Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

Cuba's Fight for Freedom

While it may be difficult to write a dispassionate account of a war in which the sympathies of the writer have been ardently enlisted on one side as against the other, and to paint a picture which lacks the perspective afforded by the lapse of time, yet an attempt will be made to present such an account and such a picture as will stand the test of unprejudiced criticism.

The object of the insurgents during the ten years' war was to secure reforms in the national administration, actual representation in the Cortes, and amelioration of their intolerable condition. They secured nothing, for though eventually granted the privilege of representation, in 1878, this privilege was nullified by the representatives being mainly selected from the ranks of the peninsulars themselves! And now, in 1895, having in mind the duplicity by which they had been tricked, the Cuban patriots aimed at nothing less than independence! This idea of actual and complete severance from Spain they have consistently persisted in from the very first; and when the end came, finding them impoverished and starving, their ranks decimated by war and disease, they still clung to the rock of independence, upon which they purposed to found their long-cherished republic.

Dominated by this grand idea, animated by a resolve that nothing could shake, the leaders of the revolt of 1895 were mainly those who had survived the war of 1868–78, such as the brothers Maceo, Gomez, and Garcia. The veteran Gomez was their recognised chief, and under him they withstood the assaults of Spanish arms for more than three years, the number of Spanish soldiers at the termination of the struggle amounting to more than one hundred thousand. Spain sent to Cuba her best commanders and the flower of her soldiery, many thousands of whom, fighting the cause of despotism against that of freedom, fell victims to Spanish barbarities. The redoubtable General Campos, the "pacificator" of the former war; was sent out with ample means and placed. in supreme control; but, though with one hundred thousand troops at his command, after the cost of the war had mounted to more than sixty million dollars, he was recalled, and the notorious General Weyler sent in his place.

Whatever may be charged against General Campos, he was at least humane, as compared with his successor. It was through no fault of his, but owing to the perfidy of the home Government, that the treaty of Zanjon had not been respected; and it was even charged against him in Spain that he rather favoured than earnestly combated the insurgents. At all events, no such charge could be brought against the inhuman Weyler, who at once began a war of extermination, laid waste the country, and committed such atrocities that his name will ever be held in detestation by succeeding generations. Unable to overcome the insurgents in honourable warfare, Captain-General Weyler inaugurated a system of butcheries that caused a shudder to run through all civilized communities when informed of his wanton waste of human life. Although he had behind him the vast resources of Spain, held command of an army four times as large as the combined forces of the insurgents, and could have summoned to his aid a magnificent array of naval vessels, yet he could not cope with those half-starved, ragged, and nearly naked patriots, fighting for their lives and for their liberties.

When captured—which was not often—the insurgents were treated as bandits, and suffered ignominious deaths; and it is no palliation of Spanish crimes to say that the insurgents themselves adopted the barbarous methods of their enemy. Little can be said in excuse of the atrocities committed on either side, for the system of warfare they were pursuing was not honourable. Yet, despite the knowledge that they were courting certain death by their insistence, the insurgents put forth every effort to drive the Spaniards within the towns and cities, and were in the main successful.

General Weyler divided the whole island into departments, and across it, from northern to southern coast, at intervals stretched a system of rude fortifications called a troche, guarded by his soldiery. Through these trochas  the insurgents broke repeatedly, at one time sweeping the island from the eastern province of Santiago to the extreme western province of Pinar del Rio. In the spring of 1896 even Havana felt a tremor of fear at the coming of the native hordes, which encamped within striking distance of the forts around the city. But though the gallant Antonio Maceo raided around Havana and ravaged Pinar del Rio, he met death finally through treachery, and the immediate danger was averted. There was at no time any real danger that the capital and other strong cities like Matanzas, Cienfuegos, and Santiago should be attacked and overcome, since the insurgents had no artillery, little ammunition, and insufficient forces to reduce and capture the strongholds of the Spaniards. But they made their camps in inaccessible fastnesses: pursuing a guerrilla mode of warfare, pouncing upon the enemy suddenly without warning, and carrying off his stores and ammunition trains, blowing up the tracks and viaducts of railroads, setting fire to unprotected plantations, and destroying the growing crops of tobacco and sugar cane. And what the insurgents failed to destroy, General Weyler seized, having determined upon a policy of destruction and extermination that would eventually reduce this fair island, so long known as the "Pearl of the Antilles," from a most fertile country to an uninhabited desert. To this end he issued his edicts of "reconcentration," by which all inhabitants of the country districts were ordered to concentrate in and around the cities, and their farms and gardens were destroyed. This was for the purpose of depriving the insurgents, who ranged the country parts and subsisted upon the natives who sympathized with them, of all food and supplies whatsoever. An inhuman policy, but not original with Weyler, for Spaniards had pursued it before, though in times when the amenities of civilization were not recognised as they are to-day; and the whole military world repudiated it and reprobated its authors.

No tongue, no pen, can adequately describe the sufferings, the callous cruelties, that ensued when the reconcentrados—as these unhappy victims of Weyler's edicts were termed—were finally gathered in the cities, where they could be watched by the tyrant's soldiers. For, though they were assembled by his orders, against their inclinations, having abandoned homes and farms, every means of subsistence, they were left to starve and die with scarcely any effort being made for their relief. First scores, then hundreds, then thousands, starved in the streets, fell and died like dogs; fathers of families were compelled to witness the agonizing sufferings of their children, without the possibility of affording them relief; mothers lost their little ones by slow starvation, while themselves enduring the torments of diseases induced by their condition. One by one, family after family, finally the inhabitants of whole villages and hamlets, perished miserably, and it at last seemed evident to Weyler that his policy would prevail and the insurgents succumb to starvation, if not to powder and bullets.

