Christopher Columbus was a man of lively imagination. Had he been an ordinary, prosaic and plodding individual, he would have stayed at home combing wool as did his prosaic and plodding ancestors for several generations. At the age of fourteen he went to sea and soon developed an active curiosity about regions then unknown but believed to exist. There was even then some knowledge of western Asia, and even of China as approached from the west. Two and two being properly put together, the result was a reasonable argument that China and India could be reached from the other direction, that is, by going westward instead of eastward.

In the early autumn of the year 1492, Columbus was busy discovering islands in the Caribbean Sea region, and, incidentally, seeking for the richest of the group. From dwellers on other islands, he heard of one, called Cubanacan, larger and richer than any that he had then discovered. A mixture of those tales with his own vivid imagination produced a belief in a country of wide extent, vastly rich in gold and gems, and already a centre of an extensive commerce. Cruising in search of what he believed to be the eastern coast of Asia, he sighted the shore of Cuba on the morning of October 28, 1492. His journal, under date of October 24, states: "At midnight I tripped my anchors off this Cabo del Isleo de Isabella, where I was pitched to go to the island of Cuba, which I learn from these people is very large and magnificent, and there are gold and spices in it, and large ships and merchants. And so I think it must be the island of Cipango (Japan), of which they tell such wonders." The record, under date of Sunday, 28th of October, states: "Continued for the nearest land of Cuba, and entered a beautiful estuary, clear of rocks and other dangers. The mouth of the estuary had twelve fathoms depth, and it was wide enough for a ship to work into." Students have disagreed regarding the first Cuban port entered by Columbus. There is general acceptance of October 28 as the date of arrival. Some contend that on that day he entered Nipe Bay, while others, and apparently the greater number, locate the spot somewhat to the west of Nuevitas. Wherever he first landed on it, there is agreement that he called the island Juana, in honor of Prince Juan, taking possession "in the name of Christ, Our Lady, and the reigning Sovereigns of Spain."

His record of the landing place is obscure. It is known that he sailed some leagues beyond it, to the westward. While on board his caravel, on his homeward voyage, he wrote a letter to his friend, Don Rafael Sanchez, "Treasurer of their most Serene Highnesses," in which the experience is described. The original letter is lost, but it was translated into Latin and published in Barcelona in the following year, 1493. While the Latin form is variously translated into English, the general tenor of all is the same. He wrote: "When I arrived at Juana (Cuba), I sailed along the coast to the west, discovering so great an extent of land that I could not imagine it to be an island, but the continent of Cathay. I did not, however, discover upon the coast any large cities, all we saw being a few villages and farms, with the inhabitants of which we could not obtain any communication, they flying at our approach. I continued my course, still expecting to meet with some town or city, but after having gone a great distance and not meeting with any, and finding myself proceeding toward the north, which I was desirous, to avoid on account of the cold, and, moreover, meeting with a contrary wind, I determined to return to the south, and therefore put about and sailed back to a harbor which I had before observed." That the actual landing was at or near the present port of Nuevitas seems to be generally accepted.

Columbus appears to have been greatly impressed by the beauty of the island. In his Life of Columbus, Washington Irving says: "From his continual remarks on the beauty of scenery, and from his evident delight in rural sounds and objects, he appears to have been extremely open to those happy influences, exercised over some spirits, by the graces and wonders of nature. He gives utterance to these feelings with characteristic enthusiasm, and at the same time with the artlessness and simplicity of diction of a child. When speaking of some lovely scene among the groves, or along the flowery shores of these favored islands, he says, "One could live there forever." Cuba broke upon him like an elysium. "It is the most beautiful island," he says, "that ever eyes beheld, full of excellent ports and profound rivers." A little discount must be made on such a statement. Granting all that is to be said of Cuba's scenic charms, some allowance is to be made for two influences. One is Don Cristobal's exuberance, and the other is the fact that when one has been knocking about, as he had been, for nearly three months on the open sea and among low-lying and sandy islands and keys, any land, verdure clad and hilly, is a picture of Paradise. Many people need only two or three days at sea to reach a similar conclusion. In his letter to Luis de Santangel, Columbus says: "All these countries are of surpassing excellence, and in particular Juana (Cuba,), which contains abundance of fine harbors, excelling any in Christendom, as also many large and beautiful rivers. The land is high, and exhibits chains of tall mountains which seem to reach to the skies and surpass beyond comparison the isle of Cetrefrey (Sicily). These display themselves in all manner of beautiful shapes. They are accessible in every part, and covered with a vast variety of lofty trees which it appears to me never lose their foliage. Some were covered with blossoms, some with fruit, and others in different stages according to their nature. There are palm trees of six or eight sorts. Beautiful forests of pines are likewise found, and fields of vast extent. Here are also honey and fruits of thousand sorts, and birds of every variety."

