Churchill Comes of Age: Cuba 1895

Churchill Comes of Age: Cuba 1895

by Hal Klepak


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The untold story of Churchill’s first international adventure, coming of age, and showing for the first time his exceptional characteristics—told with the help of original research into Spanish and Cuban archives and interviews

In 1895, Churchill showed already what kind of man he was going to be, as he went on his first international adventure, saw his 21st birthday, had his baptism of fire, wrote his first military analysis, engaged in his first dicey diplomatic mission, conducted his first intelligence work, found himself in his first major controversy with the press, and was a journalist and indeed a war correspondent for the first time. He engaged in his first political analysis, shamelessly used his connections, and did all of this in what was soon to be known as the "Churchill style." While up to now attention has been put on his Indian frontier and Boer War experience as the most formative moments in his youth, this book shows that his much earlier Cuban trip was really the moment when he "came of age" in almost every sense.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750962254
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Dr Hal Klepak is Professor Emeritus of History and Strategy, Royal Military College of Canada, Senior Research Associate, Institute for the Americas, University College London and Special Adviser to Commander of the Canadian Army for Inter-American Affairs. He spent eight years as a strategic analyst at the Canadian ministry of defense and NATO. He holds a variety of military decorations and was an infantry officer for 16 years. He is the author of nine books, including Cuba’s Military 1990-2005: Revolutionary Soldiers during Counter-revolutionary Times. Glen Hartle is a photographer. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt

Churchill Comes of Age Cuba 1895

By Hal Klepak, Glen Hartle

The History Press

Copyright © 2015 Hal Klepak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6553-8



So little time, so much to do.

This story is a complicated one, full of many of the surprises that seem to almost always accompany Churchill's life. It is important to set the scene for this discussion in order to fully understand the context for this formative experience of the man we later come to know so much more fully and who, in William Manchester's delightful phrase, showing the traits that would make him famous and a hero for countless millions around the world, 'saved civilization'.

The year of Churchill's visit to Cuba, 1895, began as one more or less typical of the period of the Pax Britannica, which had dominated the global political scene since the victory over Napoleon eighty years before in 1815. That political context had seen a series of arrangements reinforcing European peace that had passed through what was known as the Concert of Europe and, after the great revolutions of 1848, subsequent alliances and balances of power, was moving steadily into the seemingly firm peacetime blocs of the 1882 Austro-German-Italian Triple Alliance and the 1892 Franco-Russian Alliance.


Just as important to world peace as the balance of power in Europe was, as the name Pax Britannica implies, the unmatched power and strategic reach of Great Britain in the century following Waterloo and Trafalgar, and the opposition of London to the outbreak of regional conflicts in Europe that might damage British trade, and increasingly British investments in Europe and in the growing colonial empires of several of the countries of the continent. In a quip of the time, 'Britain wishes to keep the rules in Europe so she can break them everywhere else.' That is, British policy aimed generally, but with exceptions, over time, at measured expansion outside its already established empire, joined to diplomacy and military influence aimed at peace in Europe.

British naval power, unequalled in the history of the world at that point, ranged over the world's oceans, made and broke governments, assisted some governments and political movements while stymieing others, pressured reluctant governments to move in directions sought by London, brokered peace treaties, established blockades, ended piracy and helped massively in ending the international slave trade. With improvements in communications, especially the telegraph after mid-century, the Admiralty could increasingly coordinate those efforts with its worldwide deployments based on the major naval bases along eventually all the world's major seaborne trading routes: Halifax, Bermuda, the Falklands, Simonstown (South Africa), Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Aden, Suez, Singapore and Hong Kong, and of course greater India and the British Isles themselves. The resulting 'All Red Route', named thus after the red colour usually used to portray the British Empire on maps of the time, meant a maritime empire with its solidity and communications assured by the might of the Royal Navy, a force able to best those of any other two naval powers combined, if war did come. If it had been the lands of the seventeenth-century Spanish Empire that were first termed 'the empire on which the sun never sets', it was the British Empire of the nineteenth century to which that term has best applied.

Wars had nevertheless broken out in Europe during the course of the Pax Britannica in the period 1815–1914. Some, such as the Italian wars of national unity, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Franco -Prussian War of 1870–71 and the Crimean War of 1854–56, had been major struggles involving more than one great power. But no war had engaged the full efforts of all or even most of the great powers over that 100 years, which was novel in the context of the constant warfare on that continent in previous centuries. This relative peace was what made the period so special and such a 'golden age' for those who were soon to face the horrors of twentieth-century warfare in geographical scope, weaponry employed, frequency and scale of destruction.

The British Empire seemed to many to epitomise this era of peace, leading as it did so many of the advances of the age in government, industry, science and the arts. London was a vast metropolis, the largest the world had seen, and Britain's cities and their industries produced the finished products of the empire and much of the rest of the world. Britain was by far the greatest trading nation in the world, its biggest investor, its most important centre of international finance, and the home of its greatest merchant navy, as well as its greatest fleet. The Union Jack and British subjects were almost guaranteed respect in most of the world and British influence, and, often enough, pretentions, seemed boundless.

