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by Grant Din. Posted March 5, 2023
The graphic novel, The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom, and its accompanying essays tell the story of important yet little-known areas of labor and Chinese/Chinese American history through the lens of the mutiny of Chinese workers on the Robert Bowne in 1852. Kim Inthavong’s strikingly dramatic illustrations and Jason Oliver Chang’s fascinating account draw the reader into the story, then seemingly disparate yet related essays add to the learning process: the historical evidence of the mutiny by Alexis Dudden, ways to teach about Asian indenture by Chang, and an article about the influence of Chinese music on African American music in the deep South by Benjamin Barson. These essays and graphic account present new ways to look at Chinese American history in a thought-provoking manner.
Chang presents the so-called coolie trade in the context of the abolition of the British slave trade in 1833, twenty-five years after importing slaves was abolished in the United States (though of course slavery continued in the U.S. until 1865). Thousands of indentured servants from Amoy, now called Xiamen, in Southern China, and South Asia were then sent throughout the western hemisphere, including California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Cuba, Peru (and its guano-rich yet dangerous Chincha Islands), and British Guiana. Men were willing to sign these contracts due to general poverty and debt brought on by China’s defeat in the Opium Wars.
Chang presents the mutiny on the British ship Robert Bowne in the context of eighteen other mutinies by thousands of “coolies” between 1850 and 1872 and the Africans who committed mutiny on La Amastad (also known as Amistad) in 1839, ultimately winning their freedom in U.S. courts. In the case of the Robert Bowne, Connecticut businessman Leslie Bryson contracted 400 Chinese laborers in 1852 from Amoy and told them they were sailing to California. When rumors spread that they were heading instead to Chincha Island, where guano harvesting was dangerous because of ammonia content that killed workers, and Bryson cut off the queues of the workers, the Chinese rebelled and killed Bryson. The mutineers were unable to return to China, running into reefs in Ishigaki island, located close to Taiwan but part of the Ryuku Kingdom. Some men were captured by British forces, some were killed by the poisonous snakes on the island, and others managed to eventually make it back to China.
Chang points out the court systems of five different jurisdictions were involved in determining what fate the survivors would have, and the far-reaching implications of the Qing court decisions in China, the United States, the Ryuku Kingdom, Japan, and Britain. The defeat of the U.S. point of view that the ship was bound by the law of the sea, not the Qing government’s jurisdiction of its own subjects, was not appealed by Americans. President Abraham Lincoln abolished the coolie trade in 1862, but it lived on.
Chang noted that the coolie trade continues in a different form to this day and indicts racial capitalism as creating demand for trafficking human labor and continuing deplorable conditions and impact. He notes that despite the U.S. interests’ defeat in the Qing court system, human trafficking has continued, even in today’s global economy, over 170 years later, giving examples of Thai workers found enslaved in the garment industry in 1995 and millions of women and girls sold into sex trafficking schemes.
Through the graphic account and his words, Chang creates a compelling story that has relevance today. It encourages further study of this international story and understanding of the oppressive conditions that Chinese “coolies” had to encounter, and effectively puts this tragedy in a global context that applies today. Taken by itself, the story can be an excellent starting point to better understand contemporary issues of trafficking and global labor issues, and also the economic and political forces that resulted in Chinese men being forced to leave their homes, even going so far as to signing contracts of indentured servitude.
The book takes a dramatic shift in appearance after a brief “intermission,” with three academic essays. They add to the reader’s understanding of the mutiny and Asian indenture.
Alexis Dudden provides greater detail about the mutiny and the trial of the Chinese men who were tried for the killing of ship captain Bryson and some of his crew, as well as how residents of Ishigaki reacted to having to house the Chinese mutineers in “The Robert Bowne Mutiny.” Using American and Okinawan sources, she goes into great detail to describe many points of view of the rebellion, depending on one’s interests. These include the American consul who wanted to preserve the property (including Chinese laborers) of the shipowner Bryson; the eventual mutineers who feared being sent to work at a place (Chincha Island) where many workers died because of ammonia fumes; Chinese officials who wanted to support its countrymen and felt they were victims of an illegal practice of being purchased for the foreign labor market (“the buying and selling of pigs”); and British seamen and officials who had been concerned for their lives. Each of the points of view is worth examining in greater detail.
Dudden decries the disappearance of the story of the mutiny from the pages of history, but this graphic novel and accompanying essays should do their part in bringing it back to the public’s attention.
