Cuba was visited by Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) during his first voyage to find a westerly route to the Orient on 27 October 1492, and he made another brief stop two years later on his way from Hispaniola to Jamaica. Columbus did not realize it was an island when he landed; he had heard from the inhabitants of the Bahamas, where he first made landfall, that there were larger islands to the south where there was gold, which he hoped was Japan. He arrived on the north coast of 'Colba', but found little gold. He did, however, note the Amerindians' practice of puffing at a large, burning roll of leaves, which they called
The Arawaks told Columbus of the more aggressive Carib tribe and he headed off towards the eastern islands to find them, discovering
, or Hispaniola, which occupied the Spanish for the next few years with attempted settlements, feuds, rebellions and other troubles. On future expeditions, more settlers were brought from Spain to Hispaniola; adventurers who wanted to get rich quick and return to Spain. Although most died of tropical diseases, enough survived to impart their own European viruses on the Amerindians, decimating the local population. The Spaniards also demanded a constant supply of Amerindian labour which they were ill equipped to provide, having previously lived in a subsistence barter economy with no experience of regular work. The Spaniards' cruel treatment of the native inhabitants led to many of them losing the will to live. On the other hand, the need for a steady supply of labour pushed the Spanish into further exploration of the Indies. Slavers went from one island to another in search of manpower. Puerto Rico was conquered in 1508, Jamaica in 1509 and Cuba in 1511. From there they moved on to the mainland to trade in slaves, gold and other commodities.
Cuba was first circumnavigated by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1508, but it was
who conquered it in 1511 and founded several towns, called
, including Havana. From Cuba, Velázquez sent out two expeditions in 1517-1518 to investigate the Yucatán and the Gulf of Mexico. On the basis of their information he petitioned the Spanish Crown for permission to set up a base there prior to conquest and settlement. However, before the authorization came through from Spain, his commander, Hernán Cortés, set off without permission with 600 men, 16 horses, 14 cannon and 13 muskets to conquer Mexico, leaving Velázquez in the lurch.
The first African slaves were imported to Cuba in 1526. Sugar was introduced soon after but was not important until the last decade of the 16th century. When the British took Jamaica in 1655 a number of Spanish settlers fled to Cuba, already famous for its cigars. Tobacco was then made a strict monopoly of Spain in 1717 and a coffee plant was introduced in 1748. The British, under Lord Albemarle and Admiral Pocock, captured Havana and held the island from 1762-1763, but it was returned to Spain in exchange for Florida. Up until this point, the colony had been important largely as a refuelling depot for Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic, but the British occupation and the temporary lifting of Spanish restrictions showed the local landowning class the economic potential of trading their commodities with England and North America.
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