Biography of Antonio Maceo, Hero of Cuban Independence

General Antonio Maceo
Cavalry charge led by General Antonio Maceo, from a painting, 1890s.

 Interim Archives/Getty Images

Antonio Maceo (June 14, 1845-December 7, 1896) was a Cuban general considered to be one of the greatest heroes of the nation's 30-year struggle for independence from Spain. He was given the nickname "The Bronze Titan" in reference to his skin color and heroics on the battlefield.

Fast Facts: Antonio Maceo

  • Full Name: José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo Grajales
  • Known For: Cuban independence hero
  • Also Known As: "The Bronze Titan" (nickname given by Cubans), "The Greater Lion" (nickname given by Spanish forces)
  • Born: June 14, 1845 in Majaguabo, Cuba
  • Died: December 7, 1896 in Punta Brava, Cuba
  • Parents: Marcos Maceo and Mariana Grajales y Cuello 
  • Spouse: María Magdalena Cabrales y Fernández
  • Children: María de la Caridad Maceo
  • Key Accomplishments: Led Cuban independence fighters in their 30-year struggle against Spain.
  • Famous Quote: "No whites nor blacks, but only Cubans."

Early life

Of Afro-Cuban ancestry, Maceo was the first of nine children of Venezuelan-born Marcos Maceo and Cuban-born Mariana Grajales. Marcos Maceo owned several farms in the rural town of Majaguabo, in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.

Maceo became interested in politics early in life, joining a Masonic Lodge in the city of Santiago in 1864, which was a hotbed of insurrectionist sentiment against Spain. At the time, Cuba was one of the few colonies Spain still controlled, as most of Latin America had gained its independence in the 1820s under the leadership of liberators like Simón Bolívar.

Antonio Maceo
Antonio Maceo Grajales portrait from Cuban money.  johan10 / Getty Images

The Ten Years' War (1868-1878)

Cuba's first attempt to gain independence was the Ten Years' War, which was kicked off by the "Grito de Yara" (Cry of Yara, or call for insurrection) issued by eastern Cuban plantation owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who freed his slaves and incorporated them into his rebellion. Maceo, his father Marcos, and several of his brothers quickly joined the mambises (as the rebel army was called) with the full support of mother Mariana, known as the "mother of the nation" because of her unwavering dedication to Cuban independence. Marcos was killed in battle in 1869, and Maceo was wounded. However, he had already risen quickly in the ranks because of his skill and leadership on the battlefield.

The rebels were ill-equipped to take on the Spanish army, so they avoided large battles and focused on guerilla tactics and sabotage, such as cutting telegraph lines, destroying sugar mills, and attempting to hinder commercial activity on the island. Maceo proved himself to be a brilliant guerilla tactician. According to historian Philip Foner, "he depended upon surprise, swiftness, and the confusion and terror that his troops aroused as they fell suddenly on their enemy: their gleaming machete blades brandished on high and fierce war whoops piercing the air."

Maceo's battalions always freed the slaves when they captured sugar mills, encouraging them to join the rebel army by emphasizing that abolition was a major goal of the independence struggle. However, Céspedes believed in gradual emancipation, contingent on the success of the insurgence against Spain. He wanted to appease slaveholders and bring them over to the rebels' side without forcing them to choose between slavery and independence. Although he eventually came to believe that slave abolition was crucial for independence, conservative forces (particularly landowners) within the insurgency disagreed and this came to be a particularly divisive issue among rebels.

Dominican-born Máximo Gómez, who had become the leader of the rebel army in 1870, realized in late 1871 that in order to win the war, the rebels would have to invade western Cuba, the richest part of the island, where the largest sugar mills and majority of slaves were concentrated. Just as Abraham Lincoln eventually understood that freeing U.S. slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation was the only way to disrupt the Confederacy's economy by depriving it of its labor force, Gómez recognized the need to induce slaves to join the rebels' struggle.

