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Cuba, "The Pearl of the Antilles", is the largest and westernmost island of the West Indies. Its extent, geographical position, the great number of its ports, the fertility of its soil, and its climate make it one of the most interesting countries in the New World. It lies at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, between 19° And 23° N. latitude, and 74° And 85° W. longitude. Its western extremity, Cape San Antonio, approaches to within 130 miles of Yucatán, and its easternmost point, Cape Maisí, is within 50 miles of Haiti, the Windward Passage separating the two islands, while the southern end of Florida is less than 100 miles from the northern coast of Cuba. The island thus occupies a very important strategic position, commanding, as it does, the entrances to the Gulf of Mexico. It has a length of almost 750 miles from east to west, and its width varies from 100 miles, at the eastern end, to 30 miles in the western portion. Its area is about 45,000 square miles, including the Isle of Pines, which lies immediately south of its western extremity. It is therefore a little less in size than the State of Virginia, and about the size of England. It is divided politically into six provinces in the following order from west to east: Pinar del Río, Havana, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Puerto Príncipe (Camagüey), and Santiago de Cuba.

Natural characteristics

The coast line, especially along the southern shore, is dotted with numerous small islands, while both the north and south coasts have many excellent bays and harbours; those of Bahía Honda, Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas on the north coast, and Batabanó, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantanamo, on the south, being accessible to ships of deep draught. The principal feature in the physical geography of Cuba is a range of mountains which, more or less broken, runs through the central portion of the island from one end to the other. From this backbone the rives run generally north and south, in short course, to the sea. For the most part, low tracts intervene between the central elevation and the sea. The forests are noted for a great variety and abundance of hardwoods, some of which are unsurpassed for their special qualities. Among these are lignum-vitæ, cocoa-wood, which somewhat resembles it, mahogany of superior quality and very abundant, and cedar. Though the forests are extensive and almost impenetrable, there are no large wild animals. There are more than two hundred species of birds, many of the extremely beautiful plumage. The varieties of fish are even more abundant. Insects are extremely numerous and of many troublesome kinds, the most to be feared being the tarantula and scorpion; the most beautiful, the large fire-flies or cucuyos, which emit a mild, steady light. Although the mineral riches of Cuba have not as yet been fully explored, it is known not be deficient in this respect. The precious metals have been found, but not in sufficient quantities to repay the cost of working. There are abundant deposits of copper, alum, iron, marble, and manganese.

Lying just within the tropical zone, Cuba enjoys a warm climate throughout the year. This is tempered, during the summer months, by the cool north-east trade-winds which blow almost every day in the year from early morning until sunset, and also by the rains which are most frequent during those months. The year is divided between the hot, wet season, and the cool, dry season. From May to October rain and thunder are of almost daily occurrence; from November to April is the dry season, during which period the rainfall is comparatively light. The temperature at Havana during the hottest month, August, averages 82° F. fluctuating between a maximum and a minimum of 88 deg F. and 72° F. During January, the coldest month, the average temperature is 72° F., the maximum 78° F. and the minimum 58° F. The average for the year is about 77° F. In the interior, and especially in the higher portions of the island, the thermometer occasionally drops to the freezing-point, and thin ice may be seen on the surface of pools. Snow, however, is unknown throughout the island. There are no diseases specially endemic to the island. Yellow fever was formerly very common and virulent, especially in Havana and other seacoast towns, though unknown in the interior. During the American occupation, however, such vigorous and thorough sanitary measures were adopted that Havana, from being a plague spot and a menace to the ports of the United States, became one of the cleanest cities in the world.


