Street view, Santiago de Cuba

Here’s What One Author Saw in Cuba in 1898

Cuba Its Past, Present, And Future by A.D. Hall, now in the public domain, offers an amazing glimpse into Cuba’s history and condition as of 1898. Much of the excitement and allure about Cuba as portrayed by an 1898 observer is alive today. The author’s language captures the tension, beauty and potential of an enchanted island national, romanced by Columbus, but whose potential seems to be as unpenetrated today as it was 120 years ago.

The book was written at the conclusion of a major war in which the US eventually assisted Cuba.  The Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898) was the last of three liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain. Two prior wars include the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878) and the Little War (1879–1880). The final three months of the War of Independence escalated to become the Spanish–American War, with US forces being deployed in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands against Spain.

Here is the first chapter of AD Hall’s book.


“The goodliest land that eye ever saw, the sweetest thing in the world.” Such was Columbus’ opinion of Cuba, just after he first beheld it, and, after the lapse of four hundred years, the words, making due allowance for the hyperbole of enthusiasm, still hold good. And this, too, in spite of all the trials and tribulations which the fair “Pearl of the Antilles” has been forced to undergo at the hands of her greedy and inhuman masters. The eyes of all the world are now upon this indescribably beautiful and fertile country.

Street view, Santiago de Cuba
Street view, Santiago de Cuba 1898

Like Andromeda, she has been shuddering and gasping in the power of a monster, but at last a Perseus has come to her rescue. Somewhat tardily perhaps the United States, united now in every meaning of the word, has from pure philanthropy embraced her cause–the United States whose watchword, with a sturdy hatred of the oppressor, has ever been and always will be “freedom.” The star of hope, symbolized by the lone star upon the Cuban flag, and so long concealed by gloomy, threatening clouds, is now shining clear and bright; and all civilization is waiting with happy confidence for the day, God willing not far distant, when “Cuba Libre” shall be not only an article of creed, but an established fact.

The island of Cuba, the largest and richest of the West Indian Islands, and up to the present the most important of Spain’s colonial possessions, not so vast as they once were but still of no inconsiderable value, was discovered by Columbus during his first voyage to the far west. For many centuries, even back to the time of Solomon, the chief object of explorers had been a discovery of a passage to India and the fabulous wealth of the East. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo, the famous Venetian explorer, went far beyond any of his predecessors and succeeded in reaching Pekin. He also heard of another empire which was called Zipangri, the same that we now know as Japan. When he returned and published what we are sorry to say was none too veracious an account, Polo being only too ready to draw upon his imagination, other nations were fired by emulation.

The Portuguese were the first to achieve any positive result. Early in the fifteenth century, inspired by an able and enterprising sovereign, they doubled Cape Non, discovered Madeira, occupied the Azores and reached the Senegal and the Cape Verde Islands. In 1486, Bartholomew Diaz sighted the Cape of Good Hope, which some ten years later Vasco da Gama, the most famous of all Portuguese explorers, rounded, and then proceeded some distance toward India. It was after hearing the wonderful tales of these explorers that Columbus became inspired with the idea of sailing westward on the unknown waters, expecting thus to reach India. After untold discouragements, and finally by the generosity of Queen Isabella, who was brought to believe in his conjectures, he set sail from Palos, August 3, 1492, with three small vessels manned by about ninety sailors.

The following 12th of October he first sighted the western hemisphere, which, however, he thought to be Asia, and by the way, lived and died in that belief. This land was one of the Bahama Islands, called by the natives Guanahani, but christened by Columbus as San Salvador. It is now known as Cat Island. The 28th of the same month Columbus discovered Cuba, entering the mouth of a river in what he believed to be that “great land,” of which he had heard so much. From the very beginning, it was as it has existed to the present day–the Spaniards looked for gold and were determined to exploit their new possessions to the very last peseta that could be wrung from them. The island was first called Juana, in honor of Prince John, son of Ferdinand and Isabella; but, after Ferdinand’s death, it received the name of Fernandina.

Subsequently, it was designated, after Spain’s patron saint, Santiago, and still later Ave Maria, in honor of the Virgin. Finally it received its present name, the one originally bestowed upon it by the natives. Cuba means “the place of gold,” and Spain has constantly kept this in mind, both theoretically and practically. At first, however, the answers received in Cuba in reply to the questions of her discoverers as to the existence of gold were not satisfactory. It seemed as if this ne plus ultra to the Spaniards was to be found in a neighboring and larger island, which has been known by the various names of Hayti, Hispaniola and Santo Domingo.

