Feeding the Cuban Insurgents
By Patrick McSherry
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showing a Cuban Insurgent camp
The Cuban Insurgents had to resort to foraging off the land to feed
themselves in lieu of a centralized commissary system. This article
provides information on their most commonly utilized food supplies.
The Cuban insurgent army under General
Maximo Gomez continually struggled with supplies of all sorts, but
particularly with food. The main reason was that the Spanish Governor
General of Cuba, Valeriano Weyler, introduced
his Reconcentration Plan. Under the Reconcentration
Plan, the Cuban people were removed from their land, with
orders to relocate to central locations and to bring their cattle and any
food supplies they could carry. The goal of the plan was to starve the
insurgents of their supply of men and food. However, the Reconcentration
Plan resulted in untold deaths among the Cuban population and only
partially succeeded in its goal of starving the insurgents.
Additionally, the Spanish military had created a “trocha”during the Ten
Years War and revitalized it by the time of the Spanish American War. The
trocha was in the spirit of the Berlin Wall of the 20th Century. It was a
long 150 to 200 yard wide zone carved across the country with many
fortifications and blockhouses where troops were garrisoned, and who would
guard the strip of land to keep people from crossing over from one portion
of the island to the other. In this way, the insurgents could possibly be
zoned off, reinforcements limited, supplies limited, and insurgent
incursions beyond the trocha alleviated. In addition, the trocha itself
served as a roadway for the rapid deployment of Spanish troops with a
railway line to help facilitate troop movement.
The net effect was that the insurgents were perennially in need of food.
At times, during the war, the Americans did land some rather vast supplies
for the Cuban insurgents, such as through the Tayacaboa expedition.
However, the insurgents had no central supply warehouses or organized
commissary structure. The various commands in the insurgent army took
supplies needed. In many cases, the supplies were taken and carried by the
individual soldiers, and not taken to a centralized depot. That which
could not be carried was left behind or given off to remaining civilians
who were also facing starvation. In a very limited way, Cuban insurgent
commanders could also requisition food from the remaining farmers.
This brought a very limited amount of produce into the Insurgent camps,
but not enough for the men to live on, and not on a reliable schedule.
All of this meant that the Insurgent forces had to forage for themselves,
generally living off the land. An insight into what they lived on and how
they survived is given to us in a book entitled In Darkest Cuba, by N. G.
Gonzalez. Gonzalez was born in Cuba but had emmigrated to the U.S.,
becoming a newspaper editor. He traveled back to Cuba with the Tayacobao
expedition, serving on the staff of General Nunez. With the return of
Nunez to the U.S., Gonzalez stayed behind in Cuba and nominally served on
the staff of General Rodriquez. Gonzalez recorded a day-by-day account of
his life traveling with the Insurgent army and its struggles against
starvation. His account tells of the food sources the insurgents relied
Foraging as a means of providing food meant that food was not provided
equally to all men, nor was sufficient nourishment provided to any one
man. Also, with so much time spent foraging, less time could be spent on
training, etc. Lastly, should there be an attack, the insurgent forces may
not be immediately available as many men may be out of camp searching for
One major source of food was a rodent known as a hutia. The Cuban hutia,
technically known as “Desmarest’s hutia,” is the largest mammal native to
Cuba, and is also the largest of the twenty-five varieties of hutia.
Gonzalez included many accounts the insurgents, and he himself, hunting
hutia, and cooking them in a variety of ways, from boiling to roasting. He
noted that he “…found it somewhat like squirrel. There was no unpleasant
odor or taste.”
Another major source of sustenance was corn. Ears of corn were gathered in
forging expeditions. Gonzalez described the corn as “…small, yellow and
hard, much of it resembling pop-corn.” The corn was eaten off the cob or
prepared as a porridge or loaf. Gonzalez noted that “Cuban soldiers
[would] punch a piece of tin into a grater, grate the corn off the ears
and afterward wash the floury paste off the cobs so as to save all of the
nutriment; put the paste in a pan and bake, more or less, into a porridge
or a loaf.” Hunger seldom allowed for the substance to be cooked
long enough to form a loaf.
The third key source of nutrition was the mango, of which there are many
varieties in Cuba. Gonzalez reported living off only mangoes for days on
end. He also noted that the juice in the mangoes was beneficial in that,
because of the juice, the troops required less water, helping them to
avoid the often brackish water sources they encountered in their
movements. The mangoes were eaten when ripe or when still unripe without
issue. In spite of the positive recommendation of the U.S. Army Medical
Corps, some Americans, in a belief fueled by information from the
insurgents, thought unripe mangoes to be dangerous to eat, as indicated by
Cubans] call it General Mango, because they say that the mango has
killed more Spanish soldiers than all of their generals put together. If
you eat it, General Mango will kill you…”
Gonzalez reported himself and others eating unripe mangos and not
suffering any ill effects. In fact, chemicals in mangos do produce an
anti-inflammatory effect which may have been beneficial to the ailing
Other lesser food sources included the mamoncillo, a fruit “the size of a
large grape.” The pulp of the fruit was eaten, and the seeds roasted and
eaten. At times very fibrous wild sweet potatoes were found, and fowl of
various types were hunted.
Beef was not available as the cattle had successfully been removed under
the Reconcentration Plan. As a result, the Insurgents, at times, resorted
to eating horse flesh. Horses were a valuable commodity for transportation
by the starving men. However, sometimes horses were still stolen and
butchered, or eaten if they had died of disease. This was an issue since
the disease may have rendered the horse flesh unsafe to eat.
In short, the Cuban insurgents fought against great odds, being not only
poorly supplied with arms and ammunition but also suffered greatly from a
lack of a reliable food supply.
Lauricella, Marianna, et al.,
Multifacted Health Benefits of Manifera Indica L. (Mango): The
Inestimable Value of Orchards recently Planted in Sicilian Rural Areas,”
Nutrients. May, 2017, 9 (5)
Ledesma, Noris, “Festival celebrates
Cuban Mango,” Miami Herald. July 5, 2016.
Gonzalez, N. G., In
Darkest Cuba: Two Months' Service Under Gomez Along the Trocha From
the Caribbean to the Bahama Channel. (Columbia, S.C: The State
Company, 1922) 168, 178 206-207,
“Mammals of Cuba,” Cuba Unbound.
Nofi, Albert A., The Spanish American
War, 1898. (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996) 30-33.
Ober, Frederick A., Puerto Rico and its
Resources. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899) 71-72.
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