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Irish Railroad Workers in Cuba: Towards a Research Agenda

By Margaret Brehony


Central Rafael Freyre, below Bariay

Slavery 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. 

Sugar 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 peligro negro’.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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: 38).

Despite 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 colonial systems.

Margaret Brehony


[1] Letters from British Consul in Havana, Crawford, to Lord Aberdeen, 3 May 1844, PRO, FO 72/664, no. 142; 250.

[2] Testimony by Daniel Downing to Crawford July 1844, PRO, FO/664, no. 161.

[3] Letter from British Consul Turnbull to Lord Aberdeen 1841, PRO, FO 72/585 no. 56.



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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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