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Colonial Cuba - Conquest and Consolidation

The history of Cuba began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the subsequent invasion of the island by the Spaniards. Aboriginal groups—the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno—inhabited the island but were soon eliminated or died as a result of diseases or the shock of conquest. Thus, the impact of indigenous groups on subsequent Cuban society was limited, and Spanish culture, institutions, language, and religion prevailed.

In the early sixteenth century, following Christopher Columbus's discovery of the island in 1492, the Spanish crown became increasingly intrigued with the possibility of finding gold in Cuba. Spanish officials, desirous of increasing their labor supply as well as exploring possible new sources of wealth, also began to look toward Cuba. Columbus's son, Diego Columbus, who had been appointed governor of the Indies in 1508 and lived in Hispaniola, was particularly interested in extending the territory under his control. As a preliminary step toward colonization, Nicolas de Ovando (governor of Hispaniola, 1502-9) sent an expedition headed by Sebastian de Ocampo that circumnavigated Cuba in 1508; he brought back tales of wealth and a more detailed picture of the island's fine terrain and harbors.

Finding a conquistador who combined military skill, administrative talent, and loyalty to the crown as well as to Diego Columbus himself was no easy task. The choice finally fell on Diego Velazquez de Cuellar (governor of Hispaniola, 1511-21), Ovando's lieutenant and one of the wealthiest Spaniards in Hispaniola. Although not as heroic or daring as later conquistadors such as Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, or as cunning as Hernan Cortes, conqueror of Mexico, Velazquez had achieved a reputation for courage and sagacity because of his role in subduing Indian caciques in Hispaniola.

From the start, Velazquez faced an outraged and hostile Indian population. Led by Hatuey, a fugitive Indian chieftain from Hispaniola, the natives of eastern Cuba resolved to resist the Spanish onslaught. It was a futile gesture, for the peaceful Tainos lacked the military skills and weapons to face the better armed and trained Spaniards. Spanish horses and hounds, both unknown in Cuba, played a decisive role in terrorizing the indigenous peoples, who soon surrendered or fled into the mountains to escape the wrath of the conquistadors. Hatuey himself was captured, tried as a heretic and a rebel, and burned at the stake.

Velazquez set out to pacifY the country and end the abuses against the Indians. He induced groups of Indians to lay down their weapons and work near the several new towns that he established throughout the island. Among these were Baracoa, Bayamo, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, La Habana (hereafter, Havana), Puerto Principe, and Santiago de Cuba. In this task, Velasquez was decisively aided by the work of Bartolome de Las Casas. The Dominican friar preceded the Spaniards into native villages on many occasions and succeeded in convincing the indigenous peoples to cooperate with the conquistadors. Las Casas, however, was horrified by the massacre of the natives and became an outspoken critic of the conquest of Cuba. He wrote extensively condemning the Spaniards' cruelty and claiming that the Indians were rational and free and therefore entitled to retain their lands.

To strengthen his own power and gain supporters both in Cuba and in Spain, Velazquez began to grant encomiendas, or contracts, whereby large landowners (encomenderos), who were favored conquistadors, supposedly agreed to provide protection and religious instruction to Indians in return for their labor. The crown used the encomienda concept as a political instrument to consolidate its control over the indigenous population. Many encomenderos, however, interested only in exploiting the resources of the island, disregarded their moral, religious, and legal obligations to the Indians. A conflict soon developed between the crown and the Spanish settlers over the control and utilization of the labor by the exploitative encomenderos, and also over the crown's stated objective to Christianize the natives and the crown's own economic motivations. In the reality of the New World, the sixteenth-century Christian ideal of converting souls was many times sacrificed for a profit. Christianization was reduced to mass baptism; and despite the crown's insistence that Indians were not slaves, many were bought and sold as chattels.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:30 ZULU