Cortés, during his campaign to conquer the ancient empire of the Mexica—the word which anthropologists would now have us use when we talk of the Aztecs—wrote to the emperor Charles V that he hoped to offer him an empire as great as the one he already had in Germany. As we know, he was able to do it. His distant cousin, Pizarro, offered the emperor the Inca empire; and other conquistadors, such as Gonzalo de Quesada, were able to fill in territories lying between Peru and Mexico. Thus was founded one of the greatest of European political enterprises.
In its duration and cultural influence, the Spanish empire overshadows the empires of Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, and even Russia. “He who has not seen Mexico does not know Spain,” I once wrote myself, and Spanish linguistic influence over the territory of what used to be considered Anglo-Saxon America is still growing. The Spanish empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines lasted till 1898.
Further, though the empires of other European nations came to an end untidily or in disputed circumstances, the empire of Spain ended with a bang, an explosion that caused the destruction of the United States battleship Maine in 1898, and then the war that turned over responsibility for what remained of the Spanish empire to the US, which took over Cuba for four years, the Philippines for nearly fifty, and Puerto Rico indefinitely.
The battleship Maine had been launched in 1890 as one of a new generation of vessels designed to make the United States equal at least to Germany in naval power. It was over 300 feet long, had a beam of nearly 60 feet at its widest, and had a ship’s company of over 350 men. Technically, it was a second-class battleship, being slower than the four first-class ones in the United States Navy, and alongside the battleship Texas.
The Maine steamed into Havana Harbor on January 25, 1898, in order to protect American citizens in Havana, whom President McKinley in Washington, on the advice of his ebullient and nationalistic consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of Robert E. Lee, thought might be at risk as a result of riots against would-be reformers in Cuba. The Spanish government in Madrid, headed by an elderly liberal prime minister Práxedes Sagasta, reluctantly accepted the arrival of the Maine on the understanding that it was a visit by a warship of a friendly neighbor; and the Sagasta government, for its part, ordered its own modern cruiser, the Vizcaya, to visit New York.
Those riots were unusual ones, for they were directed against the idea that imperial Spain might allow the Cubans to govern themselves under a home rule regime; the rioters were coming to the defense of the Spanish army. Until a few years before, Cuba had been one of the richest of European colonies. Whatever one may think, in the tradition of J.A. Hobson or Lenin, of the effects of empire on economic development at home, Cuba’s wealth had certainly contributed greatly to the prosperity of the madre patria. Scratch a successful late-nineteenth-century bank or shipping firm in Spain and you will find a Cuban fortune behind it.
But great wealth often creates great problems; and there were plenty of Cubans, including many ex-slaves, mulattoes, and also small landholders of Spanish descent, who had been left out of Cuba’s affluence. In 1868 such people had organized a rebellion against Spain which was defeated after a ten-year war. A second rebellion had begun in 1895. In this new war, the rebels resolved to carry the fight to the entire island rather than just establish themselves in a redoubt in the east, as had happened before. They sought to ruin the economy.
The Spanish leaders in Madrid thought that unless they defeated these rebels, their government could not stay in office; and perhaps the Bourbon dynasty could not last either. The colonies in Cuba and Puerto Rico had, after all, enabled the monarchy to survive the disaster of the loss of the rest of the mainland Spanish American colonies in the 1820s. After some hesitation on the part of the government, Valeriano Weyler, a ruthless general of German descent, was assigned to carry out a policy of repression in Cuba that would force large parts of the rural population to live in settlements in the towns.
This brutal strategy had some success from a purely military point of view; the rebels did not hold out in East Cuba, though some of their detachments were still to be found in the west. But otherwise the policy led to a catastrophe. The economy of the island was wrecked, sugar almost ceased to be harvested, and thousands of civilians died of hunger at reconcentrados in the towns which became little more than camps, thereby increasing the appeal of the rebellion. United States business interests, originally very critical of the rebels, became perturbed as they saw their investments of $50 million dwindle.
Even more important, Weyler’s policy played into the hands of the Cuban junta in New York, a group that put itself forward as an alternative government for the island. The junta organized gunrunning into the island on behalf of the rebels, and carried on a successful propaganda campaign against Spain in the United States press and in the labor unions. When some of the gunrunners were stopped by the Spanish navy, and some United States citizens were arrested in Cuba by the Spanish authorities, relations between Spain and the United States became worse.
