Emigrants for Empire: The Transimperial Planning of Finnish Settler Colonies in Alaska and Cuba, 1899-1906

Aleksi Huhta, University of Helsinki

During the U.S. military occupation of Cuba in 1898–1902, occupation authorities encouraged American immigration to the formally independent island in an effort to bind it more firmly with its new imperial master to the north. Similar efforts to use immigrants as agents of imperial integration underpinned U.S. colonial policy also elsewhere. While these immigration schemes are often seen as efforts to ‘Americanize’ the colonies, many of the newcomers were not U.S. natives or citizens. They included, for example, subjects of the German, British, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Indeed, the United States, like other empires of its time, co-operated with and relied on the help of actors from other imperial spheres in building its overseas empire. This paper explores this transimperial character of U.S. colonial rule by focusing on the efforts of Finnish nationalist activists to build settler colonies in Alaska and Cuba at the turn of the twentieth century. At this time, Finland was an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire. In 1899, Russia intensified its efforts to integrate Finland more firmly with the imperial core, provoking a political crisis and triggering increased emigration from Finland to North America. Finnish nationalists feared that emigration would deplete Finland of its most “productive” citizens as emigrant Finns in urban America would assimilate and lose their national distinctiveness. To counteract this calamity, nationalists planned agricultural colonies for Finnish emigrants, situated far from the “melting pots” of urban America. Drawing on diverse sources like private correspondence, newspapers, and government records, this paper examines the connections between Finnish political activists and U.S. private and governmental authorities in the planning of these Finnish settler colonies. The paper brings together insights from migration and imperial history, highlighting the imperial context of turn-of-the-century transatlantic mobility and the role of transimperial networks in the building of U.S. empire.

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 Presented in Session 130. Nation-Making through Empire, Settlement, and Revolution