Havana is the
capital city, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city
forms one of the 14 Cuban provinces, the province called "Ciudad de La
Habana" (City of Havana). With a
city population of more than 2.3 million, and a metropolitan area population of
over 3 million, Havana is the largest city in both
Cuba and the Caribbean
region, ninth in Latin America. The City is
one of the smallest in terms of area of the Cuban provinces, but the most
populated. It is located just over 144 kilometres (90 miles)
south-southwest of Key West, Florida, situated on the northwest coast of Cuba,
facing the Straits of Florida, and is surrounded by Havana Province to the
south, east, and west.
Havana is one of
the oldest cities founded by Europeans in the Western
Hemisphere. It was first established in 1515, and became the
capital of Spanish Cuba in 1552. In the 16th century, the city was attacked and
burnt several times by pirates, buccaneers and French corsairs; Jacques de
Sores was the first French corsair that attacked the city. Like many colonial
cities in coastal areas, the Spanish walled the city to protect it from attacks
by pirates and foreign powers. The explotion and sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine
harbor in February 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War.
Old Havana and
its fortifications are protected by UNESCO.
During the 18th and 19th
became a flourishing and fashionable city.
Wealth and power was concentrated in
the city, because of its dual role as Cuba's colonial capital, and as the
focus of the Spanish colonial trading system. Havana soon boasted much monumental
architecture and prosperity amongst the burgeoning middle-class, and this led
to many lavish classical mansions being erected. At the time, Havana's
theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age; during this period,
known as the Paris of the Antilles. Nowadays, the capital is the center of the
Cuban government, and various ministries are based in the city, as are the
headquarters of businesses located in Vedado, such as Corporación Cimex. Like
many capital cities, Havana
generates a disproportionate amount of the island's industrial output and holds
the lion's share of the island's service economy.
area and its natural bay were first visited by Europeans during Sebastián de
Ocampo’s circumnavigation of the island, in 1509.
Shortly thereafter, in 1510,
the first Spanish colonists arrived from La Hispaniola and thus the Conquest of
Conquistador Diego Velázquez de
Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1515 on the
southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó. Between 1514 and 1519,
the city had at least two different establishments. All attempts to found a
city on Cuba's
south coast failed. The city's location was adjacent to a superb harbor at the
entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, and with easy access to the Gulf Stream, the
main ocean current that navigators followed when traveling from the Americas to Europe.
This location led to Havana’s early development
as the principal port of Spain's New World colonies.
An early map of Cuba drawn in 1514 places the town at the mouth
of the river Onicaxinal, also on the south coast of Cuba. Another establishment was La
Chorrera, today in the neighbourhood of Puentes Grandes, next to the Almendares River. The final establishment,
commemorated by El Templete, was the sixth town founded by the Spanish on the
island, called San Cristobal de la Habana by Pánfilo de Narváez: the name
combines San Cristóbal, patron saint of Havana, and Habana, of obscure origin,
possibly derived from Habaguanex, an Indian chief who controlled that area, as
mentioned by Diego Velasquez in his report to the king of Spain. A legend
relates that Habana was the name of Habaguanex's beautiful daughter, but no known
historical source corroborates this version.
Havana moved to
its current location next to what was then called Puerto de Carenas (literally,
"Careening Bay"), in 1519.
The quality of this
natural bay, which now hosts Havana's
harbor, warranted this change of location. Bartolomé de las Casas wrote:
...one of the ships, or both, had
the need of careening, which is to renew or mend the parts that travel under
the water, and to put tar and wax in them, and entered the port we now call
Havana, and there they careened so the port was called de Carenas. This bay is
very good and can host many ships, which I visited few years after the
Discovery... few are in Spain,
or elsewhere in the world, that are their equal...
Shortly after the founding of Cuba's first
cities, the island served as little more than a base for the Conquista of other
lands. Hernán Cortés organized his expedition to Mexico from here.
Cuba, during the first years of the Discovery,
provided no immediate wealth to the conquistadores, as it was poor in gold,
silver and precious stones, and many of its settlers moved to the more
promising lands of Mexico
and South America that were being discovered
and colonized at the time. The legends of Eldorado and the Seven Cities
of Gold attracted many adventurers from Spain,
and also from the adjacent colonies, leaving Havana
and the rest of Cuba
originally a trading port, and suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates,
and French corsairs.
The first attack and burning of the city was by the French
corsair Jacques de Sores in 1555. The pirate took Havana easily, plundering the city and
burning much of it to the ground. De Sores left without obtaining the enormous
wealth he was hoping to find in Havana.
