Category Archives: labor

Chinese Overseas Labor Recuitment, 1800s

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2328-68:

During the nineteenth century, in seaports along the China coast, … it was not a good idea for a Chinese man then to walk alone along the waterfront, especially after dark. “To be Shanghaied” entered the English language to signify the kidnapping that occurred, not for service at sea—unless it were pirates desperate for additional crew—but for labor ashore. A ship would simply be the vehicle bearing the victim to his new life. He would be headed for some overseas destination, sometimes Singapore, as a contract laborer, and a virtual slave in many cases.

Customarily brokers would not resort to kidnapping. Instead they would advance a variety of approaches to their quarry: cajolery and threats. Crimps would receive a bounty for every victim delivered to a holding pen, the so-called barracoon, a word taken directly from the African slave trade. The Chinese shipped all the way across the Pacific received treatment as bad as Africans in the Atlantic Middle Passage. Many would die at sea….

In the barracoon, the man would be given a cursory physical examination and if passed, which was highly likely, he would be handed a contract to sign specifying the number of years he must work and the amount of pay he would receive. A governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, saw this process for himself: “hundreds of them gathered together in barracoons, stripped naked, and stamped or painted with the letter C (Cuba), P (Peru), or S (Sandwich Islands–Hawai’i) on their breasts .” They would be held there until a ship was ready for them. Some did escape from the barracoon, Bowring said, “by going through an opening in the water closet into the mud and water of the river,” which might mean survival—for those who could swim.

Driven by poverty, many Chinese also left the mother country voluntarily. The 1849 gold rush in California encouraged those looking for a new life promising prosperity. The mines and plantations of Southeast Asia beckoned others. Treatment of those bound for Singapore was marginally better than those heading for forced labor elsewhere. Their numbers were heavily male; the few females who came, often kidnapped or deceived, were mostly prostitutes whose services an all-male society craved.

From the China coast the seaborne flow of emigrants to Southeast Asia lay in Chinese hands. The official Qing attitude toward this human traffic, free or forced, was analogous to its attitude toward the opium trade. Many in authority deplored it; but no one took consistent action to stop it. Too many local officials found such activities personally profitable.

Those who went to mine tin in Malaya, tough as it was, were more fortunate than those taken across the Pacific, either to shovel acrid bird dung, guano, prized as fertilizer, in a treeless environment on a desolate island off the coast of Peru with hot sun beating down all day, or to equally disagreeable toil on sugar plantations in Cuba. The tin miners in Malaya were often able to complete a work contract and then find something better to do.

For them, Singapore served as a gathering spot, a free port for people as well as objects. Unlike so many other countries, Singapore welcomed immigrant Chinese, most of whom came as contract laborers who passed through the city to work in the nearby staple industries that were crying for labor. Those who stayed and failed to climb the economic ladder pulled the rickshaws, or carried sacks of rice on the docks, working a long day in the tropical heat. Immigrants were overwhelmingly male until the twentieth century. When females began to come in number after 1918 and the Great War, family life could begin, transforming the immigrant community.

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The Era of Canals, Cable, and Coal

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1992-2009:

The Suez Canal also encouraged a far greater Atlantic presence in Southeast and East Asia, stimulating the development of intercontinental port cities, a phenomenon hitherto rare in the region. Before the Europeans, local polities had placed their capitals inland for greater security. Europeans brought an ocean-consciousness that many Asian elites had previously lacked, with Singapore typical of the newly created seaport city, part of a network that would spread along Asian coasts, from Mumbai (Bombay) to Yokohama, cities forming spearheads for modernization on Atlantic models, linked to one another and to a wider world by cable and the coal-burning ship.

