By Jerry Wilkinson
is important to the history of Florida and the Keys because Florida was
a Spanish possession until 1762 when Florida was traded to Britain.
then, Spain insisted that the Keys were not a part of Florida. England
contested this, but neither cared as long as one did not interfere with
the other's shipping. Cuba was Spain's first real foothold in the New
and was Spain's stepping stone to the Americas. The Keys Indians traded
with Havana for many years. Most of the Spanish shipwrecks were sailing
from Havana to Spain when they wrecked on the Florida reefs.
On October 28, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba and christened it "Juana," in honor of Prince Don Juan, son of Queen Isabella. Origin's of names this far back is difficult to document, especially as most Indian tribes did not have a written language. Story has it that it's Indian name was "Cubanacan." Slowly the name Cuba was adopted by the Spanish - some say that Columbus gave the name. As a side note, I understand that none of the American Indian tribes acutal name was what discover's gave them. Cuba's size and diversity of landscape no doubt convinced Columbus that he had indeed found Asia.
Aborigines inhabited Cuba, as in all the New World, in pre-Columbian times. These are generally thought to be of three groups: Guanahatabetes, Ciboneys and Tainos. Of the three, the Tainos were the most advanced and subjugated the Ciboneys. As well as being hunters and fishermen, the Tainos were agricultural, and grew yucca, maiz, peanuts, squash, peppers, fruit and tobacco. They lived in villages in round shelters and the men wore no clothes. They were experienced ocean travelers and easily could have traveled the 90 miles to the Keys. The Guanahatabetes, who were the oldest, practiced a shell culture with similarities to that of the Keys Indians.
By the direction of King Ferdinand, Diego Columbus (son of Christopher) was the governor-general of Hispaniola. He commissioned Diego Velasquez to conquer and settle Cuba.
When Christopher had visited Cuba on his second voyage, the Indians were hospitable. Velasquez anticipated little difficulty. However, in that short time the Indians of Hispaniola had been treated so terribly, that head chieftain Hatuey had to flee to Cuba. He had spread the word about the cruel white man to the Cuban natives.
In 1511, when Diego Velasquez and his 300 men landed for the conquest, they were greeted by a cloud of arrows. On February 2, 1512, Chief Hatuey was tied to a post after refusing to tell where the gold was. When offered a cross in order to die in the grace of God and go to heaven, Chief Hatuey scornfully replied, "If Christians go to heaven, I do not want to go to Heaven." Flames consumed the chief's body and the resistance of the Indians collapsed almost entirely. So began the colonization of Cuba. By 1515, Velasquez had established six small settlements that included Havana. This was still 105 years before the Pilgrims would land at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Economically, there was little gold in Cuba, but agriculture more than made up for it. However, the native labor force was disappearing so quickly, additional labor had to be obtained. Thus, entered the slave trade. The first Spanish royal permit for Negro slaves was issued in 1513, the same year that Ponce de Leon discovered La Florida. Slave trading was large scale in 1524 and was wide open by 1550. By 1557, it is estimated that only 2,000 native Indians were left in Cuba. The Spanish Crown received a royalty for each slave imported. Slavery did not end in Cuba until 1886.
Cuba's first capital was Santiago de Cuba. Governor Diego de Mazariego took up residence in Havana in 1558. Havana was given the title of "City" in 1592 and was confirmed as the Capital in 1607. By 1602, Cuba's Spanish population was about 20,000 of which 13,000 lived in or around Havana. As a time perspective, the Pilgrims had not yet arrived in North America.
Havana became the principal port and naval base for all of Hispanic America and existed solely for the good of the mother country. Havana was the capital of the New World. Trade with countries other than Spain was prohibited and all shipping had to be done with Spanish ships. Almost all ships would put into Havana for food and water before returning to Europe and the only practical route was northward via the Gulf Stream. This explains why so many ships in the waters off the Florida Keys were dashed against the shallow reefs.
Cuba, as a strategic location, naval base and center of communication, was subject to attack by all European sea powers. Cuba's misfortune climaxed in 1762 when the English captured and looted Havana. Havana remained under English dominion from August 13, 1762 to July 6, 1763 when ownership was returned to Spain in trade for Florida. As we know, Florida later provided a haven for fleeing Loyalists when the English lost the Revolutionary War.
Interesting, and little known, is the fact that the English or Spanish ownership of the Keys (Los Martires) was never really settled. The English Governor Ogilvie said the Keys were part of Florida. Spanish agent Elixio said that they were The Martires or Havana Norte and were a part of Cuba, not Florida; therefore not part of the treaty, which had not defined the boundaries of Florida. Both countries stood by their positions; however, neither contested -other than with words.
