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Irish Railroad Workers in Cuba: Towards a Research Agenda

By Margaret Brehony


Accounts written by Cuban historians make brief reference to Irish migrant workers in the construction of the railroad; however, most fail to explore this migratory flow in any great detail. A more recent publication by the Spanish Railroad Foundation (Ballol 1987), commemorating 150 years of the Cuban railroad, contains the most extensive reference to Irish railroad workers and to the many records concerning them preserved in the National Archives in Havana and the Provincial Archives in Matanzas. In his study of the sugar mills in Cuba, El Ingenio (The Sugar Mill, 1964), the Cuban historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals provides a short account of the construction of the ‘sugar railroad’ and the immigrant work force (including Irish) that made it possible.

The Irish and other bonded labourers, particularly Canary Islanders, 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. They drew monthly wages of 25 pesos, most of which was absorbed by the contractors as repayments for the maritime passage, passports, hiring fees, monthly medical bills, and debts incurred as penalties. Documents from the Cuban National Archives revealed a December 1835 report by the Royal Council for Development, which tallied the following figures for the labourers toiling on the railway project:

- Irish contingent, 282
- Military prisoners from the Iberian Peninsula, 140
- Freed slaves, 30
- Free blacks liberated from illegal slave ships, 24 (Ballol 1987: 82)

In the course of the construction of its short 17 miles, the ‘sugar railroad’ claimed many lives. The appalling work conditions of hunger and an exhausting sixteen-hour day, with workers crammed into wooden huts at night, led to rebellion, protest and flight. Protestors ended up in prison, only to find themselves returned to the railroad work gang, this time as forced labourers. In fact some of the first strikes recorded on the island were led by Irish people and Canary Islanders (Mota, 2003). On termination of their contracts, the Irish were not entitled to repatriation. Their passports were returned and the workers unceremoniously let go. Serrano writes of workers plagued by diseases left to beg in the streets of Havana and in the countryside, an image of abject drunken misery, and of starvation (Serrano: 1991). Recalling their abuse in the British West Indies some two centuries earlier (see article by Rodgers in this journal) by planters who viewed them as ‘insubordinate and riotous social misfits’ (Beckles: 1990), the Royal Council in Havana likewise defended its refusal to repatriate the Irish by characterising them as ‘worthless, lazy, disease-ridden, drunkards’ who deceived their bosses by disguising their ‘vile habits’ at the time of their contracts (Serrano: 1991).

Twice Exploited: As Labourers and as White Buffers

In the absence of any comparative studies of Cuba and Ireland as colonial sites, the broader question posed by Joe Cleary (Carroll 2003: 40) as to the extent of connections between Irish oppositional discourse and other non-European subaltern discourse is a very useful prism through which to examine this episode of the Irish experience in Cuba. References to Irish contract workers in Cuba in the early part of the nineteenth century reveal their exploitation as “racial pawns” in the Latin American power elite’s struggles to contain black workers and slaves through racial privilege. During the nineteenth century, they sought to ‘whiten’ their populations and engender European mentalities and customs through immigration. Argentina is noted for its ‘success’ in effectively diluting and diminishing its Afro-Argentine and indigenous population by these means. Doctoral research carried out by Claire Healy describes the enthusiastic embracing of their own whiteness by the Irish in Buenos Aires - albeit not with the extreme reactionary stance associated with North America’s race/class wars. This eased the Irish-Argentines’ way out of the subaltern position that they came from. They were easily classified ‘as ingleses and therefore unequivocally white’ (Healy 2005: 488), contributing to the structural process of inscribing white dominance. However, the Irish who came to Cuba to work on the railroad were known as irlandeses (not ingleses) and their incorporation into the world of privileged whiteness was not so clear cut.

The marked differences in the experiences of Irish immigrants in Argentina and Cuba must be found in the Hispano-Cuban colonisation policy to ‘whiten’ the island, to keep it from being overrun by a majority black population. Irish subalternity on the one hand, and attempts to tie the workers to ‘the wages of whiteness’ on the other, need to be explored against this backdrop. The British too imported Irish labour as a solution to tipping the balance in favour of whiteness in the planter-dominated economies of the Caribbean. While they may have been successful in terms of producing the ‘right’ numbers of whites, it must be remembered that the Irish servants were perceived and treated as ‘black men in white skins’ (Beckles, 1986). They were considered by their English masters as the ‘internal enemy’ and at different times were seen as a greater threat to peace than their African slaves. Suspicions of Irish participation in slave revolts ran deep.

The accusation of Irish identification with African slaves in Barbados was repeated again in Cuba more than a century later. Jonathan Curry-Machado studied the presence, identity, and influence of engineering migrants in Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century, including some Irish artisans working on the sugar plantations and railways. He contends that by their mere presence, foreign labourers and mechanics were seen as ‘catalytic agents’ in the social and political changes taking place at the time in Cuba (Curry-Machado 2003). Both Curry-Machado and historian Robert Paquette describe the imprisonment and torture of British subjects during the slave revolts which took place on a number of sugar plantations in 1844. British Consular documents at the Public Records Office in Kew contain testimonies of Irish prisoners accused of being involved in a plot to overthrow slavery and the Spanish Crown.

Many foreigners were arrested and tortured during a crackdown by the Captain-General of the island, General Leopoldo O’Donnell, ironically a descendent of the O’Donnells of Donegal. His brutal repression of slaves during the revolts known as the Escalera Uprising is well known. There are lengthy petitions by the British Consul in Havana advocating for more humane treatment of the British subjects imprisoned in different parts of Cuba who were natives of Ireland. For example, Patrick O’Rourke was accused of helping to obtain ammunition to assist in the insurrection; [1] James Downing, a native of Waterford, was also charged with conspiring to overthrow the authority of the Spanish Crown in Cuba; [2] Patrick O’Doherty, of Donegal, a train driver on the Havana-Güines line, was thrown into prison for allegedly causing the train he was driving to crash into another [3]


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Brehony, Margaret, 'Irish Railroad Workers in Cuba Towards a Research Agenda
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 183-188. Available online (, accessed .


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