In the summer of 1897, the conservative Spanish prime minister Cánovas del Castillo was murdered in San Sebastián and his liberal successors announced a change of policy in Cuba. General Weyler was recalled. Segismundo Moret, an able, Anglophile, and English-speaking minister of the colonies, prepared to set up self-government in Cuba beginning on January 1, 1898. Elections were to be held for a Cuban parliament in April. Had that scheme for home rule been tried when it had first been promised, at the end of the first Cuban war, in 1878, it might have been a success. But now it pleased nobody. In Spain, many Catalans were nostalgic for their youth, when they danced habaneras with forgotten mulatas on the Caribbean waterfront. Many Catalan businessmen thought that autonomy would threaten their monopoly of Cuban manufactured goods, especially textiles. Conservatives in Madrid thought that autonomy might lead to similar concessions to peoples within Spain.
The rebels for their part executed a Spanish colonel who came to talk to them about autonomy, while Cuban traditionalists hated the idea as well. It was they who inspired the street riots which led to the dispatch of the Maine. Both Moret and the Queen Regent of Spain, María Cristina, told the American Minister in Madrid, General Woodford, that the two reforming steps they accepted—the removal of “Butcher Weyler,” as he was known in North America, and the grant of autonomy—required the United States administration to close down the Cuban junta in New York. Were it not for the junta, the Spaniards insisted, there would now be no war in Cuba.
The visit of the Maine to Havana began without incident, even though the Americans had given no notice that the ship would arrive. The Spanish authorities and the captain Charles Sigisbee got along reasonably well, and Sigisbee went to the bullfights on two successive Sunday nights.
But then, at 9:40 PM on the evening of February 15, the Maine blew up. A sudden explosion took place, apparently in the ship’s forward magazines, in which gunpowder was stored and which were directly below the crew’s quarters. The entire forepart of the ship was wrecked. The stern began to sink; two officers and 266 men out of the ship’s company of 354 died, and many others were injured. Captain Sigisbee was saved.
How did it happen? The more sensational American newspapers had no doubts: on February 17, for example, William Randolph Hearst’s World carried a headline: “THE WARSHIP MAINE SPLIT IN TWO BY AN ENEMY’S SECRET INFERNAL MACHINE.” Beneath was an alarming drawing of the ship anchored over mines and a diagram, showing wires leading to the Cabaña, the fortress next to El Morro on the far side of Havana Bay. But Captain Sigisbee, in his first telegram from Havana, mentioned the help that the Spanish authorities had given in searching for survivors. He wisely, if unrealistically, advised his superiors that “public opinion should be suspended until further report.”
But that was easier said than done; even a hundred years ago, public opinion could not be turned off. The weeks following the explosion of the Maine were marked by rising hysteria in North America, inflamed by the Hearst press and by comments of younger members of the government, among them Theodore Roosevelt, the brilliant but irresponsible assistant secretary for the Navy. The Journal, for example, happily denounced “eminently respectable porcine citizens” who,
for dollars in the money-grubbing sty, support “conservative” newspapers and consider the starvation of…inoffensive men, women and children and the murder of 250 American sailors…of less importance than the fall of two points in the price of stock.
When the acting Secretary of State, John D. Long, said that official Spanish responsibility for the explosion could be discounted, he was placed on the Journal‘s list of those who had sold out to “pacific Wall Street.” The day after the explosion, when President McKinley merely said that he was appalled but was by no means prepared to commit himself immediately to war, Roosevelt exploded, “The President has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” On the 18th, Joseph Pulitzer’s World described mass meetings in Buffalo, urging McKinley to declare war against Spain; the same day the World declared: “The whole country thrills with war fever.”
It is now unfashionable among historians to blame the Spanish-American War of 1898 on the so-called “yellow press,” especially the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers. But the public opinion which those newspapers reflected and which could not be “suspended” was certainly chauvinist. Many Americans were beginning to believe that the country had an international mission which went far beyond the caution expressed in Washington’s famous farewell speech a hundred years before. For example, the influential book One Country, by the Protestant minister Josiah Strong, spoke of the United States as having been required by God to extend Christianity.
Two inquiries were made into the cause of the explosion: one by a United States naval court, the other by Spain. The Spaniards sensibly suggested a joint inquiry, but the idea was rejected in Washington.
The United States investigation was conducted by four officers, headed by a senior captain named Sampson, who had once been in command of the Navy’s torpedo station. He and his colleagues took evidence from survivors; they visited Havana and sent down divers to investigate the wreckage. Captain Sigisbee’s testimony was remarkably vague. He was certain that the coal on the Maine had been inspected before it had been brought on board at Newport News, but he could not say when the inspection took place. He didn’t know how much coal had been on the ship. He was sure that the fire alarms worked because he had heard them go off at temperatures below that for which they were set. He thought that he had inspected the magazines sometime during the previous three months but he could not remember exactly when.