Colonization of Cuba
The Spanish Empire colonizes Cuba
author Paul Boșcu, August 2017
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. The Arawak, however, fought back. Diego de Velázquez, a wealthy landowner in western Hispaniola, led the conquest and early settlement of Cuba.

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The Siboney and Guanahatabey Indians are 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 one-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.

The Siboney and Guanahatabey gathered clams, mussels, crabs, and lobsters; hunted manatees and sea turtles; and fished. They also collected wild nuts and fruits and hunted and trapped iguanas, snakes, and birds. The cave-dwelling Guanajatabeyes were the first indigenous peoples on the island and the smallest in numbers. They were fruit and food gatherers and lived primarily on a diet of sea mollusks. They lived on the western part of the island and rarely came in contact with the Spanish.

The Arawak also were healthier and stronger than the Siboney and Guanahatabey because they grew most of their own food. Farming made their food supply dependable, abundant, and varied. They cooperated in planting, weeding, and harvesting their crops.

The indigenous peoples of Cuba were either wiped out through disease and Spanish brutality or absorbed through intermarriage in the late 1400s and 1500s. They would not play a significant role in the development of Cuba.

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.

Once on shore, the explorer was astonished by the island’s beauty. Columbus wrote: “Everything I saw was so lovely that my eyes could not weary of beholding such beauty, nor could I weary of the songs of the birds large and small. . . . There are trees of a thousand species,” he continued, “each has its particular fruit, and all of marvelous flavor.”

The Spanish crown had hired Columbus to find a new water route to the riches of the Indies, the islands lying off the southeast coast of Asia. When he arrived in Cuba, he noted that the natives—whom he mistakenly called Indians because he thought they were inhabitants of the Indies—wore what appeared to be silver jewelry. He also thought the island’s pine forests would be a natural resource for shipbuilding.

Columbus was optimistic that there would be pearls in offshore waters, gold in streams, silver in the mountains, and spices in the mangrove forests. “It is certain that where there is such marvelous scenery, there must be much from which profit can be made,” he noted. Columbus was convinced that he had found the riches of the Indies.

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.

Motivated to find Cuba’s riches, especially gold, Columbus explored the main island’s southern coast for three months before returning to Spain. He never discovered gold.

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.

The Arawak’s bows and arrows were no match against the raiders’ mobility on horseback and their steel swords, muskets, and armor. The Spaniards reacted to the Indian revolt and attacked swiftly and ruthlessly. They massacred tens of thousands of Indians.

In the late 1400s and early 1500s, Spanish power in the Caribbean was located on the island of Hispaniola. The island lacked a reliable labor force and, more importantly, it lacked the gold and silver that Spain wanted. Believing that Cuba had plenty of gold, Sebastian de Ocampo explored and sailed around the island.

The king of Spain made Diego de Velázquez Cuba’s first governor. Velázquez established the island’s first seven Spanish settlements. He chose the sites of Baracoa, Bayamo, Trinidad, Havana, Puerto Príncipe (now Camagüey), Sancti Spíritus, and Santiago de Cuba. Velázquez chose Santiago de Cuba as the island’s first capital. Although this town was isolated at the eastern end of the island and surrounded by rugged mountains, it had a good harbor and was near the main trade routes at that time.

Cuba experienced an economic boost almost immediately after Velázquez’s conquest. The Spanish Empire was expanding north into Florida, west into the Yucatán Peninsula and Mexico, and south into Venezuela, Colombia, and eventually Peru. Havana became the center of maritime activity. Jobseeking colonists from Spain were drawn to Cuba.

Havana’s large harbor, favorable currents and winds, and location on the most direct route between Mexico, North America, and Europe made it the logical stopover point for expeditions to Spain’s emerging empire. Cuba also served as a tactical support base for the sixteenth century exploration of Florida and the creation of permanent Spanish settlements there.

