Migration and the French Sex Trade in Early Twentieth-Century Havana

Trafficking Past Network member Elisa Camiscioli explores the ‘French-Style’ Brothels of early twentieth century Cuba and the nationalist crusade against sexual vice 

Commercial sex in early twentieth-century Havana was an international and multiracial business, employing indigenous and other native-born women; foreign-born prostitutes from Europe, East Asia, the United States; and women from elsewhere in the Caribbean. This diversity reflects Cuba’s status as both a post-emancipation society and a country of mass immigration. But according to several accounts, French women predominated in the early twentieth-century Cuban sex industry, along with French men working as pimps and traffickers alongside their Cuban counterparts. French consular officials, Cuban social reformers, police authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, and the U.S. investigators representing the League of Nations documented an over-representation of French women in brothel prostitution, especially in the capital city of Havana.













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Event: Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History (Trafficking Past Goes to Sydney!)


On April 12-13, the Trafficking Past team will be collaborating with Prof. Glenda Sluga and the Laureate Research Programme in International History to convene an international workshop and conference at the University of Sydney, Australia. Entitled ‘Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives’, the event will gather specialists in the history of ‘trafficking’ as a problematic framed at the intersection of sex and migration, to discuss the place of this problematic in international history writ large. It will focus in particular on research focused on, or emerging from, the Asia-Pacific region, asking what new geographic and scalar perspectives can offer a historicisation of ‘trafficking’. For more information see the poster and the workshop description below.

This workshop, which brings together scholars working on or based in Oceania and the Asia-Pacific region, will ask how our global and international histories of trafficking and illicit migration change if we bring new geographies into the mix, and in doing so open up the geopolitics of our scholarly discussions about intimate labour and illicit migration. At the same time, it will centre questions of scale in our discussions of trafficking, interrogating the analytic distinctions made between the micro/local and the macro/global levels of analysis in histories of trafficking and illicit migration.  This geographic and scalar broadening will have two foci in particular:

1) exploring trafficking and illicit migration – as social practices, contested categories of domestic regulation and loci of international governmentalities – in the Asia-Pacific region, with a particular focus on the links between trafficking and the narrowing of legal migratory routes that accompanied the imposition of racialized exclusion policies in the twentieth century, and

2) exploring the interaction between multiple racialised migration regimes which themselves have specific geographies as well as differentiated international biopolitics. In particular, we aim to study practices of racial othering and colonial exclusion which were at the heart of the Pacific zone of exclusion alongside what migration historian Adam McKeown has called the other great ‘East-West divide’ of modern migration regimes – the one separating Europe from the Ottoman empire, Russia and Eurasia. How do our histories of trafficking, intimate labour and illicit migration change if we compare, contrast and connect these multiple, overlapping and inter-linked systems of migration control?

In both cases the aim of our workshop will be not so much to supplant older geographic foci in the study of trafficking, illicit migration and forced labour, as to ask what we can learn by combining the study of, for example, the racialised dynamics of trafficking and anti-trafficking in Europe and the Middle East with an examination of similar dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. Combined with our interrogation of scale as a framing device for our histories of trafficking, the workshop will constitute both an opportunity to examine substantive new material on histories of trafficking and illicit migrationand a methodological conversation about the kinds of geographic assumptions that are folded within our attempts to do global and international history.

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS for a special issue of the Journal of Women’s History: ‘Migration, Sex and Intimate Labor, 1850-2000’

The Trafficking Past team is excited to announce our call for abstracts for a Journal of Women’s History Special issue, which Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington will be guest editing with the support of Trafficking Past Network Members Elisa Camiscioli and Jessica Pliley.  All details are below!

