Torriente: Slavery, politics, the sugar trade and the search for answers

torriente

In early March 1938, a small cadre of dissidents were caught in an alleged plot to kill Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Among the group of conspirators was Cosme de la Torriente, a diplomat and statesman who had previously held several roles in post-independence Cuban government, including secretary of state and president of the ill-fated League of Nations.

It doesn’t look like de la Torriente suffered too much for his part in the alleged assassination; he went on to live a lengthy, comfortable life before passing away in Havana in December 1956.

Parallel to the machinations of the unsuccessful 1938 coup of Batista, though, was the death, in April of that year, of Cristobal Torriente, a native of Cuba and legendary star of the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues. By that time, Torriente — who in 2006 would be posthumously and very belatedly inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame — had faded into penniless obscurity in New York City and withered away from tuberculosis in NYC’s long-since-demolished and rather infamous Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island.

By all appearances, because of Torriente’s status as a pauper and ward of the state, he was unceremoniously dumped in a mass, unmarked, city-administered grave in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

The fable, as it’s been told for decades, then tells that the Batista government in Cuba had Torriente’s remains disinterred, shipped to Havana and placed in a shrine to Cuban beisbol greats in Cristobal Colon Cemetery.

But, according to recent research I attempted to summarize in this blog post, it looks like that last part never happened — there’s no record of Torriente ever being disinterred from Calvary Cemetery, as cemetery staffers have told both me and fellow researcher Ralph Carhart.

So it looks like the tale told by the Batista government — that Torriente’s body was feted like a national hero when it was brought back to Cuba — was a tall one, fabricated by a brutal dictatorship, possibly as a propaganda effort to secure popular support and bureaucratic stability in the wake of the attempted coup a month prior.

The question in my mind — or rather, one of the many rolling around in my noggin — is whether the political maneuvering of Cosme de la Torriente had anything to do with the unfortunate fate given to Cristobal Torriente? Was the baseball great punished in death by the Batista regime for a relative’s “crime” against the government?

On the one hand, that likelihood appears slim; as fellow baseball researcher and Cuban Leagues specialist Gary Ashwill noted to me, in the Spanish language, “Torriente” is a distinctly different surname from “de la Torriente.” Plus, Cristobal Torriente was from Cienfuegos, Cuba, while Cosme de la Torriente was from Matanzas.

And, finally, Cosme was white. Cristobal was black.

Why, though, does any of this matter? Why is it so important that we try to unlock the historical conundrum of how such a legendary, pivotal Cuban baseball player ended up in an unmarked grave?

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Calvary Cemetery, Queens

For one, I just like a mystery. Research is fun, investigation is fun, and historical quandaries are fun. And just discovering why history unfolded as it did might help fill in a small, missing piece of the greater baseball — and cultural — puzzle of the Americas.
But two, even beyond that, I feel that we might need to recognize and rectify the apparent fact that such a formidable hardball luminary and cultural ambassador as Cristobal Torriente is entombed in a mass, unmarked, undignified grave thousands of miles from his homeland.

And in my mind, arguably the best way to achieve that recognition is to somehow find a living relative or descendant of Torriente, someone who could personally and powerfully lobby on his behalf, who could draw intimate attention to the sad fate of their legendary ancestor.

To find a living descendant, I’m thinking that if we perchance delve back into history to unearth Torriente’s roots and genealogy, we could then move forward into the present along a divergent but still attached thread of his family.

So far, however, that’s been quite difficult, and I’m resorting to some halfway desperate measures to achieve that goal. In a future post (hopefully next week), I’ll discuss those attempts to find a family member.

And in yet another article, I’ll attempt to review the steps that have been taken to draw attention and recognition to Cristobal Torriente’s tragic postmortem plight.

But for the rest of this post, I’ll embark on an analysis of one chunk of Cuban history that could fill in some of the gaps in Torriente’s background.

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Cosme de la Torriente

One of those chunks is any possible connection between Cristobal and Cosme de la Torriente, and whether the political wrangling of the latter might have affected the post-death destiny of the former. However, that’s not what I’ll be fleshing out today, and I apologize for the bait-and-switch. I just liked the Cristobal/Cosme dichotomy as a method of introduction to the complexities of Cuban history as they relate to the Hall of Famer’s life and death.

Also, that’s not to say that Cosme de la Torriente doesn’t figure into Cristobal’s story somehow; in fact, the two plot lines could very well intersect, because, as I’ve found, there seems to be a lot of plot lines, or at least possible ones, and a bunch of them likely do criss-cross at some point. As a matter of fact, they just might later on in this post.

