The World Before the Play: The Road to Rebellion

Becoming Cuba is set late in the year 1897, just months prior to the explosion of the USS Maineand the start of the Spanish-American War. Here is a look back at the major historical figures of the years immediately prior. For a broader exploration of the era, see the Timeline of the Cuban Revolution.

In February 1895, Cuban rebels again challenged the colonial rule of the Spanish empire. The Cuban people were exhausted by decades of heavy taxation following a string of prior conflicts, both in Cuba and in other colonies around the globe (Cubans were taxed at twice the rate of Spaniards living on the peninsula). Unlike prior conflicts in Cuba that were organized by aristocratic landowners, this war was fought by a unified swath of the Cuban people, changing the tactics on both sides.

General Maximo Gomez, an aging Dominican farmer who had spent decades fighting for Cuba’s freedom, commanded the rebel forces. Gomez believed there would be a tactical advantage to crippling the economy of the island and directed his men to torch fields, kill livestock, and destroy mills, hoping the Spanish would lose interest in the island after their investments were destroyed.

Jose Martí

Just months after fighting begins, Cuban intellectual, poet, and Jose Martí is killed on the battlefield, making him a significant martyr to the cause and a rallying cry for the Cuban people.

Close to Gomez in power, Major General Antonio Maceo — one of few black officers in the Cuban army — fought directly with Gomez at the legendary battle of Mal Tiempo in December 1895 where the Cuban troops, armed primarily with machetes, massacred the Spanish army.

In 1896, the Spanish, eager to squash the rebellion quickly, sent in a new Captain General Valeriano Weyler. Weyler, a veteran of the Ten Years War and conflicts in both Spain and the Philippines, was known for his brutal and gruesome tactics and intended to control the Cuban people with fear. Weyler quickly understood that the Spanish forces, though better equipped, were not large enough in number to police the entire countryside, so he instituted a policy of reconcentración whereby villagers were forced into poorly supplied forts where starvation and disease cost, by the most conservative estimates, over 100,000 Cuban lives.

Insurgents holding up a train loaded with Spanish soldiers and ammunition 30 miles south of Havana.
Drawn by T. de Thulstrup for Harper’s Bazaar from sketches by a lieutenant in Maceo’s army.

Gomez led the forces on the western half of the island, closer to Havana, while Maceo led the forces in the east. Weyler became convinced that killing Maceo would crush the rebellion, and so he focused his troops more heavily on tracking Maceo’s movements, ultimately killing him late in the year. Though Weyler asserted he would end the war in a matter of months, his claim to have “almost” pacified the country set off a long stretch of guerrilla warfare that lasted through the following year. The international press, reporting of atrocities on both sides, amplified attention on the conflict and added pressure to end the war.

Throughout the conflict, Americans were involved both directly and indirectly in the Cuban cause. Yankee businessmen were eager to resume the strong trade relationship that existed before the war. But more potent were the cries of the Cuban people that they were like America had been 100 years before: exploited, oppressed, and desperate for freedom.

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