Stealing Cuba Revisited

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Back in the spring, I promised that I would return to the matter of American filibusters trying to steal Cuba (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and pieces of Mexico from their legal owners at a later date. With the main story of the Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially told, that time has come. The climaxes of both played out largely in 1854. The filibustering efforts and opening the Indian Country to white settlement and slavery happened in tandem. Each influenced the course of the other in ways one can easily miss in the subject-oriented narrative of one or the other. Ultimately, the South traded a possible sure thing of new slave states in the Caribbean for a chancier prospect on the Kansas plains, though they lacked the hindsight we enjoy to tell them so at the time.

American interest in acquiring Cuba went far back in the young nation’s history. It had a tropical climate well-suited to growing Southern cash crops. A decrepit, backwards, reactionary empire held it. Its authorities both allowed slavery and the African slave trade. If Cuba came into the Union, it could hardly come in as anything but a new, populous slave state.

Franklin Pierce came into the White House promising

the policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion. Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection, if not in the future essential for the preservation of the rights of commerce and the peace of the world.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Spanish took it seriously. They already had reason to look across warily at the United States and its sticky-fingered ways with other nations’ property. It had just stolen half of Mexico four years before. American-based filibusters had campaigned against the island as recently as a few years before and even then John A. Quitman’s expedition of thousands gathered. Now the new guy, who brought in most of the old Polk crowd that committed Grand Theft Real Estate, as much as went out and told them that he used maps of the Western Hemisphere as a shopping list. To add insult to injury, Pierce sent Pierre Soulé to represented the United States in Madrid hot on the heels of the latter’s eulogizing Cuban filibuster Narciso López.

The Spanish dispatched the Marques de la Pezuela to serve as governor-general of Cuba, with an eye to scaring off American adventurers. He came in with decrees to vigorously suppress the slave trade, proposing to free all slaves brought to the island after 1835 (this accounted for a majority), promoting interracial marriage, and arming a free black militia while forbidding whites from bearing arms. This did not quite have the desired effect, as the Spanish reactionary inspired a tremendous panic across the South. Spain would arm black slaves and former slaves to shoot free white men who came to take its island. That would give their own slaves ideas and soon the entire South would fall into a racial bloodbath that could only end with one race exterminating the other.

Complicating things further, many in the South believed that Spanish policy came from British minds. The British had made noises about protecting Spain’s possession of Cuba before and everyone knew that the Royal Navy policed the seas against the slave trade. The British Empire had emancipated its own colonies, so dangerously close to the United States. Why, the British had even connived to establish a protectorate over the Texas Republic in exchange for emancipation. Where the Union Jack flew, abolitionists ruled.

In early 1854, just as the Kansas-Nebraska Act mutated into a radical proslavery version that inflamed the North, the slightest spark might ignite a new war of conquest on the model of James K. Polk’s campaign against Mexico.

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