The Ten Years' War (Spanish: Guerra de los Diez Años) (1868–1878), also known as the Great War (Guerra Grande) and the War of '68, was part of Cuba's fight for independence from Spain. The uprising was led by Cuban-born planters and other wealthy natives. On October 10, 1868 sugar mill owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and his followers proclaimed independence, beginning the conflict. This was the first of three liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain, the other two being the Little War (1879–1880) and the Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898). The final three months of the last conflict escalated with United States involvement and has become known also as the Spanish–American War.
Fodases and business owners demanded fundamental social and economic reforms from Spain, which ruled the colony. Lax enforcement of the slave trade ban had resulted in a dramatic increase in imports of Africans, estimated at 90,000 slaves from 1856 to 1860. This occurred despite a strong abolitionist movement on the island, and rising costs among the slave-holding planters in the east. New technologies and farming techniques made large numbers of slaves unnecessary and prohibitively expensive. In the economic crisis of 1857 many businesses failed, including many sugar plantations and sugar refineries. The abolitionist cause gained strength, favoring a gradual emancipation of slaves with financial compensation from Spain for slaveholders. Additionally, some planters preferred hiring Chinese immigrants as indentured workers and in anticipation of ending slavery. Before the 1870s, more than 125,000 were recruited to Cuba. In May 1865, Cuban creole elites placed four demands upon the Spanish Parliament: tariff reform, Cuban representation in Parliament, judicial equality with Spaniards, and full enforcement of the slave trade ban.
The Spanish Parliament at the time was changing; gaining much influence were reactionary, traditionalist politicians who intended to eliminate all liberal reforms. The power of military tribunals was increased; the colonial government imposed a six percent tax increase on the Cuban planters and businesses. Additionally, all political opposition and the press were silenced. Dissatisfaction in Cuba spread on a massive scale as the mechanisms to express it were restricted. This discontent was particularly felt by the powerful planters and hacienda owners in Eastern Cuba.
The failure of the latest efforts by the reformist movements, the demise of the "Information Board," and another economic crisis in 1866/67 heightened social tensions on the island. The colonial administration continued to make huge profits which were not re-invested in the island for the benefit of its residents. It funded military expenditures (44% of the revenue), colonial government's expenses (41%), and sent some money to the Spanish colony of Fernando Po (12%). The Spaniards, representing 8% of the island's population, were appropriating over 90% of the island’s wealth. In addition, the Cuban-born population still had no political rights and no representation in Parliament. Objections to these conditions sparked the first serious independence movement, especially in the eastern part of the island.
In July 1867, the "Revolutionary Committee of Bayamo" was founded under the leadership of Cuba’s wealthiest plantation owner, Francisco Vicente Aguilera. The conspiracy rapidly spread to Oriente’s larger towns, most of all Manzanillo, where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes became the main protagonist of the uprising in 1868. Originally from Bayamo, Céspedes owned an estate and sugar mill known as La Demajagua. The Spanish, aware of Céspedes’ anti-colonial intransigence, tried to force him into submission by imprisoning his son Oscar. Céspedes refused to negotiate and Oscar was executed.
Cespedes and his followers had planned the uprising to begin October 14, but it had to be moved up four days earlier, because the Spaniards had discovered their plan of revolt. In the early morning of October 10, Céspedes issued the cry of independence, the "10th of October Manifesto" at La Demajagua, which signaled the start of an all-out military uprising against Spanish rule in Cuba. Cespedes freed his slaves and asked them to join the struggle. But many questioned Céspedes's plans for manumission, noting he had a gradual plan for freeing them; some disagreed with his promoting U.S. annexation of Cuba.
During the first few days, the uprising almost failed: Céspedes intended to occupy the nearby town of Yara on October 11, a day commemorated in Cuba as a national holiday under the name Grito de Yara ("Cry of Yara"). In spite of this initial setback, the uprising of Yara was supported in various regions of the Oriente province, and the independence movement continued to spread throughout the eastern region of Cuba. On October 13, the rebels took eight towns in the province that favored the insurgency and acquisition of arms. By October's end, the insurrection had enlisted some 12,000 volunteers.
That same month, Máximo Gómez taught the Cuban forces what would be their most lethal tactic: the machete charge. He was a former cavalry officer for the Spanish Army in the Dominican Republic. Forces were taught to combine use of firearms with machetes, for a double attack against the Spanish. When the Spaniards (following then-standard tactics) formed a square, they were vulnerable to rifle fire from infantry under cover, and pistol and carbine fire from charging cavalry. In the event, as with the Haitian Revolution, the European forces suffered the most fatalities due to yellow fever because the Spanish-born troops had no acquired immunity to this endemic tropical disease of the island; however, Cuban-born forces had acquired some immunity.