Cuba was inhabited by American Indian people known as the Taíno, also called Arawak by the Spanish, and Guanajatabey and Ciboney people before the arrival of the Spanish. The ancestors of these Native Americans migrated from the mainland of North, Central and South America several centuries earlier. The native Taínos called the island Caobana. The Taíno were farmers while the Ciboney were farmers as well as fishers and hunter-gatherers.
After first landing on an island then called Guanahani, Bahamas on October 12, 1492, La Pinta, La Niña and the Santa Maria, the first three European ships under the command of Christopher Columbus, landed on Cuba’s northeastern coast near what is now Bariay, Holguin province on October 28, 1492. He claimed the island for the new Kingdom of Spain and named Isla Juana after Juan, Prince of Asturias.
Columbus thought he had reached the East Indies and could not imagine that behind this small island, there was a huge continent, unknown to the European world. According describe Letters Indies, once Columbus set foot on Cuban soil, knelt in the sand and with the head tilted up said: “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, conquistador of Cuba. In 1511, the first Spanish settlement was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at Baracoa. Other towns soon followed including the future capital of San Cristobal de la Habana which was founded in 1515. The native Taínos were working under the encomienda system, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe. Within a century the indigenous people were virtually wiped out due to multiple factors, including Eurasian infectious diseases aggravated in large part by a lack of natural resistance as well as privation stemming from repressive colonial subjugation. In 1529, a measles outbreak in Cuba killed two-thirds of the natives who had previously survived smallpox.
On September 1, 1548, Dr. Gonzalo Perez de Angulo was appointed governor of Cuba. He arrived in Santiago, Cuba on November 4, 1549 and immediately declared the liberty of all natives. He became Cuba’s first permanent governor who resided in Havana instead of Santiago, and he built Havana’s first church made of masonry. After the French took Havana in 1555, the governor’s son, Francisco de Angulo, went to Mexico.
The population in 1817 was 630,980, of which 291,021 were white, 115,691 free men (mixed-race), and 224,268 black slaves. In the 1820s, when the rest of Spain’s empire in Latin America rebelled and formed independent states, Cuba remained loyal.
Slaves in Cuba unloading ice from Maine, c. 1832.
A series of slave rebellions and revolts took place during the ‘sugar boom’ under Spanish colonizing with the 1812 Aponte Slave Rebellion in Cuba against the Atlantic Slave Trade. Independence from Spain was the motive for a rebellion in 1868 led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. De Céspedes, a sugar planter, freed his slaves to fight with him for a free Cuba. On 27 December 1868, he issued a decree condemning slavery in theory but accepting it in practice and declaring free any slaves whose masters present them for military service. The 1868 rebellion resulted in a prolonged conflict known as the Ten Years’ War. Two thousand Cuban Chinese joined the rebels. There is a monument in Havana that honours the Cuban Chinese who fell in the war.
The United States declined to recognize the new Cuban government, although many European and Latin American nations did so. In 1878, the Pact of Zanjón ended the conflict, with Spain promising greater autonomy to Cuba. In 1879–1880, Cuban patriot Calixto García attempted to start another war known as the Little War but received little support. Abolition of slavery in Cuba began the final third of the 19th century, and was completed in the 1880s.
Carlos Manuel de Céspedes is known as Father of the Homeland in Cuba, having declared the nation’s independence from Spain in 1868.
An exiled dissident named José Martí founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York in 1892. The aim of the party was to achieve Cuban independence from Spain. In January 1895 Martí traveled to Montecristi and Santo Domingo to join the efforts of Máximo Gómez. Martí recorded his political views in the Manifesto of Montecristi. Fighting against the Spanish army began in Cuba on 24 February 1895, but Martí was unable to reach Cuba until 11 April 1895. Martí was killed in the battle of Dos Rios on 19 May 1895. His death immortalized him as Cuba’s national hero.
Around 200,000 Spanish troops outnumbered the much smaller rebel army which relied mostly on guerrilla and sabotage tactics. The Spaniards began a campaign of suppression. General Valeriano Weyler, military governor of Cuba, herded the rural population into what he called reconcentrados, described by international observers as “fortified towns”. These are often considered the prototype for 20th-century concentration camps. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Cuban civilians died from starvation and disease in the camps, numbers verified by the Red Cross and United States Senator and former Secretary of War Redfield Proctor. American and European protests against Spanish conduct on the island followed.
The U.S. battleship Maine was sent to protect U.S. interests, but she exploded suddenly and sank quickly, killing nearly three quarters of her crew. The cause and responsibility for her sinking remained unclear after a board of inquiry, but popular opinion in the U.S., fueled by an active press, concluded that the Spanish were to blame and demanded action Spain and the United States declared war on each other in late April.