The Spanish-Cuban-American War: the archaeology before archaeology

By Odlanyer Hernández-de-Lara, Johanset Orihuela & Boris Rodríguez

The Spanish-Cuban-American War is one of those important historical conflicts that have not been tapped deeply enough, even less so from an archaeological point of view. Because of this war, the United States became a commanding and imperialistic world power, of which Puerto Rico is still a vestige. At the time, Cuba was involved in its own War of Independence from Spanish rule; a War that had started in 1895, and by 1898, the Cubans had victory in the horizon. Soon after the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor, the relations between Spain and the US worsened, until the Declaration of War was announced. However, several days before, US forces had already begun a blockade of the western coasts of Cuba. For them, a “splendid little war” had begun, as Secretary of State John Hay called it. The end of the war is perhaps as well known: the destruction and sinking of the Spanish fleet, the siege of Santiago de Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. But who remembers or even knows about the bombardment of Matanzas?

Archaeological research has been conducted in several of its battlegrounds of this war, with the main interests focused on the most famous battles, such as those of San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba. Nevertheless, what do we know about the beginning of the war? The beginning of this conflict has not been highlighted enough and has been as a result, nearly forgotten. The official media of the US and Spanish sources have minimized the bombardment as a mere “practice” or military exercise, in which the technologically superior US showed off its prowess; maybe as a prelude to its future position on the military world stage. May of the news sources in general and the jingoist and yellow press in particular hinted at the evident economic advantage for the news business, surely, because these news interests were desirable and had a market. They were vested. Yet, the “simple” bombardment in Matanzas Bay, on April 27, 1898, is more complex than it seems. Precisely, such complexity has generated an archaeological project, directed and organized by Progressus Heritage and Community Foundation in association with the Conservator’s Office of the City of Matanzas. This project seeks to research the dynamics of this conflict, the defensive and offensive strategies involved, and interpret the role of the press in the world impact of this “insignificant” military action, and its impact on the war itself.

But why “archaeology before archaeology”? This project is still in its infancy. We are currently revising all the historic, published accounts, geographical, toponymical, and other documentary evidence from which to focus the initial field archaeology reconnaissance and research. We have begun, logically, from the known historical accounts and witness accounts. With the information gathered so far, a new image of the conflict is emerging. It is fabulous to discover the diversity of the engravings dedicated to Matanzas bombardment, not only those made in the US and Spain but also ones made in France and Italy. It is intriguing that the theme of one of the first motion pictures in the history of cinematography was dedicated to this “insignificant” encounter.

We are also analyzing some of the first archaeological artifacts associated to the bombardment. These include projectiles found on the coastline, which had been fired by the US fleet of battleships under command of rear admiral William T. Sampson, which is being studied to gain a deeper understanding of the military actions of the bombardment. Overall, the evidence we have gathered so far promises to change the known history, and this is only the beginning!

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Figure 1: The American fleet in Matanzas, Walter Russell, 1898.

Figure 2: Projectiles found in 1998 around El Morrillo battery.