Indispensable Aliens: the influence of engineering migrants in mid-nineteenth century Cuba
How can a small group of migrants, who have barely registered in the history books, have had any significance for the society into which they came? Henry Elkins, and the other foreign engineering workers, or maquinistas, who were thrown into prison with him in 1844, accused of involvement in a plot to end slavery and overthrow Spanish rule in Cuba, might have asked themselves this same question. Yet their story, along with that of the other North Atlantic maquinistas who travelled to Cuba to operate the revolutionary new steam technology that was being introduced into the island’s sugar mills, railways and mines, is revealing of the unexpected ways in which migrants might engage with and influence society. Coming from cities that had been transformed by the industrial revolution, of which they were the vanguard, they arrived in a Spanish colony dependent upon transnational commercial networks for its wealth, and African slavery for its labour. Having emigrated in search of opportunities denied them in the overcrowded labour markets from which they came, they were not disappointed, so valuable were their skills to Cuba’s position as the world’s leading sugar producer. But their high salaries and technological contributions could not buy them a place in Cuban society. Though their interaction with the complex matrix of Cuban identity divisions led them to rearticulate themselves, they were different and resented, and they found themselves increasingly defined by this otherness. Ironically, this exclusion helped them to have an unforeseen significance. This did not come through their direct agency, but indirectly, acting as catalytic influences upon wider societal conflicts and developments. Their presence exacerbated the existing social divisions and stimulated responses in rulers and oppressed, such that the superficial innocence of Elkins and his co-accused hid their profound complicity with the events in which they had become unconsciously caught up.
Curry-Machado, Jonathan (2003) Indispensable Aliens: the influence of engineering migrants in mid-nineteenth century Cuba. PhD thesis, London Metropolitan University.
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