A Tale of Two Ships: A Microhistory of Empire, Trade, and U.S.-Spanish Relations in the Nineteenth Century
Romero, Eulogio Kyle
In 1873, the capture of a private American vessel, the Virginius, by a Cuban warship almost brought the United States and Spain to war. The Spanish warship the Tornado seized the Virginius as it ran arms and ammunition to Cuban revolutionaries attempting to claim independence from Spain; fifty-three members of the ship’s crew were put to death by Spanish authorities in Cuba. A widespread popular reaction to this incident, termed the Virginius Affair, swept through the United States while newspapers and citizens agitated for war against Spain. Although the U.S. did not go to war against Spain in 1873, the Virginius Affair had lasting consequences on the three overlapping fields of U.S. Spanish Relations, American politics, and the outcome of the Cuban revolution of 1868-1878, often called the Ten Years War. Historians of these three fields, however, have consistently overlooked the Virginius Affair due to limitations within each of their disciplines that obscure the importance of international politics and non-state actors in affecting history. In order to move past this type of restrictive analysis this paper uses a microhistorical approach to contextualize the Virginius Affair in international politics, following the small and individual actions of Americans, Spaniards, and Cubans localized through the study of the two central ships in the conflict: the Virginius and the Tornado. The long and fraught histories of these two ships reveal the deep networks that connected the Atlantic world in the nineteenth century as well as demonstrating the importance of contingency in shaping history.