Having landed at this indefinitely located point, Columbus, believing that he had reached the region he was seeking, despatched messengers to the interior to open communication with some high official of Cathay, in which country he supposed himself to be, the idea of Cipango apparently having been abandoned. "Many at the present day," says Washington Irving, "will smile at this embassy to a naked savage chieftain in the interior of Cuba, in mistake for an Asiatic monarch; but such was the singular nature of this voyage, a continual series of golden dreams, and all interpreted by the deluding volume of Marco Polo." But the messengers went on their journey, and proceeded inland some thirty or forty miles. There they came upon a village of about fifty huts and a population of about a thousand. They were able to communicate only by signs, and it is quite certain that the replies of the natives were as little understood by the messengers as the questions were by the natives. The messengers sought something about which the natives knew little or nothing. The communications were interpreted through the medium of imagination and desire. Nothing accomplished, the commission returned and made its disappointing report. Washington Irving thus describes the further proceedings: "The report of the envoys put an end to the many splendid fancies of Columbus, about the barbaric prince and his capital. He was cruising, however, in a region of enchantment, in which pleasing chimeras started up at every step, exercising by turns a power over his imagination. During the absence of the emissaries, the Indians had informed him, by signs, of a place to the eastward, where the people collected gold along the river banks by torchlight and afterward wrought it into bars with hammers. In speaking of this place they again used the words Babeque and Bohio, which he, as usual, supposed to be the proper names of islands or countries. His great object was to arrive at some opulent and civilized country of the East, with which he might establish commercial relations, and whence he might carry home a quantity of oriental merchandise as a rich trophy of his discovery. The season was advancing; the cool nights gave hints of approaching winter; he resolved, therefore, not to proceed farther to the north, nor to linger about uncivilized places which, at present, he had not the means of colonizing, but to return to the east-south-east, in quest of Babeque, which he trusted might prove some rich and civilized island on the coast of Asia." And so he sailed away for Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) which appears to have become, a little later, his favorite West Indian resort.

He began his eastward journey on November 12th. As he did not reach Cape Maisi, the eastern point of the island, until December 5th, he must have made frequent stops to examine the shore. Referring to one of the ports that he entered he wrote to the Spanish Sovereigns thus: "The amenity of this river, and the clearness of the water, through which the sand at the bottom may be seen; the multitude of palm trees of various forms, the highest and most beautiful that I have met with, and an infinity of other great and green trees; the birds in rich plumage and the verdure of the fields, render this country of such marvellous beauty that it surpasses all others in charms and graces, as the day doth the night in lustre. For which reason I often say to my people that, much as I endeavor to give a complete account of it to your majesties, my tongue cannot express the whole truth, nor my pen describe it; and I have been so overwhelmed at the sight of so much beauty that I have not known how to relate it."