But, for now, here’s this narrative …

Cristobal Torriente — dubbed, later in life, the Black Bambino and the Cuban Strongman — was born on Nov. 19, 1893, in Cienfuegos, Cuba, a picturesque city on the island’s southern shore that has accumulated so much historical value, especially architecturally, that it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The name Torriente, while a popular one (along with de la Torriente) in Cuba, seems to be and have been especially prevalent in Cienfuegos. Also quite prevalent in the historic city was the sugar trade, including sugar plantations, sugar refineries and American businessmen exploiting the region for its resources and labor. Here’s a description of Cienfuegos from the UNESCO Web site:

“The colonial town of Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 in the Spanish territory but was initially settled by immigrants of French origin. It became a trading place for sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. Situated on the Caribbean coast of southern-central Cuba at the heart of the country’s sugar cane, mango, tobacco and coffee production area, the town first developed in the neoclassical style.

“It later became more eclectic but retained a harmonious overall townscape. Among buildings of particular interest are the Government Palace (City Hall), San Lorenzo School, the Bishopric, the Ferrer Palace, the former lyceum, and some residential houses. Cienfuegos is the first, and an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble representing the new ideas of modernity, hygiene and order in urban planning as developed in Latin America from the 19th century.”

One of those sugar kingpins in the area was a Spaniard named Esteban Cacicedo Torriente, who emigrated to Cuba in 1865 — when slavery was still in full force on the island — and formed a business partnership named Ruesga and Cacicedo in Cienfuegos in the 1870s. Esteban also opened a grocery store in the city a partner named Jose Garcia; the company was also involved in banking, and in 1922 the business was consolidated as Cacicedo & Co.

Esteban Cacicedo Torriente seems to have been a very influential man in Cienfuegos. Here’s a rough translation from an entry on ecured.cu, the Cuban version of Wikipedia. I’ll acknowledge right now that I don’t know a lick of Spanish, so I lamely translated the Ecured entry using a Spanish-to-English Web site:

“He was estimated as one of the richest men in the city. In addition to his large trade house, established in on Argüelles street at the corner D ‘Clouet, up the great central [road] to Santa Maria, since 1909 and under the direction of his son Stephen, he encouraged in the central Carolina the establishment of a pasture whose administration was in charge of his son Isidore, where the big shots and young horse stallion products imported from Europe and United States gave rise to domestic livestock.

“He was a City Councilman in the years 1878 and 1880; Treasurer of the Steering Committee of the Fire Department of Commerce several times; and President of Casino Spanish since 1918. In 1887, he was the deputy of a battalion of volunteers from Cienfuegos and was several times president of the Spanish Casino. …

“[The family] distinguished themselves in Catholic activities and charitable and pious works, contributing to the foundation of Nursing homeless, the institution of the Servants of Mary, the establishment of the Jesuits and others.”

(Yeah, like I said, that translation is quite mangled, for which I apologize, especially if some of it doesn’t make sense. If any of my Spanish-speaking friends reading this could correct me, I’d gladly accept it. 🙂

Anyway, by all accounts, including a bunch of documents I’ve found online, Esteban Torriente Sr., and his son Esteban/Stephen Jr. and Isidore — and therefore likely the whole family — were white. That’s also probably the case because they were direct immigrants from Spain, and because there’s likely no way a person of color would own that much property, and be that rich and powerful, in antebellum Cuba. (Slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886.)

And here’s another very intriguing note — Esteban Sr. married his cousin, Ramona de la Torriente, the daughter of other wealthy landowners and merchants in Cienfuegos. With that, we have a possible linking between a family grouping with the “de la Torriente” and “Torriente” surnames.

Mushrooming out of that is the fact that the de la Torriente clan, including Cosme, seem to have been major sugar big wigs in Matanzas. So we could, here, have the mixture of several variables that could — and I emphasize could — start to bring some pieces of the Cristobal Torriente puzzle together.

But a little more on Esteban Torriente and the 19th-century Torriente family in Cienfuegos …

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Cienfuegos, Cuba

I uncovered a 1998 essay by Christopher Harris called, “Edwin F. Atkins and the Evolution of American Cuba Policy: 1894-1902,” in which Harris theorizes that Boston-based entrepreneur Edwin Atkins as well as Edwin’s father, Elisha, established a lucrative trading business — largely sugar-related — in Cienfuegos.