With Florida under English rule, many of the Spanish in Florida moved back to Cuba, as did the Spanish in Santo Domingo when it was ceded to France. Thousands more fled from French Haiti to Cuba when the blacks revolted and assumed power in Haiti. As a result Cuba's population grew while Florida was under English control, and Cuban commerce with the U.S. increased.
A census of Cuba in 1774 indicated a total population of 161,670 and by 1817 it had grown to 553,033. Havana's population of 70,000 had surpassed that of early New York City. Secessionist movements broke out in 1809 and continued off and on. A former colonel in the Royal Spanish Army, Narcisso Lopez, fled to the U.S. in 1849 under suspicion of overthrowing the Spanish government. He quickly gathered support against the Spanish oppression of the local Cubans, but his first liberating invasion of Cuba from U.S. soil failed. He quickly organized another invasion party of about 450 sympathizers and landed at Cardenas, Cuba. Lopez did not have the support of the local Cuban citizens and had to return to Key West in failure. It was not yet time for a large-scale Cuban revolt. Spanish/Cuban relations festered, and in 1868, Cuba's longest and bloodiest war, the Ten Years' War, started. The war produced 200,000 Cuban and Spanish combined casualties. In addition, there was great property damage. Many prominent Cubans fled to Key West. This is also known as the Great Thirty Year War as it effectively continued to 1898.
Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Cuban exile, opened a cigar factory, the El Principe de Gales, in Key West. (This marked the beginning of Havana cigar manufacturing in the U.S.) The San Carlos Institute was dedicated in Key West on January 21, 1871, named after Carlos M. de Cespedes. Cespedes, a distinguished lawyer and Cuban planter, was one of the first to issue the cry of "Cuba Libre" in 1868. His son was elected mayor of Key West in 1876. Key West became a political-financial center that supported civil unrest in Cuba. The U.S. did not intervene, as it was recovering from its Civil War in 1865.
Cuba's Civil War was over in 1878, but conflict continued. The revolution of 1895 was orchestrated almost single-handedly by Jose Julian Marti. Marti rallied military leaders, raised funds and organized expeditions. Much, but not most, of the funds were raised in Key West. On February 24, 1895, open rebellion in Cuba broke out. President William McKinley asked Spain for American mediation, but Spain refused. When the U.S. battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor (February 15, 1898), the U.S. public demanded war with Spain. The reason the battleship exploded remains unknown.
The war lasted only a few months. Cuba was relinquished to the U.S. in trust for its inhabitants by the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 20, 1898. Spanish rule ended January 1, 1899; U.S. military rule ended May 20, 1902.
The first Cuban Congress met on May 5, 1902 and assumed governance on May 20, (May 20 is to Cuba as July 4 is to the U.S.). Thomas Estrada Palma was the first President of the new Republic; however, a revolution occurred in July 1906 that resulted in President Taft setting up a provisional government. Peace was restored and the American provisional government was withdrawn three years later on April 1, 1909.
Cuba recovered and prospered primarily due to the high price of sugar until 1920, when a financial crisis struck. A fifty- million dollar loan from the U.S. returned Cuba to prosperity until revolts against President Zayas became widespread.
General Gerardo Machado was elected in 1925 and re-elected in 1928. General Machado was reportedly Cuba's first full fledged dictator. During his second term, martial law was declared and the Cuban Congress allowed him to suspend freedom of speech, press and assembly. He was forced to flee the country in August 1933.
Cuba had many presidents, but they were made or unmade by Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, who had control of the army. Disorder and strife continued with the U.S. at the center of real and alleged problems. Groups in the U.S. tried to use Cuba and groups in Cuba tried to use the U.S.
In 1940, Colonel Batista was elected president. During his term, Cuba entered World War II on the side of the allies and established diplomatic relations with the USSR. Batista was defeated in 1944 by Grau San Martin and Cuba joined the United Nations; however, falling sugar prices started to disrupt Cuba's economy severely.
In 1948, Carlos Prio Socarras was elected president, but was overthrown by Batista in 1952. By 1952, nine political parties had been formed, but Batista staged a coup without waiting for an election. Cuba continued in a state of insurgency with anti-Batista elements conducting various degrees of opposition, but Batista was re-elected in 1954.
On January 1, 1959, Batista resigned and fled the country. Fidel Castro
set up a provisional government with himself as premier.