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?
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,
~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.