Exploring Cuba's History Through Postage Stamps

International Mail

This folded letter was written at Havana on December 15, 1833, and taken to the Havana post office for dispatch. It was stamped “Havana,” an origin mark, and placed aboard the “Bergn de guerra/ Guadalupe” (Brigantine of war, Guadalupe). It was carried directly to Santander, on the northern Spanish coast, and there landed at the quarantine station.

In 1831, a wave of cholera plague had swept across Europe. Spain was not affected much until 1832. At that time, the government established quarantine stations, or “lazarettos,” along its borders with Portugal and France, as well as at the principal seaports. There were four types of lazarettos, but the type we are concerned with is the “lazaretto of expurgation.” This was the place where a traveller’s personal effects were taken and disinfection carried out on all their personal belongings.

Sanitation was primitive in those days. The causes of disease were not well known. It was thought that plagues were carried in the air and could be found in the air surrounding sick people.

In the case of mail, disinfection could be accomplished by several different techniques. One method was to immerse a letter in vinegar. Another was to just sprinkle it with vinegar. A third method was puncture each letter using a paddle with nails projecting, or make a slit in each letter with a sharp knife, and then place them in a sealed box. Sulfur fumes or a burning aromatic herb, such as juniper berry, were introduced into the box. The idea was that the holes or slits in the letters would allow the disinfectant to enter the letter and purify the air inside.

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Tome I, p.2b: Havana to Santander, Spain. 15 December, 1833
(Red arrow added to indicate a fumigation cut).

As the arrow in the illustration indicates, this letter was disinfected by slitting and then fumigating. After fumigation, the mail was taken to the Santander post office where a clerk rated it as 5 reales de vellón postage due. This was the postage rate for a letter weighing up to 5 adarmes, per the Spanish Postal Tariff Law of 1807, still in force.

An adarme was an old unit of measure, the 16th part of an ounce (28.7 grams). One adarme was equal to 1.79375 grams. Five adarmes was equal to 8.96875 grams, or a little more than 1/4 ounce.

The “real de vellón” was not a coin but a unit of money for accounting purposes. It had a constant value of 34 maravedis or 8 1/2 cuartos. The addressee could pay the postage due with any coin he had. It just had to equal 5 reales de vellón.

The letter was not postmarked by a town datestamp of the Santander post office upon arrival, but the addressee noted inside that it was received on January 23, 1834, about five and a half weeks after it was written.

This folded letter was datelined at Habana on December 19, 1834. It is written to the same individual at Santander, Spain, as the previous letter.

In this case, the Havana post office placed the letter aboard the vessel Gerardo Cayo (Cayetano). Upon arrival at Santander, the mail was brought to the quarantine station, slit with a sharp knife, as indicated by the arrow in the illustration, and disinfected by fumigation, the same as the previous letter.

While the amount of postage due is the same as previous, this time the post office clerk stamped “5 Rs” in red, instead of black. The reason for the color change is unknown.

The recipient, Señor Vega, docketed receipt on February 4, 1835, over six weeks after the letter had been written.

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Tome I, p.2a: Havana to Santander, Spain. 19 December 1834
(Red arrow added to indicate fumigation cut).

Cuba maintained an extensive trade with the United States in the nineteenth century. Cuba was part of the “triangle trade,” where wood staves, lumber, flour and meat were carried to the West Indies and Cuba, and exchanged for sugar, coffee, rum and molasses. These in turn were taken to England to be exchanged for iron, tea and silk goods for the return trip to the United States.

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Tome I, p9: San Jago de Cuba to Philadelphia. 22 July 1836.

This folded letter addressed to Philadelphia was written from “S. Jago de Cuba, July 22, 1836.” It was not handed in to the post office, but given to the captain of the vessel, Emily. A brig Emily, of 188 tons, is recorded as having been constructed at Philadelphia in 1809. This may be the vessel involved. Newspaper records show that a brig Emily arrived at the port of Philadelphia on Monday, August 15, under the command of Captain Stotesbury, 16 days from St. Jago de Cuba, with sugar, coffee, etc., consigned to the merchant house of J.B. Bernadou.

Upon arrival at Philadelphia, the captain was required to take any mail he carried to the post office. Judging by the addressee’s docketing date of receipt on January 2, 1837, Captain Stotesbury apparently mislaid the letter when he arrived in August, and only brought it to the post office months later when he came across it again.