Columbus made no settlement in Cuba; his part extends only to the discovery. On his second expedition, in the spring of 1494, he visited and explored the south coast as far west as the Isle of Pines, to which he gave the name La Evangelista. He touched the south coast again on his fourth voyage, in 1503. On his way eastward from his voyage of discovery on the coast of Central America, he missed his direct course to Hispaniola, and came upon the Cuban shore near Cape Cruz. He was detained there for some days by heavy weather and adverse winds, and sailed thence to his unhappy experience in Jamaica. The work of colonizing remained for others. Columbus died in the belief that he had discovered a part of the continent of Asia. That Cuba was only an island was determined by Sebastian de Ocampo who sailed around it in 1508. Baron Humboldt, who visited Cuba in 1801 and again in 1825, and wrote learnedly about it, states that "the first settlement of the whites occurred in 1511, when Velasquez, under orders from Don Diego Columbus, landed at Puerto de las Palmas, near Cape Maisi, and subjugated the Cacique Hatuey who had fled from Haiti to the eastern end of Cuba, where he became the chief of a confederation of several smaller native princes." This was, in fact, a military expedition composed of three hundred soldiers, with four vessels.

Hatuey deserves attention. His name is not infrequently seen in Cuba today, but it is probable that few visitors know whether it refers to a man, a bird, or a vegetable. He was the first Cuban hero of whom we have record, although the entire reliability of the record is somewhat doubtful. The notable historian of this period is Bartolome Las Casas, Bishop of Chiapa. He appears to have been a man of great worth, a very tender heart, and an imagination fully as vivid as that of Columbus. His sympathies were aroused by the tales of the exceeding brutality of many of the early Spanish voyagers in their relations with the natives. He went out to see for himself, and wrote voluminously of his experiences. He also wrote with exceeding frankness, and often with great indignation. He writes about Hatuey. The inference is that this Cacique, or chieftain, fled from Haiti to escape Spanish brutality, and even in fear of his life. There are other translations of Las Casas, but for this purpose choice has been made of one published in London about the year 1699. It is given thus:

"There happened divers things in this island (Cuba) that deserve to be remarked. A rich and potent Cacique named Hatuey was retired into the Isle of Cuba to avoid that Slavery and Death with which the Spaniards menaced him; and being informed that his persecutors were upon the point of landing in this Island, he assembled all his Subjects and Domestics together, and made a Speech unto them after this manner. "You know, (said he) the Report is spread abroad that the Spaniards are ready to invade this Island, and you are not ignorant of the ill usage our Friends and Countrymen have met with at their hands, and the cruelties they have committed at Haiti (so Hispaniola is called in their Language). They are now coming hither with a design to exercise the same Outrages and Persecutions upon us. Are you ignorant (says he) of the ill Intentions of the People of whom I am speaking? We know not (say they all with one voice) upon what account they come hither, but we know they are a very wicked and cruel People. I'll tell you then (replied the Cacique) that these Europeans worship a very covetous sort of God, so that it is difficult to satisfy him; to perform the Worship they render to this Idol, they will exact immense Treasures of us, and will use their utmost endeavors to reduce us to a miserable state of Slavery, or else put us to death." The historian leaves to the imagination and credulity of his readers the task of determining just where and how he got the full details of this speech and of the subsequent proceedings. The report of the latter may well be generally correct inasmuch as there were Spanish witnesses present, but the account of this oration, delivered prior to the arrival of the Spanish invaders, is clearly open to a suspicion that it may be more or less imaginary. But the historian continues: "Upon this he took a Box full of Gold and valuable Jewels which he had with him, and exposing it to their view: Here is (said he) the God of the Spaniards, whom we must honor with our Sports and Dances, to see if we can appease him and render him propitious to us; that so he may command the Spaniards not to offer us any injury. They all applauded this Speech, and fell a leaping and dancing around the Box, till they had quite tired and spent themselves. After which the Cacique Hatuey resuming his Discourse, continued to speak to them in these terms: If we keep this God (says he) till he's taken away from us, he'll certainly cause our lives to be taken away from us; and therefore I am of opinion it will be the best way to cast him into the river. They all approved of this Advice, and went all together with one accord to throw this pretended God into the River."

