The Past is a Foreign...Something

John Murray Forbes and the Coolie Colony on St. John’s River, Part II


The Unbearable Ubiquity of Steamship Accidents

Last we left John Murray Forbes, China trader and nascent railroad baron extraordinaire, it was 1860 and he was all het up about a possible Federal ban on the coolie trade. In a letter to a Massachusetts Congressman, he argued that banning this trade — as opposed to regulating it — would play into the Slave Power’s hands. Banning the importation of cheap Chinese labor would eliminate a source of free labor in the South, and thus remove a threat to the antebellum plantation complex.

He supported this point with a host of ad hominem attacks on a former American consul, and, more interestingly, an anecdote about a Chinese colonization scheme he’d once supported, but had subsequently dropped on the advice of a planter friend. Forbes’s unnamed interlocutor had made it clear that planters’ “jealousy,” of “any scheme of labor outside of their ‘peculiar institution’ ” would make such any importation of free labor untenable in the South.(1)

Thus was Forbes’s plan to simultaneously “improve the condition of the Chinese, and show in our tropics the benefits of free labor,” strangled in its cradle.

But let’s step back a moment. Who was this planter friend? And what was their actual exchange? How well does Forbes’s story in 1860 match up to what the document’s tell us?

Let’s start at the beginning. Forbes’s planter-adviser was one James Hamilton Couper, or as it’s misspelled in JMF’s published letters, Cowper.(2)

It appears that Couper and Forbes met while fellow travelers in either South Carolina or Georgia in the spring of 1856. Forbes was on his way back to Massachusetts after a holiday, of sorts, in Cuba. According to Forbes’s daughter (and literary executor) Sarah Forbes Hughes, JMF introduced himself to Couper because his landlady had told him that she and her infant daughter had been “rescued years before … by Mr. Cowper [sic] at great risk to himself, from the wreck of the steamer Pulaski.” “This gallantry” Sarah Forbes Hughes writes, “naturally inclined my father to make friends with him, and the pleasant relations then established continued after his return home.”(3)

(Forbes may have been interested in Couper’s heroics for reason’s other than love of gallantry in general — JMF’s older brother, Robert Bennet Forbes, had made the papers in both America and England seven years before for similar lifesaving heroics in the aftermath of a collision between a steamership and a smaller sail-rigged vessel in the North Atlantic. He thereafter had made “humanitarian” relief — specifcally, the promotion of marine safety systems — one of his major occupations in retirement. The differences between RBF’s and JHC’s heroics would merits own consideration…)

Forbes’s letter to Couper was written roughly a half year later, in September 1856, during a controversial presidential campaign — the outcome of which most observers thought would determine the continued existence of the Union (by 1856 we are well on the ‘path to disunion,’ and contemporaries knew it as a real possibility).

In the letter, Forbes asks Couper’s opinion on two subjects: first, the practicality of setting up a Chinese free labor plantation in Florida, both in terms of technical agriculture, but also with regard to the planter elite’s response; and second, whether or not Southerners were serious about bolting from the Union if an anti-slavery (or even mildly anti-slavery-expansion) candidate was elected to office. Not unrelated questions, if one’s guiding interests were Chinese commerce, free trade, and free labor.

Here’s the text (with some further comments below):

John Murray Forbes to J. Hamilton Cowper [sic], Boston, 18 Sept 1856(4)

Knowing that more than any other man you have both studied and carried into practice the science of agriculture in the southern states, I venture to ask your opinion upon the scheme of one of my friends now in China; which the enclosed extracts from his letter will explain, partially.

The ground work of his plan, however, is to select a place in Florida, so far South as to secure a mild winter climate within easy access of New York; probably on the line of one of the roads now building to the Gulf, or on the St. John’s river. This part of the plan makes it necessary to take up with rather light land, chosen more with regard to salubrity and mildness of climate than to fertility of soil.

Of course, I should not think of recommending him to begin on so large a scale as he suggests, but rather to buy only a tract of land and put on it about ten to twenty families at the start, trusting to getting into a wild country, where more land can be had, if required, from the public domain.

Can you then tell me:

1st whether there is any thing in the laws of Florida or in the popular prejudices to make it inexepedient, or dangerous, to bring apprecticed free labor into Florida; and

2nd whether on those light lands he could count upon raising enough cotton or sugar (rice is out of the question) and oranges to pay $10 a month with coarse clothes and fare for very [sic; probably a mistranscription of “every”] valuable man’s labor? and some interest on the land and capital? I know the Chinese thoroughly, and if we can get the right sort I am sure there is no better labor North or South.

I regretted very much that the rain storm prevented my joining you in the [railroad] cars at Savannah, as I wanted light upon many subjects.

I hope you are not of those who believe that the Union will be dissovled whenever a clear majority, whether contributed by the North or South, elect their candidate for the Presidency, nor whether the successful candidate be for or against the Ordinance of 1787.

From what I have known of the South I cannot bring myself to believe that Jefferson Davis and the Richmond Enquirer any more fairly represent the South than Garrison and the Liberator do the North! And if it be so, it is a thousand pities that the sound and conservative men of the South should not at this crisis find a voice and let it be heard here.

This final result I consider as inevitable as fate, and that it is only a question of time!

Thinking it may interest you I send a pamphlet by ‘Cecil’ (a Philadelphia lawyer named Fisher) which has made a great impression by its reasoning and its freedom from passion.

Pray excuse this allusion to politics, which may, perhaps, be delicate ground for us to touch upon, but about which every one here is now much excited, and believe me, with great respect.