When it was deposited, the rating clerk marked it with Philadelphia’s distinctive double octagonal rate mark “6.” This was according to the Postal Act of March 3, 1825, still in force. Section 15 stated that every single weight letter brought into the United States in any private ship or vessel, shall be charged with 6 cents postage if delivered to the post office where the same shall arrive.

The earliest date recorded for this blue “6” marking is December, 1836. Since this letter is docketed as having been received by the addressee on January 2, 1837, that authenticates the usage of this new handstamp within the first month of its initial application.

In 1824, Dr. Thomas Edward Wood proposed to the Spanish government that a company be created to transport mail, passengers and other goods between Havana, Puerto Rico, Tenerife and Cádiz. After considerable study, the “Empresa de Correos Mar ítimos” was created and a formal regulation governing management of the company was published at Havana on April 23, 1827.

Article 7 of the regulations required that all mail originating from Cuba on the line must be prepaid. When this letter, written August 31, 1839, was taken to the post office and the postage paid, it was stamped “Habana/ Franco.”

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Tome I, p10: Havana to Barbastro, Spain. 23 April, 1827.

Along the top of the letter sheet, the writer had placed additional directions for its destination, “España, Reino de Aragón” (Spain, [Former] Kingdom of Aragon), to aid the postal workers in determining where Barbastro was located. There are no postmarks on the back and the letter was not docketed upon receipt, so unfortunately, we do not know how long it took to arrive at Barbastro, Spain.

The Tay was a wooden, side-wheel paddle steamer, carrying auxiliary sails, owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company of England. She was constructed at the shipyard of Charles Wood of Greenock, Scotland. The Tay was 212 feet long, and 33 feet wide. Her engines could muster 400 horsepower. Her gross tonnage was 1,858 tons. The Tay was launched on July 6, 1841.

She was the first mail packet to sail to the West Indies for the new Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, her maiden voyage from Southampton beginning on December 31, 1841.

She arrived at St. Thomas, via Barbados, on January 20, 1842, after 21 days passage.

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The RMS Arabia
A vessel similar in structure to the Tay

British vessels had been calling at British West Indian and other Caribbean ports for many years. They began calling at St. Thomas in 1807, at Havana since about 1826, at Santiago de Cuba since the 1830’s, and at San Juan, since about 1838. Commerce, passengers and mail had steadily increased over the years. Coinciding with the initiation of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company contract, and the establishment of its new routes to the West Indies, postal agencies were opened at consular offices in various non-British possessions. Those at Havana and Santiago de Cuba were opened in February-March 1842. The initial broken circle postmark of the British agency at Havana, as seen on the reverse of this letter, was impressed in the proof book kept by the British post office in London, on November 13, 1841.

In an attempt to smooth the way for the opening of the British consular post office in Havana, in February, 1842, British General Post Office Inspector J. Kains arrived at Havana with a letter addressed to the Governor General of Cuba. The letter outlined the proposal for the handling of British mail to and from Havana. The Governor responded the same day, pointing out that under Spanish postal regulations, all mail was to be handled by Spanish post offices. In addition, 10% of all postage receipts were to be given to the Cuban steamer company which held the contract for mail transport, the Empresa de Correos Maritimos.

The Royal Mail steamer Thames, in Havana harbor, had been loaded with mail from the British consulate on February 15, and was ready to sail, when a Spanish complaint was received that this action was not in compliance with Spanish regulations. After discussions were referred to high level diplomatic officials, the Thames was allowed to depart on February 17. However, when the Tay arrived from Belize on March 16, Cuban authorities ordered the British naval mail agent on board to turn over all mail to the Cuban post office.

The British postal agent refused, was arrested and put in prison. The British Admiral at Jamaica intervened, however, and the postal agent was shortly released.

The Tay, however, had to proceed to Nassau, Bahamas, to collect other mail for Europe, which had been brought in on other West Indian feeder routes. Meanwhile, the Spanish Governor General of Cuba ordered his deputy in Puerto Rico to close San Juan and his other ports to British mail steamers. Eventually, this problem was overcome by landing and processing the feeder line mail at St. Thomas, Danish West Indies, or Bermuda, and transhipping them from those points to their destinations. Eventually, the Royal Mail Steamers were allowed to call at Havana and San Juan again.

This folded letter, written at Havana on April 10, 1847, arrived in London on May 9, and was rated as 2 shillings 3 pence postage due from the addressee, Frederick Huth & Co. This postage rate was established in General Post Office Instructions No. 49, dated December 1841.

