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That Cuban Flag… The Original

Avelino Víctor Couceiro Rodríguez

1st. Edition: In Kaye, Edward B. (Managing Editor) y Scott M. Guenter, Ph.D. Editor. Proceedings of the 24th. International Congress of Vexillology, Washington DC, USA, 1-15 August, 2011. The Washington Flag Congress, ICV 24, 2011. North American Vexillological Association, NAVA ( ISBN: 978-0-9747728-4-4. NAVA, March 2012: 114-135.

2dn. Edition



The Cuban flag had its origin in the United States of America.  In New York, the Venezuelan general  Narciso  López  conceived  its  design;  it  was then  drawn  by  the  Cuban  writer  Miguel Teurbe Tolón and sewn by his cousin and wife, Emilia Teurbe Tolón (“the Cuban Betsy Ross”), in  early  June  of  1849.    Later,  another  flag,  sewn  by  ladies  in  New  Orleans,  became  the  first hoisted in Cuba, on 19 May 1850, in the city of Cárdenas.  The paper traces the history of those first two flags through over a century and a half.  Today both historic flags are kept in Havana, Cuba, in the Presidential Palace (today the Museum of the Revolution) and in the Capitol.  This essay also includes other relevant facts such as the symbols in this flag and the places where the Cuban  flag  was  first  hoisted,  on  11  May  1850,  simultaneously  in  the  buildings  of  two newspapers  in  New  York  and  in  New  Orleans,  announcing  to  the  world  the  struggle  for  the Cuban independence.


Narciso López, originator of Cuba´s Flag

Proceedings of the 24th International Congress of Vexillology—2011  Avelino Víctor Couceiro Rodríguez—That Cuban Flag



Image taken from Cubarte, website of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Cuba, on 26 April 2010.  “Tomb of the seamstress of the Cuban  Flag  found”,  in  Prensa  Latina  (Matanzas),  News  section,  at www.cubarte.cult. cu

The history of the Americas has many examples of cultures, especially Cuba’s, that have woven new identities, as with the United States, and continuing in the 19th century and into the 20th. 

It is no surprise that the Cuban flag was conceived on U.S. soil in 1849 and from there went to Cuba.  These pages are dedicated to unraveling those details, and take as their main sources (among  others)  the  first  historian  of  Havana,  Emilio  Roig  de  Leuchsenring  (1889–1964)  and, basically, his Banderas oficiales y revolucionarias de Cuba [Official and Revolutionary Flags of Cuba] (Colección Histórica Cubana y Americana 7, Municipio de La Habana, 1950, 143 pages), “Homenaje  del  municipio  de  La  Habanaa  nuestra  enseña  nacional  en  su  primer  centenario, 1850–19 de Mayo de 1950” [“Tribute from the municipality of Havana to our nation’s flag in its centenary, 1850 to 19 May 1950”]), and his Cuba y los Estados Unidos de América:  Historia documentada de la actitud disímil del Estado y el pueblo norteamericanos en relación con la independencia de Cuba, 1805–1898 [Cuba and the United States of America:  The Documented History of the Dissimilar Attitudes of the North American Government and its People Regarding the  Independence  of  Cuba,  1805–1898]  (“Publicaciones  de  la  Sociedad  Cubana  de  Estudios Históricos e Internacionales”, La Habana, 1949; 279 pages, 21 cm).

Other sources were also very revealing, especially in the José Marti National Library and the Ruben  Martinez  Villena  Central  Library  at  the  University  of  Havana:  Emeterio  Santiago Santovenia y Echaide (1899–1968), in his article on La bandera de Narciso López en el Senado de Cuba [The Flag of Narciso López in the Senate of Cuba] (Havana, Senate Official Editions, 1945,  47  pages,  18  cm),  and  above  all,  Dr.  Herminio  Portell  Vilá  (born  1901,  Professor  of American History at the University of Havana and of Cuban Military History at the War College, considered the definitive biographer of Narciso López, to whom we owe the Cuban flag), with his Breve biografía de Narciso López [Brief Biography of Narciso López] (Sociedad Colombista Panamericana, 1950) and Narciso López y su época [Narciso López and his Times] (Compañía Editora de Libros y Folletos, Havana, 1952), as well as Ezequiel GarcíaEnseñat’s Estudio de las banderas de Cuba [Study of the Flags of Cuba].

Although  Roig’s  history  goes  back  to  when  Spain  claimed  Cuba  under  the  flag  of  Castile (allegedly purple but more likely crimson), of particular interest is his inquiry into the flag used when Cuba joined the roll of nations in 1902 after its independence in 1898.  That flag had been conceived by Narciso López, a Venezuelan born in Caracas on 29 October 1797:  we note that it was created and developed during the era in which Latin American independence flourished, and  that  among  the  dreams  of  López’s  countryman,  the  liberator  Simón  Bolívar,  Cuba  was never forgotten.

Son of an established merchant and landowner in Valencia and Caracas, and of a lady from an old  and  distinguished  Caracas  family,  López  received  in  Caracas  an  education  equal  to  or greater than that of many leaders of the Venezuelan independence, although not as much as that of Bolívar, who had the best private tutors.  López studied at the Wantosten Academy of Mathematics,  created  by  the  country’s  supreme  governing  board.    When  its  students,  after Venezuela’s declaration of independence of on 5 July 1811, petitioned the military commander of Caracas for military training in service of the country’s independence struggle, among the signatories was 13yearold Narciso López.  He was not called, presumably because of his young age (Portell, 1952:4–5).

