Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Ripples in the Seascape: The Cuba Commission Report and the Idea of Freedom

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Ripples in the Seascape: The Cuba Commission Report and the Idea of Freedom

Article excerpt

In the context of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world, it is a truism that "free" denotes an individual's status either outside of, or liberated from, the conditions of bondage wrought through plantation economies.1 Among the Caribbean islands in particular, the successful revolution in the colony of Saint Domingue (later Haiti) linked the articulation of freedom to specific notions of French republican citizenship unleashed during the Enlightenment.2 Numerous studies have demonstrated these connections and the contradictions of republican ideals reaped through agricultural systems that required intensive physical labor, such as sugar production. This scholarly work has resulted in what I call a "seascape." Seascape denotes an ocean view; in this case, the perspective provided is not only of the traffic in people and goods but also of philosophies throughout the Atlantic. I also intend the term to reference Arjun Appadurai's notion of the scape.3 While Appadurai intends to map the vicissitudes of human experience under conditions of globalization, my use of seascape more precisely examines how people have been understood to emerge as subjects through maritime economies, themselves shaped by the currents of human toil. In this regard, seascape constitutes an epistemological frame used to organize knowledge production about a region.4 Because the Atlantic seascape has emphasized intellectual transformation between the European metropoles and the colonies, the terms of freedom for Caribbean subjects are often articulated through an implicit discourse of liberalism that, from Locke forward, negotiates between the liberty of the individual and the mechanisms of governance provided through the state. In this context, freedom has emerged as an enlightenment legacy in which individual opportunity usually reigns. But, as Nikolas Rose argues, "for most of human history, and for most of the non-Western world prior to Western contact, values other than freedom were supreme;" among these, he lists honor, filial loyalty, and other concepts that hinge on kinship formations, which potentially deemphasize the individual (66). The question underlying this essay is how freedom might be understood differently in a seascape where shifting populations include those who cannot be assumed to have absorbed republican ideals. Is the clamor to correct injustice perhaps articulating something besides freedom and, if so, what? How does this discussion of freedom shift the seascape-that is, the assumed anchor points for a scholarly discourse on space, belonging, and labor?

I investigate the Cuba Commission Report of 1876 as my case study, because it highlights an ostensible shift from a slave economy to one based on contract labor, and it unbinds the Atlantic as a conceptual unit through recognition of workers from the Pacific Rim. The Cuba Commission Report attempted to document the conditions of Chinese laborers on the island. Based on almost twelve hundred depositions and eight-five petitions collected in Cuba (34), the commission organized its findings through responses to 50 questions asked of various Chinese émigrés who survived the journey.5 Women's responses are absent from the document, although question 46, for example, mentions two Chinese brides brought from the Middle Kingdom. According to the 1877 census taken shortly after the commission's visit, 40,327 Chinese people lived in Cuba, consisting of 40,261 men and 66 women.6 The archive, then, provides an index to a group of what could have potentially been rights-bearing individuals under the masculinist logic of the Enlightenment.7 That notion of freedom, however, was heavily mediated. Foregrounding European imperialism in China and India and the complicated shipments of people-as-labor that these ventures engendered, the coolie trade generally unsettles the Atlantic as an analytic zone and specifically shifts the terms under which freedom might be understood. Indeed, the kinship relations and the political structures connected to those places in the nineteenth century did not generally privilege the social contract of liberal enlightenment thought. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.