From there, Harris argues, Atkins, thanks to his big bucks and fortuitous political connections, Edwin Atkins greatly influenced the U.S.’s relationship with and approach to Cuba, especially during the crucial period encompassing the island’s war of independence from Spain and the ensuing Spanish-American War, when the States began to seriously flex its imperialist muscles.

In his essay, Harris doesn’t really state whether Atkins’ influence on turn-of-the-century Cuba was a good thing or not; at times the writer seems to hint that the American entrepreneur was a bit weasely (my words) in his dealings and therefore had a somewhat undue influence on the island’s development after independence.

But that’s a side note. For the purposes of this blog, this is the part of Harris’ work that’s important:

“… [Atkins’] company pursued a triangular trade: sending finished New England manufactured goods to Central America, picking up coffee, cochineal and granadilla, usually from Guatemala, and carrying these goods to Cienfuegos or Trinidad to trade for sugar. … The Torriente Brothers of Cienfuegos acted as agents for Atkins and Company [my emphasis], and the families developed strong personal relationships. By the 1860s, Atkins was becoming wealthy, owning a half dozen ships and running over 400 charters a year to Cuba in his own and others’ ships.

“By the mid-1860’s … Atkins’ business began to evolve. From simply trading, shipping and merchandising, the company began to extend credit and financing to planters, both directly and through the agency of the Torriente Brothers, their agents in Cienfuegos [my emphasis]. While under the Refaction Law (until 1880), credit to planters was secured only by a lien on crops, interest rates were high enough to make financing a profitable addition to merchant’s offerings.”

I have yet to conduct a lengthy investigation of the Torriente Brothers company, and when I do, I’ll try to write updates in ensuing posts.

But further on in Harris’ essay, the writer again brings up a variation of the Torriente name:

“With the outbreak of the Ten Year’s War in Cuba (1868-1878), the old Cuban plantation families began to be economically squeezed on all sides. Overseas beet sugar led to increased price competition. To be competitive, the Cuban producers needed new equipment and sugar processing machinery, which required capital. In was in this period that large sugar processing plants, called centrales, began to replace theingenios that formerly processed sugar on each plantation. Those who couldn’t afford to modernize and become centrales, were reduced to being colonos, plantations that only grew sugar cane, without processing it. But as a class, the Cuban planters carried a high level of debt even before the War, owing money, mostly to Spanish financiers and merchants who controlled the trade. To make matters worse, the Revolution itself caused considerable economic dislocation. …

“… Presumably, it was for this reason that Elisha Atkins sent his son Edwin to Cienfuegos in 1869 to learn the business from Ramon de la Torriente [my emphasis] rather than sending him to college. While profits may have been high, the risk from this business was large as well. The son was sent to protect the family’s interests.”

So here’s another cropping up of the Torriente moniker in Cienfuegos. But there’s one more, again from Harris:

“… At the end of the Ten Year’s War, only a few plantations around Cienfuegos continued to operate. … Atkins and Company was, in effect, forced into becoming sugar producers themselves. In 1882, the Atkins began collecting properties by foreclosure. …

“They foreclosed the Soledad and Rosario plantations of the Rosario family, Carlota from the Torriente family [again my emphasis], Caledonia from the estate of Diego Julien Sanchez, Guabairo from Manuel Blanco, and Limones from the Vila family. Vega Vieja and Manaca were purchased from the Yznaga family and Algoba was leased.Santa Teresa was acquired from Juan Perez Galdos, Veguitas from Jose Porroa, Vaqueria from the Barrallaca family and San Augustine from the Tomas Terry family. Leased properties included San Jose, Viamones, San Esteban and Algoba. …”

The whole scheme is summarized on the Web site of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which possesses a large collection of Atkins family documents and papers. States the MHS:

“E. Atkins & Co.’s most frequent business correspondents in Cienfuegos were the Torriente Brothers. After the Ten Years’ war in Cuba (1869-1878), Torriente Bros. had many sugar estates indebted to them, and the firm in turn was indebted to E. Atkins & Co. Torriente Bros. foreclosed on several estates, including the Soledad plantation in Cienfuegos …”

With those generalities established, let’s now take a closer look at a few seemingly loose ends and random strands of personal documents and records that might help to continue connecting the dots.

For example, there’s the fact that Esteban Sr. is referred to as Esteban Cacicedo Torriente, which could be very significant, because — while I again stress that I’m a bit deficient in the Spanish language and its naming traditions/procedures — it looks like that a theme running through many historical documents and records relating to his family members is the interchangeability and malleability of the Torriente and Cacicedo surnames.