Cuban "guarachero" (minstrel) 1898
Cuban “guarachero” (minstrel) 1898

The prospect of enrichment here was so inviting that the first settlement of Spain in the New World was made in Hayti. The aborigines seem to have made no resistance to the coming among them of a new race of people. They were apparently peaceful and kindly, dwelling in a state of happy tranquillity among themselves. Their character is best demonstrated by an extract from a letter written by Columbus to their Catholic majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella: “The king having been informed of our misfortune expressed great grief for our loss and immediately sent aboard all the people in the place in many large canoes; we soon unloaded the ship of everything that was upon deck, as the king gave us great assistance; he himself, with his brothers and relations, took all possible care that everything should be properly done, both aboard and on shore. And, from time to time, he sent some of his relations weeping, to beg of me not to be dejected, for he would give me all that he had.

After its discovery, Cuba was twice visited by Columbus, in April, 1494, and again in 1502, but these visits do not seem to have been productive of any particular results. It was not until 1511 that the Spaniards thought it worth while to colonize Cuba, and only then because they believed that they had exhausted the resources of Hayti, in other words, that that particular orange had been sucked dry. Therefore they sent a band of three hundred men under Diego Velasquez, who had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, to make a settlement on the island. Velasquez and his companions found the natives peaceful and happy, ruled over by nine independent chiefs. They met with but little resistance, and that little was easily overcome. Soon the weak and guileless Indians were completely subjugated. There was one instance which it is well worth while to relate here as showing the Spanish character, which centuries have not changed, and which is as cruel and bloodthirsty to-day as it was then.

There was one native chief, a refugee from Hayti, named Hatuey, who had had previous dealings with the Spaniards, and knew what was to be expected from them. He had strongly opposed their invasion, was captured, and sentenced to be burned alive at the stake. As the flames curled about him, a Franciscan monk held up a crucifix before him, urging him to abjure the impotent gods of his ancestors and embrace Christianity. Hatuey, knowing well that his conversion would not save him from a horrible death, and remembering all the atrocities he had seen committed, asked where Heaven was and if there were many Spaniards there. “A great many of then,” answered the monk. “Then,” cried Hatuey, “I will not go to a place where I may meet one of that accursed race. I prefer to go elsewhere.” Hatuey’s death ended all rebellion, if struggling for one’s rights can be rebellion, and the iron hand of tyranny, whose grasp has never since been relaxed, closed firmly upon the beautiful island. Three hundred of the natives were given as slaves to each Spaniard, but, as in Hayti, it was found that they were not strong enough for the enormous tasks their masters would have imposed upon them. So negro slaves were imported from the mother country, and their descendants remained in the bonds of serfdom for centuries. The first permanent settlement was made at Santiago de Cuba, on the Southeastern coast, the scene of Admiral Sampson’s recent brilliant achievements, and this was for a long time the capital of the colony.

Then came Trinidad, and in 1515 a town was started called San Cristoval de la Habana, which name was transferred four years later to the present capital, the first named place being rechristened Batabana. The natives were treated with the utmost cruelty, so cruelly, in fact, that they were practically exterminated. Only a comparatively few years after the settlement of the island there were scarcely any of them left. The result of this short sighted policy on the part of Spain was that agriculture declined to an enormous extent, and Cuba became virtually a pastoral country. In 1537, the king appointed as captain-general Hernando de Soto, the picturesque adventurer, who was afterwards famous as the discoverer of the Mississippi and for his romantic search for the fountain of eternal youth.

Cane cutters in Cuba 1898
Cane cutters in Cuba 1898

All powers, both civil and military, were vested in the captain-general, the title bestowed upon the governors, although many of them were civilians. Shortly after this appointment, Havana was reduced to ashes by a French privateer, and De Soto built for the city’s protection the Castillo de la Fuerza, a fortress which still exists. But this precaution proved ineffectual, as in 1554, the city which had gained considerably in importance, as it had now become the capital, was again attacked and partially destroyed by the French. Two other fortresses were then constructed, the Punta and the Morro.

The discovery of Mexico and other countries drew away from the island the majority of its working population, and the government passed a law imposing the penalty of death upon all who left it. Spain also imposed the heaviest trade restrictions upon Cuba. It was exploited in every direction for the benefit of the mother country and to the exclusion of every one else.

