Filed under: Found Historiography, Power At Play | Tags: canals, empire, highways, Railroads, transcontinental railroad, travel
Or, You Make a Better Road Than A Destination, America
It’s been a busy week for the appreciation of the promise and perils of transcontinental, or if you prefer, inter-oceanic, travel.
Allow me to explain…
Filed under: Archival Follies, Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play
Or, Shut it, Calhoun
Sometimes, studying nineteenth-century America can get damned depressing. It’s a slaughter-bench, and for most of the century, the guys that win (and they’re all guys) seem to be the worst possible: slaveholders, imperialists, filibusters.
There’s an antidote to this, though, and that’s reading Congressional debates.
Well, some of them.
Filed under: Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play, Uncategorized | Tags: "Coolie", New York Times, Politics, Slavery
Or, Horrible Things Briefly Noted
A specter is haunting today’s localized edition of the International Herald Tribune – the specter of nineteenth-century labor. In the appropriately (but I’m convinced utterly un-irionically) titled “Modern slavery: How bad is bonded labour,” a modern day Swift-sans-satire offers his readers a new modest proposal : why not re-legalize bonded labor?
The benefits, he says, are obvious: “[a] loyal workforce is more cost-effective” than one comprised of “floating and opportunistic workers who follow the bucks and switch frequently in pursuit of better pecuniary benefits and career progression.” Besides, the “economist” with “a PhD from Cambridge University” notes, Pakistan’s laws prohibiting slavery are ill-enforced; better instead and do away any prohibition, and replace it with a regime whereby owners – sorry, employers – are proded to take care of workers and their families “in terms of shelter and health.” Better for everyone! And certainly more profitable.
I snark, but these arguments should sound familiar to any student of proslavery rhetoric – although they were attacked as the utterly immoral statements they are by slaveholders in the past.
For some years now, the IHT has been owned by The New York Times. Founded as a conservative pro-business paper in 1851, just as the sectional conflict over legal chattel slavery was really starting to heat up in the United States, the NYT not infrequently weighed in on the subject of slavery, generally advocating a quiet and peaceful end to the institution, but with as little fuss and cost as possible. To that end, in the early 1850s the editors of the Times supported the introduction of a special kind of bonded labor into the United States: so-called “coolie” labor.
“Coolies” were workers from Asia (usually China or British India) who contracted to work eight-year stints in the Americas. They were hired most often to replace slave laborers on tropical plantations. (NB: the term “coolie,” now a highly derogatory racial slur, was seen by writers at the Times primarily as a legal category of workers from Asia – though that makes it no less a symbol of the virulent white supremacy that formed the foundation for the politics of the period). Asian laborers were needed on these plantations because slaves were becoming scarce, either as a result of legal emancipation (as in the British Caribbean) or indirectly as a result of the enforcement of transatlantic slave trade bans. This was in contrast to the American South, where slave populations were growing, and highly mobile. The editors at the Times promoted the traffic in Asian workers’ labor as a anti-slavery solution to slavery – which was conceived as as a problem of political economy, not morality. And they wielded that advocacy as a weapon in smaller political conflicts.
Responding in 1852 to Southern slaveholders’s agitation in 1852 agitate New York Times took up the subject from the perspective of economics, articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among Northerners on the topic. Noting that in Cuba the “experiment” in Chinese labor “has proved successful,” the Times wondered if Cuba’s labor system would not be “coveted by the Planter in the neighboring American States?” A few weeks later, the editors went further, suggesting that “the real malady of the South is defective labor, and the remedy the same as that now employed in Cuba – the introduction of the Chinese Coolies.” Should contracted Chinese coolie labor be successful, the Times editors thought, “the peculiar institution will at once give way to imitation; and so will end the great economical pestilence of the South.” The Times and its readers among the bourgeois elite indentured Chinese labor was a panacea for the economic and political ills of slavery, and, notably, a system that would benefit their style of investment and management handsomely.1 (The Times was not alone in this admiration for “coolie” labor, of course).
