By Bill Berkowitz
March 16th, 2023
Bill Berkowitz and Gale Bataille
In the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to a dramatic increase in hate crimes against people of Chinese and Asian descent. Trump and others on the Right calling it the “China virus” and speculations about the cause being a leak from a virology lab in Wuhan gave added permission for virulent speech and actions.
According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-asian-hate-crimes-increased-339-percent-nationwide-last-year-repo-rcna14282), “anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339 percent last year (2021) compared to the year before, with New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities surpassing their record numbers in 2020.” According to Brian Levin, although, the numbers of anti-Asian hate crimes appear to have decreased in 2022, they remain at “disturbingly elevated levels when compared to pre-pandemic [levels].”
In this context, it is important to better understand the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. Though the Trans-Atlantic slave trade has received a fair amount of attention, the so-called Coolie trade has remained one of America’s dirty secrets. Thanks to PM Press (https://pmpress.org), we are now learning the story of the Robert Bowne Rebellion of 1852.
The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom (PM Press, 2023, $16.95) written by Jason Chang, Benjamin Barson and Alexis Dudden, and illustrated by Kim Inthavong, is the best type of graphic history; a fusion of informative and compelling prose, with powerful illustrations.
The Cargo Rebellion is a deeply researched exposition of the 1852 mutiny of four hundred indentured Chinese workers who overthrew their captor, the Connecticut businessman and slave trader Leslie Bryson.
Bryson had tricked workers from mainland China into thinking they were headed for opportunities in San Francisco, but they were really destined for the guano islands of Peru. The mutineers rose up, killed Bryson and several of the ship’s officers and tried to sail back to China.
The global slave trade created enormous wealth across the Americas. As The Cargo Rebellion notes, “By the 1830s more than two million enslaved Africans lived in the U.S.” Slave rebellions in Haiti, which ended in 1804 with Haiti gaining its freedom from the French, and the 1839 Amistad Mutiny, threatened the economic livelihood of Southern plantation owners and their business partners in the North.
“American officials and plantation interests worried about how their agricultural system would survive without their human property … turned to the British Indenture System of the Pacific.” Thus the “Coolie “ trade was established. “Hundreds of Americans were involved in the Coolie trade as it fueled their overseas businesses and intensified the industrialization of an expanding American capitalist empire.
“[It] was a massive international pipeline to transport hundreds of thousands of Chinese and South Asians who were contracted as indentured servants in exchange for wages. Even though they signed contracts, these were often broken by unscrupulous Captains.”
As Paul Buhle, co-editor of Encyclopedia of the American Left, notes in his review of The Cargo Rebellion in Comics Grinder, “Legitimized by the Opium War of the 1840s, the forced opening of Hong Kong to British domination also opened wide labor contracts for impoverished Chinese workers from Hawaii to California and parts South, China to Peru.”
While Chinese indentured workers expected to be headed for California, the ship’s owners instead transported these workers to the Chincha Islands of Peru, also known as the Guano Islands.
From The Cargo Rebellion: “For thousands of years the excrement from sea birds piled up on those islands, producing an extremely valuable agricultural fertilizer known as guano. It was a valuable as it was dangerous. The ammonia clouds produced by this bird dung killed tens of thousands of workers, and more than two-thirds died.” (The term guano is from Quechua: wanu via Spanish.)
The Guano Islands, small dots on the map of the Pacific, contributed to the survival of farmers in the U.S. because farmers needed large quantities of guano to replenish nutrients in the soil. In 1856, Congress passed The Guano Islands Act, a law allowing U.S. citizens to take possession of unclaimed islands containing guano deposits, in the name of the United States. When guano was found on an island, “such island, rock or key may, at the discretion of the president, be considered as appertaining to the United States,” Daniel Immerwahr’s wrote his book, How To Hide An Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
In an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Immerwahr said “in the 19th-century East Coast farms were suffering from something called soil exhaustion.” In pursuit of what was called “white gold,” the U.S. “started annexing overseas territories and ultimately, starting in 1857, annexed almost 100 uninhabited guano islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean.” Companies hired men to mine/extract the guano, which was very difficult, dangerous and isolated work. Some men were apparently kidnapped from China to work the land. Others, like African Americans from Baltimore “were sort of promised an idyllic [life], [and] tropical work[ing] conditions,” where there would be beautiful women and that they would mostly be picking fruit.
When Leslie Bryson set out for China with the Robert Bowne, his aim was clear; recruit and transport hundreds of Chinese workers to the Chincha Islands, with its dreaded guano deposits. When they found out their real destination, the rebels killed Bryson and tried, but failed, to make their way back to China. Many of the survivors were sent back to China — some returning to their previous lives, while others became indentured again.
As The Cargo Rebellion notes, “the incident launched the first truly multinational modern legal debate involving the seas in East Asia, calling into question not just the fate of the surviving mutineers by drawing into competition at least five different legal codes: Those of China’s Qing Court, the Ryuku Kingdom, Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate, and American and British interests.”
As historian and author, the late-Gore Vidal, once remarked: “We are the United States of Amnesia.” With some political leaders currently advocating book banning and white washing history, PM Press’ The Cargo Rebellion is the perfect antidote; truth telling in a most accessible form.