It took three more years for Gómez to convince Céspedes and the rebel government to take the war to western Cuba with Maceo as a key leader. However, conservative elements spread slander about Maceo, stating that his tactic of freeing slaves would result in another Haitian Revolution, where black people would take over the island and kill white landowners. Thus, when Gómez and Maceo arrived in the central province of Las Villas, the soldiers there refused to accept Maceo's orders and he was called back to eastern Cuba. The rebel government ended up going back on the agreement to invade the west.

By 1875, the rebel army controlled the eastern half of the island, but dissension within the rebel government continued, as did racist rumors about Maceo favoring black soldiers over white ones and wanting to form a black republic. In 1876 he wrote a letter rebutting these rumors: "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."

In 1877 a new Spanish commander entered the war. He went on the offensive against the rebel army, sowing dissension in the ranks and reinforcing racist lies about Maceo. In addition, Maceo was seriously wounded. In 1878, the president of the rebel republic, Tomás Palma Estrada, was captured by Spanish troops. Finally, on February 11, 1878, the Treaty of Zanjón was signed between the rebel government and the Spanish. Slaves who were freed during the war were allowed to maintain their freedom, but slavery was not abolished and Cuba continued to be under Spanish rule.

The Baraguá Protest and Guerra Chiquita (1878-1880)

In March 1878, Maceo and a group of rebel leaders officially protested the treaty in Baraguá and refused to sign it, even though he had been offered a large sum of money to accept it. He then left Cuba for Jamaica and eventually New York. General Calixto García, meanwhile, continued to encourage Cubans to take up arms against the Spanish. Maceo and García met in Kingston, Jamaica, in August 1879 to plan the next uprising, La Guerra Chiquita ("The Little War").

Maceo was in exile and did not participate in La Guerra Chiquita, which was led by García, Maceo's brother José, and Guillermón Moncada. Maceo survived various assassination attempts by the Spanish while in exile. The rebel army was ill-prepared for another war and García was captured in August 1880 and sent to prison in Spain.

The Interwar Years

Maceo resided in Honduras between 1881 and 1883, during which time he began to correspond with José Martí, who had been in exile since 1871. Maceo moved to the U.S. in 1884 to join the new independence movement and, along with Gómez, secure financial support for a new uprising. Gómez and Maceo wanted to attempt a new invasion of Cuba right away, while Martí argued that they needed more preparation. Maceo returned to Cuba for much of 1890, but was forced to go into exile again. In 1892 he returned to New York and learned of Martí's new Cuban Revolutionary Party. Martí viewed Maceo as indispensable for the next revolutionary expedition to Cuba.

The War of Independence (1895-1898) and Maceo's death

The War of Independence, the final struggle for Cuban independence, began on February 24, 1895 in eastern Cuba. Maceo and his brother José returned to the island on March 30, with Martí and Gómez following a few weeks later. Martí was killed in his first battle on May 19. Understanding that a failure to invade western Cuba was the cause of defeat in the Ten Years' War, Gómez and Maceo made this a priority, and began the campaign in October. As he moved westward, Maceo gained the respect and admiration of both black and white rebels. Although western Cuba had supported Spain during the Ten Years’ War, the rebels were finally successful in invading Havana and the westernmost province of Pinar del Río in January 1896.

Spain sent General Valeriano Weyler (nicknamed "the Butcher") to take over the Spanish forces, and his primary goal was to destroy Maceo. Although Maceo won several victories over the course of the year, he was killed in battle on December 6, 1896 in Punta Brava, near Havana.

Legacy

Gómez and Calixto García continued fighting successfully, largely due to Gómez's strategy of torching sugar mills and disrupting the colonial economy. 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.

No independence leader was more committed to the abolition of slavery than Maceo, nor was any other leader as reviled by Spanish forces and targeted by their racist propaganda. Maceo understood that Cuban independence would mean nothing if his Afro-Cuban compatriots remained enslaved.

Sources

  • Foner, Philip. Antonio Maceo: The “Bronze Titan” of Cuba’s Struggle for Independence. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.
  • Helg, Aline. Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.