While in some key areas of industrial production there were reasons for concern, such as the growth of German steel production in the immediately preceding years, or the rise in the importance of the Paris Bourse for international development and loans, the splendid overall dominance of Britain went largely unchallenged. Indeed, the peaceful context for world commerce provided by the Royal Navy was most welcome to other trading nations such as France, Germany, the United States, Italy and Japan, and even more so to smaller trading states such as the Netherlands or the Scandinavian countries.

Germany's challenge to Britain on the high seas was still in the future. And, though its financial and trading competition was beginning to be felt, that challenge was hardly central to British concerns of the time. France remained suspicious of Britain but was so engaged in its deep difficulties with a united Germany that it could spare scarce time or effort to think of competing. Russia's ambitions in Asia, to be sure, could conflict with Britain's but there too British naval power allowed for powerful force to keep those elements of Russian landward expansion into that continent at bay.

Britain's empire included protectorates or informal arrangements, such as those with the emirates of the Persian Gulf, as well as formal territorial domination. Even more striking were dominant commercial and other connections with important developing states such as Argentina, the 'informal empire' as it was often called. The end of the 'first British Empire' with the independence of the United States in 1783 seemed a far-away memory compared with the often thrusting expansion of the 'second Empire' especially after mid-century. Australia and New Zealand became new settlement colonies on something of the model of Canada, the administration of India, the 'jewel in the crown', was regularised after the mutinies of 1857, real expansion to obtain the 'Lion's Share' of Africa had begun, South East Asian colonies such as Malaya and Hong Kong saw truly modern development trends come into play, and Britain seemed to be top of the pack in most valued fields. Churchill was a classic product of this empire and of this era of peace. But this visit was to be to a colony of another European empire – that of Spain.


Spain of 1895 could hardly have presented a more contrasting picture to that of Britain. The once greatest empire in the world, defender of Catholicism at home in Europe in the face of the Reformation, standard bearer of that faith outside Europe, its dominions included the Low Countries, Portugal, including for a time (1580–1640) its vast empire, large parts of Italy and Germany, the majority of Central and South America, with, in name at least, North America, and the islands of the Caribbean Sea, the Philippines, the Marianas and Guam. It had by now fallen on hard times indeed.

The gold of Peru, silver of Mexico, and other precious metals, woods and high-value goods had for long ensured the access of the Spanish Crown to power, and to vital loans as well. For two centuries the great treasure fleets had assembled in Havana, waiting for the Spanish Navy to escort them to Cádiz in one of the famous flotas (fleets). And, though corsairs and pirates, usually from England, Holland or France, were only occasionally able to seriously disrupt the arrival of the fabulous wealth of the Indies, Spain had to spend vast sums to deter or defeat them.

But all this was a thing of the past. Spain in the eighteenth century went from one disaster to another. The century opened with a war over the Spanish royal succession. It was not only largely conducted by foreign forces but Spain itself became a battlefield instead of being, as it had been for well over two centuries, the source of invading forces heading for other lands. Its new dynasty, a branch of the Bourbons, tried to establish the closest of links with its northern neighbour and such 'family compacts' brought great advantages to Spain, which needed the modernisation and new ideas of a France then dominating European politics, military affairs, thought and culture. But those connections also helped to bring new wars which almost always ended with Spain being on the losing side. Indeed, the rise of British and, before that, Dutch naval power was largely at the expense of a Spain unable to find an effective reply to the challenges Britain and the Netherlands posed to its imperial status. Soon, as the American naval thinker and strategist Alfred Mahan pointed out in the 1890s, the Spanish Empire was transformed into a maritime empire, but with insufficient naval power to support that status, a combination doomed at some time to extract a high price.

By the end of the eighteenth century, though Spain had lost much of its island empire in the Caribbean, it had at least been able to hold on to most of its continental possessions in the southern part of the Americas. Even this was not to last and the new century was to prove even more disastrous. Madrid tried everything it could to stay out of or at least profit from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, but instead found itself at various times an ally or even a vassal state, and was further humiliated by French occupation and the imposition of one of Napoleon's brothers on its throne. Its honour was only saved by national resistance of epic proportions, which caused unending grief to the occupiers and was crucial in assisting the British, eventually under the Duke of Wellington, in driving the French out. The guerrilla, or guerrilla warfare, the Spanish waged at this time became the model for others including much of what came to be seen in Cuba later in the nineteenth century.

As if this were not enough, that usurpation of the throne and invasion gave the opportunity, over the years after 1808, for some of the once deeply loyal colonies of Spain in the Americas to be taken over by less loyal elements of the local aristocracies and militias. Anti-Spanish revolutions were soon sparked in much of the region and no metropolitan forces were available to quell them: Spain needed to drive out the French invaders before even thinking of countering separatist movements thousands of miles away. While local royalist forces were initially very effective at dealing with the rebels, with time and a combination of Madrid's bad government and the metropolitan army's incompetence, the forces of independence eventually got the upper hand. By 1826, after some three centuries of colonial rule, all of Spain's continental American possessions had become independent and Madrid proved powerless to reassert its rule anywhere. Spain in the Americas retreated to its bastion, long-time base and 'always loyal' colony of Cuba, with its small and dependent island territory of Puerto Rico, sole places where the colours of the Spanish 'bicolor' still flew in the western hemisphere. Elsewhere the vast empire was reduced to the Philippines, some smaller island neighbours in the western Pacific region, and tiny posts surrounded by Morocco in North Africa.

