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The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba

By Rafael Fernández Moya



While the work was being carried out, the so-called Irish workers and Canary Islanders were subjected to hard labour beyond their physical endurance, receiving insufficient food in return. Nor were they assured the pay and treatment previously agreed upon. After some weeks putting up with mistreatment and hunger the “Irish” workers and Canary Islanders decided to demand their rights from the administration of the railway works and when these were not adequately met, they launched the first workers’ strike recorded in the history of the island. The repression was bloody; the Spanish governors ordered the troops to act against the disgruntled workers, resulting in injury and death. 

The first stretch of railway, to Bejucal, was inaugurated in 1837 and the line from there to Güines was put into service the following year. In 1839 the Villanueva station was built in Havana, on the land where the Capitolio (Capitol Building) is to be found nowadays, following the same architectural style used for that type of building in Europe and the United States. The memory of the Irish and other builders of Cuba’s first railway are present in the Cristina Station Museum, the departure point of the old Western Railway.

It has been said that the introduction of the steam engine and other improvements in the sugar industry, Cuba’s main economic activity in that period, was mainly the work of North American growers who had settled on the island, particularly in the areas surrounding Matanzas and Cárdenas, north coast districts which, according to the opinion of the Irish writer Richard R. Madden, had more characteristics in common with North American towns than those of Spain.

One of the growers who had come from the United States named Juan D. Duggan was, according to the Cuban chemist and agronomist Alvaro Reynoso, one of the first farmers in the country to plant sugar cane over great distances, while Santiago Macomb, Roberto Steel and Jorge Bartlett were the first to grow sugar cane and made the richness of the soil in the Sagua la Grande region known. The introduction of the steam engine on the sugar plantations resulted in the necessity to hire operators or machinists in the main from the United States and England. After the administrator, the most important job in a sugar plantation was without a doubt that of machinist, who had to work like an engineer because, besides being responsible for all repairs, sometimes they had to come up with real innovations in the machinery.

Leopoldo O'Donnell (1809-1867)
(Antonio Núñez Jiménez, Isla de Pinos, piratas, colonizadores, rebeldes, La Habana, Arte y Literatura, 1976)

Some of these foreign technicians living in the Matanzas region became involved in a legal trial, accused of complicity with the enslaved African people’s plans for a revolt, which were abandoned in 1844. Six of them were originally from England, Ireland and Scotland: Enrique Elkins, Daniel Downing, Fernando Klever, Robert Hiton, Samuel Hurrit and Thomas Betlin.

The number of people arrested later grew and all were treated violently during interrogation. In November 1844 the English consul Mr. Joseph Crawford informed the Governor and Captain General of the island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, that the British subjects Joseph Leaning and Pat O’Rourke had died after being released. The doctors who treated them indicated that the physical and moral suffering they had endured in the prison was the cause of death. One of the streets in Cienfuegos was given the name of the infamous Governor of the Island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, who embarked on a bloody campaign of repression against the Afro-Cuban population and against the white people who supported their cause.

One particular case is that of the machinist Jaime Lawton, who prospered as a businessman and was the founder of a family business that his descendants continued until the first third of the twentieth century. He started as a machinist in the Saratoga plantation owned by the Drakes and later entered into partnership with the English ex-consul Carlos D. Tolmé. The two men started operating under the company name Lawton y Tolmé in 1848.

Jaime Lawton was the owner of several haciendas in the Matanzas region, among them a sugar plantation located in the town of Ceja de Pablo, another called Mercedita, in Lagunillas, and the Hernaní coffee plantation, bought in 1852, located in the Coliseo region. He was one of the partners of the company that built the Almacenes de Regla (Regla Warehouses) in the south of Havana in 1849-1850, and set up a nail factory in Regla town, on the other side of the bay from the capital. In May 1853 he was an administrator of the Compañía de Vapores de la Bahía (Bahía Steamship Company). When Jaime Lawton died in 1857, a nephew, Santiago M. Lawton, originally from the United States, remained at the head of the business. A few years later, Santiago and two of his brothers, Benjamin E. and Roberto G. Lawton, formed a new commercial enterprise under the name Lawton Hermanos (Lawton Brothers), and in the 1870s worked as traders, import agents and consignees of boats.