Call for Abstracts— “Migration, Sex, and Intimate Labor, 1850-2000”

Women with an American GI in a brothel in Calcutta, 1945 (By Clyde Waddell – http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/sasia/calcutta1947/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36765950)

The Journal of Women’s History is seeking expressions of interest to submit articles to a special issue on migration, sex, and intimate labor in the period between 1850 and 2000, in any local, national, transnational, or global context. It seeks to frame “intimate labor” within the long history of women’s involvement in domestic and sexual markets and their movement across and within borders for myriad forms of care and body work (Boris and Parreñas, 2010). This special issue will be positioned within an emergent historiography that examines the practices, discourses, regulation of, and attempts to suppress what has come to be known as “trafficking,” while foregrounding the ways in which a historical lens can destabilize this term. Such research brings the gendered and sexual history of migration and labor into dialogue with new literatures on the history of globalization, capitalism, citizenship, and mobility. It also speaks to on-going concerns in contemporary politics around the relationship between labor and movement, “forced” and “free” migration, and the politics of humanitarianism. As such, while firmly historical, this special issue will engage with and contribute to ongoing interdisciplinary discussions about “modern slavery,” international law, human rights, and the gendered migrant subject.

We are especially interested in work that:

  • Engages critically with the historical production of categories such as “trafficking,” “smuggling,” and migratory “illegality” as they have pertained to women’s migration
  • Examines sexual labor in the context of gendered migration and the broader category of intimate labor(s)
  • Explores the historical lived experience of migrating for intimate, domestic, and sexual labor
  • Looks at local, national, and international responses to female migrants who were defined as trafficked, illegal, or exploited
  • Places trafficking and women’s intimate labor within a wider discourse of indenture, slavery and un-freedom; as well as imperialism, mobility, and globalization

We are interested in any thematic or methodological approach, but would especially welcome work that focuses on the global south, imperial contexts, and non-white subjects. Work can be locally, nationally, transnationally, globally, or comparatively focused. All submissions must be historical in focus.

Prospective contributors to this special issue are asked to send an extended abstract of 1,000 words to the issue’s guest editors, Julia Laite (j.laite@bbk.ac.uk) and Philippa Hetherington (p.hetherington@ucl.ac.uk) by 1 June 2018. Abstracts should describe the prospective article and how it explicitly engages with the theme of the special issue. Authors should also include a discussion of the sources—archival or published—they will be using in the article.

Selected contributors will be informed within two months and asked to submit a complete manuscript by 1 June 2019, which will go through the JWH’s standard process of peer and editorial review. If the manuscript is accepted for publication at the end of this process, it will be published in the special issue.

(Im)Mobilities Symposium: Reflections and Resource Sharing

On the 13th of October, our PI Julia Laite took part in a day-long symposium, (Im)Mobilties:  Intimate labour in a transnational world, organized by Victoria Haskins (Purai -Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre; University of Newcastle), Rosie Cox (Geography, Birkbeck) and Julia Laite (History, Birkbeck).

The symposium  aimed to bring together Birkbeck scholars to share insights into the utility of the concept of mobility for transnational themes of race, gender, class and intimate labour (particularly but not exclusively in relation to service and care work).  The conversation was interdisciplinary, but also concerned with the methodologies of doing transnational and global research into intimate and domestic labour.

After a challenging conversation about the utility of the concepts of ‘mobility’ and ‘intimacy’ in our research, we heard short papers from Victoria Haskins (Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities Fellow; History);  Silvia Posocco (Psychosocial Studies); Esther Leslie (English and Humanities); Julia Laite (History, Classics & Archaeology); William Ackah (Geography); Ruth Sheldon (Pyschosocial Studies); Fae Dussart (Geography); and Lynne Segal (Pyschosocial Studies).  Our discussions ranged from the different kinds of transnational intimate labour and labour abuses in the past and present; to the intimate, domestic and gendered experiences of migrants; to the politics of care, gentrification, and intimate migration control.

In the comments section below we’ve encouraged symposium presenters and attendees to share their thoughts, questions, and recommended bibliographic resources to continue this conversation online.

