It’s been 120 years since island nation Cuba formally became an independent republic after thirty years of anti-colonial struggle against Spain and four years of military occupation by the United States. Cuba’s liberation struggle wouldn’t have been realized without the huge representation of Afro-Cubans in the nationalist coalition that fought for independence.
José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales, otherwise known as Antonio Maceo, fought and died for Cuban independence. Owing to the color of his skin and his strength and heroics on the battlefield, he was given the nickname “The Bronze Titan”. A Cuban general, Maceo became one of the greatest heroes of the nation’s struggle for independence from Spain.
And that wasn’t surprising considering his mother, an Afro-Cuban called Mariana Grajales, also played an enormous role in Cuba’s liberation struggle. Since 1957, Mariana Grajales has been celebrated as the mother of Cuba in honor of her outstanding role in fighting oppression, slavery and colonization. This is a befitting title because she did not only stand and fight for what she believed in but managed to involve her husband and sons in the activism.
Her son Maceo, born in 1845 to a Venezuelan father, spent his early years farming. Maceo’s father Marcos owned several farms in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. While farming, Maceo also became interested in politics, joining a Masonic Lodge in the city of Santiago in 1864. During this period, Cuba was one of the few colonies Spain still controlled. Most of Latin America had gained its independence in the 1820s.
In 1868, Cuban plantation owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes called for a revolt against Spanish control over Cuba and this started what became known as the Ten Years’ War. Céspedes freed his enslaved people and made them join the revolt. Maceo and his family, including his father and brothers with the support of his mother, also joined the revolt. The mambises was what the rebel army was called. In 1868, Maceo’s father was killed in battle. Maceo was also wounded but he continued to fight, rising quickly in the ranks due to his exceptional skills.
The rebels lacked the necessary resources to effectively fight the Spanish army, so instead of getting involved in large battles, they centered on “guerilla tactics and sabotage”, such as destroying sugar mills and cutting telegraph lines, according to this account. Maceo became a genius of military strategy and anytime his men captured sugar mills, they freed the enslaved people there and encouraged them to join the rebel army, making them know that ending slavery was one of the main goals of the independence struggle.
Maceo knew that Cuban independence would be meaningless if his fellow Afro Cuban were still enslaved. Maceo, who became a general of the revolutionary forces, could have climbed higher in the military hierarchy but for his mixed-race status. Some of the rebels also accused him of racism, saying he was endorsing Black soldiers over White ones and had desires to form a Black republic. In 1876, he wrote a letter denying those claims: “Neither now nor at any time am I to be regarded as an advocate of a Negro Republic or anything of that sort…I do not recognize any hierarchy.”
As the Ten Years’ War went on, the Spanish were later able to persuade the rebels to stop fighting in exchange for small concessions. Leaders of the rebellion signed the Peace of Zanjón in 1878, ending the war officially but Maceo refused to sign it. He continued to march his soldiers across Cuba but was later forced into exile in Jamaica. From Jamaica, he moved to New York City where he tried to get support for his revolutionary practices. In New York, he organized an uprising in Cuba known as La Guerra Chiquita with Major General Calixto Garcia but it failed.
In the years that followed, Maceo got involved in other military activities across Latin America but never forgot the liberation struggle in his country Cuba. In 1893, he started working with Jose Martí, the leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, for a final revolt against the Spanish. By March 1895, Maceo was back in Cuba to join in the final struggle for Cuban independence, which had begun on February 24, 1895, in eastern Cuba. Martí was killed in his first battle on May 19 but that did not deter Maceo from fighting. He continued to fight against Spanish forces, even invading some areas in western Cuba. Western Cuba had supported Spain during the Ten Years’ War.
Maceo went on to win several battles until he was killed in action on December 6, 1896, in Punta Brava, near Havana.
ThoughtCo writes: “Although it was ultimately the sinking of the USS Maine in February 1898 and the consequent intervention of the U.S. and Spanish-American War that led to Spain’s defeat, Cubans had all but achieved independence by then, largely because of the skill, leadership, and courage of Antonio Maceo.”