The system was acceptable to the Times in 1850 and their foolish successor at the IHT because it is founded – in theory – in the sine qua non of the liberal market economy: the freedom and sanctity of contracts. In this case, that means the freedom of a worker to sign away control over their body for a limited amount of time. In practice, all evidence is on the side of the “freedom” here being no more than a myth, a viscious fantasy.
Ironically, in the United States, evidence of the evils of indentured (or “bonded”) Asian labor were brought to light by slaveholders. Fearing that “free” indentured Asian labor would cut into their profits and political power, slaveholders across the United States in the mid-1850s began using reports of forced contracts, cruel ship conditions, and on-plantation mistreatment to argue, loudly, that the system was too cruel and too exploitative to be allowed to continue. They were acting in their own interests, of course, and their counterargument that their slaves were better treated was clearly a lie; but they were quite successful in getting other parties in the U.S., including the NYT, to abandon the trade as a proposal (at least for a time). By 1859, the “coolie trade” was described by one popular commercial encyclopedia as a subsection of the slave trade:
This trade has sprung up since vigorous efforts have been made to suppress the slave-trade proper. Although theoretically the coolie trade promised benefits to both planters and coolie, yet practically it is only another form of the slave-trade.
~J. Smith Homans, ed., A Cyclopedia of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (Harper & Brothers, 1859), II:1728-9
This sentiment carried into the Civil War; in 1862, a fervent abolitionist named Thomas Dawes Eliot pushed a bill banning American participation in the trade of “Chinese cooleys” through Congress – but that’s another story, and its own set of (no less dark) problems.
To return to the main point: whatever you call it, bonded labor is bondage. It’s slavery. That was true in 1859, and it’s true now, whatever ahistorical argument a Cambridge Econ PhD makes.2 But for a better approach to the problem of poverty and slavery in the contemporary world, one that’s actually historically informed, why don’t you take a look at what the Historians Against Slavery have been up to?
That should help rinse out some of the bitter taste, at least.
h/t @karpmj to for passing the IHT article along
1.) The Times was prolific on the topic for a time. See: “Orientals in America,” New York Times, 15 April 1852; “Cotton, Cane and the Coolies,” ibid., 3 May 1852; “Labor in Cuba,” ibid., 10 December 1852 for relevant examples.
2.) The headnote in the IHT, in attempting to frame the piece as a courageous anti-politically correct piece, really only demonstrates the author’s ignorance of historiography by claiming to be “following the academic tradition set by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman in their fiercely debated book ‘Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery’ (1974).”
Or, Flora Goes to China
While he was in Canton in 1838-1840, American China merchant Robert Bennet Forbes kept up an extensive correspondence with his wife, Rose. His letters to Rose took the form of a daily journal, a common way in the period for intimates to maintain a sense of closeness while making the best possible use of irregular (and uncertain) mailing opportunities. In them, Forbes delivers a vivid picture of the world he inhabited, and shows himself to be a (more or less) sympathetic character: funny, ambitious and anxious in equal measure, and, to a surprising degree, self-aware. He smokes cigars, makes deals, observes Chinese life — and misses his wife terribly, worrying constantly about his young family, especially the his infant son, Robert Jr, whom he left behind to take up his post.
His days were busy ones. His position as the managing partner at one of the largest American firms active in China, Russell & Company, during the opening events of the first Anglo-Chinese war, was a demanding one, albeit in the peculiar way that desk jobs of the time and place were — he oversaw huge sums of money and affected the lives of (potentially) hundreds, if not thousands, through the decisions he made about ships, purchases, and opium sales. But it was also boring work, made the more so (for Forbes) by the largely homosocial, catty and jealous world of the foreign ghetto at Canton. The intensity of his days varied wildly; in the off-season, he recuperated from absurdly luxurious private parties at the mansions of wealthy Chinese merchants or at the “factories” of wealthy firms by taking walks around the cramped public square, short pony rides on a local island, or sailing excursions in the Pearl river delta. And sometimes, he likely engaged in a game of leapfrog.
Partly in an effort to keep himself sane while thus occupied so far from his family, he brought a friend with him to China. Her name was Flora, and she was a dog.
