The largest island in the West Indies, Cuba supported one of the largest indigenous populations in the region until it came under the control during the 16th century of the Spanish, who used the island to assist their forays into Mexico and North America and to supply oceangoing Spanish ships.
At the time of contact with Europeans, two distinct indigenous groups occupied Cuba, the Guanahatabey and the Taino. The western end of Cuba was occupied by the Guanahatabey. Speaking a different language from the Taino, who inhabited the other three-fourths of Cuba, the ancestors of the Guanahatabey traveled to the island from the Yucatan Peninsula following a countercurrent that flows eastward from the Yucatan along the southern side of the Greater Antilles. These people did not produce pottery and made tools from stone, bone, and shell. The Guanahatabey subsisted on shellfish, fish, game, and wild vegetables and fruits. They lived in nomadic, small bands that migrated from the interior to the coast and back depending upon the season. They probably inhabited most of Cuba before the arrival of the Taino, but over time the Guanahatabey retreated to the western corner of Cuba, and they were living there by the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the West Indies in 1492. It is possible that the Guanahatabey had limited contact with the peoples who inhabited the southern tip of Florida, who shared some similar material culture traits.
The Taino arrived in Cuba from Hispaniola. The Cuban Taino society developed along similar lines with other Taino societies in the Greater Antilles. They organized their societies into chiefdoms focused primarily on trade and lived in sedentary villages. They cultivated plants and went to sea for fish, shellfish, turtles, and birds. They harvested peanuts, sweet potatoes, manioc, a wide range of root crops, tobacco, and cotton. They used the slash and burn technique of cultivation and created artificial ponds to husband fish and turtles. They had a more extensive material culture than did the Guanahatabey, wearing gold and copper ornaments, sleeping in cotton hammocks, and crafting ceramics.
Although Columbus encountered Cuba on his first voyage in 1492, he did not pay much attention to it. In 1494, when he reached Cuba on his second voyage, he believed that it was part of the Asian continent. The governor of Hispaniola, Diego Columbus, sent Diego de Velazquez to conquer Cuba in 1510. After landing on the southern coast near Guantanamo, Velazquez engaged the Taino of the region and burned their leader at the stake. Velazquez established a cabildo (town council) for the Natives in Baracoa. Eventually, Velazquez’s lieutenant, Panfilo de Narvaez, finished the conquest of the island by 1512. In 1513 Velazquez implemented the encomienda system, in which the indigenous inhabitants of the island performed all the labor required by the Spanish under cruel and inhumane conditions. The earliest Spanish residents became quite wealthy exploiting the Natives in the encomiendas. Primarily, this was achieved through gold mining and agriculture. By the middle of the 16th century, much of the indigenous population of Cuba had disappeared because of overwork and DISEASES introduced by the Spanish. Eventually, thanks to the work of Bartolome de Las CASAS, the Spanish implemented new laws that made Natives free subjects of the Crown.
After the conquest of Mexico and the discovery of great wealth there, Cuba began to lose its Spanish population and its importance in the Spanish colonial system. The process increased as the gold mines drained the ore deposits on the island. After the collapse of the mining industry and the establishment of the annual fleet system in 1561, the primary purpose for Cuba became the housing of crews and passengers as well as the repair, maintenance, and supply of the Spanish gold and colonial supply fleets. Beginning in 1553 Havana became the capital of Cuba, and the Spanish fortified this port, developing it into the gathering and arrival point for the annual fleets that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
In the second half of the 16th century, the Spanish began importing African slaves to Cuba (see SLAVE trade). Used in a wide variety of activities, most slaves worked on haciendas. Three types of haciendas developed on the island during this period. The first raised livestock—cows, horses, mules, and oxen; the second kind tended swine; the third type had residents who grew crops to support Cuba’s population. Industry associated with harboring the annual fleets and the products of the haciendas dominated Cuba’s economy until the Spanish developed SUGAR plantations in the 18th century.
Further reading: Mary W. Helms, “The Indians of the Caribbean and Circum-Caribbean at the End of the Fifteenth Century,” in Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 1, ed. Leslie Bethell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 37-57; Irving Rouse, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (New Haven,
Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992);-, Migrations in
Prehistory: Inferring Population Movement from Cultural Remains (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986), esp. 106-156; Carl O. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966); David Watts, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change Since 1492 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
—Dixie Ray Haggard