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The Colonial Period, 1520-1898

In 1492 when Columbus landed on Cuba, he said this about the island in his journal, "[I have] never seen anything so beautiful [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 -- Flocks of parrots darken the sun. There are trees of a thousand species, each has its particular fruit, and all of marvelous flavor."

The Spanish prospected for gold on the island; however Cuba's wealth was in its rich soil and strategic location. Cuba lies at the crossroads of three main maritime routes: the Straits of Florida, to the North; the Windward Passage to the East; and the Yucatan Channel to the West which allows access to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Spain was most vulnerable to foreign aggression at this intersection. For two centuries, Cuba served as a home base and launching pad for some of the most important Spanish expeditions in the New World and was valued by Spain as a vital strategic colony and dubbed the "Spanish fortress of the Caribbean."

The Tainos and Siboney Amerindians inhabited the island and lived by fishing, hunting, and farming. Like the Tainos of Puerto Rico, the Amerindian population of Cuba was decimated by hard labor and European diseases. The Siboney and Tainos cultivated tobacco and taught the conquistadors how to roll and smoke tobacco.

Spanish conquest of the island began almost twenty years after Columbus first trip, as part of the occupation radiating from La Hispaniola (Saint Domingo) to the other Caribbean islands. The conquest and control of the Cuban territory was entrusted to Diego Velázquez, one of the richest landowners of Hispaniola. The whole process started in 1510 with an extensive operation of reconnaissance and conquest plagued of cruel events. Warned of the outrages of the Spaniards in neighboring islands, the aboriginals of the eastern region of Cuba offered resistance against the invasion under the leadership of Yahatuey or Hatuey, a runaway cacique from La Hispaniola, who was finally caught and burnt alive to set an example.

With the foundation in 1513 of the village of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa, the Spaniards began the foundation and establishment of seven villages with the objective of controlling the conquered territory - Bayamo (1513), Santísima Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and San Cristóbal de La Habana (1514); Puerto Príncipe (1515)- and Santiago de Cuba (1515), the last one, which was appointed seat of the government. Although almost all these settlements changed their original locations, they were used by the conquerors to exploit the resources of the island.

The economy was based on the slave work of the native Indians, which were assigned to the colonizers by means of a system of "encomienda", a revocable and non-transferable personal concession or grant. According to this system, the colonizer was bound to feed and dress the Indians, and teach them the Christian faith. In turn, the colonizer was entitled to make the Indians work for him and in his benefit. In practice, such system was even worse than slavery, and was one of the main causes of the quick reduction of the Indian population. The most important economic activity during the very first years was gold mining, in which assigned Indians worked. Also in this activity were used a few Black slaves, who thus integrated, from the very beginning, the ethnic conglomerate which, centuries after, was to form the Cuban population.

Very quickly the gold was exhausted, and the dramatic reduction of the population - including the Spaniards who enrolled in the successive conquest expeditions into the continent- turned cattle raising in the main source of income in Cuba. Lacking gold, salt beef and leathers would become the almost only commodity with which the few Spaniards living in the country could make a living from, at the same time they introduced themselves into the commercial activity of the rising Spanish empire.

For the first three centuries after the conquest, the island remained a neglected stopping point for the Spanish fleet, which visited the New World and returned to Spain with the mineral wealth of continental America. Cuba awakened dramatically in the nineteenth century. The growth of the United States as an independent nation, the collapse of Haiti as a sugar-producing colony, Spanish protective policies, and the ingenuity of Cuba’s Creole business class all converged to produce a sugar revolution on the island. In a scant few years, Cuba was transformed from a sleepy, unimportant island into the major sugar producer in the world. Slaves arrived in increasing numbers; large estates squeezed out smaller ones; sugar supplanted tobacco, agriculture, and cattle as the main occupation; prosperity replaced poverty; and Spain’s attention replaced neglect. These factors, especially the latter two, delayed a move toward independence in the early nineteenth century. While most of Latin America was breaking with Spain, Cuba remained loyal.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Cuban loyalty began to change as a result of Creole rivalry with Spaniards for the governing of the island, increased Spanish despotism and taxation, and the growth of Cuban nationalism. These developments combined to produce a prolonged and bloody war, the Ten Years’ War against Spain (1868–78), but it failed to win independence for Cuba. At the outset of the second independence war (1895–98), Cuban independence leader José Martí was killed. As a result of increasingly strained relations between Spain and the United States, the Americans entered the conflict in 1898.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:29 ZULU