Cuba’s Ten Years’ War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Ten Years’ War was the first of the three revolutionary conflicts that led to Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1902. Although the insurgents acquiesced to a treaty with Spain in 1878, the Ten Years’ War galvanized nationalist and abolitionist sentiment, politically mobilized patriots both slave and free, and produced several of Cuba’s most important revolutionary heroes.

Summary of Event

Cuban nationalist uprising against Spanish rule began with the Ten Years’ War in 1868 and ended with the Spanish-American War and U.S. intervention in 1898. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Cuba was among Spain’s few remaining colonial possessions, and, economically, Cuba was most important for Spain. Ten Years’ War (1868-1878)[Ten Years War (1868-1878)] Cuba;Ten Years’ War[Ten Years War] Spain;and Cuba[Cuba] Cuba;and Spain[Spain] Cuban Liberation Army [kw]Cuba’s Ten Years’ War (Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878) [kw]Ten Years’ War, Cuba’s (Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878) [kw]War, Cuba’s Ten Years’ (Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878) Ten Years’ War (1868-1878)[Ten Years War (1868-1878)] Cuba;Ten Years’ War[Ten Years War] Spain;and Cuba[Cuba] Cuba;and Spain[Spain] Cuban Liberation Army [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878: Cuba’s Ten Years’ War[4240] [g]Cuba;Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878: Cuba’s Ten Years’ War[4240] [g]Spain;Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878: Cuba’s Ten Years’ War[4240] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878: Cuba’s Ten Years’ War[4240] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 10, 1868-Feb. 10, 1878: Cuba’s Ten Years’ War[4240] Céspedes, Carlos Manuel de Maceo, Antonio Gómez y Báez, Máximo

Some Cubans had grown increasingly resentful of the demands and restrictions of the declining Spanish Empire, and, in 1866, Spanish authorities established the Junta de Información to respond to the growing concerns of creole Cuban reformists: reducing taxation, expanding free trade, and increasing Cuban political liberties and representation. Cuban nationalists also called for a gradual transition toward self-government and the abolition of slavery. Spanish authorities met the junta commission’s calls for colonial concessions with increased taxes, increased repression, and a ban on all reformist meetings in Cuba. For many Cubans, Spain’s response indicated that armed protest would be more effective than calls for political and economic reform. The atmosphere of revolution may have been bolstered with the deposition of Spain’s Queen Isabella II in July, 1868, as well as earlier nineteenth century attempts at Cuban rebellion led by Narciso López.

On October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Céspedes, Carlos Manuel de , a poet, lawyer, and sugar planter, made a speech declaring freedom for his slaves, inviting them to join in a war for Cuban independence. His speech, which mobilized approximately thirty-seven like-minded planters and their slaves, became known as the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara) and the opening salvo of the Ten Years’ War. The Cuban Liberation Army (CLA) and the provisional revolutionary government that followed were composed of eastern planters, many of whom were unable to compete economically with the mechanized, large-scale sugar plantations of western Cuba; slaves, some of whom liberated themselves while others were freed by their owners or insurgent forces; and free Cubans of color, who composed a substantial part of the eastern population.

By November the rebel army had some twelve thousand men. These rebel fighters in the CLA became known as mambíses. Separatist insurgents sought release from Spanish imperial policies, especially those surrounding taxation and representation, and many fought for the abolition of slavery as a crucial element of an independent and free Cuba (Cuba libre). The ten-year struggle was a guerrilla war fought in the eastern part of Cuba. A primary tactic of the rebel forces was burning sugar plantations and mills. The insurgents were able to occupy some eastern towns like Bayamo and Guáimaro in spite of much larger and better-provisioned Spanish forces (the Spanish military and civilian volunteers exceeded 100,000). Loyalists maintained control of the major cities in the east as well as western Cuba.

While Cuban emigré separatists in New York City were unable to secure U.S. diplomatic or material support, the United States became involved in the Ten Years’ War through the Virginius affair in 1873. Sympathetic Americans leased the vessel Virginius, a Confederate blockade-runner built during the U.S. Civil War, to New York-based Cuban patriots. On October 27, 1873, the Virginius illegally flew the American flag as it set off from Jamaica to Haiti with Cuban patriots, arms, supplies, and a predominantly British and American crew. Alerted by spies in Kingston, the Spanish warship Tornado captured the Virginius off the coast of Jamaica and took all 155 on board as prisoners to Santiago de Cuba, where they were charged with piracy Piracy;and slave trade[Slave trade] ; fifty-three were executed. As tensions between the United States and Spain mounted, U.S. secretary of state Hamilton Fish crafted a settlement that ultimately forced Spain to release the remaining prisoners and the ship and to pay an $80,000 indemnity to the families of the eight Americans who were executed.

