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Cuban Wars of Liberation / Spanish American War Collection

Cuba’s wars for liberation and collections about them are complicated by history itself. There were several such conflicts, including the “Ten Years War” (1868-78), the “Little War” (1879-80) and the Cuban War for Independence (1894-98). Upon U.S. intervention, it became the Spanish American War (1898). In addition to materials on the Spanish-American War, Special & Digital Collections’ Spanish American War collection covers the wars for independence before U.S. intervention; Cuba and the Caribbean conflict; the Florida connection; children’s literature; the sensational volumes created before, during, and immediately after the war; and writings by and about Cuban literary figure Jose Martí.

USF’s Spanish American War collection has been built with an emphasis on Cuba and the Caribbean conflict, the Florida connection, and the sensational volumes created before, during, and immediately after the war. The core Spanish American War Collection contains over 250 volumes and is quite strong in English-language monographs. Additional materials on the conflict can be found throughout Special Collections in the Florida Studies, children’s literature and dime novels, Cuban, and sheet music collections. Special Collections also has two small but important photographic colletions, the Wehman Collection and the Ensminger Brothers Collection, which give invaluable glimpses of military life in Tampa. Two manuscript collections, Camp Cuba Libre (finding aid) and the Moody Family Papers, illuminate this theme further. During the fight against Cuban insurgents, the infamous Spanish General Weyler created fortified “reconcentration” centers where rural peasants were forcibly relocated (a practice foreshadowing the British policies in the Second Boer War, U.S. policies in the Philippines and Vietnam, and Nazi German concentration camps). No efforts were made to feed the population or make the camps sanitary. As a result of relocation and the hardship and illnesses inherent in such conditions, approximately ten percent of the Cuban population perished from privation alone. America’s War for Humanity (Ingalls, 1898) provides vivid descriptions of Cuban suffering while galvanizing U.S. public opinion for war.

The collection also includes materials exploring the racial nature of the conflicts. Without the cooperation of the Afro Cuban population, the rebellion was bound to fail, so the leaders of the rebellion denounced racism. Afro Cuban General Antonio Maceo served as a top commander for the insurgents. “The Bronze Titan’s” brilliant cavalry tactics ruined the Spanish strategy of containment and fostered unity between the races in Cuba. The participation of black troops in defying an empire inspired African American poets and writers. Black American soldiers who served with distinction were treated poorly upon returning home, a recurring theme in U.S. history. The resulting tensions are evident in the literature produced by African Americans. Recent acquisitions in this area are important volumes that illustrate African American experiences during the conflict. The most significant of these include a first edition of Charles Frederick White’s Plea of the Negro Soldier and signed first editions of Sutton Griggs’s The Hindered Hand and Gilmore Grant’s The Problem.

The theme of emerging U.S. imperialism is also prevalent in the collection. U.S. intervention in the Cuban conflict and the global war against Spain led to U.S. conquest in the Caribbean and across the Pacific. The Hawaiian Islands were annexed in 1898, although they had no involvement in the Spanish Empire or the war itself. Admiral George Dewey put into practice the naval theories of Alfred Mahan, a renowned American naval officer and geo-strategist. Much of the military literature focuses on the naval aspects of the conflict. Despite the sobriquet “Splendid Little War,” U.S. citizenry was deeply divided about the morality of international conquest, a fact hardly covered in the era’s primary sources. For illustrations of American jingoism and feelings of superiority, see Cartoons of the Spanish-American War (Bartholomew, 1899).

The era is also notable for “yellow journalism,” or news not based on research or facts, but designed to inflame readers’ emotions. Periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly discuss America’s selfless sacrifice to assist the helpless Cuban population to throw off the Spanish yolk of oppression. A significant amount of children’s literature exist about the war. The late 19th century was the high point of dime novels. USF’s dime novel and children’s literature collections contain over fifty items directly related to the Spanish American War. Tellingly, the children’s literature does not differ markedly from the “yellow journalism” written for adults.

The conflict had a profound effect on Florida, driving the cigar industry form Cuba to Key West and finally to Tampa. Florida served as the origin of rebel weapon smuggling and fundraising operations, a training ground for insurgents, and a staging ground for the U.S. armies that invaded Cuba. Ybor City and West Tampa became vital centers of support for the liberation cause, prompting repeated visits by rebellion mastermind and spokesman Jose Marti. The Cuban patriot remains revered today in Cuba, Tampa, and beyond.

Martí’s importance to the success of the Cuban rebellion cannot be overstated. He helped revolutionary factions put aside their differences and find common ground. He encouraged the inclusion of Afro-Cubans in the revolutionary cause, a provocative gesture considering slavery had ended less than a generation before. He organized the cause’s finances and press and raised money among Cuban enclaves in New York, Florida, and beyond. It is doubtful that the Cuban fight for independence could have succeeded without his leadership. Martí was also a talented writer and poet. Martí’s importance to Cuba’s fight for independence and his many visits to Florida and Tampa in particular make materials about him a critical and relevant part of USF’s Spanish-American War holdings. There is a sizeable subset of over 200 volumes devoted to Martí, including his complete writings. Recent purchase of over 40 volumes augmented USF’s Martí holdings.

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