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The Bronze Titan: Antonio Maceo, Cuba’s Greatest Warrior

Over two dozen bullet and machete wounds scarred his body. He survived three assassination attempts in three different countries. He fought in hundreds of battles over the course of his life, and Winston Churchill turned twenty-one years of age while taking heavy fire from one of his units. Antonio Maceo’s larger than life exploits are barely known today outside of the confines of Cuban history. The Afro-Cuban farmer/trader/mule cart driver rose through the ranks of the Mambí (Cuban rebel forces) to become second in command in the David vs. Goliath match with imperial Spain in a nearly four-decade-long struggle for independence.

The “Bronze Titan” as he came to be known due to his complexion, size, and stature. He inspired his fellow brothers in arms, and many others across the hemisphere, with his courageous leadership, unwavering loyalty, and devotion to the freedom of his homeland.

Upbringing

Jose Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales was born to a bi-racial father (Marcos Maceo) from Venezuela, and a free black mother (Mariana Grajales). His mother was the daughter of free blacks from the Dominican Republic. He was from the Oriente province of Cuba, born only one year after the Spanish government passed some of the most restrictive laws against people of color due to the concurrently occurring slave insurrections of that time.

Maceo was very well educated for a person of color during an era when most were restricted to the alphabet and basic arithmetic. This advantage was due to his parents’ effort, as well as the incredible contribution from his criollo (Cuban of Spanish Descent) godfather, attorney Don Ascencio de Asencio, who also sponsored Maceo into the politically active and rebellion-minded Masonic Lodge of Santiago de Cuba. It was here in these lodges where the ideas for revolution fomented, and thus Maceo was strategically placed to become one of Cuba’s greatest leaders.

The Ten Years War (1868-1878): Maceo’s Struggle Against Two Enemies—The Spanish Empire and an Unborn Nation Divided

“And since I belong to the colored race, without considering myself worth more or less than other men, I cannot and must not consent to the continued growth of this ugly rumor. Since I form a not inappreciable part of this democratic republic, which has for its base the fundamental principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, I must protest energetically with all my strength that neither now nor at any time am I to be regarded as an advocate of a Negro Republic or anything of the sort. This concept is a deadly thing to this democratic republic, which is founded on the basis of liberty and fraternity. I do not recognize any hierarchy.” 

— Antonio Maceo writing to Salvador Cisneros Betancourt, President of the Cuban Republic at Arms (May 16th, 1876)

The Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara), the official launching point of the Cuban revolution, was initiated when Criollo attorney and landowner, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, freed over thirty of his slaves. He, along with twelve other landowners and their newly freed slaves, declared war on Spain on October 10th, 1868. Because the white population was the minority, Cuba’s demographic demanded a multiracial army. The group was primarily composed of free and enslaved blacks, mulattos, and criollos willing to take up arms against their colonial oppressor.

Antonio Maceo joined the Mambí cause two days after the Cry of Yara, quickly rising up the ranks due to his valor and fighting prowess. Maceo’s basics had been learned from his father, who was a trained soldier fighting under the Spanish flag against Simon Bolivar’s forces in Venezuela in the early 1800s. But it was under the tutelage of General Máximo Gomez, the retired Dominican general who would become the leader of the Mambí army, that Maceo truly honed his skills as a warrior and strategic leader. He was the top black general and had both black and white soldiers under his command. He lead those soldiers into countless victories over the Spaniards. Maceo always expressed the importance of the unity of his men and the merged identity of the new nation they attempted to form. “There are no blacks or whites, only Cubans.” he famously stated. Unfortunately, there were two forces at work that would ultimately thwart his and his comrades’ efforts.

First, the Spanish Imperial Army possessed an overwhelming advantage in numbers and arms. Not only were there tens of thousands of Spanish troops imported from Europe, but Spain was also able to count on Voluntarios, or volunteer Cubans (some units even included blacks and mulattos), who would also engage the rebels and were familiar with the terrain. The Spanish would also create dissention within the Cuban ranks by spreading rumors Maceo was at the head of a movement to start a Black Republic as soon as the Spanish were expelled. This drove fear and division into the Mambí ranks, especially among the political leadership that was made up of all white men.

Secondly, the Cuban Republic at Arms (the provisional government as Cuba was not yet recognized as a nation) was fundamentally divided over the issues of regionalism and slavery. Leaders from certain provinces were not willing to relegate any power or resources to others. This was especially apparent in the case of white leaders from outside of Santiago agreeing to send resources and men under Maceo’s leadership. There was also the issue of abolishing slavery outright, which some of the political Cuban leaders were in favor, but others were opposed because slaves remained an economic necessity for their enterprises.