By the time López was 16, he was trying to join the fight against Spanish colonialism.   Despite his  abilities,  he  was  not  accepted  by  the  liberators  (perhaps  because  of  a  strongly  antiindependence  uncle,  which  led  the  patriots  to  distrust  him),  still  he  felt  the  call  to  fight  for Venezuelan independence.  According to Portell (1952:5–6), López was among the besiegers (“but as a spectator”) when Bolívar besieged Puerto Cabello, in September 1813, and shortly afterwards along with Bolívar, he watched the Spanish reinforcements arrive, and in September he was part of the triumph of General José Félix Ribas at La Guaira (“but without fighting”)… without actually joining the independence fighters.  He finally acceded to the insistence of his uncle  and  became  a  Spanish  soldier—the  same  day  that  Simón  Bolívar  was  defeated  in  the disaster of La Puerta, which seemed to be the end of the independence movement, by Boves and  his  rangers  (who,  in  taking  Valencia,  killed  López’s  father).    López  came  under  the protection of one of the most unscrupulous but brave lieutenants of Boves, who exercised an  unfortunate influence on him.  He rose in the Spanish army without wanting to spill the blood of Venezuelans, wearing he would call “that brilliant but ignominious livery”.

In  1819  López  was  a  lieutenant  colonel  and  distinguished  himself  in  the  Battle  of  Carabobo, which  led  to  his  promotion  to  colonel.    He  was  governor  of  Maracaibo  (the  last  Spanish stronghold)  and  second  in  command  of  the  Spanish  army  when,  after  the  triumph  of  the Venezuelan Independence in 1823, it evacuated to Santiago de Cuba.  At that time Cuba was shaken  by  the  Conspiracy  of  the  Suns  and  Rays  of  Bolívar  (a  Masonic  group  plotting  Cuban independence) and the possible invasion by Paez under orders of the liberator Bolívar, while the annexation movement was beginning in Cuba.  Some of his countrymen would later join him in his revolutionary efforts. 

López married the sister of a Havana man who would become Count of Pozos Dulces.  When he appeared with them in a trial regarding the landholdings of the family in El Vedado, showing contempt of court by refusing to appear in full uniform of a colonel of Hussars of Fernando VII, this attracted the attention of Cubans seeking a gifted and resolute military leader, in spite of his service to Spain and its reprehensible representatives.  But in the first months of 1827 he was sent to Spain without a command, the Spanish fearing that he was sympathizing with the Cubans (such as the conspiracy of the Black Eagle), as well as with other officers defeated in America, who were called Ayacuchos after the great defeat of Spain in Peru.  He did in fact connect with the Ayacuchos and Creole residents in Cuba, joining the Club de La Habana (Club of Havana).

At the beginning of the Carlist war in Spain, López was recalled to active duty and would save the life of his general Jerónimo Valdes, who assigned him to the international commission to regulate the Carlist War and eliminate the atrocities by both sides, and won the praise of his English colleagues.  He was liberal and progressive, and came to be among the most influential reformers, winning high military degrees and defeating Colonel Carlos O’Donnell, earning the undying  hatred  of  his  relative,  Leopold  O’Donnell.    When  in  1836  the  Cuban  deputies  were expelled  from  the  Spanish  Court,  he  called  on  all  Creole  officials  to  resign  en  masse  and promoted  protests  by  the  Club  de  La  Habana,  made  personal  entreaties  to  the  Spanish legislators, and obtained the support of General Valdes, although in vain.  He was associated with in the conspiracy in Spain of the Triangular Chain and Suns of Freedom (based in Havana but with branches in Spain) and was betrayed; his ideological evolution toward the revolution is explained by living within the monarchy to its service and meet its ills from within.

In Spain, López (first in Barcelona, then Madrid) contributed significantly to the downfall of the regency of Maria Cristina (1840) and the establishment of the regency of Espartero, which was considered a victory for progress (Portell, 1950).  It was López who, as military governor of the plaza, received  Espartero  on  his  arrival  at  the  Court  of  Madrid,  and  his  liberal  friends  were placed in positions of power ... until Espartero fell.  Meanwhile, he had sent to Cuba for his elderly mother and his niece, Mrs. Rosa Salicrup de Sanchez; another relative of his (Manuel Muñoz de Castro) was the consul of Venezuela in Havana. 

Cuba had rebelled against the “scandalous closure of the Courts to the representatives of Cuba and Puerto  Rico” and wanted to “free both islands from  the clutches of his equally ruthless greedy  stepmother”  (Roig,  1950)  and  the  United  States  tried  to  buy  Cuba  from  Spain.  And when the new governor of Cuba, Leopoldo O’Donnell, the mortal enemy of López, arrived in Havana in March 1843, he stripped López of his high office and forced him to leave the military, sowing  the  seeds  of  rebellion  on  already  fertile  ground.    López  would  be  involved  in  the Conspiracy  of  La  Mina  de  la  Rosa  Cubana  (1847,  named  after  one  of  the  wells  of  the  San Fernanda mining reserve in Manicaragua) in Las Villas. 

Three flag designs for Cuba appeared in this era.  The first, according to a letter from Cirilo Villaverde to the director of La Revolución de Cuba (15 February 1873), used the Republican colors in horizontal stripes:  blue, white, and red, in a distant imitation of the flag of Colombia.  The  second,  according  to  José  Sanchez  Iznaga  on  10  July,  had  a  large  star  at  the  hoist  from which ran three equal stripes of bluewhiteblue; a variant of this flag has a red star at hoist end of the central white stripe, and is shown this way on the shield used on the proclamations of Narciso López in 1850 and described by Dr. Portell in his Historia de Cuba en sus relaciones con los Estados Unidos y España [History of Cuba in its Relations with the United States and Spain] (1938). The third, designed by members of the Club de La Habana and published by Enrique GayCalbó (born in Holguín, 1889) in his La bandera, el escudo y el himno [The Flag, the Coat of Arms, and the Anthem] (Havana, 1945), had a blue rectangle at the hoist, with an eightpointed white star and three wide red stripes separated by two narrow white stripes (according to the design in the files of Dr. Portell).