Velazquez issued encomiendas as a method of controlling the Indians. The encomienda system legally tied the indigenous peoples to Spaniards. The indigenous peoples served as laborers and, in return, were converted and given instruction in Christianity. Cruelty, physical abuse and overwork were common practices by the Spanish encomenderos. The indigenous population of Cuba was so small by 1513 that the first Africans were imported as slave laborers.

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 accounted for 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.

The presence of less officials, including smaller army garrisons, made the eastern region more vulnerable to raids by pirates and enemy warships. Convoying Spain’s treasure fleets through Havana isolated the former capital and immensely reduced commerce there.

The eastern region’s economy never flourished during the Spanish colonial period. However, its people survived and developed a strong distrust of Spain, Havana, and central control of government. Eastern Cuba is where future revolutionaries, such as José Martí and Fidel Castro, would first seek popular support from the people.

By the middle of the 16th century, the focus of Spanish power shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico and South America. Many on the island left for Mexico and South America with the conquistadores in search of fortune and fame. For many years, the population on the island declined. Day-to-day life was extremely difficult and uncertain with the genuine fear of slave uprisings and attack by the English or the French. It was at this time that Havana with its deep-water harbor became the most important city on the island.

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 attempts to control his kingdom through joint agreements with regional leaders.

Political and economic power remained in the hands of a few wealthy families. They strictly enforced the feudal system to mirror that of Castile. It is the system of removal instead of investment, and economic expansion rather than competitive entrepreneurship. It meant that a small nobility owned the land, while the sea of commoners and slaves had very little. The former concentrated wealth, while the latter worked for them without an opportunity to climb economically.

The feudal socio economic structure produced slow development, particularly compared to rapidly growing northern America (the United States and Canada).

The colonial governing structure in Cuba was headed by a governor who was appointed by the Crown. Initially, the local governing institution of each settlement—the cabildo—was given significant autonomy. This practice came to an end as the governors sought to centralize the political processes in the Spanish colonies in the New World.

During the four centuries of Spanish rule over Cuba one can easily see how events in the Caribbean, Spain, greater Europe and the United States directly affected the island. One can also see how events in Cuba directly affected the world beyond its borders. It is not insignificant that one of the primary consequences or legacies of Spanish colonialism is that the island became part of an interdependent world never fully in control of its own destiny.

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 nonwar periods) and attacked each other’s settlements and colonies.

Cuba was brutalized by the English buccaneer Henry Morgan, who attacked the eastern part of the island and terrorized its settlers. Spanish buccaneers frequently attacked Jamaica (England) and St. Domingue (France).

Recognizing the loss in potential revenues due to these attacks, the English and Spanish sought to end hostilities and trade peacefully. Spain recognized England’s colonies in the Caribbean and France agreed to end its buccaneer raids in the Caribbean in exchange for recognition of its authority over St. Domingue (Haiti).

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.

About half the Cuban population of 150,000 or so lived in the city of Havana, where malaria and yellow fever frequently raged. Most of the rest lived in a few other towns, such as Santiago de Cuba, the seat of an archbishop, Puerto Principe, which boasted a bishopric, Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad, Matanzas and Mariel. None of these reached 10,000 in population. Rising above these cities, or near them, were a number of sixteenth century castles and churches.

Tobacco farms (vegas) were located throughout the island but primarily in the western part (Pinar del Rio) along the Cuyaguateje River, where the best tobaccos are grown. Tobacco was Cuba's most profitable crop. Not till after 1770 were there any cigar factories in Cuba: cigars were for generations rolled on the spot by the pickers of the tobacco, or the leaf was sent back to Spain to Seville.

The Spanish colony of Cuba in the mid-eighteenth century was a largely forested, half unmapped island. It was known both to Spaniards and their enemies among other European empires primarily as the hinterland to Havana.

The South Sea Company of London was granted both limited trading rights with and an exclusive license (asiento) to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies until 1739. A Spanish company was granted a monopoly on the sale of slaves after that, although the company bought the slaves from the South Sea Company.

