Transpacific Mexico in the Age of Steam


A review of Transpacific Mexico: Encounters with China and Japan in the Age of Steam (1867-1914), by Ruth Mandujano López.

Between 1867 and 1914, the advent of the steamship provided Mexico with a better connection to bustling metropolises on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, gave elites and intellectuals a window into East Asian societies and cultures, pushed Mexico to establish diplomatic relations with China and Japan, and facilitated the migration of tens of thousands of Chinese and Japanese laborers to Mexico. Ruth Mandujano López’s dissertation analyzes the challenges and opportunities that steamship travel afforded Mexican elites during a crucial moment in nineteenth-century Mexican history, as the country enjoyed long-sought political stability and rapid economic development during the Porfiriato. Mandujano López bases her analysis on a stunning array of English- and Spanish-language sources accessed in Mexico, Hong Kong, the United States, and the United Kingdom, which allow her to chronicle how different actors on both sides of the Pacific Ocean navigated an increasingly interconnected world. Moreover, she makes a contribution to literature on the Porfiriato by examining the transpacific connections of the Díaz regime and argues for the reincorporation of the state into transnational history.

The dissertation is divided into six chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 1 provides an account of the rise in steamship travel throughout the Pacific Rim during the 1860s. As Mandujano López points out, traversing the Pacific wasn’t a novel development – during the Spanish colonial period, the Manila Galleon transported goods from New Spain to the Philippines and from there to markets in East Asia. However, during the early nineteenth century, the Spanish, realizing that they were no longer able to guarantee the security of the galleon trade, shut down the route. A few decades later, steamship travel, used heavily by U.S. and English shipping interests, once again connected the Americas to East Asia and shortened the time needed to cross the Pacific Ocean. Because of the Gold Rush and massive migration to California, San Francisco quickly emerged as a nexus in transpacific shipping and travel. Steamships also connected the east coast of the United States to East Asia – ships sailing down the Atlantic coast stopped in Panama, where goods and people could cross the narrow isthmus before loading on a second steamship that would take them up the Pacific coast towards San Francisco. Because ships were unable to stock enough coal and supplies to make the journey from Panama to Northern California, cities such as Acapulco, Salina Cruz, Mazatlán and Manzanillo became crucial stopovers in transpacific commercial routes, thus connecting Pacific Mexican ports to East Asia. Eventually, new steamship routes would directly connect Mexican ports to China and Japan, without the need to stop first in San Francisco.

Using published memoirs, Chapter 2 demonstrates the challenges that Mexico would face in establishing connections with East Asia. An astronomic commission under Francisco Díaz Covarrubias would join the delegations of other modern countries in measuring the transit of Venus. But the travel difficulties encountered on the commission’s journey to Asia, which nearly led to them missing the astronomic event, “operated like a living metaphor of the role played by Mexico in the concert of nations” (p. 42). Their path underscored Mexico’s marginality within the mid-nineteenth-century Pacific world. Without a rail connection between the Mexican capital and its Pacific coast and because the roads were unusable during the rainy season, the scientists were unable to access the nearby ports of Manzanillo or Acapulco. Instead, they were forced to take a roundabout path to San Francisco that took them through Veracruz, Havana, and New York before boarding a steamer in San Francisco for Yokohama. Mandujano López elegantly explains how the scientists’ journey “took place in a world of nations in the making,” as cities around the Pacific Rim were rapidly transformed by the internationalization of the Pacific Ocean (p. 62). Their observations during their travels would reflect their thoughts on a Mexican nation beset by internal factionalism and foreign invasion, and cement their positive attitudes towards immigration as well as improving the indigenous population through education and scientific progress.

Chapters 3-5 turn to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Porfirio Díaz regime and China and Japan, as well as the early migration of Asian laborers to Mexico during the Porfiriato. Mandujano López’s work in these chapters is a major contribution to the study of Asian diasporas in the Americas, as it makes her dissertation one of the first studies to illuminate the mechanics of early Asian migration to Mexico. Chapter 3 chronicles the need for imported labor as a result of economic expansion during the Porfiriato, when Mexico emerged from decades of political turmoil and economic stagnation. During the government of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico increased its exports of raw materials, especially silver, and greatly extended its railroad network to allow for easier economic links to the outside world. But the production of raw materials led to a labor shortage in areas away from urban centers – areas where it was believed Europeans would not migrate. Ultimately, some elites concluded that Asian labor would help fill the gap. Despite its difficulties in procuring Asian labor, the Mount Lebanon case highlights the role of steamships in “transporting what the country produced to the international markets and bringing back the commodities needed to accelerate production,” complementing similar work on railroad development during the Porfiriato (p. 102). Through subventions and tax incentives, the Díaz government encouraged steamship companies to make the transpacific voyage and transport Chinese workers to Mexican ports. However, initial attempts at attracting Chinese laborers were thwarted when colonial authorities in Hong Kong blocked the Mount Lebanon from transporting Chinese workers. As Mexico didn’t enjoy diplomatic relations with either England or China, colonial authorities argued, there would be no way to protect the workers once they were abroad. Unfortunately, during the 1880s, Chinese imperial diplomats were too busy with other priorities to even broach the subject of establishing diplomatic relations. Ultimately, the Mount Lebanon left Hong Kong without any Chinese laborers, and the steamship company continued to petition English authorities for permission to load Chinese passengers, without success.

