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Old Painting Sheds New Light On Key West's Role In History

Key West Art & Historical Society
A detail from the painting on display at the Custom House shows Key West Harbor during the Virginius Affair.

Twenty-five years before the Spanish-American War,  the two countries bristled at each other across the Florida Straits, with a show of American Naval force assembled in Key West.

The Virginius Affair centered around the 1873 capture of an American ship that was helping Cuban rebels during the Ten Years War, an unsuccessful attempt to throw off Spanish rule from the island.

The Virginius was originally a Confederate blockade runner during the American Civil War. In the 1870s, it was carrying weapons to Cuban rebels. It was crewed by American and British citizens.

The Spanish caught up with the ship in 1873 — and declared the men aboard to be pirates. Spanish officials executed 53 of them, including the American captain.

American public opinion was strongly against Spain. Spain, meanwhile, was upset that Americans were helping the Cuban rebels.

Americans were not prepared for war and Spain had its hands full in Cuba. But both sides had to do some muscle-flexing,  and for America, that meant gathering its fleet close to Cuba.

"The Americans decided to bring ships to Key West, as many as they could," said Cori Convertito, curator at the Key West Art & Historical Society. "They pulled them from European fleets, North American fleets, and brought them to Key West."

Both sides backed away from war — then. Eventually another Cuban rebellion, and the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898,  led the U.S. to formally intervene on the side of the Cuban rebels in the Spanish-American War.

The Virginius Affair has been largely forgotten, even in Key West histories. But now a painting, newly acquired by a local collector, is bringing new attention to the episode.

The painting shows the fleet assembled in Key West Harbor and it's on display at the Art & Historical Society's Custom House museum, part of an exhibit about the Navy's role in Key West.

"The painting has made us more aware of how important and significant Key West was in an event that really staved off war for over 20 years," Convertito said.

She's still researching who created the painting and why. It's signed I.H.F. Düksen,  but so far the artist is unknown, other than that name.

The painting is scheduled to be on display at the Custom House through the end of November.

"It has pride of place in the gallery. It looks incredible," Convertito said. "And the amount of detail that whoever this I.H.F. Düksen is put into the painting — the shadows from the sails and the rigging is actually reflected in the water.  I mean, that's the attention to detail in this painting. It really is worth looking at up close and personal."