Such attacks convinced the Spanish Crown to fund the construction of the first
fortresses in the main cities — not only to counteract the pirates and
corsairs, but also to exert more control over commerce with the West Indies,
and to limit the extensive contrabando (black market) that had arisen due to
the trade restrictions imposed by the Casa de Contratación of Seville (the
crown-controlled trading house that held a monopoly on New World trade). To
counteract pirate attacks on galleon convoys headed for Spain while loaded with New World treasures, the
Spanish crown decided to protect its ships by concentrating them in one large
fleet, that would traverse the Atlantic Ocean
as a group. A single merchant fleet could more easily be protected by the
Following a royal decree in 1561, all ships headed for Spain were required to assemble this fleet in
the Havana Bay. Ships arrived from May through
August, waiting for the best weather conditions, and together, the fleet
departed Havana for Spain by September.
This naturally boosted commerce
and development of the adjacent city of Havana
(a humble villa at the time). Goods traded in Havana
included gold, silver, alpaca wool from the Andes, emeralds from Colombia, mahoganies from Cuba and Guatemala,
leather from the Guajira, spices, sticks of dye from Campeche, corn, manioc, and cocoa.
from all over the New World carried products first to Havana,
in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. The thousands of ships
gathered in the city's bay also fueled Havana's
agriculture and manufacture, since they had to be supplied with food, water,
and other products needed to traverse the ocean. In 1563, the Capitán General
(the Spanish Governor of the island) moved his residence from Santiago
de Cuba to Havana,
by reason of that city's newly gained wealth and importance, thus unofficially
sanctioning its status as capital of the island. On December 20, 1592, King
Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City.
Later on, the city would be officially designated as "Key to the New World
and antemural of the West Indies" by the
Spanish crown. In the meantime, efforts to build or improve the defensive
infrastructures of the city continued.
The San Salvador de la Punta castle
guarded the west entrance of the bay, while the Castillo de los Tres Reyes
Magos del Morro guarded the eastern entrance. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza
defended the city's center, and doubled as the Governor's residence until a
more comfortable palace was built. Two other defensive towers, La Chorrera and
San Lázaro were also built in this period.
greatly in the 17th century. New buildings were constructed from the most
abundant materials of the island, mainly wood, combining various Iberian
architectural styles, as well as borrowing profusely from Canarian
characteristics. During this period the city also built civic monuments and
religious constructions. The convent of St Augustin, El Morro Castle, the
chapel of the Humilladero, the fountain of Dorotea de la Luna in La Chorrera,
the church of the Holy Angel, the hospital
of San Lazaro, the
monastery of Santa Teresa and the convent of San Felipe Neri were all completed
in this era.
In 1649 a fatal epidemic brought
from Cartagena in Colombia,
affected a third of the population of Havana.
On November 30, 1665, Queen Mariana of Austria,
widow of King Philip IV of Spain,
ratified the heraldic shield of Cuba,
which took as its symbolic motifs the first three castles of Havana: the Real Fuerza, the Tres Santos
Reyes Magos del Morro and San Salvador de la Punta. The shield also displayed a
symbolic golden key to represent the title "Key to the Gulf". On
1674, the works for the City Walls were started, as part of the fortification
efforts. They would be completed on 1740.
By the middle of the 18th century Havana had more than seventy thousand inhabitants, and was
the third largest city in the Americas,
ranking behind Lima and Mexico
City but ahead of Boston and New York.
brought continued international attention, and the city was unexpectedly seized
by the Royal Navy. The episode began on June 6, 1762, when at dawn, an
impressive British fleet, containing more than 50 ships and 14,000 men, sailed
into Cuban waters, by August the British had Havana under siege. The city was
subsequently governed by Sir George Keppel on behalf of Great Britain.
The British seized the city as part of the Seven Years' War, they immediately
opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean
colonies, causing a rapid transformation of Cuban society. Food, horses and
other goods flooded into the city, and thousands of slaves from West Africa were transported to the island to work on the
under manned sugar plantations. Though Havana, which had become the third
largest city in the new world, was to enter an era of sustained development and
closening ties with North America, the British occupation was not to last.
Pressure from London
by sugar merchants fearing a decline in sugar prices forced a series of
negotiations with the Spanish over colonial territories.
Less than a year after
seized, the Peace of Paris was signed by the three warring powers thus ending
the Seven Years' War. The treaty gave Britain Florida in exchange for Cuba on the recommendation of the French, who
advised that declining the offer could result in Spain
and much of the South American mainland to the British.