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Tome I, p11: Havana to London. 13 November 1841.

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The unfolded letter.

Similar to the preceding cover posted at the British postal agency at Havana, this cover was posted at the British postal agency at Santiago de Cuba on January 5, 1847. In this case, however, the letter is addressed to Bordeaux, France.

It was carried to Southampton, England, by a Royal Mail Steam Packet Company vessel, and arrived at London on February 8. In accordance with the British-French Postal Convention of April 3, 1843, amended December 1, 1845, the British exchange clerk was to indicate what Article of the Convention each letter came under, in order that the French exchange clerk would be able to calculate the correct amount of postage due. The British clerk stamped it, “Colonies/ &c Art. 13.”

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Tome I, p12: Havana to Bordeaux, France. 5 January 1847.

Article 13 of the Convention indicated the postage rate was 3 shillings 4 pence per ounce of weight. In French currency, this works out to be 4 francs. However, the French did not weigh their letters in ounces, but in grams. A single weight letter in France weighed no more than 7 1/2 grams. Thirty grams were considered to be equal to one British ounce, for Convention purposes. Therefore, there were four 7 1/2 gram letters in one ounce. The French exchange clerk found that this letter weighed between 7 1/2 and 15 grams, double weight, and marked it due “20,” which means 2 Francs were payable by the addressee.

After processing this mail, London then placed the letter in a sealed mail bag for the crossing of the English Channel to Boulogne, where the bag was opened and was processed by the French exchange clerk. The letter was then dispatched to Bordeaux, where it was received on February 12, 1847.

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Foldout of entire cover

This folded letter was written at Havana on October 16, 1847. Placed aboard a vessel, it was carried to Cadíz, on the southwestern coast of Spain.

Upon arrival at Cadíz, the receiving clerk stamped on the face of the letter, “Islas de/Barlovento” (meaning Windward Islands) and rated the letter at 7 “reales de vellón” postage due. Seven reales de vellón was the postage rate for a letter weighing between 6 and 7 “adarmes,” according to the Spanish Postal Tariff Law of 1807. Between 6 and 7 adarmes was 10.762 to 12.556 grams, or somewhat less than 1/2 ounce.

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Vol I, p1: Havana to San Sebastien, Spain. 16 October 1847.

The letter was then sent on to San Sebastian, on the north coast of Spain, where the receiving clerk backstamped it, “S. Sebastian/ Vizcaya, 21 Dec, 1847.” The letter took over two months to arrive at its destination.

This “Islas de/ Barlovento” marking, inaugurated under Spanish Postal Regulations effective September 1, 1779, was applied to indicate to the rating clerk at the incoming post office the origin of the letter in order that he might calculate the correct amount of postage due. It is known as a “demarcation” or “origin” postmark. Several different types of this postmark are known, however, this particular type was struck in red, from 1814 to 1849.

Another letter posted through the British post office at Havana, dated July 10, 1853, again addressed to Bordeaux. It was carried by Royal Mail Steamer Company packet Avon to Southampton, and then on to London. London did not record the arrival date, but the British exchange clerk did apply his box type “Colonies/ &c Art. 13” handstamp.

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Vol I, p16: Havana to Bordeaux, France. 10 July, 1853.

In this case, the letter was placed in a sealed letter bag bound for Calais. At Calais, it was handstamped in red “Angl./ Calais, 2 Aout. 53,” meaning “English [mail arriving at] Calais [on] August 2, 1853.”

The French exchange clerk rated the letter “30,” meaning 3 francs due. The letter was apparently triple weight, weighing between 15 and 22.5 grams. The letter was then forwarded to Paris, where in turn it was routed back to Bordeaux, arriving on August 3. Its time in transit was about three weeks.

A folded letter written at Puerto Príncipe and posted on April 29, 1854. It is addressed to Barcelona, Spain. Puerto Principe applied its “Baeza” postmark to the letter, and it appears they also applied a number “5” in the same shade of blue at the center of the cover. The short red unframed marking at the right of this “5” is “6.ms.,” or 6 maravedíes, a local surcharge applied in Cataluña at the time.

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Tomo I, p.17a: Puerto Principe to Barcelona, 29 April 1854.

The letter was carried to Spain by a Spanish or Cuban vessel. Upon arrival at Barcelona on June 12, it was rated as “5 R” (5 reales de vellón) postage due. This was the postage rate for a letter weighing up to 5 adarmes, per the Spanish Postal Tariff Law of 1807, still in force.

