The First Cities

The First Cities


The founding of the Latin American cities in the 16th Century was the most important process of its kind in the history of humanity as much for the number of cities founded and the huge territory covered by conquistadors and governors in charge of the creation of settlements.

The First Cities

Diego Velázquez arrived in Cuba in 1511 leading 300 men with the mission of conquering and colonizing the island discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. At the time, the island was inhabited by some 200 000 aborigines. They were peaceful people, some dedicated to hunting and fishing and others to agriculture. When the colonization was over four years later, almost all the "Indians" had perished through massacres, epidemics and forced labour, and the territory had been pacified.

It was in that period that Velázquez founded the first seven Cuban towns: Baracoa, Bayamo, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, La Habana, Puerto Príncipe (later Camagüey) and Santiago de Cuba. Some time later, in 1524, Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa founded San Juan de los Remedios.

Around that time Diego Velázquez died, a man who had bad luck both in his public and private lives. He had brought his fiancée with him to the "New World", expecting to govern a wealthy land. He did not find the desired riches and became a widower six days after his wedding. All the expeditions he organized to expand his power and influence on the mainland were a failure and the triumph of Hernan Cortés in Mexico was more than he could bear. One could say he died of envy; certainly his rage may have caused the stroke that killed him in Santiago de Cuba on June 12, 1524 (although some historians say it happened June 11, 1525).

The new settlements were christened, according to Havana historian Eusebio Leal, with the apropos duality of names from the Catholic calendar of saints and the names given by the natives, who had been deprived of their way of life, their cultural expressions, and life itself.

Eight founding towns survived to our time, each with an idiosyncratic image and traditions, full of legends and history where myths and reality merge. Of the seven founded by Governor Velázquez, Baracoa is the only one still in its original location.

The First Cities

First City Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa was the first to be founded; it was the first capital of the island and the easternmost city and, paradoxically, it is the most modern of all the original towns.

Contrary to what might be expected, the architecture of this first Cuban town is not colonial. Except for its important fortress system, the church and some dwellings, Baracoa's architecture is from the 20th Century.

For centuries, the only way to reach Baracoa was by sea, and later, plane. The independence revolution in Haiti at the end of the 18th Century provoked the arrival of some 100 fleeing French families to Baracoa. They began growing coffee and stimulated production of cocoa and coconut. Bananas, so important to the region's economy, came to Baracoa in the early 20th Century sparking great development of the city. But in the 1930s, plagues hit the banana and cocoa plantations and in 1952, export collapsed, plunging Baracoa into ruin.

The city and surrounding area, which was essentially cut-off from the rest of the island, was connected in 1965 by the important La Farola road that divided the Sagua-Baracoa highlands and allowed automotive vehicles to reach the city. The Yunque (anvil), a tall, square mountain 10 km west of Baracoa, dominates the landscape and the city's surrounds of virgin woods and many endemic species that confirm the impression of an untouched area. It is an area that retains strong indications of indigenous character, characteristics noticeable in its people. During parties you can hear the nengón and the kiribá, two of the oldest forms of traditional Son. The city's church guards the most ancient Christian symbol in the Americas. Here lies the Cruz de Parra, one of 29 crosses Columbus left on his first trip and the only one still preserved.

The First Cities

Baracoa also has some very typical dishes, such as cucurucho, a mixture of coconut, lots of sugar and orange, guava and pineapple all wrapped in a palm leaf.

Monument City San Salvador was the second town. It was first built by the Yara River, but was moved due to a better knowledge of Cuban geography and King Fernando's desire to locate it near gold deposits. By the end of 1514 the second town was moved to the indigenous village of Bayamo and became San Salvador de Bayamo, one of the most extensive municipalities of the island. From here Governor Velázquez again left to occupy the rest of the island's territory.