Everyone dreaded the inevitable time-consuming and dirty task of loading and stowing coal on shipboard, a task grueling for the worker and disagreeable for all aboard. On warships, officers as well as enlisted men were obliged to participate. Moving coal raises a gritty dust, throat-choking and eye-stinging, leaving a dark film on every surface it touches. To handle the coal aboard, ships carried among their crew a “black gang,” which was divided into two groups. Typically firemen on most ships watched and fed three fires, burning down one at the end of each watch, shoveling the coal into the furnace, using long pokers to aerate the flames and periodically cleaning it of clinkers. Trimmers kept the firemen supplied, wheeling coal in steel barrows from bunker to furnace. They called it “being on the long run.” Often these men were Bengali or Gujerati but the British shipping world applied the term “lascar” to them and uniformly to Asian seafarers, from Chinese to Yemeni.

Fireman or trimmer, the tasks were difficult and dangerous work in an airless environment thick with dust. In the tropics the temperature could soar to excruciating heights. The men wore heavy leather boots and not much else except a rag around the neck to mop sweat and grime from eyes and noses. Burns were frequent as was heat exhaustion. Working on the black gang was comparable to the arduous labor of the coal miner in the pits but at least the miner got to go home every night. A black gang might be away at sea for an entire year.

By the time the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, oil was replacing coal as the source of energy on steamships.

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Emancipation Proclamation Blowback

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

From Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1796-1812:

On January 12, 1863, the [Confederate] president [Davis] issued a proclamation stipulating that captured officers and men of black Union regiments would be turned over to states to be tried for inciting or participating in slave insurrections. Congress enacted legislation endorsing this policy but substituting military courts for state courts. This change would have made no difference in the likely punishment—execution. But carrying out this policy proved to be impracticable. Union secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton ordered all exchanges of Confederate officers stopped so they could be held as hostages for retaliation if the Confederacy executed Northern officers. The Davis administration decided to restore captured ex-slave soldiers to bondage instead of putting them to death—though in fact many were killed by enraged Southern soldiers rather than allowed to surrender. “Captured slaves should be returned to their masters” if they could be found, Davis informed one Confederate general. “Until such time, they might be usefully employed on public works.”

On July 30, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued an “Order of Retaliation” stating that for every Union captive executed, a Confederate prisoner should be treated likewise; for every captive reenslaved, a Confederate prisoner would be placed at hard labor on public works. This order was effective in preventing the official (but not unofficial) killing of black prisoners and their officers. But it did not completely stop reenslavement, because few Southern prisoners were remanded to hard labor in retaliation. The Confederates refused to exchange black soldiers under the exchange cartel negotiated in 1862. This refusal caused exchanges to cease, and the prisons of both sides began the descent toward overcrowding and tragic mortality that debased the last eighteen months of the war.

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Assessing Confederate Military Options

From Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2566-2603:

Where could we get a better or a wiser man” than Jefferson Davis for commander in chief? wondered Josiah Gorgas in 1865. There was of course no right or wrong answer to that question. Nobody can say whether Robert Toombs, Howell Cobb, or any other potential Confederate president would have been more successful. What we do know about those gentlemen elicits skepticism. Most delegates to the Montgomery convention in 1861 believed Davis to be the best man for the job, and no clear evidence exists that they were wrong. The fact that the Confederacy lost the war does not prove that it could have been won with a different commander in chief. And under Davis’s leadership, the South appeared to be on the cusp of success on at least three occasions when Confederate victories had caused deep demoralization in the North: the summer of 1862, the winter and spring of 1863, and the summer of 1864. But Union victories at Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Atlanta blunted Southern momentum and revived Northern determination to fight through to ultimate triumph.

Could Jefferson Davis have done anything different on those three occasions or at any other time during the war to produce Confederate victory? That question too is ultimately unanswerable, but this has not stopped historians from speculating. Such speculation focuses mainly on two subjects: military strategy and military commanders. Would a different strategy have brought Confederate success? The political necessity to defend all frontiers of the Confederacy produced a strategy of dispersed defense in 1861. Davis would have preferred a strategy of concentration for an offensive-defensive campaign (as he termed it), but demands from state governors and other officials required dispersion. The initial poverty of weapons and logistical capacity precluded large offensives.

