The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is 780 miles long and averages about 60 miles wide. It has several small chains of mountains and is covered with softwood tropical forests. Animal and plant life in enormous variety inhabit the island interior, parts of which are virtually unexplored by Europeans, and the numerous deep harbors are known for good fishing and safe anchorage.

The island is home to several score villages and two major cities: La Habana (Havana) and Santiago de Cuba (Santiago).

Cuba was founded in 1511 and is the staging area for all Spanish commercial and military ventures into the New World.

Havana, founded in 1515, is one of the oldest cities founded by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere.  It is located on the northern coast and is home to a population of about 10,000, making it one of the largest cities in the New World. The city is protected by walls and fortificaions as it has been often attacked by pirates and French corsairs.

Havana was originally a trading port, and suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs. The first attack and burning of the city was by the French corsair Jacques de Sores in 1555. The pirate took Havana easily, plundering the city and burning much of it to the ground. De Sores left without obtaining the enormous wealth he was hoping to find in Havana. Such attacks convinced the Spanish Crown to fund the construction of the first fortresses in the main cities not only to counteract the pirates and corsairs, but also to exert more control over commerce with the West Indies, and to limit the extensive contrabando (black market) that had arisen due to the trade restrictions imposed by the Casa de Contratación of Seville (the crown-controlled trading house that held a monopoly on New World trade). To counteract pirate attacks on galleon convoys headed for Spain while loaded with New World treasures, the Spanish crown decided to protect its ships by concentrating them in one large fleet, that would traverse the Atlantic Ocean as a group. A single merchant fleet could more easily be protected by the Spanish Armada. Following a royal decree in 1561, all ships headed for Spain were required to assemble this fleet in the Havana Bay. Ships arrived from May through August, waiting for the best weather conditions, and together, the fleet departed Havana for Spain by September.

This naturally boosted commerce and development of the adjacent city of Havana (a humble villa at the time). Goods traded in Havana included gold, silver, alpaca wool from the Andes, emeralds from Colombia, mahoganies from Cuba and Guatemala, leather from the Guajira, spices, sticks of dye from Campeche, corn, manioc, and cocoa. Ships from all over the New World carried products first to Havana, in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. The hundreds of ships gathered in the city's bay also fueled Havana's agriculture and manufacture, since they had to be supplied with food, water, and other products needed to traverse the ocean. In 1563, the Capitain General (the Spanish Governor of the island) moved his residence from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, by reason of that city's newly gained wealth and importance, thus unofficially sanctioning its status as capital of the island. On December 20, 1592, King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City. Later on, the city would be officially designated as "Key to the New World and antemural of the West Indies" by the Spanish crown. In the meantime, efforts to build or improve the defensive infrastructures of the city continued. The San Salvador de la Punta castle guarded the west entrance of the bay, while the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro guarded the eastern entrance. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza defended the city's center, and doubled as the Governor's residence until a more comfortable palace was built. Two other defensive towers, La Chorrera and San Lazaro were also built in this period.  A defensive wall (incomplete to date) surrounds much of the city and it mounts several batteries of 36 pounders.


Castillo delMorro                                                            Castillo de la Real Fuerza    
Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro                                    Castillo de la Real Fuerza


On the southern coast of Cuba, Santiago is a major center of commercial and military activity. Santiago was founded in 1514 and was the capitol of Cuba until 1589. Lying in a river valley in the Sierra Maestra chain of mountains, it is ideal for military excursions into the Caribbean Sea.  Santiago has become more relaxed than other Spanish ports and the avaria is not as enforced here as in other places.   Morro Castle stands guard over Santiago harbor.

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