Christopher Columbus, who discovered Cuba on his first voyage in 1492, described it as “the fairest island human eyes have yet beheld.”
Lush with trees and fresh water, Cuba is as big as Pennsylvania (about 43,000 square miles). The climate is balmy but not sweltering. There are some mountains, but most of the land is flat and fertile, with many good harbors for ships.
Colonized from 1511, Cuba also proved to have strategic value.
Lying at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and bordering the Caribbean Sea, it served the Spanish as a base for expeditions to the whole region, including Mexico and Florida. The Spanish soon exterminated Cuba’s native Taino and Ciboney, but other workers were readily found: African slaves.
By the early nineteenth century, the colony’s masters were prospering on exports of sugar, coffee, and tobacco.
As the most precious jewel in the island groups known as the Greater and Lesser Antilles, Cuba earned the nickname “Pearl of the Antilles.”