Spain for decades then went from one system of government to another, reactionary absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, from one dynastic pretender to another, and from one civil conflict to another. Modernist and traditionalist forces vied for power with no decisive victor until the civil war a century later. The economy, weak at the best of times, suffered the consequences. The Spanish Navy ceased to be a serious force, and the army became almost totally engrossed in politics and thus the arbiter of the national destiny. Under such circumstances little attention was paid to good colonial government or reform, and the general conclusion from the Spanish-American revolutions seems to have been that Spain had been too gentle to the locals and should have adopted an even more intransigent line than the one which had largely brought about those risings.

In the decades before Churchill's visit to Cuba, Spain had had a series of unstable governments, none of which could grasp the nettle of real economic progress, significant governmental reform, including of colonial administration, or military modernisation and depoliticisation. While the country would still know some economic progress in the boom times of the second half of the nineteenth century, it tended to be minor in comparison with other large European states.

Frustrations with its decline also led to often ill-conceived attempts to relive former glories. In the 1860s, Spain sought to take advantage of the essentially suspended status of the Monroe Doctrine caused by the United States Civil War to regain some influence in the Americas. This doctrine, issued by President Monroe in 1823, and more importantly backed by the power of Britain and its fleet, stated that the region was no longer available for further European colonisation. Spain defied this ban, in order to back France in its ill-starred attempt to establish a European monarchical regime in Mexico, by briefly re-establishing Spanish rule in the Dominican Republic on the advice of particular political elements in that troubled country, and by creating a context in which a rogue Spanish admiral was able to range the Pacific coast of South America bombarding Chilean and Peruvian ports in a contemporary but preposterous attempt to re-establish Spanish influence.

Such moves brought little prestige and no profit to the Spanish Crown. The monarchy was actually abolished following the 1868 September Revolution, though re-established under a different dynasty three years later. That dynasty likewise soon succumbed and, in the face of a weak Republican movement and a discredited Republican experiment, the Bourbons were soon back on the throne having, once again in that dynasty's history, 'forgotten nothing and remembered nothing'. Socialism invaded key sectors of the growing mining and industrial parts of the economy, and anarchism became a force to reckon with, including serious terrorist actions in many places over the last years of the century with attempted and sometimes successful assassinations of both politicians and members of the royal family. In 1895 Spain had a population of 18.5 million of which 64 per cent was illiterate and 65 per cent of the labour force was in agriculture, figures among the highest in Europe.


The Cuba of 1895 was greatly changed from the 'siempre fiel' garrison island of seventy years earlier. Several generally small conspiracies, often similar to slave risings of the past, had taken place in the years between the achievement of independence by continental Spanish-American states and the outbreak of revolution in Cuba in the latter year. More troubling, a real independence movement had been developing as Spanish abuses had continued, no autonomy or even colonial dignity was granted to the island for its past loyalty, and taxation grew to unsupportable levels.

Successive sugar booms of the decades prior to 1895 had, however, done much to cool such separatist sentiments. The west of the island in particular was peaceful and little inclined to revolution, though disgust at Spanish rule was widespread even there. In the poorer east, dissatisfaction was almost generalised. The differences between the two halves of the long island had been meaningful and deep-seated almost since initial settlement in the west had followed close upon that of the east. Oriente, as the east was called, had known much less sugar-related development and continued to have a more varied economy, one more dependent on other products such as coffee and tobacco. It had likewise been hit not only by more hard times but also by more destructive hurricanes than the west in the years immediately preceding Churchill's visit.

Repeated promises by Spain to reform colonial administration, and especially to grant a special status within the empire to the island, had resulted not in progress but in backward movement. Cuba had always been governed by a military governor, never therefore knowing civilian rule, a situation with no parallel among the major colonies of Spain. In addition, despite its loyalty, large and sophisticated white population, and massive contributions to imperial finances, Cuba was never allowed any sort of status in the empire beyond that of a simple colony and military base. And all attempts to have a government on lines similar to what was known in the British Empire, and especially in nearby British islands and even in Canada, were met with stony rejection by Madrid.


Excerpted from Churchill Comes of Age Cuba 1895 by Hal Klepak, Glen Hartle. Copyright © 2015 Hal Klepak. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 1895: A Year and a Context,
Chapter 2 Cuba? An Idea and a Plan,
Chapter 3 The Multifaceted Adventurer,
Chapter 4 Cuba: Arrival and Deployment,
Chapter 5 Oh Bliss! Coming of Age and Coming under Fire,
Chapter 6 The Sequel: Immediate and Long Term,
Chapter 7 Myths and Realities: 'Se non è vero è ben trovato,
Chapter 8 The Young Churchill as Political Analyst,
Chapter 9 The Young Churchill as Military Analyst,
Chapter 10 The Impact of the Cuban Adventure,
The Cuban Adventure Chronology,

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