An early example of mail prepaid through the use of a postage stamp. This folded letter, dated May 12, 1855, is prepaid by an example of the new half real plata postage stamp depicting Queen Isabela, which first appeared for sale in Havana on April 24, 1855, less than one month previously.

By Royal Decree dated December 18, 1854, Queen Isabela ordered that postage rates within the West Indian colonies or to Spain be established as 1/2 real plata (silver real) for a single letter weighing not more than 1/2 ounce, 1 real plata for a double letter, weighing not more than one ounce, and so on in like progression.

Probably carried by a Spanish or Cuban vessel, this letter arrived at Santander, Spain, on June 6, 1855. There is no postage due marking on this letter as it was recognized as fully prepaid.

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Tome I, p.18: Havana to Santander, Spain. 12 May, 1855.

Another example of mail to Spain prepaid by postage stamps. This time the letter is franked with a pair of 1/2 real plata stamps, apparently because it weight between 1/2 and one ounce (double weight).

The letter was posted at Havana on December 16, 1856, and arrived at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, on January 16, 1857.

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Tome I, p.19: Havana to San Miguel de Tenerife, Canary Islands. 16 December, 1856.

An incoming letter from Marseille, France, to Havana, posted on August 30, 1864. Franked with an 80 centime stamp, depicting Emperor Napoleon III, this single weight letter was prepaid to Cuba. In March, 1862, the French 80 centime rate was established for letters to Cuba weighing not more than 7 1/2 grams, traveling either by French or British vessel.

The letter traveled by rail from Marseille to Paris where the French exchange clerk confirmed the rate and applied his boxed handstamp, “P.P.,” meaning “Port Payeé,” or postage paid. The letter was then placed in a sealed mail bag bound for London, per the instructions at top left, “Voie d´Angleterre.”

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Tome I, p.40: Marseille, France to Havana. 30 August, 1864.

Upon receipt at Havana, the Cuban exchange clerk marked the letter with his boxed handstamp “N.E.2,” indicating origin “Norte Europa,” and the amount of postage due, 2 reales, the normal single weight charge on mail from northern Europe.

Written at Havana on September 24, 1864, this folded letter was taken directly to the dock and handed to the purser, or ship’s captain, of a steam vessel imminently scheduled to sail for New York. Unfortunately, the name of the vessel is not written on the face of the letter.

However, we do know that there was fairly regular weekly communication between Havana and New York at this time. The letter is docketed as being received at New York on October 1.

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Tome I, p.31: Havana to New York, 24 September, 1864.

Addressed to Lanman & Kemp, Druggists, this cover came from a huge find of correspondence addressed to this firm from all over the world, encompassing the period 1850’s to 1879. The find included over 10,000 letters from Cuba alone. Lanman & Kemp were wholesale druggists who imported large quantities of dried plants and herbs to be prepared for medicinal purposes.

The United States Congressional Postal Act of June 30, 1864, effective July 1, 1864, established a 10 cents per 1/2 ounce uniform “blanket” rate for all mail to and from the United States carried by steamship or other vessel regularly employed in carrying mail, regardless of the distance involved. Upon arrival at New York, the exchange clerk applied his “Steamship/ 10” marking, meaning the letter arrived by steamship and was due 10 cents postage from the addressee.

On January 1, 1864, a new series of stamps appeared depicting Queen Isabela facing left. Widespread falsification, and extensive wear to the printing plates of the earlier issue, induced the Spanish government to prepare a new series of stamps for Spain and the colonies.

Using a pair of the new 1 real plata fuerte stamps, this letter was posted from Havana to Santander, Spain, on October 30, 1865. The Royal Decree of May 20, 1859, reaffirmed the earlier postage rates of 1854. The rate for mail from Cuba and Puerto Rico to Spain was 1 real plata fuerte for a single letter (up to 1/2 ounce). Since this letter is franked with 2 reales in stamps, it must have been two times weight, or weighed between 1/2 and 1 ounce.

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Tome I, p.36: Havana to Santander, Spain. 30 October, 1865.

Marked to go “por I. Isabel” (by the Infanta Isabel), one of the vessels operated by Antonio López and Company of Alicante, Spain. In 1861, this shipping company had been awarded a contract to operate vessels between Cadiz and Havana twice a month, calling at the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. After August 1865, departures from Havana were made on the 15th and 30th of each month. This letter left Havana on the day it was postmarked, October 30, 1865.

