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Spanish Rule, Colonization

On his first visit, Columbus optimistically assessed the island’s natural beauty and the abundance of wildlife, noting the variation of coastal harbors, high mountains, tropical rain forests, and rolling savannas. On his second voyage in 1494, Columbus charted Cuba’s southern coast, mistakenly declaring the territory a peninsula of Asia’s mainland. In 1508 Sebastian de Ocampo mapped the entire coastline and determined that Cuba was an island.

Cuba attracted little interest from Spanish settlers until the Spanish colony on Hispaniola became overcrowded and indigenous laborers grew scarce. In 1511 Diego Velazquez, a Spanish colonist from Hispaniola, landed ships carrying 300 soldiers on Cuba’s southeastern shore near Guantanamo. He encountered native resistance led by Hatuey, a chief who had escaped from Hispaniola and who knew the ways of the European conquerors. It took three months to defeat and execute Hatuey.

Also in 1511 Spanish soldier Panfilo de Narvaez sailed from Jamaica along the southern coast of Cuba. He forced Native Americans to convert to Catholicism and to accept the Spanish monarch as their leader. In 1515 Velazquez and Narvaez were joined by an overland army, which marched east across Cuba as far as what is today Havana. The Spaniards massacred both warriors and civilians as a means of breaking their will to resist. These conquerors founded many of Cuba’s oldest towns. Many of these settlements, such as Baracoa, Trinidad, Puerto Principe, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba, were located on harbors, but two, Sancti Spiritus and Bayamo, were interior towns.

The Spanish monarchs rewarded the conquerors and their soldiers with encomiendas, jurisdiction over geographical areas. This jurisdiction included the right to tax Native Americans and force them to work for the benefit of the encomendero who had the right to the tribute and labor of the Native Americans. The Spanish put native Cubans to work in mines, on agricultural estates, as household servants, and as soldiers in armies bound for the American mainland. Wrenched from their ecological and social communities and subjugated to overwork, malnutrition, and new diseases, the Arawaks and Ciboney were nearly exterminated by 1542. Yet during the first half of the 16th century, native Cuban rebellions occurred against the Spanish populations in Puerto Principe, Bayamo, and Baracoa. Rather than become Spanish slaves or starve, many of Cuba’s original inhabitants killed their own children and committed suicide. Conquest, mistreatment, overwork, malnutrition, disease, and suicide reduced the native population to 3,000 by 1555.

Cuba’s prominence as a new colony was brief. The discovery of gold on the American mainland and the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 enticed Spanish settlers to leave Cuba. To avoid depopulation, the Spanish authorities offered encomiendas to single men and penalized people who departed Cuba unauthorized. Still, by 1550 Cuba’s Spanish population had fallen to an estimated 700.

 

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