Ten Years’ War in Cuba

Ten Years’ War in Cuba
Ten Years’ War in Cuba

Fearing a slave insurrection like the one from the 1790s that wracked Haiti, the Cuban landowning and merchant elite opted to remain part of the Spanish Empire while the rest of Spanish America gained formal independence in the 1820s.

Yet by the 1860s that same elite chafed under protectionist Spanish trade policies, high taxes, and political repression. Especially hard-hit and disgruntled were the cattle ranchers and sugar planters on the eastern part of the island.

On October 10, 1868, with the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara), a coalition of elite landowners and small farmers, traders, and free persons of color launched a rebellion and proclaimed Cuban independence.

The rebellion quickly spread westward, as far as eastern Las Villas Province. By the early 1870s, the rebels were supported by upward of 40,000 Cubans, from cattle barons and merchants to peons and slaves. The goals of the rebels varied widely.

Most elites advocated political and economic reforms, defended slavery, and sought to maintain the island’s rigid social structure—though many also freed their slaves as a wartime necessity and in response to the incessant clamor of the slaves for their freedom.

Workers and freed slaves tended to advocate radical social and political change, including the abolition of slavery, the redistribution of land, and universal suffrage.

Despite the efforts of these more radical rebels, the rebellion remained confined mainly to the eastern part of the island. The rebel elite generally opposed taking the war to western Cuba, fearing a slave insurrection or widespread popular unrest, while western elites, with their larger landholdings and slave populations, tended to oppose the rebellion, fearing that its success would threaten their properties and undermine their privileged social position.

Cuban rebels attacking Spanish supply line
Cuban rebels attacking Spanish supply line

As the war dragged on, differences between rebel factions grew, especially along lines of race and class. The rebel armies, their ranks swelled with workers, peasants, freed slaves, and poor whites, became increasingly difficult for the landholding elite to control. The rebel elite leadership also waged war with one eye on the United States, which many hoped would seize the opportunity to annex the island.

These internal divisions combined with Spanish intransigence to stall the rebellion and keep it limited to eastern Cuba. The war lasted nearly 10 years, until a peace treaty, the Pact of Zanjón, was signed in early 1878.

The rebels agreed to lay down their arms, while Spain promised political and economic reforms, general amnesty for all rebels, and freedom for all slaves and indentured servants registered in the rebel armies at the time of the peace pact.

The rebellion’s failure has been attributed to numerous causes, particularly the conflicting goals of rebel leaders, their goal of annexation to the United States, which kept the war limited to eastern Cuba and dramatically circumscribed its social radicalism, and the opposition of much of Cuba’s planter class. At the same time, memories of the Ten Years’ War would endure throughout Cuba, especially in the east.

Many of the most important rebel leaders of the later Cuban War of Independence gained valuable experience in the Ten Years’ War, most notably Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo. Overall, the war created a legacy of struggle that Cuban patriots would seize on again in their final push to independence.