Political control of Cuba lay with the captain-general, who himself ultimately depended on the viceroy in Mexico. But Mexico was several weeks away, Spain at least six weeks. The captain-general in Havana also had to share responsibility de facto with the commander of the treasure fleet while the latter was in Havana for about six weeks a year.

Cuba like the rest of the Spanish empire had by the eighteenth century it's own criollo aristocracy which consisted of a handful of rich families of whom some - Recio de Oquendo, Herrera, Nunez del Castillo, Calvo de la Puerta and Beltran de la Cruz - had been in the island for several generations.

There was little industry in Cuba besides ship repairing, the curing of pork, the salting of beef and the tanning of leather. There had once in the sixteenth century been a little gold in Cuban rivers, but what there was had been recovered long ago.

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, 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 victory of Lord Albemarle's expedition to west Cuba was, of course, first and foremost the conclusion of a victorious war for Britain. Havana had never fallen before to foreign invaders. The English eliminated the Spanish trade restrictions and more than 700 merchant ships visited Havana during the occupation. This opened Havana to a large number of goods from North America and England. Before, the Cuban market had been formally closed to foreigners, although much smuggling had occurred.

The chief consequence of Albemarle's victory was that, during the year when the English directed the affairs of Havana, about 4,000 slaves were sold there. This figure was perhaps equivalent to one-eighth of the number of slaves in the island at that time.

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.

Conde de Ricla’s new fort’s construction required a large increase in the number of slaves and when construction was completed most of them were sold on the market to sugar planters. Sugar exports reached 10,000 tons a year during the 1770s.

Another immediate consequence of the British conquest was the disappearance of most old Spanish taxes. Some of these, it is true, were temporarily restored after the British left. But most restrictions on trade were abolished for good. The Bourbon monarch Charles III of Spain, in an effort to revive the empire’s economic growth, issued his Decree of Free Trade that allowed the twenty-four ports in Spanish America to trade freely among themselves and with any port in Spain.

Charles III agreed to allow the free and unlimited importation of slaves largely due to the lobbying efforts of Cuban planter Francisco de Arango. When the 1793 war between Spain and France started, Arango and other planters convinced Captain-General Don Luis de las Casas (who also owned a sugar plantation) that Cuban ports should be open to neutral and allied shipping—in particular, the United States and England.

A slave rebellion started in the French colony of St. Domingue. St. Domingue was the largest producer of sugar in the world at the time. By the time the slaves, who were led by Toussaint-Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had won their independence more than 180 sugar and 900 coffee plantations had been destroyed. This created a tremendous opportunity for the expansion of the Cuban sugar industry. Many of the French planters fled to Cuba and brought with them their sugar expertise to areas around Cienfuegos, Nipe, Banes and Nuevitas

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.

In particular, the Economic Society was responsible for the land reform that set the stage for the growth of the sugar industry. Land that was previously held in usufruct (a condition in which a person did not own the land but could profit from the crops grown on the land) became private property as long as the person could show he had been in possession of the land for ninety years and had been cultivating it for forty years.

Cattle ranchers holding mercedes were no longer required to provide beef for the neighboring cities and could manage their lands as they saw fit. Fighting a war against France and needing to replenish its treasury, the Crown agreed to begin to sell its land to Cuban Creoles.

With the Crown’s monopoly on tobacco ending, it also continued to be a major product of Cuba. By the middle of the 19th century, Cuban cigars were in great demand in Europe and the United States. By this time, as they are now, they were considered to be the best in the world.

Arango and his generation were pioneers of every kind of innovation. They created a public library, built hospitals, a lunatic asylum and free schools (for white children only). By the turn of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, therefore, Cuba was plainly a very promising part of the Spanish empire, bidding fair, with its plantations spreading far away from Havana, to overtake Jamaica as the biggest producer of sugar in the Caribbean.

