Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba / Edition 1

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The first book to establish hurricanes as a key factor in the development of modern Cuba, Winds of Change shows how these great storms played a decisive role in shaping the economy, the culture, and the nation during a critical century in the island's history.

Always vulnerable to hurricanes, Cuba was ravaged in 1842, 1844, and 1846 by three catastrophic storms, with staggering losses of life and property. Louis Perez combines eyewitness and literary accounts with agricultural data and economic records to show how important facets of the colonial political economy—among them, land tenure forms, labor organization, and production systems—and many of the social relationships at the core of Cuban society were transformed as a result of these and lesser hurricanes. He also examines the impact of repeated natural disasters on the development of Cuban identity and community. Bound together in the face of forces beyond their control, Cubans forged bonds of unity in their ongoing efforts to persevere and recover in the aftermath of destruction.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A short but elegant discourse on the powerful role of hurricanes in Cuban history. (Los Angeles Times Book Review)

Responding to hurricanes as a shared experience shaped how Cubans would 'negotiate adversity of all types.' (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Hurricanes, as Louis Pérez convincingly demonstrates, have played a major role throughout Cuba's history, shaping its economic, social, and political trajectory. This book provides a valuable key to the enigma of Cuba's nineteenth-century history. (Luis Mart­nez-Fernández, Rutgers University)

Luis Martinez-Fernandez
Hurricanes, as Louis Pérez convincingly demonstrates, have played a major role throughout Cuba's history, shaping its economic, social, and political trajectory. This book provides a valuable key to the enigma of Cuba's nineteenth-century history.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A short but elegant discourse on the powerful role of hurricanes in Cuban history.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A short but elegant discourse on the powerful role of hurricanes in Cuban history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807849286
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 882,360
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.23 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Louis A. Perez Jr. is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture, winner of the 2000 Bolton-Johnson Prize, and The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography.

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Read an Excerpt

Winds of Change
Hurricanes & the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba

By Louis A. Pérez Jr.

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826138


"I was only three years old," Dolores María de Ximeno wrote of the 1870 hurricane in Matanzas, "and I remember perfectly well the roaring of that storm, the strident, frightful whistling. The painful recollection, the overflowing rivers, the horrifying storm causing ruin and desolation never before seen. I carry the memory of the innumerable deaths and sad scenes of desolation."[1] Inocencia Acosta Felipe was in Havana during the hurricane of October 1926. "I was young then but I remember it clearly," she reminisced fifty years later. "Now I'm more terrified of thunder and lightning. My face turns green and yellow and becomes so disfigured with fear that I look like someone else."[2]

    Almost everyone in Cuba remembers one hurricane in particular—that one encounter with terror, often at an impressionable age. But, then, hurricanes have a way of making an impression at any age. No passage of time seems to dim the memory of the experience or its effects: it is something that people recall clearly and often. The episode can serve permanently to demarcate a lifetime, to persist as the reference point by which people make those profoundly personal distinctions about their lives as "before" and "after."

    To firsthand experiences are often added secondhand accounts, tales transformed into legend and lore, of family tragedies and personal triumphs. The experiences become stories passed down and circulated from grandparents to parents to children, among kin and between friends, recounted so often that they insinuate themselves into the repertoire of reminiscences that others appropriate as their own memories. This is the stuff from which lasting bonds develop, the means by which people come to share those things that give resonance to the proposition of community.

    This is also true of entire towns and cities. Almost every city in Cuba incorporates into local lore the experience of at least one hurricane that so totally ravaged the community that daily life was never quite the same again. It is often a defining experience and eventually passes into shared memory perhaps as much as folklore as history.

