Goose Commerce

This Slave Trade of the … 21st Century? by goosecommerce

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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Boisterous Despotism by goosecommerce

Or, which organ do you thump and twang on?

Passion flower

Since Thomas Jefferson has recently graced the august web pages of the New York Times I thought it might be of interest to share some thinking I’ve been doing on of his more famous predictions.

In The Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson at one point ponders what the American system of slavery means for the ideals of the Revolution, and the formation of individuals reared as masters. Though he ends on a hopeful note, the passage is not a cheerful one:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. … The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? … Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever… I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust…the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

~Thomas Jefferson, “Query XVIII: Manners,” in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

Jefferson wrote that in 1781, towards the end of the critical days of the Revolution; it was first published in English in 1787. The key point, I think, is that he highlights the dangers to political liberty that flow from American slavery. Those raised to be masters become passionate, wrathful despots; and despots can’t long maintain republican liberty.

This ambivalence on the fate of liberty in a nation supported by slavery came to mind, in a more personal dimension, as I was paging through two diaries the other day, one by a northerner, George Templeton Strong, and one by a southerner, James Henry Hammond. (1)

In many ways these men, though contemporaries and elites, could not be more different. What really struck me, though, in paging through each of these diaries, was how much happier Strong seemed to be, at least compared to Hammond.

You can see the difference even in the way they each begin their diaries. Strong hit the ground running, with a minimal amount of introspection, detailing how he registered for his sophomore year at Columbia. Hammond, on the other hand, left us a pathetic confession:

Columbia, S.C. 6 Feb. 1841
I begin this diary from almost purely selfish motives – Alas how few things do any of us do from better ones. “I want a friend.” Circumstances…have combined to prevent me from having a friend to whose sympathetic bosom I could confide anything. …

Strong populates his pages with notes about his day’s work, his observations of his friends and family, and lots of humor:

February 29, [1836] MONDAY. I have taken up my pen again after an interval of two months, caused partly by my ardor for laziness and partly by my ardor for science, exemplified in blowing up my hand. Memorandum. Never to pound chlorate of potassium and sulphur together again without thick gloves and never to pound them at all when I can help it. …

He took special delight in nerding out on, and playing, the new pipe organ he had commissioned, which, because it took up his entire parlor, he nicknamed “Goliath”:

December 16 [1840] … Post and I thumped and twanged on Goliath to our hearts’ content. I’m pleased with it on the whole. The dulcinia and hautboy are unsurpassable, and the diapasons and flute are very good, quite good enough for me…

Hammond, on the other hand, manages to record even public celebrations with a mixture of hypochondria and condescension:

[Columbia] 28 June [1842]
This is the day of the celebration of the opening of the R[ail] Road. It is to be a much larger affair than I expected. … I am very sick of it and wish I was at Silver Bluff [his plantation]. I have a dull pain in my right side. It is my liver thumping my ribs. … I expect to take no part but must be there. I hate a crowd. …

Partly, this difference in tone – continued, I might add, throughout the entirety of each of their diaries – might be attributed to Strong’s youth; in the 1840s, Strong was in his 20s, still a young man on the make; Hammond, on the other hand, was in his 30s and 40s, and with personal and public responsibilities – and ambitions – that weighed heavily upon him.

But I think the difference runs deeper, and actually has to do with the social and political environment in which each lived. Strong was a young Whig lawyer living in the bustling (and highly flammable, in his account) metropolis of New York. Hammond was one of the richest men in South Carolina, a plantation owner and major politician. Strong defined himself by his refined taste, his wit, and his work ethic. Hammond defined himself by his mastery and power.

That Hammond’s role as master defined him is clear from his diary, and clear to his biographers.(2) By all accounts – including his own – he was the narcissistic, passionately wrathful despot that Jefferson feared slavery would create. One of his biographers calls him, with justice, “a tough-minded son of a bitch,” elaborating further that:

By his own testimony we can judge him flawed. He owned hundreds of slaves, who died off at a great rate. Almost alone among the planter aristocracy, he clearly documents his proclivity for sexually exploiting his female slaves. In addition he debauched the young, the very young daughters of a fellow planter, his brother-in-law, a despicable practice then as now and certainly very dangerous then, when the code duello was still in fashion.
~The Secret and Sacred, viii, xvi

Aside from all the damage that Hammond inflicted on others – not a short list – slavery rotted him from the inside, even as he regarded slavery (and famously so) as a natural and organic part of a just society. He could never be carefree and happy like Strong; his power would not allow it.

This is not a perfect illustration, of course. These are but two individuals, and rare ones at that, for their intensive detailing of their daily lives. But from all my other reading in the archives of urban Northern capitalists and Southern planters, I think it is a pattern that repeats widely in this era.

