Columbus supposedly discovered the bay in 1494. Shortly after the Spanish settled Cuba and established their trade restrictions, the bay developed a thriving smuggling trade. Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan were among privateers who called for plunder.
Construction of a fortress—Castillo de Jagua —was begun in 1738 to protect the bay and to police smuggling through the straits. It wasn’t until 1817 that Louis D’Clouet, a French émigré from Louisiana, devised a settlement scheme that he presented to Don José Cienfuego, the Spanish captain-general. The Spanish government would pay for the transportation of white colonists from Europe. The Spanish Parliament approved. By April 1819, the first 137 French settlers arrived. Cienfuegos  grew rapidly to wealth thanks to the deep-water harbor, and merchants and plantation owners graced the city with a surfeit of stucco.
The city continued to prosper during the early 20th century and had an unremarkable history—until September 5, 1957, when young naval officers and sailors (supported by the CIA) at the Cienfuegos Naval Base rebelled against the Batista regime and took control of the city’s military installations. Members of Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and students joined them. Batista’s troops managed to recapture the city by nightfall.
Since the Revolution, the city’s hinterland has grown significantly, mostly to the west, where a port and industrial complex were initiated in the 1980s.