It created the internal contradiction in that the majority of soldiers fighting for this cause were enslaved blacks that were freed to fight for a cause ambivalent on granting them full freedom. Because the political leadership was not able to resolve these issues and effectively unite all factions, combined with the increased desertions over time, especially from criollos fearing that the rumors of Maceo’s aspirations to form “another Haiti” were true, the Cuban government would surrender to Spain. Maceo, however, would not.

A Second Wind to a Failed Rebellion: The Protest of Baraguá

One month after the Cuban rebel government surrendered to Spain, Antonio Maceo wrote to the Spanish Captain General in charge of Cuba, Arsenio Martinez Campos, to meet with him in order to discuss the peace terms agreed to by both sides in the Pact of Zanjón (treaty ending the Ten Years War). Maceo, flanked by a group of mostly Afro-Cuban officers, defiantly declared to Martinez Campos during that meeting that they did not accept the terms of surrender and would only accept peace if slavery was completely abolished on the island and Spain withdrew from Cuba completely.

Martinez Campos alluded to the possibility of freedom for slaves, but the matter would have to be taken up by the Spanish government. With respect to independence, however, that was completely off the table. This was because Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only remaining Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, as they had lost the rest of Central and South America by the late 1820s. Cuba was considered by Spain to be the “ever-faithful isle” and there was no negotiating a transfer of even an iota of power to be discussed. Hostilities would resume for several months before Maceo would be forced to surrender as rebel numbers greatly diminished, as the Spanish would continue their racial propaganda campaign. He was exiled to Jamaica in May 1878.

Active Hiatus: Maceo in Exile (1878-1895)

“My sword and my breath are at the service of Cuba…Moral and political unity are indispensable for combating the power of Spain in Cuba and of no less importance for me today is the task of collecting funds for the execution of previous plans. There must be a solid base for the principles which we announce to the world of ideas.

I would like to see an organization composed of men capable of uniting the will of the Cuban people, of understanding the mission which its citizens have confided in them, and of being indifferent to the disrupting influence of partisan ideas.” 

—Antonio Maceo’s letter to Jose Martí, July 29th, 1882

Although defeated, the Protest of Baraguá elevated Maceo’s status into the top echelons of the revolutionary movement. He was a hero to the Cuban exile communities, which by then had relocated to New York, Tampa, Key West, Jamaica, Haiti, and Honduras. He was also a hero to the African-American community for taking such a position of prominence in a country that was entirely led by white men in a time when slavery was still legal (Slavery in Cuba was abolished in 1886, 21 years after Congress passed the 13th Amendment).

Maceo received a hero’s welcome when arriving in New York after Baraguá. He met with exile leaders interested in a revival of war efforts and also with prominent African-American leaders such as Henry Highland Garnet, president of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, as well as the press who were interested in meeting the man of color who defied a European empire. Maceo was even tapped to lead the new invasion of Cuba the following year by the leadership in exile. Racial tensions, however, set him on a different course.

Antonio Maceo was informed the following year while awaiting orders in Kingston, Jamaica, that it was in the interest of the revolution for him to enter Cuba after an initial invasion. General Calixto García, speaking for the leadership, informed him that the Spanish propaganda for a Black Republic was still strong and it would send the wrong message if Maceo were to lead the invasion from the inception. Maceo reluctantly agreed and embarked on a fundraising mission to Haiti. This is where he and the rest of the Mambí would realize what a threat the Spanish crown perceived him to be.

The skirmish that Maceo missed came to be known as The Little War (1879-1880), since it was a short-lived failure in attempting to restart the rebellion. In the meantime, Maceo was fundraising in Haiti under the close eye of the Spanish government. The crown’s assassins approached Maceo in Port Au Prince, posing as arms dealers and attempted to set an ambush. Maceo became aware of their plan and a firefight and chase ensued. The scene caused Maceo to duck into the home of a Cuban exile, Santiago Perez, who eventually assisted him in leaving to St. Thomas.

After months of jumping around the Caribbean, Maceo ended up in Santo Domingo, where he would find protection under Dominican President, Gregorio Luperón. Maceo adopted a mistress during his stay on the island and Spanish spies became aware of the relationship. They bribed the mistress with gold to turn him over, but she warned him in time for Maceo to make an escape to Honduras. It was there he reconnected with his former superior, Gen. Máximo Gomez. Maceo continued fundraising efforts and ultimately connected with a new voice in the movement based in New York, Jose Martí.

