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).”
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Or, Small Signs of (Blogging) Life
“The history of China reaches back many hundred years before Christ, but a great part of it is involved in doubt, and it presents little that is instructive.”
~Samuel G. Goodrich, Peter Parley’s Geography for Beginners: With Eighteen Maps and One Hundred and Fifty Engravings, Parley’s New Geography (New York: Huntington and Savage, 1847), 153
Despite Parley’s inarguable conclusion, this blog will continue to consider both things historical and related to China, and worse, will do shortly, and regularly in the near future.
In the meantime, after the break, enjoy a bit more Parley – this time some poetry, before the gouty old man had finished thinking the matter of China through fully…
Spoiled Found History
I won’t even try to parse all this, but suffice to say, conservatives of all types are having a banner bad history month, my friends.
I didn’t, particularly — but perhaps my objection is just aesthetic. While I don’t think he’s incorrect about the basic facts, the expression of his interpretation launches him rhetorically into the bloggy equivalent of cable news, complete with spittle on the camera lens.
I think snark rather than snarl serves the purpose better, but what do I know? I’m just one of the fools who doesn’t see the need to stockpile ammunition because of a health care law.
Image cite: Kyle Kesselring, “Teller having a bad day,” Flickr, CC License
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Or, One Republic Indeed
This stuff really never gets old. Love it. h/t
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Or, Friday Fun Times
One scientist drowned and another was eaten by hyenas
Serena Golden, “‘The Warcraft Civilization,’” IHE, 12 Feb 2010
An interview with sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, about his new book on, yes, WoW. Very smart stuff:
Q: You also argue that virtual worlds merit attention as an area of study in themselves – and of course The Warcraft Civilization represents a step in that very direction. Why should we study virtual worlds, and what might we hope to learn?
A: Many reasons, but here are mine. Each well-designed virtual world is based on a coherent theory of human society, history, and our options for the future. Thus, this is like an entirely new field of literature or a laboratory that develops and tests social theories with actual human beings, somewhere between philosophy and social science but also with utopian qualities. For example: Pirates of the Burning Sea is set in the Caribbean in 1720 and reflects a general view of society often called political economy. A Tale in the Desert, set in a kind of utopian ancient Egypt, illustrates principles of industrial supply chains, and fits theories of technology as ritual originally proposed by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Star Trek Online (which opened only two days ago) is based on the cultural relativist principle “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Tabula Rasa expressed a well-developed ideology of space exploration, and our avatars were actually taken up to the International Space Station. Of course The Matrix Online was built on European theories of false consciousness. In the 1960s I started studying utopian communes and relgious movements, because I saw them as valid if risky experiments on new directions for humanity. That’s what virtual worlds are today.
An iPad is a glorified web kiosk.
David Parry, “The iPad and Higher Education,” ProfHacker, 8 Feb 2010
Aka, Good reasons to loathe the iPad, Apple, etc. Relevant excerpts:
For me, this is the real crux of the matter with the iPad: it is designed as a beautiful, wonderful, easy to use media consumption device. But I don’t want my students to be only media consumers. To be successful engaged citizens with control over their own life path, they need to be critical consumers and creators of media, not passive consumers. This device is designed for passive consumption.
But let’s be clear: these are locked devices… educational appliances, not educational computers. …what makes them revolutionary is that they are in fact a step backwards from the way that the web has operated.
And finally, for all those new profs, old profs, and wanna-profs
Thomas H. Benton, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’,” CofHE, 8 Feb 2010
A humanist from the Chron of Higher Ed keeps it real. This one goes out to all my colleagues who believe what their teachers tell them:
If you are in one of the lucky categories that benefit from the Big Lie, you will probably continue to offer the attractions of that life to vulnerable students who are trained from birth to trust you, their teacher.
Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.
Image cite: slayerphoto, “Venus flytrap,” Flickr, CC License
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Or, Still Starting in on the Bibliography
I never spoke to Professor Howard Zinn, though I did hear him lecture once, in college.
It was a disappointment; I felt I had grown since getting fired from my first job at fourteen for reading The People’s History at work (his books among others, hiding in a stopped elevator between floors), but that he had not grown with me. His arguments were still the same, the world still very simple.
Even more boring were the sad attempts at rhetorical fireworks my fellow audience members made, kowtows with nine syllables instead of nine bows. I’ve only grown further apart from his work as I’ve continued to hoe my own row in history, for reasons that Michael Kazin’s 2004 piece on it in Dissent, which many have cited this week, explain better than I could.
But that doesn’t mean his work — especially A People’s History — isn’t important, either to me or to the profession or to the American public. If you’ll excuse my borrowing yet another writer’s words to explain myself, I think Scott Eric Kaufman’s take is entirely the right one. Zinn’s book “…isn’t meant to replace traditional histories so much as supplement them.” Kazin’s right in a thousand ways, but despite his strident totalizing tone, Zinn is really only one ingredient in a big stew; at least, he explained himself in those terms occasionally.
Furthermore, A People’s History:
…represents a stage in one’s intellectual development.
It was never intended to arrest it.
Unlike, say, Ayn Rand.
And that — even more than the content of the work itself, though that too is important, if incomplete — is what makes Zinn such a great writer of history, to me and so many others.
Rest in peace, Prof. Zinn. And thank you.
Image cite: Austin Kleon, “‘If you don’t know history…’,” Flickr, CC License