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Rustic Men, Civilized Nation:
Race, Culture, and Contention on the
Eve of Cuban Independence
Ada Ferrer
The year 1898 marked a momentous transformation: the collapse of a fourhundred-year-old Spanish empire and the formal emergence of a new and significantly more powerful American one. Seen from the perspectives of the
metropoles, this transformation takes on the look of inevitability-of the forward and inexorable march of time and history. The old empire, Spain, lost its
last two possessions in the Americas long after the onset of its imperial decline
and almost a century after the erosion of most of its empire in South and Central America. From the perspective of the new empire, the United States, the
acquisition of Spanish territories in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and
Guam (as well as the annexation of Hawaii in the same year) represented
America’s historic and inevitable encounter with the world, when the United
States deigned to share its political ideals with the rest of humanity or (depending on one’s perspective) scrambled to acquire new markets for ever-expanding
industries. But if in imperial eyes the transformations of 1898 seemed unsurprising-simply the manifestation of processes long in the making-from the
perspective of individuals living these transformations in the colonies, the events
of 1898 looked like something else entirely.
T h e author would like to acknowledge the generous comments, questions, and
suggestions received from audiences at S W – S t o n y Brook, the University of
Michigan, New York University, the American Historical Association, and the Archivo
Provincial in Cienfuegos, Cuba. I also thank Alejandra Bronfman, Alejandro de la
Fuente, James Fernindez, Tomis Fernindez Robaina, Orlando Garcia, Lillian Guerra,
Martha Hodes, Jorge Ibarra, Walter Johnson, Richard Kagan, Blancamar Le6n,
Fernando Martinez, Louis PCrez, Jeffrey Sammons, Christopher Schmidt-Nowara,
Rebecca Scott, Sinclair Thomson, Gregg Van Ryzin, and Michael Zeuske, all of
whom read at least one version of this paper and shared references, ideas, and suggestions.
Hispanic American Historical Review 78:4
Copyright 1998 Duke University Press
HAHR / November / Ferrer
Imagine the scene, for example, in Santiago de Cuba, the site of Spain’s
surrender, in July 1898. There, where society had been profoundly transformed by three decades of nationalist rebellion and conspiracy against colonial rule, Cuban soldiers saw the Spanish army surrender not to them, but to
an American force that had arrived only weeks earlier. And though Cuban
rebels saw their Spanish enemies defeated after 30 years of anticolonial mobilization, they were forbidden from entering cities and towns to celebrate their
ostensible victory. American officers protected Spanish bureaucrats, guaranteeing them the authority and the peace to remain in positions of power. And
though it was Spain who lost the war, it was Cuban soldiers who were forced
to relinquish the weapons with which they had fought. None of these local
events had the look of natural logic or historical inevitability, but rather only
of inconsistency and disjuncture: the victors could not celebrate their victory, nor bear arms, nor exercise authority; the vanquished (for the moment)
remained in positions of power. And the strange transition was supervised by a
foreign government, newly arrived and unable to speak the language of either.
Perplexed and despondent, Cuban soldiers could hardly think that this was the
victory for which they had fought.’
Yet despite all this, in 1898 a nationalist army, with roughly 40 thousand
men and a 30-year history of anticolonial activity, essentially stepped aside and
allowed, sometimes even welcomed, American military intervention. This fact
alone requires a rethinking of explanations for the imperial transitions of 1898
that focus solely on American causes-the pressure to expand markets for
American goods, the need to reunify the country in the wake of civil war and
social unrest, the impact of a sensationalist press, and so on.2 That a powerful
nationalist army would tolerate American military intervention forces us to
consider the ways in which conditions in Cuba, and the internal history of
Cuba’s long nineteenth-century revolution, made American occupation plausible and palatable in the first place. The proper study of the imperial transitions
that occurred in 1898-and of the 113-day war that sealed Spain’s defeat and
I . T h e best discussion of this unusual transition is Louis A. Ptrez Jr., Cuba between
Empires, 1878-1902 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), chaps. 10-13 O n the
30-year history of anticolonial insurgency, see Ada Ferrer, Ambivalent Revolution:
Race, Nation, and Anticolonial Insurgency in Cuba, 1868-1898 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of
North Carolina Press, forthcoming).