    For communities, too, one hurricane in particular often stands out. For Matanzas, it was October 7-8, 1870, when virtually all the homes along the bay front were swept out to sea, most filled with their occupants. More than a thousand people lost their lives, and municipal authorities appealed to the army for assistance to bury the dead.[3] For many towns in the western half of the island, it was September 4-5, 1888, when a powerful hurricane razed vast stretches of western Cuba. "We cannot even begin to calculate the magnitude of the disaster," a military commander in Pinar del Río informed authorities in Havana several days later, "for the roads remain impassable and the rivers have not yet receded into their banks." Residents of Sagua la Grande also remembered September 1888. "There are no words to describe such anguishing moments," recorded the town historian. "The horrible whistling of the wind that sounded like the prolonged moaning of all of humanity, . . . the frightful crash of buildings collapsing, the clash of doors and windows and of zinc siding and tiles and a thousand other objects that whirled in the air crashing against one another driven by the raging elements. . . . And in the midst of all this despair, the screams and ayes that seconded the horrific noises made it sound that the way was being opened to reach the throne of Eternity."[4] Pinar del Río was struck again during October 13-17, 1910, by a storm that assumed legendary proportions as the "five-day hurricane." For Havana, the calamity of October 20, 1926, was etched into popular memory. Some even remembered the exact hour—10:45 a.m.—when winds in excess of 150 miles per hour roared into the capital; more than six hundred people died and tens of thousands were injured. Pablo Medina recalled 1926 as the "worst of the cyclones [to] hit the city . . . , during which fishing boats floated down streets like deserted gondolas, dead cows dropped on rooftops, and houses flew overhead like birds."[5] The only solace was that the hurricane struck during the day. "Had [the hurricane] occurred at night, and in the dark," recalled one survivor, "the number of victims would have reached horrifying proportions."[6]

    The small fishing village of Santa Cruz del Sur remembers November 1932, when a monumental storm wave estimated at more than twenty feet high washed the town away, carrying out to sea more than 2,500 of the total 3,000 residents. Havana was besieged again in 1944, and for hours the capital was buffeted by winds many believed to have approached two hundred miles per hour. Oriente province remembers seven days in October 1963 when Hurricane Flora rained down incalculable destruction; almost all of its rivers—the Cauto, Contramaestre, Salado, Bayamo, Cautillo, Yara, and Camasán—poured over their banks onto the surrounding countryside. Virtually everything in the path of the surging waters was swept away. "All the rivers, creeks, and marshes are out of their beds," Juan Almeida Bosque recorded in his diary at the time, "and now, as if they were a single body, form a vast moving body of water and cause havoc." More than 1,000 persons perished, 175,000 people were evacuated, and 11,000 homes were destroyed.[7]

    The stories of hurricanes are thus passed from one generation to the next, as something lived and later as something learned. The stories develop over time into received knowledge that passes as conventional wisdom, is shared as a common experience, and eventually becomes "historical," hence all-inclusive. "Of the historic hurricane that devastated our native city of Matanzas in the year 1870," playwright Federico Villoch recalled, "we heard our parents recount horrific stories, and we still remember, notwithstanding how young we were, when the day after the storm, we looked from the window of our house on América Street, at passing carts loaded with the dead, victims of the overflowing Yumurí and San Juan Rivers: a horrible experience that we continued to relive in our memory in later years."[8] Bandleader Xavier Cugat also remembered a childhood moment, when his family had just moved into a new house outside Havana:

We were hardly there a month when a hurricane, one of the most ruthless ever experienced, furiously struck. . . . The ones you've seen in newsreels were sunny days in comparison. Our house was not well built. Like a Hollywood rumor, it had little foundation. I thought surely it would be blown over. In fact, my childish fear had me believing the hurricane was the end of the world. When the wind let up somewhat, instead of bringing relief it turned the rain into torrents. Rivers and lakes overflowed. As the waters rose, hopes dropped. Luckily, we had little furniture and belongings to damage. What we had, floated around on the pond that was once our ground floor.[9]

The earliest European accounts of the encounter with Atlantic hurricanes are filled with incomprehension, occasionally assuming fully the form of metaphysical narratives, musings on the larger meanings of the realms of divine signs and malevolent spirits. It was an experience that could induce disquiet and doubt among even the most intrepid conquistadores and colonists.