Cuba was discovered by Columbus during his first voyage, on the 28th of October, 1492. He took possession in the name of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, and named it Juana in honour of the Infante Don Juan. He again visited the island in 1494, and in 1502, and on each occasion explored part of the coast. He then believed that Cuba was part of the mainland, and it was not until 1508 that Sebastian Ocampo, by order of the king, circumnavigated it, and proved it to be an island. IN 1511, Captain Diego Velásquez, who had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, was sent to Cuba to subjugate and colonize the island. He landed near Cape Maisí, the eastern extremity, and there was founded Baracoa, the first colony in Cuba. In 1514 Velásquez founded Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba on the south coast, Sancti Spiritus, Remedios, and Puerto Príncipe in the central portion; and, on the site of the present city of Batabanó, towards the western extremity of the south coast, San Cristóbal de la Habana; this last name, however, was given, in 1519, to a settlement existing on the present site of Havana. The same year Baracoa was raised to the dignity of a city and a bishopric, and was made the capital, as it continued to be until 1522, when both the capital and bishopric were transferred to Santiago de Cuba. Havana became the capital in 1552, and has remained so ever since.

Upon the death of Ferdinand, 23 January, 1516, Velásquez changed the name of the island to Fernandina in honour of that monarch. Later, the name was changed to Santiago in honour of Spain's patron saint, and still later, to Ave María in honour of the Blessed virgin. During all these official changes, however, the island continued to be known by its original name of Cuba, given it by natives, and it has retained the name to the present day. The aborigines (Siboneys) whom the Spaniards found in Cuba, were a mild, timid, inoffensive people, entirely unable to resist the invaders of their country, or to endure the hardships imposed upon them. They lived under nine independent caciques or chiefs, and possessed a simple religion devoid of rites and ceremonies, but with a belief in a supreme being, and the immortality of the soul. They were reduced to slavery by the white settlers, among whom, however, the energetic and persevering Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, "The Protector of the Indians", as he was officially called, earned a high reputation in history by his philanthropic efforts. In 1524, the first cargo of negro slaves was landed in Cuba. Then began the iniquitous traffic in African slaves upon which corrupt officials fattened for many years thereafter. The negroes were subjected to great cruelties and hardships, their natural increase was checked, and their numbers had to be recruited by repeated importations. This traffic constantly increased, until at the beginning of the nineteenth century, slaves were being imported at the rate of over 10,000 per year.

In 1538, Havana was reduced to ashes by the French, and was destroyed a second time in 1554. In 1762, the city was taken by the English, but within a year, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War, it was returned to Spain in exchange for Florida. From this time the progress of Cuba was rapid. Luis de Las Casas, who was sent to Cuba as captain general, was especially energetic in instituting reforms, and he did much for the prosperity and advancement of the island. During the nineteenth century, however, Cuba was governed by a succession of captains general, some of whom were honourable in their administration, while others seemed to regard their office solely as the means of acquiring a fortune. Various oppressive measures instituted by some of these governors, such as depriving the native Cubans of political and civil liberty, excluding them from public office, and burdening them with taxation, gave rise to the deadly hatred between the Cubans and the Spaniards, which manifested itself from time to time in uprisings for greater privileges and freedom. Of this kind were the conspiracy of the "Black Eagle" (1829, the insurrection of the black population (1844), and the conspiracy of Narciso López (1849-51), all which gave occasion to repressive measures of great cruelty. The rebellion of 1868-78, however, compelled Spain to promise the Cubans representation in the Cortes, together with other needed reforms. She failed to keep many of her promises, and the general discontent continued, with the result that in 1895, a new and formidable revolt broke out. The insurgents, under able leaders, were able to keep the field, in spite of the extremely energetic and even cruel measured that were adopted to crush them. They were able to maintain the semblance of a government, and their heroic resistance, as well as the conduct of Spain, aroused great sympathy for them throughout the United States.