The relationship between Martí and Maceo and the rest of the war veterans would be a rocky one. Although Martí was the great unifying force, bringing together factions of the island under one banner and one cause, the veterans resented the fact that he was not a soldier and was more focused on establishing a civil government than taking the war to Spain. Gomez and Martí would have a falling out over this issue, which removed Martí from action until reconciliation between them occurred shortly after the formation of Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892.

Maceo would also have a falling out with Gomez and the rest of the rebels in 1886. The problem was about a lost shipment of arms where Maceo made the arrangements with an untrustworthy source. The Mambí lost a tremendous amount of money, which created a hostile situation between Maceo and another Afro-Cuban general, Flor Crombet, which ended with Maceo challenging him to a duel (postponed until after the war because both men were too important to the cause). Maceo removed himself since all efforts to reignite the war were put on hold.

Maceo settled in Costa Rica when Martí began to round up the old warhorses for the renewed re-launch effort in 1894. After Martí explained his Fernandina Plan to Maceo (an invasion of Cuba that would be supported by internal rebellion led by his top man on the island, Afro-Cuban Juan Gualberto Gomez), he was ready to rejoin the Mambí. The plan would fail, however, because US agents discovered the ships on the Florida port at Jacksonville with all of the armaments headed to the island.

There was also the tragedy of Maceo’s mother passing away in Jamaica, which Maceo stated was “the saddest event of his life, alongside the passing of his father and the Pact of Zanjón.” After weeks of grieving, Maceo attended a theatre performance in San Jose where Spanish agents would corner him and one would get a shot off on the Bronze Titan at point-blank range.

The bullet went into his shoulder, thus sparing his life. Upon recovery, there were rumblings about a renewed war effort, although the Fernandina Plan had failed. Maceo was reluctant because he did not feel there were sufficient funds collected to finance a feasible effort. The tremendous outpour of support from his fellow Mambí though, was enough to convince him that it was now or never. Life would never present a perfect or even ideal opportunity, so it was on him and the others to rise to the occasion and create it.

The Invasion of the West: The Return of the Bronze Titan (1895-1896)

“The enemy keeps advancing through the lines north and south of Havana. A numerous separatist force is in San Jose de las Lajas, a town situated twenty-nine kilometers from Havana. It comes destroying all. They burn the railroad stations There are also parties in Guara. Similarly insurrectionary forces are in Melena del Sur, not far from Batabanó. Numerous families reach Havana fleeing from nearby villages. The panic is extraordinary.”

—Captain General Arsenio Martinez Campos’s letter to the Spanish Minister of War in Madrid, January 3rd, 1896

“Two-fifth of the insurgents in the field, and by far the bravest and best disciplined part of the rebel forces, are pure negroes. These men, with Antonio Maceo at their head, would, in the event of success, demand a predominant share in the government of the country.”

—Winston Churchill’s article in The Saturday Review, published February 15th, 1896

After almost two decades in exile, Maceo returned with the Mambí army holding the rank of Lt. General, as General Máximo Gomez appointed him second in command of all rebel forces. He and twelve men, including his rival, Crombet, would land in eastern Cuba under cover of night on March 30th, 1895.

He once again faced Martinez Campos on the battlefield, but prevailed in the island’s first and unprecedented invasion of the western territories. Maceo led an army of several thousand across the island in less than ninety days and brought the fight just outside of the capital city of Havana and cross over to the western province of Pinar del Rio.

Macao would not live to see the end of the conflict nor the US intervention that has arguably led to the perpetual imbalance in Cuban politics. His initial act of defiance at Baraguá gave the pivotal jolt to a Mambí army on life support and ultimately gave the Cubans the momentum they needed to relaunch the war against their colonial oppressor. Maceo’s Protest of Baraguá has cemented his legacy into the pantheon of Cuba’s founders, elevating him to the status of one of most important black men in the history of the hemisphere.

By Pablo Velez

A self-fashioned “Halfro-Cuban American,” born and raised in Miami, Florida, Pablo G. Velez is an immigration attorney and partner at the New York City based law firm, Velez & Cipriano, PLLC in midtown Manhattan. He is a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, with degrees in International Affairs and Spanish Language and Literature and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He resides in the Upper East Side with his wife, Yasmin.