Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands, situated on the northwestern end of the Antilles arc of islands. The main island covers about 40,500 square miles and runs 777 miles from northwest to southeast. In pre-Columbian times, the population numbered in the tens of thousands and comprised several different peoples, the hunters and gatherers living in the far west being the longest established. They had been displaced from the eastern part of the island between 1000 and 1200 c.e. by the Taino, an Arawakan people, who had migrated from the Orinoco River basin in South America along the Antilles islands chain. The Taino people lived in villages, practiced advanced agriculture, fished, had started ranching, and were able potters. Although most of their culture was lost during the European colonization, some elements were taken over by the Spanish including words such as tobaco (tobacco) and hurac¡n or cacique (local leader), but also such items as the canoe and the hamaca (hammock). Cuba was the second island Christopher Columbus set foot on during his first voyage. When he arrived, on October 27, 1492, he believed it to be Japan. After talking with Taino inhabitants, he referred to it as Colba the Taino word for cultivated area or green a term that later developed into Cuba. Spanish settlement, however, started on the neighboring island of Hispaniola and did not begin on Cuba until 1510. Development was then propelled by the discovery of gold deposits, but the heyday was short and ended about 1520, as the deposits turned out to be unsatisfying. The main Spanish force had set off to conquer the Central American mainland, and they used Cuba only as a base of operations. Concurrently, the rebellion of the native peoples against their brutal so-called pacification intensified and ended only in the 1530s, when the native tribes had been vastly diminished by European diseases. In 1544, 3,000 colonists, 1,000 indentured natives, 800 black slaves, and about 5,000 free natives lived in Cuba. Due to its geopolitical benefits, the island was given a key role within the Spanish empire around 1560. It guarded the Straits of Yucat¡n in the west, as well as the Straits of Florida in the north (which served as the entrance from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico) and hence the route of the Spanish ships carrying Mexican and Peruvian silver. The ships had to gather annually in Havana on the northeastern coast of Cuba to form a fleet, known as the Carrera de Indias, before crossing the Atlantic, heading for Seville. Havana’s role in this resulted in a rapid growth of the city and its suburbs, where by 1700 about 80,000 of the approximately 130,000 Cuban inhabitants lived. In addition, a two-part economy developed. The west became a center of commerce and maritime craftsmanship; the east supplied the harbor with cattle, grew tobacco, and devoted itself to the trade in contraband with the English and the French. These European powers used the forbidden back door
the Windward Passage, southwest of Cuba to enter the Caribbean Sea and infiltrate Jamaica and western Hispaniola (Saint-Domingue). By the time of the French Bourbon’s accession to the Spanish throne in 1713, the Spanish empire and its silver bullion trade had been overshadowed by the rising English and French empires and their successful plantation economies. Administrative, military, and economic reforms were initiated but not carried out decisively before 1762, when the British invasion of Havana came as a shock. Possession of Cuba was returned to Spain in 1763 as compensation for losing Florida, and it became a trial ground for further reform efforts concerning the Hispanic-American world. Cuban population growth further accelerated during the eighteenth century, and in the 1774 census, 96,400 white, 30,800 free colored (mestizos, mulattos, and freed slaves), and 44,300 enslaved inhabitants were counted. The slave population increased at a rate greater than that of the other segments of society, indicating that the Cuban economy and society underwent a fundamental change. A Spanish possession since the early 1500s, Cuba was captured by British forces in 1762, by which time it offered prospects for great wealth in sugar. The British held Cuba for only ten months, however, as the island was returned to Spain in the Treaty of Paris. (The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) From 1740 to 1790, in response to the declining bullion trade and the social and ecological crises besetting the British sugar-producing colonies of Barbados and Jamaica, the Cuban elite developed sugar plantations on a large scale, ousting small farmers and largely eliminating Cuba’s subsistence agriculture. This development was boosted by the political breakdown of the main sugar producer in the islands, Saint-Domingue, between 1792 and 1804. In the 1810s and 1820s, the Spanish colonies in America, apart from Cuba and Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), revolted and gained their independence from Spain. The Spanish Crown proved extremely obliging to the Cuban elite in ceasing limitation and control of the slave trade. Based on an ever harsher exploitation of slave labor until 1886, Cuba became the world’s main sugar producer in the nineteenth century and remained a Spanish colony until 1898. Alexander Engel See also: Caribbean (Chronology); Slavery, Caribbean; Sugar; Tobacco. Bibliography Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. Johnson, Sherry. The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2001. Cuba through the lens of contemporary photography Arts & Culture … 27 Things You Need to Know Before You Visit Cuba

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