The Colonial Era (1492–1898)

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The Colonial Era (1492–1898)


Christopher Columbus reached Cuba on 27 October 1492 and disembarked the next day in the port of Bariay, which he named San Salvador. Although impressed with its beauty, he lost interest in this land. He returned during his second voyage and sailed along the southern coast. He believed it to be part of the Asian continent, and not an island, and registered it as such on 12 June 1494. The conquest of America began in Hispaniola, and Cuba was of secondary importance. In 1504 King Ferdinand II asked Nicolás de Ovando to verify that it truly possessed the riches attributed to it. Sebastián de Ocampo was charged in 1508 with measuring its perimeter, an undertaking concluded in July 1509, when Diego Columbus became governor of Hispaniola. Diego Columbus arranged for the conquest of the island in order to satisfy royal desires and to secure the territories discovered by his father, assigning the task to Diego Velázquez, whom he appointed as his Adelantado. The conquistador set out from Salvatierra de la Sabana, Spain, in 1510, accompanied by some 300 men. He disembarked on the southeastern coast between Guantánamo and Maisí, where he encountered a group of people led by Hatuey, a chief who had escaped from the abuses of the colonists in Hispaniola. The rebels resisted for some three months, but they were forced to flee to the mountains. Hatuey was captured and condemned to be burned at the stake.

Velázquez established his residence and organized the Cabildo in the indigenous region of Baracoa, which he named Our Lady of the Assumption. Then began excursions toward the west with the aim of subduing the inhabitants peacefully and avoiding the horrible consequences of the mistreatment in Hispaniola. Nevertheless, Francisco Morales dealt cruelly with the inhabitants of Maniabón and was dismissed. Pánfilo de Narváez proceeded with greater brutality but went unpunished, leading the massacre of Arawakan people in the area of the Zaza River. From 1512 to 1515, seven settlements were established: Baracoa, Bayano, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, La Habana (Havana), Puerto Príncipe, and Santiago de Cuba. In 1515 the island was named Fernandina, but the customary name of Cuba was the one that later prevailed.

When Velázquez was appointed as Indian distributor in 1513, the period of mining encomiendas began, opening the way for permanent settlement. The encomiendas became the most cruel form of slavery. Native Cubans were forced into intense labor, which was contrary to their social organization and traditions of production, and were annihilated. Through this exploitation of the indigenous, there ensued a period of rapid growth, based on gold mining and agriculture on Estancias, allowing the first colonists to amass great wealth.

Velázquez did not content himself with Cuba. He knew of the existence of Motecuhzoma's empire and attained royal authorization to begin expeditions in Mexico. He sent the expedition that conquered Mexico under the command of Hernán Cortés. Cortés betrayed Velázquez and routed Pánfilo de Narváez, who was sent to subjugate him. When Velázquez died in 1524, the island of Cuba had entered a period of decline owing to the exhaustion of its gold and the depopulation begun with the conquest of Mexico. Once news of Mexico's riches spread, the exodus from Cuba increased, leading to more and more native uprisings. As towns became increasingly endangered, it became necessary to prohibit people from abandoning the island.

As a consequence of gold depletion, uprising, and the work of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the New Laws of 1542, declaring the indigenous to be free and subjects of the crown, were introduced. The colonists opposed the New Laws and managed to delay their implementation until 1553.


The second half of the sixteenth century brought significant changes. The establishment of a system of annual fleets (1561), the introduction of African slaves, and the distribution of land by the cabildos (town councils) all contributed to the long-term settlement of the towns and to the creation of bases for systematic exploitation. Economic activities included the raising of livestock, the cultivation of tobacco, and, primarily in Havana, service industries, and military construction. Toward the end of the century another slave-based undertaking arose, sugar production.

For a long time, the principal business of Havana was to house the crews and passengers of the fleets and to repair and supply galleons for the ocean crossings. In 1553 the residence of the governor was moved from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, which was reorganized and transformed into a stronghold, with fortifications paid for by revenues from New Spain, assuring its supremacy. Slavery of blacks, who were known as "black earners," became the norm in the town. Slaves were used in all types of labor, including military construction and agriculture. The great majority of their earnings went to their owners.

The occupation of the western territories assumed the form of Mercedes (land grants) or circular haciendas, overseen by the cabildo in Havana. The mercedes were of two types: corrales, dedicated to the raising of swine; and hatos, for livestock such as cows, oxen, horses, or mules. There were also estancias where minor crops were raised as well as gardens and cultivated plots surrounding the town. With some differences, the other cabildos functioned in the same manner. The so-called "ransom" (rescate) trade was practiced in the interior regions. This practice evaded the monopoly of the House of Trade in Seville by means of bartering goods, mainly leather and tobacco, for which ships from other European nations were brought in.

