This blog accompanies the International Review of Social History special issue Free and Unfree Labor in Atlantic and Indian Ocean Port Cities (1700-1850)

Port cities have always captured historical imagination as spaces where people of different backgrounds and social statuses meet, work side by side, compete, and cooperate. The latest Special Issue of the International Review of Social History, edited by Pepijn Brandon, Niklas Frykman and Pernille Røge, takes a closer look at the interaction between free and unfree laborers in port cities in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean world from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, a crucial period in the emergence of global capitalism and the remaking of the world by imperial powers.

Popular culture is full of renderings of the port city as a locus of interaction and change. Think of the faux-historical world created by the makers of HBO hit series Game of Thrones. Almost as much as by epic scenes of battles with dragons, zombie armies and the occasional lily-white crowned savior, the imaginative landscape of the series is formed by slaving ports, ports as centers of brutal state authority, and by free ports and piracy nests as breeding grounds for rebellion. Port cities as dramatic scenes of change and contestation equally fill the pages of world literature, from Ousmane Sembène’s graphically realist Marseille in Le docker noire, to Gabriel García Márquez’s lyrical creation Macondo.

The historical reality underlying such products of modern imagination is brought out in quite remarkable fashion by the diorama made in 1820 by the artist Gerrit Schouten, currently in possession of the Dutch Rijksmuseum, depicting Waterkant, the quay of Dutch Suriname’s small port city Paramaribo (a fragment of the work forms the cover of our Special Issue and accompanies this blog). In the work sailors are striking the sails of a ship that has just entered the harbor, while enslaved rowers of a passenger boat bring in a planter. Almost naked slaves are offloading barrels while a white worker brings in a new load of goods. Meanwhile, a well-dressed African woman, perhaps the descendant of a manumitted slave, discusses current affairs or the prices of food in the market with a man, a native American leans against a tree playing music, and a white vagabond strolls by. Whether the latter is on his way to employment as a day laborer, to one of the many steady or improvised bars that adorned the waterfront, or to a prison cell and after that harsh convict labor for begging, we will never know. In miniature, Schouten here captured the entire set of characters that are the protagonists of this Special Issue. Colonial and post-colonial port cities in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions functioned as crucial hubs in the commodity flows that accompanied the emergence and expansion of global capitalism. They did so by bringing together laboring populations of many different backgrounds and statuses – legally free or semi-free wage-laborers, soldiers, sailors, and the self-employed, indentured servants, convicts, and slaves. The contributions in this Special Issue address the consequences of the presence of what Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh in their seminal work The Many Headed Hydra called “motley crews” on and around the docks and in the working class neighborhoods that lay behind them.

The underlying questions that run through this Special Issue were worked out in two international workshops that were held in Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, and which were supported by the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, the Collège d’Études Mondiales in Paris, and the University of Pittsburgh. They focus on the social consequences of the simultaneity of many different types of labor relations in the relatively limited geographical space of colonial and post-colonial port cities:

  • How did interaction of laborers working under very different labor relations affect the economy of port cities and the rise of global capitalism?
  • How did the employment of these laborers at the same site affect the development of new forms of social control, the racialization of hierarchies, and changes in gender relations?
  • How did the influx of large numbers of laborers of different statuses change patterns of forced and voluntary labor migration, including opportunities for desertion, maroonage, and jumping ship?
  • How did the interactions of different groups of laborers in port cities affect the development of working class cultures, forms of solidarity, and theories and practices of resistance?

The nine articles gathered in this Special Issue will take the readers from the working environment of seventeenth-century enslaved salvage divers in the Atlantic to the ‘motherwork’ performed by free women of color in Bengal, and back across oceans to the quintandeiras selling food on the streets of Rio de Janeiro; from rowdy scenes and neighborhood brawls in Paramaribo to the motley crews of soldiers that were employed to capture Manilla in the early 1770s; from the complexities of labor mobilization in the many ports governed by the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century and the ‘convict archipelago’ created by the British Empire in the Indian Ocean world in the nineteenth century, to the gangs of convicts, slaves and wage laborers building Rio de Janeiro’s house of correction and those that built the networks of roads that connected Cuba’s growing sugar-plantation complex to Havana. An extensive introduction by the three editors and an afterword by Marcus Rediker draw out wider comparisons and conclusions, highlighting what port cities as spaces of work, interaction, repression and social conflict can tell us about the history of labor, capitalism, and imperial expansion in general.

Read all the articles in the Special Issue for free until the end of July 2019.


Main image: Diorama made in 1820 by the artist Gerrit Schouten, currently in the possession of the Dutch Rijksmuseum, depicting Waterkant, the quay of Dutch Suriname’s small port city Paramaribo.

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