    Over time hurricanes were incorporated into the cosmology of the Caribbean, and the attending devastation periodically visited on the islands and mainlands was an eventuality contemplated with a mixture of dread and resignation. Storms intruded early in the history of European colonization and settlement. The first recorded European encounter with an Atlantic hurricane appears to have occurred in September 1494 during the second Columbus voyage to the New World. Samuel Eliot Morison suggests that the explorer had been forewarned of the approaching storm by the appearance of "a repulsive sea monster, big as a medium-sized whale with a carapace like a turtle's, a horrible head like a barrel, and two wings." When such creatures came to the surface, Columbus concluded, it was time to prepare for bad weather.[10]

    Storms often destroyed early European settlements, thereby forcing residents to relocate and rebuild elsewhere. During the initial years of colonization, when Europeans did not know better, settlements were established directly in the path of oncoming hurricanes, with tragic outcomes. A hurricane in August 1508 destroyed Santo Domingo at its original location at the Ozama River. Early Spanish colonization efforts in the Gulf of Mexico under Tristán de Luna to settle Ochusa (Pensacola) were frustrated by a powerful hurricane in 1559.[11]

    Hurricanes frequently disrupted maritime commerce and communication, both transatlantic travel and circum-Caribbean shipping. All through the early decades of the eighteenth century, hurricanes played havoc with the merchant fleets of Spain. Notwithstanding efforts to arrange the scheduled sailing of the annual treasure fleet around the Atlantic hurricane season, storms often took a heavy toll on Spanish shipping. In September 1622 almost all the 56 ships of the annual fleet were lost in the Florida Straits. All but one of a 15-ship convoy sank in a July 1715 hurricane. Nearly half of the 30 treasure ships went under in a storm in 1733, and another 5 vessels were lost during a hurricane in 1766.

    The number of settlements across the Caribbean increased steadily, particularly at those coastal points desirable for their seasonal winds and prevailing currents, and for their maritime accessibility to Europe and to the other islands and mainlands. Bays and harbors filled with towns and cities and expanded into the surrounding countryside. But these were also precisely the zones most susceptible to the forces of the great storms. As European colonies developed and population centers increased, so too did the hazards of the Atlantic hurricanes. The colonial economies were exceedingly vulnerable to the vagaries of unpredictable meteorological furies. Indeed, hurricanes often served to set specific limits on the character and course of development by influencing the type of sustainable economic activity.

Hurricanes played an important, often decisive, role in the social and economic development of Cuba. This book examines a time of transformation, the years between the end of the eighteenth century and the middle decades of the nineteenth century, with particular attention to the impact of a succession of three hurricanes during the 1840s.

    Stunning economic development in early-nineteenth-century Cuba was accompanied by spectacular population growth. Land transportation improved, maritime traffic increased, and commerce expanded. The economy developed and diversified in a balanced fashion. Cuban agricultural production generated vast wealth across the island, bringing on one hand prosperity to many thousands of creole and peninsular families and on the other abject poverty and exploitation to hundreds of thousands of African slaves.

    Cuban well-being was always subject to the unpredictable and unseen forces of distant markets. A decline by mere pennies in the world price of Cuban agricultural exports could mean instant ruin. Wars in Europe could have similar effects. So could wars in the New World. Colonial insurrection had rocked the European empires in the Americas, in British North America, in the neighboring French colony of Saint Domingue, and in the far-flung Spanish colonies on the mainland. Producers in Cuba contemplated unfolding political developments around them with deepening disquiet and were appalled on learning of the ruin and devastation attending the New World colonial wars of liberation. In the end, creole elites opted for prosperity over independence, economic security over national sovereignty. This does not mean they did not have grievances. Of course, they did. Rather, they were simply unwilling to risk economic ruin for political gain.

    But it was also true that ruin came in many forms and from many sources, not the least of which were the wind-borne rain-driven calamities of the Atlantic hurricanes. Repeatedly the island was subject to ruinous storms. Hurricanes, though unpredictable, were fairly common occurrences and time and again resulted in staggering losses to life and property.

