Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play, Uncategorized

This Slave Trade of the … 21st Century?

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).”

History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage, Uncategorized

Searching for Sustainable Sovereignty

Or, The Axes of Ideology Don’t Just Split Hairs


Sean Safford, one of the OrgHeads, has just put up a very astute post about movements in contemporary U.S. political ideology. Essentially, he thinks that the ideological axis in the U.S. has shifted away from an emphasis on “fairness” vs. “conservation” — CEO pay is far too high! 40 million are uninsured! v. the market works great! If it [institutions] ain’t broke don’t fix it!– to an emphasis on “sustainability.”

Here’s his description of the “sustainability” argument:

The argument goes something like this: We live in a highly interconnected society which operates within a series of interconnected systems. Resources (physical, material, social, and political) are not only scarce, they are extinguishable. The system is in place, not so much to keep social order, but to ensure the reproduction of the resources needed to reproduce society over time. Undermining any of the systems on which society depends threatens to have ripple effects on others. But importantly, the biggest threat to the system comes not from external threats, but from individuals acting in their own self interest in ways that could undermine the delicate balance on which interdependencies of the system depends. Government action is needed, not to ensure fairness, but in order to save us from ourselves.

Continue reading “Searching for Sustainable Sovereignty”

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)
Continue reading “John Murray Forbes and the Coolie Colony on St. John’s River, Part II”

Now in Actual Work

Eureka! Er, sorta.

in small doses
in small doses

I often begin these posts with some kind of appreciation of the serendipity of the archives; much of what’s appeared here are things I didn’t expect; or, more often, things that don’t fit into the project I’m working on as my main occupation, but that were just too interesting (for a given value of interesting) to forget completely. All well and good, I suppose.

But sometimes … sometimes you find what you’re looking for. Yesterday was one of those times. Continue reading “Eureka! Er, sorta.”


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

Write Your Congressman!

JMF is aware of all plantation traditions
JMF is aware of all plantation traditions

The other day, while flipping through some files looking for something else entirely (isn’t that always the way?), I came across this letter (transcribed below).

It’s a bit of lobbying, from a wealthy China trader and powerful railroad investor, John Murray Forbes, to one of his local congressmen, Thomas D. Eliot. Long story short, JMF asks Eliot to kill a bill prohibiting the “Cooley Trade” — that is, the conveyance of Chinese emigrants to the U.S., mostly to recently acquired West Coast states and territories. Forbes would prefer to see the trade regulated.

Now, the letter is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but the reason I’m posting it is because of the colonization scheme JMF mentions. Apparently, a few years previously, Forbes and his buddies had tossed around the idea of importing Chinese coolies (low-caste laborers), and their families, to Florida to staff a plantation estate; the idea was to prove the viability of free labor in tropical regions, and set up a nice vacation home for retired China traders.

According to Forbes, he was only dissuaded from this plan because a planter friend of his observed that the local slaveholders would go nuts over having free labor in their backyard. This, Forbes tells Eliot, is the real reason why southern pols want to ban the coolie trade — it posed a threat to their peculiar institution.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, well, it is — as Forbes had cause to know, such an experiment in émigré free labor had been tried before. Historians know this episode best from Bernard Bailyn’s account of it in Voyagers to the West, where he discusses Andrew Turnbull’s disastrous Minorcan colony on the St. Johns River.* (Incidentally, JMF’s plantation was to have been on the St. Johns, too.**)

But enough introduction; here’s the letter. I’ll have some more to say about all this soon, but I’d be interested to get all y’all’s reactions to this — and especially what questions it raises in your minds. It certainly blew mine.

John Murray Forbes to Thomas D. Eliot, Boston, April 1860

My Dear Sir,
I see you have got in charge a Cooley Trade Bill. I hope it is not too late for me to put in a word on the subject.
I never owned a vessel which was used in this trade and have used what influence I had to discourage it, but it is my conviction that it it ought to be regulated and not prohibited.
There ought to be and there will be found some means of bringing the admirable labor of over populate China to the new soils of other countries eventually including our own.
I think it would be as bad political economy to prohibit it as it would have been to cut off immigration from Europe to this country.
With improvements in steam, and a return towards civilization on the part of the South, the future may have a great work to be done through the Cooley Trade.
I admit the abuses of the present system, but I want to see them corrected, not merely for the interest of our commerce, but of Civilization and Freedom.
If you give our pro-slavery Senate and Executive a chance, they will surely avail of it through the Treaty making power or otherwise, to fix upon us such legislation as cannot be changed–until we reform the House of Lords (Senate, I beg its pardon) ten or fifteen years hence.
When Humphrey Marshall was in China as Minister, he made no secret of his enmity to the Cooley trade, nor of his reasons for it. These were not the interests of humanity so much as the interests of the slave-holders, whose power he foresaw would one day be endangered by the introduction of free tropical labor. I am credibly informed that he boasted of his intention of coming home and breaking up the Cooley trade. Why it has not been done I cannot understand, unless the advocates of Christianizing Africa by the slave trade, think the Cooley trade in its present shape a good apprenticeship for our seamen and a good entering wedge with the community for that new branch of commerce.
I would most strongly urge your attention upon the means of regulating the Cooley trade.
The Emigrant ships from Europe are none too good now – they were perfect Hells – yet they are gradually becoming ameliorated. There must be means by which the Cooley trade may be put in train for becoming a great engine of civilization.
Prohibit it now on our ships and to our ports, and you simply drive it into the hands of the Portuguese, French, and Dutchmen. Regulate it and you will work those feeble maritime nations out of it, and establish a system that will in the long run improve the condition of the Chinese, and show in our tropics the benefits of free labor, besides benefitting our commerce – a minor object, but not unworthy your attention.
Before the South had proclaimed their great discovery of the heresies of Washington and others, and the mutual benefits to Black and White of slavery, I had organized a plan for a Chinese colony in Florida, where two or three friends had agreed to join me in sending 100 to 200 Chinese men and women to try a model plantation upon free labor principles and at the same time secure to ourselves a winter interest in that delicious climate surrounded by the comforts and safety of civilization which can alone be enjoyed in the midst of free labor. The right spot was selected and could be bought for very cheap, and one of the parties after many years residence in China, was about to return (with an ample fortune) and give his winters to the colony. We did not expect much profit but we hoped to make a pleasant experiment, which might, if successful, lead others to repeat it on a larger scale. I need not say we meant to have no slave Cooleys, but to bring selected men with leaders whom we personally knew, and either immediately on a larger scale, or gradually, to have the Cooleys accompanied by their wives.
When all our plans were laid, before taking the irretrievable step of buying a large tract of land, I thought it prudent to consult an acquaintance, a planter of that neighborhood of great experience and great liberality. He assured me that the public sentiment would be against it, and he gave me good reasons for abandoning the whole plan, growing out of the jealousy which the planters have of any scheme of labor outside of their ‘peculiar institution.’
I mention this plan merely as an illustration of what might, and what may yet, grow out of Chinese labor. Humphrey Marshall and my planter friend were right – there might be and would be danger to the value of slave property from Chinese labor, but that is no reason why we Republicans should lend ourselves to their prohibitory schemes.
Very truly yours,
J.M. Forbes”

~Folder 14, Box 1, Forbes Family Records, Historical Collections, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

*Bernard Bailyn, “Failure in Xanadu,” in Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1986)

**The St. John’s River flows north, which may help explain why such crazy schemes were dreamt up for its banks.