The Siboney and Guanahatabey Indians were the earliest known inhabitants of Cuba. They arrived there sometime after 3500 B.C. Both groups lived in small temporary settlements. Their dwellings were concentrated near the ocean, because sea life was their main source of food. Warlike Arawak Indians began arriving in the ninth century and pushed the Siboney and Guanahatabey to the western third of the island. The Arawak originated in South America and migrated northward along the West Indies archipelago. They had larger, permanent villages, usually numbering more than 1,000 inhabitants.
Christopher Columbus first sighted Cuba during a driving rainstorm. A few months earlier, Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had hired Columbus, an Italian adventurer and businessman, to find a sea route to India. This was his first voyage of discovery. Historians dispute exactly where he disembarked the next morning, but a location near Gibara, a small village on Cuba’s northeast coast, is the most likely place. Columbus claimed this land for Spain.
Columbus’s second voyage took him back to the West Indies. This time he sailed along Cuba’s southern coast as far as the Gulf of Batabano. From there he sailed south to Cuba’s second largest island, which he could see in the distance, and named it the Isle of Pines because of the large pine forest on the northern half of the island. He never sailed around the west end of the island. If he had done so, he would have discovered that he had not found a continent. Instead, on this voyage he officially declared that Cuba was a peninsula of Asia.
At first, Cuba did not receive much attention from Spain, because it had only small deposits of gold. Occasionally, Spanish expeditions visited the island in search of able-bodied Indians to work as slaves in Hispaniola’s gold mines and in its newly established towns and plantations. The Arawak, however, fought back. By 1519, the Indian population was down from its original size of 112,000 to just 19,000. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had shrunk to less than 2,000. Diego de Velázquez, a wealthy landowner in western Hispaniola, led the conquest and early settlement of Cuba.
Recognizing Havana’s strategic importance, Spain built three fortresses around its harbor in the late 1500s to protect it from pirates and enemy warships. Havana became the colony’s capital in 1607. By 1700, this port city was home to more than half of the inhabitants on the island. The transfer of the political capital from Santiago de Cuba to Havana worsened conditions in eastern Cuba.
Spanish occupation of Cuba was not different from the Crown’s rule over its other Latin American colonial holdings. The Spanish created polarized societies immediately upon their arrival. New territories instantly became parts of the Spanish empire, rather than just overseas colonial possessions. This approach led to the implementation of an identical administrative structure to Spain’s. At that time the Spanish kingdom was organized under feudal principles. Feudalism was a legal and social system in Europe in which a monarch attempted to control his kingdom through joint agreements with regional leaders.
From the middle of the 1500s and throughout the 1600s, England, France and the Netherlands competed with Spain for control of the Caribbean. Spanish cities were under constant threat of attack and its treasure fleets were prime targets. The English, Dutch and French were also actively seeking new colonies in the region. With the English capture of Jamaica, the Spaniards in Cuba became quite concerned over the probability of attack. The European countries created their own buccaneers (mercenaries who engaged in piracy during non-war periods) and attacked each other’s settlements and colonies.
By the early 1700s, tobacco had replaced leather and hides as the dominant economic sector of Cuba, largely due to growing demand in Europe. The Spanish created an official monopoly on tobacco. Local producers had to sell their product to the Crown’s purchasing agency. There were protests and even rebellions against these trade restrictions that were met with repression by the Crown. The slave trade also flourished during this time.
Several events in the late 1700s and early 1800s set the stage for the growth of the sugar industry on the island. Spain allied with France in its struggle with the English during the Seven Years War. In August 1762, the English under Lord Albemarle attacked and occupied Havana. Juan de Prado, the island’s governor and captain-general, together with the Spanish administrators and virtually all the peninsulares left the island. The English traded Cuba back to Spain in exchange for Florida in the Treaty of Paris that ended the war.
The impact of the English occupation would be felt throughout the island. The sugar planters benefited immediately from the English occupation largely due to the increased availability of slave labor and equipment. Sugar production increased almost overnight. Conde de Ricla, the new Spanish governor and captain-general, had Havana strengthened by building another fort, La Cabana. Sugar production increased, as did the number of slaves on the island while trade was starting to flourish.
Francisco de Arango, Conde de Casa Montalvo, Jose Ricardo O’Farrill and other modernizing Creoles were intent on creating a rich, sugar-based economy in Cuba. It was to be based on the expansion of slavery, better infrastructure and greater access to capital or finances and the world market. They came to represent a Cuban nationalist rather than a Spanish point of view. This viewpoint manifested itself in the creation of the Economic Society (Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País). The members of the society played a primary role in developing an intellectual climate with the support of Creole planters that resulted in dramatic changes to Cuban economic policies in the early 1800s.