    What made the hurricanes of the mid-nineteenth century noteworthy were their timing and intensity. During a crucial period in Cuban development, against a larger backdrop of shifting world market forces, the island was struck by three destructive hurricanes in succession—in September 1842, October 1844, and October 1846. These storms permanently changed some of the dominant features of the colonial economy, including land tenure forms, labor organization, and production systems. No less important, many social relationships around which colonial society had developed were reconfigured with lasting consequences.

    Virtually every facet of Cuban life was affected by the great nineteenth-century hurricanes. The storms rearranged the terms by which social classes defined their place in the colonial order and hence transformed their relationship to everything else. They set in relief the colony's relationship to the metropolis and, more significant, placed in full public view many of the assumptions governing the peninsula's administration of the island.

The objective of this study is to insert the phenomenon of mid-nineteenth-century hurricanes into the larger circumstances of the Cuban condition as one more variable in the formation of nation. This is an exploration of environmental history within the framework of the national experience. Specifically, this study examines the ways that the catastrophic storms of the 1840s shaped socioeconomic developments in nineteenth-century Cuba, by which, too, the limits of human agency were defined even as the circumstances of human choice were refashioned. Hurricanes must be viewed as factors—sometimes decisive factors—shaping the options and outcomes to which huge numbers of people were obliged to respond and to which they were often required to reconcile themselves. Indeed, it was precisely at the conjuncture of response and reconciliation that some of the more notable facets of Cuban national development assumed form. Hurricanes and their aftermaths loomed large in the sequence of factors influencing social and economic developments in nineteenth-century Cuba and were deeply implicated in the ways that the nation evolved.

    These were not solely matters of human loss and material destruction, of course, although these consequences should not be minimized or, worse yet, ignored. Just as important are the ways that hurricanes shaped the strategies of economic development, influenced the organization of labor systems, and acted on the social determinants of nationality. This has much to do with the circumstances by which people were bound together as a nation in the face of forces beyond their control, often even beyond their capacity to conceive, in cooperative efforts of long-term recovery and the collective will to prevail.

    Under certain circumstances, the calamities visited on Cuba exposed new realities and larger truths about the colonial condition; about the role of the state, the nature of class structures, the character of slavery and race relations; about kinship and community; and, in the end, about the people that Cubans were becoming. This work considers the hurricane as a flash point by which to illuminate the colonial landscape during a brief but revelatory moment, when complex relationships—between the moral and material, between production systems and political structures, between national character and historical context—suddenly appeared with a clarity never before imagined.

    The material foundations and the well-being of tens of thousands of people, free and slave, were subject to the power of natural forces capable of destroying in a few hours the work of many decades. Urban residents and rural folk alike, their way of life, their occupations and routines of daily existence, were changed permanently and in the process transformed the course of Cuban history. The hurricane entered the cosmology of Cuba as a fact of life, a specter against which people were obliged in the ordinary course of events to mediate the possibility of potential catastrophe with the needs of daily life.

    Because hurricanes were recurring phenomena, they played an important role in forging a people into a nation. They loomed as forces of vast proportions, larger than human effort and negating the proposition of human as center and the measure of all things, but in relation to which people developed inexorable reciprocities in ways large and small, in shared grief and adversity, in individual triumph and collective recovery.

    The preponderance of the historical research has correctly assigned a privileged place to the proposition of human agency: that people, for example—or cultures, or nations—act upon each other as a function of power or in response to powerlessness, with kindly intent or with mischievous purpose, with volition if not always with perfectly understood purpose. The range of this interaction is, of course, endless, but the historiography of the human condition shares common assumptions about the dominant place of human initiative. This study suggests another possibility. That is, there are occasions when human agency is overwhelmed or altogether negated by larger forces against which people are simply powerless to resist and which have the capacity to affect the well-being of communities—both local and national—in ways that are both dramatic and decisive, immediate and long-lasting.

