"The Antilles' flower-- The true Key of the Gulf-- Must be plucked from the crown Of the old Spanish Wolf."
--anonymous poem, displayed on placard Aug. 5, 1853,
by Cuban exiles serenading Pierre Soule,
newly appointed ambassador to Spain,
on the eve of his departure for Madrid
Cuba, the "Antilles' flower", was no garden for the thousands of African slaves annually imported to its shores--more like a charnel house. Despite the slave trade's cessation in 1808, despite Great Britain's mandates that any illegally imported slaves be automatically freed and taught a trade, a slave in Spanish Cuba had only the narrowest chances of surviving seven years on the island's sugar plantations.
Yet Cuba was still the jewel in Spain's crown, especially after the loss of Louisiana, Florida, Mexico--all her New World possessions saving only Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Spain clung to the island and its vast sugar revenues, despite the difficulties of national defense; despite the machinations of creoles (native born Cubans) hungry for home rule; despite the constant threat of revolt from slaves and "emancipados" desperate for freedom.
Cuba, "pearl of the Antilles," was a pearl of great price for American as well. The North would have her at almost any price--up to $130,000,000--as a hedge against the Anglos-French imperialist threat. The South, too, dreamed of annexation and actively fomented rebellion--to buttress its waning power in the House and Senate, to stave of emancipation's threat to its dream of slavocracy south to Brazil and west to the Pacific.
But Cuba was to be the dream on which the slavocracy wrecked its hopes in the years leading up to the Civil War. "The Ostend Manifesto" discredited a pro-South administration, destroyed a diplomatic career, and helped mobilize public opinion in the 1854 and '56 elections that eventually paved the way for Abraham Lincoln's 1860 victory.
Cuba . . . was to be the South's first lost cause . . . though not its last.