Spanish Rule, Prosperity and Plunder
Cuban exports, Cuban tobacco, royal company, treasure ships, Havana harbor
Cuba’s strategic location in the Caribbean made it become an important port and military base. The Spanish organized a shipping system that transported European goods to the Americas and returned American wealth and resources to Spain. Cuba was an important part of this system. It guarded the sea channels through which the treasure ships passed twice a year. Havana harbor served as a base for refitting the treasure fleets before the return voyage to Spain.
This concentration of Spanish treasure drew the attention of other European powers. The French attacked Havana in 1555, only two years after it had been named the new capital of Cuba. King Charles I of Spain immediately established a naval base. He built several imposing fortresses to guard the mouth of Havana’s harbor and stationed between 400 and 1,000 soldiers to defend Cuba’s coasts. Suddenly Cuba began attracting settlers who served as military personnel, built ships, provided food, and constructed buildings. However, little of the riches that passed through Havana Harbor reached the Cuban population, who remained poor, with very little economic security.
The Spanish military presence was focused around Havana in the west, leaving eastern Cuba open to French and English raids. Eastern Cuba also emerged as a center of illegal trade in Cuban tobacco, cattle, and sugar. Many Spanish colonists regularly broke the law to trade with foreign merchants because they disliked the official Spanish policy. This policy decreed that only Spanish merchants could trade with the colony, keeping import prices high and reducing profits on Cuban exports.
In the 17th century Cuba began importing African slaves. The slaves replaced the rapidly disappearing indigenous people as laborers in copper mines and on sugar plantations. By 1650 African slaves numbered 5,000, compared to an indigenous population of 2,000. Under Cuban law slaves could buy their freedom, and eventually the Cuban population contained a high number of free blacks and mulattoes.
The arrival of slaves resulted in one of the most notable characteristics of Cuba’s heritage: a racially mixed population. During the first two centuries of Spanish settlement, few European women settled in Cuba. Spanish men married or had relationships with indigenous and African women. Cuba’s classes and races blended, producing a mixture of religions, music, language, foods, and customs that combined three cultures into a new Cuban culture.
In the early 18th century, Spain introduced a series of administrative reforms in its colonies designed to modernize colonial institutions. The first reform focused on the tobacco trade, creating a tobacco monopoly in Cuba that set prices, regulated production, and sold products abroad. The monopoly kept most of the profits for itself, and its policies provoked three armed rebellions among Cuban tobacco growers between 1717 and 1723. The last uprising resulted in a compromise, which allowed Cuban growers to sell two-thirds of their crops outside the monopoly.
Another attempt at reform centered on sugar production. The royal company established in 1740 made high profits from the sugar trade. However, its wealth created inflation within Cuba, driving small farmers and people not involved in sugar to near ruin. Sugar output expanded, and by 1760 those with influence in the sugar monopoly became Cuba’s new elite.
During the 18th century, Cuba began developing its own cultural and social institutions. Cubans built seminaries—schools for training priests—and founded other schools, including the University of Havana, established in 1728. Access to higher learning and the arts was not restricted to the elite class. Slaves who had purchased their freedom began forming associations that paid for education and medical treatment for their members. Some blacks were able to advance into the middle class as well, but the owners of large sugar plantations continued to dominate the economy, and most wealth went to Spaniards and white Creoles (Spaniards born in Cuba).
Some of the Spanish policies that had hampered Creole hopes for economic advancement ended abruptly as a result of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which pitted France and Spain against the British. In 1762 Havana was attacked and held by the British. Though the British occupation lasted only ten months, it opened Cuba’s economy to free trade with Britain and her colonies. When the British pulled out of Cuba at the end of the war, Spain relaxed its trade policy and permitted Spanish colonies to trade among themselves. This increased Havana’s importance to both Spain and the other Spanish colonies.
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