Meanwhile, López met with the United States consul in Havana, Robert B. Campbell, through whom he learned that in Havana there was another conspiracy—but this one annexationist— headed by landowners and rich Creoles such of those in the Club de La Habana.  When this plot failed, López managed to escape disguised as a sailor on the Neptune, sailing out of Matanzas bound for Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States, while in Cuba, the Spanish government in 1849  sentenced  him  in  absentia  to  death  by  firing  squad. Cuban émigrés had different opinions—some were against annexation, including those who rejected U.S. support, and some were for annexation, both those who preferred the slaveowning South and those who favored the democracy of the North.  People in United States also differed in their views and goals in weaning Cuba from Spain—Southerners wanted to turn Cuba into another slave state and were applauded by Cuban slaveowners, while Northerners wanted to annex Cuba and free its slaves, and introduce other liberties.  These same differences, just fifteen years later, would lead to the United  States  into  a  civil  war  to  abolish  slavery  and  establish  a  new  order  in  the  northern colossus, which would also defeat the annexation aspirations of the Cuban slaveholders.  But in 1850, this future was still unknown.

At  that  time  a  traditional  and  healthy  relationship  had  long  existed  between  the  peoples  of Cuba and the United States, from the very beginnings of both nationalities.  Not surprisingly, among North Americans who have risked their lives for the freedom of Cuba, one of the most important fighters was Henry Reeves, called “the Little Englishman”.  In the same way, many Cubans have fought for the just causes of the people of the U.S., among then, the Havanaborn José Agustín Quintero y Woodville (1829–1885), who was imprisoned in 1848 (with Villaverde and others) and sentenced to death, but escaped to the United States to fight in the Civil War with the republican North against the slave South, and then to fight with Juarez in Mexico. It is no coincidence that in Portell’s vast work can be found, for example, the biography of Reeves and  Los  Cubanos  y  la  Independencia  de  EUA  [Cubans  and  the  Independence  of  the  United States],  (1946). Furthermore,  the  United  States  has  traditionally  long  been  a  refuge  for persecuted and disgruntled Cubans, and the influences between the two peoples are many and deeper over time; Cuba’s flag flies atop such influences.

Roig quotes Gerardo Castellanos (p. 139), who analyzed the efforts of López to get all possible support  (even  that  of  annexationists)  for  his  campaigns  in  Cuba;  he  led  U.S.  Southerners  to believe that Cuba would continue slavery, and at the same time he flattered the Northerners about  their  freedoms,  attracting  politicians  and  businessmen,  offering  to  pay  veterans (including  Robert  E.  Lee,  who  would  become  the  Confederacy’s  bestknown  general,    and Jefferson Davis, who would become its president) to participate.  For this he would be widely criticized  as  an  annexationist  by  Cuban  independence  leaders;  Dr.  Portell  counters  this  by pointing to the lone star (for full independence) on the flag.  However, even in 1888 Manuel de la Cruz (1861–1896), of Havana, accused López of sympathizing with annexation, which led to a famous controversy with Cirilo Villaverde.

Upon arriving in the United States, López joined with others seeking Cuban independence to create the Junta Promovedora de los Intereses Políticos de Cuba [Board for the Promotion of the Political Interests of Cuba, or the Cuban Junta of the U.S.], a splinter group opposed to the annexation  goals  of  Cristóbal  Madan,  and  made  contact  with  the  plotters  of  the  Club  de  La Habana, which used a very different flag from that which López would design.  The  propaganda organs of the Cuban Junta of the U.S. were the newspapers La Verdad [The Truth] (New York), and  La  Patria  [The  Nation]  and  El  Independiente  [The  Independent]  (New  Orleans). They negotiated with politicians and other figures of influence, sought official government support, began recruiting, and set up a camp on Cat Island (in the Gulf of Pascagoula, in the Bahamas).  

There they managed in early 1849 to gather some 200 men for an expedition to Cuba. But the sympathy of many sincere North Americans supporting a free Cuba was not matched by the federal government, which had other interests; the expedition to Cuba was denounced by the Spanish  governor  of  the  island,  the  Count  of  Alcoy,  and  the  government  in  Washington demanded that López immediately disband the expedition.  Similarly, in 1849 the government under  President  Taylor  would  demand  that  he  disband  his  next expedition,  organized  in  Isla Redonda (Round Island).

One of General López’s fellow strugglers in exile, the eminent novelist from Pinar del Rio, Cirilo Villaverde (1812–1894), would relate in 1873 on page 3 (backside) of his handwritten notebook Reseña biográfica del general Narciso López [Biographical Overview of General Narciso López] (held  by  Dr.  Portell,  and  reproduced  by  GayCalbó  as  an  appendix  to  his  cited  work),  that today’s Cuban flag was designed by López in 1849, while he lived at the home of Mrs. Clara Lewis,  39  Howard  Street,  near  the  corner  of  Broadway  in  New  York. From  that  house  he frequently visited the home of the patriot from Matanzas, Miguel Teurbe Tolón y de la Guardia (1820–1857),  whom  López  asked  to  design  the  national  arms  for  an  independent  Cuba.  Beginning in 1849 proclamations and bonds bear those arms, and they were seen in New York, for  example  in  a  tobacconists’  shop  (Portell,  1952:138).    These  are  Cuba’s  primary  national symbols, whose roots, as is logical and obvious, are inextricably linked.  In this revolutionary atmosphere it was no accident that there would even exist a “hymn of the revolution” among the  conspirators  of  Matanzas,  and  a  code  with  which  López  would  communicate  with  other revolutionaries underground in Cuba (Portell, 1950:33 and 35)(see Appendices 2 & 3).


Figure 1.  39 Howard Street, near the corner with Broadway, Manhattan (SoHo), New York.  The house of Mrs. Clara Lewis, where Narciso López was a guest when in early June, 1849, he conceived the idea of the Cuban flag. 

One night, López was there for coffee and he told Teurbe Tolón, “The revolution needs a flag and I did not have time to save the one I had made in Trinidad, which had fallen into Spanish hands ... Here, seeing the flag of the United States, I have thought of some modifications to the original design and today I have been working on a sketch or model ...” (Portell, 1950:21). From this it appears (and it is not disputed by any of the historians consulted) that the flag which would be born that night had an ancestor on Cuban soil (Trinidad) by López himself, and with that background, inspired by the flag of United States, he made “certain modifications” in the arduous process which would lead to what is today our national emblem.

