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White Overseers of the World
For Cedric Robinson, capitalism has been characterised by chaos which cannot be captured by a unifying language.i If that is the case, it is not for lack of trying. In the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionist discourses sutured diverse geographies by interpreting the world within dichotomies of slavery and freedom. While this imagination enlivened abolitionist struggles against slavery in the US and beyond, it also elided the forms of colonialism and expropriation that visions of free labour rested upon. By foregrounding what Jairus Banaji has called the ‘incoherence’ of free labour, this essay considers the ways in which projects that have sought to universalise free labour have depended upon the proliferation of coercion.ii
In the first half of the nineteenth century, settler slavery in the US South combined the colonisation of Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole lands with the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to produce a new ‘Cotton Kingdom’. These expropriations provided a material base for the Lancashire textile industry.iii As one observer would later reflect, ‘every new factory built in Lancashire creates a demand for slaves on the banks of the Mississippi’.iv This perspective fixed enslaved and wage labour in relation to one another through the expropriation of indigenous land. For W.E.B. Du Bois, aggressive territorial conquest created conditions for a new slavery where plantations assumed the most extreme possibilities of the factory form itself.v
The dismantling of handloom production in India was an ongoing process brought about through the relations between the English factory and the cotton-producing South. By 1828, Bengal no longer exported textiles to England.vi Followed by the Agra famine of 1837-38, settler slavery and social catastrophes created conditions for abolitionists to imagine new worlds of ‘free’ cotton cultivation in India.vii Visions of free Indian cotton were put forth at the first annual meeting of the British India Society in Manchester (1840). The BIS was comprised of manufacturers and abolitionists and encouraged the growth of non-slave produced cotton in India as an abolitionist project.viii Founding member George Thompson hoped to hear every textile factory owner and worker ask, ‘Why do not the natives of British India, dying of famine by hundreds of thousands, produce all the Cotton we receive from America?’ix As a boy, John Bowring recalled seeing Indian handloom manufactures in English markets, but by 1840 everything had changed, a direct result of Lancashire’s dominance of Indian markets: ‘You have driven the poor weavers of India to starvation. Your Cotton stuffs monopolise the India markets; and will you not enable them to furnish you with the raw material, of which those stuffs are made?’x In such moments, the Lancashire textile invasion was seen as destroying the foundations of colonial India, making it possible to imagine a fundamental transformation in agrarian relations.
This approach to connected histories of colonialism and emancipation suggested that it was the British empire’s duty to enable ‘free’ Indian cotton, universalising ‘free’ labour in the process.xi Some abolitionists further connected this universalisation of free labour with the expansion of settler colonialism in the United States. As Wendell Phillips wrote, ‘To you [the British], to the sunny plains of Hindostan, we shall owe it, that our beautiful prairies are unpolluted by the steps of a slave-holder; that the march of civilisation westward will be changed from the progress of the manacled slave coffle, at the bidding of the lash, to the quiet step of families’.xii From this perspective, not just the abolition of slavery, but also the ‘free’ colonisation of the American West depended upon the cultivation of a cotton staple in India suitable for metropolitan industry.
