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Crossing Islands and Oceans in Labor Histories of American Empire: Capital, Commodities, Coolies, and Consumers

  • Justin F. Jackson (a1)


In 1915, as the Great War was consuming Europe and its colonial empires, W.E.B. Du Bois completed The Negro, one of the first comprehensive histories of Africa and its diaspora ever published in the United States. Overshadowed today by his more well-known writings, The Negro meditated on how “the problem of the color line” was nothing if not the result of centuries of global capitalist development dependent upon coerced labor, especially African chattel slavery in the Atlantic world. For Du Bois, peering back in time through the smoking ruins of total war, slavery's postemancipation legacies of political disenfranchisement, landlessness, poverty, and segregation had birthed a global proletariat of color exploited by white Europeans and Americans in an international order divided more and more along imperial lines.



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I am grateful for very helpful comments and suggestions provided by journal editors and Patrick Vitale, Andrew Urban, Karen Miller, and Rachel Feinmark.

1. Bois, W.E.B. Du, The Negro (Oxford, 2007), 105108 ; Doyle, Michael W., Empires (Ithaca, NY, 1986), 2224 .

2. Alexander, Shawn Leigh, W.E.B. Du Bois: An American Intellectual and Activist (Lanham, MD, 2015), 6869 .

3. For an argument that comparative and transnational historical methods are not only compatible, but mutually enriching, see Kocka, Jürgen, “Comparison and Beyond,” History and Theory 42 (2003): 3944 . Jerry Bentley has issued useful cautions about ocean-based histories, arguing that oceans are not transhistorical objects. The ocean's utility as a unit of historical inquiry is determined and delimited by history itself or, in other words, by changing relations between land masses and oceans. “To the extent that human societies engage in interactions across bodies of water,” he writes of oceans, “they become a less useful focus as societies pursue their interests through other spaces,” encouraging historians to avoid “reifying maritime regions into permanent and stable units of historical and geographical analysis.” Bentley also suggests that it is progressively more difficult to isolate one particular ocean from another as distinctive bodies as the historian moves from the early modern to modern eras; to a degree, he writes, “maritime history after the sixteenth century resolves into global history”; see Bentley, Jerry H., “Sea and Ocean Basins as Frameworks of Historical Analysis,” The Geographical Review 89 (1999): 216217, 220–221.

4. Lampe here follows the spirit of Bernard Bailyn's characterization of the early modern Atlantic World as “an immensely complex and regionally differentiated Euro-Afro-American labor system”; see Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (Cambridge, 2005), 9293 .

5. Beckert, Sven, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2015).

6. Rouleau, Brian, With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire (Ithaca, 2014).

7. Ngai, Mae M., Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, 2004), 8 .

8. Kramer, Paul A., “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World,” American Historical Review 116 (2011): 1348–91.

9. Go, Julian, American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during U.S. Colonialism (Durham, NC, 2008).

10. Conflicts between Puerto Rican and Philippine governments and federal government agencies might be better understood through the useful distinction between colonial state-building and colonial state formation. While the former represented “colonial projects” expressing metropolitan actors’ aspirations to exert absolute control over colonial space and subjects through a unified colonial state, the latter reflected the actual compromises, negotiations, and contradictions that colonial rule inevitably required and generated, limiting the power of the colonial state's different institutions and setting them at cross-purposes; see Go, Julian, “The Chains of Empire: State Building and ‘Political Education’ in Puerto Rico and the Philippines,” in The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives, ed. Go, Julian and Foster, Anne L. (Durham, NC, 2003), 184 .

11. Ngai, Mae M., “‘A Knowledge of the Barbarian Language’: Chinese Interpreters in Late-Nineteenth Century America,” Journal of Ethnic History 30 (2011): 532 ; Ngai, Mae M., The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston, 2010).

12. Takaki, Ronald, Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835–1920 (Honolulu, 1983), 316, 22.

13. Jung, Moon-Ho, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore, 2006); Foner, Eric, The Story of American Freedom (New York, 1998), 115–37.

14. Takaki, Pau Hana, 25–26.

15. Roediger, David and Esch, Elizabeth, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (Oxford, 2012); Greene, Julie, The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal (New York, 2009); Colby, Jason M., The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca, 2011).

16. Takaki notes that when one HSPA agent returned to Hawai'i in December 1906, with the first shipment of Filipino laborers ever to arrive there, he declared the Filipino would be a “first-class laborer” if treated well, “possibly not as good as the Chinaman or the Jap, but steady, faithful, and willing to do his best for any boss for whom he has liking.” Furthermore, strikes organized along ethnic lines as late as the 1909 “Great Strike” by Japanese sugar workers on Oahu led planters to intensify efforts to recruit Filipino labor; one 1920 strike also saw unprecedented cooperation between Japanese and Filipino sugar workers; see Takaki, Pau Hana, 22–27, 76–77, 152–76, quote on pg. 27.

17. Pilcher, Jeffrey M., “The Embodied Imagination in Recent Writings on Food History,” American Historical Review 121 (2016): 861 .

18. Lipartito, Kenneth, “Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism,” American Historical Review 121 (2016): 101–39.

19. Mintz, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1985). See also Merleaux, April, “Sweetness, Power, and Forgotten Food Histories in America's Empire,” Labor: Working-Class Studies of the Americas 12 (2015): 87114 .

20. See Pelen, Marc-William, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846–1896 (Cambridge, 2016).

21. Colby, Business of Empire.

22. Bender, Daniel E., American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry (Ithaca, 2009); Lipman, Jana K., Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Nation and Empire (Berkeley, 2009).

23. Kramer, “Power and Connection,” 1349.

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Crossing Islands and Oceans in Labor Histories of American Empire: Capital, Commodities, Coolies, and Consumers

  • Justin F. Jackson (a1)


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