Union success in breaking through the thin gray lines of dispersed defenses in 1862 forced a revision of Confederate strategy. With new commanders of the two principal Southern armies, Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg, the Confederates embarked on their most ambitious offensive-defensive campaigns in the late summer of 1862, with a reprise in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. After experiencing initial success, these campaigns ultimately failed. Subsequent Union offensives compelled the Confederacy to fall back to an essentially defensive strategy for the rest of the war.

The two principal exceptions to that defensive strategy were Jubal Early’s raid to the outskirts of Washington in July 1864 and John Bell Hood’s invasion of Tennessee in November. They resulted in the virtual destruction of these two Southern armies in the Shenandoah Valley in October and at Nashville in December. These two campaigns were clearly beyond the Confederates’ capacity to execute by that stage of the war. Lee’s prosecution of offensive-defensive operations in 1862 and 1863 may have represented the Confederacy’s best chance for victory, but Hood’s effort to repeat that strategy in 1864 was wrongheaded, and Davis’s approval of that invasion may have been his worst strategic mistake.

Two other options were available to the Confederacy. The first was a “Fabian” strategy of yielding territory to the enemy until the moment came to strike at his most vulnerable tentacles. Like the Roman general Quintus Fabius in the Second Punic War, or George Washington in the American Revolution, or the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov in 1812, Confederate commanders could have traded space for time, kept the army concentrated and ready to strike enemy detachments dangling deep in Southern territory, and above all avoided destruction of their armies. Such a Fabian defensive strategy, so the argument goes, might have worn out the will or capacity of the Union to continue fighting, as the Americans and Russians had done to the British and French in 1781 and 1812–13. To a considerable degree, this was Joseph Johnston’s apparent strategy in Virginia in 1862 and especially in Georgia in 1864. But Johnston seemed prepared to yield Richmond and Atlanta rather than risk his army—and he did stand by while Vicksburg fell. To Davis this was a strategy of surrender that would have had fatal consequences for the Confederacy. He was probably right. In the end the strategy of the offensive-defensive did not work either, but as practiced by Robert E. Lee it probably came closest to success.

Another strategic alternative was guerrilla war. Confederate partisans were active behind Union lines in several theaters, and quasi-guerrilla cavalry commanders like Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan also carried out many successful raids. Although Davis approved of these activities, he showed relatively little interest in guerrilla warfare as a primary strategy. In this lack of interest his instincts were probably sound. The Confederacy was an established polity with the institutions of a nation-state and an organized army with professional commanders. Conventional warfare supplemented by auxiliary guerrilla operations or cavalry raids behind enemy lines represented its best strategic mix. Guerrilla actions as the main strategy are most appropriate for a rebel force trying to capture the institutions of government, not to defend them. And a slave society that practices guerrilla warfare is playing with fire, for it opens up opportunities for the slaves to carry out their own guerrilla actions against the regime.

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Rise and Fall of Temasek

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 507-27, 532-40:

Archaeologists give us a sense of Temasek’s physical features: a terraced hill overlooking the Singapore River with a palace, market, defenses, earthen rampart, and moat. The earthen wall represented a commitment to permanence. Not even royal palaces commanded permanent building materials. But we do have some baked brick and stone remnants from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries suggesting Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, during the early British colonial era, much was destroyed in the rush for development. And therefore the legend could arise, and long lingered in the standard histories, that nothing had existed in Singapore until the British arrived in 1819.

Being a religious center as well as a commercial one, Temasek seems to fit into a pattern of the Malay port city, its wall being an exception. Religion reflected Indic impulses, not Chinese. The hilltop held cosmological significance, representing Mount Meru, known in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu tradition as a divine abode and metaphysical center of the universe. For creating this sacred place, the builders, because they lacked labor, used a natural landscape, not a constructed one such as at the great Angkor. They then carefully allotted the downward spaces, using walls and water to define them. Divinities commanded the top; artisans lived at a respectful distance on a lower level of the hill where they fashioned such objects as pottery, glassware, and fine jewelry.

Chinese people, perhaps the first Overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia, lived there alongside local peoples instead of in their own separate neighborhood, illustrating the diversity of this maritime town, serving as useful intermediaries in the China trade, so important in the economy. Of Temasek they reported “the soil is poor and grain scarce.”