But the Spaniards came and encountered the resistance of Hatuey and his followers. The invaders were victorious, and Hatuey was captured and burned alive. Las Casas relates that while the poor wretch was in the midst of the flames, tied to a stake, "a certain Franciscan Friar of great Piety and Virtue, took upon him to speak to him of God and our Religion, and to explain to him some Articles of Catholic Faith, of which he had never heard a word before, promising him Eternal Life if he would believe and threatening him with Eternal Torment if he continued obstinate in his Infidelity. Hatuey reflecting on the matter, as much as the Place and Condition in which he was would permit, asked the Friar that instructed him, whether the Gate of Heaven was open to Spaniards; and being answered that such of them as were good men might hope for entrance there: the Cacique, without any farther deliberation, told him that he had no mind to go to heaven for fear of meeting with such cruel and wicked Company as they were; but he would much rather choose to go to Hell where he might be delivered from the troublesome sight of such kind of People." And so died the Cacique Hatuey. Four hundred years later, the Cuban Government named a gunboat Hatuey, in his honor.

The Velasquez expedition, in the following year, founded Baracoa, now a small city on the northern coast near the eastern extremity of the island. It is a spot of exceeding scenic charm. It was established as the capital city, but it held that honor for a few years only. In 1514 and 1515, settlements were established at what is now Santiago, at Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad, and Batabano. The latter was originally called San Cristobal de la Habana, the name being transferred to the present city, on the north coast, in 1519. It displaced the name Puerto de Carenas given to the present Havana by Ocampo, who careened his vessels there in 1508. Baracoa was made the seat of a bishopric, and a cathedral was begun, in 1518. In 1522, both the capital and the bishopric were transferred to Santiago, a location more readily accessible from the new settlements on the south coast, and also from Jamaica which was then included in the diocese. Cuba, at about this period, was the point of departure for an important expedition. In 1517, de Cordoba, with three vessels and 110 soldiers, was sent on an expedition to the west for further and more northerly exploration of the land discovered by Columbus in 1503. The coast from Panama to Honduras had been occupied. The object of this expedition was to learn what lay to the northward. The result was the discovery of Yucatan. Cordoba returned to die of wounds received in a battle. A second and stronger expedition was immediately despatched. This rounded the peninsula and followed the coast as far as the present city of Vera Cruz. In 1518, Hernan Cortez was alcalde, or mayor, of Santiago de Cuba. On November 18, of that year, he sailed from that port in command of an expedition for the conquest of Mexico, finally effected in 1521, after one of the most romantic campaigns in the history of warfare. All that, however, is a story in which Cuba has no place except that of the starting point and base of the expedition. There is another story of the same kind, a few years later. The first discovery of Florida is somewhat uncertain. It appears on an old Spanish map dated 1502. Following the expedition of Ponce de Leon, in 1513, and of Murielo, in 1516, Narvaez headed an expedition from Cuba in 1528 with some three hundred freebooters. They landed in Florida, where almost the entire band was, very properly, destroyed by the Indians. In 1539, de Soto sailed from Havana, with five hundred and seventy men and two hundred and twenty-three horses, for an extended exploration. They wandered for three years throughout what is now the southern part of the United States from Georgia and South Carolina westward to Arkansas and Missouri. After a series of almost incredible experiences, de Soto died in 1542, on the banks of the Mississippi River at a point probably not far from the Red River. These and other expeditions, from Cuba and from Mexico, to what is now territory of the United States, produced no permanent results. No gold was found.

