xxxxxThe Spanish-American War originated in Cuba, where a revolt against Spain was met with a brutal response. The American press strongly denounced the actions of Spain, and when the U.S. battleship Maine was destroyed by an explosion in Santiago harbour in 1898, the U.S. government blamed the Spanish and declared war. The conflict was over in ten weeks, and the Spanish were soundly defeated. In the Pacific, American troops landed in Manila, capital of the Philippines, and, having taken the city, went on to capture Guam (both Spanish colonies). Meanwhile the island of Cuba was invaded and Santiago was seized after the American forces gained command of the strongholds of El Caney and San Juan Hill. At sea the U.S. navy destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila harbour, and sank a Spanish squadron as it attempted to leave Santiago. For the Spanish, the conflict was an humiliating defeat. By the Treaty of Paris in the December they lost all their colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean to the Americans. In contrast the United States emerged as a potential world power. The former colonies were retained as staging posts for the U.S. navy, and although Cuba was granted independence, it was obliged to cede territory for the building of an American naval base, and came under U.S. protection. International affairs would never be the same again.



Map (Cuba): licensed under Creative Commons – Marti: date and artist unknown. Weyler: artist unknown, contained in The Boys of ’98 by the American journalist James Otis Kaler (1848-1912) – eBook, The Project Gutenburg, 2009. Maine: 1898, impression by unknown artist. Map (Cuba): from Puerto-Rico: date and artist unknown. Map (United States): licensed under Creative Commons – Cartoon: published in the Campana de Gracia, a Catalan weekly satirical magazine (1870-1934), 1896. Considered to be in the public domain. Author: Capsot – Map (North America): licensed under Creative Commons – Treaty+of+Paris+of+1783. Rough Riders: by the American artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909) – Frederick Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York. Map (South America); from

Click Map to EnlargexxxxxThe conflict between the United States and Spain in 1898 had its origins on the island of Cuba. As we have seen, it was in October 1868 (Vb), following the overthrow of the Spanish Queen Isabella, that the Cuban Revolt (the “Big War”) broke out. A powerful protest against the hardships of Spanish rule - dating from 1511 - it was a savage encounter which, at its height, kept 100,000 government troops stationed on the island. The guerrilla tactics employed by the rebels proved effective and continued intermittently for ten years, but heavily outnumbered, the freedom fighters were eventually obliged to sue for peace. By the Treaty of El Zanjon in February 1878 they were forced to lay down their arms, but the Spanish did promise to abolish slavery and introduce various political reforms.

xxxxxBut these promises, like earlier ones, were not kept, and opposition to Spanish rule mounted steadily, fuelled further by higher taxes and trade restrictions. Anxuprising in 1879 was quickly crushed (the “Little War”), but a better organised and coordinated revolt broke out in 1895, led by José Marti (1853-1895) (illustrated), an intellectual who had devoted his life to attaining Cuban independence. Asxleader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party he arrived in Cuba in the April, but was killed the following month at the Battle of Dos Rios. Nevertheless, the revolutionary army, commanded by the rebel leaders Maximo Gomez (1836-1905) and Antonio Maceo (1845-1896) - veterans of the Cuban Revolt of 1868 - swept across the island from east to west, gaining support as it went, and won a resounding victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Mal Tiempo in the December. ByxJanuary 1896 most of the island was in the hands of the rebel forces. As a consequence, the Spanish commander, Martinez Campos, was replaced by General Valeriano Weyler (1838-1930) (illustrated below), and the Cuban garrison was increased to 170,000.

xxxxxIn order to crush the rebellion in quick time, Weyler - a man known for his ruthlessness - did not shrink from taking brutal action. To put an end to the growing support given to the uprising in the rural areas, he introduced what came to be known as “reconcentration”. Some 300,000 farmers and their families were forced from the land and herded into squalid, overcrowded concentration camps in the towns and cities. As a result, within a matter of weeks thousands of men, women and children were dying from disease or hunger. Such repressive, barbaric treatment, given wide coverage by the media, was condemned on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States the press barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer - through their respective newspapers, the New York Journal and the New York World - vied with each other in whipping up a frenzy of hatred towards the Spanish government. Weyler was dubbed El Carnicero (The Butcher) and lurid accounts of atrocities, often exaggerated and at times totally fabricated, hit the headlines. And there was growing concern, too, in the financial world over the island’s economic collapse, particularly its effect upon the sugar industry.

