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The British Occupation, 1762-63

Several factors converged in the late eighteenth century to bring Cuba out of its isolation and into the mainstream of world affairs and to give the sugar industry the boost it needed. These developments included the relaxation of Spanish trade restrictions, the emergence of the important and nearby United States market for Cuban products, and the devastation of Haiti's sugar and coffee estates following the rebellion of that country's slaves in the 1790s. But it was the British capture and occupation of Havana that really shocked Cuban society out of its lethargic sleep.

Volumes would be required to tell of the remarkable incidents of the warfare in the West Indian seas. History has few more romantic pages. It was well into the eighteenth century and after the English, French, and Dutch had firmly established themselves in the West Indies that the freebooters were driven from the seas.

Notwithstanding the complicated relations of the European powers during the war of the Spanish Succession with which the eighteenth century opened, Cuba was left comparatively free from strife, but it was not long before there came the first serious trouble between the Cuban colonists and the mother country. By the time of the Treaty of Utrecht, by which the Hapsburg rule in Spain was ended, the island had become well settled and the agricultural products of the interior made a large showing beside the gold and silver of the other Spanish-American colonies.

Up to 1717 the main revenue from Cuba came through the commercial monopolies of Seville and Cadiz, but that year a new policy was inaugurated by which the growing tobacco trade was made a government monopoly. Its enforcement was violently resisted and resulted in many collisions between the government forces and the people. It was but another incident in the restrictive policy of Spain which finally entirely undermined her power over her colonies. The magnificent harbors of Cuba could be entered only by stealth or force except by the monopoly vessels.

As Spain was in no condition to be a large purchaser, the production of the island was strangled and the farmers barely more than lived on what they produced. But Spain would not and did not learn the lesson. Owing to unwise measures at home Spain's own industries declined, and those of her people who could purchase bought foreign products which were smuggled in, and paid for them with gold from America. The result was the collapse of her own industrial system and the loss of the precious metals which she had made so many bloody sacrifices to secure.

The monopoly restrictions imposed upon the Cuban trade gave rise to systematic smuggling by British traders in Jamaica, and the constant friction finally resulted in the Anglo-Spanish war of 1739, which ended with a general European war in 1748. In the decade that followed, the smuggling trade in Cuba grew out of all control of the tobacco monopoly, and a system of farming out the revenues to private monopolists was substituted. But this only led to further trouble.

The 18th century witnessed successive wars between the major European powers, wars that in the American scenario pursued a defined mercantile interest. All these wars affected Cuba in one way or another, though the one that undoubtedly had more impact for Cuba was the Seven Years war (1756-1763). It was precisely during this war that Havana was attacked, overtaken and occupied by an English expeditionary force. The inefficiency of top Spanish authorities during the defense of the city contrasted with the disposition to fight of the "creoles", whose most outstanding leader was José Antonio Gómez, a courageous militia captain from the nearby village of Guanabacoa, and who died as a consequence of the wounds received in combat.

At first only France and Britain were at war, but soon Spain came in on the French side. Motivated by dynastic connections with France, by grievances against Britain and its colonies in the New World, especially in Central America, and by an awareness that if France lost the war Britain would be supreme in the Caribbean, Spain cast its lot with the French. Spain's entrance into the war proved disastrous because Spain lacked the naval power to confront the British or to prevent them from capturing Spanish possessions.

The expansion of British trade in the Indies led to the Bourbon compact to put a check to it and war began in 1762. An English fleet consisting of fortv-four men-of-war and 150 other vessels under Admiral Pocock took Havana in June of that year, and an army of about 15,000 men under Lord Albemarle began the siege of the Spanish garrison numbering 27,000 under Governor Porto Carrero. British forces attacking Havana, one of the wealthiest and most populous ports in the Americas, met fierce resistance. Spanish soldiers and local militias in Cuba, along with enslaved Africans who were promised freedom, held off the enemy for six suspenseful weeks. The resistance was stubborn, but Morro Castle surrendered on July 30th and the city on August 13th. In the end, the British prevailed, but more lives were lost in the invasion and subsequent eleven-month British occupation of Havana than during the entire Seven Years' War in North America.