After regaining the city, the
Spanish transformed Havana into the most heavily
fortified city in the Americas.
Construction began on what was to become the Fortress of San Carlos de la
Cabaña, the biggest Spanish fortification in the New World.
The work extended for eleven years and was enormously costly, but on completion
the fort was considered an unassailable bastion and essential to Havana's defence.
provided with a large number of cannons forged in Barcelona. Other fortifications were
constructed, as well: the castle of Atarés defended the Shipyard in the inner bay, while
the castle of El Príncipe guarded the city from the
west. Several cannon batteries located along the bay's canal (among them the
San Nazario and Doce Apóstoles batteries) ensured that no place in the harbor
cathedral was constructed in 1748 as a Jesuit church, and converted in 1777
into the Parroquial Mayor
church, after the
Suppression of the Jesuits in Spanish territory in 1767. In 1788, it formally
became a Cathedral. Between 1789 and 1790 Cuba was apportioned into an
individual diocese by the Roman Catholic Church.
On January 15, 1796, the
remains of Christopher Columbus were transported to the island from Santo Domingo. They
rested here until 1898, when they were transferred to Seville's
Cathedral, after Spain's
loss of Cuba.
shipyard (named El Arsenal) was extremely active, thanks to the lumber
resources available in the vicinity of the city. The Santísima Trinidad was the
largest warship of her time. Launched in 1769, she was about 62 meters long,
had three decks and 120 cannons. She was later upgraded to as many as 144
cannons and four decks. She sank following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
This ship cost 40.000 pesos fuertes of the time, which gives an idea of the
importance of the Arsenal, by comparing its cost to the 26 million pesos
fuertes and 109 ships produced during the Arsenal's existence.
As trade between Caribbean and
North American states increased in the early 19th century, Havana became a flourishing and fashionable
theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age, and prosperity
amongst the burgeoning middle-class led to expensive new classical mansions
being erected. During this period Havana became
known as the Paris of the Antilles.
The 19th century opened with the
arrival in Havana of Alexander von Humboldt, who was impressed by the vitality
of the port. In 1837, the first railroad was constructed, a 51 km stretch
between Havana and Bejucal, which was used for transporting sugar from the
valley of Guines to the harbor. With this, Cuba became the fifth country in
the world to have a railroad, and the first Spanish-speaking country.
Throughout the century, Havana
was enriched by the construction of additional cultural facilities, such as the
theater Tacon, one of the most luxurious in the world, the Artistic and
Literary Liceo (Lyceum) and the theater Coliseo. In 1863, the city walls were
knocked down so that the metropolis could be enlarged. At the end of the
century, the well-off classes moved to the quarter of El Vedado. Later, they
emigrated towards Miramar,
and today, evermore to the west, they have settled in Siboney. At the end of
the 19th century, Havana witnessed the final
moments of Spanish colonialism in America,
which ended definitively when the United States
was sunk in its port, giving that country the pretext to invade the island. The
20th century began with Havana, and therefore Cuba, under occupation by the USA.
the Bank of Nova Scotia opened the first branch in Havana. By 1931 it had three branches in Havana.
Republican period and
Under American influence, the city
grew and prospered. Numerous luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were
constructed in the 1930s to serve Havana's
burgeoning tourist industry. Santo Trafficante, Jr. took the roulette wheel at
the Sans-Souci, Meyer Lansky directed the Riviera, and Lucky Luciano, the National
Casino. At that time Havana
became an exotic capital of gambling and corruption where gangsters and stars
were known to mix socially.
A gallery of black and white portraits from the era
still adorns the walls of the bar of the National Hotel, including pictures of
Frank Sinatra with Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. In 1958 about
300,000 American tourists visited the city. One of the most well-known to the
world was the American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who quoted "in
terms of beauty, only Venice and Paris surpassed Havana",
Hemingway wrote several of his famous novels there and lived the last 22 years
of his life.
After the revolution of 1959
"efforts" were made to improve social services, public housing and
official buildings. Nevertheless, shortages that affected Cuba following
Castro's nationalization (without pay to its former owners) of all private
property and businesses on the island and along with this declaring private
property illegal followed by the U.S. embargo hit Havana especially hard; much
of the city is crumbling without sufficient resources to preserve the old
buildings from the effects of the tropical climate, government abandonment, and
Following a severe economic downturn after the collapse
of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the
billions of dollars they gave the Cuban government, the government has
increasingly turned to tourism for financial support. Most of this new tourism
comes from Canada and Europe. A major effort has gone into rebuilding Old
Havana for tourist purposes and a number of streets and squares have been