés is showing her leg in an attempt to hurry him along home?


The “new” bell tower of 1630, with La Giraldita perched on top.

I appreciated the motherly advice that my guide gave me as I ascended the bell tower’s staircase—she warned me to call out before going up, as the spiral staircase was so narrow that two people would not easily be able to pass.

Everything was done with a sense of hospitality; this wasn’t a docent giving a tour, but a hostess showing me around her house. I think she was as excited as I was to walk around the rooms. Moreover, there was a deep and wonderful sense of pride to her presentation… this was evident in every word and gesture.

At the end of the day, that was one of the biggest takeaways from my visit. It wasn’t just history we were talking about, but her history.  And it was a privilege to hear that history as told by such a warm-hearted, enthusiastic storyteller.


One of the bastions of the fortress, from the upper ramparts.

In looking back over my Cuban trip, that is perhaps one of the things I remember most fondly—the hospitality of the Cuban people. People who were eager to share their country with us, regardless of the fact that our governments are not on the friendliest of terms. It was evident in each interaction, in every place we visited.

And it makes me eager to return.



1 thought on “Reflections on Cuba: Talking Pirates in a Pirate Fortress

  1. Pingback: Havana and the Real Pirates of the Caribbean | Mask of the Flower Prince

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