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Irish Free Labor and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 1835–1844
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Archival records of Irish migration to Cuba describe a colony of irlandeses contracted in New York in 1835 for the Cuban Railway Commission to lay the tracks of the first stretch of railroad in Latin America. Irish bonded laborers were forced into a brutal work regime under Spanish military rule, where any attempt to abscond was treated as desertion punishable by prison or execution. Protest by the Irish railroad workers led to their repudiation by the authorities within months of their arrival, marking them as ethnically unsuitable for “free” labor. In the experiment to substitute slavery with free labor, and as part of the vanguard of the Cuban-Hispano white colonization scheme using contract labor, Irish navvies showed little promise in the inscription of whiteness and even less as cheap labor. The significance of “the wages of whiteness” to the railroad workers in Cuba is questioned in light of their identification with a subaltern position.1 The alliances they made with bonded laborers from the Canary Islands working on the railroad resulted in some of the first strikes recorded on the island. Less than ten years later, Irish immigrants were imprisoned, accused of conspiring with people of color in the 1844 Escalera slave uprising.

Irish resistance to coercive labor practices on the construction of the Cuban railroad was far from being merely spasmodic and violent upsurges. I argue that forms of struggle that emerged from the creation of a landless proletariat in Ireland underlay the generation of subaltern resistance by Irish migrants in the intersecting British and Iberian systems of colonial labor. Accusations against Irish immigrants of identifying with a British abolitionist cause in Cuba suggest a divergence from the disassociation with black workers and slaves on the basis of racial privilege that took place in North and South America in the 1830s.2 This paper explores the context in which a number of Irish immigrants were implicated in the transnational movement against slavery and colonial rule in Cuba.

Abolitionists in Cuba

In October 1844 several Irish newspapers reported on a devastating hurricane that hit Cuba on 5 October: “The city [of Havana] presented more the appearance of a town that had just been bombarded and sacked than the proud noble city of Havannah. . . . There was nothing but heaps of ruins, . . . every street being like a river.”3 Old people could not remember another hurricane like it. In the city of Matanzas in western Cuba many people mark this day as the patron saint day of Plácido, the free mulatto poet put to death in June of the same year for his part as a leader in the largest conspiracy by people of color in Cuba’s history. They saw the devastation wrought by the hurricane in Matanzas as divine retribution for the crimes committed by the Spanish colonial authorities against the slave population.4 The Nation goes on to describe the damage to ships in the harbor left “high and dry” at the fish market on the wharf, but “Her Majesty’s ship Romney escaped injury.”5

This British hulk had been anchored in the harbor at Havana since 1837 to house liberated African slaves (emancipados) until they were transferred to a nearby British colony.6 Dr. Richard Robert Madden, an Irish doctor appointed by the British Colonial Office as Superintendent of Liberated Africans to Cuba, defended the positioning of the vessel as a solution for providing a temporary depot for freed Africans. Manned by a West Indian regiment of uniformed black soldiers bearing arms, the Romney was perceived by the colonial elite in Cuba as a reminder of the specter of the Haitian revolution and a fearful symbol of abolitionism that served to inflame anti-British sentiment. The emancipation of the slave population in 1833 in neighboring West Indies sent further waves of panic throughout Cuba. As a measure to protect against the corrupting influence of emancipation or the seductions of “the spirit of liberty,” General Tacón in 1837 banned any free blacks from foreign territories from entering Cuba.7 Fear of contagion and of abolitionists led to a deep mistrust of the free black population, comprising between 15 and 20 percent of the overall...


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