Feeding the Cuban Insurgents
By Patrick McSherry
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Stereocard 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
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
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 upon.
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 food.
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 the following:
[the 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
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, 214-215.
“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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