[John Murray Forbes]”

A few things are interesting about this letter. First off is that Forbes passes off responsibility for this hairbrained coolie colony scheme on a friend — which may be true, though other evidence (which I’m leaving out here for brevity’s sake, just take my word on it for now), seems to indicate Forbes was the driving force behind the implementation of the scheme, both before and after this letter to Couper.

Second is the term Forbes’s uses for the type of Chinese labor he intends to import, “apprentice free labor.” “Apprentice” is a pretty loaded word. It refers to the quasi-enslaved/quasi-free status of ex-slave workers at Jamaica and other West Indies colonies between the 1834 and 1838. The apprentice system formally emancipated slaves, but restricted their mobility and left planters with significant resources to coerce labor (including new and innovative tortures, like the treadmill), until such time that planters and British imperial authorities thought them equipped to act as free agents without disrupting the political economy of the empire.

It was intended as a transition from slavery to freedom — though its abuses and indadequacies were so great, and so quickly exposed, that the period’s end was hastened (though not soon enough for those under its power, of course). New solutions for providing cheap labor for plantations then had to be devised; one of them, in the case of the British colonies, was the importation of Asian labor from India and China.

The theory behind apprenticeship, such as it was, was that the because the experience of slavery created a childlike dependency in the enslaved they would not be capable of exercising mature, reasoned freedom (i.e. continuing to produce cash crops for the world market) without a period of training — hence “apprenticeship.” The term also linked the status to a preexisting coercive legal apparatus, readily available in British (and American) law — what normally think of as apprenticeship or indenture (the kind that Ben Franklin ran away from). Planters and British officials, as it turned out, were right to be worried; once freed, ex-slaves worked according to their own interests, not that of the plantation owners — and production of sugar and other cahs crops decreased dramatically.

What surprises me about about JMF’s use of the term is that I thought that by the time he was writing (1856) apprenticeship had been largely declared a failure. The decrease of production in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands was a classic data point for defenders of American plantation slavery, one that they cited as evidence for both free labor’s failure in “tropical” environments (the kind of labor needed could only be coerced) as well as evidence for the irrationality of slaves and ex-slaves. So why would an increasingly fervent (though never radical) anti-slavery man be so eager to embrace this point?

I think the answer probably lies in a shared interest among capitalists of all types (in commerce, manufacturing, and agriculture) in maintaining control over labor while shifting from away from the outright political and social slavery that was an affront to liberal political economy. This interpretation has been developed with much more care in a wide body of literature that I’m not going to cite now, but Amy Dru Stanley’s work is what comes to mind. What we’re seeing here, then, is that in planning his coolie colony, JMF is, in part, reaching for new forms of organizing labor that render it “free” but still manageable by capital. A tricky move, one that bedeviled elites throughout most of the post-emancipation world.

Finally, in an earlier edition of JMF’s letters, Sarah Forbes Hughes claims that the original motivation for the letter to Couper was to broach politics, specifically the subject of union and disunion. In other words, the Chinese coolie question was a path for feeling out Southern politics, from a man that JMF felt similarly reasonable as himeslf. As she quotes JMF’s own notes to this effect, I’m inclined to give this interpretation some weight — though I can’t help thinking that that this letter was not entirely instrumental.(5)

There was, for example, no reason to get into detail about soil conditions if the main issue was the broader political climate. But that conversation about politics — which turns on the meaning of “conservative” in this era, and each man’s assessment of the state of the sectional conflict — is of interest in its own right.

And that’s what I’ll take up in our next installment.

Thoughts welcome.


(1) For the full text of JMF’s letter to his congressman, see: John Murray Forbes and the Coolie Colony on St. John’s River, Part I

(2) How do I know that “Couper” and “Cowper” were one and the same? I don’t, but I think it highly likely for several reasons. First, JMF mentions in his letter that “Cowper” was an agricultural improver — and Couper was widely famed for his ultra-modern plantation managment. Second, JMF’s daughter mentions that “Cowper” had acted heroically during the wreck of the Pulaski ; Frances Anne Kemble, a neighbor of the Couper’s during her brief time on the Sea Islands, wrote about reading JHC’s narrative of his experience of the Pulaski in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (orig. 1863; Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1961). Notably, Kemble reads Couper’s behavior during that crisis — he quickly took command, ordering a life boat containing his family and friends launched before it was overloaded — as the silver lining to the personal despotism encouraged by slavery among slaveholders.

Were I the type of scholar who likes to be petty in ways only scholars can, I might well note here that this spelling error — which originated in the first edition of JMF’s letters, edited by his daughter Sarah (see below for cite) — has continued into current scholarship, where JMF’s letter to “Cowper” is cited without any addendendum, in effect missing a large part of what is so interesting in the exchange. So there.

(3) Sarah Forbes Hughes, ed., Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, (Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1899), I:147-148.

(4) JMF to J. Hamilton Cowper, Boston, 18 Sept 1856 in Letters (supplementary) of John Murray Forbes, edited by his daughter Sarah Forbes Hughes (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1905), I:165-167.

(5) “…my father wrote to Mr. Cowper, with the pretext of asking his opinion as to the possible employment of Chinese in Florida, but chiefly, as he says in his notes, ‘with the view of learning whether the all-absorbing question of the day was still so far short of being a ‘burning’ one as to admit of two men of the North and South respectively, conservative and presumably patriotic, approaching the subject with cool minds and arriving at some practicable compromise which might be recommended to their friends on either side.’ ” Sarah Forbes Hughes, ed., Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, (Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1899), I:148.

Image Cite:

jelleyman, “Tank from the Oriental (I think),” Flickr, CC License

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