By Liz Lebron
In his new book, “Black British Migrants in Cuba: Race, Labor, and Empire in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, 1898 – 1948” (Cambridge University Press 2018), Dr. Jorge Giovannetti-Torres explores the fate of black British migrants who left their home countries in search of economic opportunity in early 20th century Cuba. These migrants, who were British subjects, experienced racial discrimination and physical violence, even as they labored to build that country’s industrial economy.
“Foreignness became dangerous” to the idea of Cuban nationhood, posits Giovannetti-Torres. “If you want to build the idea of the nation, you have to decide what to exclude and what to include. To the extent that the Cuban nation was defined as black, mulatto, Indian, and Spanish, the other things were not in the equation.”
Giovannetti-Torres argues the migrants’ labor built the country’s physical infrastructure, and their opposition built a “human infrastructure” of resistance to the racism and abuse they faced in their new home. Moreover, he says, their organized protests forced British officials to define blackness and “explicitly name their whiteness, which was usually invisible.”
In support of his thesis, Giovannetti-Torres cites letters black migrants wrote to British officials asking for protection from the violence they experienced at the hands of plant managers and the responses they received. The migrants’ identity as British subjects was so ingrained in them that some wrote the king directly asking for reprieve. In their responses, British officials begin to differentiate between British subjects and black British subjects, a distinction that exposes the racist application of citizenship in the colonial context.
The “colonial derangement,” Giovannetti-Torres explains, extended to white British colonists, citing the case of a man whose application for a government post was rejected due to his residence in Jamaica.
“He was deemed not quite British, or not British enough, to hold the position of counselor,” said Giovannetti-Torres.
The black British migrant experience is not unique to Cuba. Contemporaneous historical records show their countrymen suffered similar fates in other Caribbean islands, and Central and South America. Giovannetti-Torres saw evidence of their similar circumstances in newspaper articles, company papers, plant managers’ diaries, and bank records. The letters are a rare primary source of what life was like for black British migrants from the workers’ perspective.
“History often operates in the scarcity of materials,” said Giovannetti-Torres.
Dr. Giovannetti-Torres is a professor of sociology at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras. He traveled to New College as part of its Black History Month programming. The Mellon Foundation, President Don O’Shea’s office and the Provost’s Office provided funding for the event.
Dr. Giovannetti-Torres discusses black British migrants and the construction of blackness in early 20th-century Cuba.
— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.