XVI Century - Colonial Era

Cuba’s population went through many changes during the first century after its discovery. The indigenous population was becoming extinct and the island did not receive any massive European immigration to replace the natives, so in reality, Cuba was depopulated during the first half of the XVI Century. Later came a period of slow demographic growth with the importation of black slaves and the resettlement of groups of people from the eastern part of the island westward. Combine this with the urge and desire of the Conquistadors and first Spanish explorers to discover new lands in Mexico, Central and South America that had mineral riches not existing in great amounts in Cuba and we can have an idea of the demographic situation of the island in this century.

Nevertheless there were Spanish colonizers that settled in different locations, especially in and around the first towns or cities founded by Spain. And since Havana was the last city to be founded, the settlers scattered throughout the region, eventually inhabiting the fertile valley of Güines.

There are several versions regarding the origins of Güines, as there are for other settlements founded in Cuba due to the Conquest. It is shrouded in the fogginess of the past, so it is difficult to know exactly its appearance in history.

Pánfilo de Narváez
Panfilo de Narvaez

The first written record we have of the valley of Güines and its river was in 1509, just 17 years after the discovery of Cuba, when some natives told Father Las Casas that in a place more to the west where Panfilo de Narvaez and his archers were, there was an Indian village where three Spaniards, two women and a man, were being held captive. The priest was immediately able to obtain from the Chief, through messengers, the release of the two women, but he was unsuccessful in regards to the man.

The Lieutenant Governor shipped 300 men who anchored in a port, bay or inlet, in the southern coast of the western part of the island and upon landing, they entered the Indian village named Havana. The village was abandoned because its inhabitants knew strangers were coming that in the eastern part of the island had killed their own people. Panfilo de Narvaez nevertheless, having a good sense of smell, was able to establish contact with the Chief who released the captive Spaniard, who was already another Indian due to his habits, customs, and having almost lost his ability to speak the mother tongue.

Diego Velázquez
Diego Velazquez de Cuellar (1465-1524)

This account is historic news because in the letter to King Fernando II of Aragon (the Catholic King) from the Conquistador and Lieutenant Governor of Fernandina Island (Cuba), Diego Velazquez de Cuellar (1465-1524), written in 1514, relates what the captive Spaniard, named Garcia Mejia, told him about the Indians and his adventure: “ …and Garcia Mejia told me that having landed in the Province of Uraba, where he went with Alonso de Ojeda and being there for seven months he saw that due to their great need, they agreed to return to la Española in a brigantine, Pizarro and 36 men and 2 women. 9 died in different ways and the remaining 27 with the 2 women, reached the point of a province called Guaniguanico, and they went to the Chief’s house that he doesn’t know his name and he received them very well and then they went afterwards to another village where some of them stole and they wanted to kill them; and from there they went to the province of Havana and disembarked in a village called Guanyma, where they were well received and going from village to village all died except Mejia and the two women. The Castilians wanted to get towards the east, where la Española was located and they crossed the province of Havana. The village of this name was a big open place, surrounded by huts with its respective "caneyes" or royal huts for the Chief and for his idols, where the priests celebrated their rituals. It was located near the southern coast, in a wide and fertile plain on the river Güini Cajina—

According to this information, we can deduct that the Indian village of Havana visited by these shipwrecked Europeans, was located in the valley of Güines and that the river referred to by Velazquez, was the Mayabeque.

The narrative of the Lieutenant Governor Velazquez to the King continues and says: “The Chief was named Yacuayex, but Mejia stayed in Habaguanex’s hut, who was the principal. This Chief had received him even though the inhabitants were very upset and they wanted his death. The two women were gathered by a Chief that lived near the north coast (close to present day Cardenas) and in a very short time they adopted the native life with all of its habits and customs, they were completely naked and their appearance, at the end of their captivity, were of two complete natives— ” (One was about forty years old and the other almost eighteen).

Up to here, the earliest existing historical reference about the Havana Indian Chiefdom, ruled by Chief Habaguanex, located in the wide plain, we assume is the valley of Güines, irrigated by the Mayabeque.

The Spanish settlers kept coming to Cuba and the Indian villages were disappearing with the arrival of the new dominant race, and little by little, it started to appear —when the Spanish Crown or the Town Councils in the different regions of Cuba distributed land to settlers who requested it— places and farming communities where the peasants, with a lot of sacrifices and deprivations, earned a living.

Güines was founded with land grants dispensed by the Crown or Havana's Town Council. In the majority of cases, the grants were awarded by the Town Council, and using this system, Diego de Soto obtained in 1552 Guanamon Corral, a “corral” being “a circular portion of land equivalent to 420 caballerias” (i.e.5,636.4 hectares); Bartolome Cepero, who was Councillor in Havana, was granted Mayabeque Corral in 1559; Juan Bautista Rojas, got La Vija Corral in 1569; the silversmith Sebastián de Hevia was adjudicated Yamaraguas Corral in 1573 and on October 23 1598, Don Diego de Rivera or Ribera, who had been Governor of Havana as a Lieutenant of Governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles, obtained Los Güines Corral. It was named "Güines" according to one version, because in this area you could find the wild canes (Gynerium saccharoides of the Gramineous family) of this plant that look like sugar cane, reaching 4 or 5 meters in height with a flower like a long, gray plume, held by a tall, solid rod, called in Spanish “güin” which was used to build kites, bird cages, toys and other objects.

Another version, specifically about the origin of the name "Güines", comes from the great local historian Don Francisco Calcagno Monzon who affirms that the name comes from the Indian word Huini-cagina or Huini-caginal, which has also been spelled as Güinicajina, Güinicajinal, Onicajina and Onicajinal which was the name the natives called the river that irrigated this area in its upper river-bed and Mayabeque in its lower river-bed, which belonged to the Havana Indian chiefdom, region or province where Chief Habaguanex governed and which comprised from Mariel in the west to Matanzas in the east.

Translated by the Staff of Círculo Güinero de Los Ángeles

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