Antonio Maceo Maceo, Antonio , a Cuban of African descent, quickly ascended the ranks of the CLA during the Ten Years’ War and served as an exceptional leader in Cuba’s struggles for independence. Maceo’s powerful leadership, the extensive ranks of supporters—including the Cuban nationalist leader José Martí Martí, José —and the multiracial character of the insurgent army at all levels prompted Spanish authorities to propagandize, playing on the racial anxieties of some Cubans and their fears of a race war, “another Haiti,” and black supremacy. Spanish counterinsurgency campaigns further disabled rebel forces and the creole populace through policies of execution, persecution, expropriation, deportation, imprisonment, and the forced removal of rural populations from regions with armed conflict. By 1877 growing tensions among rebel leaders inflamed by Spanish propaganda, a lack of material resources, insurgent capitulation, and failure to engage insurgents in western Cuba had severely weakened the rebel forces.

On Zanjón, Treaty of (1878) February 10, 1878 the provincial leaders of the CLA in Camagüey signed a peace pact with Spain, the Treaty of Zanjón. Because the treaty, which promised reforms (many of which were never realized), stopped short of independence and full abolition, Maceo publicly denounced the armistice at a meeting with Spanish authorities in Baraguá and in a circular titled “Protest of Baraguá” (March 23, 1878). Maceo and his corps of approximately one thousand men, the majority of whom were Cubans of color, continued to resist Spanish forces in the eastern province of Oriente, but by the end of May, most of the holdouts had surrendered or retreated. Approximately 160,000 died in the course of the decade-long conflict. Despite the surrender of the CLA in 1878, the Ten Years’ War commenced a thirty-year struggle for Cuban independence.


Cuba’s Ten Years’ War was an anticolonial revolution that failed militarily and politically but nevertheless had a profound and long-lasting ideological impact. Antiracist rhetoric and the multiracial character of the insurgency undermined the early support of some white revolutionaries.

The intertwining of independence and abolition as the primary aims of revolution, however, first signaled by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’s Céspedes, Carlos Manuel de Grito de Yara speech and reinforced by Antonio Maceo’s Maceo, Antonio “Protest of Baraguá,” transformed the meaning of Cuban nationalism as it linked the end of colonialism with the end of slavery and established a rhetoric of social equality, justice, and national identity that transcended race. The significant participation of slaves in the Ten Years’ War and the ensuing Spanish policies that formally recognized their legal freedom hastened the advent of full abolition in 1886. The political mobilization and extensive participation of Cubans of color in the Ten Years’ War engendered a racially inclusive conception of Cuban citizenship.

The Ten Years’ War laid the ideological groundwork for future revolution (the Guerra Chiquita or Little War of 1879-1880 and the War of Independence of 1895 that became the Spanish-American War Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];and Cuba[Cuba] in 1898) and generated several of Cuba’s most important national heroes and military leaders, most notably Maceo Maceo, Antonio , Máximo Gómez y Báez Gómez y Báez, Máximo , and Calixto García Íñiguez Íñiguez, Calixto García . To this day, the word mambí, first used to refer to Cuba’s nineteenth century freedom fighters, remains a fundamental symbol of Cuban patriotism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradford, Richard. The Virginius Affair. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1980. A detailed account of the Virginius affair and late nineteenth century diplomatic relations between the United States and Spain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. A book-length study of the Ten Years’ War that examines the political mobilization of Cubans of color as well as discourses of nationalism and issues of race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Offers a chapter summarizing the events of the Ten Years’ War and provides a concise overview of its major issues and participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quiroz, Alfonso. “Loyalist Overkill: The Socioeconomic Costs of ’Repressing’ the Separatist Insurrection in Cuba, 1868-1878.” Hispanic American Historical Review 78, no. 2 (May, 1998). Provides a summary of the grievances preceding the Ten Years’ War and the counterinsurgency tactics employed by Spanish loyalists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher. Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Traces the development of revolutionary ideology in nineteenth century Cuba within the broader context of Spanish and Puerto Rican abolitionism and politics.

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