Chapter 4 contrasts the difficulties in securing Chinese labor with the relative ease of securing Japanese colonists, who boarded the Gaelic headed towards Mexico. In contrast to the Chinese, the Japanese government willingly established diplomatic relations with Mexico on the basis of equality between the two countries: “Japanese and Mexican diplomats saw each other’s countries as areas where they could defend their transpacific and national elite interests in the face of common contending imperial challenges” (p. 106). At the same time, the Japanese government supported the establishment of a settler colony in Escuintla, Chiapas. The system of colonies, argues Mandujano López, was rather different from Chinese migration overseas – it would give the Japanese government greater control over the migration process and access to profits, while providing Mexico with workers who would help develop the country. Moreover, the Japanese government believed that the creation of permanent outposts abroad would bring geopolitical as well as economic benefits. Mexican elites, in turn, believed that Japanese laborers could teach the Mexican countryside a lesson in modernity and economic development – that “a Japanese colony would offer our people a healthy example of everything can be achieved with perseverance, laboriousness, and economy, even in the most unfavorable conditions” (p. 121). Even though the initial colony foundered, eventually thousands of Japanese would board steamships to migrate to Mexico.

Chapter 5 focuses on the establishment of relations between Mexico and China and the migration of Chinese workers to Mexico in the wake of the United States Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). According to Mandujano López, from the outset Chinese laborers to Mexico were caught “at the heart of a disputed debate where race, class, science, and nation intersected in order to determine who had the right to be part of the Porfirian project and under what terms” (p. 139). After Mexico and China established diplomatic relations and agreed on conditions for the migration of Chinese laborers, several firms vied for permission to transport Chinese migrants to Mexico. But public opinion would object to the Chinese presence, deeming them inassimilable foreigners who presented an economic and public health threat. While other scholars have focused extensively on the writings of anti-Chinese propagandists, Mandujano López breaks new ground by explaining how widespread prejudice against the Chinese worked against immigrants in practice by examining the case of the Suisang, whose passengers languished off the coast of Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, for months because of a suspected case of trachoma. Epidemics were blamed on Asian immigrants, and the view of Asian migrants as a public health threat informed the decision to prevent passengers on the Suisang from reaching dry land. The dispute was mediated once again by diplomatic powers, but largely without resolution, and the evidence indicates that the Chinese government petitioned the Mexican government for compensation without success.

Chapter 6 chronicles the internal and external factors that disconnected Mexico from major transpacific routes in the early twentieth century. The completion of the Panama Canal and the switch from steam to oil technology meant that the Mexican Pacific coast was no longer a necessary refueling stop for transpacific ships. At the same time, the decline in Asian labor migration to Mexico meant that transpacific steamship companies no longer had an economic incentive to stop at Mexican ports. Finally, widespread violence and a weak central government during the Mexican Revolution made these ports dangerous and unappealing to international shipping companies.

The book that will emerge from Mandujano López’s dissertation will contribute to the development of Mexican international history, especially given the growing interest in Mexican relations with the outside world beyond the traditional US-Mexican relationship. It will also expand our understanding of early Asian migrations to the Americas, providing a bridge between the expanding literatures on the coolie trade to Peru and Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century and the anti-Chinese movement in Mexico of the 1930s. Finally, it will push scholars of the Porfiriato to understand not only cultural and economic links with the United States and Western Europe, but also with East Asia.

Fredy González
History Department
University of Colorado Boulder

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City
Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Mexico City
Public Records Office, Hong Kong
National Archives, London

Dissertation Information

University of British Columbia. 2012. 269 pp. Primary Advisor: William French.


Image:  The Mexican Astronomic Commission’s visit to Japan and other Asian countries in 1874. Formed by the following scientists: Francisco Jiménez, Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, Francisco Bulnes (standing from left to right), Agustín Barroso and Manuel Fernández Leal (sitting from left to right). From León, L. G., Los progresos de la astronomía en México desde 1810 hasta 1910. Mexico City: Tipográfica de la Vda. de F. Díaz de León, 1911.

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