In such moments, abolitionists relied upon divisions which marked slavery and freedom as diametrically opposed. Yet, such oppositions left unconsidered forms of expropriation and dispossession outside of this dichotomy.xiii As Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd observed, ‘Asia, Africa, and Europe all meet in the Americas to labour over the dialectics of free and unfree, but what of the Americas themselves and the prior peoples upon whom that lobar took place?’xiv With a history of plantations and slaveries but without plantation slavery, expropriation in India toward the cultivation of cotton would assume a different form.xv George Thompson and East India Company officials each noted that indigo, once cultivated in South Carolina and Central America before shifting toward India, could serve as an instructive model.xvi Further, the particularity of the British India Society itself seemed to reflect new possibilities for expropriation. The BIS grew directly from the Aborigines’ Protection Society, of which Cherokee Chief John Ross was an honorary member. The purpose of the BIS was to address the particularity of colonial subjects in India.xvii Despite interests in colonial Indian particularity, abolitionist visions of ‘free’ Indian cotton rarely accounted for the multi-layered nature of village agrarian relations nor regional variations within colonial India.xviii
The most sustained project to transform cotton cultivation in India before the US Civil War staged a confrontation between US settler slavery and village agrarian relations in places throughout colonial India. Extending from 1839 to 1849, the East India Company brought ten white US plantation overseers to India to introduce an ‘American system’ of cotton cultivation capable of competing in ‘quantity and quality’ with the United States.xix While India already cultivated cotton, the introduction of an American system was meant to produce US staples according to the needs of English industry.xx Abolitionists from Charles Lenox Remond to Thomas Clarkson addressed this project as the concrete future end of US slavery. In excised remarks from his speech at the first World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London (1840), Clarkson described the East India Company as ‘providentially engaged’ in cultivating cotton in India. Clarkson calculated the difference between enslaved African American and ‘free’ Indian cultivation. Noting that labour in India was valued at between one penny and three and a half pence per day while slave labour never estimated under 25 cents, Clarkson asked, ‘What slavery can stand against these prices?’xxi In such reflections, the condition of colonial labour was assumed to be free and labourers transformed into an object capable of being instrumentalised for abolitionist ends.
In The World and Africa, Du Bois described the work of ‘the white masters of the world’ in producing race and empire, destroying the possibility of something that might have been called humanity in the process.xxii Essential figures in this process of transformation were overseers– white supremacists responsible for the daily physical and psychological terrorisation of enslaved African Americans in the US South. Overseers were also integral to the colonisation of southeastern Indian territory in the Cotton Kingdom. On slave plantations, overseers managed labour through direct, physical confrontations, stripping, flogging, and killing enslaved African Americans.xxiii When an overseer died, the enslaved thought of this death as an act of ‘merciful providence’.xxiv
From 1839 to 1849, overseers travelled throughout India. Initially, three were sent to the Bombay Presidency, three to the Madras Presidency, and four from the Bengal Presidency to the North-Western Provinces. In the initial stages of the project, overseers in the North-Western Provinces were central to the pursuit of cotton cultivation.xxv There, overseers found themselves trying to carve out plantations from a world of colonial agrarian relations where zamindar (landholders), asami (tenant-at-will cultivators), and raiyat (smallholding cultivators) all struggled to produce within a depressed agrarian economy stressed by colonial land taxation.xxvi Overseers worked as planters, managing experimental cotton plantations where they controlled land and the means of production with implements brought from the United States.xxvii Yet, the object was not to reproduce US settler slavery but rather to introduce cotton cultivation through experimental plantations. These plantations would serve as models for landholders and tenants alike.xxviii Despite this, overseers on experimental plantations improvised with means of coercion including violence, terror, and techniques of racial management, believing that they would succeed at cotton cultivation in the process. According to Thomas Bayles, the East India Company official who brought the overseers from the American South, overseers should be allowed to organise cotton cultivation according to their own judgement—‘they have all been reared on Cotton plantations: from my knowledge of their character, I believe, were any other system pursued, it would decidedly check their zeal’.xxix
Thomas J. Finnie was the US plantation overseer most central to the project to introduce an ‘American system’ of cotton cultivation. Finnie managed two cotton plantations owned by widows in Natchez, Mississippi, the heart of the Cotton Kingdom.xxx In Natchez, a planter introduced Bayles to Finnie who facilitated the recruitment of the other nine overseers who would travel to India. Though Finnie would not receive salary equivalent to his work in Mississippi, he agreed to the project because of a ‘conviction of realising in the East an independence for himself’ unobtainable in the American South.xxxi This independence was inextricably bound to the extension of self through the domination of others. During their time in India, overseers attempted to move vertically within a global plantation hierarchy to become not just planters but something more. As one overseer reflected following the failure of the project and his return to the US South, ‘had success been within our reach I might now have been a Nabob in India . . . instead of a very humble cotton planter in the low lands of Louisiana.’xxxii Overseers imagined themselves leaving US settler slavery to transform Indian cotton cultivation. Instead overseers failed within already existing agrarian relations, either dying in India or returning to the United States unsuccessful.
