- Race, Nation, and West Indian Immigration to Honduras, 1890-1940
In this short text, Glenn A. Chambers examines West Indian experiences on the north coast of Honduras between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. He follows West Indians as they depart their homelands (particularly Jamaica and the Cayman Islands), arrive to the north coast to find work with the fruit industry and, ultimately, are forced out of Honduras by nervous officials and restrictive immigration laws. Because the West Indian community in Honduras was always quite small—no more than 4,710 at its peak in 1910 (p. 58)—Chambers is able to outline its contours with relative ease using documents from the U.S., Honduran, and British governments; internal records from various fruit companies; newspaper reports; and a smattering of church records, oral interviews with Hondurans of West Indian descent, and secondary sources.
What he finds, in essence, is that West Indians occupied an ambiguous position in Honduras. Although they were British citizens, they suffered from what Chambers refers to as "colonial neglect" (p. 102). That is, British authorities did not always come to their West Indian subjects' defense, even in cases of egregious abuse by Hondurans and U.S. businessmen. This despite the fact that the British government profited from their laborers in Honduras—through the fees recruiters paid for each laborer they lured away from the colonies, for example, and the remittances that laborers sent back home.
The U.S. fruit companies also influenced the West Indians' liminal [End Page 451] position in Honduras. According to Chambers, the companies preferred West Indians as laborers because they spoke English, were more highly educated and skilled than their Honduran counterparts, and often had previous experience with the fruit industry in Jamaica and elsewhere. As West Indians came to compose a sort of elite labor force in Honduras, local laborers bristled and pressured Honduran officials to counter the foreign "invasion." Honduran authorities, for their part, simultaneously welcomed and ostracized West Indian laborers for most of the period under study. On the one hand, West Indians met many of the criteria for preferred immigrants; by and large they were educated and they had the financial means to not only make the journey to Honduras but also to make the appropriate deposits with immigration authorities. On the other hand, they were black, and for Honduran elites influenced by contemporary trends such as eugenics, black came to mean undesirable. Thus, whereas in the late 1800s Honduran elites accepted West Indian immigrant labor (even if somewhat warily), by the 1920s and 1930s, they shifted to outright rejection, including mass deportations.
But if Honduran, U.S., and British authorities contributed to the West Indian immigrants' ambiguous status in Honduras, so too, Chambers argues, did the immigrants themselves bear significant responsibility. West Indians relished their positions as British citizens and prized workers for U.S. businesses, explains Chambers, and purposefully distinguished themselves from the local population in terms of linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions. They tended to intermarry and maintain organizations with other West Indians, including recent arrivals and those who settled in the Bay Islands during the early and mid 1800s. Moreover, just as they "disassociated themselves from the black masses in their home countries prior to immigration" (p. 75), they also separated themselves from the Garífuna and other black Hondurans, thus disrupting the development of a strong pan-African movement in Honduras.
Race, Nation, and West Indian Immigration to Honduras leaves few topics untouched. Among its many threads are labor, migration, community and identity formation, nationalism, transnationalism, diasporas, colonialism and imperialism, mestizaje, blackness, and gender. Unfortunately, the author does not fully tease out these themes, even though doing so would have deepened and advanced his analysis. For example, despite the prominence of "nation" in the title, direct engagement with the concept is limited to a brief quotation from Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (2006). Transnationalism also emerges as an important trope, yet the author does not engage [End Page 452] at all with...