The need to survive thus demanded trade. Coins show sophistication, and unearthed pieces of fine porcelain would indicate that people wanted high-quality ceramics not ones locally produced. Temasek thus took its place in the “ceramic route,” a southern Eurasian maritime equivalent to the continental Silk Road. Heavy and delicate porcelain could travel in volume only by sea. In return for such prized Chinese goods, the town could feed the overseas market with a luxury item, hornbill casques, so-called yellow jade, a precious bird ivory that had the advantage of being something that the Chinese highly prized and was easier to carve than other ivories.

Two poles of power, Siam and Java-Sumatra, met in the straits where these Malay city-state ports like Temasek or Palembang on Sumatra enjoyed an autonomy deriving from the ability of their rulers to generate wealth through commerce, as does today’s Singapore. Like today, the broader Asian economy largely determined what happened on Singapore Island. Local people were players in a game heavily determined by outsiders, principally Chinese and Indians, the two Eurasian super economies.

Caught between the Thai (Siamese) and the Javanese, the ruler of Temasek fled and the population followed. It had lasted only a century, yielding to the nearby port of Melaka, which benefited from cultivating a close relationship with the Chinese court. Temasek/Singapura declined as a trading state or as a political nerve center and ultimately the site was virtually abandoned. That was how the British would find it when they came early in the nineteenth century. But it continued to be important in Malayan history, figuring heavily in its mythology and remembered as the founding home of the dynasty that would flourish elsewhere in the region: successively in Melaka, Johor, and the nearby Riau Archipelago.

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Japan Occupation Priorities, 1945

From Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, by Robert L. Eichelberger (Gorget Books, 2017; first published 1950), Kindle Loc. 4800-4812, 4856-78:

The Eighth Army had many occupation jobs, but its first and most urgent one was the succoring and speedy release of Allied war prisoners in Japanese stockades. We arrived prepared for the task. Back on Okinawa “mercy teams” had been organized. They came in with our advance airborne echelons. As a result, American planes swooped over prison camps that very same day to drop food and supplies. Some of our teams rushed inland immediately to seize, before they could be destroyed, the records of the more notorious camps. This was to provide evidence for the future war-crimes trials.

Day after day. Allied prisoners poured into Yokohama on special trains that we had commandeered for rescue missions. They were sick, emaciated, verminous; their clothing was in tatters. We were ready for them with band music, baths, facilities for medical examination, vitamin injections, hot food, and hospital beds. Some would go home by plane; others by hospital ship when strong enough to travel. Perhaps the stolid Japanese themselves had their first lesson in democracy in the Yokohama railroad station. The Japanese have only contempt for a prisoner of war. They stared in amazement when we greeted our wasted comrades in arms with cheers and embraces.

The Eighth Army’s teams covered the whole of Japan on these missions of liberation. Allied prisoners of all nationalities were released and processed for evacuation at a rate of a thousand a day. By clearing the camps on the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, and Shikoku in eighteen days, we far outraced our own most optimistic time schedule. In all, the Eighth Army liberated and evacuated 23,985 persons.

Looking back, I am now impressed by the magnitude of the mission we undertook when American troops landed in Japan. Here, summarized, are some of the things Eighth Army was called upon to do:

1. Establish vast numbers of American soldiers in Japan without provoking combat.

2. Provide housing, clothing, recreation for them.

3. Construct many airfields and thousands of houses for our dependents.

4. Supervise operation of all railroads and ports.

5. Follow through and assure the complete demobilization of the Japanese Army.

6. Crush Japan’s war potential by the destruction of ten thousand airplanes, three thousand tanks, ninety thousand fieldpieces, three million items of small arms, and one million tons of explosives.

These things we did, and there were many more. We took charge of the unloading, warehousing, and proper distribution of relief food sent from the United States to succor the starving. We supervised the repatriation of six million Japanese who arrived at home ports from the Emperors now lost overseas empire. Under our direction, a million displaced Koreans, Ryukyuans, and Chinese, who had served as slave labor, were sent home. And then there were the never-ending and multitudinous duties and responsibilities of our Military Government units, which I shall discuss more fully later.