Teurbe  Tolón  drew  López’s    idea  on  paper  “with  a  skillful  hand”  (Villaverde  in  Roig,  1950) placing  the  republican  colors  in  the  proper  order  (beautiful,  even  though  their  combination would stretch heraldic rules, as General Pedro Arizmendi would later object), and although “no doubt he had the flag of the United States in mind”, he meant that “... the white of the stripes represents purity or republican virtue, and they divide the field into three blue zones, which represent the three departments into which the island was then divided, the blue revealing the high  or  heavenly  aspirations  of  the  patriots,  its  favorite  sons. The  red  triangle  by  its  color represents the union of the Cuban people and by its equilateral shape indicates the strength and solidity of their principles.  In the center of the triangle is a silver star that illuminates with its light the destiny of the nascent nation under republican colors.”

Cuban nationalism thus used the same colors as the tricolor banners of independence of the 13 Colonies  of  North  America  (1776)  and  the  French  Revolution  (1789),  undoubtedly  the  most progressive milestones of that era.   Cuban independence ideals incorporated the liberty sought by the North Americans, and the French extended those to equality and fraternity, and they were hoisted, like a flag of blood and fire, over the ruins of absolutism.  By extension, the three colors meant the repudiation of all kinds of exploitation and majority rule by a minority whose power was based on false pedestals of blood, money, or divine influence.  The flag proclaimed Cuba as a new society, the antithesis of the old Spanish monarchy.  For Cuba the very selection of colors meant a written constitution as the supreme national norm, religious freedom and separation  of  church  and  state,  and  the  equality  of  all  human  beings  without  any discrimination, guaranteed, if necessary, against their own rulers. 

The fivepointed star symbolized the free, independent, and sovereign state which Cuba should be: rejecting Spanish dominion and  all  that  could  entail—annexation,  incorporation, dependence,  or  submission  of  any  kind  to  any  other  state,  and  any  foreign  or  domestic intervention  or  interference  in  the  national  and  international  issues  of  the  future  Cuban republic . . . a lone star to shine always alone, on its own flag, without joining the constellation on the flag of the United States.   On the field of blood red, the star illuminated “the laborious and dark path toward freedom and independence of the shackled country” and presided over the  fight  to  gain  independence  and  to  consolidate  and  grow  the  republic  “without  outside assistance, by the efforts of its own sons”. 

Since national flags are usually square and rectangular, “...  López, as a Freemason, naturally chose the equilateral triangle, a significantly stronger and meaningful geometric figure.” Roig wrote  that  the  Eighth  National  Congress  of  History  asserted  that  all  these  elements,  the equilateral  triangle,  the  lone  star,  and  five  stripes,  show  “an  obvious  Masonic  composition”, reflecting the role played by Masonic lodges in the struggle for the Cuban Independence.

Issue no. 62 of the newspaper La Revolución de Cuba (New York, 8 February 1873) attributed the Cuban flag to Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros “El Lugareño”, saying “... he had the largest part in the task”.  In response, Villaverde affirmed (in a letter dated 12 February 1873 sent from New York to the journal’s editor) that” the creation of our glorious flag was exclusively the work of the  illustrious  Narciso  López”,  based  on  Villaverde’s  “reliable  eyewitnesses  testimony,  the execution of the plan conceived by López ( ...) around an oblong table in the back room on the second floor of a guest house in Warren Street, near the North River, between Church Street and Collene Place, in the first days of June, 1849.”

It is worth mentioning that the same article that Villaverde refuted (published anonymously in La Revolución de Cuba) also mentioned Miguel Teurbe  Tolón…  the  correction  by  Villaverde, published in the same newspaper on 15 February 1873, is accepted as true by GarcíaEnseñat and many others.  However, in the 11 June 1898 issue of El Porvenir [The Future] (New York), an article (believed to have been written by Enrique Loynaz del Castillo) placed the design of the flag not in New York but in Philadelphia, and insisted that the creators were “El Lugareño” and others, among them Domingo Goicuría, who was in England at the time (Portell, 1952:135).

However, in these documents Roig found a small contradiction by Villaverde:  Warren Street versus Murray Street.  In the cited notebook, he gives as Teurbe Tolón’s residence—at the time López designed the flag—a house on “Murray  St. between Broadway and Church”. He consulted with Dr. Portell, who confirmed that the notes and annotations that appear in this notebook  were  contemporary  to  the  time  that  the  flag  was  designed,  and  that  in  the  same notebook  are  amendments  which  offer  a  third  version  of  that  historic  event,  amendments which GayCalbó did not copy in 1945.  Portell undertook to clarify this episode in his second volume  (then  in  preparation)  of  Narciso  López  y  su  época  (Vol.  II:  1848–1850,  p.  136) He quotes the notebook of Cirilo Villaverde and confirms the address on Murray Street between Broadway and Church, where Miguel Teurbe Tolón lived with his cousin and wife, Emilia.  In 1952, in the prologue to that second volume, Portell observed that just as the first volume, of 1930, had been published under the Machadato dictatorship, “Cuba was again under another dictatorship”: the Batistato. 

Although he does not name the participants in that meeting at Teurbe Tolón’s house on Warren Street,  Villaverde  says  that  “...  nearly  all  the exiles  of  the  time  had  gathered  there…General López,  Betancourt,  Aniceto  Iznaga,  Pedro  Agüero,  J.  M.  Macías,  Sánchez  Iznaga,  Manuel Hernández, and others”, and as a Freemason López rejected the square and rectangle for the equilateral  triangle. Someone (Villaverde  thinks  it  was  Hernández)  suggested  that  eye of Providence be placed in the triangle’s center, as heraldry might dictate, but López recalled the star on the original flag of Texas, a model for Cuba’s lone star, for which GayCalbó recognizes a vast tradition in Cuba’s patriotic and revolutionary culture, dating back to the 1823 poem La estrella de Cuba [The Star of Cuba], by José María Heredia y Heredia (1803–1839) of Santiago de Cuba, who had also suffered exile in the United States ... 

and the star of Cuba eclipsed by a century of horror, still abides,

an image repeated in 1825 in the poem Vuelta al Sur [Return to the South], in comforting optimism:

When Cuba revives its children, and we see its star shine.

