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Time Traveling in Paradise

By Staff | Mar 4, 2015

With the recent international headlines of the renewed opening of Cuban and United States’ relations, it’s just one of many chapters which have been written over the course of the last 500 years between the two countries.

But it’s been Southwest Florida which has had the closest ties with Cuba, and that has included a native indian nation never defeated in battle, smugglers, soldiers and spies.

After taking a gorgeous boat ride on a Captiva Cruises’ boat down the coastline of Captiva Island, through PIne Island Sound and to the docks on Cayo Costa Island, that 500 years of Cuban-Southwest Florida history was compacted into an enthralling 50-minute presentation by internationally acclaimed author Robert Macomber.

Starting with the original settlers of the Calusa tribe all the way to the Cuban rafters seeking sanctuary on U.S. soil, the five-century history tour provided by Macomber was filled with rare facts, violence and conquering nations.

It was all told by Macomber on the paradise-like island of Cayo Costa, which was the first of the Captiva Cruises lecture series through the month of February. Best known for his award-winning novels, Macomber is an expert on Southwest Florida history, especially of the barrier islands, since he is a native of Pine Island.

He and his wife, Nancy, still reside on Pine Island.

The environment the presentation was given, added to the ambience of the historical lesson.

“These are our islands, they belong to us,” said Captiva Cruise president Paul McCarthy. “It is owned by the state of Florida. It’s remarkable, it’s a piece of property eight miles long with gorgeous beachfront, in which you can camp here. The beaches are undisturbed and you can stay here in tents or cabins. We are lucky that we can still enjoy Florida like it was 150 to 200 years ago.”

Macomber used to boat over to Cayo Costa 52 years ago to catch stone crab and enjoy the undisturbed beaches.

“I am just enamored with this island,” Macomber said. “It was just a great place to grow up and you can still do the same things on this island today as I did back then.”

Most history books elude to the Eastern coast as where U.S. history started, but in fact, the history in Southwest Florida predates that by over a century.

It was the native tribe of the Calos, which means “fierce people”, later became known as the Calusa Indians, which came into first contact with the different Spanish explorers off the coast of Southwest Florida.

Although the reign of the Calusa spanned to the early 1800’s, their culture and name is still prevalent even today. The Caloosahatchee River means “River of the Calusa” and a host of other titles of landmarks, cities and waterways are directly attached to the Calusa.

But the other faction, the Spanish, has its earmarks all over Southwest Florida, as well.

“First official expedition into this area was made by Juan Ponce DeLeon when he sailed through in May, 1513,” Macomber said. “No one knows precisely where he went, but he did come into these islands. Here, he made his first contact with the Calusa, who had artifacts already from shipwrecked Spanish in the Keys.”

The Calusa’s military stronghold and ceremonial center was called Mound City, which its foundations were built on seashells and sits in Estero Bay near Fort Myers Beach.

Macombers said the one thing the Calusa held, was military might, as Ponce DeLeon soon found out.

In Macomber’s opinion, DeLeon interacted with the Calusa at Point Ybel on Sanibel. The two parties traded goods and soon after, the Calusa demanded the Spanish to depart from the island.

“Ponce DeLeon no doubt didn’t take kindly to that,” Macomber said. “A minor battle did ensue and the Spanish did eventually leave. Eight years later in 1521, Ponce DeLeon returned and the Calusa were ready for him after they had interactions with Spanish previously and knew what to expect.

“DeLeon immediately left and four years later, he comes back. He lands in the first area where he first arrived, which was Point Ybel. The Spanish ended up getting attacked by Calusa, where he took an arrow into his thigh. DeLeon ended up dying on the way back to Cuba.”

The Calusa proved to be a worthy adversary against the Spanish armies, never losing a battle. But a much smaller invading force eventually unraveled the mighty Calusa tribe – disease.

“The decline of Calusa came in the 1600s, with diseases such as measles, bubonic plague and TB,” Macomber said. “Disease took over 60 percent of the Calusa population during that time. More and more Calusa started becoming Hispanic-ized and converted to Christianaity through faith or convenience. They started learning the Spanish language, in which they started losing their own native culture and military power due to disease.

