The recent death of Fidel Castro, controversial politician and undeniable revolutionary, and the impending regime change here in the United States started us thinking about Cuban-American relations and a relatively recent acquisition of ours. In the past, we've blogged about three fascinating items from our collections that are connected to Castro's revolt against the Batista regime in 1959. For today's post, we go back nearly a century earlier, to a series of wars for independence in Cuba that ultimately started the complex and often contentious relationship that now exists between Cuba and the United States.
In 1868, after nearly four centuries of European rule, native Cuban planters and their slaves revolted against their Spanish masters. Led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a sugar planter, a motley army of recently-freed slaves and native sons of Cuba took up arms against the forces of the Spanish Governor-General. Although the revolutionaries initially made great strides, the Spanish forces pushed back with a war of extermination, eventually settling into a rhythm of pitched battles that essentially resulted in a long-running stalemate.
Gil Gelpi y Ferro's Album historico fotografico de la guerra de Cuba, published in Havana in 1872, is a beautiful work of Spanish propaganda written just after the peak of the continuing conflict. Gelpi y Ferro was a Spaniard who had moved to Cuba in 1864 to work at a newspaper in Havana. His large and elegantly bound volume is filled with numerous full-page photographs that have been tipped in between descriptions of people, places, and battles. These images convey a sense of inevitability about the downfall of the rebels while emphasizing the harmony and unity of the royalist population.
However, despite Gelpi y Ferro's optimistic assessment of Spanish might, the war wasn't even halfway finished when his book was published. Finally in 1878, the Pact of Zanjón was signed, signaling an end to hostilities without a clear winner to the conflict. One of the positive results of what came to be called the Ten Years War was that slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886. However, independence for Cuba was still a dream long deferred. It wasn't until two additional wars of independence had been fought, and the United States had been drawn into war with Spain in 1898 over the sinking of the USS Mainein Havana harbor, that Cuba was finally able to establish its freedom in 1902.
To see Album historico fotografico de la guerra de Cuba, ask for Rare F1785 .G43 1872.