By Evelyn C. McDonald
Arts & Culture
August 2021

José Martí historical marker is located in front of the Florida House. Photo compliments of The Historical Marker Database.

You don’t always think about the history of the place where you live. Granted there are many historical markers in Nassau County. Most of the time, these markers celebrate people and events that we know dimly, if at all. We discovered that John James Audubon and William Bartram passed through our island on their nature explorations.

Another marker that has an interesting history and offers some surprising information about our town, world events, and cultural exchange stands in front of the Florida House Inn. It commemorates José Martí, Cuban poet and revolutionary, who stayed there in 1893.

José Martí was here under an assumed name as he was trying to get weapons to send to the aid of Cuban rebels seeking freedom from Spanish colonial rule. In this effort, he was helped by Nathaniel Borden, a wealthy Fernandina business man. With Borden’s help, Martí secured three ships and fitted them out with arms.

Martí was a poet and a revolutionary. Those of you who remember when folk music was big will likely remember “Guantanamera.” It might surprise you to know the lyrics were adapted from one of Martí poems. It became a standard on radio stations playing folk music.

Why was Martí hiding in Fernandina Beach trying to supply arms to a revolution? One reason for the hiding is that he was guilty of attempting to filibuster. That’s not a typo. An alternate and older meaning of filibuster is to seek the overthrow of a foreign government. The United States Treasury regarded this as a crime and were in pursuit.

Fernandina also made sense as a location. Miami would have been closer to Cuba but too obvious a choice. Tampa had a sizeable Cuban population but also might have been watched too carefully. Fernandina had a good port and easy access to the ocean.

In the end, Martí’s plan came to nothing as the boats he chartered for the weapons transport never made it to Cuba. Martí returned to Cuba to fight with the rebels and in 1895, he was killed during the Battle of Dos Rios.

Martí is revered in Cuba. Streets and buildings as well as the Havana airport are named after him. There is the Order of José Martí which honors heroes of Cuba. What was surprising is that Fernandina is also known and revered. Berta Arias, who has made several visits to Cuba, said when she told Cubans that she was from Fernandina, they knew the name as the place where their national hero spent time trying to free them from Spanish rule.

Celebrating these ties, the Amelia Island Museum of History (ameliamuseum.org) will offer a lecture, the Cuba Art Exhibit, and the Fiesta de Santa Maria on September 17th and 18th. For more details, you can also visit Berta Arias’ website: bertaariasauthor.com

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