And in 1827, according to Rafael Esténger (18991982) of Santiago de Cuba in his La bandera y nuestros poetas [The Flag and Our Poets], Heredia himself in his poem A Bolívar [To Bolívar] considered “the star simply as an expression of a free state”: 

Bolivia stands beautiful, and adds a star to the American constellation.

Esténger observes how the star had a different meaning to the poets of the time as relating to the  “American  constellation”,  and  adds:    “Heredia  imagined  a  constellation  of  independent nations, each represented by its star or each being a metaphorical star (...); while some poets might have interpreted this as representing a stellar addition to the United States, luckily they were not poets of the first line”, annexationist poets of whom the “most illustrious” was the Havanan Ramón de Palma y Romay (1812–1860).

That historic night, when Teurbe Tolón drew the flag as López described it, López concluded: “The  challenge  now  is  to  cut  fabric  and  sew”  (Portell,  1950:21).    Teurbe  Tolón’s  wife  Emilia immediately  offered  her  services.      López  confessed:  “That  was  my  hope  when  I  came  this evening, ma’am.”  She was, according to Santovenia (1950), “enthusiastic and beautiful (...) as patriotiotic  as  she  was  enthusiastic”,  and  according  to  Portell  (1950:22),  “a  beautiful  and enthusiastic Cuban (...) the Cuban Betsy Ross”.  Hence the first flag made in fabric, as designed by Narciso López and drawn by Miguel Teurbe Tolón, was the work of Emilia Teurbe Tolón as a gift for López, who would later ask Villaverde to preserve that first original flag.  


Figure 2.  Murray Street between Broadway and Church, Manhattan, New York, where the flag of Cuba was born. This was the home of Miguel and Emilia Teurbe Tolón.  Miguel drew the flag as described by Narciso López.  It was then sewn by Emilia.

Emilia Teurbe Tolón was born 9 January 1828 in a house in the center of the city of Matanzas, Cuba, and died in Spain in 1902.  Her house in Madrid where she spent her final days and her grave in the Madrid cemetery of Our Lady of the Almudena were both recently rediscovered by researcher Clara Enma Chávez with the painstaking support of Ernesto Martinez (a Cuban artist based in Spain) after searching twenty cemeteries and other sites in Madrid.  She was the first Cuban woman deported for political reasons, “as an informant of her husband”.  When she died she  left  her  property  to  the  Sociedad  Económica  de  Amigos  del  País,  a  Cuban  aid  group,  to underwrite free education in Cuba, a radical idea at that time.   In 1950, the centennial year of the Cuban Flag, the Fourth InterAmerican Municipal Historical Congress (for which the Cuban Society of Historical and International Studies and the Office of the Historian of Havana convened civic events in all Cuban communities) proclaimed her the “Embodiment of the Cuban Woman”, according to Chávez’s book, Emilia Teurbe Tolón:  Encarnación de la Mujer Cubana (Cubarte). 

However, General López decided to leave New York for two main reasons:  because it was too far away for him to mount his expedition—he needed a base of operations closer to Cuba, and because  the  council  of  the  Cuban  Organization  and  Government  in  New  York  had  split  the Patriots into two groups.  López preferred to go to New Orleans, on the Gulf of Mexico, the easier to reach Cuba quickly and where, as in the rest of the United States and despite his lack of fluency in English, his enthusiasm  spurred  popular  support  and  drew  sympathy and supporters  to  the  cause  of  Cuban  freedom.    One  particularly  enthusiastic  supporter  was Laurence J. Sigur, editor of The New Orleans Delta in New Orleans, who hosted López in his home,  introduced  him  to  influential  people,  put  the  newspaper  at  his  disposal,  gave  him everything he had, and served as guarantor for his debts, all the while staying disinterested and without  advocating  Cuban  annexation.    It  is  not  surprising  that  after  the  failure  of  the expedition and López’s execution, Sigur was ruined. 

No wonder either that in this period there were some young ladies of New Orleans (“criollas de Nueva Orleans”, Santovenia, 1945:18) who, on seeing the flag design which López had brought, “... made a copy of that model to offer it to the Louisiana regiment of Narciso López, becoming the first Cuban flag  to fly in Cuba, in the Plaza de Cardenas.”  It should be noted that according to Portell Vilá (1952:138) Narciso López carried at least two flags on his revolutionary journey from  New  Orleans:    the  Louisiana  regiment  flag  flew  on  the  mast  of  the  Susan  Lind  on  the voyage between New Orleans and Isla Mujeres, but the only flag extant was brought by the Kentucky regiment ... with an inscription with which Colonel O’Hara wanted to distinguish it.

It happened that even though the Revolutionary Board and Council had been dissolved, López issued  bonds  for  40,000  pesos  (covered  by  Cubans  and  North  Americans),  which  he  sold  in continuous trips between Washington and New Orleans, passing through Louisville, Natchez, Vicksburg, and Baton Rouge, with stops in Biloxi, Mobile, and Pensacola, and from Key West to Washington, stopping in Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, and Richmond, not to mention other support which he continued to receive from his niece from Cienfuegos, Cuba.  He  enlisted  about  600  men  of  various  nationalities  (mostly  from  the  U.S.  but  also  British, Germans, Hungarians, and even an Argentine), with high ranks and large salaries; they included very few Cubans (among them Ambrosio José López, Francisco J. de la Cruz, and J. M. Macías). Aboard  the  steamer  Creole,  the  boat  Lincumbily  Georgina,  and  the  brig  Susan  Loud,  the expedition  left  New  Orleans  bound  for  the  islands  of  Cuzumel  or  Mujeres;  from  there, threatened by water shortages and disease (which led to 42 desertions), it would leave for Cuba on 13 May. 

