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‘Rich flames and hired tears’: sugar, sub-imperial agents and the Cuban phoenix of empire

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2009

Jonathan Curry-Machado
Caribbean Studies Centre, London Metropolitan University, 166–220 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB, UK E-mail:


This paper analyses 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 globalization. This was, at the outset, a ‘sub-imperial’ globalization, operating independently, and implying liberation, from empire. The search for new technologies to enable improvements in sugar production necessarily took the Creole elite beyond the restricted possibilities of the Spanish empire to the industrial centres of the United States, Britain, and France. Such new links helped fuel the emergence of an independent Cuban identity; however, the same globalizing tendencies that were eroding the Spanish empire led Cuba into new forms of imperial domination. The increasing expense of the new steam technology necessitated a growing dependence upon investment from foreign merchant banks, which gradually assumed control over much of the island's production and trade. 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.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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