Finesurrey on Neagle, 'America's Forgotten Colony: Cuba's Isle of Pines'

Author: 
Michael E. Neagle
Reviewer: 
Samuel Finesurrey

Michael E. Neagle. America's Forgotten Colony: Cuba's Isle of Pines. Cambridge Studies in US Foreign Relations Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 318 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-13685-4; $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-50201-3.

Reviewed by Samuel Finesurrey (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52008

America’s Forgotten Colony by Michael E. Neagle chronicles the development and dissolution of a settler colonial community of Anglo-Americans, mostly from the United States, on Cuba’s second largest island, the Isle of Pines.[1] The first two hundred pages of Neagle’s work describe a community that, at its height, served as home to an estimated two thousand US citrus farmers, businessmen, educators, entrepreneurs, and missionaries who collectively sought to create an ideal American society on the isle. Beginning at the end of Spanish rule in 1898, Neagle argues, the isle’s ambiguous legal status fueled and encouraged the annexationist ambitions of US residents. Throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, US nationals clashed with, even as they depended on, local pineros, Cubans from the Isle of Pines. Both groups wrestled with competing ambitions for political influence and economic viability. In the last third of Neagle’s monograph, we learn that Anglo-American contact with pineros grew warmer, as the US population declined in numbers and the political influence of settlers diminished. By the 1930s through the 1950s, Anglo-Americans sought more cooperative and less hierarchical cross-cultural relationships, due, in part, to a series of natural, and not so natural, disasters following World War I. Neagle offers readers a well-written and significant micro-history reflecting the evolving nature of US hegemony.

Throughout the text, Neagle invites readers to consider the complex identities and relationships of the men and women who moved to the Isle of Pines as US nationals during an era of economic and cultural upheaval in the United States. Anglo-Americans carved an insulated community around common linguistic and cultural traditions, and in opposition to pineros. Land speculation companies advertised properties on the island as an opportunity to return to the US agrarian ideal “based more on cooperation than individualism, privileging agricultural rather than industrial work, and with more opportunity to improve one’s standard of living through hard work” (p. 148). The Isle of Pines offered an escape from the trends of urbanization, industrialization, and wealth inequity that challenged US citizens’ way of life at home during the turn of the twentieth century. According to Neagle, schools, churches, social clubs, and newspapers “offered settlers the opportunity to replicate, perform, and improve American ways, ideas, and customs. They also served as venues wherein settlers could socialize with like-minded, like-identified people who were experiencing similar challenges in establishing a new home in an alien land” (pp. 133-134). Neagle contends that “early settlers’ connection to the United States helped to set them apart from native Cubans and other foreign nationals” (p. 10). The author draws on the words of US consul LaRue Lutkins who, in 1944, reported that US residents of the isle developed conditionally warm relations with pineros, “only so long as the Cubans were willing to recognize American superiority and accept a subordinate position.... While remaining more or less acquiescent and friendly, the Cubans naturally continued to resent the Americans’ bland assumption of superiority” (p. 125). US nationals on the Isle of Pines garnered tangible benefits from access to Anglo-American business networks, and they enjoyed favored status due to the influence of US political and corporate authorities in Cuba.

Neagle traces the central conflict between Cuban pineros and US nationals in the decades immediately following the ousting of Spanish authority in 1898: settlers desired and agitated for annexation by the US government. Neagle argues that the two groups were mutually dependent as pineros sold their land and labor to US migrants in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, questions surrounding who would rule the Isle of Pines remained bitterly contested. Cuban politicians both in Havana and on the isle sought US capital to develop Cuba’s second largest island; however, these same “officials were leery of Americans enjoying too much influence and power in Cuban territory, particularly with the issue of sovereignty still in question” (pp. 66-67). Article VI of the Platt Amendment left governing authority of the Isle of Pines ambiguous. By 1904, however, with the signing—though not the ratification—of the Hay-Quesada Treaty, it was clear that Washington was not interested in jurisdiction over the isle. No longer primarily motivated by land acquisition, as had been the case in the US West, Mexico, and Hawaii in the nineteenth century, by the twentieth century the US government and its corporations would extract capital without the formal colonization of foreign peoples. This left US farmers and entrepreneurs on the isle feeling somewhat less secure about their position and their futures.

