In 19th century Cuba gambling was the national pastime. Lottery tickets were sold in fractions of one thousand so even a child could afford to bet a kilo on his favorite number. Cockfighting, Cuba’s indigenous sport, was handicapped the same as horse races and generated an even greater volume of bets. The rich and socially-prominent were naturally the biggest gamblers of all; for not only did they participate in these popular amusements, but had their own exclusive casinos where fortunes were made and lost every night (mostly lost). It was considered “bad form” in those days to retire one’s winnings while the game was still in progress, so everybody in effect played until they had lost everything. The casinos never closed their doors precisely to afford their patrons the opportunity to do precisely that.
The second Count de Baynoa (Cayetana’s son), Manuel GARCIA-Barrera y GARCIA-Barrera, our great-great-great grandfather, was an inveterate gambler. Like many sons of great wealth his only relationship to money was spending it. The II Count, however, was not a complete wastral. His father had purchased for him while he was still a teenager a captain’s commission in the rural cavalry as well as the knight’s cross of the Order of Carlos III. More importantly, his father’s position in society and his own “prospects” saved him from ever hitting bottom, though on occasion he did momentarily touch it. This was such an occasion.
Having lost everything as usual but still wanting to play, the Count decided to liquidate some of his assets on the spot. This was easily done since these casinos attracted speculators of an higher order who were willing to provide ready cash in exchange for a diamond ring, the deed to one’s house, or some portion of a dowry. Technically, these were loans that could be redeemed at a usurious interest rate. The gamblers hoped to reclaim these possessions with their future winnings, but were usually disappointed inn their expectations. If it were possible to gamble away titles of nobility, no doubt many a count or marquess would have staked his birthright for the proverbial bowl of porridge. But the Crown, wisely, had proscribed this practice (though you could still donate your title to the Church, which was permitted to auction it off to the highest bidder).
On that night, the Count decided to pawn his coach; when he lost it, he pawned the horses; and when he lost them, the coachman, which, of course, he also proceeded to lose. What the usurer that lent him the money did not know was that the Count did not own the coach, the horses or the coachman. He was already at the “keeping up appearances” stage of his precipitous decline and had leased all three. Let it be said to his credit — if there is any credit to be salvaged from this affair — that he did not plan this as a swindle. His actions were quite spontaneous and may even have been committed under the delusion that they were in fact his coach, his horses and his slave; for in Cuba, in the 19th century, drinking was the second national pastime.
The next day, now in full possession of himself, the Count informed the carriage’s owner where he could retrieve it, along with the horses and the coachman, as the term of the lease had expired. For a consideration of a thousand sentenes (a French gold coin otherwise known as a “napoleon”), the hapless pawnbroker had subleased the coach-and-four (five, with the coachman) for the remainder of a one-year contract on which twelve hours still remained.
That night the Count was again at the casino, and when confronted by the irate pawnbroker, who congratulated him on the “fine joke” but demanded his money back, replied: “This is a gambling establishment; you gambled and lost. I’m not getting back the money that I left here last night and neither are you.” And because a Count trumps a pawnbroker, the matter was closed.