“By the 1600’s they were dependent on the Spanish. By the 1700s, the Calusa were no longer referred to as Calusa, but as Spanish Indians.”

Meanwhile, the Spanish consolidated Florida into their territory and ruled over it from Havana, Cuba. In the early 1700’s, another native tribe started making their way down into Florida from lower Alabama and Georgia, which were from the Creek Nation.

These breakaway renegades were known as Seminoles.

“Seminoles are not native to Florida,” Macomber added.

The British soon entered the picture, took over Florida in 1763, but ended up giving it back to the Spanish after losing the Revolutionary War. From 1783 to 1820, the Spanish ran Florida from Havana, Cuba.

During that time, Cuban fishermen harvested fish in the area, with mullet being the prime target.

“This bay (of Cayo Costa) was full of mullet, there were hundreds jumping at a time in it,” Macomber said.

In 1821, the United States bought Florida from the Spanish, but with the exception that Cuban fishermen could fish the bays for the next century. In the 1880’s, there were a couple of dozen Cuban fishing camps entrenched on the barrier islands around Sanibel and the mainland.

Then the 1900’s came with the rise of the smuggler, after the Americans came in with rules and regulations.

“You started to see the rise of people to circumnavigate the rules,” Macomber said. “The smugglers ran rum – or fire water – for the next 100 years. This was your rot gut, cane liquor. It’s not stuff you want to be drinking.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army was fighting their longest war ever, which was against the Seminoles, and lasted 22 years.

Florida was also a busy battlefield during the Civil War, in which Macomber will have presentations on Tuesday, March 10, and Sunday, March 15, through Captiva Cruises aboard The Santiva.

Cubans made fortunes as blockade runners, smuggling cotton and turpentine, which was only a three-day run to Cuba.

After the war, many of the fishermen came back, while Cuba was embroiled in their own civil war seeking independence from the Spanish in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Smugglers would run guns and rum each way.

The practice again peaked in the 1920’s with the American Prohibition in full effect, with the barrier island area rife with booze smuggling.

The spy portion of Macomber’s history presentation occurred in the 1960’s, when another Cuban Revolution was underway by Fidel Castro.

“Florida played a big part in that,” Macomber said. “Cuban exiles and U.S. government chose this coast to start training and start preparing to liberate Cuba from communist control. Early in 1961, these islands were the scene for CIA operations at Useppa Island. The CIA trained radio operators to communicate professionally with American military forces and other Cuban exile military forces. There is a wonderful museum on Useppa detailing this time.”

But what resulted, of course, was the massacre of Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs.

Again in the 1980’s, Cuba had a direct impact on the area when Castro opened the borders of Cuba and allowed anyone to flee the country to the U.S. That included the prisons, as well.

“It was a mass exodus to Florida,” Macomber said. “The people who made it to Florida, were able to stay. They had many pitiful and sad stories during their plight to the U.S. as rafters. Their stories will make you proud to be an American and the freedoms we do have.”

There were Cuban refugees who washed up on Captiva and Sanibel, with the last ones actually coming ashore three years ago on a Sanibel beach.

“Most were trying to get to the Keys, but missed it,” Macomber said. “That was one long trip for them.”

With unbeatable native warriors to washed up refugees on the shores of Sanibel, 500 years of history directly connects Cuba with Southwest Florida.

It is a great, interesting history and it makes it all the better listening to a storyteller like Macombers, surrounded by the paradise sights of Cayo Costa National Park.

The Captiva Cruises lecture series continues under the tiki hut at Cayo Costa through March and April. March 5 features Bob Ballard (Cayo Costa in the 1900s), March 12 is Cindy Bear (Randell Research Center), March 19 is Dr. Jose Leal (Se shells of Southwest Florida) and March 26 is Kristie Anders (Shaping the Island: Tides and Currents).

Check out April’s lineup at www.cayocostaferry.com or call Captiva Cruises at 239-472-5300.