    How individuals responded to adversity as a shared experience—how misfortune and misery were transacted and in the end transformed into a source of empowerment—offers insights into the origins of nation and the character of nationality. These circumstances converted acts of individual heroism into facets intrinsic to the meaning of nation and in the process served to inscribe heroism and sacrifice as commonly shared characteristics by which a people represent themselves to one another and to the outside world. It was also out of this experience that the proposition of national will was forged, in terms accessible to almost all, for the experience was common to almost all. The resolve to put together shattered lives and, more important, the determination to prevail over disruption and disarray, gave decisive form to normative hierarchies by which Cubans would negotiate adversity of all types.

    Hurricanes thus offer an opportunity to examine the larger social circumstances of colonial society in times of stress, the points at which the routines of daily life were interrupted and suspended, when "normal" became impossible. Nothing, perhaps, escapes the searching gaze of the historian as readily as the habits of everyday life, those practices and behaviors so ordinary that they cease to be apprehended at all, even—and, indeed, especially—by the very people who ordered a large part of their quotidian existence around the rhythm of routine. In Cuba, actions repeated day after day, over long periods of time, gave order to the structures by which people organized their daily lives and in the aggregate validated the very appearance of normality of colonial social structures. It was the repetitiousness of the act that etched the grooves by which the boundaries of daily life derived public form and private meaning.

    These were precisely the conditions that were impossible to sustain during the disarray occasioned by the fury of a hurricane. Because people longed to return to routine, previously taken for granted, they could summon up the cognitive categories around which to articulate the ordinary with a newfound sense of self-interrogation—and often urgency—as something to which they sought to return. In that process they gave ordinary life a clarity and texture unimaginable under any other circumstance. Hurricanes disrupted the conventions of custom and made patterns of common practice all but impossible to continue. By shattering the assumptions governing the workings of everyday life, hurricanes thus revealed the social tissue that gave form and function to the Cuban condition.

Not as well known are the larger ecological consequences of the great storms. These issues lie beyond the scope of the present study, but the question merits raising. Long before the Europeans arrived in the West Indies, perhaps even before human life itself appeared on the islands, and certainly throughout the many centuries that followed, Atlantic hurricanes shaped the definitions by which the Caribbean would develop into a distinct historico-geographic region. Storms played a part in the formation of shared regional characteristics. The fauna and flora of the latitudes of Middle America were often dispersed and distributed over the water and across the islands by powerful winds. Winds bearing seeds and spores and transporting birds and insects were the means by which the landscape and ecology of the region were formed over long stretches of time.

    Unknown, either, is how hurricanes of the past, especially the fearsome storms of the nineteenth century, affected resident and migratory birds, no less than local species of wildlife. The hurricanes tore open the canopy of the tropical forests, stripping extensive stretches of trees of leaves, flowers, and fruits. That these developments were simultaneous with the expansion of sugarcane cultivation, which occurred also at the expense of vast acreage of virgin woodlands, combined to contribute to the deforestation of immense regions of central western Cuba. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forestlands were thus affected, with untold if unknown evironmental consequences.


    1. Dolores María de Ximeno, "Aquellos tiempos: Memorias de Lola María," Revista Bimestre Cubana 22 (January-February 1927): 69-70. A slightly different version of this account appears in María de Ximeno, Memorias de Lola María (Havana, 1983), pp. 75-76.

    2. Oscar Lewis, Ruth M. Lewis, and Susan Rigdon, eds., Four Women: Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba (Urbana, Ill., 1977), p. 349.

    3. Francisco Llorente to Lieutenant Governor General, Matanzas, March 30, 1871, file 13, no. 7, Fondo Gobierno Provincial (Cementerio), Archivo Histórico Provincial de Matanzas, Matanzas. For detailed first-person accounts of the 1870 hurricane, see Henry Hall to John Davis, October 15, 1870, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in Havana (1783-1906), U.S. Consular Agent, Cárdenas, to Secretary of State (October 17, 1870), George L. Washington to Henry Hall (October 19, 1870), and James H. Homer to Secretary of State (October 17, 1870), RG 59, GR/State/NA.