Despite the risk of attack to Cuba owing to continuing wars between Spain and other powers, as well as repeated menaces from corsairs and pirates, criollo society established itself during the seventeenth century. Cuba's strategic location made it a vital center of communication between Europe and America. While the fleet system continued, an economy existed in western Cuba that Manuel Moreno Fraginals has classified as service-production, split between shipbuilding and finished wood products. The need to supply the fleets and armadas stimulated both large- and small-scale operations, which coexisted with, and eventually displaced, extensive livestock raising.

The first half of the eighteenth century saw the establishment of the forms of land use that would come to characterize the Cuban agrarian structure. The bases for the development of slave plantations also took shape. Landowners amassed wealth through the extensive exploitation of enormous livestock farms and the destruction or subdivision of the primitive haciendas. This made possible investments in sugar production, the most important of which was slave acquisition. The sparse population made it possible for small-scale white farmers, mostly from the Canary Islands, to settle on small plots. Some blacks also had access to land, due to the existence of legal means by which slaves could obtain their freedom. The population of free blacks grew, and they began to hold positions in the cities. The presence of these middle sectors prevented Cuba from following the same route as most colonies in the Caribbean. Although there were the so-called "black earners" and domestic slaves, slavery in Cuba on the whole was a rural phenomenon. Nevertheless, the average sugar mill in the Havana area relied on twenty to thirty slaves.

Spain's continual wars had numerous effects on Cuba. The War of the Spanish Succession brought French squadrons accompanied by merchants and slaves. With the 1713–1714 Utrecht treaties' territorial concessions to the English, slaves began to arrive in greater numbers and under better conditions, and it became easier to thwart the Spanish commercial monopoly. The crown became more interested in exploiting Cuba's riches. With Cuban tobacco famous in Europe, a state monopoly company was established, which would sell all Cuban tobacco at a fixed price. This led to the 1717 uprising of Cuban tobacco growers, which forced a temporary suspension of the monopoly. An attempt to reimpose the monopoly led to a second uprising in 1720, after which it was agreed that the growers could sell surplus tobacco to Spain and its colonies after satisfying its quota for the Factoría (Royal Agency). A third uprising in 1723 was met with severe military force, resulting in some deaths, but free trade in tobacco was authorized.

Interest in land was growing, along with the hope of making a profit by selling it. A 1729 royal decree prohibited the municipalities from granting further mercedes. However, it was not ratified until ten years later. After that, land acquisition was accomplished through the so-called "composición," wherein lands were sold at auction to benefit the royal treasury.

By 1740 the sugar industry had entered a crisis. In that year, a commercial monopoly was authorized under the control of the Royal Commerce Company of Havana. The monopoly adversely affected tobacco growers, imported goods became harder to find, and the cost of living went up. But the monopoly contributed to the growing predominance of the sugar industry and the slave plantation. Several thousand slaves were introduced, and the new oligarchy of criollos began to receive noble titles. There was a corresponding growth of cultural institutions, such as the Seminary of San Basilio el Magno, founded in Santiago de Cuba in 1722, and the University of Havana (1728). New urban centers arose, stimulating new civil and ecclesiastical construction. The first historians—such as Ambrosio Zayas Bazán, Pedro Agustín Morell de Santa Cruz, José Martín Félix de Arrate, and Ignacio José de Urrutia—appeared during this era.

The first direct offensive against Cuba by the English was the occupation of part of Guantánamo Bay in 1741. After failing to take Santiago de Cuba, they retreated after five months. In June 1762 an English squadron of more than 10,000 men arrived in Havana. Although fortified, the city had a weak point. The English took control of Las Cabañas, which allowed them to take the fort called El Morro. Despite strong resistance, the city was surrounded. It surrendered on 12 August. The substantial booty seized by the occupiers demonstrated the economic progress that Cuba had achieved. Although English domination technically extended throughout the territory under the jurisdiction of Havana, which comprised the western portion of the island, in practice it was limited to the area around the city itself.

Historians and ideologists from among the landowners, Francisco de Arango y Parreño foremost among them, have maintained that the English occupation provided a fundamental impulse to the Cuban economy. The historian Ramiro Guerra points out, however, that Havana was not a miserable outpost, but rather had already become a vital mercantile and cultural center, considered an emporium of wealth and one of the most important cities in the New World, with more inhabitants than Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. Later investigations have corroborated Guerra's assertion. Spain reclaimed Havana in 1763 in exchange for Florida, which was not productive and practically uninhabited.