Finnie was part of the group of four overseers who would ultimately travel to the Bengal Presidency and North-Western Provinces. This group first went from the centre of cotton cultivation in the slaveholding South to the centre of textile manufacturing in Lancashire, England. There overseers met with cotton brokers, spinners, manufacturers, and members of the Court of Directors. In Liverpool, overseers tested gins purchased from the US before a gathered crowd of nearly one hundred fifty including East India Company officials and prominent members of the Liverpool and Manchester bourgeoisie. Samples of ginned cotton were graded and the price that each would ‘fetch in the market’ was told to overseers for future guidance in India.xxxiii Overseers then travelled to Egypt where they examined Egyptian cotton cultivation techniques before travelling to the Bengal Presidency and onward to the North-Western Provinces.xxxiv
In Egypt, Finnie purchased a whip for flogging labourers made from hippopotamus hide. The whip, along with a developing terminology of white supremacy, were essential to overseers’ visions of making cotton plantations in India. In the North-Western Provinces, overseers learned terms such as zabardasti–violence, force, oppression– but were unable to introduce cotton cultivation through the use of such techniques. Finnie attempted to introduce the ‘American system’ of cotton cultivation in the North-Western Provinces along the Yamuna River first in Kotra Makrandpur and later in Agra. After failures in the North-Western Provinces, Finnie resettled in southeastern India where, from 1845 to 1849, he struggled to grow cotton in Tirunelveli. Finnie would ultimately leave India in 1849.
Finnie’s early failures in the North-Western Provinces provide insight into the malleability of notions of ‘free’ labour and the centrality of violence and coercion in his plan to introduce the so-called American system of cotton cultivation. In Kotra Makrandpur, Finnie managed contracted labour while also instructing cultivators growing cotton on both zamindari and raiyati land. Following the East India Company’s seizure of Bundelkhand and the Ganges-Yamuna Doab, the region where Finnie first struggled to establish cotton cultivation underwent environmental devastation. In 1837-38, the Agra famine left widespread devastation.xxxv With command of capital similar to that of American planters in the American South, Finnie dreamed of cotton monoculture, believing he would ‘turn the Doab into one vast Cotton field’.xxxvi Yet, that dream confronted a reality of colonial agrarian relations at Kotra Makrandpur which were beyond Finnie’s control. Finnie’s failure provides insight into overseers’ inability to manage and make sense of differences between US settler slavery and colonial agrarian relations in the North-Western Provinces.
Outlining his first year of cultivation for The Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India (1842), Finnie offered a concrete vision of the North-Western Province’s plantation future:
‘Although I am in the jungles where I see no one but “natives” . . . When I ride over my plantation and see the beautiful prospect of a crop I cannot realize the fact that I am so far from my native land.’
‘From a jungle I have given this something the appearance of a Mississippi plantation, and it looks so natural that it almost has the effect to cause me to forget that I am not on the banks of the “Father of waters” in the new world, instead of on the Jumna in the old.’
By transforming the Doab into the banks of the Mississippi, Finnie would create an unparalleled form of pleasure:
‘If there is anything I would give the preference to as the most beautiful in nature, it is a well regulated plantation, and if there is any pleasure connected with the business of life that deserves to be classed above all others it is to manage that plantation . . .’xxxvii
In the slaveholding South, Saidiya Hartman has written about the ways that the fungibility of the enslaved enabled a set of relations of power, pleasure, and possession which enabled the masters’ extension through ‘embodiment in external objects and persons’.xxxviii In the North-Western Provinces, Finnie imagined comparable configurations of power, pleasure, and possession in his new position as a planter, even if labour was no longer fungible.
