Havana, today the capital of Cuba, was the main Spanish port in the Caribbean and the largest city on the island of Cuba. It served as the center of the Spanish Caribbean government and was the most important city for trade in the region. Havana was notable as the final port of call for the Spanish treasure fleet before its return trip to Europe.
Havana was founded by Spanish settlers in 1510 who arrived from the neighboring island of Hispaniola. After several attempts to form a colony, they ultimately succeeded at Havana’s location thanks to the presence of a large natural bay. Havana location on the Gulf Stream winds allowed ships to easily east, and its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico made it an ideal station between Mexico and the trade routes home to Europe. These advantages caused Havana to develop into the primary port of the Spanish colonies.
The port’s status as a center of trade led to frequent pirate attacks. Havana was raided in 1555 by the French privateer Jacques de Sores, who burnt most of the city to the ground. To counteract such attacks, Spain constructed extensive fortifications in the city. Havana soon became one of the safest ports of the region, and it was not successfully attacked until British forces occupied it in 1762.
Havana served as the gathering place and final port of call of the Spanish treasure fleet. This was a large flotilla of treasure galleons that carried gold and silver from Spain’s mainland colonies back to Spain itself in Europe. The Spanish crown ordered that the ships wait in Havana Bay until September, when the entire fleet would depart together under protection from the navy. The fortresses of Havana and its location near the easterly trade winds made it the ideal place for these vessels to gather. This helped to further enrich the city, making it a magnet for merchants carrying New World goods, who could sell them for transport to the markets in Europe.
Despite Havana’s status, it did not immediately become the capital of Cuba. That title belonged to Santiago, known today as Santiago de Cuba, on the southeast end of the island. Santiago remained the capital from 1522 until 1589, at which point it was replaced by Havana.
In 1762, British forces besieged and captured Havana as part of the Seven Years’ War. This dealt a significant blow to Spain’s naval power and its prestige, marking the first time Spain had ever lost such an important colony. The port remained under British occupation until the end of the war, when it was returned to Spain under the Treaty of Paris of 1763.
Havana was the site of the USS Maine incident in February 1898, which ignited the Spanish-American war and brought the United States into the ongoing Cuban War of Independence. Havana was occupied by U.S. forces during the nation’s temporary control of the island before it was granted its independence. Havana remained the capital of independent Cuba, both before and after the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.