Jason Oliver Chang, who wrote the text for the graphic novel, contributed the next essay, “Teaching Asian Indenture.” He describes efforts made to bring indentured Asian laborers to South America as early as 1836 to grow and harvest sugar. By 1847, this process had become known as the “coolie trade,” sending hundreds of thousands of South Asian and Chinese contracted laborers throughout the world. Chang notes that students should understand the roots of this term, but they should use the term “indentured worker” as a more appropriate term today. Chang notes that while many accounts of Asian American history start with the California Gold Rush when Chinese began coming to America in large numbers starting in 1850, it is important to understand that they began arriving in North America even before that time.
Chang quotes from Erika Lee’s important work, The Making of Asian America, where she puts Asian indentured workers in the context of a global history of colonialism and imperialism, and the racial figure of the “coolie” that was formed in response to the decline of the African slave trade. Chang further describes how he developed a method for students to understand Asian indenture including using primary and secondary sources. While of greatest interest to educators and those developing courses, Chang’s description is informative for non-educators alike by showing how diverse sources can be used for students to better understand this important issue of Asian indenture. It is especially informative to read Chang’s quotes from his students in response to the literature they read.
The third essay is a fascinating one by Benjamin Barson, “From Plantation Percussion to the Sound of Solidarity: Afro-Asian Echoes in the Drum Set.” Barson writes about the interaction between Chinese and formerly enslaved African American workers on Louisiana plantations, and the role of the drum set in this interaction. The drum set allowed one percussionist to play all parts of the percussion ensemble – the low bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals. “African American musicians were inspired by the musical practices of Chinese indentured workers who contracted, married, and showed solidarity with their African American counterparts, and this social history became reflected in the evolution of this incredible instrument.”
Following Chang’s description of indentured Asian workers, Barson describes the period from 1867 to 1875 when thousands of indentured Chinese workers were brought into Louisiana plantations to attempt to weaken the labor power of Black workers after slavery was abolished. Barson notes, that to the dismay of the planters who brought them in, “Chinese workers…practiced their culture and found a political solidarity that resonated amongst other communities through the sugar parishes.”
Barson notes that the Afro-Cuban ensembles and Cantonese opera of the late 1800s introduced a double-reed woodwind instrument known as the suona, which became an important part of Afro-Cuban carnival rituals in Santiago de Cuba, revealing extensive contact between these groups of workers.
Especially interesting is the possible influence of Chinese music on Storyville in New Orleans, known as the birthplace of jazz. Chinatown was located near Storyville and Barson describes Black musicians who had interaction with Chinese opera including a drummer named Abbey “Chinee” Foster, who played in several important brass bands. Foster developed the nickname for his skills with playing music using Chinese techniques. Barson also describes Chinese influences on instruments used in jazz percussion, as well as non-musical interactions between Chinese and Blacks such as the work done by a man named Tye Kim Orr, the Chinese director of Donaldson, Louisiana’s first school for Black youth.
Barson also noted that “Chinese immigrants refused to serve as a weapon for white planters against Black labor’s bargaining power.” In New Orleans, “Chinese percussion became foundational to Afro-Atlantic culture at the same time that Black and Chinese laborers exercised their power to negotiate the transition to wage labor and industrialized capitalist social relations.” He quotes Vijay Prashad, “These promises to build a better world beyond racial capitalism were encoded in the democratic working-class interculture born in the plantations surrounding New Orleans, manifesting a vibrant dialogue between the Black Atlantic and a Chinese Pacific – an Afro-Asian politic of solidarity – with important lessons for movements against racialized violence against Black Americans and Asian Americans today.”
Barson concludes that “these mobile workers and their insistence on freedom and creativity in the face of incalculable violence fueled, and fuels, the musical imagination of the modern world.”
The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom and its accompanying essays are a worthwhile combination of graphic novel, interpretation of historical events, instruction on development of educational materials, and a most unexpected and fascinating essay on Black-Chinese musical and societal interactions. It is well-researched and attractively illustrated and presented, and for many, will change one’s understanding of Asian American history.
Ed Note: You can purchase The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom here.
All images in this article are from the book.
Author’s Bio: Grant Din is based in Oakland, has worked with many non-profit organizations, co-curated an exhibit about Japanese American “enemy aliens” incarcerated on Angel Island during World War II. was part of the research team for The Six, a film about the Chinese seamen who survived the wreck of the Titanic, and was a historical advisor for Pornsak Pichetshote’s graphic novel The Good Asian.