April 24, 1898 — Explorer Christopher Columbus landed on Cuba's northeastern coast in 1492 and claimed the island for the new Kingdom of Spain, which had sponsored his journey of discovery. For the Cuban people, there followed 400 years of slavery, degradation and rebellion.
Here’s what Columbus wrote about them in his diary: “They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for glass beads and hawks’ bells.
“They willingly traded everything they owned. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron.
“They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
This became the policy of the Spanish who took over Cuba following Columbus’s discovery. Resentment simmered among the islanders but it was not until 1868 that a major rebellion erupted resulting in what became known as the Ten Years' War, with 200,000 Spanish casualties.
In 1892 the Cuban Revolutionary Party was formed with the aim of achieving independence from Spain. The Spanish reacted with suppression, creating “reconcentrados” – fortified towns that are seen as forerunners of the Second World War concentration camps. Up to 400,000 Cubans died from starvation and disease in the “reconcentrados”.
As rioting took hold in Havana, the United States sent in a battleship – the USS Maine – “to protect American interests”. But within days of anchoring in Havana harbour the Maine was ripped apart by an explosion, killing three quarters of the crew – about 250 men.
The cause of the explosion was never established but some American newspapers – particularly William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal – had no doubt: it must have been a Spanish mine.
As hysterical headlines poured off the presses, public opinion veered towards war amid chants of “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” Congress demanded independence for Cuba and authorised the use of force to achieve such an end.
Spain at first severed diplomatic relations but then on April 24, 1898 declared war against the United States. The next day Congress in turn declared war on Spain.
The war lasted for ten weeks, America’s far superior forces inevitably gaining victory over the Spanish.
Probably the most famous encounter came on July 1 when Colonel Theodore Roosevelt – who was to become US President in 1901 – led the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, known as the “Rough Riders,” in the Battle of San Juan Hill. He did so carrying a pistol recovered from the Maine.
Task & Purpose, a military and veteran-focused website, reports: “[It was] a bloody struggle to gain the high ground above enemy naval concentrations in the harbor of nearby Santiago de Cuba.
“The action cost [the US] over 1,000 soldiers – nearly five times as many as the Spanish – but despite the grave loss of life, Roosevelt overtook the enemy position and carried the day.”
Two days later the Spanish fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, leading to surrender of the city.
After the war Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris under which Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to the US for $20 million and Cuba became a protectorate of the United States.
It gained independence from the US in 1902 and would not hit international headlines again until President John F. Kennedy faced down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Published: March 27, 2020
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