From the time that Florida became a part of the United States, this government had taken a deep interest in Cuba, fearing that the island might pass from Spain to other hands, especially England or France. In 1848, President Polk had authorized the American minister at Madrid to offer $100,000,000 for the purchase of Cuba, but Spain rejected the offer. The subject had been revived in 1854, following the Ostend Manifesto, but again it came to nothing. During the last uprising of the Cuban people, already mentioned, not only the United States government, but the entire American people were watching the struggle with intense interest, when, on the night of 15 February, 1898, a terrific explosion destroyed the United States battleship Maine in Havana harbour, whither she had gone on a friendly visit by invitation of the Spanish Government. Relations between the two governments became strained, and they finally went to war in April of the same year. The war was of only a few months duration, and as a result of it, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, (10 December, 1898), Spain relinquished her hold on Cuba, which she had held for over 400 years. Beginning 1 January, 1899, the United States occupied the island and appointed a military governor, pending the formation of a native government. This was eventually installed with the inauguration as president of Don Tomás Estrada Palma (20 May, 1902), and the American occupation formally and definitely ceased on that day. Cuba now seemed to be entering upon an era of peace and prosperity, but it was to be of short duration. Differences between the Moderate and Liberal parties occasioned by the second presidential election, in 1905, culminated, in July, 1906, in a revolutionary movement started by the Liberal leaders. The government soon lost control of the situation, so that in September, 1906, the United States was forced to intervene. A provisional government was then established under authority from Washington, with Charles E. Magoon at its head. During 1907, a new census was undertaken, upon which to base new elections for president and members of Congress.


For two hundred and fifty years after the discovery of the island, cattle raising seems to have been the principal industry, and very little attention was paid to agriculture. Now, however, Cuba is essentially an agricultural country. The principal agricultural products are sugar, tobacco, and fruits. As for coffee, little more is grown than is needed for domestic consumption, although the soil and climate of the eastern portion of the island are adapted to the cultivation of a superior quality of coffee. Oranges, limes, lemons, olives, pineapples, and many other fruits are also grown, as well as all kinds of vegetables, which grow almost the year around. The Cuban orange is noted for its exquisite taste, and its cultivation was an important Cuban industry until Californian and Floridan competition impaired its value. Bananas are grown throughout the island, but the best come from the central and eastern portions. The most important of all the products, however, are sugar and tobacco. The former was introduced into Cuba by its first governor, Velásquez, and from a small beginning the industry grew, with improved methods of cultivation and the introduction of improved machinery, until, just before the last insurrection (1895), the annual output amounted to over 1,000,000 tons. The product next in importance to sugar is tobacco. This, unlike the former, is indigenous in Cuba, and was in use by the natives when the Spaniards first visited the island. Cuban tobacco is universally admitted to be the finest in the world, especially that grown in a section of the province of Pinar del Río known as Vuelta Abajo. Many attempts have been made to reproduce the tobacco of this region in other parts of the world, and even in other parts of Cuba, but always without success, the superiority of the Vuelta Abajo product being probably due to the peculiar topography of the country. In 1894-95, the season in which the best crop was grown previous to the last census (1899), the production for the island amounted to 62,000,000 lbs. valued at $22,000,000.


Cuba had very few railroads until within recent years, when there has been great activity in building new lines and extending old ones. The completion of the road running through the centre of the island, and connecting Havana with Santiago de Cuba, marks the realization of a long-felt commercial need and the attainment of a political end of great importance.


The official census of 1899 showed a total population of 1,572,797 divided by provinces as follows:—

Of the inhabitants 1,400,202 are natives, and 172,535 foreign-born. The white population constitutes 68 per cent. of the total, the remaining 32 per cent. being made up of negroes, mixed elements, and Chinese. The native white population are nearly all descendants of the Spaniards. Although since the evacuation of Cuba by the Spaniards there has been entire freedom of worship, the population is almost exclusively Catholic. Spanish is the official language of Cuba, though it is characterized by certain light local peculiarities of pronunciation.


