Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Forging "Caribbeanness": Cuban Insurgents, Race and Politics in the Turks and Caicos Islands, 1878-1880

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Forging "Caribbeanness": Cuban Insurgents, Race and Politics in the Turks and Caicos Islands, 1878-1880

Article excerpt


On 6 September 1880 Robert Baxter Llewelyn, the commissioner of the TUrks and Caicos Islands, was composing an alarming letter about the badly deteriorated political atmosphere of this British Caribbean colony.1 Llewelyn called the attention of his superior, Anthony Musgrave, the governor of Jamaica, to "the indirect mischief that the presence of Antonio Maceo the Cuban insurgent and his followers are working in this very small settlement".2 He warned of rising racial tensions:

Perhaps in few places in the West Indies is there a greater animosity of race than in Turks Islands and the arrival here of a mulatto "general" with "colonels" and "aide de camps" who have freely circulated amongst the coloured people that their mothers and sisters are slaves in Cuba and that they are fighting to release them has aroused a sympathy which is increasing and cannot but do harm toward the order and tranquillity that ordinarily prevails here.3

Further in the letter, the British commissioner added that Cockburn Town, the capital of the archipelago, located on the island of Grand Truk, had become a focal point for Spanish military vessels. Sailing from such neighbouring Cuban ports as Santiago de Cuba, Spanish men-ofwar were manoeuvring to prevent Maceo and other exiled Cubans at war with Spain from planning a landing on the shores of their island. Llewelyn closed his dispatch by pointing out that the Turks and Caicos had also metamorphosed into a centre of political agitation and propaganda for the Cuban movement for independence:

The Spanish Gunboat Jorge Juan came in on the 17th and left on the 1st ultimo for Cuba. She returned here on the 29th and left on the 2nd instant so that for four days there were two Spanish men of war here. All this is exciting the people who imagine that this rebel Antonio Maceo must be a great hero. Many of the natives here are now wearing Cuban cockades and on Sunday the 2nd there were about half a dozen Cuban flags hoisted on poles, one in a very conspicuous place on the shore just opposite where the two Spanish Gunboats were lying.4

The defiant display of Cuban flags among the inhabitants of this British Caribbean colony occurred at a time when the idea of "Caribbeanness" was in the air. The principles of Caribbeanness existed in the thoughts of notable intellectuals, statesmen and military figures of diverse social and racial backgrounds of the Greater Caribbean. José Marti, Cuban journalist and writer, and Ramón Emeterio Betances, Puerto Rican doctor and intellectual, among others, shared the belief that they belonged to a single region, sharing a common history and identity, and aspiring to a common future.5 Their sentiment of being a part of more than one territory - to be Cuban, and yet feel Dominican, to be Puerto Rican and yet consider the Dominican Republic or Haiti as home - stands out in their political writings and actions.6

This expression of Caribbeanness emanated from two increasingly intertwined political battles. One relates to the struggle to free Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spanish colonialism. From 1868 to 1878, Cubans had fought a devastating but unsuccessful war with the aim of winning their independence.7 By 26 August 1879 a new insurrection against Spanish rule, known as the Guerra Chiquita or Little War, had broken out in eastern Cuba and had barely ended at the time of the arrival of Maceo and other insurgents in the Turks and Caicos.8

The second struggle pertained to the fight against the United States' imperial ambitions in the area. The promoters of Caribbeanness feared that their powerful northern neighbour would replace Spain as a colonial power in Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as undermine the very survival of the independent nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.9 The US government, indeed, had repeatedly expressed interest in acquiring Cuba from Spain, as well portions of Haitian or Dominican territories for political, economic and military purposes. …

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