The Spanish Crown's rigid trade restrictions on Cuba turned much of the island's population into smugglers or their beneficiaries. From the 16th Century Bayamo was the most active smuggling centre in the colony. When in 1603 the then governor of Cuba seriously tried to repress it, he discovered that most of Bayamo's population — including its mayors and representatives — were directly involved in the crime. Smuggling made Bayamo one of the most thriving cities in Cuba.

Ten days after Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Father of the Cuban Homeland, started the first war against Spain (October 10th 1868), Cuban patriots occupied the city and declared it the capital of the Republic-in-Arms. On October 20th 1868, in what is today called Plaza del Himno (Anthem Square), the Cuban national anthem was first sung. This is the reason October 20 is Cuban Culture Day.

The First Cities

Bayamo is a National Monument City because the people of Bayamo, before surrendering the city to Spanish troops, decided to burn the city to ashes. Its urban historic center shows a heterogeneous architecture because some of the buildings survived the fire. Among them were some from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the church, now a cathedral, which was partly destroyed and later rebuilt. Of the primitive church remains only the Capilla de los Dolores (1740) with its altar made in wood burnished with gold.

Magical City Velázquez spent Christmas 1513 enjoying the attentions provided by the chieftain of the largest native settlement in the island. This was in the central region about which he had information about large quantities of gold. This prompted him to found Trinidad in the first months of 1514, and some months later found Sancti Spíritus, fairly close by. The lust for gold made Trinidad the most thriving settlement in the colony in the first years after its founding. But the mistreatment of the large number of natives used to mine the precious metal caused a rebellion which, combined with the realization that the tales of vast reserves of gold were untrue caused the city to be practically abandoned by Spaniards. It was left in the hands of the original population and the first Creole people - children of Spanish and natives. The dismantlement of the city was planned several times. It was said that its few white settlers would move to Sancti Spíritus or to the area around Jagua Bay, where the city of Cienfuegos would be created in 1819. Trinidad grew again little by little, at first from smuggling. Later, tobacco and cattle helped until the start of sugar production. After 1820, the old houses were repaired and its brilliant architecture renovated with one of most complete urban layouts in America, which continue to dazzle visitors and gave Trinidad the sobriquet of a magical city.

The First Cities

Something similar happened in Remedios, a town awaiting real discovery with many surprises for those visitors who see it as the door to the paradise of the central region's northern keys. Treasure City Puerto Príncipe was founded near Nuevitas Bay and later settlers, in search of better lands and fresh water, found a new place inland. Natives destroyed the new location and colonists ended up establishing near the indigenous town of Camagüey. Cattle raising soon led to an intense smuggling trade and that wealth made the city prey for pirates.

The economic boom also fostered the birth of an oligarchy of enslaving landowners who influenced the development of Cuban culture and the political processes resulting in the independence conflicts. It is a land of traditions and legends. Reality is entwined with a people's rich imagination. In Camagüey's historic center, half of the buildings have historic, architectural and environmental value. The symbol of the city is the clay pot or tinajón used to capture rain water.

City of Sounds Velázquez founded Santiago de Cuba in 1515, but Hernán Cortés was its first mayor and it became the colony's capital for many decades. To its large bay arrived the first slaves to Cuba. The city is a melting pot of cultures, a sum of encounters and misunderstandings. Intermarriage was more prevalent there than in the rest of the country and the African heritage is an undeniable influence. It is the most Caribbean of Cuban cities, always looking more toward the Caribbean than toward Havana. Its carnivals are among the most appreciated fiestas in Cuba. In Santiago was born the bolero, the son and the conga. It is a city of sounds whose different roots gave it a culture all its own.

The First Cities

Key City By 1519 Havana occupied the place it is now. The bay of Havana became the meeting point for all Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic and it grew in importance for its strategic placement. All the riches from Peru and Mexico passed through this city, and it became known as the "Key to the New World". At one time it was the third most populated city in America, more populous than Boston, New York or Philadelphia and it kept growing throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. An imposing wall protected it from enemy attacks and fabulous mansions and great churches and convents were situated there. It is probably the American city that better preserves its colonial legacy, including its defensive system.