In 1518 Leo X established the Diocese of all Cuba, which included also the Spanish possessions of Louisiana and Florida. The see was established at Baracoa in Santiago de Cuba, and in 1522, by a Bull of Adrian VI, it was transferred to the city of Santiago de Cuba, where it has remained to the present day. Prior to the nineteenth century, there appears to have been no question regarding the titles of property held by the Church in Spain or in Cuba. But in the beginning of that century, the property held by the Church in Spain was confiscated by the State. This confiscation however, related only to the Church possessions in Spain and did not affect her insular possessions. In 1837, Captain General Tacón sought to make this Spanish confiscation act applicable to the holdings of the monastic orders in Cuba, and in 1841, Valdés, who was then governor, actually seized these properties and diverted them to the uses of the State. Among these seizures were the convent of the Franciscans, which has been used since then as the Custom House; the convent of the Dominicans, used for a time by the University of Havana; the convent of the Augustinians, used as the Academy of Sciences; the convent of San Ysidro, used by the Spaniards as military barracks, and later by the Americans, as a relief station. Up to the time of the American occupation these and other valuable properties, formerly held by the Catholic church, had been held by Spain, subject to the results of a long series of negotiations between the Crown of Spain and the Holy See. The Spanish Government also held a large amount of censos, or mortgages, upon property in different parts of the island which had been given to the church for religious purposes, but which had been taken over by the State for purposes of administration. The Crown, however, annually paid the Church a large sum for its maintenance. With the American occupation these annual payments ceased, and the American Government continued to use the property for the same governmental purposes to which it had been put by the Spaniards. The Church thereupon claimed the right to take back the property. This gave rise to a long discussion and investigation, until the whole matter was finally referred to a judicial commission in 1902. This commission decided in favour of the claims of the Church, and the matter was adjusted to the satisfaction of all. The government of Intervention agreed to pay a rental of 5 per cent. upon the appraised value of the property, which amounted to about $2,000,000, with a five year's option to the government of Cuba, when organized, to buy the property at the appraised value, receiving credit against the purchase price for 25 per cent. of the rental paid; and the matter of the censos was adjusted by the Government of Intervention taking them at 50 cents on the dollar and permitting the debtors to take them up at the same rate.

The island at present is divided ecclesiastically into one archdiocese and three suffragan dioceses as follows: the Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba, created as such in 1804, comprising the civil province of the same name and that of Puerto Príncipe; the Diocese of Havana, established in 1788, comprising the civil provinces of Havana and Matanzas; the Diocese of Cienfuegos, established in 1903, which includes the province of Santa Clara; the diocese of Pinar del Río, established at the same time as the preceding in 1903, and comprising the civil province of the same name and the Isle of Pines. In 1899 the remains of Christopher Columbus, which had been brought from Santo Domingo in 1796 and had since then been preserved in the cathedral of Havana, were once more removed, this time to Seville in Spain. The Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba is metropolitan of the island. Francisco Barnaba Aguilar, the first native incumbent of this metropolitan see, was consecrated by Archbishop Chapelle, 1 July, 1899. Under Spanish rule all the bishops, as well as most of the priests of the island were appointed from Madrid. An Apostolic Delegate for Cuba and Porto Rico now resides at Havana. He is not accredited to the Cuban Government, and Cuba has no official representative at the Vatican. The first delegate was Archbishop Chapelle of New Orleans, who was sent by Leo XIII to look after the interests of the Church in Cuba during the American occupation. There are in the island 199 secular, and 129 regular priests. Of institutions conducted by religious orders, there are 13 colleges for boys, 17 schools and academies for girls, 5 orphan asylums, 1 reform school, 2 houses of the Good Shepherd, 2 asylums for the aged, and 2 hospitals. The clergy age exempted from military service and jury duty. There are no chapels in the prisons; wills and inheritances are subject only to civil laws; cemeteries are owned in some instances by the municipalities, in others, as at Havana, by the Church. Church property is held in the name of "the Roman Catholic Church". Both civil and religious marriages are legal and binding and persons may be married according to either or both. Divorce is not legally recognized.