All foreigners, and even Spaniards not natives of Castile, were prohibited from trading with the island or settling in it. The consequence was that the increase of population was slow, the introduction of negroes, whose labor was most essential for prosperity, was gradual, and the progress and growth of the island were almost stopped. Moreover, Spain was ruler of the greater part of the Atlantic, and a most despotic ruler she proved herself to be. Numerous tales are told of the atrocities committed upon navigators, especially those of England. When Cromwell, who caused many liberal ideas to be introduced into England, tried to induce Spain to abolish the Inquisition and to allow the free navigation of the Atlantic, the Spanish ambassador replied: “For my master to relinquish those prerogatives would be the same as to put out both his eyes.”

One instance of Spain’s cruelty, for which, however, she suffered a well-merited retribution, may be related here. In 1564, a party of French Huguenots settled in Florida near the mouth of the river St. John. A certain Menendez, who was sailing under orders to “gibbet and behead all Protestants in those regions,” fell upon the colonists and massacred all he could find. Some of the settlers, who happened to be away at the time, shortly afterward fell into the hands of Menendez, who hanged them all, placing this inscription above their heads: “Not as Frenchmen, but as heretics.”

In 1567, however, a French expedition surprised a body of Spaniards who had undertaken to found St.

The Prado, Havana, Cuba 1898
The Prado, Havana, Cuba 1898

Augustine, and in their turn hanged these settlers, “Not as Spaniards, but as murderers.” Hampered and oppressed as they were, deprived of a free and convenient market for the produce of the soil by reason of the monopolies imposed by the mother country, it is not strange that the Cubans had recourse to smuggling, and this was especially the case after the British conquest of Jamaica in 1655. So universal did the practice become, that when Captain-General Valdez arrived, he found that nearly all the Havanese were guilty of the crime of illicit trading, the punishment of which was death. At the suggestion of Valdez, a ship was freighted with presents for the king, and sent to Spain with a petition for pardon, which was finally granted. But the whole of Europe was against Spain in her arrogant assumption of the suzerainty of the New World. Especially were her pretensions condemned and resisted by the English, French, Portuguese and Dutch, all of whom were engaged in colonizing different portions of America. Then arose a body of men, who were productive of most important results.

These were known as buccaneers, and were practically a band of piratical adventurers of different nationalities, united in their opposition to Spain. Hayti, as has already been intimated, had been almost depopulated by the oppressive colonial policy of Spain. The island had become the home of immense herds of wild cattle, and it was the custom of the smugglers to stop there to provision their ships. The natives, which were still left, had learned to be skilled in preserving the meat by means of fire and smoke, and they called their kilns “boucans.” The smugglers, besides obtaining what they desired for their own use of this preserved meat, established an extensive illicit trade in it. Hence, they obtained the name of buccaneers.

Spanish monopolies were the pest of every port in the New World, and mariners of the western waters were filled with a detestation, quite natural, of everything Spanish.

Gradually, the ranks of the buccaneers were recruited. They were given assistance and encouragement, direct and indirect, by other nations, even in some cases being furnished with letters-of-marque and reprisal as privateers. The commerce of Spain had been gradually dwindling since the defeat of the so-called Invincible Armada, and the buccaneers commenced now to seize the returning treasure ships and to plunder the seaboard cities of Cuba and other Spanish possessions. Even Havana itself was not spared by them. The buccaneers, indefensible though many of their actions were, had a great influence upon the power and colonial tactics of Spain. Beyond this, they opened the eyes of the world to the rottenness of the whole system of Spanish government and commerce in America, and undoubtedly did much to build up the West Indian possessions of England, France and Holland. It is curious to note here the career of one of their most famous leaders, an Englishman named Morgan. He was barbarous in the extreme and returned from many expeditions laden with spoil. But, finally, he went to Jamaica, turned respectable and was made deputy-governor of the island. He died, by favor of Charles II., the “gallant” Sir Henry Morgan.But in 1697, the European powers generally condemned the buccaneers.

In spite of the lessons they had received, and the universal protest of other nations, the Spaniards, obstinate then as ever, refused to change their policy. They persisted in closing the magnificent harbors of Cuba to the commerce of the rest of the world, and that, too, when Spain could not begin to use the products of the island. Still she could not and would not allow one bit of gold to slip from between her fingers. She has always held on with eager greed to all that she could lay her hands on. It is certainly food for the unrestrained laughter of gods and men that she has recently been sneering at the United States as a nation of traders and money grubbers.


Here’s What One Author Saw in Cuba in 1898 was last modified: March 23rd, 2016 by Simons Chase