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something
Or, Ain’t No Party Like a Synchronized Bird Release Party
Some folks make it look easy, but really, international commerce can be a lot of work – and mightily dull at the same time (all those currency conversions, ugh!). But let it never be said that China traders didn’t know a good time when it flew at them in a panic.
(Okay, I’m not sure that it has ever been said, and besides, we’ve covered similar ground before — but just go with me here).
While doing business at Canton and Macau during the 1786/1787 trading season, Major Samuel Shaw – revolutionary hero, pioneer merchant in the China trade, and official U.S. Consul – took some time out to party.
A circumstance that occurred at the entertainment given us by the Portuguese ought not to be omitted. The dessert, which was very elegant, was prepared in a room adjoining that in which we dined, and the tables were ornamented with representations, in paper painted and gilt, of castles, pagodas, and other Chinese edifices, in each of which were confined small birds. The first toast was Liberty! and in an instant, the doors of the paper prisons being set open, the little captives were released, and, flying about us in every direction, seemed to enjoy the blessing which had just been conferred upon them.
How’s that for an evening’s entertainment? This flighty soirée comes up in Shaw’s posthumous memoir-cum-biography, as a footnote in a section kvetching about how the English merchants being, well, bitchy. They hadn’t invited Shaw or any other Americans to dinner, you see, and that was breaking some serious social coding (a breach of, cough, cough, food diplomacy, if you will – though I suspect in this case “food” meant “copious amounts of Madeira and/or rum”):
On [the English’s] arrival at Canton from Macao, the usual visits were made to them by us, and by them returned; and while every other nation paid us the customary civility of giving and receiving a dinner and supper, the English alone omitted that attention, not only to us individually, but to the Americans generally.
Shaw was an old hand at the casual snub, and beyond that, a professional – and so he assures his reader that such bad behavior “did not prevent or interrupt that intercourse which will ever exist among gentlemen.” Ahem.
In classic Early American style, though, he adds a final note of paranoia, suggesting that the lack of keggers was an order from on high:
It is true, that the Court of Directors [the governing body of the English East India Company], in their instructions to the supercargoes…enjoined it upon them to use every endeavor to prevent the subjects of Great Britain from assisting or encouraging in any shape the American commerce ; but if this prohibition was intended by the directors, or construed by their servants, to extend to the civilities heretofore paid the Americans, it cannot be denied that such conduct was extremely illiberal.
Illiberal indeed. Given the weight that Shaw and his compatriots back home gave to the treatment of Americans abroad, such behavior probably only confirmed their worst suspicions about Britons’ incorrigible arrogance.
But at least the Portuguese had the courtesy to stockpile pigeons, right?
Source: Josiah Quincy, ed., The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw: The First American Consul at Canton: With a Life of the Author (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847), 234. [Bold emphasis mine, rest in original.]
Filed under: History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play
Or, A Little Presentism Goes a Long Way
Historians like to think that even as we study the past, we’re doing something new. Bringing fresh light to unexplored recesses, listening, patiently, to quiet, pained voices – or, more aggressively, stripping away the accumulated decades-deep varnish of myths and flipping the table on complacent “just-so” stories about how we got into our present mess. And so on.
I’m no different. Part of the sales pitch for my own work (Hellloooo future employers and funders!) is that early American trade with Asia is understudied – and so, by examining at its sources we can not only learn more about the trade itself, but also overturn long-standing debates in “wider” fields (e.g. American early republic or antebellum history). This is should be a familiar tune to all of you, I’ve sung it enough…
But history, in its modern incarnation, is not a new field; these habits are old. Even (or perhaps especially) when it comes to studying early American trade with Asia.