Finnie arrived in the North-Western Provinces imagining a simple remaking of the world, a transformation of the region into a new cotton kingdom and himself in the process. However, Finnie failed to manage differences within colonial agrarian relations. This is clear in the new racial vocabulary and forms of management he confronted in his attempts to make white supremacy work. Finnie was confident that only subtle differences existed in the techniques of racial management he would deploy:
‘The only difference between a Coolie and a [N]egro is this: the first we can make work out of our sight by operating upon his fears, but the latter we must persuade and drive together which answers very well as long as we are present, but has no effect as soon as our backs are turned.’xxxix
Yet, the statement contradicted his earlier contention that only one servant was willing to work when he was not in sight.xl Despite the incoherence of Finnie’s observation, it is a reminder that in some form, psychological terror accompanied the whip. Finnie elsewhere centred the necessity of racially improving ‘coolies’ to work as much as enslaved African Americans.xli In such moments, the management and racial development of coolies was placed at the centre of cotton production in the North-Western Provinces. As a planter, Finnie’s own role was to oversee the realisation of the productive capacity of racialised labour just as masters and overseers imagined themselves doing in the slaveholding South.xlii
However, if Finnie focused upon managing ‘coolies’ through comparisons with African Americans, he also repeatedly confronted multi-layered agrarian relations within which he was nothing more than a fledgling part.xliii The difference between US settler slavery and agrarian relations at Kotra Makrandpur are captured in Finnie’s engagements with zamindars, raiyats, and contracted cultivators. Finnie hated landholding zamindars who worked together to subvert his efforts. Finnie further resented that he had no control over the village’s zamindars who he saw as ‘tyrannical’ in their use of force, caste, and obligation to coerce cultivators– the very things Finnie tried and failed to use in his own efforts to introduce cotton cultivation. Finnie’s efforts to convince raiyats to cultivate cotton repeatedly failed and were met with everyday forms of resistance. As one raiyat responded to Finnie’s attempts to convince him to cultivate cotton, ‘Sahib, we are poor and meagre, what Ram does will happen’.xliv The response stated that Finnie could do nothing, communicating the US overseer’s powerlessness.
Finnie clumsily tried to make sense of overlapping caste, land, and revenue relations and to imagine their transformation to make cotton cultivation possible. Finnie stated that asami cultivators were ‘a worse race’ than their neighbours and that thakurs and brahmins were ‘the poorest race alive as agriculturalists’. For Finnie instead ‘the low-caste . . . if properly taught’ would be the ‘regenerators of India’.xlv In this vision, society was fundamentally divided between the planter-as-coloniser and the cultivator as colonised labour. However, in putting forth this vision, Finnie revealed his own distance from and incapacity to instantiate such relations.
Finnie also struggled to negotiate new colonial relations around the payment of labour and the work of expropriation. The first year of planting failed and the second year promised to do the same. Finnie encountered dispute and disruption over a holiday on August 11, 1842. On that day, he noted that he was required to give cultivators a customary payment or baksheesh in the form of paying for a day’s labour despite not requiring work. In response, Finnie wrote, ‘they say they will acknowledge no other Chowdry hereafter but me; so I am promoted’.xlvi Finnie imagined that the baksheesh would enable obedience and subvert the authority of the chaudhari (‘Chowdry’) who was in this case the head of the cultivators, essential to determining the conditions and terms of work.xlvii However, this illusion was quickly shattered. In September, he observed that he could not get hoe-hands to work and that labourers were ‘as independent of me as a newly liberated negro in America, and if I pretend to hurry them they will not now come at all; they are too rich’.xlviii In response, Finnie attempted to renegotiation the terms of work through a combination of economic, physical, and psychological coercion. He first cut labourers’ pay. Against this, cultivators engaged in work stoppages, flight, and soldiering, making the faltering project to introduce cotton cultivation in the North-Western Provinces impossible. Such difficulties with the subordination of plantation labour caused Finnie to reflect, that ‘the drought, the flood, and the rascality of these free “niggers”, will cut my operations much shorter than I wished’.xlix In racialising cultivators as simultaneously free and Black, Finnie indexed not just the centrality of white supremacy to his project but also his inability to achieve the work of expropriation upon which cotton cultivation rested. In racial assessments such as this, the degrees of dispossession between free and Black and coolie also mark Finnie’s own failure to exert the forms of control he saw necessary for a functioning plantation.