After the occupation of the city, the new fortifications of La Cabaña, Atarés, and El Príncipe were built, as was a new arsenal. The economy revived and trade with other Spanish ports grew. Havana became one of the most important fortified cities in the world. The Royal Agency was reestablished and Cuban revenues began to increase. The Intendancy of Finance and Customs was organized. The 1778 regulation for free trade between Spain and the Indies raised the number of Spanish ports with which business could be conducted, authorized traffic between the colonies, reduced tariffs, and eliminated duties for ten years on some products, including Cuban sugar. During the U.S. War of Independence, France declared war on England. Spain supported France, and Cuba became a base of operations toward the reclaiming of Florida. In 1779 free trade with North America was authorized. It lasted four years and brought benefits to Cuba.


The destruction of plantations and decline in the sugar trade during the Haitian Revolution were felt immediately in Cuba. Arango y Parreño saw the opportunity for Cuba to surpass the wealthy French colony in international trade. He received authorization for the free introduction of slaves and exemptions from start-up taxes for the new sugar mills. Institutions such as the Patriotic Society (1793) and the Royal Consulate of Agriculture, Industry, and Trade (1795) influenced economic transformation and cultural growth. With the decisive transformation of the sugar industry, the slave plantation began to flourish. The number and size of sugar mills increased. Cuba's participation in the international sugar trade increased dramatically. The open slave trade allowed for larger workforces and the regular replacement of slaves who had been worn out by the hard labor. Traders in black slaves amassed huge fortunes, which they reinvested in sugar. The population, particularly that of the slaves, grew rapidly.

In a relatively short time, Cuba surpassed Haiti as a supplier of sugar and significantly increased its production of coffee for export. In 1792 Cuba had 84,496 blacks in slavery—30 percent of its population. The slaves did not submit passively, and as their exploitation intensified, so did their struggle against it. Chained and fugitive slaves were a common sight. The free blacks did not show open resistance until 1795, when Nicolás Morales led a conspiracy in Bayamo demanding equal rights. He was discovered and executed.

High-ranking criollos did not make a stand for independence, but a group of well-to-do youths did try to achieve it. Joaquín Infante, Román de la Luz, and Luis Francisco Basave were tried for inciting rebellion in 1810. They were deported to Spain, but Infante escaped to South America, where he published the first plan for an independent Cuban constitution. José Antonio Aponte, a free black, organized a vast movement that spread to other regions and called for the abolition of slavery and the overthrow of the colonial regime. He and his principal collaborators were denounced and executed in 1812. The year 1820 saw the beginnning of a conspiracy inspired by movements on the Latin American continent. It was known as the Suns and Rays of Bolívar. The poet José María Heredia was involved before escaping to the United States. Francisco Agüero and Manuel Andrés Sánchez disembarked from an expedition originating in Jamaica and were captured and executed in Puerto Príncipe. The Black Eagle Conspiracy (1828), which had support in Mexico, was also uncovered.

From his professional chair at the Seminary of San Carlos, Félix Varela y Morales influenced the thinking of many young people. He was elected representative to the Spanish Cortes in 1822, and he proposed a constitution of autonomy for Spain's overseas provinces. He was not able to set forth his plan for the abolition of slavery because he was forced to flee when Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne in 1823. From Philadelphia he published the periodical El Habanero, in which he openly promoted his ideas favoring independence. Brilliant intellectuals among his followers and supporters included José Antonio Saco, Domingo del Monte, and José de la Luz y Caballero, all of whom powerfully influenced Cuban thought.

Several measures were stimulating economic development: the state monopoly on tobacco was eliminated, land granted by the cabildos (mercedes) was recognized, and an open market was decreed. In 1817 Spain was obliged to sign a treaty with England by which slave trading was outlawed. Although this treaty went into effect in 1820, it ended only legal slave trading; traffic in slaves continued and increased. White immigration to Cuba was encouraged, and new colonies were established in coastal areas. The prosperous economy and the racial imbalance created by the excessive increase in the slave population pitted the landowners against any pro-independence activity. Slave uprisings were repeatedly quelled. By 1827 the slave population had reached 286,946, some 40.7 percent of the total. Slaves and free blacks together accounted for 55 percent.

