The Shipyard

In the early years of the 20th century, Spain seemed to be in a state of perpetual conflict with Morocco. The fighting was largely considered senseless, and sparked a wave of emigration by young men hoping to escape compulsory military service to start new lives. At that time, Cuba had recently gained her independence (following the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898) and the island’s economy was growing at a rapid clip. This, coupled with its inherent natural beauty and Spanish heritage, made Cuba the perfect destination for young Spaniards setting off to reinvent themselves.

Harvesting sponges in the waters off Batabanó, Cuba. Circa 1898.

Gabriel Palmer, the 15 year-old son of a Mallorcan tomato farmer and carpenter, was just such a young man. In the winter of 1905, his father Atanasio, sent him away to the Pearl of the Antilles with nothing more than a few personal belongings, 25 pesos, and the promise of a ship’s cook to watch over the boy during the long journey. On March 18, 1905, Palmer’s ship arrived in Cuba. His first work on the island would be in the small shipyards of Batabanó, repairing small fishing boats. It was there where he met his future wife, the young daughter of the yard’s foreman.

Goodbye Batabanó: Hello Havana

Fear has a way of making us act impulsively. After suffering a severe injury to his leg while at work in Batabanó, Gabriel overheard his doctors debating the best course of action for his leg’s amputation. Unwilling to accept the potential loss of an appendage, he fled the hospital and made his way to Havana, where a pharmacist he was acquainted with agreed to treat his wounds as best he could. The gamble paid off. The leg healed and Gabriel found new work in Havana.  Coincidentally, not long after his arrival in the Cuban capitol, his former supervisor, and teenage daughter Eulalia, would be reunited after their relocation to Havana.

Newspaper Magnate Provides First Big Break

El Mundo Newspaper, Cuba

A porcelain sign from the 30's advertising El Mundo.

Founded in 1901 by brothers Raul and Jose Manuel Govin, Cuba’s El Mundo (The World) newspaper was widely considered a pioneer in the journalism world. With its color advertisements, and modern eight-column format, El Mundo attracted some of the finest journalists of its day. It also raked in barrels of cash for the Govin family. Jose Manuel lived in Havana’s posh Hotel Sevilla Biltmore, where he breakfasted each morning accompanied by two secretaries—one to his left and one to his right—one of whom read the day’s correspondence to Govin while the other took down the subsequent dication that would result as Govin sent out the day’s orders.

In 1917, Gabriel Palmer, then a young fledgling shipbuilder, was approached by El Mundo co-founder Jose Manuel Govin with a commission to build a ship for the transport of lumber from Cuba to the Canary Islands. The estimate for construction came in at $99,850.00, a sum that prompted Govin to ask “why not $100,000?”

“Because, sir, after having made all of my calculations, that’s the sum I have arrived at, not a penny more, nor a penny less.”

Govin advised the 27 year-old shipbuilder who had arrived in Cuba only 12 years earlier never to change his work ethic: “if you keep up like this, you’ll go far.”

Ship under construction in Cuba.

The ship which would later be christened the "Gabriel Palmer," under construction in Havana.

The ship was completed on-time, fully furnished and outfitted for the exact sum stated in the contract. With a lumber-carrying capacity of several hundred thousand cubic-feet, it was the largest ship built on the island at that time and had left Govin so pleased, not only did he christen the ship the “Gabriel Palmer,” he ordered a second craft built the same specifications. It was with the earnings from the two Govin contracts, that Palmer was able to purchase the small operation in Havana’s Casa Blanca section which would later become Astilleros Palmer (The Palmer Shipyards).

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