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.
Cuba was founded in 1511 and is the staging area for all Spanish commercial and military ventures into the New World.
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 ContrataciÃ³n 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.
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
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.
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.