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Independence, The Ten Years’ War

Guaimaro, sugar fields, Carlos Manuel, long knives, Little War

On October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a Creole planter from eastern Cuba, launched a revolt that would become known as the Ten Years’ War. The rebels initially were not seeking independence, but merely social reforms, including effective representation, freedom of association and speech, tax reform, racial equality, and Cuban participation in the island’s administration. After realizing that Spain was unwilling to make concessions, the rebels became committed to full independence from Spain.

The Cuban patriots had few weapons, no army, and no government. They fought an improvised guerrilla war against well-provisioned, highly trained Spanish troops. The patriots fought mainly with machetes, the long knives used to harvest sugarcane. Most of their actions involved hit-and-run attacks in which they raided the estates of pro-Spanish planters and set fire to sugar fields in an attempt to eliminate revenue that would support the Spanish army. The rebels linked Cuban national identity with social reform. They pledged to make Cuba a country in which black and white citizens would have the same legal rights. Consequently, blacks and mulattoes of all classes made up a huge proportion of the independence army.

De Cespedes and fellow insurrectionists called a Constituent Assembly at Guaimaro in 1869 to solidify rebel objectives and form a revolutionary government. The insurgent leaders soon encountered difficulties in uniting the Cubans. Most rebels came from eastern Cuba. The majority of people in western Cuba continued to support Spain, mainly because wealthy planters in the west opposed freedom for slaves.

The Spanish responded to the rebels by bringing in tens of thousands of soldiers. They destroyed plantations whose owners were suspected of supporting independence and built a series of north-south trenches across the island to protect the west from the insurgents in the east. By 1878 the patriots were exhausted and had lost the will to continue the struggle. The Spanish proposed a treaty that granted a general amnesty and a pardon for all rebels. While most rebels agreed to the treaty, General Antonio Maceo, a free black and a strong supporter of emancipation, rejected it. He fled to the United States and joined other Cuban exiles in New York. They planned a second revolt, and in the summer of 1879 General Calixto Garcia Iniguez led rebel troops in the Guerra Chiquita (The Little War), which lasted about nine months before it collapsed.

Despite the rebels’ losses to the Spanish, the uprisings did much to create a strong sense of nationalism among Cubans. At first the rebels preferred reforms rather than an outright break with Spain. By the end of the Ten Years’ War, they were committed to full independence. As whites and blacks fought together during the conflict, many of the old racial and social divisions that characterized Cuba’s colonial social structure began to dissolve. Many supporters of independence saw the future struggle for independence as inseparable from the struggle for racial and class equality in Cuba.

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