3831 - Transpacific Disputes and the formation of the Mexican National Project during the Age of Steam

On May 14 th , 1908, the Mexican authorities of Salina Cruz—the Pacific terminal of the transcontinental Tehuantepec National Railway (TNR)—refused landing to the Suisang, one of the monthly steamers that ran between Hong Kong and Mexico. The official reason: the port’s inspector had found 400 Chinese passengers suffering from trachoma, a contagious eye-disease. The ship’s surgeon disagreed, arguing that these were simple cases of harmless conjunctivitis. A month later, this medical dispute grew into a diplomatic controversy involving Mexican, Chinese, and British authorities.  

The contextualization of the Suisang case reveals that since the 1907 inauguration of the TNR—and until the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal—Salina Cruz developed into an integral part of the transpacific port network and, as such, it became the locus where Mexican authorities, representatives of the Pacific maritime powers and of transnational companies, transiting passengers, and locals often negotiated colliding interests. Moreover, this paper argues that these disputes formed part of a larger set of debates in order to determine who had the right to be part of the Mexican national project and under which terms. The case will show that these debates were largely influenced by the increasing circulation of peoples, commodities, and ideas across the Pacific, triggered by the inauguration of regular steamship transpacific services at the end of the 19 th century.  

With this paper, which includes sources found in Mexican, British, and Chinese archives, I will ultimately argue that the study of the discursive formation of a Mexican national identity needs to take into consideration the history of Mexico’s transnational links and that, in turn, the study of Mexican (and Latin American) participation into transpacific flows and debates is necessary to fully understand their complexity.

Keywords: transpacific, steamer, Mexico, migration

Author: Mandujano, Ruth (University of British Columbia, Canada / Kanada)


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