During the 1830s, use of the steam engine became common, large warehouses were constructed, and the first railroad was built (1837). But the colonial government was changing. In 1825 all-embracing powers had been granted to the captaincies general, and in 1837 it was agreed that the colonies would be ruled by special laws and would no longer have representatives in the Spanish Cortes.

With their exploitation intensifying, the slaves responded with uprisings in sugar mills and on coffee plantations. Whites lived in a state of terror. English abolitionists mounted an intense propaganda campaign. Outstanding among these were the consuls David Turnbull and Richard Madden. A vast conspiracy involving slaves and free blacks, which came to be called the Conspiracy of the Ladder (La Escalera), was uncovered in 1843, and a cruel and violent reaction against all blacks ensued. Among those implicated in the conspiracy was the mulatto poet Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido). White intellectuals were also accused, including Domingo del Monte and José de la Luz y Caballero. The landowners began to grow alarmed at the increase in the black population and sought the cessation of the slave trade. Their most brilliant voice was José Antonio Saco, who denounced the regime in power and was exiled.


Although the plantation-based economy continued to grow and factories relied on workforces of slaves, the decline of slavery in general began to be apparent. The rate of growth in the slave population decreased abruptly. Owing to the difficulty of replacing worked-out slaves, intense research began into labor-saving techniques that would allow reductions in the size of the work force. Asian coolies were introduced and contracted laborers were recruited from Spain and the Canary Islands.

From early on, U.S. politicians had shown interest in Cuba. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine affirmed a U.S. right to annex Cuba, but European opposition inhibited attempts to do so. The first annexation attempt from within Cuba was markedly proslavery. With the prospect of abolition looming, the support of the southern U.S. states was sought. Between 1846 and 1848, the annexationists came together as the Havana Club, comprised of prominent landowners and intellectuals. In Puerto Príncipe a group led by Gaspar Betancour Cisneros (El Lugareño) also put out annexationist propaganda. Both of these groups created the Cuban Counsel in New York City in 1848. During that period, U.S. president Polk made attempts to purchase Cuba for $100 million.

Backed by the southern U.S. states and with important participation by North Americans, Narciso López led an expedition which managed to take the city of Cárdenas and fly the Cuban flag for the first time in 1850. He met with a lack of support and retreated. His next attempt, at Pinar del Río, also failed. The group was captured and condemned to death. The movements of Joaquín de Agüero in Puerto Príncipe (1851) and Isidro Armenteros in Trinidad met with similar fates. The executions of Ramón Pintó and Francisco Estrampes in 1855 put an end to armed attempts at annexation.

The landowners returned to reformism. In 1865 José Ricardo O'Farrill and Miguel Aldama organized the Reformist Party, whose mouthpiece was the periodical El Siglo. They proposed tariff reform, the cessation of the slave trade, representation in the Spanish Cortes, and the gradual abolition of slavery with compensation. The sugar mills had grown without restraint, and the introduction of new technologies reduced the need for slaves. Change and competition demanded new forms of organization.

In 1866–1867 the Board of Information on Reforms in Cuba and Puerto Rico, convened by Spain, met with Cuban reformers who sought gradual abolition with compensation, cessation of the slave trade, an immigration plan, free commerical exchange, and assimilation giving Cuba the character of a Spanish province. Spain responded with the application of a direct tax of 10 percent on revenue without eliminating tariffs, and it acceded to none of the other suggestions of the Board. This failure and the new tax led to a separatist rebellion (the Grito De Yara) on 10 October 1868. Led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the uprising started the Ten Years' War, at the end of which the situation in the country became critical. Many criollos lost their capital to the skyrocketing war taxes, which rose to 30 percent of the net yield. Areas that had seen combat were devastated.

The 1880 law calling for the establishment of a patronato (trusteeship) began a process of economic change that led to the social division of labor in the sugar industry, marking the transition from slave manufacture to capitalist industry. Patronatos, which offered monthly stipends and conditions for gaining freedom, replaced traditional slavery. The war contributed to the elimination of inefficient mills in the east and hastened the development of business districts. These economic changes made the atmosphere ripe for the effective abolition of slavery in 1886. With the abrogation that year of the patronato came a massive immigration of laborers from Spain for the sugar crops.

One consequence of the Pact of Zanjón, which put an end to the Ten Years' War, was a change in metropolitan policies that made possible the formation of political parties. Freedom of the press, assembly, association, and worship were also granted. Two parties developed: the Autonomist Party, which sought self-governance, and the Constitutional Union Party, which proposed some reforms but opposed independence. They represented the opposing interests of Cubans and Spaniards. The Autonomists, with Rafael Montoro, Eliseo Giberga, and Enrique José Varona among them, demanded civil and economic rights for Cubans equal to those that existed for Spaniards. Their few representatives to the Cortes repeatedly protested Cuba's wrongs and defended her interests. Among their ranks figured outstanding intellectuals and brilliant orators.

