The Cuban lawyer and revolutionary Carlos Manuelde Céspedes (1819-1874) initiated Cuba's Ten Years War of Independence against Spain in 1868, and the following year he became the first president of a provisional rebel government.
On April 18, 1819, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was born in Bayamo, Oriente Province, the son of a wealthy landowner. In 1834 the young Céspedes went to Havana to attend secondary school and later enrolled in the University of Havana. After a short trip to Bayamo to marry his cousin, Maria del Carmen Céspedes, he traveled to Spain. There he received a bachelor of law degree from the University of Barcelona and a doctorate of law from the University of Madrid.
In Spain, Céspedes had his first taste of revolution. The Iberian nation was undergoing a period of political turmoil, and Céspedes joined the conspiratorial activities of army general D. Juan Prim against the Espartero regime. The failure of an anti-Espartero uprising in 1843 forced Céspedes to leave the country.
Céspedes returned to Cuba in 1844. Handsome, cultured, and energetic, he opened a law practice and engaged in business in Bayamo. But law soon gave way to politics. Cuba was experiencing the beginning of a strong anti-Spanish movement. Narciso López's unsuccessful filibuster expeditions against Spanish power in Cuba and his subsequent execution in 1851 had an impact on Céspedes. Arrested because of his anti-Spanish statements and banished from Bayamo, Céspedes began to organize a war for independence in Oriente Province. But his independence ideas were not shared by many of his compatriots. Some still hoped for reforms from Spain; others wanted annexation to the United States. Even those few who advocated complete independence felt that a war for independence should be carefully organized, and they cautioned against ill-prepared attempts.
But Céspedes and his group were determined to strike a blow at Spanish control of Cuba. When they learned that their conspiratorial activities had been discovered by the Spanish authorities, they were forced to act. On Oct. 10, 1868, Céspedes issued the historic Grito de Yara from his plantation, La Demajagua, proclaiming the independence of Cuba. He soon freed his slaves and incorporated them into his disorganized and ill-armed force and made public a manifesto explaining the causes of the revolt. The manifesto stated that the revolt was caused by Spanish arbitrary government, excessive taxation, corruption, exclusion of Cubans from government employment, and deprivation of political and religious liberty, particularly the rights of assembly and petition. It called for complete independence from Spain, for the establishment of a republic with universal suffrage, and for the indemnified emancipation of slaves.
The manifesto was followed by the organization of a provisional government with Céspedes acting as commander in chief of the army and head of the government. His almost absolute power as well as his failure to decree the immediate abolition of slavery soon caused opposition within the revolutionary ranks. Facing mounting pressure, Céspedes relinquished some of his power and called for a constitutional convention to establish a more democratic provisional government.
A constitutional convention met at Guáimaro in April 1869 with delegates from several eastern towns. A constitution was adopted which provided for a republican type of government. The legislative power was vested in a House of Representatives. Unhappy with Céspedes and fearful of concentrating too much power on the office of the president, a faction led by Camagüey's rebel chieftain, Ignacio Agramonte, obtained for the House a large degree of authority as well as control over presidential decisions. This group was also able to legalize the abolition of slavery by introducing Article 24 of the Constitution, which declared "all inhabitants of the republic to be absolutely free." Céspedes was elected president of the new republic, and Manuel Quesada was appointed commander in chief.
The war in eastern Cuba soon intensified. Céspedes decreed the destruction of cane fields and approved the revolutionary practice of urging the slaves to revolt and join the mambises, as the Cuban rebels were then called. Numerous skirmishes occurred, but Cuban forces were unable to obtain a decisive victory against the Spanish army. Simultaneously, Céspedes was unable to obtain United States recognition of Cuban belligerency.
For the next few years the Cubans continued to harass the Spanish forces. The war left untouched the rich western provinces and failed to cripple Spanish power in Cuba. By 1873 the mambises were actually retreating. With most members of the House of Representatives either dead or in hiding, Céspedes had regained almost absolute power.
Yet, despite his control, Céspedes had become alienated from most revolutionary groups. The more conservative elements resented his abolitionist stand and the destruction of cane fields. The more liberal groups disliked his attempts at absolute control. The followers of Gen. Máximo Gómez became particularly unhappy when Céspedes began interfering in military matters and ordered the removal of the able Gómez from command.
Dissension within the revolutionary ranks and personal jealousies finally led to Céspedes's removal as president. The remaining members of the House of Representatives called a meeting in October 1873 and refused to invite Céspedes. It soon became clear that the main objective of the assembly was Céspedes's removal. This was accomplished with little opposition and the president of the House, Salvador Cisneros Betancourt, was appointed new president of the republic.
For the next several months Céspedes sought refuge from Spanish forces in San Lorenzo, a farm in Oriente Province, awaiting an opportunity to leave the island. But on Feb. 27, 1874, a Spanish force surrounded the farm, killing Céspedes after a brave but futile struggle.
Most of the literature on Céspedes is in Spanish. Valuable information on him in English is in Philip S. Foner, A History of Cuba and Its Relations with the United States (2 vols., 1962-1963).