xxxxxIn 1897 the Spanish government, alarmed at the public outcry, both humanitarian and economic, recalled Weyler, put an end to the prison camps, and offered the Cubans home rule, but it was all too late. The Cuban rebels sensed victory, and would accept nothing short of outright independence, whilst in the United States the demand for intervention on behalf of the Cubans continued to gain support.

xxxxxA dramatic turning point in the conflict came on the night of February 15th, 1898, when the US battleship Maine, sent to Havana in order to protect U.S. citizens and property during local rioting, was blown apart by an enormous explosion (illustrated). A total of 266 lives were lost, and many were wounded. The cause of the explosion was never fully established, though later investigation tended to suggest that it was caused by an accident in the boiler room. To the United States government and the American public at large, however, the Spanish were clearly the culprits. This,xtogether with the brutal measures being taken by them to maintain their control of the island, finally triggered off American intervention. In April the U.S. government, led by President William McKinley (1843-1901), called for the immediate withdrawal of the Spanish from Cuba. Two weeks later Spain denounced the ultimatum and declared war. ThexUnited States at once made public that it supported Cuban independence and, by the Teller Amendment, claimed that it was not acting to secure an empire, but the rebel leaders in Cuba were by no means convinced, and with good cause.

xxxxxThe war, which only lasted ten weeks and ended in an overwhelming victory for the United States, now took on a global dimension. The first action by the United States took place in the Pacific. Axnaval force of six new warships, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, sailed from Hong Kong and on May 1st launched a surprise attack upon the ten Spanish ships anchored in Manila Bay in the Philippines. These obsolete vessels were quickly destroyed by the steel ships of the U.S. Navy. The Spanish lost about 400 men. American casualties amounted to seven wounded. Later, troops landed and besieged the Spanish garrison in Manila, taking command of the city by mid-August. At the same time - and with hardly a shot fired in anger - a combined naval and army force seized the Spanish colony of Guam, occupied Wake Island, and laid claim to Hawaii.

xxxxxMeanwhile in late June, U.S. troops under the command of General William R. Shafter, a veteran of the American Civil War, landed in Cuba at Daiquiri, just east of Santiago (arrowed on map), and advanced on the city. The force of 16,000 men, made up of regular troops, two black regiments, and a number of volunteer units (including the so-called “Rough Riders”), quickly penetrated the city’s outer defences. It then went on to capture the strongly fortified village of El Caney and - after a costly assault - the commanding height of San Juan Hill. These victories proved decisive, but they were achieved against strong Spanish resistance.

xxxxxTwoxdays later a Spanish naval squadron, made up of seven ships and commanded by Admiral Pascual Cervera, attempted to break out of Santiago harbour, but, in what amounted to the largest naval battle of the war, the squadron was destroyed in less than four hours. The Americans only had two casualties compared with the 474 suffered by the Spanish. The city, together with 24,000 Spanish troops, then surrendered to General Shafter on the 17th July, bringing the fighting to an end. Later in the month, a U.S. force of some 3,500 men landed on Puerto Rico (illustrated), and, after meeting slight resistance, occupied the island. On August 12th the Spanish government signed an armistice.

Click Map to EnlargexxxxxByxthe Treaty of Paris, signed in December 1898, the Spanish recognised Cuba’s independence and ceded their colonial territories, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, to the United States. By way of compensation, the United States made a payment of $20 million to Spain. In the Philippines there was some resistance to the American occupation, but this was overcome by 1901. In the United States, however, the annexation of these overseas territories did not go unopposed. Many Democrats and a number of senior Republican senators argued that this was a venture into colonialism and, as such, was contrary to the principles of American democracy. The Treaty was ratified in February 1899, but only by a margin of one vote.


xxxxxThe Spanish-American War marked an important turning point in the history of both countries. For the Spanish, the loss of their colonial possessions in the Americas and the Pacific, together with the total defeat of their navy - “the Disaster” as it came to be known - was humiliating in the extreme, and the cost of the conflict was a heavy burden to bear for an already impoverished nation. Freed from its costly colonial commitments, the country was able to focus upon political reform and economic development at home, but there was little improvement in either area during the opening years of the 20th century.