But beginning that Saturday, 11 May 1850, in witness to the expedition, two Cuban flags were hoisted  in  the  United  States:  one  flag  was  displayed  in  the  New  York  offices  of  The  Sun newspaper (89 Nassau Street, corner of Turton) and the other, a large flag, which flew in New Orleans for two weeks from the third floor of the editorial offices of The New Orleans Delta at 112  Poydras  Street  (Portell,  1952:136;  Roig,  1950:95).    That  same  day  both  newspapers proclaimed the start of the Cuban Revolution, announcing that North Americans, Cubans, and other  nationalities  had  gone  to  fight  for  the  freedom  of  Cuba.    The  Sun  (which  had  just revolutionized the newspaper business, was owned by the Beach brothers, and was connected to La Verdad and therefore very close to Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros, “El Lugareño”, and very  knowledgeable  about  Cuba)  published  for  the  first  time  the  image  of  the  Cuban  flag  (while describing it as the “cynosure of all eyes”).  It began to wave under protest from the Spanish minister in Washington and the Spanish consul in New York.


Figure 3.  89 Nassau Street, in Manhattan, New York—where the newspaper The Sun was located and the flag of Cuba was hoisted for the first time, on 11 May 1850, as a show of support for Cuban independence.  Number 89 no longer exists and today, where the newspaper’s building once stood, is the Marine Midland Bank, with its main entrance around the corner at 167 Broadway.  

Incidentally, the article in The Sun (which also described the shield; Portell, 1952:139) said... “The ideas which the flag covers are broad, as is the glorious cause for which it flies.  The star of Cuba—an independent nation—surrounded by a triangle, symbol of strength and representing with its three sides, the executive, legislative, and judicial.”

“These are the shields of the nation:  the star in pure white, the triangle of deep red, the five blue and white stripes, the top, bottom, and center blue, the other two white.  The blue stripes represent  the  three  departments  of  Cuba  as  the  country  is  now  divided,  namely:    Eastern, Central,  and  West,  they  have  Havana,  Santiago,  and  Puerto  Principe  as  their  capitals. Red, white, and blue form the tricolor of freedom.” (Portell, 1952:137 [sic]).

In response, the Spanish newspaper in New York made the published flag the object of scorn through  its  description  as  a  “kite  with  ribbons  and  painted  triangle  and  everything  on  it” (Portell, 1952:137).  At the same time it claimed the triangle meant that things would not come around,  that  the  stripes  were  the  cardinals  getting  a  good  spanking,  and  that  the  star  was something unclean, or moneygrubbing. 

Upon learning of the expedition, Spain sent the gunboat Pizarro, which captured the two sailing vessels (Lincumbily Georgina and Susan Loud) and arrested the deserters.  But on 19 May, the steamer Creole entered the Bay of Cardenas, where the expeditionaries landed and took the city for twelve hours, during which the rich silk flag given by the women of New Orleans flew from  sunrise  to  sunset.    General  López  brought  with  him  on  the  Creole  a  provisional constitution for Cuba, printed as a pamphlet of seven pages which proclaimed the joint struggle of Cubans and North Americans for the freedom of Cuba against Spanish colonialism.

Article  3  of  that  constitution  described  this  flag  for  the  future  Republic:    “The  Cuban  flag consists of the tricolor of freedom arranged as follows:  three horizontal blue stripes separated by two of white, with a red equilateral triangle whose base rests on the pole and a white star in the middle of the triangle” (Roig, 1950:94, sic).

He also brought two proclamations, as chief of the Cuban forces.  One, to the people of Cuba, called on them to rise definitively “that day, as it would be shameful to delay” fighting for the “free and independent country”.  The other “To the Spanish Army in Cuba”, invited his “former comrades in arms”, to join him “among the champions of freedom” for “the just cause of a great  and  generous  people”  (both  transcribed  by  Juan  Arnao  in  his  book  Páginas  para  la historia de la isla de Cuba, [Pages on the History of the Island of Cuba] Havana, 1900:103–105).

This flag received its first patrioticrevolutionary consecration when it was raised by its creator, 19 May 1850, on Cuban soil—the city of Cardenas—in military action.  That morning (according to  Santovenia)  Emilia  Casanova,  the  beautiful  18yearold  daughter  of  a  wealthy  landowner whose  house  was  adjacent  to  the  local  Army  Square,  heard  the  shooting  and  saw  the  flag waving there.

But in 1850, arriving in Cuba with armed foreign elements was not enough to generate strong support for the movement.   When López found that his countrymen did not rise up to support him, and under threat of an attack by numerous Spanish forces, he was forced to withdraw.  It was the beginning of a liberation effort with close connections to other Cuban towns such as Trinidad, Camagüey, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba, but in 1850 López could not yet count on a Cuban separatist consciousness.  That would come later, in 1868 and especially in 1895 with Martí’s plans (which would also be developed in the United States).

The  expeditionaries  who  fought  in  Cárdenas  saved  this  flag,  and  an  aide  to  López  in  the expedition,  Juan  Manuel  Macías,  kept  it  and  someone  inscribed  in  ink:    Kentucky,  Primus  in Cuba, Mayo 19 de 1850.  And with a rubberstamped notation J. M. Macías, mayo 19–1850 (Santovenia,  1945:42,  in  the  deed  of  gift),  it  was  this  flag  (“provided  by  Sánchez  Iznaga”, according to Portell) that flew in the ceremony in New Orleans which honored the returning Narciso  López  and  his  fighters. That  flag  would  also  accompany  Macias  on  his  tour  of  the  Americas;  in  1877,  Macias  himself  had  the  flag  cover  the  coffin  containing  the  remains  of Francisco  Vicente  Aguilera  in  New  York’s  City  Hall.    In  1918  Enrique  Saladrigas  y  Lunar, representing Alicia Macías y Brown (the daughter of Juan Manuel Macías), donated the flag to Major General and thenPresident of the Republic, Mario García Menocal y Deop (according to notes  of  14  August  1918,  Order  No.  157,  and  23  May  1928,  Order  No.  127 to  Dr.  Alberto Jardines y Navarrete, on file).  In 1921 President Menocal presented it to Manuel Sanguily y Garritte—a  colonel  (major  general)  of  the  Liberation  Army,  eminent  writer  and  illustrious speaker,  disciple  of  Luz  y  Caballero,  journalist,  teacher,  almost  a  legend,  who  had  been  a senator and president of the senate—according to a letter to Sanguily delivered by Guillermo de Blanck from García Menocal, dated in Havana 4 February 1921.