By 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte had occupied the Iberian Peninsula and placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish Crown. This event was the catalyst for the wars of independence in the Spanish colonies in the Americas that lasted from 1810 through the mid-1820s. However, the Creole planter class in Cuba did not join this struggle. Large numbers of Spanish troops who were involved in the fight against the revolutionaries were stationed in Cuba. It would have been most difficult to defeat these troops.
Denmark, England and the United States banned the slave trade. Sweden, France and Holland quickly followed. This abolitionist movement was clearly a threat to the future of the island in the eyes of the Creole planters. Arango and other Cuban Creoles extensively lobbied the Spanish government not to abolish the slave trade. Nonetheless, Spain, under tremendous pressure from England, who played the dominant role in the coalition that defeated Napoleon, agreed to end the slave trade. In reaction to this, Cuba imported more than 100,000 slaves from 1816 to 1820 — as many or more than were imported in the previous 300 years.
Partly in consequence of the British interference regarding the slave trade, planters in Cuba began once again to explore the idea of joining the United States as a new state of the Union. The United States Cabinet discussed the idea but sought to dissuade the Cubans. They preferred the status quo. Forty thousand Spanish troops were stationed in Cuba from the 1820s onwards. They and a network of government spies preserved the island's loyalty. Cuba's political docility, guaranteed by the Spanish garrison, was the framework for a rapid increase of prosperity based on sugar.
New technology and investment funds from the United States began to transform the sugar industry and Cuba’s trade relationships. Cuba became more and more oriented toward the United States. During the first part of the century, the increase in sugar production was achieved largely through the growth in the number of mills rather than an increase in the size of the mills and plantations. The sugar wealth exploded with the growth of the railroads (imported from the United States) through the important sugar growing areas.
The sugar planters often built opulent mansions, although many actually lived in their homes in Havana, Santiago or Matanzas and only visited the plantations during the sugar harvest. The plantations were typically run by an administrator who may or may not have been a member of the planter family. The planters had a rich and opulent lifestyle. Many invested their wealth in the United States and Europe and continued to engage in the illegal slave trade.
It is estimated that most of the approximately 400,000 slaves imported illegally into Cuba worked on plantations producing sugar, molasses and rum. Many in the city were able to earn enough money to purchase their freedom. For the sugar planters, slaves represented the largest single investment. They also lived in constant fear of slave uprisings and most had long memories of the Haitian revolution. Major slave rebellions occurred in 1826, 1837, 1843 and 1844. Cuban planters turned for help to the United States, especially the southern slave states. Some were hopeful of a permanent relationship that would protect the institution of slavery on the island.
The US Civil War ended the talk of annexation as Cuban planters were forced to depend solely on the Spanish Crown to continue to protect the institution of slavery and to overlook the illegal slave trade. Many came to realize that the illegal slave trade was coming to an end and that Cuba would not be able to replenish its slave labor. Without the ability to replenish its slave labor, they believed that the institution of slavery would eventually die out for economic reasons. The US Civil War also destroyed the sugar plantations in Louisiana and paved the way for an expansion of Cuban sugar production in the 1860s.
Cuban Creoles remained loyal to the Crown during the wars of independence, and the growth of sugar wealth early in the century retarded the growth of nationalism among the sugar planters. Yet, Creole elites were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the trade limitations and restrictions associated with its colonial status, the lack of a real voice in the political processes on the island and the corruption of the local government officials. Some Cuban planters, as mentioned earlier, promoted annexation to the United States as an alternative to Spanish colonialism. Others questioned the development of a closer relationship with the United States. They came to fear US dominance as much as Spanish dominance.
The reform movement in Cuba reached a peak in 1865 with the creation of the Reform Party, which wanted Cuban Creoles to have the same political rights as the peninsulares, greater economic freedom and limits on the power of the captain-general. Peninsulares formed their own party, the Unconditional Spanish Party, to counter the demands of the reformists. Spain, in an attempt to moderate some of the demands, then called for the election of a reform commission. Hope for reform was quickly ended as a new, reactionary government in Spain disbanded the commission and refused to implement the proposed reforms.
The generation of reform-minded planters had also become convinced that with the outbreak of the American Civil War the slave trade would soon be brought to a halt. In 1862 a United States slave captain, Captain Nathaniel Gordon, was hanged for carrying 890 slaves on his ship to Havana - the first such punishment ever for a United States citizen. In the same year the United States and Britain initiated combined operations for the final suppression of the Cuban slave trade. By the time the Spanish government itself introduced new legislation in 1866, the trade had already virtually ceased; the last known importation of slaves into Cuba took place in 1867.
Those in power did not want to allow any changes in existing conditions for fear of losing benefits. By the mid-nineteenth century Cuba had continued to stagnate and had no modern industrial development. It was clear to many that reform was not possible, and the stage was set for a violent struggle for independence. It would begin in the east near Bayamo and be led by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the patriarch of a sugar planter family. Cuba’s economic growth during the first half of the century was impressive by any measure. Yet, it is also important to point out that the benefits of that growth and progress were clearly not shared evenly among its population.