Still, the accessibility of North American and European markets proved central to the ambitions of US residents who sought to export citrus fruits to the United States and later to Europe. Settlers often used US shipping lines, owned by US land speculator companies, to transport their goods abroad. Not only were they able to sell their products for higher rates in their home societies, which, of course, financially aided US settlers, but Anglo-American residents also benefited enormously from the political reach of the United States in Cuba. As US citizens, they expected to be privileged by Cuban policymakers and, to a large degree, they were—by both US and Cuban authorities—despite their complaints to the contrary. For instance, during the second US occupation (1906-9), Governor Charles Magoon invested over 175,000 dollars on the isle in infrastructure projects (p. 91). While not mentioned in Neagle’s monograph, Magoon’s Cuban contemporaries expressed frustration with him for emptying the Cuban treasury and draining the Cuban surplus left to him by Cuban president Estrada Palma. When the United States abdicated authority to Cubans in 1909, the nation found itself six and a half million dollars in debt.[2] The influence of the US government in Cuba prior to the Cuban Revolution positioned well Anglo-American residents on the isle, yet still many wanted more.

Until Hay-Quesada was ratified in 1925, many Anglo-American settlers advocated to US policymakers that the United States should annex the isle. Neagle shows that US residents were adamant in their demands explaining that “Americans resented submitting to Cuban authority, which they largely viewed as ineffective (at best) or illegitimate” (p. 11). They initiated a campaign to argue for absorption of the isle on the basis of Cuban incompetence, corruption, instability, and a debt owed due to the US intervention in 1898. In 1905, the American Club of the Isle of Pines commissioned an annexation delegation to be sent to Washington, which triggered a wave of protest by Cubans. Ed Ryan, a US resident of the isle advocating annexation, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1906: “We who have had abundant experience fear to trust ourselves to the administration of Spanish and Cuban laws, either by the courts or the executive officers, as they now exist in Cuba and the Isle of Pines.” US national Charles Raynard told Senator John T. Morgan that US citizens on the isle “never will sit silently [and] submit to being ruled by an incompetent government, administering ancient and obnoxious laws calculated only to retard progress and check development” (p. 88). A 1924 letter and petition written by the isle’s US residents during debate on the Hay-Quesada Treaty argued that “American settlers have been subject to an unlawful, most humiliating and unbearable de facto Cuban Government for over 20 years. Many have lost faith and left; some died in despair, and a great majority are holding on to their property in the firm belief and faith that our Government will live up to its representations that the ‘Isle of Pines is United States Territory’” (p. 162). Neagle skillfully details the nuances, and failures, of the campaign waged into the 1920s by US residents to induce a takeover of the isle by Washington.

We learn from America’s Forgotten Colony that the size of the US community declined dramatically from two thousand people at its zenith in the 1910s to an estimated three hundred people in the early 1930s, as the US government increasingly prioritized corporate interests over the needs and desires of US settlers. The renewed hope for annexation that developed among US nationals with the second US occupation was dampened significantly when Magoon handed authority back to Cubans in 1909. By 1910, US settlers complained that “the Cuban government had reduced monthly stipends to eight American primary schools” (p. 134). Anglo-American residents tried to convince John B. Jackson, US minister to Cuba, to pressure Cuban authorities on their behalf. They were rebuffed. Jackson deflected responsibility for the settlers and their families, reminding them that the Cuban government “was ‘under no legal obligation to provide special schools for English-speaking children.’ Jackson reminded the group that ‘you are asking for favors, and not rights, and that in making a demand you may run a risk of losing what has already been obtained and of being told that the Americans must be content with the same schools provided for the Cubans” (p. 135). The settler community was further undermined when, in an effort to protect domestic citrus farmers, the US government decided to increase duties on foreign imports from the isle. Neagle quotes US resident F. C. Stevens as he lobbied against the Fordney-McCumber tariff in the early 1920s: “If the proposed increase in duty remains in the bill, it will mean the property values of some seven to eight thousand American citizens who have interests on the Isle-of-Pines, will be destroyed.... If the duty be increased, the growers on the Isle-of-Pines, will, in my opinion, be driven out of business” (p. 209). Stevens’s prediction proved prescient as the US population on the isle fell dramatically by the 1930s.

With careful archival detail, Neagle further examines how natural disasters, as well as shifting US political and economic interests, eroded the influence of the US community on the isle. Hurricanes in 1917 and 1926 devastated the isle and further encouraged many US residents to return to the United States. During this same era, US economic interests in Cuba backed the Hay-Quesada Treaty, attempting to quell the rise of anti-Americanism in the midst of a Cuban financial crisis. Ratified in 1925, the treaty made explicit US interests and affirmed Cuban control of the isle.