By 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte 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. But, 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.

The Napoleonic wars were, of course, the midwife of Latin American independence. Cut off from Spain by the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, enriched by the last thirty years of the Bourbon economic reformation, and politically stimulated by the American, as well as the French, revolutions, creoles in South America everywhere began to contemplate political autonomy, even formal independence from Spain.

The growing wealth from tobacco, coffee and sugar and greater control over the use of their own land led the Creole planters to believe that the risk and cost of failure was too great.

The collapse of the Spanish crown before Napoleon left the captain-general with virtually full power in Cuba. The island was in an exposed strategic position. That in turn caused President Jefferson to make the first of many United States bids to protect the island: the United States, he said, would prefer Cuba -and Mexico - to remain Spanish but, should Spain not be able to maintain it herself, the United States would be willing to buy the island. The offer was turned down.

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.

Creole planters encouraged the governor to “turn a blind eye” to the ban and it was common practice for illegal slave traders regularly to pay tribute or bribes to the governors and captain-generals in Cuba after 1820.

The ban was not carried out — however much the English began to accustom Cubans to the idea of international intervention in their affairs. The demand for slaves was great and growing and, with ups and downs, the trade survived another fifty years, not least because the government in Madrid was unwilling to antagonize the planters of Cuba by supporting the British.

Partly in consequence of the British interference regarding the slave trade planters in Cuba began to explore again 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 frame for a rapid increase of prosperity based on sugar.

Most leading Americans then supposed that Cuban adhesion to their Union was only a matter of time - a generation at most. Certainly therefore they did not wish to see the independence of the island.

Various schemes for both independence or annexation were widely discussed in the Havana cafes in the mid-1820s. But, in the event, having lost her mainland American empire, Spain was determined to keep Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The idea of annexation to the Union seized the imagination of a high proportion of prominent Cuban planters led by Carlos Nunez del Castillo, Miguel Aldama, Cristobal Madan and the Iznaga and Drake families. Their purpose was to join the United States in order to preserve slavery and to safeguard the pursuit of wealth through sugar. They set themselves the task of persuading United States opinion of their point of view.

After the entry of Florida, Louisiana, Texas and then California and New Mexico into the Union, Cuba seemed the next obvious candidate. The idea also attracted the new generation of North American politicians, stimulated by these other territorial acquisitions, and intoxicated by the general success and prosperity of the United States. Writers and journalists of the late 1840s had a definite sense that it was 'manifest destiny', in the words of one of them, that the United States should dominate, if not conquer, all the Americas, south as well as north.

The annexation of Cuba constituted an important item in the presidential election of 1848. President Polk responded by agreeing to make a formal offer for Cuba to Spain of $100 million. The idea was seriously discussed in Spain but leaked — and uproar ensued. The Spanish government had to reject the idea in order to remain in office. Still, annexationist ideas survived.

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 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.

In addition to engineers and machine operators, U.S. retailers, shipping agents and freight handlers began to appear in Cuba, primarily in Havana and the other port cities. They provided manufactured goods, foodstuffs and insurance. Merchants extended credit to sugar planters. This was often done in exchange for sugar and molasses that were then exported to the United States. Some Americans owned and operated sugar estates. Others were responsible for developing the telegraph service both within Cuba and between Havana and Key West.

Due to the growth of sugar technology, the arrival of railroads and other infrastructure improvements Cuban planters began building larger sugar mills. Modern, large mills could process more sugar but they required more fuel and workers.

Havana was linked to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Mobile, New Orleans and Key West via regular steamship service by and by 1850 there were more than 600 miles of railroad linking the sugar areas to Havana and the major port cities.

The wealth derived from the tax revenues from sugar was easily visible in Havana. In the 1830s, Governor Miguel Tacon engaged in public works programs that paved many of the roads, installed public lighting, built a theater house, created wide boulevards with trees on each side, installed sewer lines, repaired the port facilities, dredged the harbor and constructed a train station. The captain-general’s palace in the Plaza de Armas was remodeled.