I think it gets at a larger truth, the truth Jefferson knew, but never could bring himself to act on: liberty and slavery cannot coexist without consequences, even for those that benefit most from the coerced labor of others.

Image Cite: Nganguyen, “Passion fruit flower,” Flickr, CC License

(1) Allan Nevins and Milton H. Thomas, ed. The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Vol. 1: Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 (New York: Macmillan, 1952)

Carol Bleser, ed. Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)

(2) One of the best works on Hammond is the work of Harvard’s current current president: Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1982)

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The whole epoch is disorienting by goosecommerce

Or, Atlantic Linkages


Listen everybody: if you aren’t reading Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic, you are missing out.

He’s a very good writer, and a very deep thinker. I mention him here — rather than just by grabbing you by the collar and preaching the cant of the converted to you individually — because recently he’s been reading through the historical literature on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and blogging his reactions. The result is some of the most thoughtful and powerful writing on the topic, and its present relevance, that I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

What I like best of about Coates’s writing (and thought) is his how open he is to new ideas. Not uncritical; but willing to engage. That is as true of his reading of history as it is in his conversations with ideological opponents. There is, in his postings, a constant autobiographical refrain where he tracks the development of this willingness in himself, which gives it an anchor and a sincerity which even the most plaintively open-minded writers lack.
Continue reading

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China, the Sea, and the South by goosecommerce
June 12, 2009, 2:55 pm
Filed under: Now in Actual Work | Tags: , , , , ,

Or, Heathens All


Rev. Joshua Leavitt,

Dear Sir, – I noticed in a recent number of the ‘Emancipator,’ a proposition to furnish gratuitously for a year, that paper to such clergymen as lectured and took up collections among their people, in the course of the year, for the Anti-Slavery Society.

My course of procedure, although it does not conform strictly to the letter of the proposition, yet, in fact, secures to the cause a greater amount of attention and effort, in my view, than would a solitary lecture in the course of the year.

At my monthly concert of prayer for the conversion of the world, which I hold on the Sabbath evening previous to the first Monday in each month, a distinct portion of time is allotted to the cause of the oppressed slave. I portion out to brethren distinct missionary grounds, with the understanding that each is to prepare himself with the latest information relative to his own station. One has, for instance, China; another Ceylon; another the Seamen’s cause; another that of American slavery: which last cause being in two zealous friends of the slave, has, I think according to their ability, due justice to it. Our custom is, that each cause shall be followed by addresses at the throne of grace in their behalf.

As to contributions, the frequent visits of your agents and those of the State Society does not suffer what he ave to give to remain long idle in our purses.

My object in this communication is two-fold, –1st. That of communicating my plans, believing, as I do, that there are many brethren who might introduce it with profit to their people, and with little or no opposition. I think it profitable, as it brings the subject up for serious meditation more than it would be in any other way, unless a distinct concert is held for the slave. And further, the subject is brought before the minds of many that would not attend an anti-slavery concert or a regularly announced anti-slavery lecture.

If you agree with me in sentiment, you may be able to concoct a brief paragraph on the subject that will, I think, be useful. Or you can use such portions of this letter as you please, if you will leave blank my name and the date.

My second object in this communication is, to request that if my measures come up to the spirit of your proposition, in your view, you will please forward to me the Emancipator.

Yours, &c.,

~”Another Response from a Minister,” The Emancipator and Free American (New York), 8 August 1839, p. 58

Once you get past the overcrowded syntax here, this is a fascinating letter. While I’ve certainly heard of church groups convening to hear a lecture on slavery, or about happenings in the mission fields, it never occurred to me that the two would be grouped together in this way. Never mind how Chautauqua this is. Can you imagine hearing a sermon, and then getting a regular news round-up like this?

The list of topics that the good reverend assigns his parishioners – China, Ceylon, Seamen’s Bethels, American slavery – is a great reminder of the wonderful scope of Jacksonian evangelicals’ interests. A bit less happily, it reaffirms who’s at the edges of their world: people far away, people from home but of a radically different occupational class, and people who are property.

And, while I don’t think this is sufficient cause to give interest in missionary endeavors the same weight as the anti-slavery movement (I don’t think it would be wrong to say that missionary news reached a wider audience in anti-slavery newspapers like the Emancipator, rather than in missionary-only magazines like the Missionary Herald), it’s certainly a good indicator of the frame, or frames, within which such news was received. I do wonder if slavery is the controlling metaphor here, or if it’s something bigger about Christian civilization and the perfecting of society.

Thoughts, as always, welcome.

Image cite: Woodleywonderworks, “Earth, courtesy Apollo 17, and probably the most reproduced image of all time,” Flickr, CC License

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