Stealing Cuba, Part Six

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Pierce administration changed directions to a purchase first, steal second strategy for Cuba and made it stick by putting the legal screws to John A. Quitman’s well-publicized expedition. Quitman, who had every reason previously to count the administration as his unofficial partner, found this understandably distressing. With a fair bit of his own money locked up on a bond against his breaking the Neutrality Act, Quitman prudently delayed his expedition until 1855.

That postponement cost him. Spain refused even grant a meeting for Soulé to present an offer for the island. The owners of the Black Warrior paid their fine. De La Pezuela eased off on his plan to transform Cuba for its own defense. He returned to Spain in September. Pierce called Quitman to Washington and apparently gave him sufficient evidence that with the radical plan to arm Cuban slaves or without the island would not just roll over before a single show of force. In January, the captain general who replaced De La Pezuela arrested upwards of a hundred of Quitman’s Cuban supporters and executed some of them. So much for the uprising Quitman hoped to support and then steer to annexation. In April, Quitman gave back the powers the New York junta signed over to him.

Quitman’s career as a freebooter ended before it began, but the movement to take Cuba no more died with his expedition than it did with Narciso López. When William L. Marcy, Secretary of State, sent new orders to Pierre Soulé in Madrid, those orders authorized purchase negotiations and included the rather open-ended proviso that if those negotiations should fail “you would then direct your effort to the next desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion.”

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, minister to London

Soulé read the line, quite understandably, as authorization to engage in skullduggery to ensure Cuba fell off the back of the proverbial truck. Pierce may have pressured Marcy into authorizing a meeting of the important European ministers, which he did in August, 1854. (The United States did not dispatch ambassadors until some decades later.) So the American ministers plenipotentiary from London, Paris, and Madrid met at Ostend in Belgium from October 9-11 for discussions before adjourning to Aix-la-Chapelle, capital of Charlemagne’s empire, where the minister to the Court of St. James, old hand James Buchanan, wrote up their resolutions on an American empire.

Soulé dreamed up the Ostend meeting and dashed any hopes of keeping it secret. His flare for drama would not permit such discretion, but the administration surely hoped that steady, cautious Buchanan would keep a leash on the fiery revolutionary. The London minister’s own vision of acquiring Cuba involved using Spanish bondholders to pressure the cash-strapped court at Madrid to sell. Buchanan did not get his way. Instead of that, the Ostend Manifesto announced to the world that

Cuba is as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present members, and that it belongs naturally to that great family of states of which the Union is the providential nursery.

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

And therefore:

We firmly believe that, in the progress of human events, the time has arrived when the vital interests of Spain are as seriously involved in the sale, as those of the United States in the purchase of the island, and that the transaction will prove equally honorable to both nations.

Under these circumstances we cannot anticipate a failure, unless possibly through the malign influence of foreign powers who possess no right whatever to interfere in the matter.

In other words: We want it and mind your own business.

The Ostend Manifesto deserves a further treatment, but that would make for a longer post than I’d like. Instead, I’ll dig into it in detail tomorrow.

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