In daily confrontations, crucial differences between the US South and the North-Western Provinces revealed the impossibility of introducing the American system. As Finnie wrote, it was becoming increasingly apparent that a disruption was unfolding on his Kotra Makrandpur plantation.l Assured that the labourers had no cause for real dissatisfaction, Finnie turned to what Fanon called the settler’s ‘zoological’ mode of description, referring to cultivators engaged in a work stoppage for wage increases as animals: ‘it is the nature of the animal to grasp, and the more he gets the more he wants’.li Demanding a raise, labourers refused their pay, confronting Finnie in the evening to ‘frighten’ him into their terms which he refused. The following night, cultivators insisted that they were entitled to a pay increase and would leave if not given a raise. Finnie attempted to deploy a paternalist rhetoric of mutual dependence and mutual ruin but cultivators refused to concede.lii Without labour, his plantation would be ruined. In everyday insurgency, cultivators applied pressure to Finnie when he was at his most vulnerable.
Finnie addressed this insurgency through violence, boxing the ears of the person he believed to be the leader of the work stoppage.liii From Finnie’s perspective, the use of violence ‘humble[d]’ the cultivators and caused those resisting to hold him in an ‘exalted’ position. He justified this through his own understanding of village agrarian relations writing, ‘they are so much accustomed to the exercise of arbitrary power among themselves, the high over the low, that, unless it is exercised occasionally, they begin to think they are forgotten and neglected’.liv
While Finnie relied upon physical violence he also attempted to use economic coercion, withholding pay to ensure that labourers would be available and only leave with his ‘consent’. Despite these efforts, he woke one morning to realise that all labourers had left his plantation. Finnie sent for them in the village ‘but every man, woman and child of the working class had fled to the jungles’.lv When he inquired about the reasons, he was informed that it was because he had slapped a man the day before. Finnie was unconvinced that labourers would directly challenge his use of violence by leaving his plantation, instead writing that labourers wanted a raise and realised that he was vulnerable. ‘[T]hey have taken advantage of my situation to demand and force me to pay them very high wages; and as my allowance would not justify me in employing a greater number of regular Coolies than I have got, there is no alternative but to give it to them, as they have me completely in their power’.lvi Finnie once imagined that he was in the process of making a Mississippi plantation on the Yamuna; yet he was failing, unable to make sense of, or to transform, the agricultural relations he confronted.
In response, Finnie and several hired men tried to catch cultivators, bringing roughly 20 back to the fields to work. As Finnie continued:
‘These poor people have been driven to this by the Chowdree, who lays up and never works any himself, but makes each man of his clan give him part of their earnings every day. I have been under the necessity of letting him feel the weight of my old Egyptian “Cawbash” [whip] before, for interfering with my business, and when I catch him now, I will venture upon the assertion that he does not interfere with my arrangements again’.lvii
Finnie again struggled against the chaudhari who was essential to determining the conditions of labour on the plantation. After attacking labourers on his ‘Mississippi Plantation’ without success, he turned toward beating the man who he worked with to engage them. Despite Finnie’s previous recourses to violence, the chaudhari continued to subvert his efforts, revealing again the tenuous nature of Finnie’s claims to power.
