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Sub-imperial globalisation and the phoenix of empire: sugar, engineering and commerce in nineteenth-century Cuba

Citation: Curry-Machado, Jonathan (2007) Sub-imperial globalisation and the phoenix of empire: sugar, engineering and commerce in nineteenth-century Cuba. Commodities of Empire Working Papers (16). ISSN 1756-0098


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This paper analyses the case of the importation of foreign steam technology into Cuba in the course of the nineteenth century, and the experience of the migrant workers employed to operate it, in order to focus not on Cuba as an isolatable entity, but existing in the context of transnational networks that were involving the island in processes of globalisation. Rather than seeing these processes as the consequence of imperial designs, this was, at the outset, a ‘sub-imperial’ globalisation, operating independently, and implying liberation, from empire. The growth in Cuban sugar production from the end of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a creole elite that sought the development of the island. The search for new technologies to enable improvements in sugar production necessarily took them beyond the restricted possibilities of the Spanish empire, to the industrial centres of the United States, Britain and France. They were assisted in this both by the migrant engineers that accompanied the new machinery, and also the often foreign-born merchants who enabled the island’s involvement in the transnational commercial networks through which sugar was exported and industrial goods imported. Such tendencies made Spanish dominion over Cuba increasingly irrelevant, and helped fuel the emergence of an independent Cuban identity. However, the same globalising tendencies that were eroding Spanish empire were causing Cuba to fall into new forms of imperial domination. The increasing expense of the new steam technology led to a growing dependence upon investment from foreign merchant banks, which gradually assumed control over much of the island’s production and trade. Despite some efforts to develop indigenous industry, Cuba remained dependent upon foreign technology. The same migrant engineers who had begun by assisting Cuban planters, took on the role of agents for foreign companies. Rather than contributing their skills, as one more group of migrants in a nation formed out of multiple migrations, these engineers asserted their foreign identity, and guarded their privileged position. They came to be seen as symbolic of the process by which Cuba shook off the Spanish yoke only to replace it with another.

Creators: Curry-Machado, Jonathan and
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Subjects: History
Latin American Studies
Keywords: Cuba, sugar, engineering, commerce, transnational networks, empire
Divisions: Institute of Latin American Studies
Collections: ILAS Occasional Paper Series
  • 2007 (published)


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