Project Description

Mariel, Cuba: America’s Oldest Chinese Cemetery


In June 2012, archaeologists made a stunning discovery in Mariel, a small town located some 40 km west of Havana, Cuba. Who would have thought that a local fisherman’s tale would turn out to be true? According to investigations into local and national archives, the necropolis was built in 1861, making it the oldest standing cemetery in America.

Prior to this discovery, scholars long considered Panama’s Way On Cemetery to be the oldest standing Chinese cemetery in the Americas, dating 1882. The Chinese cemetery of Cuba’s capital, Havana, would only be built some thirty years later, in 1893. This means that the Mariel cemetery may well be the resting place of some of the earliest Chinese migrants to reach the Caribbean island.


Dark Days

But why was there a Chinese cemetery in this small, peaceful coastal town? During their research, archaeologists discovered the gruesome truth behind their findings. From the 19th century onwards and due to its close proximity to the capital, Mariel bay was the site of a quarantine hospital for slaves and coolies who had acquired potentially dangerous or contagious diseases during their long voyages to Cuba. Between 1862 and 1872, it is estimated that 29,000 Chinese indentured laborers came through Mariel’s quarantine facility. The bay would tragically become the final resting place of 300 or so men, who never again saw the land of their forefathers, nor the Caribbean island they washed up on.

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