One could identify three different groups of sugar planters by the middle of the century. The first were the old oligarchs such as the Cardenas, Alfonso's, Betancourt, O’Farrill, Iznagas, Arangos, Calvos and Herreras families. The second group included self-made immigrants, mostly from Spain. They typically were merchants before becoming planters and usually had more technologically advanced mills than the oligarchs. A third group of sugar planters consisted of estates that were owned by companies such as the Noreiga Olmo and Company of Havana and Barcelona.

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.

The homes frequently had marble fountains, baths and large staircases. Planters often bought titles of rank such as count, marques or gentleman from the Crown, which accorded them a certain social status and rights such as the protection from arrest for debt.

It was almost a competition among the planters as to who could adorn their carriages with the most jewelry, silver and gold. They spent much money on entertainment, especially masked or costume balls and dances. Cockfighting and bullfighting were other favorite pastimes of the planters.

This immense sugar wealth was built on the institution of slavery with virtually all of the largest sugar plantations using slaves for the backbreaking work of cutting cane.

It is estimated that most of the approximate 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 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 large non slave African population was involved in trades such as driving the carriages (volantes) of the wealthy planters, carpentering, tailoring, laundering, shoe making and cigar making. By 1861, historian Hugh Thomas estimates that freed slaves represented 16 percent of the population. The high price of the slaves even offset the moneysaving technological advances, such as steam engines and vacuum boilers, that came to be seen on the larger plantations by the middle of the 1850s.

Plantation slaves worked under desperate conditions especially during the five to six months of sugar harvest. Twenty-hour work days were the norm. Many died from overwork, accidents or sickness. On the large plantations, most slaves were typically housed in large barracks.

Cuban planters were convinced that the Spanish government was going to give in to English pressure to free all the slaves imported illegally into Cuba. Pro slavery groups in the southern United States saw the annexation of Cuba as a way of increasing their power within the Congress. Others in the United States supported annexation based on claims of manifest destiny. President James Polk even tried to purchase the island.

The uprising in Matanzas in 1844 resulted in 4,000 arrests, including freed slaves and mulattoes and at least 70 Creoles. Seventy-eight conspirators were shot and more than 100 were whipped to death by local authorities.

Some groups, both within the United States and Cuba, encouraged armed expeditions (called filibusters) with the hope of overthrowing Spanish control on the island. All of these filibusters, the most famous led by Narciso Lopez ended in failure. The scheme was betrayed, and Lopez was captured and publicly garrotted.

Another offer was made to buy Cuba from Spain by President Pierce. Again it was rejected by a new government of liberals in Madrid. The Cuban planters were despondent. New efforts were made to secure United States interest - and, if necessary, intervention. James Buchanan, ex-secretary of state and minister in London believed that, if Spain were to turn down the United States' 'reasonable' offers for Cuba, the United States would be 'justified in wresting it from her'.

The U.S. 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 see 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 U.S. Civil War also destroyed the sugar plantations in Louisiana and paved the way for an expansion of Cuban sugar production in the 1860s.

The United States slid into civil war in 1861 at a moment when the politicians of the South still hoped that they could secure the perpetuation of slavery by acquiring Cuba. The defeat of the South closed that avenue for Cuban planters as it also closed the slave trade.

By this time, advances in technology were making the larger sugar plantations more efficient in the refining of sugar and creating an economic disincentive in the use of costly slave labor. Of course, only the largest plantations could afford slaves and new technologies.

By 1865, the first actual slave strike occurred. Slaves demanded payment for their work and peacefully asserted their right to freedom because they had arrived in Cuba after 1820. Troops ended the strike but this was a clear indication of the growing difficulty of using slave labor for Cuba’s main export.

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 discussed 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 U.S. dominance as much as Spanish dominance.

