Cuban Reconcentration Policy and its Effects - A Speech

by Redfield Proctor, U.S. Senator

Contributed by Larry Daley 

This is the text of a speech given by Vermont Senator Redfield Proctor concerning conditons in Cuba, and the effects of Governor-General Weyler's Reconcentration policy. Some of the data is based on personal observation. The figures of numbers of victims, etc., however, are estimates. These estimates vary widely from source to source, and the total numbers will never be known. This speech was made about a month after the sinking of the U.S. MAINE in Havana harbor, and about a month and a half before was declared.

Proctor was a strong U.S. senator during this period. He is often remembered for his support for George Dewey in Dewey's goal of gaining the command of the Asiatic Squadron.

The contributor's comments are included in brackets.

The Text:

                          VERMONT IN THE US SENATE, MARCH 17, 1898

There are six provinces in Cuba, each, with the exception of Matanzas, extending the whole width of the island, and having about an equal sea front on the north and south borders. Matanzas touches the Caribbean Sea only at its south-west corner, being separated from it elsewhere by a narrow peninsula of Santa Clara Province. The provinces are named, beginning at the west, Pinar del Rio, Havana, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Puerto Principe and Santiago de Cuba.

My observations were confined to the four western provinces, which constitute about one-half the island. The two eastern ones are practically in the hands of the insurgents, except a few fortified towns. These two large provinces are spoken of today as "Cuba Libre" Havana, the great city and capital of the island, is, in the eyes of the Spaniards and many Cubans, all Cuba, as much as Paris in France. But having visited it in more peaceful times and seen its sights, the tomb of Columbus, the forts of Cabanas and Morro Castle, etc., I did not care to repeat this, preferring trips in the country.

Everything seems to go on much as usual in Havana. Quiet prevails and except for the frequent squads of soldiers marching to guard and police duty and their abounding presence in all public places, one sees little signs of war.  Outside Havana all is changed. It is not peace, nor is it war. It is desolation and distress, misery and starvation. Every town and village is surrounded by a trocha, a sort of rifle pit, but constructed on a plan new to me, the dirt being thrown up on the inside and a barbed wire fence on the outer side of the trench.

These trochas have at every corner, and at frequent intervals along the sides, what are there called forts, but which are really small block-houses, many of them more like a large sentry box, loop-holed for musketry, and with a guard of from two to ten soldiers in each. The purpose of these trochas is to keep reconcentrados in as well as to keep the insurgents out.

From all the surrounding country the people have been driven into these fortified towns and held there to subsist as they can. They are virtually prison yards and not unlike one in general appearance, except that the walls are not so-high and strong, but they suffice, where every point is in range of a soldier's rifle, to keep in the poor reconcentrado women and children.

Every railroad station is within one of these trochas and has an armed guard. Every train has an armored freight car, loop-holed for musketry, and filled with soldiers and with, as I observed usually, and was informed is always the case, a pilot engine a mile or so in advance. There are frequent block-houses enclosed by a trocha and with a guard along the railroad track. With this exception there is no human life or habitation between these fortified towns and villages throughout the whole of the four western provinces, except to a very limited extent among the hills, where the Spaniards have not been able to go and drive the people to the towns and burn their dwellings.

I saw no house or hut in the 400 miles of railroad rides from Pinar del Rio Province in the west across the full width of Havana and Matanzas Provinces, and to Sagua La Grando on the north shore and to Cienfuegos on the south shore of Santa Clara, except within the Spanish trochas. There are no domestic animals or crops on the rich fields and pastures except such as are under guard in the immediate vicinity of the towns.

In other words, the Spaniards hold in these four western provinces just what their army sits on.

Every man, woman and child and every domestic animal, wherever their columns have reached, is under guard and within their so-called fortifications. To describe one place is to describe all. To repeat, it is neither peace nor war.

It is concentration and desolation. This is the "pacified" condition of the four western provinces.

All the country people in the four western provinces, about 400,000 in number, remaining outside the fortified towns when Weyler's order was made, were driven into these towns, and these are the reconcentrados. They were the peasantry, many of them farmers, some land-owners, others renting lands and owning more or less stock, others working on estates and cultivating small patches, and even a small patch in that fruitful clime will support a family.

It is but fair to say that the normal condition of these people was very different from that which prevails in this country. Their standard of comfort and prosperity was not high, measured by our own, but according to their standards and requirements, their conditions of lifewere satisfactory.

They lived mostly in cabins  made of palm or in wooden houses. Some of them had houses of stone, the blackened walls of which are all that remains to show that the country was ever inhabited.

The first clause of Weyler's order reads as follows: "I order and command:

"First-All the inhabitants of the country now outside of the line of fortifications of the towns shall within the period of eight days concentrate themselves in the town so occupied by the troops. Any individual who after the expiration of this period is found in the uninhabited parts will be considered a rebel and tried as such [that is hung - L.D]."