Meanwhile, on  his  return,  López  was  indicted  by  a  U.S.  federal  grand  jury  and  tried  in  New Orleans,  and  by  proclamation  President  Fillmore  condemned  his  revolutionary  activities undertaken in the U.S. and his expedition to Cardenas.  However, López was not convicted, and appeared far from recanting.  In fact he continued plotting and his efforts were not as futile as they seemed, as immediately afterwards came Agüero’s revolutionary movement and then in 1854  that  of  Francisco  D´Strampes,  who  would  bring  another  copy  of  López’s  flag  from  the United  States,  as  well  as  those  which  had  flown  before  in  public  offices  in  Havana.    While entering Cuba in 1850 López had not received the local support he had expected and needed, many  Cubans  later  sent  him  messages  of  support  and  encouragement.    Then  there  was  the abortive  expedition  of  the  Cleopatra  (led  by  Anacleto  Bermúdez,  R.  I.  Arnao,  y  Graciliano Montes de Oca)—it was reported to the captain general, Concha, by the Cuban attorney Calixto José  Gonzalez.    Arnao  escaped  but  Montes  de  Oca  was  arrested  and  garrotted  at  Havana’s esplanade of La Punta.  The flag first raised at Cardenas would wave over Camagüey (that of Agüero and later that of Agramonte), Trinidad, and Vuelta Abajo in July and August 1851.

On  3  August  1851  General  López,  despite  his  trial,  departed  for  Havana  with  over  400  men aboard the Pampero, again from New Orleans.  The next morning, ten miles off of El Morro, they were spotted by the lookout and then pursued by the Pizarro and General Manuel Enna, with  750  men  and  20  horses. They  were  able  to  land  at  El  Morillo,  Pinar  del  Río. López’s secondincommand (chief of staff) was the Hungarian brigadier John Pragay, followed by North Americans, British, French, Hungarians, Germans, and 50 Cubans.    But in Cuba then, the peasantry and the incipient labor movement, with their Spanish roots so fresh and constantly renewed, were still opposed to independence.  Eventually his compatriot José de los Santos Castañeda captured him (an act avenged on 12 October 1854 when the Cuban Nicolás Vignaud Asanza would shoot de los Santos in the head, at the Havana café Marte y Belona).  López was taken to Guanajay to Mariel Prison and Havana in the steamer Pizarro, arriving at dusk on 31 August and immediately entering the chapel.  He was executed at 7:00 the next morning, after having  made  his  final  personal  arrangements.    Vidal  Morales,  in  his  Iniciadores  y  Primeros Mártires  de  la  Revolución  cubana  [Initiators  and  First  Martyrs  of  the  Cuban  Revolution] (Havana, 1901, p. 238), refers to his last moments with the verses of a popular lament (which circulated on a broadsheet in the capital, taken from Graciliano Montes de Oca’s brother) with his last words:  “I have voluntarily surrendered to the Spanish government to save the life of my countrymen”, and at the scaffold: “My death will not change the destiny of Cuba.”

It  is  no  wonder  that  while  Carlos  Manuel  de  Céspedes,  the  “Father  of  the  Country”,  raised another  flag  of  his  own  design  at  La  Demajagua,  then  at  Yara  and  Bayamo  (1868),  the Constitutional Chamber of Guáimaro, in its second public meeting (11 April 1869, almost two decades after the events at Cárdenas), chose “the flag previously raised by López and Agüero”.  The fifth article of the Constitution of 1940 states:  “The flag of the Republic is that of Narciso López” ... absolutely current, 160 years after being raised in Cárdenas.

Meanwhile, Cirilo Villaverde had kept that first flag—the original, which Emilia Teurbe Tolón made for López—in a metal tube which he carried on all his travels.  One morning in 1873 his son Narciso opened the tube and saw the flag, which was turning into dust.  With the help of his mother he convinced Cirilo to conserve it in a frame, and he inherited the flag upon the death of his father in 1894.  So until 1943 the original flag had only two owners:  he and his father (Roig, 1950:89).  He kept it “in his beautiful residence in the capital” (Portell, 1952).  And it seems that in 1943 Narciso Villaverde donated it to the CubanAmerican Fund for Aid to the Allies  (this  was  during  the  Second  World  War,  1939–1945,  with  all  the  fervor  of  patriotism around  the  globe  focused  on  the  urgent  fight  against  Nazism)  chaired  by  Dr.  Cosme  de  la Torriente.  On 9 December the flag was donated to the Republic, headed by General Fulgencio Batista, in what was then the Presidential Palace, and now the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, where the flag is preserved today.

According journalist Antonio Prisco Porto, writing Havana’s El Mundo [The World] on 20 May 1942  (celebrating  the  40th  anniversary  of  the  birth  of  the  Republic,  when  the  flag  was  first raised, at El Morro castle in Havana), Narciso Villaverde had told him the flag was the one Emilia made, “... working at home with ribbons of silk, some white and others blue, and a piece of red cloth… in total—a halfhour of work…She gave it to General López, and he gave it to my father, his secretary, for safekeeping.”

