A Canadian on the Isle of Pines
By Ciro Bianchi Ross Photos: CubaPLUS
At the beginning of the 20th century inhabitants of the Isle of Youth, then called the Isle of Pines, found it easy to distinguish people from the Cayman Islands from other foreign residents on that islet.
However, things became confusing for the Pineros with Asians and people of other nationalities; they called japanese residents "Chinese", while Canadians and European settlers were invariably lumped together as "Americans".
This made it more complicated for historian Juan Colina La Rosa when he learned of the existence of a colony of more than fifty families from Canada who came to seek their fortune on the island, as they had been believed to be from the States. William joseph Mills, the most conspicuous of these individuals, was long thought to have been one of the biggest US investors in the area.
However, Mills was born in Bingranton, Ontario, Canada. He was Canadian although he'd lived elsewhere and spent the last forty years of his life on the Isle of Pines. He was the owner and president of the Isle of Pines Steamship Company, the shipping line that connected Nueva Gerona, main city of the Isle of Pines, with the Surgidero of Batabanó on the main island. He, then his descendents, owned one of the most important companies in the area, the shipping line that completely dominated sea traffic to and from the "big island" until it was forced out by the Batista government in 1955.
The house on the river
Mills and his entire family arrived in Cuba in 1901. He was then 42 and had already accomplished much outside his country of birth. In 1889 he had married Anne Benneth Tomlinso in Syracuse, New York and they had three children.
Historian Colina La Rosa documented that, upon arriving on the Isle of Pines, Mills immediately built a Canadian-style wooden house on the Callejan River near the town of Santa Barbara and set out to building his shipping company. He leased the "Protector", which had been in service since the 19th century, and then bought the "James J. Cambell" that moved by a propeller wheel on one of its sides, and then the "Veguero ", the "Isla" and the "Cuba". In 1905, the "Christopher Columbus" became the flagship of the company.
You're going to Cuba?
The Mills company pier was on the bank of the Las Casas River, but its crafts were to be seen in any of the ports throughout western Pinar del Rio Province.
The motor vessel "EI Pinero" was the most important of all in the Mills company. Mills bought the 51-meter New Vapor, made in Philadelphia in 1901, for 119,000 Cuban pesos in 1926 and christened it "EI Pinero". This ship is part of the history as well as the imagination of Cubans. Everyone, at some time or another, has heard tell of this mythical craft that connected the two near territories of the archipelago.
The territories weren't far apart but, until the 1950s, the Isle of Pines was overlooked by the Cuban government. Until 1945, only two Cuban presidents had ever visited the island. Machado had come in 1925 and built a prison, while Grau visited in 1945. The residents -understandably- saw the rest of the national territory as a strange land from which official concerns concentrated on the National Prison for Men, the socalled "Model Prison" - and on soldiers and sailors sent to the island as part of their service as punishment. Thus it was understandable that when local residents saw someone preparing to take the ship heading for Batabanó they would ask "You're going to Cuba?"
Between 1931 and 1940 Mills' earnings were more than 129,000 Cuban pesos. Foreigners considered the islet good business. They were the owners of the money, the land and the best citrus plantations, those on which Cubans worked as labourers. Millionaire Hedges, owner of the Ariguanabo Textile Mill, acquired 70,000 acres along the southern coast after 1940. American proprietors surrounded the famous Bibijagua beach, with its black sands, and prohibited entrance to that exceptionally beautiful place.
In 1934, the crash of the National Bank & Trust Company, formerly the Isle of Pines Bank that was founded in 1905, rebounded to affect the owners and merchants who resided on the island. Old Mills had been very tied to that entity, as was his eldest son Robert Davis, who was appointed by local authorities to assess the financial status of the National Bank. The bank, acting as Mills' legal representative, had been charged with buying ships for the company and its crash was a harsh blow. Mills was already 75, and though he remained as administrator and treasurer of the shipping company, he delegated most of the business decision-making to his oldest son. Mills died of a heart attack in 1939, evidently grieved by the death of his wife a year earlier.
Robert Davis then took over full management of the company and in 1944 acquired a new vessel, which he named after his father.
The Cuban government had long neglected the Isle of Pines, Commander Capote Fiallo liked to say he had given more to the island than Batista had to all of Cuba; he was simultaneously the director of the prison, the head of Squadron 43 of the Rural Guard, a delegate of the Ministries of Government and Public Works and the de facto mayor - positions that allowed him to accumulate properties valued at three million Cuban pesos.
However, after the 1952 coup d'etat, President Fulgencio Batista, fond of fishing, built a vacation house on the island, as did several other government officials. Not only did they build vacation houses, they also invested in land, made it a duty free zone, promoted tourism and facilitated other industries, like a cigarette factory that stayed in the planning stage.
Those big fish ended up eating the small one. Robert Davis Mills could not withstand the pressure and was forced to sell the Isle of Pines Steamship Company to cattleman and merchant Francisco Cajigas and Ramón Rodríguez, owner of the Partagás Tobacco Company.
Unfortunately, historian Juan Colina La Rosa does not tell us what became of him. It was at this time that, among other hotel facilities, the Colony Hotel was built. It was formally opened the night of December 31, 1958.