The treasure which fell to the English was enormous. Over three and a half million dollars was divided among them. The English continued to hold the city till early the following year, when, under the terms of the treaty of Paris, the island was restored to Spain in return for the cession of Florida to England.

During the brief eleven months of British occupation, the oppressive Spanish trade restrictions were lifted, and Havana was thrown open to trade with Britain and particularly with the North American colonies. More than 700 merchant ships visited the port during those months, more than the number that had visited Havana in the preceding decade. British capital, as well as large numbers of low-priced slaves, entered the island, boosting sugar production. For the most part, Britain maintained Spanish administrative institutions, although an attempt was made to reform the judicial system by ending some of the existing privileges and streamlining judicial practices.

Trade taxes were abolished and the port was opened for commerce with merchants and traders from England and the North American colonies. Cuba could now buy and sell to a large part of the world that was forbidden under Spanish rule. However, the Spanish saw the value in Cuba and ceded Florida to the English in 1763 in exchange for Cuba. During the short 10 months of English rule more than 10,000 African slaves were introduced to the island. This surge of cheap labor increased the agricultural output. Sugar cane became the main crop of the island. The rich African-Cuban music, philosophy, and religious traditions can be traced to this period. The island was transformed with the influx of Africans. During the eleven months of the British occupation (August 1762 to July 1763), Havana was the theatre of an intense commercial activity, thus showing evidence of the enormous possibilities of the Cuban economy, until then under a stern control by the Spanish commercial system.

The impact of the occupation was long-range. It made the Cubans aware of the benefits of trading with the British and particularly with a close and growing market like the United States. The large quantities of British goods that entered the island gave the Cubans a taste for those products and increased their demands for freer trade. Similarly, the occupation focused the attention of North American entrepreneurs on Cuba's economic potential as an area for investment, a source of raw materials, and a market for British and North American products. Finally, Spain was forced to reexamine its policies toward Cuba. The island was no longer the stopping point of the fleets, but a bone of contention among European powers, one important enough to have merited a British effort at conquest. Spain had to look at its Caribbean possession and try to satisfy, or at least placate, the demands and aspirations of her tropical subjects.

The British occupation had given the island the initial economic boost it needed. When the slave uprisings and the destruction of properties took place in Haiti, Cuba was ready to become the sugar bowl of the Caribbean and soon replaced Haiti as the supplier of European sugar. Cuban planters pleaded with the Spanish crown for the easing of trade relations and for the free importation of slaves. Spain acceded to these pleadings in 1791.

In the years that followed, the sugar industry grew substantially. Annual production rose from 14,000 tons in 1790 to more than 34,000 tons in 1805, and the number of sugar mills grew to 478, more than twice as many as had existed prior to the British capture of Havana. Sugar also benefited from the close commercial relations that developed between Cuba and the United States. The wars of the French Revolution isolated Spain from her colonies, thus helping the growth of trade between Cuba and the United States. By the turn of the century, Cuba enjoyed substantial trade with the United States, and when Cuban ports were thrown open to free trade with all nations in 1818, commercial relations between the two grew even closer.

On the whole, the eighteenth century was a much brighter one for Cuba, although the blight of Spain's colonial policy was not wanting. During their occupation of Havana the English had opened the port to free commerce, and when the Spanish again took hold of the island they found it impossible to safely reimpose the old restrictions in all their rigor. Many of the former limitations of the commerce of the island with the home country were removed, and the island made a rapid material advance. In 1777 Cuba was given a more independent colonial government under the control of the Captain-General, whose power was, however, practically absolute and fraught with the woes of the Cubans in after years.

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Page last modified: 10-07-2020 19:07:21 ZULU