In the early part of the century, US nationals arrived on the isle as colonizers; by mid-century they were humbled, economically and politically. After ratification of Hay-Quesada, Neagle explains, “Americans found themselves in a less dominant position; Cuban entrepreneurs had taken up the mantle as the prime real estate brokers and economic drivers. Still, a significant number of Americans remained and retained economic, social, and cultural influence” (pp. 11-12). Over time, we learn, the signing of the treaty improved relations between US residents and pineros, as US arrivals in the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s did not carry the scars of the Hay-Quesada dispute.

Despite the nuanced description of dynamics between pineros and US nationals, it may be important to consider what would have been gained, theoretically and historically, if the author more deeply explored relations between the isle and mainland Cuba, among Anglo-Americans and Cubans. While Neagle provides a compelling account of life on the Isle of Pines, I was left with some questions concerning his characterization of life on the mainland. Specifically, Neagle writes: “in contrast to growing anti-Americanism in mainland Cuba stemming from years of U.S. hegemony, mid-century relations between Americans and pineros were at their most cordial,” suggesting that the anti-Americanism mounting on the mainland was palpable to most US residents, if far less evident on the isle (p. 283). Evidence I have gathered in oral histories conducted with over seventy-five foreign nationals living in the Anglo-American colony in Cuba during the 1950s tells a somewhat different story. This archive of interviews reveals that many Anglo-Americans were enjoying lives of privilege on the mainland, supported the revolution, and felt blindsided by the rising anti-US rhetoric after 1959. Longtime resident George “Rocky” Harper explained, “I don’t recall ever being subjected to ridicule or any demeaning comments, etc., because I was American.”[3] Growing up in Havana as the son of an Esso employee, Walker Martin explained, “I don’t think Cuba was a particularly anti-American place” before Fidel Castro came into power.[4] Unlike in the 1930s, for a large portion of the Anglo-American colony on the Cuban mainland, the 1950s represented a period of intimacy and congeniality with the professional Cubans who shared their social, domestic, and occupational spheres. Like their counterparts on the isle, these Anglo-Americans were comfortable in their privilege, secure in their social relations with Cubans, and relatively unaware of lay-Cuban animus toward the United States.

Neagle further infers that in the 1950s the lack of revolutionary fervor on the isle benefited relations between US residents and pineros: “relative tranquility on the Isle went a long way toward fostering a more cooperative ethic among its denizens” (p. 230). While the political upheaval on the mainland did isolate certain members of the Anglo-American colony from certain Cubans, there is also evidence that the revolution, and later the counterrevolution, forged deep cross-cultural solidarities. On the mainland, as the revolution affected the Cuban acquaintances, partners, classmates, colleagues, and parishioners of Anglo-Americans, cross-cultural empathies, ideologies, and even political alliances evolved. Many Anglo-Americans immersed in friendships, community life, and schools with Cubans empathized with insurrectionists before and after 1959, and some even risked their own status to support Cubans involved in armed struggle. In these intimate relations, some segments of the Anglo-American community collaborated with Cubans, fostering a distinct cooperative ethic.[5]

America’s Forgotten Colony integrates a wide range of archival research to unveil a previously untold narrative. Neagle succeeds in “rescu[ing] this overlooked story of American imperialism from obscurity to both elucidate and complicate our understanding of the United States and U.S.-Cuban relations during the early twentieth century” (p. 7). Carefully shedding light on a community that simultaneously benefited from and was jilted by a novel form of US imperialism, Neagle catalogues a significant history of hope, loss, and empire.

Notes

[1]. Neagle uses Lorenzo Veracini’s definition of settler colonialism when stating that “settler colonial studies examine ‘the permanent movement and reproduction of communities and the dominance of an exogenous agency over an indigenous one.’ In such cases settlers endeavor to establish a more ideal society, claim a ‘higher use’ for the land they acquire (whether it be to uplift the local population or commodify natural resources), and presume a lastingness to their efforts. These aspects were evident among Americans on the Isle, at least up to 1925” (p. 19).

[2]. David A. Lockmiller, Magoon in Cuba: A History of the Second Intervention, 1906-1909 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1969), 202.

[3]. George “Rocky” Harper, interview by author, September 22, 2016, Miami, Florida.

[4]. Walker Martin, interview by author, July 16, 2016, Boston, Massachusetts.

[5]. Samuel Finesurrey, “From Civilizers to Collaborators: Cuba’s Anglo-American Colony in Times of Revolution (1952-1962)” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, forthcoming 2018).

Citation: Samuel Finesurrey. Review of Neagle, Michael E., America's Forgotten Colony: Cuba's Isle of Pines. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52008

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