Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

Freedom for Cuba

"With Freedom's soil beneath our feet

And Freedom's banner floating o'er us."

— Drake

T HE story of this conflict between Spain and America is one of the most pathetic in the world's modern history, for it shows how utterly fallen from her high estate was the once glorious Spanish nation.

The discovery of America by Columbus had given Spain a territory, which might well have made her the richest empire in the world. Her soldiers were the bravest, her fleets the largest, her treasury the richest; but her lack of human sympathy had wrought her destruction. The Spanish Inquisition destroyed the very manhood of her people, and stopped the wheels of progress.

How Holland rose and drove her Spanish oppressors from the Netherlands, how England defeated the Invincible Armada, and how gradually Spain lost her vast American Empire, — these stories have been already told.

Now she was to lose her last colonies in the East and West Indies. Of these, Cuba, off the southern shores of the United States, was one. The islanders had suffered acutely from the mismanagement and cruelty of her Spanish governors. Again and again the unhappy Cubans rose against their tyrants: they were only treated more rigorously than before.

While the island was but divided from America by 100 miles of water, 3000 miles divided it from the mother country. Once the United States had proposed buying the island from Spain.

"The sale of Cuba will be the sale of Spanish honour itself," was the firm reply.

So the years rolled on, and the States, faithful to their policy of non-intervention, looked on sadly and patiently. But the state of Cuba grew from bad to worse. Its horrors were worthy the days of Cortes and Pizarro. Thousands died within Spanish prison walls in a few months; little children died in the streets from starvation; homes were in ruins; the beautiful island was laid desolate.

On the evening of February 15, 1898, matters reached a crisis. For some weeks past, the American ship, the Maine, had been lying in the harbour of Havana at the north end of the island. Suddenly, as evening wore to night, a terrific explosion occurred, and the Maine sank, carrying down with her 266 of her crew. A great wave of anger swept over the States, and soon the whole nation was clamouring for war. It was no war of aggression, no war of revenge. Never did a people willingly shed their blood in a more disinterested cause or with more lofty aims. It was a war for humanity—to make an oppressed people free and independent.

Within a fortnight of the declaration of war between the United States and Spain, the first blow was struck in the far East Indies, where an attack was made on the Philippine Islands by Admiral Dewey, of the United States navy. Six ships of the American fleet were cruising in the Pacific Ocean, when war was declared. The Spanish fleet lay at Manila, the capital of the Spanish possessions in the East. How Admiral Dewey courageously led his ships at dead of night, in single file, through the unknown and perilous passage leading to the harbour of Manila, is now a well-known story. The harbour was protected by submarine mines; the shore bristled with Spanish batteries; the Spanish fleet outnumbered that of the United States; and, behind all, was a city of 300,000 people. It was an adventure which savoured of the olden times. On through the darkness crept the American ships. Just before the break of dawn, the moon broke through the clouds. The advancing ships were close to Manila. It was Sunday morning, May 1, when the Spanish ships, flying their battle-flags of red and gold, opened fire on the Americans.

"When you are ready, you may fire," said Admiral Dewey to his Captain, as the flag-ship Olympia came within range of the Spanish guns.

Soon the air was full of smoke and shells as, amid the roar of guns, the new nation and the old fought for freedom. The Spaniards were brave to the death, but American skill and science was too much for them. By midday, the destruction of the Spanish fleet was complete. Admiral Dewey had lost neither ship nor man. It was the most wonderful triumph of the American fleet in American history. It showed Europe, that the United States as a naval power was formidable; it showed England, that the Viking spirit was yet alive in her sons across the seas.

So the Philippine Islands passed from the hands of Spain to the United States, under whose free government they flourish to-day.

Meanwhile another Spanish fleet, under Admiral Cervera, had secretly made its way to Cuba. It was lying quietly in the harbour of Santiago, protected by frowning batteries, while a network of submarine torpedoes lined the bottle-shaped harbour, and a narrow neck hid its presence.

And now followed an exploit which awoke the admiration of the whole world, and showed forth the daring heroism of America's sailors, when Lieutenant Hobson, a young naval officer, with a volunteer crew, sank the coaling-ship Merrimac, in the harbour mouth of Santiago, to bottle up the Spanish fleet. Just before dawn on the morning of June 2, 1898, Hobson and his crew, in the old collier, approached the mouth of the harbour. Instantly sheets of fire were poured on to them, by the Spanish batteries on the shore. It seemed impossible for man or ship to live through such deadly fire, but not a man was shot. Having steered the Merrimac to the appointed spot, Hobson endeavoured to swing her across the narrow channel and sink her. But already her rudder had been shot away, and she drifted rudderless with the tide, far past the narrow neck. She was sinking fast now, and as she plunged beneath the waves, her crew clung to a raft, prepared for the purpose. Only their faces were out of water. The minutes passed slowly on, till with daylight, a Spanish launch approached and took the men prisoners.

"Daring like this makes the bitterest enemy proud that his fellow-men can be such heroes," said the Spanish Admiral, shaking hands with Hobson and each of his men.

Many a brave deed was done by land and sea, before Santiago fell into the hands of the United States, and it was July 17, before the flag of the Stars and Stripes flew over Cuba, which island is independent to-day.

The war had lasted three months. It left Spain with a "few ruined hulks of what had once been a navy." It took from her the last of the colonies for which she had "sinned and suffered and struggled."

The new nation came out triumphant. Important results followed.

Enthusiasm for the United States was aroused across the seas in England. America had risen to the full sense of her manhood: she had stretched out her arms to the oppressed at her doors. And the old mother country rejoiced in her victories, and triumphed in the part she had been led to play in the world's affairs—in the cause of freedom and justice.

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