    4. Guardia Civil, Comandancia de Vuelta Abajo, "Estractos de los servicios prestados por la fuerza de esta comandancia durante el temporal acaecido en los días 4 y 5 del actual," September 19, 1888, file 194, no. 11026, Fondo Gobierno General, ANC. For Pinar del Río, see also Juan Maldonado, "Documentos sobre noticias acerca del huracán ocurrido en los días 4 y 5 de septiembre de 1888," and Juan Madán to Governor General, September 7, 12, 1888, both in file 194, no. 11026, Fondo Gobierno General, ANC. For Sagua la Grande, see Daniel Mullen to George L. Rives, September 6, 1888, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in Sagua la Grande, RG 59, GR/State/NA, and Antonio Miguel Alcover y Beltrán, Historia de la villa de Sagua la Grande y su jurisdicción (Sagua la Grande, 1905), p. 302. For the devastation in Cárdenas as well, see Carlos Hellberg, Historia estadística de Cárdenas (1893; reprint, Cárdenas, 1957), pp. 141-42, and Herminio Portell Vilá, Historia de Cárdenas (Havana, 1928), p. 167.

    5. Pablo Medina, Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood (Austin, Tex., 1990), p. 38. For another first-person account of the October 1926 hurricane, see Carlton Baily Hurst, The Arms above the Door (New York, 1932), pp. 325-29. As chief of the U.S. Consulate in Havana, Hurst cabled the Department of State at the time that an estimated 30,000 bohíos had been destroyed by the storm. See also Hurst, "Various Damages by the Hurricane of October 20, 1926," 837.48/84, Records Relating to the Internal Affairs of Cuba, 1910-29, RG 59, GR/State/NA.

    6. M. Gutiérrez Lanza, Génesis y evolución del huracán del 20 de octubre de 1926 (Havana, 1927), p. 13; Fernando Inclán Lavastida, Historia de Marianao (Marianao, 1943), p. 149. Among the better accounts of the October 1926 hurricane, see José Carlos Millás, "El huracán de La Habana de 1926," Boletín del Observatorio Nacional 22 (October 1926): 185-225, and "El ciclón del día 20 de octubre," Boletín de Obras P£blicas 1 (October 1926): 312-25; and Eduardo Robre¤o, "El ciclón del 26," Cualquier tiempo pasado fué. . . . (Havana, 1981), pp. 129-30.

    7. José Mauricio Quintero y Almeyda, Apuntes para la historia de la Isla de Cuba con relación a la ciudad de Matanzas desde el a¤o de 1693 hasta el 1877 (Matanzas, 1878), pp. 817-18; Fernando Boytel Jamb£, Hombres y huracanes (Santiago de Cuba, 1978), pp. 110-11; Mariano Gutiérrez Lanza, "Génesis y evolución del huracán del 20 de octubre de 1926," in Simón Sarasola, ed., Los huracanes en las Antillas (Madrid, 1928), pp. 209-33; Juan Almeida Bosque, Contra el agua y el viento (Havana, 1985), p. 86.

    8. Federico Villoch, "Los ciclones," Carteles 25 (November 12, 1944): 6.

    9. Xavier Cugat, Rumba Is My Life (New York, 1948), p. 21.

    10. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, 2 vols. (Boston, 1942), 2:158.

    11. Herbert Ingram Priestley, Tristán de Luna: Conquistador of the Old South (Glendale, Calif., 1936), pp. 108-9.

Excerpted from Winds of Change by Louis A. Pérez Jr.. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 5
Ch. 1 Where Winds Gather 14
Ch. 2 Coming into Being 37
Ch. 3 A Time of Tempests 57
Ch. 4 When Winds Disturb the Surface 83
Ch. 5 Bending to the Force of the Wind 109
Ch. 6 Between the Storms 139
Notes 157
Bibliographical Essay 187
Index 197
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