The misfortune of the Valbanera ship

Translator, interpreter, philologist

There was a time when Cubans did not leave Cuba in search of a better life, but it was foreigners who came to Cuba for the multiple opportunities that the country offered and until 1959, it was the destination of immigrants not only from Europe, but also from almost the whole world. The story that concerns us today is that of a group of immigrants from the Canary Islands who came to Cuba hoping to improve their lives.

It all happened in the second half of the year 1919. It had only been 8 years since the Titanic had sunk, it was one year of the end of First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic was devastating the world. We will talk about the Valbanera steamship, owned by the Spanish shipping line Pinillos, Izquierdo & Co. The ship was baptized in honor of the Virgin of Valvanera, Holy Patron of La Rioja, but on the way, a scribe changed a V for a B.

This Scottish-made steamer had a length (bow to stern) of 131 meters and served to bring Spanish immigrants to the Americas, as well as cargo. The Pinillos, Izquierdo & Co, like other Spanish shipping lines, had made huge profits during the First World War. Spain, weakened at the end of the Cuban-American-Spanish War 1895-1898, remained neutral during the Great War and the belligerent countries used Spanish ships to transport their goods with less risk of being torpedoed by German U-boats (submarines) that infected the world’s seas.

On a previous trip from Havana to the Canary Islands in July 1919, the company, and in particular its captain, had been severely fined for bringing an excessive number of passengers who, for lack of cabins and suffering from the torrid Caribbean heat, had done the trip on deck. Many of them died before reaching the Canary Islands (among other causes due to the Spanish fever) and their bodies, as was customary in these cases, were thrown overboard.

On the way back to the Americas, the steamer left the port of Barcelona making different stops at ports in mainland Spain to load goods (olives and almonds), various ports in the Canary Islands to receive immigrants, San Juan de Puerto Rico, Santiago de Cuba, La Havana, Galveston and New Orleans. Upon arriving at the port of Santiago de Cuba, it had many difficulties to enter, since the authorities were very harsh with sanitary controls due to the scourge of the Spanish flu.

In Santiago, 742 passengers descended the vast majority of whom had a ticket to disembark in Havana. At first, it was said of a collective premonition; the truth is that some stayed drinking rum in some cheap bar in the port of Santiago and did not notice the departure of the steamer. Others say that, as everyone came looking for work, they considered that Santiago was a good place to find it and other wanted to continue the trip to Havana by train to see the country.

On September 5, 1919, the Valbanera departed towards the port of Havana with 488 people on board, arriving there on the night of the ninth when the city was hit by a strong cyclone. From El Morro, the lookouts could see the ship requesting entry to the port by Morse lamp. These lamps were a form of communication turning their lights on and off simulating the dots and stripes of the Morse system. Through this same route, the captain, Ramón Martín Cordero, was informed that the port was closed and he replied that he would go out to sea to face the cyclone.

Seeing that the steam did not return within a few days, they decided to go looking for it and found it stranded and sunk12 meters deep in the Half Moon Shoal, a low quicksand, 40 miles east of Key West. Not a single corpse and the lifeboats in place.

After the news of the wreck, the information reached Spain drop by drop. Those who got off in Santiago rushed to send a telegram to their relatives in the Canary Islands and the authorities of Santiago de Cuba port, for unknown reasons, took months to give the list of the people who had stayed there.

Although this shipwreck has been almost forgotten in both Cuba and Spain, it is present among the fishermen of Key West. In fact, it was the theme chosen by the writer Ernest Hemingway, who lived between San Francisco de Paula, in Havana, and Key West, to write his novel “After the Storm”. It is still said that on stormy nights you can hear the Valbanera whistle asking for help in the distance.

Nevertheless, time has covered this shipwreck in Key West with its veil of legend. There, it is called the Prostitutes’ Ship, because the evil tongues said that those who arrived from Spain were sex workers. Moreover, the legend says that Greek sponge fishermen, of the many that there are in Florida, would have taken the gold reserves that the Valbanera carried, which is also false.

No corpse could be rescued because all of the ship’s hatches were closed and the victims were trapped in their cabins. It is also worth noting that neither the port of Havana nor Key West received radio signals asking for help, which suggests that the cyclone beatings break down the radio before the shipwreck.

My elders told me about a poor man from Canary Islands who had decided to travel by train from Santiago and who had agreed to meet his wife and four children in Havana. Upon learning of the shipwreck, the man lost his mind and that he stood on the wall of the Malecón, peering at the horizon to see if the Valbanera arrived with his loved ones.

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