Finding Lee Sam: Gardener, Trafficker, and a Stateless Subject in British Malaya

By Sandy Chang

 I first discovered Lee Sam – a woman convicted of trafficking and operating a brothel during the 1930s – in a brown folder at the National Archives of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. I had not been looking for her. But as is often the case with archival research, this particular encounter was a serendipitous one.

Traces of Lee Sam in the Malaysian National Archives

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Microhistories of Trafficking: Small Stories and Digital Archives

By Julia Laite

My own research within the Trafficking Past network is a microhistory of one case of trafficking from the year 1910, in which a young woman from New Zealand was convinced to go to Buenos Aires by Antonio Carvelli, an Italian man who was living in Australia, to sell sex.  Pushing against the tendency to anecdotalize and decontextualize cases of trafficking in the past and present, the book I’m writing is taking a life history approach. Each chapter will trace a major character in the case, from when they are born, until when they die, and insists on seeing them as complex human beings engaged in modes of exploitation and labour within much wider economic and social contexts.  I want to find out what happened to them before and after I encountered them in the archive file in the National Archives in London:  what factors led them to be part of the case in 1910, and what their lives were like afterward.

Antonio Carvelli, after his first arrest in Australia

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Trafficking Past featuring Australia

Over the next year, the Trafficking Past team will continue to strengthen our collaboration with a number of Australian Institutions, especially the Laureate Research Programme in International History at the University of Sydney. On 21 August 2017, Philippa will be presenting on ‘Imperial Governmentalities and the Campaign Against the Traffic in Women in the Russian Empire‘ at the University of Sydney History department, and on 18 September she will present ‘Between Moscow, Geneva and Shanghai: The League of Nations’ campaigns against the traffic in Russian women refugees from the Soviet Union‘ at the Gender Institute within the Australian National University. Then, on April 12-13 2018, Julia and Philippa will travel to Australia to co-host the workshop ‘Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives’ with Professor Glenda Sluga of the Laureate Research Programme in International History, University of Sydney.

This latter workshop, which will bring together scholars working on or based in Oceania and the Asia-Pacific region, will ask how our global and international histories of trafficking and illicit migration change if we bring new geographies into the mix, and in doing so open up the geopolitics of our scholarly discussions about intimate labour and illicit migration. At the same time, it will centre questions of scale in our discussions of trafficking, interrogating the analytic distinctions made between the micro/local and the macro/global levels of analysis in histories of trafficking and illicit migration.

More broadly, we hope that our ongoing collaboration with Australian universities will not only help to forge lasting connections between humanities scholars based in the UK and Australia, but will also help us to reframe our ongoing discussions about sex and illicit migration through engagement with a new geographic context. Much of the existing literature on trafficking focuses on the Europe to North/South America nexus, with emergent work also emphasising the Middle East and South Asia. Little scholarship thus far has examined Australia or New Zealand.  The work of Trafficking Past PI, Julia Laite, seeks to address precisely this lacuna, as her forthcoming monograph on trafficking throughout the British Empire (including Oceania) will elaborate. By engaging with Australian scholars and institutions, we hope to internationalise further the field of trafficking history and place the British and Russian genealogies we trace in a truly global perspective.

Working at the League of Nations Archive

Summer Archive Notes from Philippa Hetherington 

This week, I’ve been researching for Trafficking Past in the archive of the League of Nations. The reading room for the archive is appropriately named after John D. Rockefeller, whose foundation funded multiple travelling inquiries into the traffic in women in the 1920s and 1930s. It is located in the beautiful art deco Palais des Nations, which was built between 1929 and 1938 as the permanent home of the League (which itself would only last a few more years). Walking the corridors of the building, admiring the breezy terraces and the shiny mahogany fixtures, it’s easy to imagine various members of the Traffic in Women Committee rushing through the halls in 1924 or 1936.  In the reading room itself, the faces of Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson glare down at the researcher, while the windows provide a view of the Alps and Lake Geneva for when you need a nature break to clear the head.