Of the inhabitants of Cuba, as found by the Spaniards, comparatively little is recorded. They seem to have been a somewhat negative people, generally described as docile, gentle, generous, and indolent. Their garments were quite limited, and their customs altogether primitive. They disappear from Cuba's story in its earliest chapters. Very little is known of their numbers. Some historians state that, in the days of Columbus, the island had a million inhabitants, but this is obviously little if anything more than a rough guess. Humboldt makes the following comment: "No means now exist to arrive at a knowledge of the population of Cuba in the time of Columbus; but how can we admit what some otherwise judicious historians state, that when the island of Cuba was conquered in 1511, it contained a million inhabitants of whom only 14,000 remained in 1517. The statistical information which we find in the writings of Las Casas is filled with contradictions." Forty years or so later the Dominican friar, Luis Bertram, on his return to Spain, predicted that "the 200,000 Indians now in the island of Cuba, will perish, victims to the cruelty of the Europeans." Yet Gomara stated that there was not an Indian in Cuba after 1553. Whatever the exact truth regarding numbers, it is evident that they disappeared rapidly, worked to death by severe task-masters. The institution of African slavery, to take the place of the inefficient and fast disappearing native labor, had its beginning in 1521. Baron Humboldt states that from that time until 1790, the total number of African negroes imported as slaves was 90,875. In the next thirty years, the business increased rapidly, and Humboldt estimates the total arrivals, openly entered and smuggled in, from 1521 to 1820, as 372,449. Mr. J.S. Thrasher, in a translation of Humboldt's work, issued in 1856, added a footnote showing the arrivals up to 1854 as 644,000. A British official authority, at the same period, gives the total as a little less than 500,000. The exact number is not important. The institution on a large scale, in its relation to the total number of whites, was a fact.

It is, of course, quite impossible even today to argue the question of slavery. To many, the offence lies in the mere fact; to others, it lies in the operation of the system. At all events, the institution is no longer tolerated in any civilized country. While some to whom the system itself was a bitter offence have found much to criticize in its operation in Cuba, the general opinion of observers appears to be that it was there notably free from the brutality usually supposed to attend it. The Census Report of 1899, prepared under the auspices of the American authorities, states that "while it was fraught with all the horrors of this nefarious business elsewhere, the laws for the protection of slaves were unusually humane. Almost from the beginning, slaves had a right to purchase their freedom or change their masters, and long before slavery was abolished they could own property and contract marriage. As a result, the proportion of free colored to slaves has always been large." Humboldt, who studied the institution while it was most extensive, states that "the position of the free negroes in Cuba is much better than it is elsewhere, even among those nations which have for ages flattered themselves as being most advanced in civilization." The movement for the abolition of slavery had its beginning in 1815, with the treaty of Vienna, to which Spain was a party. Various acts in the same direction appear in the next fifty years. The Moret law, enacted in 1870 by the Spanish Cortes, provided for gradual abolition in Spain's dominions, and a law of 1880, one of the results of the Ten Years' War, definitely abolished the system. Traces of it remained, however, until about 1887, when it may be regarded as having become extinct forever in Cuba.

For the first two hundred and fifty years of Cuba's history, the city of Havana appears as the special centre of interest. There was growth in other sections, but it was slow, for reasons that will be explained elsewhere. In 1538, Havana was attacked and totally destroyed by a French privateer. Hernando de Soto, then Governor of the island, at once began the construction of defences that are now one of the special points of interest in the city. The first was the Castillo de la Fuerza. In 1552, Havana became the capital city. In 1555, it was again attacked, and practically destroyed, including the new fortress, by French buccaneers. Restoration was effected as rapidly as possible. In 1589, La Fuerza was enlarged, and the construction of the Morro and of La Punta, the fortress at the foot of the Prado, was begun. The old city wall, of which portions still remain, was of a later period. Despite these precautions, the city was repeatedly attacked by pirates and privateers. Some reference to these experiences will be made in a special chapter on the city. The slow progress of the island is shown by the fact that an accepted official report gives the total population in 1775 as 171,620, of whom less than 100,000 were white. The absence of precious metals is doubtless the main reason for the lack of Spanish interest in the development of the country. For a long time after the occupation, the principal industry was cattle raising. Agriculture, the production of sugar, tobacco, coffee, and other crops, on anything properly to be regarded as a commercial scale, was an experience of later years. The reason for this will be found in the mistaken colonial policy of Spain, a policy the application of which, in a far milder manner, cost England its richest colony in the Western Hemisphere, and which, in the first quarter of the 19th Century, cost Spain all of its possessions in this half of the world, with the exception of Cuba and Porto Rico.