By the 1830s, Cuban poets such as Jose Maria Heredia, Juan Clemente Zenea, Hernandez Echerri and Miguel Teurbe Tolon became the voices of those desiring independence from Spain.

In an effort to sway a growing nationalist movement, the administrations of Captain-General Francisco Serrano and Domingo Dulce were more tolerant of Cuban Creole demands. Proposed political reforms were published in El Siglo.

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 reform commission, which consisted of no less than twelve Creole reformers, adopted several reforms in late 1866 and early 1867, including representation in the Spanish Cortes, freedom from arbitrary arrests and the requirement that Creoles be given equal access to government positions. The commission called for the gradual end to slavery.

The immediate consequence of the collapse of annexations with the defeat of the South in the American Civil War was the formation of a pressure group among prominent Cuban planters to secure some at least of the constitutional reforms now being pursued in Spain itself by progressive merchants. Some of the planters concerned were, like Miguel Aldama, ex-annexationists. But they were mostly less rich than those who had favoured annexation.

The new spanish government appointed Francisco Lersundi as the new captain-general of Cuba. Lersundi asserted an iron-fisted rule by censoring the local press and clamping down on all forms of political activity.

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.

Many reformers in Spain and Cuba supported the abolition of the Cuban slave trade in the belief that slavery itself would be preserved in the island. But since the institution of slavery was dependent on the continued importation of slaves - as in Brazil the slave population was never able to reproduce itself naturally - it was realized that one day Cuba would have to face the future without slaves and that alternative sources of labour would have to be found.

An increase in Asian immigrants increased the pool of wage laborers available to plantation owners who were willing to experiment in non slave labor. This was especially true in Oriente, in eastern Cuba, where the smaller, poorer and less modern sugar planters had experimented with wage laborers. Some had already freed their slaves and then hired them as wage laborers.

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.

By 1861, the population of Cuba had reached 1.4 million people of which 30 percent were African or of African descent. There were 10 cities that had a population in excess of 10,000, including the large port cities of Havana and Santiago. With the original city walls coming down in the early 1860s, the growth of elite neighborhoods and a thriving commercial and port center, Havana was a metropolis of more than 390,000 people.

Cuba was the largest producer of sugar in the world. Cuba’s wealthy planter class stood in dramatic contrast with the majority of Cubans who did not benefit from sugar wealth. This was easily seen in Havana with its new elite neighborhoods and large numbers of poor immigrants. Begging and prostitution were common. Shantytowns on the outskirts of the city continued to expand.

The increase in sugar production, the greater use of technology, the development of the infrastructure on the island, the growth in tourism, the rise of Havana as a major world trading center and the growth in trade with other countries clearly indicated tremendous progress.

Some Cuban elites had come to the conclusion that only a break with Spain would give them the political and economic freedoms they so desperately sought. In the countryside, a restless and more assertive slave population could form the basis of an army that could be mobilized against its Spanish colonial masters. At the same time, it served as a threat to the economic well-being of wealthy planters who continued to defend the use of slaves in the production of sugar. This double-edged sword would play a major role in Cuba’s first attempt to win its independence from Spain.

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes was a typical small sugar planter though he was uncharacteristic in one respect: much of his youth had been spent in abortive political activity in Spain. He held a public meeting at his farm in Oriente province at which he romantically adjured his hearers to take the road followed elsewhere in Latin America. Doubtless little would have come of Cespedes's movement had it not coincided with a major upheaval in Spain: a military rebellion and the flight of Queen Isabel II from Madrid. A rebellion in Puerto Rico followed.

East Cuban planter, Luis Figueredo, hanged a Spanish tax collector on his farm and invited denunciation as an outlaw. The Cuban rebellion began when Cespedes freed his slaves and founded a small army of 147 men at his estate at La Demajagua, issuing a declaration, the 'Grito de Yara', which echoed the American Declaration of Independence. This was the beginning of the Ten Years War (1868-78), Cuba's first war of independence.