There are several different versions about the origin of the province's name, which is Spanish for "massacres". The priest Bartolomé de las Casas makes reference in his chronicles to an event taking place in the bay of Guanimar in 1509: the aboriginals of the zone attacked and slaughtered a group of Spaniards who were sailing in the area. In 1513, the cove of Guanimar adopted the name of Matanzas and when the city was founded in 1693, it was called San Carlos y San Severino de Matanzas.
This region of the country had a slow development up to the first half of the 19th century. At that time the economy of the of the region started to develop with the modernization of the sugar industry and came to be one of the most sugar-productive zones of the country. Owing to the very development of the industry, the slave system would continue and become more and more inhuman. In 1843, Leopoldo O'Donnell, Captain General of the island, willing to inflict a massive exemplary punishment to put an end to slave uprisings, carried out one of the bloodiest episodes of colonial history: the repression of La Escalera.
During the invasion, led by Cuban patriots Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, Matanzas played an important role. In its territory the battles of Coliseo and Calimete took place in the first months of 1896. After the first of those battles, the invasion column, attempting to fool the Spanish troops, pretended they were turning back and returning to Las Villas. However, they were just making a strategic loop movement that determined the advance of the Cuban troops to the western region of Cuba.
During the neocolonial republic, Matanzas was characterized by its participation in workers' and students' struggles. Along the tyranny of the Batista regime, it was the scenario of relevant actions. On April 29, 1956 the Goicuría garrison attack took place. That action, though a defeat where all the attackers died, constituted a demonstration of the rebelliousness of the people of the city against the tyrant.
In 1957, a Matanzas-born patriot from the city of Cárdenas named José Antonio Echeverría, president of the federation of university students, and member of the revolutionary direction, took part in an attack to the presidential palace and the takeover of the radio station Radio Reloj. When his mission of addressing the people through the radio was accomplished he engaged in a shooting where he died.
After the revolutionary triumph, in 1961, the southern coast of Matanzas was the scenario for the mercenary invasion of the Bay of Pigs, which was defeated by the people in only seventy-two hours.