Allow me to illustrate. In 1937, in his monumental study of the Jackson and Lee merchant families Ken Porter complains, at length, that the American China trade is too well known , romanticized, even – and that the trend in the extant literature is to obscure an equally important topic: U.S. trade with British India.*
It was the trade with the Far East which gave early American commerce its characteristic flavor, but although the early history of the China trade has been told and retold, the story of the trade with Calcutta and other ports in India remains un-recounted either in scholarly or popular form. [emphasis mine]
The very simplicity of the Canton trade, emphasized by the exotic and fantastic characteristics of its physical background, has made it a favorite theme for writers on American foreign trade. Far otherwise was the situation at Calcutta, a British port, where the lack of any such rigid monopoly as the co-hong or any exclusive policy toward foreigners, coupled with the undeveloped character of native industry, rendered the trade situation almost infinitely more complex. This complexity, which calls for a thorough analysis, has instead produced the effect of repelling investigators, who found in the background of Calcutta trade no such compensatory romantic elements as were furnished by the forbidden world of China. Anecdotes of Houqua, the great hong merchant, abound; but who has more than the name of his millionaire Caclutta contemporary, Ram Duloll Day? [Ramdulal Dey]
~Porter, Jacksons and the Lees, I:28, 52
And, for what it’s worth, Porter was right: at the time he was writing, the U.S. public and scholarly community had been inundated, for at least thirty years, with wistful remembrances, detailed annals, and historical examinations of the American China trade.** That itself was a retread: the China trade, and it’s romantic clippers and secret hongs and smuggling, was celebrated well in to the Gilded Age in travelogues, stories, poetry, and images. Indeed, Porter’s own work was part of a new resurgence of interest in the early history of US-Asia relations, prompted, in all likelihood, by near-term threats to American interests in the Pacific (<cough>WWII</cough>).
Porter himself appears to have lost interest – some uphill battles are not worth fighting, I guess? – and devoted the rest of his (extremely long) career to working on the African American experience on the U.S. frontier.
Even among professionals, our historical memory is only the length of a lifetime, if that – and so trends cycle, if not predictably so. This is true, I suspect, in all sub-fields, but certainly in early American history, where once again innovative work is being done by adopting perspectives that echo (at least superficially) those of earlier generations, though hopefully with the benefits that the treadmill of time has provided us.***
But part of that innovation is also a calculated forgetting. Speaking for myself, it would be impossible to write anything new, if I felt obligated to fully represent every quantum of prior work equally in my own scholarship — the accumulated weight of the dust alone would crush me.
Turns out that the the dead hand of the (professional study of the) past is just as easily shrugged off as the past itself; even necessarily so, I think. History, no less than the earth, belongs in usufruct to the living – though perhaps we would do well to be better stewards of it than we’ve been with the land.****
*Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Jacksons and the Lees: Two Generations of Massachusetts Merchants, 1765-1844, 2 vols., 3rd ed., Harvard studies in business history 3 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969; orig 1937).
**To give but a brief taste of the recent (c. 30 years) lit that Porter might have been frustrated with:
John Watson Foster, American Diplomacy in the Orient (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903); Frank Erastus Hinckley, American Consular Jurisdiction in the Orient (Washington, D.C: W.H. Loudermilk, 1906); Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1910); Charles O. Paullin, “Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to the Orient,” Proceedings 36, no. 2, United States Naval Institute (USNI) (June 1910): 428-463; Robert Ephraim Peabody, Merchant Venturers of Old Salem; a History of the Commercial Voyages of a New England Family to the Indies and Elsewhere in the XVIII Century, (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1912); Robert Glass Cleland, “Asiatic Trade and the American Occupation of the Pacific Coast,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1914 I (1916): 283-289; Thomas Franklin Waters, Augustine Heard and His Friends, Ipswich Historical Society publications no. 21 (Salem, Mass.: The Society, 1916); Frederic William Howay, “The Fur Trade in Northwestern Development,” ed. H. M Stevens and Herbert E Bolton, The Pacific Ocean in History (New York, 1917), 276-86; Kenneth Scott Latourette, The History of Early Relations Between the United States and China, 1784-1844, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 22 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1917), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000521723; State Street Trust Company, Other Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston; Being More Information About the Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston Who Played Such an Important