But meanwhile—though the author of all these torments gloated over the miseries he had created, though he grew immensely rich from the plunder of his victims—his soldiers could not prevail against the intrepid insurgents. They hid in caves and swamps, they grew gaunt and weak from starvation, but they still persisted in their determination to resist to the death.

So far as possible, through suppression of news, through accounts of victories never achieved, successes never gained, and reports of insurgent atrocities never perpetrated, the Spaniards had misinformed the world at large regarding conditions in Cuba. The Spanish queen, who was concerned with a mother's solicitude for the throne upon which her boy-king sat; the Spanish people, inured to cruelty through traditions from the past and the bullfights of modern times: the people of the "motherland" of Cuba, gazed complacently upon these unparalleled sufferings of a rebellious population; but the rest of the world finally protested.

"This is not war; this is butchery; these atrocities must cease!" was the universal protest. Still, the cause of humanity, while broad as the world and of universal acceptation, at first found no champion. The weeks and months went by, and the reconcentrados  died like wild beasts, neglected, spurned, by their captors, apparently forgotten by all fellow-creatures. And yet hands were stretched out to them, hearts were bleeding for them (though vainly, perforce), in a country adjacent to their island, from which it is separated only by a channel less than one hundred miles in width. One hundred miles away, only a few hours' sail, lay the borders of a nation pledged to the maintenance of human rights and the righting of human wrongs. Why, then, could it not step in and stay the progress of that car of Juggernaut before it was too late?

Why, indeed? Why did not England, Russia, or Germany stay the hand of the Turk when he was cutting the throats of helpless Armenians? of the Moslem, when he was murdering the Christian people of Crete?

Because international diplomacy has recognised the right of a country or nation to deal with its recalcitrant subjects as it may deem best. When nations go to war it is seldom for the righting of real wrongs, but on some trivial pretext like that which precipitated the conflict between France and Germany in 1870—a country's "injured honour," but rarely its injured people!

The time arrived, however, when Cuba's neighbors in the United States could no longer turn a deaf ear to the appeals of suffering humanity so near to their shores. It is true that the people of the United States' lead been outspoken in their sympathy long before; that a Cuban junta had found a refuge in New York, whence it sent relief and planned expeditions for the benefit of the insurgents. In accordance with international usage, the Government of the United States used every effort to frustrate the plans of the junta and to maintain an attitude of neutrality, since the insurgents had not been accorded belligerency—that is, their cause was not recognised by nations—and in the eyes of the nation with which they were at war they were only rebels against lawful authority. It was a delicate situation for the Americans: their sympathies enlisted in behalf of the Cuban rebels, yet constrained by their regard for the laws from giving them governmental assistance!

For several years, and during at least two administrations, the majority of the newspapers of the country had urged Congress to accord the Cubans belligerent rights, by which their status as fighters would be defined and their acts in a sense legitimized. At last the clamour became so great that Congress could no longer ignore what was the very evident wish of the people of the United States; yet it is doubtful if decisive action would have been immediately taken had not an incident occurred which shook the nation to its very centre.

The condition of things in Havana became so alarming that the consul-general of the United States requested the presence of a war vessel for the protection of Americans there, and the battle-ship Maine, one of the finest in the navy, was sent on a friendly visit to that port. It has since been shown that her presence was unnecessary at that time; but, at all events, the Americans were well within their rights in sending her there, and she was received with the usual honours. Shortly after her arrival, however, on February 15, 1898, while lying peacefully at the buoy to which she was shown by the Spanish captain of the port, she was blown up and sunk, with two hundred and sixty of her officers and crew.

Through the country shot a thrill of horror at this dastardly act, succeeded by instant and universal demands for vengeance. Calm counsels prevailed, however. A board of inquiry was convened by order of the President, and after weeks of calm investigation, during which the American public awaited the result with splendid forbearance, yet with ever-increasing determination to punish the actual perpetrators of this fiendish deed, it was officially announced that the explosion which had wrecked the Maine and sent so many of her brave men into eternity was from without, and presumably from a submarine mine!

Now, submarine mines of the size and power sufficient to sink a great battleship can not be placed in position by mere individual effort; and the instant inference was that the Spanish Government, which had caused the harbour of Havana to be furtively mined, was, if not the actual criminal, the cause of the crime! Still, even when this conviction was forced home upon those most unwilling to believe in the criminality of Spain, President McKinley refused to commit himself to hasty action. It was not until the 20th of April, when, as he himself confessed, he had "exhausted every effort to relieve the intolerable condition of affairs at our doors," that he availed himself of the authority conferred upon him by Congress to intervene in Cuba, using the military and naval forces of the United States, and sent an ultimatum to Spain. He had wisely treated the Maine explosion, aggravating as it was, as an incident merely; but as affording conclusive proof "of an intolerable state of things in Cuba, sufficiently acute to warrant the intervention of the United States."

On the very day of the ultimatum to Spain, the Spanish minister at Washington demanded his passports, and on the next day the American minister left Madrid. War was virtually declared on the first of April, 1898.

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