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Black Labor Migration in Caribbean Guatemala, 1882–1923

Frederick Douglass Opie

Publication Year: 2009

In the late nineteenth century, many Central American governments and countries sought to fill low-paying jobs and develop their economies by recruiting black American and West Indian laborers. Frederick Opie offers a revisionist interpretation of these workers, who were often depicted as simple victims with little, if any, enduring legacy.

The Guatemalan government sought to build an extensive railroad system in the 1880s, and actively recruited foreign labor. For poor workers of African descent, immigrating to Guatemala was seen as an opportunity to improve their lives and escape from the racism of the Jim Crow U.S. South and the French and British colonial Caribbean.

Using primary and secondary sources as well as ethnographic data, Opie details the struggles of these workers who were ultimately inspired to organize by the ideas of Marcus Garvey. Regularly suffering class- and race-based attacks and persecution, black laborers frequently met such attacks with resistance. Their leverage--being able to shut down the railroad--was crucially important to the revolutionary movements in 1897 and 1920.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page, Copyright

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Until recently, most history was written within a national framework. But an increasing number of scholars are now eschewing this approach. In the last decade or so, increasingly sophisticated work has appeared that has documented the movement of both people and ideas across national boundaries...

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pp. xiii

I also want to thank the many librarians who made my job as a historian possible: Trevor Dawes, formerly of Columbia University Library; the Marist College librarians who handled my interlibrary loan requests; and the staff of the Hemeroteca de la Biblioteca Nacional de Guatemala, Guatemala...

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pp. 1-7

In 1884, steamships loaded with laborers from the U.S. ports of Mobile, Galveston, and New Orleans, and from the West Indies, began to arrive at the Caribbean port of Puerto Barrios, in Izabal, Guatemala. U.S. contractors had begun hiring black and Latin American workers to lay track throughout...

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1. Historical Context: Race and Labor in Guatemala

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pp. 8-27

Before the 1990s, research on Guatemalan history commonly overlooked the contributions of people of African descent to the development of the railroad and banana industries. Despite the integral role of black laborers in these vital industries, historians doing work on Guatemala have given...

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2. Race, Resistance, and Revolution in the Late Nineteenth Century

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pp. 28-40

Completing the Northern Railroad required laborers to be imported from abroad and coerced to remain doing difficult work in extremely inhospitable conditions. The Guatemalan state assisted its multinational partners in enticing black workers to the Caribbean coast, often under false pretences, and...

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3. Race Relations on the Early-Twentieth-Century Caribbean Frontier

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pp. 41-51

Between 1912 and 1914, UFCO employed more than 4,000 workers: about 3,500 were of African descent, 500 were Latin Americans, and 300 were white North Americans in high-paying positions. West Indians (particularly Jamaicans) came to dominate the landscape of the banana enclaves...

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4. Revolvers, Shotguns, Machetes, and Clubs: The Strikes of 1909–1919

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pp. 52-65

On December 7, 1909, Warren W. Smith, the superintendent of the various farms of the United Fruit Company, described the start of a banana plantation labor strike that quickly spread across the department of Izabal. One morning, while riding through the Virginia plantation, he met...

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5. Labor Radicalism on the Caribbean Coast: Ladino Mobilization in Guatemala, 1920–1923

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pp. 66-86

Following the First World War, relations among workers on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala entered a new phase, in which Latin American and black laborers mobilized separately and pursued distinctly different strategies to secure better conditions. This was due in part to the shifting composition...

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6. We Depend on Others Too Much: Garveyism and Labor Radicalism in the Caribbean Basin

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pp. 87-96

The benefits of labor incorporation won by Latin American IRCA workers following the 1920 Unionist revolution in Guatemala were predicated to a certain extent on labor’s exclusion of black immigrant workers. These workers also mobilized in the early 1920s, but their radicalism was inspired less...

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pp. 97-101

In attempting to narrate the history of the multiethnic labor force on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I have engaged in a project of piecing together fragmented and often-neglected source materials in order to bring an interesting and...


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pp. 103-124


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pp. 125-138


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pp. 139-145

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045177
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813033716
Print-ISBN-10: 0813033713

Page Count: 160
Illustrations: 5 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2009