On the economic scene, the differential right of flags—a scale of tariffs, based on the national flag under which a ship sailed, that charged less from ships flying the Spanish flag—was suspended and the fiscal system was streamlined. Negotiations began toward the forging of treaties with the United States. Until 1890, relations with the United States were defined by policies that favored exports to that important market. The implementation of the McKinley Tariff Act (1890) placed this trade with the United States in danger. This act provided tax-free sugar imports to the United States in exchange for a reciprocal trade agreement. Financial corporations and political parties organized themselves into the Economic Movement. A treaty between Spain and the United States that favored raw sugar but not finished tobacco products was signed in 1891. The Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act in 1894 abrogated reciprocity, worsening the situation created by the crisis of 1893.

The Autonomists had not given up hope. A group of combatants from the Ten Years' War began to conspire. Upon being discovered in 1879, Guillermo Moncada, José Maceo, and Quintín Banderas led quick uprisings in the east, and another group rebelled in Las Villas. When Calixto García arrived in 1880, the movement known as the Little War had already failed. Among its conspirators was José Martí, who knew that the time was not ripe to renew the fight. There were, however, other isolated attempts. Between 1884 and 1886, Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo conspired in a movement known as the Gómez-Maceo Plan. Maceo traveled to Cuba in 1890 and affirmed that the ideal of independence was still alive.

Among the émigrés in the United States led by José Martí, the Cuban Revolutionary Party was already forming. The party was officially announced on 10 April 1892, and Martí was named its representative. From the start, the group dedicated itself to raising funds and unifying Cubans to prepare for war. With the critical economic situation, the drop in the price of sugar, and the failure of the reform plan proposed by Overseas Minister Antonio Maura, armed struggle appeared to be the only option. A plan for simultaneous uprisings suffered a setback when arms in Fernandina were confiscated. Nevertheless, the plan went ahead with a limited uprising on 24 February 1895. When Maceo, Martí, and Gómez arrived, the War of Independence took shape. Martí's death in Dos Ríos did not deter the revolution. The invasion headed toward the west and developed into generalized war that cost Cuba large-scale destruction, numerous lives, and the impoverishment of the great majority of its inhabitants. When autonomy was finally declared in 1897, the course of events could not be altered. The U.S. Congress approved a joint resolution clearing the way for U.S. intervention in the war. Proposals and ultimatums were sent to Madrid, but rejected. In May 1898 U.S. troops were sent to Santiago de Cuba. With the aid of Cuban troops, the city was surrounded and taken. It surrendered on 16 July.

Negotiations between Spain and the United States began. The main concern was Cuba's debt of $500 million, which weighed heavily on its treasury. To this were added the costs of both wars of independence, expeditions, and diplomatic activities with Spain. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the island was freed of this heavy burden. Cuban independence began on 20 May 1902, three years after General John R. Brooke took charge of the government of Cuba.

See alsoColumbus, Christopher; Cuba, Political Parties: Autonomist Party; Fleet System: Colonial Spanish America; New Laws of 1542; Slavery: Spanish America; Sugar Industry; Ten Years' War; Tobacco Industry.


Additional Bibliography

Casanovas, Joan. Bread or Bullets! Urban Labor and Spanish Colonialism in Cuba, 1850–1898. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.

Díaz, María Elena. The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre: Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670–1780. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Guimerá Ravina, Agustín, and Fernando Monge. La Habana, Puerto Colonial (siglos XVIII-XIX). Madrid: Fundación Portuaria, 2000.

Johnson, Sherry. The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

La Rosa Corzo, Gabino. Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba: Resistance and Repression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Pérez, Louis A. Cuba between Empires, 1878–1902. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983.

Pruna, P. M. Ciencia y científicos en Cuba colonial: La Real Academia de Ciencias de la Habana, 1861–1898. La Habana: Sociedad Económica de Amigos del Pais: Editorial Academia, 2001.

Tornero Tinajero, Pablo. Crecimiento ecónomico y transformaciones sociales: Esclavos, hacendados y comerciantes en la Cuba colonial (1760–1840). Madrid: Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social, 1996.

                              Fe Iglesias GarcÍa

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The Colonial Era (1492–1898)

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The Colonial Era (1492–1898)