William Wallace Lawton
("Social", Habana, February 1917)

After the death of the brothers Santiago M. and Benjamín E Lawton, their representative formed his own company in 1895 under the name G. Lawton, Childs y Cía., in which Roberto G. Lawton was a joint partner. The partners of this new company worked as bankers, businessmen and consignees of ships. Around 1915 G. Lawton, Childs y Cía. was being managed by William Wallace Lawton, a former employee who had been born in Havana but retained his US citizenship. One of the capital’s residential neighbourhoods owes its name to him as he spent several years in the business of urbanisation of the land in the Lawton subdivision of La Víbora. This activity, begun in the nineteenth century, gained importance in the third decade of the following century, with W.W. Lawton extending his business concerns with the establishment of a company called Compañía Constructora de Cuba S.A. (Cuban Construction Company Ltd.), which built Anglo-Saxon “cottage” style houses. One of the streets of the original lot of land was also called Lawton.

At the end of the nineteenth century and during the first years of the twentieth under the protection of the North American government, the Anglo-Saxon colonies were founded. They were made up mainly of US Americans and Canadians, although there were also a considerable number of English, Germans, Swedes and other nationalities. At the beginning of 1903 there were 37 North American agricultural establishments on the island, ten in Pinar del Río, six in Matanzas, four in Santa Clara, eight in Camagüey and nine in the eastern region. In the Pinar del Río province, near Guadiana Bay, the Ocean Beach colony was organised and to the east was Herradura, the colonial town, close to which many Anglo-Saxons settled.

On 4 January 1900 the first expedition of a colonising movement organised by the North American Cuban Land and Steamship Company arrived in Nuevitas bay on the north coast of Camagüey aboard the Yarmouth, and settled on land that was called Valle de Cubitas. Along with the Americans, people from several European countries also arrived.

At the beginning of 1901 in Isla de Pinos, modern-day Isla de la Juventud, the first two associations of North American colonists had already been set up. One of the territorial companies organised there was called Mc Kinley. In the eastern region Bartle and Omaja were established, two genuine colonies with a considerable number of picturesque bungalows. At the same time, banking firms and sugar monopolies established large sugar cane estates and built sugar factories, chief among then the United Fruit Company, which in 1900 built the Central Boston and five years later Central Preston in Punta de Tabaco, Mayarí, beside which a settlement of the same name was built.

William  O'Ryan
(E. Trujillo, Album de El Porvenir,
New York, El Porvenir, 1891

Due to all these circumstances different Anglo-Saxon surnames appear as part of the toponymy of Cuba. Besides those already mentioned, names like Burford, Campbell, Dutton, Felton, Lewinston, Maffo, Morris, Wilson, Woodfred and Woodin are the permanent testimony of the presence of English, Irish and Scottish people in the country’s history. On 10 October 1868 the War of Independence against Spain began in the eastern region, headed by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who became the first President of the Cuban Republic at war and Father of the Nation. The liberation battle lasted until 1878 and therefore became known to history as the Ten Year War.

From the beginning, the Cuban Liberation Army had the support of patriots who had emigrated to or organised outside of Cuba, mainly in the United States where they raised funds, bought arms and munitions and recruited volunteers who enlisted to fight for the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish yoke. Among the foreign volunteers was the Canadian William O’Ryan. Born in Toronto, in 1869 he put himself at the service of the Junta Cubana (Cuban Board) in New York and joined the expedition on the steamship Anna, under the command of Francisco Javier Cisneros. He disembarked on 27 January 1870 near Victoria de las Tunas, in the east of the island. With the rank of colonel, he was part of the expedition’s leadership that also included another colonel G. Clancey, Commandant Carlos Meyer and captains Thomas Lillie Mercer, Ricardo Ponce de León and Simon Grats.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Fernandez Moya, Rafael, 'The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 189-198. Available online (, accessed .


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