During the early history of Cuba, the clergy seemed to have been the principal if not the only agents of education. By the Bull of Adrian VI (28 April, 1522), the Scholatria was established at Santiago de Cuba for giving instruction in Latin. In 1689, the college of San Ambrosio was founded in Havana under control of the Jesuits, for the purpose of preparing young men for the priesthood. The foundation of another Jesuit college in Havana was the next step that gave a fresh impulse to education; this was opened in 1724 under the name of the College of San Ignacio. The old College of San Ambrosio was then united with it, although it still retained its character as a foundation-school for the Church. As early as 1688, the city council of Havana petitioned the royal government to establish a university in that city, in order that young men desirous of pursuing the higher studies might not be compelled to go to Europe to do so. This was not immediately granted, but finally, by a letter of Innocent XIII (12 September, 1721), the fathers of the Convent of San Juan de Letran were authorized to open the institution desired, and, after some years of preparation, the present University of Havana was founded in 1728. The rectors, vice-rectors, counsellors, and secretaries were to be Dominicans. In 1793, under the administration of Don Luis de las Casas, who is always gratefully remembered by the Cubans, was founded La Sociedad Económica de la Habana, which has always been the prime mover in the educational advancement of the island.

Not until the last century was well advanced, was there a free institution in all Cuba were children could be taught to read and write. The first opened was that of the Bethlehemite Fathers in Havana, and that through the generosity of a private citizen.

In 1899, the date of the American occupation, private schools abounded in Cuba, but the benefits of these could be enjoyed only by the children of the rich. The children of the poorer classes who attended the so-called municipal schools, received only a rudimentary education. But soon, after the American intervention the wonderful work of reconstruction was begun. Adequate school buildings were provided, the number of teachers was rapidly increased, and measures were adopted to compel children to attend the classes. When the Cuban government assumed control, it continued the good work along the same lines, so that now it can be said that the public schools are equal, if not superior to the private ones, at least as to furniture and teaching apparatus. Primary education, according to the Constitution, is gratuitous and compulsory. The expenses are paid by the municipality or, in any case of municipal inability to pay, by the Federal Government. Secondary and higher education are controlled by the State. The children of the public schools receive religious instruction in what are known as doctrinas, of which there is one in every parish, and at the head of it is the parish priest. These doctrinas are like Sunday schools, except that sessions are held on Saturday instead of Sunday. The teachers are all volunteers, and are usually ladies who live in the parish. According to the census of 1899, the proportion of illiteracy was about 60 per cent. But with the extraordinary increase in the number of schools and facilities for teaching, this proportion is (in 1908) rapidly decreasing.

Recently the University has been divided into three faculties: Letters and Sciences; Medicine and Pharmacy; Law. The faculty of Letters and Sciences consists of the schools of letters and philosophy, of pedagogy, of sciences, of engineering, electricity, of architecture, and of agriculture. The faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy consists of the schools of medicine, of pharmacy, of dental surgery, and of veterinary surgery. The faculty of Law consists of the schools of civil law, of public law, and of notarial law. There are also in Havana a normal school, a school of painting and sculpture, and a school of arts and trades.


DE LA SAGRA, Historia física, política, y natural de la Isla de Cuba (13 vols., Madrid, 1849-61); VON SIVERS, Cuba, die Perle der Antillen (Leipzig, 1861); CABRERA, Cuba and the Cubans, tr. by GUITERAS (Philadelphia, 1896); ROWAN AND RAMSAY, The Island of Cuba (New York, 1896); CLARK, Commercial Cuba (New York, 1898); PORTER, Industrial Cuba (New York, 1898); CANINI, Four Centuries of Spanish Rule in Cuba (Chicago, 1898); NOA, The Pearl of the Antilles (New York, 1898); CURRIER, Cuba, What shall we do with it? (Baltimore, 1898); Informe sobre el Censo de Cuba, 1899 (Washington, 1900); Senate Documents (1903-04), VII, 58th Congress, 2nd Session; ROBINSON, CUBA AND THE Intervention (New York, 1905). RODRIGUEZ, The Church and Church Property in Cuba in Am. Cath. Quar. Rev. (Philadelphia, 1900), 366 sqq.; CLINCH, Spain and Cuba, ibid. (1897), 809 sqq.

About this page

APA citation. Fuentes, V. (1908). Cuba. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fuentes, Ventura. "Cuba." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Theodore Rego.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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