The Canadian Mambí
By Marta Denis
The young William Ryan, born in Toronto, Canada, fought for Cuba’s freedom in the first independence war, the Ten Years’ War, as a Mambí or Cuban independence fighter until he was executed by a Spanish firing squad in Santiago de Cuba in 1873.
Ryan’s birth date is reported by some sources as Dec. 31, 1842, while others set it at March 28, 1843. Some refer to him as William Alberto Claudio Ryan, while others call him Washington Ryan.
He was still a child when his family immigrated to the United States, where he distinguished himself as a soldier in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and reached the rank of captain. He served in the 192nd Infantry Regiment of the New York Volunteers in the Union Army.
Ryan was sympathetic to the Cuban cause from the moment the insurrection began on October 10, 1868, at the Demajagua Sugar Plantation in Manzanillo, eastern Cuba, where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes proclaimed Cuba’s independence from Spain and freed his slaves.
The young soldier first arrived in Cuba on January 19, 1870, as a member of an expeditionary force aboard the steamer Anna, which carried reinforcement troops to join the Cuban patriots who had suffered severe casualties at the hands of the colonial army. The troops landed at Covarrubias Cove, between Maisí and Puerto Padre, near Las Tunas. Oscar de Céspedes, the son of Carlos Manuel, was one of 21 expedition members who were taken prisoner and shot by a Spanish firing squad several months later.
Assigned to the Mambí forces of Camaguey, Ryan’s military experience was put to use by Maj. Gen. Ignacio Agramonte and Gen. Thomas Jordan, a U.S. citizen who had joined the Liberation Army in 1869.
Jordan, who was at the time Chief of Staff for Operations, appointed Ryan as cavalry inspector, and Agramonte later gave him command of the newly formed Camaguey cavalry.
Ryan was promoted to the rank of colonel in the Liberation Army on April 9, 1870, although he is referred to as a brigadier in a military report dated March 23, 1870.
Risking his life many times, the young officer took part in several naval expeditions and more than 30 battles between Spanish and Cuban forces.
He began to have health problems and Céspedes sent him to the United States in August of that year, carrying important letters and the assignment of organizing resources for the war. From that point forward he worked to help organize naval expeditions for the Mambís.
The last expedition of the steamer Virginius was captured in international waters by the Spanish cruiser Tornado, and taken to Santiago de Cuba. Although the munitions had been thrown overboard, 53 of the 102 Cuban expeditionary forces and 65 foreign passengers aboard –including Ryan-- were sentenced to death by court-martial and executed by firing squad.
On November 4, 1873, the executions began, starting with four notable prisoners: Mambí General Bernabe de Varona Borrero (Bembeta) and Colonels Pedro de Céspedes y del Castillo (brother of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes), Jesús del Sol Quesada (Cuban) and William Ryan (Canadian).