2 . For a recent review of this literature, see Louis A. Ptrez Jr., The War of 1898: The
United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina
Press, 1998); and Charles Bergquist, Labor and the Course ofAmen’can Democracy: US History
in Latin American Perspective (London: Verso, 1996), chap. 2 .
Rustic Men, Civilized Nation
6 6 ~
heralded the beginning of what would later be called the American Centurythus requires that historians broaden their temporal and geographical focus. It
compels historians to examine the complex history of the nationalist revolution that preceded American intervention.
When we do this, we find a revolution that in many ways challenged the
principal ideological and political currents of its age. As Europe scrambled for
colonies in Africa and Asia, the Cuban revolution attacked Europe’s oldest
colonial power. And as so-called scientists weighed skulls and as white Arnerican mobs lynched blacks, the revolution’s leaders denied the very existence of
races and armed black and white men together to form the world’s first raceless nation.
But this unusual revolution was one defined more by conflict than consensus. It was a revolution that contained its own antithesis and in which
nationalist goals were in uneasy coexistence with multiple alternatives, including annexation to the United States and home rule under Spain. Finally, it was
a revolution consistently defined by the violent play of regional and class tensions and, especially, by long-standing and evolving conflicts over the limits of
racial inclusion in the nationalist project. These internal tensions clearly shaped
the course of the independence movement, but they also conditioned the very
possibility of American intervention at a moment when a Cuban victory
seemed more likely than ever before. And so it is only by exploring these contradictions and tensions, which for 30 years had developed and evolved at the
heart of the revolution, that we can fully understand the complicated imperial
transition of 1898.
At the outset of nationalist insurgency in 1868, no one could have predicted the extent and character of black and mulatto participation in the independence struggle or in the republic that early white leaders sought to create.
During this initial period, it was not at all clear that these leaders viewed
potential non-white recruits as either “compatriots” or “Cubans.” Nor was it
clear that black and mulatto participants saw and identified themselves that
way. By the start of the final war in 1895, however, few rebel leaders could
openly question the status of non-whites as Cuban; few would publicly challenge the idea that soldiers of color had played an important role in making
the nation. Dominant nationalist discourse, in fact, celebrated and glorified
their participation. Thus by 1898, with the notions of black participation in
independence and of a multiracial Cuban nationality in many ways secure,
the nature and terrain of the conflict over racial inclusion shifted. With the
nation imagined to include people (men) of all colors (transformed into raceless Cubans), the major question was no longer who was Cuban, but what kind
HAHR / November / Ferrer
of figure could successfully lead this new and heterogeneous republic, what
kind of leader was suited to a multiracial society that was simultaneously freeing itself from the shackles of both slavery and colonialism.
At some point this question may have been an abstract philosophical one
about the nature of political leadership. But as the end of war neared, it became
a pressing and practical matter. It was as if with access to citizenship in the new
nation relatively open, multiracial, and inclusive, the qualifications for political
leadership had to be rethought. Clearly the boundaries of military leadership
had to be made more impermeable than the boundaries of nationality; and the
requisites for political power and leadership had to be stricter even than those
for military power. And so as the end of the war neared, the question of controlling the transition from military to political power became critical. In an
army and in a war that had eroded rigid social distinctions, the prospect of
peace turned qualifications for rule and authority into questions of the uunost
magnitude and urgency. By closely examining the controversy surrounding
one particular leader on the eve of independence and occupation, this paper
illuminates some of the complex anxieties and concerns present among Cuban
nationalists-anxieties and concerns that helped shape a relatively quiescent
response to American intervention.3
One Black Leader
In July 1898, when the Americans arrived and the Spanish surrendered in
Santiago de Cuba, one witness to the strange turn of events was a Cuban
rebel officer named Quintin Bandera. He was perhaps the most famous black
rebel then living: he had participated in anti-Spanish conspiracies dating
back to the 185os, he had fought in three full-fledged anticolonial rebellions,
and he had risen through the ranks to become a general in the Liberation
Army. In 1895 he had accompanied the revolution’s two most famous generals, Antonio Maceo and Miximo Gbmez, during the daring insurgent invasion of the western half of the island. By 1898, with almost all the other
famous non-white leaders having been killed over the course of the war,
Bandera was among the last in a line of highly prominent black leaders who,
having served the cause for 30 years, had developed national reputations and
3 . A clear contrast here is the case of the Philippines, where nationalist forces in arms
against Spanish colonial authority since 1896 rebelled against the United States occupation
in February 1899. See especially Reynaldo Clemena Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular
Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univ. Press, 1979).
