Cuba: Pre-Independence History

Pre-Independence History

The island was inhabited by several different indigenous groups when it was visited in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. The Spanish conquest began in 1511 under the leadership of Diego de Velázquez, who founded Baracoa and other major settlements. Cuba served as the staging area for Spanish explorations of the Americas. As an assembly point for treasure fleets, it offered a target for French and British buccaneers, who attacked the island's cities incessantly.

The native population was quickly destroyed under Spanish rule, and was soon replaced as laborers by African slaves, who contributed much to the cultural evolution of the island. The European population was continuously replenished by immigration, chiefly from Spain but also from other Latin American countries. Despite pirate attacks and the trade restrictions of Spanish mercantilist policies, Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, prospered.

In the imperial wars of the 18th cent. other nations coveted the Spanish possession, and in 1762 a British force under George Pocock and the earl of Albemarle captured and briefly held Havana. Cuba was returned to Spain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and remained Spanish even as most of Spain's possessions became (early 19th cent.) independent republics. The slave trade expanded rapidly, reaching its peak in 1817. Sporadic uprisings were brutally suppressed by the Spaniards.

Desires for Cuban independence increased when representation at the Spanish Cortes, granted in 1810, was withdrawn, yet neither internal discontent nor filibustering expeditions (1848–51) led by Narciso López, achieved results. The desire of U.S. Southerners to acquire the island as a slave state also failed (see Ostend Manifesto). Cuban discontent grew and finally erupted (1868) in the Ten Years War, a long revolt that ended (1878) in a truce, with Spain promising reforms and greater autonomy. Spain failed to carry out most of the reforms, although slavery was abolished (1886) as promised.

Revolutionary leaders, many in exile in the United States, planned another revolt, and in 1895 a second war of independence was launched with the brilliant writer José Martí as its leader. There was strong sentiment in the United States in favor of the rebels, which after the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor led the United States to declare war on Spain (see Spanish-American War). The Spanish forces capitulated, and a treaty, signed in 1898, established Cuba as an independent republic, although U.S. military occupation of the island continued until 1902. The U.S. regime, notably under Leonard Wood, helped rebuild the war-torn country, and the conquest of yellow fever by Walter Reed, Carlos J. Finlay, and others was a heroic achievement.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Cuban Political Geography