Despite the massive bibliography on Cuba’s revolution, remarkably few books in English cover the island’s story from its earliest days. This alone justifies Richard Gott’s claim to be providing A New History. Hugh Thomas’s 1971 Cuba—the inevitable comparison—starts only in 1762, with the British invasion of Havana that gave a major boost to the import of slaves and the sugar industry, and stops with the early years of the Revolution. Gott begins with the irruption of the Spanish adventurers in 1511, although he provides some sense of the shifting indigenous populations, Taínos, Guanahatabeyes and Siboneys, who made their way up from the mainland’s Orinoco delta through the vast Caribbean archipelago in pre-Colombian times; and he brings the story of the Cuban revolution up to the present day. Gott is also more concerned to trace historical continuities: geographic and climatic determinants (including those ‘malignant forces which took the form of winds of awesome proportions’ that the Taínos dubbed the huracán); piracy and corruption; social and racial strife; the pervasiveness of Africanity and the terrified white consciousness of neighbouring Haiti; all in the context of an overarching dependence on foreign empires, whether Spanish, British, American or Russian.

Gott points out that, paradoxically, it was the intensity of transatlantic rivalries that helped to keep Cuba in Spanish hands until the end of the 19th century, long after the vice-royalties of the Spanish empire had fallen to local settler armies elsewhere in Latin America—‘rather as, in another part of the world, the Turkish empire was kept alive into the 20th century by Europe’s great powers, lest worse befall’. Spain’s final ouster in 1898, three years after José Martí and his comrades launched the island’s last war of independence, was forced by us arms. Yet without some understanding of the dynamics of 19th-century Spanish history, the ineptitude of Madrid’s policies in the build-up to Cuban independence cannot be appreciated. This is admittedly not Gott’s field, or that of most non-Hispanic historians of Cuba. It required the persistence and insights of Raymond Carr to penetrate the intricacies of civil wars and pronunciamientos, explain the failure of the liberals to push through a bourgeois revolution, and clarify the symbiotic relationship between civilian politicians and soldiers which was a unique feature of 19th-century Spanish liberalism. Conversely, until the post-Franco historiographical explosion and the spate of conferences on the centennial of 1898, Spanish historians showed little interest in Cuba and its problems (excellent work is now being done, especially in Catalonia). The brilliant literary talents of the Generation of 1898, Unamuno and Valle-Inclán among them, likewise ignored Cuba in their obsession to explore the roots of national decline. No peninsular novels were set against the background of the Spanish–American war. Not even Pérez Galdós—whose family, like so many other Canary Islanders, had emigrated to Cuba—touched on the subject in his 19th-century vignettes, Episodios nacionales. Only the half-English Ramiro de Maeztu, himself of planter stock, analysed 1898 from a Cuban perspective; but his articles were buried away in obscure left-wing journals. He is better known for his 1934 essay, Defensa de la hispanidad. This prototype ideology of post-imperialism showed how former powers come to terms with loss of empire by pre-empting a moral high ground: a species of surrogate imperialism with which we are now only too familiar.

Gott nevertheless grasps two crucial aspects of Spanish history. One is developed more fully in a highly original article, ‘Karl Krause and the Ideological Origins of the Cuban Revolution’, published as an Institute of Latin American Studies paper in 2002 (perhaps the editors at Yale took fright at the prospect). In it, Gott explores the significance of Krause’s Religion of Humanity, which became the philosophical substitute for any dissenting religion in Spain from the 1850s, a dominant force in the universities and an inspiration to reformers as the source of cultural and moral regeneration. Krausismo was a powerful influence on Martí, as a student in Spain in the 1870s; and, through him, on the young law graduate Fidel Castro eighty years later, inspiring him to defend the superiority of moral over material incentives. Equally important was Krause’s emphasis on the primacy of educational reform—he had been a close associate of Froebel—which, in its application after 1961, would make Cuba the envy of the Americas; not to say a world medical power. (Arguably, this has been the Revolution’s greatest achievement. Because Cuba now produces technical cadres from a wide spectrum of society, it can offer ambitious foreign aid and scholarship programmes to underdeveloped countries which far surpass those available from richer powers.)

Secondly, Gott gives due weight to Cuba’s character as a settler society, akin to colonial Rhodesia or Algeria. Spanish immigrants who did not become creolized, whether by marrying white creoles or free blacks, remained an unassimilated group, bound to their (largely northern) peninsular roots by a complex network of familial, regional and financial links based on remittances. This encysted minority dominated commerce, excluding most creoles, and was to remain intact until challenged by the nationalist reaction against it in the 1933 Revolution.

The Spanish settlers’ ability to defy Madrid was shown by their response to the September Revolution of 1868. After General Juan Prim had overthrown the Bourbon monarchy, they proved determined to resist all manifestations of Cuban nationalism, as well as the liberal reforms of the revolutionary government. When an independentist revolt by the planters of Oriente then broke out in eastern Cuba, led by Céspedes, Madrid was faced with an island rebellion on two fronts. In practice, the peninsulares were a state within a state, with their own militia, the voluntarios, armed and financed by wealthy merchants. To put Gott’s excellent account of the voluntarios into context, two points need stressing. Firstly, the powerlessness of Prim. The 1868 Revolution had radicalized the mother country, encouraging a rumbustious republican opposition that throve on provincial grievances and promised to abolish conscription; soldiers sent to demolish barricades often mutinied. In the Basque provinces, the Carlists were stirring. Other political challenges came from Bakuninist anarchism and Marxist socialism.