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).”