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A Cuban sugar plantation

While Esteban Sr. died in 1932, it looks like several of his children — including Ramon, Esteban Jr. and Luis — filtered into the U.S. throughout the 20th century, some of them landing in Florida (more on that in an ensuing post), and some in New York City.

I think Luis, for example, studied at MIT, returned to Cienfuegos and became an engineer at one of his father’s plantations. Esteban Jr. was also an engineer, it seems, probably on one of his dad’s estates as well, and all of the documents pertaining to the latter son I could find refer to him as white.

The same goes for Luis. But Luis might be an even more fruitful figure to study, for two reasons: One, he traveled to and from New York City a lot, placing him in the same locale as Cristobal Torriente; and two, various documents list his name, somewhat interchangeably, as Luis Torriente, Luis Cacicedo and Luis Cacicedo Torriente.

Take, for example, his U.S. World War I draft card. He’s listed as Luis Cacicedo Torriente, with a permanent residence on Arguelles Street in Cienfuegos (the same street on which his father’s business was located) and a birthdate of 1887. The card lists Luis as white, and his profession is “chemical engineer” on a “sugar estate” in Cienfuegos. His nearest relative is pegged as Esteban Torriente at the same permanent address. (It’s not clear if that’s Esteban Sr. or Jr.)

What’s more, Luis’ listed surname varies from Torriente to Cacicedo on different ship manifests during the first two decades of the 20th century. He also shows up as Luis Cacicedo, a 22-year-old white male, in the 1910 Federal Census of Manhattan, where he’s a lodger on W. 115th Street. Finally, on his 1922 New York marriage certificate to one Rafaela Tess, he’s called Luis Cacicedo.

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But there’s one final component … Both Cristobal Torriente and Luis Cacicedo Torriente had multiple WWI draft cards — I’m not sure why, exactly, except the various ones have different permanent residences for each of them — and these documents could reveal something telling.

On one of Cristobal’s three (!) cards lists his birthdate of Nov. 16, 1893, his birthplace as Cienfuegos, and his current residence as Monroe County, Fla. (which is basically the Florida Keys). His race is stated as black.

Meanwhile, a second card for Luis states his name as Luis Cacicedo Torriente, his birthdate as Sept. 10, 1887, his birthplace/location of relative as Cienfuegos and his residence as … Monroe County, Fla.! The card, further, states that he’s white.

On top of that, the historical record is littered with documents involving various Torrientes or de la Torrientes of both colors living, going to or coming from Monroe County and/or Key West.

Finally (I know I’ve said finally a few times, apologies for the absurd length of this post), I might have come across documented proof that Luis Cacicedo Torriente — son of wealthy, white, 19th-century sugar planter from Cienfuegos — and Cristobal Torriente — black baseball legend and Hall of Famer now resting in a mass, unmarked grave — are indeed on different branches of the same family tree.

Umm, but unfortunately at this point, I can’t, uhh, confirm that last assertion because I haven’t quite figured out the details yet. I know, that’s a bit confusing and likewise a bit tenuous, but rest assured that I’m working to nail it down for certain.

But here’s my hypothesis: That the Negro League great was possibly descended from former black slaves belonging to white Esteban Torriente and his lineage in the city of Cienfuegos, Cuba, where, like much of the country, race and ethnic identity are slippery, elusive and firmly entwined in the complex social, political and economic history of the island nation.

Phew.

Having said that, I invite any other friends, peers or fellow researchers to step in and correct and/or add to my probably spotty interpretation of Spanish-Cuban language, genealogy and other traditions! My email is rwhirty218@yahoo.com, or feel free to leave a comment on this post.

I also stress that, because I’m a relative neophyte in Cuban culture and history, this post was written from a probably narrow, Americanized point of view and, as such, it could omit, gloss over, obscure or obfuscate many points mentioned in the article that could look differently from a Cuba-centric approach. Again, if that is the case, and if anyone reading this can clarify or fill in the narrative, please feel free to contact me.

Over the next week or so, I hope to write two more posts concerning Cristobal Torriente, one that deals with my effort to find a living relative or descendant, and the other detailing the effort to call attention to the deplorable state of his remains in Queens.
Hopefully, somewhere down the road, I’ll be able to somehow pull aaaaaaaall these strands together, but not without help from all of you!

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2 thoughts on “Torriente: Slavery, politics, the sugar trade and the search for answers

  1. Pingback: Who holds Cristobal’s fate? | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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