The Americans found a nation which was on its economic death-bed. Bare chimneys showed where commercial plants had once operated. Not only was a very large percentage of Japan’s industry destroyed, but surrender came at a time when the country was entirely geared for war. As a consequence, a Japanese plant which had escaped serious damage still was not prepared for peacetime operation. The vital textile industry was in collapse. Most of the merchant marine was under the sea, and there was almost no food. Gone with the lost colonies were the oil of Sakhalin, the rice of Korea, the sugar of Formosa.

Gone were the fisheries of the Okhotsk Sea, the soybean and iron ore of Manchuria. There was a shortage of all raw materials. But the most critical shortage was coal. Coal production was held up by lack of equipment and skilled man-power, and lack of food for the miners. Increased food production depended on more fertilizer. Fertilizer, in turn, depended on more coal. Only four hundred and fifty thousand tons monthly were being mined in late 1945. The goal for 1950 is forty million tons, or over three million tons monthly. We’ve made progress there.

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Soviet Reinvention of Siberian Exile

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 7532-7558:

It is one of the ironies of 1917 that the revolution should have overwhelmed the exile system that the autocracy had for so long wielded as a weapon against subversion. Warders, exile officials and guards suddenly found themselves stripped of their authority and vulnerable to the vengeful retribution of their former captives. What little semblance of order remained in Siberia’s exile and prison system by the end of 1917 was torn up by the civil war that engulfed the continent between 1918 and 1920. Exiles, prisoners, their families and officials were sucked into a maelstrom of battles, refugee columns, famine and epidemics. It was a fittingly ignominious end to a system that had achieved so little at such a colossal expense.

Yet Siberia surrendered its prisoners only temporarily. After 1917, exile and penal labour would be reinvented and punishments would be revamped for an age of science, rationality and industrialization. The Bolsheviks did not inherit a functioning penal system from their tsarist predecessors, but they did inherit a very similar set of practical dilemmas: how to extract the vast and valuable mineral resources from the far-flung frozen expanses of the taiga and tundra and, also, how to contain crime and subversion within the Soviet state. After 1917, the Bolsheviks rose to meet these challenges with a zeal and a brutality all their own.

No longer would deportation to Siberia be primarily about the enforced isolation and penal settlement of criminals and dissenters, with forced labour reserved for a particularly dangerous minority. It would now involve the ruthless exploitation of convict labour on an industrial scale justified by the need for a “purification of society” and by the prospect of “individual rehabilitation.” Far-flung tsarist-era exile settlements such as Sredne-Kolymsk and prisons like Omsk were expanded into major centres of forced labour. The Gulag was celebrated in the press as a workshop of the new citizenry, and its camps were hailed as “curative labour camps.”

As part of the Bolshevik Party’s cultural campaigns to consolidate its own legitimacy and to sanctify the October Revolution, state publishing houses in the 1920s and 1930s produced a stream of hagiographical texts commemorating the martyrdom of pre-revolutionary political prisoners. Memoirs, historical studies and archival documents established an inspiring genealogy of tsarist oppression and revolutionary heroism—a genealogy that stretched back in time, linking the Bolsheviks with their revolutionary forebears and representing the victory of Soviet power as the culmination of a century-old struggle with tyranny. The experience of Siberian exile formed an important thread of continuity linking the new rulers of the lands of the Russian Empire with cohorts of illustrious radicals from the 1860s like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and, ultimately, with the Decembrists of the 1820s. The Society of Former Political Penal Labourers was established in 1921 and began to publish a journal, Penal Labour and Exile, devoted to recording the experiences of political exiles and penal labourers. Yet ironically, at the very moment when the Bolsheviks were emphasizing the martyrdom of Siberian exiles and the cruel tyranny of the tsarist state, they were casting their own rivals, dissenters, and the human detritus of the ancien régime into forced labour camps on a scale that would have defied the imagination of tsarist penal administrators.

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