Central Rafael Freyre, below Bariay
vs. Wage Labour and Whiteness
From the end of the eighteenth century, Bourbon-driven
capitalist expansion in Cuba based on the production of
sugar relied fundamentally on slave labour. After the
Haitian Revolution of 1791 Cuba became the world’s largest
producer of sugar. The various Anglo-Spanish treaties
to suppress the ‘legal’ African slave trade opened the
way for another lucrative flow of captives via contraband
that lasted throughout the last third of the nineteenth
century. By 1846 it is estimated that 36 percent of the
Cuban population were slaves, many of whom still spoke
African languages and had little or no contact with the
Creole or Cuban-born world outside the plantations. At
this time Cuba had a very large slave population and a
higher proportion of free blacks living in cities and
practising trades than all the other so-called sugar-islands
(Ferrer 1999). The Spanish Crown turned a blind eye to
the thriving illegal slave trade to maintain a plantation
economy that yielded fat royal revenues. They also hoped
that fear of the large African population would keep growing
anti-colonial sentiments by Cuban separatists from materialising
into a full-blown independence struggle.
planters shaped colonial labour relations and technological
developments, both of which leaned heavily on foreign
capital. As the abolition of slavery neared, their calculations
regarding the pros and cons of bonded versus wage labour
also had to factor in concerns about industrialisation
and the racial anxieties of the time. The importation
of thousands of contracted Chinese labourers to work in
the sugar mills only intensified their racial fears. The
Hispano-Cuban ‘colonisation’ project calling for the importation
of cheap white European labour that had started towards the
end of the eighteenth century now acquired some urgency.
Apart from addressing a chronic scarcity of manpower to
fuel the voracious expansion of the sugar industry, the
business of importing wage labour was part of a policy
to ‘whiten’ the island and assuage the fear of ‘el
white ruling population clung to their Iberian superiors
for fear of a slave rebellion such as happened in Haiti.
Cuban colonial society in the early part of the nineteenth
century, with its white minority elite and black majority
subjects, was moving from a discourse of planter/slave
to one reflecting a conflict of race (Benitez-Rojo 1992:
122). Those prepared to consider independence from Spain
expressed their desire for a Cuban nation ‘formed by the
white race’ (Ferrer 1999). While the discourse of Cuban
nationalism centred on race and nationality, the merchant
class envisioned a vast labour market of dispossessed
workers both native and imported, who would also tip the
balance in favour of whiteness.
describing los irlandeses, Moreno Fraginals draws
on Engels’ descriptions of the Irish in Britain as ‘white
slaves’. He also makes reference to Carlyle’s descriptions
of the Irish sleeping with their pigs, psychologically
dependent on drink, etc., and lowering even further ‘the
minimal human needs’ for factory workers in England. He
goes on to state: ‘As the cheapest workers available in
Europe who knew enough to lay rails, they were brought
to Cuba by the railroad contractors to be submitted to
a form of slavery similar to the Negro’s’ (Moreno Fraginals
1978: 135). According to Ballol (1987), the documentation
of the era depicted them in a negative light.
Railway Commission ultimately divested itself of the Irish.
Ballol quotes an article written in the Diario de
La Habana dated 4 June 1836 that suggests an economic
motive for the rejection of Irish workers in favour of
a new wave of immigrants from the Canary Islands: ‘Henceforth
they [Canary islanders] could prove to be the most economic
of workers, now that the company has liberated itself
from the high daily wage paid to the Irish…’ (Ballol
1987: 82). In a parting shot, the Royal Council in Havana
stated that the ‘worthless, lazy, disease-ridden, drunkards
… should have been thrown out much earlier’ (Serrano 1991:
the ‘moral’ critique of the Irish, their whiteness was
never called into question. This contrasts with the reputed
racialisation of the Irish in North America in the early
part of the nineteenth century. The Irish had not yet
embraced their position as white in the racial pecking
order of the United States, where pitting race against
class worked to disrupt potential alliances between Black,
Chinese, and Irish immigrants (Roediger 1991). From the
sources consulted, it appears that there was opposition
on the part of some of the Irish to colonial rule and
slavery in Cuba. Little else is known of those who survived
the brutal conditions in Cuba either by returning to New
York or staying on the island. Many questions remain unanswered:
given the prevailing racial climate, why did they come
to Cuba in the first place? How many departed or stayed,
and what happened to each of them? What drove some of
them to conspire to overthrow slavery and the colonial
social order? It is hoped that a thorough investigation
based on primary sources in Cuba or Spain may shed light
on the experiences of this small group of people from
Ireland who were exploited as peons in two very different
Letters from British Consul in Havana, Crawford, to Lord
Aberdeen, 3 May 1844, PRO, FO 72/664, no. 142; 250.
Testimony by Daniel Downing to Crawford July 1844, PRO,
FO/664, no. 161.
Letter from British Consul Turnbull to Lord Aberdeen 1841,
PRO, FO 72/585 no. 56.
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(Madrid: Fundación de los Ferrocarriles Españoles,
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Indentured Servants and Freemen in the English West
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