Cuba, the most westerly and largest of the West Indian islands, since 1902 an independent republic, stretches in the form of a long narrow crescent, convex on the north side, at the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico, which it divides into two channels - the north-west, 124 miles wide, and the south-west, 98 miles at its narrowest part. Cuba is 759 miles long from east to west, with a breadth varying from 27 miles to 90 miles, a coast-line of 1976 miles, and an area of 41,655 sq. m. The shores are low and in many parts beset by reefs and banks, but there are numerous excellent havens. A watershed running lengthwise through the island, rises into mountainous heights only in the south-east, where the Sierra de Maestra in the Pico de Tarquino attains 8400 feet. The mountains, containing minerals, especially copper and iron, are wooded to the summits. The limestone rocks abound in caverns, with magnificent stalactites. Mineral waters are plentiful. The rivers, running north and south, are navigable for only a few miles by small boats, but are very serviceable for irrigation. The climate, more temperate than in the other West Indian Islands, is healthy in the elevated interior, but the coasts are the haunt of fever and ague. No month of the year is free from rain, the greatest rainfall being in May, June, and July. Earthquakes are frequent in the east; and a hurricane in 1846 demolished 1872 houses and sank 216 vessels. The soil is eminently fertile, a large part still covered with virgin forest containing magnificent mahogany, cedar, etc. Among the cultivated products are sugar, tobacco, coffee, cacao, rice, maize, cotton, esculent roots, and tropical fruits. The rivers and seas are well stocked with fish, and turtles abound in the shallows and sandy places of the beach. Sugar has long been the chief product; and there are some 1600 sugar plantations, 8500 tobacco plantations, and 700 coffee plantations.
Cuba, spoken of as the 'Queen of the Antilles,' was discovered in 1492 by Columbus, and first settled by Spaniards at Baracoa in 1511. Havana, founded in 1519, was reduced to ashes by the French in 1538, and again in 1554. In 1762 the English took and held Havana for a year.
In 1818 the trade of Cuba was opened to the world, and for some years the island enjoyed unexampled prosperity. During the American civil war Cuba developed its sugar industry. An insurrection against the Spanish authorities went on from 1868 to 1878, a new one broke out in 1895, and the Spanish severities in suppressing it led to the intervention of the United States and the war, disastrous to Spain, of 1898-99. After the war Cuba was occupied by the Americans till 1902, when a separate constitution was given to it as an independent republic, closely connected with the United States by a ' reciprocal commercial convention.' Pop. (1900) 1,580,000. Havana is the capital; other towns are Puerto Principe, Santiago, Nuevitas, and Cienfuegos, united by railway. See works by Gallenga (1873), Goodman, Ballou, Davis (1897), Porter (1899), and Robinson (1905).