A Conversation with the Creative Team Behind THE CARGO REBELLION: Those Who Chose Freedom

Book Reporter
March 16th, 2023

THE CARGO REBELLION is a stunning graphic narrative that tells a true story of mutiny on the high seas in which 400 indentured Chinese men overthrew their captor, the Connecticut businessman and slave trader Leslie Bryson, taking a stand against an exploitative global enterprise. Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, talked with the creative team behind the book — writers Jason Chang, Benjamin Barson and Alexis Dudden, and illustrator Kim Inthavong — about how this project was conceived, the extensive research they conducted, and what they hope readers will take away from this eye-opening book.

Question: How widely known in 20th-century historical circles was the Robert Bowne Rebellion? Have more details about it only recently emerged in the past 20 years or so?

Answer: The event was largely forgotten as a footnote to U.S. diplomatic history, and in Asia, a nearly forgotten local memorial on Ishigaki Island, southwest of Okinawa Hontō. THE CARGO REBELLION continues the legacy of history from below by drawing attention to an overlooked story that still resonates today in the geopolitics of the setting, the horror of the human trafficking, and illustrating the courage we all possess to choose freedom for ourselves. The book also illustrates connections in affective and musical cultures between these two involuntary diasporas, whose music continues to animate the freedom dreams of those struggling for a better world.

Q: What kind of research was involved to prepare the manuscript for this work? Has there been an acknowledged source work about this incident for a long while, or did it exist more as a footnote that tended to be glossed over in mainstream studies of the slave trade?

A: After learning about the incident by chance through the memorial on Ishigaki Island, initial research materials presented themselves at the Ishigaki City municipal museum — in particular, some of the ceramic bricks that islanders made at the time in 1852 to mark the dead as best they could. The local historian, Makino Kiyoshi, had collected as many as he could locate in the 1970s and ’80s. Together with his work, a separate history of the region (YAEYAMA’S TAIWANESE PEOPLE by Matsuda Yoshitaka) suggested to work with US diplomatic documents and archival collections at the University of the Ryukyus. Additionally, John S. Sewall’s THE LOGBOOK OF THE CAPTAIN’S CLERK afforded contemporaneous accounts of US Navy sailors in pursuit of the surviving “coolies.”

Thus, in many ways, the project began as very straightforward historical research: discovery of a little-known event, archival digging and corroboration with as many published sources as were available (likely there are still Chinese-language records to consult in the future). THE CARGO REBELLION is the first project devoted solely to this mutiny, making it all the more necessary to give it context to learn the broader pattern of the historical moment.

Q: Would you say that the story of the “coolie” trade involving conscripted Asians during the 19th century has now been revealed as fully as it deserves? Or does more research and recalculation remain to be done?

A: It needs much more attention, because it is a migration system that predates the more famous systems that brought gold miners and railroad workers. If we start Asian American history here, with the so-called coolie system, then we are grounding Asian American history in the context of slavery, colonialism and empire. This context is important because it shapes the conversations on what it means to be Asian American and connects to the contemporary legacies of those histories such as human trafficking, labor exploitation, poverty, rightlessness and brutality of racial capitalism.

Q: Which of you conceived of this project initially? And how was the research and writing by the three of you developed so that Kim could render it into this graphic narrative?

A: This was a collaborative project from the start. Alexis Dudden and Jason Chang discussed joining forces to combine the larger coolie history with the maritime history of the Robert Bowne. Wanting to reach new audiences, they discussed a graphic novel. This idea was supported by the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute (AAASI) arts-based pedagogy initiative designed by Jason. Benjamin Barson had reached out to Jason about collaboration between the band and artivist collective, the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, and the AAASI. Benjamin and the Afro Yaqui Music Collective were named the 2020-2021 Artist-in-Residence of the AAASI to fund creative collaborations and demonstrate to students the example of arts-based interdisciplinary scholarship.

The idea for the graphic novel intersected well with the work of Benjamin and his collaborators, Kim Inthavong and Adam Cooper-Terán, who had worked together on a migrant justice activist digital opera titled “Contested Homes” that premiered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2020. That experience for them proved to be a winning combination for THE CARGO REBELLION as we all benefited from our prior trust and experience together. Taking risks and opening up the process to deep collaboration generated a product that none of us could have imagined at the outset as we developed a methodology for expressing the affective dimensions of a history of unthinkable violence.

When Kim began working on the project, the outline was not yet fully conceived, so instead she began drawing based on some early writing created by Benjamin with the intent of first developing the comic’s style. Kim’s art style naturally gravitated towards the fine, flowing line art seen in the final product, inspired by her love of ink illustrations and interest in woodblock prints. While scenes shifted as the comic’s written outline was finished and refined by the whole team, including by the artist herself, the first drafts are what solidified the minimal but impactful color palette of the work. From the first images shown, Kim’s decision to use only yellow and blue-green gradients alongside the gray and black tones won the team over, with Alexis Dudden in particular loving how the turquoise color that painted the waters mirrored the waters off Ishigashi during her travels. Through several draft iterations, each refining previous pages and presenting new ones, and plenty of feedback given after each meeting, Kim was able to create artwork showcased in the graphic novel we now hold today.

We hired a project manager to help coordinate our work with PM Press and took the steps to build a web presence while supporting Adam’s role as director of an animated short to accompany the graphic novel. We all worked together in transforming the text of the comic into a script, and Jason organized students from his class to perform and record the text of the graphic novel as audio tracks for the movie. Adam provided voice direction and got to work chopping up the illustrations from the graphic novel to bring them to life. Benjamin composed original music and soundscapes inspired by the convergence of pan-African and Asian resistance to indenture and slavery, which he recorded with the Afro Yaqui Music Collective. We all relied on each other to complete each step and to make the next steps possible.

Q: In this climate of ever more restrictive treatment in schools and libraries of books that present History from Below — correctives for what has been unjustly ignored and elided — what are your hopes for the reach that THE CARGO REBELLION might be able to achieve in such institutions, and beyond?

A: The battle over critical race theory is the newest front in a centuries-long struggle by which the architects of racial capitalism have sought to control narratives of the American nation-state and sanitize its violence and extractivism. Their long-term goal is to prevent the growth of new BIPOC social movements while deepening and institutionalizing existing inequalities. The recent wave of book censorship proves how important History from Below is for transformative learning in the 21st century. Asian American history has grown out of the foundations built by Black scholars and the formation of African American studies. Our intellectual histories are linked just as our social and cultural histories are linked. This work also fits well with the new education mandates to include Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies in K-12 education and includes supplemental ideas for lesson plans.

Here in Connecticut, this story adds tremendous value to local Asian American histories since the Robert Bowne and Captain Bryson hailed from New Haven, Connecticut. All history is local to somewhere, and this story aims to animate a forgotten past to ignite a new generation of young people to relate to stories and histories that give purpose to our common struggle for social justice.