On this date in 1871, eight first-year medical students, aged 16 to 19, were shot in Havana Place de la Punta by Spanish colonial authorities in one of the most notorious episodes of that island’s independence struggle.
Cuba was three years into the Ten Years’ War, the first of three major 19th century insurrections that would eventually throw off Spanish rule, but popular support for independence was far from universal.
A vocal pro-Spanish element opposed the rebels to the extent of mobilizing right-wing volunteer goon squads to rough up demonstrators and menace the government into dealing with them only at bayonet-point … proto-brownshirts, albeit from a more well-heeled class position.
Mostly middle- or upper-class peninsulares, they were able by sheer force of numbers to cow [liberally inclined Captain-General Domingo] Dulce into acceptance of their views … Their journal, La Voz de Cuba, accused Dulce of working for the rebels …
The volunteers were a foretaste of those twentieth century lower middle-class mobs of young men who often protest violently against the end of empire. Shouting Viva Espana! in the Villanueva Theatre, foreshadowing the pieds noirs of Algeria, they bridge the gap between Carlism and Fascism. (Cuba, Or, The Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas)
The Volunteers would make themselves felt this day.
The editor of that Volunteer paper La Voz de Cuba was assassinated in 1870. The fatal accusation against the students was that they had desecrated the grave of that editor.
In Cuba in 1871, vandalism with the wrong politics was good enough to get you shot … four days after the supposed crime. In that environment, it’s practically beside the point that one of the eight wasn’t even in town at the time and the “desecration” was so exaggerated (the link is a Spanish backgrounder) as to be essentially fabricated.
The procedural rigging dignified with the word “trial” wasn’t going to get hung up on that detail, but it was also on the verge of an acquittal or a light sentence when a Caribbean Brooks Brothers riot steamrolled it (Spanish again) into sentencing eight to death and most of the others to significant prison terms.
Defense attorney Frederico Capdevila alone distinguished himself (more Spanish) at this circus with an indignant and energetic defense, despite being attacked at one point by the Volunteer mob. At its appalling conclusion, he drew his sword and theatrically broke it over his knee — a gesture of contempt for the military tribunal that cost him his military career and made his reputation to posterity.
Radical writer Jose Marti, 18 years old at the time of this execution, summoned the image frequently and helped raise 27 Noviembre de 1871 into an enduring emblem of the worst of colonialism.