Kozameh on Giovannetti-Torres, 'Black British Migrants in Cuba: Race, Labor, and Empire in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, 1898-1948'

Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres
Sara Kozameh

Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres. Black British Migrants in Cuba: Race, Labor, and Empire in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, 1898-1948. Cambridge Studies on the African Diaspora Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 323 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-43758-5; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-42346-5. 

Reviewed by Sara Kozameh (Princeton University) Published on H-LatAm (March, 2021) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55808

Black British Migrants in Cuba is an important examination of the migratory processes of Caribbean subjects of the British Crown in the fifty years following Cuban independence. With the ascent of its sugar industry in the early twentieth century, Cuba turned to neighboring islands for the importation of labor that could satisfy the demand for sugar cane cutters. Though many migrants also arrived from Spain and Haiti, from 1898 to 1948, over 140,000 workers landed in Cuba from Jamaica and the Leeward and Windward Islands. The book explains how black British migrants fit into existing social tensions, examining their encounters with national, imperial, and racial politics. In specifically researching black British migrants in the Caribbean, Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres uncovers crucial distinctions in the experiences of black Antilleans arriving from different islands.

The book is organized chronologically, with the first two chapters providing contextual background about migratory flows from the Antilles into Cuba. The following two chapters cover racial anxieties induced by the continued arrival of foreign blacks and the repercussions of the Jobabo massacre in 1917 on British workers. Chapters 5 and 6 cover the economic downturn in Cuba and the wider Caribbean as the result of the fall of sugar prices from 1920 to 1931. They also analyze efforts by migrants to challenge local and British authorities following numerous injustices. The final three chapters focus on conflict between migrants and the Cuban and British governments, along with questions regarding the deportation or assimilation of black foreigners. The book ends with a cogent epilogue that brings the main themes of the book to bear on the present. 

Giovannetti-Torres begins by showing that the black migrants at the center of this book arrived to a country embroiled in racial tumult. A massacre of blacks in 1912 and another in 1917 framed the context of their arrivals. Efforts to attract immigrants from the “Caucasian race” into Cuba during the 1910s-20s had been unsuccessful (p. 79). Yet, even as anxieties over the “Africanization” of Cuba grew and the fear of black outsiders heightened in 1912, the island continued to admit a surge in the arrival of black foreign workers.

Amid the migratory effort to ease labor shortages and a reawakening of racial fears, black foreigners became the scapegoat for Cuban intellectuals intent on forming a nation based on a multiracial unity that included black Cubans but excluded foreign blacks. The realities of black insurgency in 1912 and 1917 upset Cuba’s discourse on racial utopia. But, as the author reveals, Cuban nationalists deftly linked rebellion to black outsiders, implicitly “othering” foreign blacks in order to help veil the contradictions. Moreover, they argued, black foreigners had different traditions, languages, and ideas that could not “be assimilated with the black Cubans, much less with the whites” (p. 244). By demonstrating how black migrants were framed as “others,” the book reveals the extent to which the construction of Cuban identity was dependent on exploiting the position of black British subjects.

Black British migrants working in Cuba were subjected to terrible conditions and mistreatment. Cuba’s Rural Guard, long associated with US business interests, beat and killed migrants with impunity, and sugar companies exploited and withheld wages from them. One theme of the book centers on the mobilization of black British subjects who made claims for justice and found ways around the political limitations imposed on them. In protest of their mistreatment, which included the murder of several British workers during the 1917 Jobabo massacre, Jamaicans wrote letters to British consular and imperial authorities, including to the king himself. Migrants used the language of the British monarchy to request protection from Cuban authorities. They also sought redress by accusing local British authorities of neglecting to help. Although the British attempted to defend their subjects on several occasions, the indifference of Cuban authorities was met with little retort. In revealing the hesitant and discriminatory reactions received by migrants to their demands for justice, Giovannetti-Torres convincingly shows that through their encounters with British authorities, black subjects provided a benchmark for identity that eventually “prompted the racial definition of Britishness” (p. 286).

Black migrants also mobilized through churches and civic societies. They joined chapters of Marcus Garvey’s United Negroes Improvement Association (UNIA) of which there were over fifty in Cuba alone and which operated as an “immigrant protection society” (p. 192). Yet even if black migrants made their agency evident, the book deftly shows the limits posed by broader global and structural determinations. Multiple competing interests show that the intertwined nature of race, labor, capitalism, and empire ultimately overpowered the demands of migrants for obtaining justice.  

In one example, conflicting interests caused disagreement around the expulsion of Caribbean migrants that left migrants caught in a trap. Calls by Cuban nationalists to deport black sugar workers during the economic crisis were challenged by the sugar industry, which insisted on access to cheap labor. Colonial governments, meanwhile, were apprehensive about receiving destitute repatriates during economic crisis. Giovannetti-Torres shows that unlike most Haitians and Jamaicans who arrived in Cuba independently, migrants from Windward and Leeward Islands usually traveled to Cuba with prearranged contracts that bound them to multinational sugar companies. Migrants with contracts in the Cuban American Sugar Company, for example, were unable to return home if the company refused to provide transportation. In letters to British authorities, migrants claimed that being subject to company control was akin to imprisonment and that that they would likely starve in the eight months between harvests when there was no work or pay. In this case, even the British response was limited. As the second largest consumers of Cuban sugar, they also had little interest in upsetting the migrant flows that kept sugar prices low.

Meticulously researched, Black British Migrants in Cuba is truly transnational in scope and depth: Giovannetti-Torres conducted research across nine countries and in twenty-nine different archives. The amount of detail in this volume and the conclusions those details lend make evident the effectiveness of transnational approaches in the study of Caribbean history. In showing just how much Cuba was made by its Caribbean encounters, it also brings Cuba well into the pan-Caribbean spheres that it has at times been left out of. The book is a major accomplishment and will be of use to scholars in numerous fields.

Citation: Sara Kozameh. Review of Giovannetti-Torres, Jorge L., Black British Migrants in Cuba: Race, Labor, and Empire in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, 1898-1948. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55808

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.