The Ladies of Havana
The Ladies of Havana
The often forgotten history of the Cuban women that financed America’s Independence
Cuba Helped Win American Independence
What in the world could Cubans have to do with The United States of America’s independence? If you say nothing, you’d be wrong and possibly surprised to learn that much of American independence is owed to Cubans.
Yes, that I said correctly. You read that right. And here is what Historian Stephen Bonsal famously said about this fact.
“The millions donated by the ladies of Havana can be considered as part of the foundation on which the American nation was erected (Stephen Bonsal).”
While France’s role in helping Americans fight the British and win independence is well documented, history books often dismiss the key contributions of yet another well-known neighbor and superpower, Spanish Cuba, and in particular their freedom-seeking residents, Cubans or Cuban Creoles by which they self-identified.
Spain and Cubans both had a vested interest in the U.S. winning their independence from Great Britain. Spain did not want another British conquest of their coveted Havana as had occurred in 1762 for an entire year. Forced to trade Florida for Cuba with the British left Spain with an insatiable appetite for revenge which they sought in 1777 by fiscally and militarily aiding their enemy’s foe.
Cuban Creoles on the other hand hated the British as a result of the British invasion of Havana in 1762. During that period of British occupation, Cuban businesses were looted (Orlando Sentinel Article by Myriam Marquez, 1992).
Cuban Soldiers Fought in the American Revolutionary War
In 1777, Spain set out to reconquer western Florida, this time for the Americans “with the aid of an army largely composed of Cuban men that included free slaves and mulattoes among their ranks.” (Carlyle House Docent Dispatch). Spain sent thousands of Cuban troops and supplies from Cuba to fight battles at the city of Mobile and the British West Florida capital of Pensacola.
Of the 7,000 troops that fought the British in West Florida until their surrender in 1779, a total of 4,000 were Cuban troops. It was a Cuban commanding field marshal, Juan Manuel Cagigal Monserrat, that deployed Cuban troops to block the British from escaping by both land and sea. By 1779 the British began to surrender to the Spanish after suffering 100 casualties at once from an explosion of their gun powder depot.
Cuban-Creoles Financed Battle of Yorktown
Cubans — people born on Cuban soil over many generations and several hundred years who also called themselves Americans — all desired to attain their own independence from Spain. Most were convinced that if the U.S. won its independence from England, Cuba would follow suit eventually. That fight for freedom would endure yet another 100+ years, unfortunately.
Americans may be surprised to learn that American independence was built on the fortune of wealthy Cubans and Cuban women, in particular, known as The Ladies of Havana. These women, belonging to numerous patriotic organizations, donated their jewelry, diamonds, and approximately 1.2 million pounds sterling to General George Washington in his moment of greatest financial need. These interesting facts about this event in U.S. History are described in this document from Carlyle House of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and in this article on translatingcuba.com.
It was 1781 nearing the end of the American Revolutionary War and American forces were nearly bankrupt with only two months of financial resources remaining to support their army operations. Their soldiers were without clothing and shoes. General Washington’s initial urgent request for funds to American financier Robert Morris went unanswered.
His next request to French ally Comte de Rochambeau in Haiti and Santo Domingo went answered but neither in money nor manpower. Rochambeau instead sent a young Admiral De Grasse to get the money Washington needed from Cuba on August 15, 1781.
Washington’s urgent request for money was delivered to the recently appointed governor of Cuba, Juan Manuel Cagigal y Monserrat, the same military officer that helped the Spanish fight off British forces from Pensacola. But Cagigal didn’t have all the money either and instead sought it from its Cuban residents.
A total of 1,200,000 French livres (equivalent to $457 million today) were donated to Washington by private Cuban donors and the Cuban municipal treasury. Many of these private donors were wealthy Cuban women known as the Ladies of Havana who graciously and selflessly surrendered their valuable jewels and lavish possessions for the cause.
Author Barbara A. Mitchel describes this collection in her article published on historynet.com as follows:
In a dramatic last-minute effort, often overlooked in histories of the war, most of the needed funds were raised within six hours in Cuba, in an emergency collection from the people of Havana (Barbara A. Mitchell).
The critical battle their generosity funded in the autumn of 1781 ended in the defeat of Cornwallis in Yorktown.
Why Cubans Helped Americans
One not familiar with the history may question how women in 18th century Spanish Cuba were allowed to own such wealth and luxuries. Women under Spanish law had rights and privileges not enjoyed by women in North America until the early 20th century. They were recognized as individual members of Spanish society with the right to own property, inherit money in their own name, and even divorce their husbands. This was the message they inscribed on their contributions according to Yeni Alvarez.
“So the American mothers’ sons are not born as slaves.” (Ladies of Havana)
What is most amazing about this inscription is its documented date of 1781; 100 years before the end of slavery.
The well-to-do Ladies of Havana and Cuban citizens contributed their wealth and fought for American Independence for one reason alone: Freedom. They did it to help bring freedom to all the Cuban people, their people. Slaves were their people too. Los Mambises: The original freedom fighters.
How sad to think that today, 250 years later they are still fighting for Freedom. #SOSCuba #11J #CubaPaLaCalle #AbajoLaDictadura #PatriaYVida