View of the Alps from the League archive window.

A number of articles published in the past few years have examined the history of the League’s Traffic in Women committee, and its attempts to build a global coalition against trafficking (a term it always defined nebulously). Most notable are pieces by members of our own Trafficking Past network, Jessica Pliley and Magaly Rodriquez.  I’ve been looking at a particular corner of this history, the 1932 Commission of Inquiry into the Traffic in the ‘East,’ and the subsequent related inquiries into the Position of Women of Russian Origin in the East (1935), as well as the Bandoeng (Bandung) Conference of Central Authorities on the Traffic in Women in the East (1937). This series of commissions constituted an attempt by the Committee on the Traffic in Women to expand their remit beyond the previous Europe/Americans geographic focus (represented by the 1927 Inquiry, which  is discussed in Jessica’s and Magaly’s articles). The 1932 report on the initial commission claimed to have discovered a ‘wide traffic in women’ in ‘the East’ (a vaguely defined geographic location which depended as much on longstanding European civilisational discourses as clear topographical markers), while the subsequent conferences and reports proposed measures to be taken by governments and voluntary organisations to suppress or prevent it.

As with earlier inquiries into the traffic, these 1930s commissions were plagued with definitional confusions, with different actors using the term ‘traffic’ in different ways, while the collection of ‘data’ often relied on hearsay and anecdote. As such, they are far more useful as sources for the ways in which the conceputalisation of trafficking, and the work done by the League, were evolving in increasingly racialized ways in the 1930s in the context of rising nationalism and the threat of impending war, than they are for any ‘evidence’ of the extent or scope of a traffic in women.

The League archive is an excellent place to work for any historian of trafficking (and its discourses). There are clear finding aids for both the archival material and the League’s voluminous publications (parts of which are also available online here.  You can photograph documents (although my own method is to mix note taking with some photography, which I find helps me to absorb the bureaucratic structure I’m dealing with better) and order 5 boxes at a time (which are delivered immediately). And perhaps best of all, there is the delicious UN cafeteria, the best lunch deal in Switzerland, which comes complete with a roaming peacock on the terrace while you eat your lunch.

The Palais de Justice, home of the League of Nations.

The League’s holdings on trafficking (and in related collections including the Nansen Office for Refugees, the Health Section and the Committee on Child Welfare) are voluminous and much of them are still untapped. They hold huge potential for the further study of trafficking past, and will form the core of ongoing research for a number of our network members in coming years.

Upcoming appearances of the Trafficking Past Researchers

While the academic year winds down at both Birkbeck and UCL, the researchers of the Trafficking Past project are speeding up, with a number of upcoming scheduled appearances.

On Friday 2 June 2017, Julia and Philippa will be presenting at a workshop in Long Island, USA, as part of the 17th Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. The workshop is entitled ‘Challenging borders in research on trafficking and women’s migration’, and Julia and Philippa will be joined by affiliates of the Trafficking Past project including Jessica Pliley (Texas), Elisa Camiscioli (Binghamton), Sonja Dolinsek (Erfurt), Tara Suri (Princeton) and others. The workshop will examine the intersections between the history of trafficking and the history of migration (especially women’s migration) more broadly. In doing so it will challenge the ‘special’ status trafficking is often accorded as a phenomenon separated from clandestine migration and labour history.

On 7 June 2017, Julia and Philippa will take part in a special workshop at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies entitled ‘Victims of Human Trafficking: A Multidisciplinary Problematization of a Category.’ This event has been organised by Runa Lazzarino, currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies. The event is open to the public, but attendees are encouraged to register via Eventbrite.

Meanwhile, in August and September 2017, Philippa will be a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Visiting Fellow at the Laureate Research Programme in International History at the University of Sydney. This programme is a Project Partner of the Trafficking Past project, and will also be hosting a workshop for the project, ‘Trafficking History as Global History’, in April 2018.