While there is no point in Cuba's history that may be said to mark a definite division between the Old Cuba and the New Cuba, the beginning of the 19th Century may be taken for that purpose. Cuba's development dragged for two hundred and fifty years. The population increased slowly and industry lagged. For this, Spain's colonial policy was responsible. But it was the policy of the time, carried out more or less effectively by all nations having colonies. England wrote it particularly into her Navigation Acts of 1651, 1660, and 1663, and supported it by later Acts. While not rigorously enforced, and frequently evaded by the American colonists, the system at last proved so offensive that the colonists revolted in 1775. Most of Spain's colonies in the Western Hemisphere, for the same reason, declared and maintained their independence in the first quarter of the 19th Century. At the bottom of Cuba's several little uprisings, and at the bottom of its final revolt in 1895, lay the same cause of offence. In those earlier years, it was held that colonies existed solely for the benefit of the mother-country. In 1497, almost at the very beginning of Spain's colonial enterprises in the New World, a royal decree was issued under which the exclusive privilege to carry on trade with the colonies was granted to the port of Seville. This monopoly was transferred to the port of Cadiz in 1717, but it continued, in somewhat modified form in later years, until Spain had no colonies left.

While Santiago was the capital of the island, from 1522 to 1552, trade between Spain and the island could be carried on only through that port. When Havana became the capital, in 1552, the exclusive privilege of trade was transferred to that city. With the exception of the years 1762 and 1763, when the British occupied Havana and declared it open to all trade, the commerce of the island could only be done through Havana with Seville, until 1717, and afterward with Cadiz. Baracoa, or Santiago, or Trinidad, or any other Cuban city, could not send goods to Santander, or Malaga, or Barcelona, or any other Spanish market, or receive goods directly from them. The law prohibited trade between Cuba and all other countries, and limited all trade between the island and the mother-country to the port of Havana, at one end, and to Seville or Cadiz, according to the time of the control of those ports, at the other end. Even intercolonial commerce was prohibited. At times, and for brief periods, the system was modified to the extent of special trade licences, and, occasionally, by international treaties. But the general system of trade restriction was maintained throughout all of Spain's colonial experience. Between 1778 and 1803, most of Cuba's ports were opened to trade with Spain. The European wars of the early years of the 19th Century led to modification of the trade laws, but in 1809 foreign commerce with Spanish American ports was again prohibited. A few years later, Spain had lost nearly all its American colonies. A new plan was adopted in 1818. Under that, Spain sought to hold the trade of Cuba and Porto Rico by tariffs so highly favorable to merchandise from the mother-country as to be effectively prohibitive with regard to many products from other countries. This, in general outline, is the cause of Cuba's slow progress until the 19th Century, and the explanation of its failure to make more rapid progress during that century.

Naturally, under such conditions, bribery of officials and smuggling became active and lucrative enterprises. It may be said, in strict confidence between writer and reader, that Americans were frequently the parties of the other part in these transactions. In search through a considerable number of American histories, I have been unable to find definite references to trade with Cuba, yet there seems to be abundant reason for belief that such trade was carried on. There are many references to trade with the West Indies as far back as 1640 and even a year or two earlier, but allusions to trade with Cuba do not appear, doubtless for the reason that it was contraband, a violation of both Spanish and British laws. There was evidently some relaxation toward the close of the 18th Century. There are no records of the commerce of the American colonies, and only fragmentary records between 1776 and 1789. The more elaborate records of 1789 and following years show shipments of fish, whale oil, spermaceti candles, lumber, staves and heading, and other articles to the "Spanish West Indies," in which group Cuba was presumably included. The records of the time are somewhat unreliable. It was a custom for the small vessels engaged in that trade to take out clearance papers for the West Indies. The cargo might be distributed in a number of ports, and the return cargo might be similarly collected. For the year 1795, the records of the United States show total imports from the Spanish West Indies as valued at $1,740,000, and exports to that area as valued at $1,390,000. In 1800, the imports were $10,588,000, and the exports $8,270,000. Just how much of this was trade with Cuba, does not appear. Because of the trade increase at that time, and because of other events that, soon afterward, brought Cuba into more prominent notice, this period has been chosen as the line of division between the Old and the New Cuba.