“Under a Palm Tree, Waiting for a Sail”

September 4, 1869

Michael Angelo Woolf

“Under a Palm Tree, Waiting for a Sail”

Analogies, Literature; Symbols, Cuba; U.S. Foreign Policy; Wars, Cuban War for Independence; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Cuba; Latin America; Spain;

Tennyson's "Enoch Arden"

In this cartoon, the personification of Cuba hopes the United States will aid her rebellion against the Spanish government.  The image is based on Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "Enoch Arden" (1864), about a shipwrecked seaman and his wife who awaits (for a while) his return.  In this cartoon, Cuba, although female, appears in the role of the stranded sailor searching the sea for his rescuers.  "Under a palm-tree" refers to a biblical passage that provokes a dream the wife misinterprets as revealing her husband's death (so she remarries).  The artist may have included it to equate the American government's refusal to intervene with mistakenly giving up Cuba for dead.

Spain had ruled Cuba since the early sixteenth century, but by the mid-nineteenth century relations between Cubans and Spanish officials had become strained.  Fed up with high taxes, trade restrictions, administrative corruption, and near exclusion from government office, Cuban nationalists rebelled against their Spanish overlords in 1868.  The bloody guerrilla war, fought primarily in the eastern provinces, was Cuba's first war of independence, and lasted for a decade before ending in failure in 1878.

When Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency in March 1869, two foreign policy issues dominated his attention:  the Cuban revolt, and the demand (known as the Alabama claims) that Britain make financial restitution for allowing Confederate ships to be built or refitted in British shipyards during the American Civil War.  The Grant administration faced intense pressure to intervene on behalf of the Cuban rebels.  Leading the charge were James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s New York Herald, Charles Dana's New York Sun, a wealthy Cuban exile community in New York City, and Congressman John Logan of Illinois.  Some interventionists revived the controversial proposal that the United States annex Cuba; others viewed national independence and slavery abolition in Cuba as analogous to America's War of Independence and Civil War.

Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, however, was opposed to U.S. military intervention, and President Grant was inclined to agree with him.  Fish feared that the fight would probably be costly in terms of American lives and money, at a time when the United States was still recovering from its own bloody and expensive Civil War.  Also, since the United States condemned Britain's indirect aid to the Confederacy (the Alabama claims), American recognition of the Cuban belligerency (a step Britain did not take for the Confederacy during the American Civil War) would undermine its negotiating stance as hypocritical.  Military aid or intervention would, of course, undercut the American position even more.  Furthermore, the Cuban rebels had no government and held no territory, and Fish ridiculed the Cuban exiles' ability to form a viable government.

The issue, though, divided the Grant cabinet nearly in half, with Secretary of War John Rawlins as the leading interventionist.  Rawlins's position was in line with his previous public call for the withdrawal of all European powers from the Western hemisphere.  However, unknown to others in the cabinet, the Cuban exiles had given the American war secretary bonds, worthless at the time, but which could earn him $28,000 if the island colony gained its independence.  

In early April 1869, the U.S. House passed a resolution sympathizing with the Cuban revolt and encouraging Grant to recognize its belligerent status.  War fever rose during the summer, with mass meetings held across the United States, and the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans' association, proclaiming its readiness for battle.  Some Americans took matters into their own hands by organizing private military expeditions ("filibusters") to Cuba.  On July 14, Grant issued an executive order banning the filibusters.  Spanish officials, not taking the time to distinguish between filibusters and fishing vessels, stopped all American ships, sometimes resulting in arrests, imprisonment, and a few executions of American citizens.  An infuriated Grant ordered American naval vessels from the Pacific to reinforce the Caribbean fleet.

With a clash between the American and Spanish navies imminent, Spain notified the United States that it wished to negotiate a settlement.  Spain would grant Cuban independence and abolish slavery in return for a large cash indemnity from the sale of Cuban bonds guaranteed by the United States.  In turn, the United States would gain free trade for American products entering Cuban markets, and authority over Cuba's other tariff rates.  However, in late July, the U.S. minister to Spain, Daniel Sickles, informed Secretary Fish that the Spanish government was at odds over the settlement; at the same time, a resurgence of violence erupted in Cuba.  

Before leaving on vacation, President Grant gave Secretary Fish a proclamation recognizing Cuban belligerency and asserting American neutrality.  On August 14, as fighting escalated in Cuba, Grant wrote Fish to release the document to the public.  The secretary of state simultaneously received the president's letter and a cable from Sickles stating that the Spanish were ready to deal. Fish convinced Grant to give Sickles more time, and the proclamation was never published.  

At a cabinet meeting on August 31, Rawlins, who was dying of tuberculosis, made one last impassioned plea for military intervention.  Although all his cabinet colleagues and the president were moved by Rawlins's words, Fish calmly delineated the numerous reasons against intervention.  Grant then announced his decision:  the United States would remain neutral, but would mediate the dispute if both parties agreed.  The issue temporarily subsided in the United States.  Negotiations proved unsuccessful, but Grant reiterated America's neutrality in his annual presidential address to Congress in December 1869.  

However, the issue of Cuba resurfaced in June 1870 when a Congressional resolution, of dubious constitutional merit, was drafted recognizing Cuba's status as a belligerent.  President Grant sent a message to Congress in which he firmly outlined reasons against intervention.  After two days of heated debate, the resolution failed.  In 1873, the United States again nearly entered the war in Cuba after the Spanish captured the American naval ship, Virginius.  In 1878, the first Cuban war of independence (or Ten Years' War) ended with Spain agreeing to only minimal reforms.  The situation remained tense, and a second revolt occurred in 1895, with the United States finally intervening three years later in the Spanish-American War.  After the quick victory of the United States military, Cuba remained an American protectorate until the Republic of Cuba was established in 1902.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Under a Palm Tree, Waiting for a Sail”
December 6, 2023

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