The other flag, the one which flew in Cardenas in 1850 and at the ceremony in New Orleans honoring the returnees, also resurfaced soon after.  The Cuban Senate met in formal session on 14  December  1944  to  receive  with  appropriate  ceremony  the  donation  of  “a  silk  flag,  two meters long by one wide, with three blue stripes and two white, with a red equilateral triangle, quite faded, whose central figure is a white star of five points ...”  It had been donated by Dr.  Manuel Sanguily y Arizti, in memory of his father, Manuel Sanguily y Garritte, with the express consent of the other heirs (his mother, Felicia Arizti y Sobrino, the widow of Manuel Sanguily y Garritte and his sister, Fernanda Sanguily y Arizti, as they had zealously guarded the flag as their exclusive property), according to Santovenia (Senator from Pinar del Río).  Santovenia’s article  refers to the speech of Eduardo Suarez Rivas (President of the Senate in extraordinary session when the flag was unveiled in the Senate Chamber) and to the deed of gift from Sanguily y Arizti  to  the  Senate,  which  promised  to  conserve  it  adequately  (otherwise  the  gift  could  be revoked); it has been preserved in the nation’s Capitol.

Cuba’s  national  hero,  Havana’s  José  Julián  Martí  y  Pérez  (1853–1895),  had  published  in  his newspaper Patria on 14 July 1894, “D ... R ... says that Narciso López explained the Cuban flag in this way:  ‘From the triangle of red, strength and blood, will come the radiant star:  the three blue stripes are the three departments’” (In Martí, José, Obras Completas [Complete Works], Editorial Lex, Havana, Cuba, 1946, Volume II, p. 1774).  Martí (who by quirk of fate would fall in battle on 19 May 1895, the 45th anniversary of the flag first flying in Cardenas) had founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party to fight for the independence of Cuba and to encourage and support the  independence  of  Puerto  Rico,  whose  flag,  not  coincidentally,  reflects  the  historical  and cultural links between the two peoples.   “From one bird, two wings”, as the Puerto Rican poet Lolita Rodríguez de Tió, who died in Havana, wrote.  (The comparison of the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags requires another paper.)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the current national flag had come to represent the goals of emancipation, and the creative soul of the Cuban people watched in eager anticipation for  it  to  fly  for  the  first  time  as  a  symbol  of  the  birth  of  a  republic  outside  of  Spanish colonialism.  Before it finally flew on 20 May 1902, a popular song in the Cuban streets added to the rich culture surrounding the Cuban flag ... 

Lone little star

Of my Cuban flag

When will I see you shine

Over the Morro Castle of Havana!

These verses are also listed in the document cited and signed by Roig, 29 December 1949 ... 



1.  Hallan  tumba  de  la  bordadora  de  la  bandera  cubana,  Prensa  Latina  (Matanzas)  en  sección Noticias,  en  Cubarte,  sitio  web  del  Ministerio  de  Cultura  de  la  República  de  Cuba.  26 de abril de 2010.

2.  Portell Vilá, Herminio:  Breve biografía de Narciso López.  Sociedad Colombista Panamericana, 1950.  

3.  —:  Narciso López y su época, Compañía Editora de Libros y Folletos, La Habana, 1952.

4.  Roig de Leuchsenring, Emilio:  Cuba y los Estados Unidos de América:  Historia documentada de la actitud disímil del Estado y el pueblo norteamericanos en relación con la independencia de Cuba,  1805–1898.    “Publicaciones  de  la  Sociedad  Cubana  de  Estudios  Históricos  e Internacionales”, La Habana, 1949; 279 páginas, 21 cm.

5.  —:  Banderas oficiales y revolucionarias de Cuba.  Colección Histórica Cubana y Americana 7, Municipio  de  La  Habana,  1950,  con  143  páginas,  “Homenaje  del  municipio  de  La  Habana  a nuestra enseña nacional en su primer centenario, 1850–19 de Mayo de 1950”.  

6.  Santovenia y Echaide, Emeterio Santiago.  Discurso en La bandera de Narciso López en el Senado de Cuba.  La Habana, Ediciones Oficiales del Senado, 1945; 47 páginas, 18 cm.  


I  would  like  to  acknowledge,  above  all,  for  the  great  inspiration  for  this  article  and  its submission  to  the  Congress: Maikel AristaSalado  y  Hernandez;  the  sisters  Marisela  and Milagros Cruz Suarez, who made it possible for me to attend the event; and the efforts and attention of NAVA, mainly Gustavo Tracchia, the program chair, and Ted Kaye, who translated my Spanish into English and edited both versions of this paper.


Example of the code with which Narciso López communicated with underground revolutionaries in Cuba.



Narciso López’s proclamation to the Spanish soldiers in Cuba.


The letter of marque issued by Narciso López and the hymn of the revolution of 1850.


About the Author

Avelino Víctor Couceiro, Ph.D. (born in Havana, 1957)

Dr. Avelino Couceiro majored in History and Art History at the University of Havana. He also holds a doctorate in Sciences in Art (Environmentalist Cultural Studies) from the Instituto Superior de Arte. Dr. Couceiro is considered the founding father of Urban Anthropology in Cuba and has been recognized with several awards and decorations throughout his prolific career, ith more than ten published books and hundreds of articles in magazines, newsletters, and bulletins around the world. For over two decades Dr. Couceiro has been studying communities in his home country, where he holds the highest researcher status. He is currently president of the Scientific Board of Havana’s Office of Cultural Affairs and a professor at the University of Havana. In 1989 Dr. Couceiro founded the Cultural Studies Forum, an event that now gathers hundreds of participants each year. In 2007 the forum honored the 50th anniversary of World Vexillology—the only event in Cuba to do so—adjacent to Revolution Square. Organized by Dr. Couceiro (below), it started with a parade of flags and conference led by Maikel Arista Salado y Hernández.


Avelino Víctor Couceiro Rodríguez

Autorizado  por el autor, al cual agradecemos.


En Letras-Uruguay ingresado el presente trabajo el día 22 de agosto de 2013


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