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The disaster of 1898 

Towards the end of the 19th century European countries were very keen to acquire new colonies in the far east and in the ‘Race for Africa’, with the new nations of Belgium and Germany eager to compete with the established imperialists of Britain, France, Portugal – and Spain. Over on the other side of the Atlantic the infant power of the USA was flexing its muscles and waking up to the fact that it too could be a player on the colonial stage. Of all of them, Spain was the oldest and longest established, having conquered and maintained its world-wide empire centuries before, mainly because there had been no competition. Its hold, however, was always weak, tyrannical and unpopular, and led eventually to the wars of independence in South America in the early 19th century. Now the newcomers were casting covetous eyes over unclaimed places on the globe, and the Spanish dominions.

After a dispute in 1886 with Germany over the sovereignty of the Carolinas Islands, north of New Guinea in the Pacific, Spain woke up to the insecurity of its colonies. It began to take measures to strengthen its military capabilities. But Spain’s confidence in itself had shallow foundations and when the United States backed insurgents in Cuba Spain made the disastrous mistake of going to war in what became “The Disaster of 1898”.

Spanish rule in Cuba and the Philippines was opposed by nationalist movements that were encouraged by the United States, who provided assistance in applying political pressure and supplying arms, munitions and money. The nationalist movement in Cuba, where government was “shameful” and corrupt, was gaining strength and when the upper classes and the army of mainland Spain urged war against the Cuban insurgents, the government sent General Weyler, the Captain-General of Barcelona, “to subdue the islanders by fire and sword.” This resulted in “the horrors of his concentration camps” that in turn made intervention by USA inevitable.

An excuse for war arrived with the explosion in the Cuban port of Havana of the North American battleship “Maine” on the 15th February 1898. The North American press had no hesitation in blaming Spain for the crime. The USA issued an ultimatum which Spain rejected outright, followed by a declaration of war on 25th April. The huge imbalance, in numbers as well as means, which existed between the American and Spanish armies and navies favoured the Americans in both cases, but the foreseeable consequences were not taken into consideration – the dignity and prestige of Spain had been offended.

The war lasted only three months. For Spain it proved an impossible task to defend such a dispersed empire. To do this successfully it would have had to possess a strong economic base, an effective modern navy and international alliances capable of opposing the expansion of the United States, all of which it lacked.

After several disastrous defeats, the Spanish government requested an armistice on 18th July and finally capitulated in the month of August. Then its “ragged and disease-ridden defeated army returned to Spain.”

On the 10th December 1898 the Treaty of Paris was signed between Spain and the United States that put an end to the war. By the terms of the treaty, Spain completely renounced all claims of sovereignty and possession of Cuba, where the war had begun, which soon afterwards, on 1st January 1899, was occupied by the United States. But by the treaty, sovereignty was confirmed to Spain of the territories that were not included in the forfeit; these were the archipelago of the Marianas to the east of the Philippines, the Carolinas and Palaos, and the islands of Sibutu and Cagayan of the Philippines. However, these possessions did not remain in Spanish hands for long, the Marianas were sold to Germany in 1899, and the islands of Sibutu and Cagayan in 1900 to the United States for 300,000 dollars. In addition, in exchange for compensation of 20 million dollars, Spain ceded the Philippine Islands, the island of Puerto Rico and others in the West Indies, to the USA.

Spain was thoroughly demoralised, it had lost most of its empire, but still it had to look after what was left, which included the archipelago of the Canaries, which was a tempting morsel for any aspiring imperialist, conveniently situated off Africa and on several trade routes.

Santa Cruz was the defensive stronghold of the Canaries. It already possessed a coastline full of military works; the three castillos of Paso Alto, San Cristobal and San Juan, the three gun batteries of Almeyda, San Francisco and San Miguel, and the ‘explanada’ of San Pedro. But now work began to improve them; annexes were built to Paso Alto and Almeyda, and the battery of San Juan, near the castillo of San Juan where work had begun in 1889, finally received its armaments. Construction, which had begun in 1897, went on apace at the battery of El Bufadero, although it was soon realised that the danger had passed and the battery was not armed until 1914. New batteries were built at San Carlos near the petrol refinery and La Cortina between Paso Alto and San Miguel, however this last one had to wait until 1901 to receive its six guns. Another battery, Alfonso XIII, in the Barranco del Hierro, came a little later, in 1901.

On Friday 9th March 1900 a British troop ship on its way to the Boer War in South Africa called at Santa Cruz to refuel with coal. From the ship all the onshore activity of construction could be witnessed. One of the soldiers on board recorded that:

“There was quite a busy scene at the north end of the town. We were anchored off that part, about half a mile out, and in 45 fathoms of water. At this point there is an old fort, which a big body of men were enlarging. The armament consists of three large guns and a masked howitzer battery. Near the centre of the town, on the sea front, are two more batteries, one consisting of four large guns, and the other of four small ones. From where we were anchored we could just see the tower of the Cathedral. At the south end of the town there are two new large forts and an old one lies between them. At all of them alterations were going on; so the place is pretty well fortified.”

So, after the horse had bolted, the Spanish government was shutting the stable door.

But “the Disaster of 1898” had one good effect, it led to “the Generation of 1898”, which was a cultural reaction, a stocktaking and soul-searching by Spanish writers, poets, artists and intellectuals, that was both pessimistic and optimistic, who asked the question, “What is Spain?” Both the ‘Disaster’ and the cultural movement actually brought Spain out of its self-imposed isolation; Spain had to own up to its real identity, the belief in its self-importance had gone. Incidentally, one of the best known authors of this period was Benito Perez Galdos, a native of Las Palmas.

A final thought: It’s also worth considering that Spain’s fear for the Canary Islands, after 1898 and the loss of most of its empire, might have been without foundation, because, unlike Cuba, or the Philippines, or the small islands of the West Indies, there were too many well-established international financial interests here, British in particular, but including Germans and French. If the Americans had threatened the Canaries in the War of 1898, there would have been very serious and much wider repercussions.

Main References:

Exhibition in the Military Museum of Almeyda, Santa Cruz

Historia de la Artilleria en Tenerife, Amador Garcia Arguelles, Idea Ediciones, 2010

The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, Canto Edition, 1990

The Black Angel, Colin Bardgett, Bookcase, 1997