Part in Building up the Commerce of New England, Together with Some Quaint and Curious Stories of the Sea (Boston, Mass: Walton Advertising and Printing Company: Printed for the State Street Trust Company, 1919); James Christy Bell, Jr., Opening a Highway to the Pacific, 1838-1846 (New York: Columbia University, 1921), http://books.google.com/books?id=uPRYAAAAMAAJ; Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: a critical study of the policy of the United States with reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the 19th Century (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922); Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860, 1st ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922); Shü-lun Pan, “The trade of the United States with China” (Ph.D. diss., New York: Columbia University, 1924); Charles H Barnard et al., The Sea, the Ship and the Sailor; Tales of Adventure from Log Books and Original Narratives (Salem, Mass: Marine Research Society, 1925); Sydney Greenbie and Marjorie Latta Barstow Greenbie, Gold of Ophir; or, The Lure That Made America (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925); George Granville Putnam, Salem Vessels and Their Voyages, III (Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1925); Robert Ephraim Peabody, The Log of the Grand Turks (Boston ;New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926); Charles Frederick Remer, The Foreign Trade of China (Shanghai, China: The Commercial Press, Limited, 1926); Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Voyages of American Ships to China, 1784-1844,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 28 (1927), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000521723; Samuel Eliot Morison, “The India Ventures of Fisher Ames, 1794-1804,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 37 (April 1927): 14-23; George H Danton, The Culture Contacts of the United States and China; the Earliest Sino-American Culture Contacts, 1784-1844 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931); “Perkins and Company, Canton 1803-1827,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 6, no. 2 (March 1, 1932): 1-5; Basil Lubbock, The Opium Clippers (Boston: Charles E. Lauriat company, 1933); E. H. Pritchard, “The Struggle for Control of the China Trade during the Eighteenth Century,” The Pacific Historical Review 3, no. 3 (September 1934): 280-295; Eliot Grinnell Mears, Maritime Trade of Western United States,, Stanford business series (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1935); Chen Ching-Jen, “Opium and Anglo-Chinese Relations,” The Chinese Social and Political Science Review 19 (October 1935): 386-437; Amy Christine Carlson, “References to China in American Juvenile Periodicals During the Days of the Old China Trade, 1784-1844.”, 1936
And so on.
***I was having a conversation with a colleague just today about how it’s time to take the doughfaces seriously again! This is an ancient heresy of the worst kind, I tell you.
**** Said with all due obeisances to the lord master of Monticello, of course.
Filed under: History and Historians, Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something
It’s Been A While
As Spring threatens to return, I find my thoughts turning once more (as do those of so many rapidly middle-aging historians) to blogging. I know, gentle readers, that I’ve left you without terrible puns and alliterative link dumps for far too long; the Goose Commerce thread in your RSS reader is, no doubt, covered in dust, mites, and then more dust. And, may I say: that’s disgusting.
But awake! Or at least, don’t delete. I’m back! And plan to post at least weekly here until I lose interest again.1
So, to business…
As I’m sure you’re aware, the newest shiny debate in PastLand is L’affaire Cronon, aka the Wisconsin Republican party’s bizarre attack on one of my favorite authors, William Cronon (Mr. Nature’s Metropolis). The AHA has a full roundup on everything you need to catch yourself up
There’s been a lot of commentary, obviously, but for my own purposes the most interesting include those smart things said about the wider legal context of this attack at the egregiously inappropriately-named AmericanScience blog: Part 1, Part 2.
As for what the heck Cronon himself is up to, the best read I’ve seen so far is what Ben Schmidt, professional history’s own Nate Silver, has said over at the wonderful and informative Sapping Attention. I agree with all that Schmidt says2 : seems like the deliberative democracy shoe, consciously consensual and wholly impractical, is what fits.
While I admire Cronon’s position – especially given that he is ascending to a the highest honorific position within the guild, usually not a place that one achieves by making political waves – I can’t say that I agree with his theory of politics. I side with Martin Van Buren: we need parties, and partisanship, to make the system go; playing the center (ideologically, philosophically) is a fool’s game. Conflict is a feature, not a bug: because people just disagree, that’s why.
Which still leaves us with the problem of establishing and policing standards of discourse: so maybe Prof. Cronon has the right idea after all.
In any case, I look forward to making more of these uninformed comments in the future! Now back to actual work for a change.
Image: law_keven, “Do you think he’s alive???…..” Flickr, CC License
1.) Hey, if I’m nothing if not realistic.