xxxxxBy contrast, the United States, having taken on and defeated a major European nation, emerged from the conflict as a budding world power. It had gained valuable staging posts in the Pacific and the Caribbean - the trappings of a colonial empire - and even Cuba’s newly-found freedom had strings attached. The island gained its independence (in accordance with the Teller Amendment of April 1998), but it was occupied for three years, and was obliged to cede territory for the building of an American naval base at Guantanamo. In addition, the U.S. government claimed the right to intervene in the country’s internal affairs when it saw fit to do so.

xxxxxLiberal opposition apart, many Americans saw this overseas expansion as an acceptable extension of their nation’s “manifest destiny”, the idea, held earlier, that the United States was destined to rule over the entire continent of North America. Ardent imperialists argued that the control of such territories was essential for the expansion of U.S. trade across the globe, whilst there were others, the idealists, who saw it as the nation’s moral duty to take up “the white man’s burden”. But whatever the reasons put forward to justify America’s new stance, the result was the same: the emergence of the United States as a player - and a potentially powerful player - on the world stage. International affairs would never be the same again.




Dispute of 1895

xxxxxIncidentally, the argument in favour of the U.S. retaining Spain’s former colonies stemmed in large part from The Influence of Sea Power upon History, a persuasive appraisal of naval strategy by the American naval officer Alfred Thayler Mahan (1840-1914). Published in 1890, its assertion that a large and powerful fleet was the pre-requisite of a world power - a claim that particularly influenced the naval policy of Germany and, later, that of Japan - carried with it the need for a network of coaling stations. For the United States these newly acquired territories provided this very need, be it in the Pacific - where trade with China and the Far East generally was constantly increasing - or in the Caribbean - where work was to start shortly on the building of the Panama Canal. ……

xxxxx…… The U.S. navy, modern and well managed, acquitted itself well during the war, but despite a number of land victories, the army was severely criticised in general for its lack of preparedness and poor planning. Amongxunits which escaped such criticism was the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, organised by Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the assistant secretary of the Navy (and future U.S. president). When war broke out, he resigned his post and took his “Rough Riders” as they came to be called, to Cuba. A colourful, ragtag outfit which included cowboys, miners and former criminals, it gained a great deal of publicity for its daring exploits, especially its uphill charge - on foot - to capture San Juan Hill during the battle for Santiago - later immortalised in the painting (here illustrated) by the American artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909). And the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments, African-American units whose members were known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, also distinguished themselves during the conflict. ……

xxxxx…… The story goes that in 1897 the artist Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba by the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to cover the growing crisis there. After a short while, disappointed at the lack of action, Remington informed Hearst that there was no war and asked to be recalled. Back came the reply: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” There is no evidence to support this story! ……

xxxxx…… Thex1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry was commanded by Leonard Wood (1860-1927), an army officer who was personal physician to presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. During the war he was promoted to brigadier general and, after the conflict, was appointed military governor of Cuba from 1899 to 1902. During this period he made notable improvements to Cuban life, particularly in education, health and the judicial system.

xxxxxIt was in 1895, the year that the Cubans began their attempt to overthrow their Spanish masters, that a long-running quarrel between Venezuela and Britain over Venezuela’s border with British Guiana (now Guyana) led to a serious Anglo-American dispute. In that year the U.S. secretary of state Richard Olney, using the Monroe Doctrine as his justification, sent to Britain what virtually amounted to an ultimatum, demanding that the dispute be settled by arbitration. In reply, Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, claimed that the Monroe Doctrine had no validity in international law, and this deeply offended the American government. There was strong criticism of Britain in the American press, talk of war on both sides, and President Grover Cleveland asked Congress to appoint a boundary commission and enforce its findings “by every means”.

xxxxxIn the event, Salisbury, faced at this time with more pressing colonial problems, agreed to submit the dispute to the American boundary commission and accepted its decision when it was made in October 1899. A showdown was thereby avoided, but it demonstrated that, even before its victory over the Spanish and its emergence on the world stage, the United States was beginning to flex its political muscles.