History of Cuba 1 – From colonisation to the 10 Years War


by Cat Wiener, June 1996

* In 1492, Columbus persuaded the Spanish court – which desperately needed hard currency to fight new wars of conquest in Naples – to fund his project to reach the important spice islands of the Indies and the fabled wealth of China and Japan – by sailing over the western ocean.

* Three months later, on 12 October, Columbus lands on islands of Hispaniola (now Haiti) and Cuba – ‘the fairest island human eyes have yet beheld¼ it is certain where there is such marvelous scenery, there must be much from which profit can be made.’ He claimed both islands in the name of the kingdoms of God and Spain.

* The islands were inhabited by indigenous tribes. In Cuba, the Ciboney and Tainos peoples initially welcomed the invaders. They had lived largely peaceful and communally till then. The Spanish demanded gold. But there were no goldfields in that part of the Americas. The native population were indiscriminately slaughtered by the invaders. Resistance, led by Hatuey, was brutally put down; Hatuey was burned at the stake. Other Indians were hanged in batches of 13 – ‘in memory of Christ our Lord and his 12 apostles’.

* The Spanish carved up Cuba into large private farms and forced the remaining population into slave labour. Citrus fruits, tobacco and sugar were shipped back to Spain.

* Through a genocidal policy of extermination, disease and mass suicide the native population was wiped out. By the start of the 18th century there was not a single indigenous Indian left in Cuba.

* So began the history of slavery in Cuba, inextricably bound up with its role as a major sugar-producing colony. From the beginning of the 17th century, slaves were shipped from Africa to work the sugar plantations. By 1827, 50% of Cuba’s population were black; 40% were slaves.

* There developed in Cuba a class of planters – Creoles – of Spanish origin but born in Cuba. They were looked down on by Spanish-born landowners and were not allowed to hold public office. They began to resent Spain – the colonial power – and the Spanish-born ruling class in Cuba.

* In 1756-1763, in the Seven Year’s War in Europe, Spain sided with France against Britain. The Caribbean became a battleground. The British briefly occupied Havana in 1762. This opened up trade with the United States and Britain, especially in sugar. The Cuban planter class found they could buy and sell more cheaply than they could under the monopoly of trade with Spain (by now a fairly backward European country).

* The United States also began to express an interest in Cuba. US president Thomas Jefferson warned that if at any point Spain didn’t continue to control Cuba, the United States should to safeguard its own interests.

* In 1791, Toussaint l’Ouverture organised a black slaves’ revolution in Haiti and established a republic, driving the French out. This gave tremendous inspiration to the slaves of Cuba – who had never ceased to revolt against the landowners. The US, which still had slavery in the South, became increasingly concerned that slavery should continue in Cuba – and saw any movement for Cuban independence as a threat to its interests.

* This was the era of the Monroe Doctrine – which basically asserted that the whole of the Western hemisphere was a US sphere of influence. In the early 1800s the wind of independence swept through Latin America, with the Spanish driven out of Argentina and Colombia in 1819, Central America in 1821, Mexico in 1822 and Peru in 1824. In 1824, only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained in Spanish hands. US secretary of state John Quincy Adams stated: ‘These islands are natural appendages of the North American continent.’

* The US began to talk openly of the annexation of Cuba – with the support of the big Cuban landowners who didn’t want to see slavery abolished. ‘There are two dangers to be averted by the event [of annexation]. One, that the island should fall into the hands of Great Britain; the other, that it should be revolutionised by the Negroes.’ (John Quincy Adam). He said that Cuba, like a ripe apple, should gravitate naturally to the US if cut off from Spain. In the 1850s, it offered Spain $100 million to buy Cuba, lock, stock and barrel.

* By this time, 82 per cent of Cuban sugar was shipped to the US.

* The revolutionary sections of those opposing Spanish rule – comprising mainly freed slaves, slaves and some Creole landowners – appealed to Latin America’s great liberator, Simon Bolivar, to send a combined Mexican-Colombian expedition to liberate Spain and Puerto Rico. Bolivar agreed, but in the face of threats from the US and Britain, was forced to back off.

* In 1844, a three-year plot by freed slaves, slaves and a few whites to install a republic to abolish slavery and for black and white to be equal was discovered and brutally crushed. Frightened Creole planters renewed their agitation for annexation.

* On 10 October 1868, 38 Creole farmers, led by a man called Manuel de Cespedes, rose up in Oriente, in the eastern part of Cuba. Cespedes first liberated his 150 slaves who immediately joined the rebel army – the Mambises. Within two days, 4,000 had joined their ranks; within a month, they numbered 12,000 – the vast bulk of the army made up of freed slaves.

* One of greatest of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders, Antonio Maceo, the son of a freed slave, became a general in the army. In the fourth month of the war they fought a Spanish column which was attempting to recapture the rebel city of Bayamo. 2,000 Cubans died in the battle. The inhabitants of the city burned Bayamo to the ground rather than return it to the Spanish. It is to this battle that the call to arms to the Bayameses of the Cuban national anthem refers.

* The rebel army was armed with mainly knives and machetes against the Spanish guns and battalions. Yet the guerrilla war, masterminded by Maceo and another important general, Maximo Gomez, was fought for 10 years in the east of the island. The rebels were never able to break through to the west, where Spanish economic power lay. The US Secretary of State ensured that US support – agreed by congress – never reached the rebels.

* By the end of the ten years, there was disunity in the ranks of the rebels. The financial backers of the uprising – the Creole landowners – were afraid of all the slaves being freed (Maceo was accused of wanting to establish ‘a black republic’) and began to hold back the revolutionary struggle for fear of alienating the big landowners in the west.

* Spain, realising it could not win but could do a deal offered some reforms which were accepted by the planter class at the Treaty of Zanjon in 1878.

* Maceo rejected the Treaty and left for exile to rally support for the revolutionary cause abroad. Although the 10 Years War was lost, it showed how the struggle for freedom in Cuba would be bound up with the struggle against slavery and racism, and based on the poorest sections of Cuban society – and was the prelude to the great war of independence that followed.


History of Cuba 1 – From colonisation to the 10 Years War