No postmark is recorded on the reverse for the arrival at Cádiz, but Santander did apply its receiving postmark on November 19, 1865. The oval “J. Demestre y Ca/ Habana,” is the cachet of the merchant house from where this letter originated.

Stamps in a new decimal currency were introduced on January 1, 1866. Monetary units changed from reales plata fuerte to céntimos de escudo. One hundred céntimos equaled one escudo. One half real plata fuerte equaled 10 céntimos; one real plata fuerte equaled 20 céntimos, the letter rate to Spain.

This cover, posted at Havana on December 15, 1867, shows the single weight postage rate of 20 céntimos used on a letter addressed to Rivadeo, in Galicia, Spain.

It was carried to Cádiz by the vessel Isla de Cuba, owned by Antonio López & Ca of Alicante, Spain. Departures from Havana were generally on the 15th and 30th of the month.

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Tome I, p.42b: Havana to Rivadeo, Spain. 15 December, 1867.

Another letter addressed to Rivadeo, Spain, this time bearing a pair of 25 céntimos de peseta postage stamps. Another currency change had taken place as of February 1, 1871. This time the currency had changed to 100 céntimos, equaled one peseta. Valuations were now one half real plata fuerte, equaled 10 céntimos de escudo, equaled 25 céntimos de peseta.

While this August 23, 1872 cover from Matanzas bears 50 céntimos de peseta, in reality, it is the same 1 real rate that had previously applied to single weight mail addressed to Spain.

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Tome I, p.43a: Matanzas to Rivadeo, Spain. 23 August, 1872

To illustrate yet another currency change which had taken place in January, 1881, this cover posted at Cienfuegos in April, 1885, is franked with a 10 centavos de peso postage stamp. The exchange rate now was one half real plata fuerte equaled 10 céntimos de escudo, equaled 25 céntimos de peseta, equaled 5 centavos de peso.

Or, in other words, 5 céntimos de peseta equaled 1 centavo de peso. Thus, the postage rate to Spain for a single weight letter, which was formerly 50 céntimos de peseta, was now 10 centavos de peso.

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Tome I, p.52b: Cienfuegos to Madrid. April, 1885.

An attractive envelope advertising the “Gran Hotel Inglaterra” in Havana. Franked with a 5 centavos de peso stamp of the issue of January 1890, the stamp depicts the young King Alfonso XIII.

The letter was posted from Havana on December 10, 1890, carried by steamer to New York, where it was processed on December 13, and sent on to Providence, Rhode Island, where it was received on December 15.

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Tome I, p.68: Havana to Providence, Rhode Island. 10 December, 1890.

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Cover Design Detail
Havana to Providence, Rhode Island. 10 December, 1890.

A registered cover mailed from Puerto Príncipe on January 3, the year is unknown. However, we can deduce a range of dates between which this cover was mailed. The postage stamps on the reverse first appeared on January 1, 1890, and were used until January 1, 1898, when the last issue of the Spanish administration appeared. So, this cover had to be posted between January 1, 1890 and December 31, 1897.

It is franked with 15 centavos de peso in postage stamps, 10 centavos of which paid the international postage rate, and the remaining 5 centavos paid the registration fee. The face of the cover is marked in the British fashion with blue crossed lines, a system devised to distinguish registered mail from all other mail.

While there are no British postmarks on this cover, it appears that it did pass through the British foreign registered mail office.

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Tome I, p.70: Puerto Príncipe to Bruxelles, Belgium. 3 January, 189?.

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The letter is believed to have next passed through France, for the red postmark in the lower left quadrant of the face of the cover, while incompletely struck, is similar to “Paris/ Chargements,” a marking applied to registered mail passing through the central bureau of that office

The next postmark is on the back, that of the receiving office at Bruxelles, Belgium, where the cover arrived on January 22, after having been in transit for 19 days. The front of the cover bears another Belgian postmark, the number “293” in a small circle. This was applied by the letter carrier who delivered this letter to the addressee. The numbers written in pencil and crayon are recording numbers added by the various registry divisions this letter passed through.

An example of the last issue of the Spanish Administration, used from Santiago de Cuba. The letter was forwarded to Havana to be placed on board the New York steamer, and was received at Havana on January 31, 1898.

It was backstamped at New York on February 2, 1898.

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Tome I, p.79: Santiago de Cuba to New York. January, 1898.