Amongst the great ‘masters’ who helped shape the destiny of the Caribbean people, one finds the name José Marti. For the student of history, this Cuban hero stands shoulder to shoulder with Tousaint L’Ouvertue of Haiti and Simon Bolivar of the South Americas as an individual who shaped the future and defined a beginning for his homeland. He finds a place next to Roume de St. Laurent, who established a population in Trinidad, and other Caribbean statesmen such as Marryshow of Grenada, Adams of Barbados, Williams of Trinidad, and Bustamante and Manley of Jamaica.
Cuba escaped the colonial wars that destroyed the Spanish empire in the west. Its first great struggle for freedom from Spanish colonial rule came in 1868, more than forty years after independence had been won in Venezuela, when the lawyer, Carlos Manuel Cespedes, led an uprising and declared Cuba independent. Most of the fighting took place in the wild mountain country to the east of the island. It lasted ten years and expressed itself in bitter guerilla warfare. During this terrible period, a Santo Domingan, Maximo Gomez, burned his name in the pages of Cuban history.
Cespedes was killed by th Spaniards in 1873. Support came from the rebels from the United States, and gun-running was big business. Spain reacted with the sinking of the U.S. merchantman ‘Virginius’ and executed fifty-three of her crew.
Peace eventually was brokered, which lasted 17 years. During this period, José Marti came of age. The son of a ropemaker, he was born in Havana in 1853. Poor, he however excelled in school. He empathised with the war for freedom and published patriotic poems and opposed, with others, the forced enlistment into the Spanish army. For this he served six years hard labour.
In this way, this 16 year old boy, grave and serious beyond his years, worked in a stone quarry in Havana with iron shackles on his legs.
Today the quarry is a national monument preserved in memory of those who served there. Pardoned part way through his sentence, Marti was exiled to Spain, where he attended a university at Saragossa and achieved a law degree. From there he travelled in Europe and associated with the thinkers and writers of his time, eventually making his way to Mexico and thence to Cuba under a false name. He made the creation of a revolution his life’s work. He created cells amongst Cuban cigar workers in Florida, exiles in New York and Cubans in Mexico and Jamaica - a superhuman undertaking of the same degree as that of the great liberator Bolivar. Professor Phillip Sherlock in a paper on Marti describes him as ‘a flaming sword’ and thinks of him like Toussaint in Haiti. He is described as a man with a rare combination of gentleness , patience and strength of steel.
The flame in him kindled a flame in others. He wrote and published, he created and maintained a network. He reminded them “To many generations of slaves must succeede one generation of martyrs,” and he was willing to be one. He sought nothing but freedom for Cuba. He declared “What I must say before my voice is silenced and my heart ceases to beat in this world, is that my country has all the virtues necessary for the conquest and maintenance of her liberty.”
In exile in New York City, he organised the return of General Gomez and planned the arming of the revolution. In 1895, the uprising came to the little town Baire in the province of Oriente, near to Santiago. José Marti joined the revolution in his beloved Cuba, and despite the appeals of friends and comrades in arms, put himself under the storm of bullets, cannons and cold steel of the Spanish army. His friends appealed ro him to stay in the rear of the battlefield. They knew he was not a warrior, that he was a man of ideas. But his brave heart took him to his destiny. Sword in hand he met his death and glory was his forever.
The Spaniards seized the body, put it on display and then buried it deep. At this moment, José Marti’s death did more than the living man could have done. The news of his death roused a passion for rebellion. For three years the struggle lasted. Slowly but surely, Spanish power was broken. Then the battleship ‘Maine’ of the United States was blown up in Havana harbour. This brought the U.S.A. into the war and the end came quickly.
No man’s memory is so loved and honoured in Cuba as Marti, whom they call ‘the Apostle’.
In this time of difficulty and oppression in Cuba, let us not loose faith in the people who gave José Marti to the Caribbean and to the world.