Rustlc Men, Civilized Nation
followings.4 Yet despite his prominence, in July 1898 Bandera witnessed the
end of the war from the sidelines. His position there, on the margins, is not
altogether surprising; after all, American intervention sidelined most Cuban
leaders from the negotiations and transitions of 1898. T h e fact that in this
process American occupiers should also exclude a black officer-no matter
how prominent-seems to warrant n o further explanation.
Yet the basis for Bandera’s exclusion stems less from American actions
than from the highly problematic position he occupied even before their
arrival. In 1897, about a year before the Americans declared war, Bandera’s
own army had court-martialed him, stripped him of his command and his
men, and then sent him back east to Santiago de Cuba to await further
orders. In June 1898, after American intervention and while still without a
commission and without soldiers, he petitioned rebel authorities for permission to leave the island. But his request was quickly denied. Spain’s surrender to American forces in July found him in that same uncertain position: alone, rejected, and overlooked at the moment of rebel (and United
States) victory. A few months later he petitioned Cuban authorities again,
this time simply for a formal letter of introduction to officers of the American occupation.5
To some extent the marginality imposed on Bandera prior to the arrival of
American troops continued after their evacuation. Bandera did enjoy something of a political comeback after the end of the war, serving as president of a
political party in Santiago and being feted in towns in the provinces of Havana
and Santiago. Overall, however, his already precarious position worsened after
the inauguration of the republic in 1902. H e was denied full payment for his
army service and routinely denied suitable employment. His livelihood was, in
4. When historians refer-as they often do-to the importance of black military
leaders in Cuban independence, Bandera’s name is always on the list of examples. See,
for example, Aline Helg, Our Rightjkl Share: The Afio-Cuban Strmgglefor Equality,
1886-1912 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 199j), 33, 56; PCrez, Cuba between
Empkes, 106; Philip S. Foner, Antonio Maceo: The “Bronze Titan” of Cuba’s Stmggle for
Independence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), 2 59; and Rafael Fermoselle, Politica
y color en Cuba: la guerr-tta de 1912 (Montevideo: Ediciones Gtminis, 1974), 2 5-26.
5. For a transcript of the court-martial, see “Expediente formado para el
esclarecimiento de hechos que se dicen cometidos por el brigadier Quintin Bandera,
julio 1897,” Archivo Nacional de Cuba (hereafter ANC), Fondo M6ximo G6mez (hereafter
MG), leg. 16, exp, 2,157. For the two requests, see Bandera to Consejo de Gobierno,
24 June 1898, ANC, Fondo Revoluci6n de 189j (hereafter R ~ s ) leg.
, 5, exp. 540;
and Quintin Bandera to President of the Cuban Assembly, 28 Feb. 1899, ANC, Rgj,
leg. 53, exp 7,426.
HAHR / November / Ferrer
fact, so insecure that he was compelled to send out form letters soliciting assistance and to organize a fund-raiser for himself in Havana’s majestic Payret theater. H e was said to have held a job for a time as a garbage collector and, at one
point, to have distributed soap samples to laundresses. T h e soap manufacturers even printed his picture on an ad, and under it the words “I am a son of the
people.”6 In 1906, in the midst of an armed rebellion against the first president
of the republic, he was ambushed and killed by a white veteran of the Liberation Army of 1895. When a year later the secret police alleged to have uncovered a black conspiracy, the signal for the start of the projected uprising was to
be the assassination of the man who had assassinated Bandera.7
Even after his death, Bandera remained at the center of controversy. After
1910, repeated efforts to construct a monument in his honor met with outright
hostility; there was even resistance to the transfer of his remains to the national
cemetery. In 1916, ten years after Bandera’s death, the mayor of Havana, a
white veteran of the independence effort, vehemently opposed any effort to
honor the black veteran, insisting that he had done nothing for the revolutionary cause. A monument in Bandera’s honor was not erected until 1948.8 Official ambivalence surrounding his place in public life was echoed more generally in popular memory. Thus Bandera boasts the dubious distinction of being
perhaps the only independence hero who also serves as the target of racist
humor-a patriot who was also a thief and a laggard, a lover with an insatiable
sexual appetite, an uncultured man whose blackness rendered him incapable of
making sounds basic to the Spanish language.9 At the very least, his was a
career and a legacy unconventional by patriotic standards.
