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Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

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Los Irlandeses in Cuba: Irish railroad workers in Cuba 1835-1840

Margaret Brehony (National University of Ireland, Galway)

This paper proposes to interrogate the circumstances of the migration of Irish bonded labourers to Cuba in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Some of the first European immigrants imported to Cuba were contracted by the Railway Commission to build the first 17 miles of railroad in Iberoamerica between Havana and Güines. In a project driven by the sugar industry Benjamin H. Wright, an engineer in charge of the railroad project recruited 375 Irlandeses (said to include other European immigrants) in New York towards the end of 1835. The Irish and other bonded labourers 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. The Cuban historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals describes Irish migrant labourers of the time as amongst the cheapest white workers available in Europe who knew enough to lay rails. While working on the ‘sugar railroad’ they were submitted to a form of slavery similar to the Negro’s. The appalling work conditions of hunger and a sixteen hour day, crammed into wooden huts at night led to rebellion and protest. The first strike recorded on the island was by Irish and Canary Islanders during their first few weeks of working on the railroad. On termination of their contracts the Irish were not entitled to repatriation, simply the return of their passports before they were dispensed with. The fate of Los Irlandeses in the Cuban literature is described as one of abject, drunken misery, left to beg on the streets of Havana, dying of hunger and plagued by disease. In response to petitions imploring the authorities to assist with their passage back to New York the Royal Council in Havana defends its refusal to help the Irish by characterizing them as ‘worthless, lazy, disease-ridden, drunkards’ who deceived their bosses by disguising their ‘vile habits’ at the time of their contracts.

Accounts of the Irish railroad workers in Cuba raise many questions about this group of people who became peons in the Atlantic trade system of two very different colonial powers. This paper will situate the episode of Irish migration within the context of the politics of race and identity at a time of burgeoning nationalism of two colonial islands on either side of the Atlantic. It will also examine the ‘the wages of whiteness’ of the Irish as ‘Other’ against the backdrop of the Hispano-Cuban ‘colonisation’ project, a policy to ‘whiten’ the island’s majority black population and assuage the fear of ‘el peligro negro’ (black peril) amongst its white minority elite.   

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

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