The other three sections forbid the transportation of provisions from one town to another without permission of the military authority, direct the owners of cattle to bring them into the towns, prescribe that the eight days shall be counted from the publication of the proclamation to the head town of the municipal districts, and state that if news is furnished of the enemy which can be made use of it will serve as a " recommendation."

Many doubtless did not learn of this order. Others failed to grasp Its terrible meaning.  Its execution was left largely to the guerillas [guerrillas were not the Cuban Mambi insurgents but Spanish Government irregular troops - L.D.] to drive in all that had not obeyed, and I was informed that in many cases a torch was applied to their homes with no notice, and the inmates fled with such clothing as they might have on, their stock and their belongings being appropriated by the guerillas.

 When they reached the town they were allowed to build huts of palm leaves in the suburbs and vacant places within the trochas, and were left to live if they could. Their huts are about ten by fifteen feet in size; and for want of space are usually crowded together very closely. They have no floor but the ground, and no furniture, and after a year's wear but little clothing, except such stray substitutes as they can extemporize.

With large families or with more than one in this little space, the commonest sanitary provisions are impossible. Conditions are unmentionable in this respect.  Torn from their homes, with foul earth, foul air, foul water and foul food, or none, what wonder that one-half have died and that one-quarter of the living are so diseased that they cannot be saved. A form of dropsy is a common disorder resulting from these conditions. Little children are still walking about with arms and chests terribly emaciated, eyes swollen and abdomen bloated to three times the natural size. The physicians say these cases are hopeless.

Deaths in the streets have not been uncommon. I was told by one of our consuls that people have been found dead about the markets in the morning where they had crawled hoping to get some stray bits of food from the early hucksters, and that there had been cases where they had dropped dead inside the market, surrounded by food.

These people were independent and self-supporting before Weyer's order. They are not beggars even now. There are plenty of professional beggars in every town among the regular residents, but these country people, the reconcentrados, have not learned the art. Rarely is a hand held out to you for alms when going among their huts, but the sight of them makes an appeal stronger than words. The hospitals-of these I need not speak; others have described their condition far better than I can.

It is not within the narrow limits of my vocabulary to portray it. I went to Cuba with a strong conviction that the picture had been overdrawn; that a few cases of starvation and suffering had inspired and stimulated the press correspondents, and that they had given free play to a strong, natural and highly cultivated imagination.

I could not believe that out of a population of one million six hundred thousand, 200,000 had died within these Spanish forts, practically prison walls, within a few months past, from actual starvation and disease caused by insufficient and improper food.

My inquiries were entirely outside of sensational sources. They were made by our medical officers, of our consuls, of city alcaldes (mayors), of relief commi-tees, of leading merchants and bankers, physicians and lawyers. Several of my informants were Spanish born, but every time came the answer that the case had not been overstated.

What I saw I cannot tell so that others can see it. It must be seen with one's own eyes to be realized.

The Los Posos Hospital, in Havana, has been recently described by one of my colleagues, Senator Gallinger, and I cannot say that his picture was overdrawn, for even his fertile pen could not do more. He visited it after Dr. Lesser, one of Miss Barton's very able and efficient assistants, had renovated it and put in cots. I saw it when 400 women and children were lying on the stone floors in an indescribable state of emaciation and disease, many with the scantiest covering of rags, and such rags! and sick children, naked as they came into the world. And the conditions in the other cities are even worse.

Miss Barton and her work need no indorsement from me. I had known and esteemed her for many years, but had not half appreciated her capability and devotion to her work. I especially looked into her business methods, fearing there would be the greatest danger of mistake, that there might be want of system, waste and extravagance, but found she could teach me on these points.

In short, I saw nothing to criticize, but everything to commend, The American people may be assured that the bounty will reach the sufferers with the least possible cost and in the best manner, in every respect.  And if our people could see a small fraction of the need, they would pour more "freely from their liberal store" than ever before for any cause.

When will the need for this help end? Not until peace comes and the reconcentrados can go back to their country, rebuild their homes, reclaim their tillage plots, which quickly run up to brush in that wonderful soil and clime, and until they can be free from danger of molestation in so doing.

Until then the American people must, in the meantime, care for them. It is true that the alcaldes, other authorities and relief committees are now trying to do something, and desire, I believe, to do the best they can. But the problem is beyond their means and capacity and the work is one to which they are not accustomed.

General Blanco's order of November 13 last somewhat modifies the Weyler order, but it is of little or no practical benefit."


Speech of Senator Redfield Proctor March 17, 1898 taken from Clara Barton's  1899, The Red Cross ( Washington DC:  American National Red Cross, 1899) 534-539.

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