6. T h e description of the ad appears in Abelardo Padr6n ValdCs, General de tres guewas
(Havana: Ed. Letras Cubanas, 1991), 7-8.
7. O n Bandera’s postwar economic and political life, see especially Padr6n ValdCs,
General de tres guewas, chaps. I, 10; and Alejandro de la Fuente, ‘”With All and for All’:
Race, Inequality, and Politics in Cuba, 1900-1930” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1996),
chap. 4. T h e form letter soliciting assistance may be found in Biblioteca Nacional Jost
Marti, Colecci6n Manuscrita Abreu, no. 18. For details on his murder, see Manuel Cuellar
Vizcaino, 12 muertesfamosas (n.p., n.d), 30-53. O n the alleged black conspiracy in 1907, see
JosC Jerez Varona, Chief of Secret Police, to Major F. Foltz, 3 Aug. 1907, in United States
National Archives, Record Group 350, entry 5, Records of the Bureau of Insular Affairs,
General Classified Files, file 2499.
8. O n the controversies surrounding his memorialization, see Tomis Savignbn,
Quintin Banderas: el mambisan-ificadoy escarnecido (Havana: Impr. P. Fernindez, 1948),
61-62; and the following articles in Diario de la Marina (Havana): “Por Quintin Bandera”
(26 Apr. 1910, morning) and “Los restos de Quintin Banderas” (14 May 1912, morning).
9. Bandera’s speech was repeatedly ridiculed and Africanized in the press. See, for
example, the documents and anecdotes reproduced in Padr6n Valdts, General de tres
Rustic Men, Civilized Nation
By focusing on Bandera’s 1897 court-martial-a moment of formal and
dramatic exclusion from the inner circles of national leadership-we shed
light not only on one man’s career, but also on increasingly pressing struggles
over the kinds of political leadership that would be exercised in the new republic. T h e court-martial, with its long, rich trail of charges and countercharges,
reveals the shifting and always disputed boundaries of the patriotic community
and allows us to explore important questions about the limits and possibilities
of racial inclusion in late colonial and early republican Cuba. T h e case thus
exposes some of the tensions of Cuban nationalism present before the arrival
of American forces-tensions that helped make intervention seem conceivable
and tolerable. Second, the discussions during the court-martial foreshadow
some of the debates about leadership and self-rule that would dominate the
period of American intervention that was about to commence. And finally, the
case allows us to reflect on how Cuban nationalism, by treating race as something that had been superceded (something unnecessary and imprudent to talk
about), made the concept of culture a central consideration in defining patriotic leadership-a conception of culture, it should immediately be added, that
was always highly racialized and highly gendered.
The Events, Accusations, and Defense
In 1897 Quintin Bandera, commanding an almost all-black expeditionary
force, crossed the Spanish army’s fortified line dividing eastern and western
Cuba for the second time since the beginning of the war. When Bandera
arrived in the west in late March 1997, MBximo Gbmez, the highest ranking
officer of the Liberation Army, received him with “patriotic jubilance,” believing that the arrival of Bandera’s men, along with Bandera’s name and reputation,

guewas, 8, 158-59, 356-59; and Cuellar Vizcaino, 12 muertesfamosas, 43. T h e way in which
his speech was Africanized may be part of the reason for the confusion over his name.
Though his name is often spelled Banderas, the proper spelling, according to his most
recent biographer, is Bandera, without an s. Since lower-class Cuban Spanish tends to drop
finals’s, and since Bandera’s speech was always represented as low and uncultured, it is very
possible that though he said “Bandera” people assumed he really meant “Banderas.” For a
discussion of the confusion over his name, see Padr6n ValdCs, General de tres guelras, 14, 1 7 .
I spoke with academics and nonacademics in both Cuba and the United States to get a
sense of how he was remembered, talked about, and taught in elementary schools. Among
the people interviewed were Herminio Fernindez (Havana, June 1996), Adelaida Ferrer
(Miami, Mar. 1996), Victor Jost Ram611 Cordovez (Miami, Mar. 1996), JosC Abreu Cardet
(Havana, May 199z), Fernando Martinez (Havana, June 1994), Ale …
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