Difficulties with the work of expropriation saturated Finnie’s white supremacist reflections on labourers’ idleness. In his journal, Finnie suggested that day labourers would not even work for a few days before beginning to ‘luxuriate in their usual idleness’ causing him to constantly employ new labourers.lviii Finnie drew upon the language of white supremacy, calling colonial cultivators free ‘niggers’ who enjoyed ‘liberty’.lix By drawing upon this language, he described cultivators as the opposite of what he imagined African American enslavement to mean. Though the social positions of raiyat, chaudhari, asami, and zamindar within agrarian relations at Kotra Makrandpur were unique, all undercut Finnie’s project to introduce new techniques of cotton cultivation.
Finnie’s early failures at Kotra Makrandpur were repeated at Agra where he attempted to introduce cotton cultivation at an experimental farm near the tomb of Itimad-ud-daulah. Finnie’s failures in the North-Western Provinces mirrored the experiences of other overseers in India. James Morris, an overseer in the Madras Presidency, wrote to his brother in 1845, that he did not believe that they would ever succeed.lx Morris died in Bellary the next year. Finnie returned to the United States in 1849. Though some improved cotton staples were introduced by overseers in southwestern India, the project failed to introduce the American system. Overseers proved incapable of disrupting and transforming agrarian relations. John Stuart Mill would later reflect that while the project generally failed, it resulted in a ‘complete body’ of information on cotton cultivation in India.lxi While the overseers’ project shaped the future course of efforts to transform Indian cotton cultivation, Mill made no extended remarks about the political economic lessons to be drawn from the project. Instead, Mill’s observations formed part of the more general tendency of British colonialism characterised by the management, control and organisation of detail and information.lxii
‘The Modern Theory of Colonisation’, the final chapter of the first volume of Capital, is not about colonialism in India, nor is it meant to address settler slavery in the United States (though it cannot entirely avoid it).lxiii Instead, Marx states that he is attempting to deal only with ‘true colonies’ where free immigrants colonised virgin soils; itself a settler myth.lxiv His concern with these colonies is only to the extent that they reveal something about capitalism in the ‘Old World’.lxv From his reflections on colonial production, Marx states, Edward Gibbon Wakefield discovered something vital about capitalism in Europe, in particular, that money, machines, and implements of production were not the same as the social relation of capital. In response to the efforts of Mr. Peel to establish capitalism in Western Australia, Marx noted how Peel had brought everything to Swan River Colony except ‘English relations of production’. As the last paragraph of Capital reads, in the political economy of the New World a secret of the Old World was discovered; that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation rests upon ‘the expropriation of the worker.’lxvi
One observer would later recall that Finnie arrived with American ploughs and hoes ‘and endeavoured to introduce here precisely the same kind of cultivation as that pursued in America’.lxvii In that sense, Finnie emerges as a corresponding figure to Peel and the colonialisms unconsidered at the end of Capital. Finnie’s failures serve as a reminder of the foundational and continuing dispossessions and expropriations through which ‘the worker’ existed. Industrial capitalism itself rested upon the dual expropriations of Native land and enslaved African American labour.lxviii Finnie participated in a failed effort to reimagine and reroute this history through other expropriations.
Finnie’s reflections upon the experience of overseers in India provides a critical vantage point for thinking about expropriations capital existed through, registering the crucial difference between settler slavery in the US South and colonialism in British India. In 1854, the prominent white supremacist physician and pro-slavery theorist Samuel Cartwright wrote that the East India Company was a ‘true’ slaveholder and that this violence lacked the progressive developmental qualities of patriarchal slavery in the United States. According to Cartwright, the US overseers in India ‘left in disgust not having the inhumanity to make labourers work whose masters failed to furnish them the food and necessary clothing’.lxix The purpose of Cartwright’s observation was to proclaim the value of white supremacist mutual obligation; that the patriarchal enslavement of African Americans was a noble alternative to East India Company despotism. However, in a response signed ‘Brahminee Bull’, Finnie disputed these characterisations, challenging Cartwright’s statement and suggesting that colonial cultivators and enslaved African Americans could not be thought of analogously.lxx The crucial difference between colonialism in India and US slavery was in the colonialism of the Cotton Kingdom itself: ‘Do we when we take the Indian Territory, take upon ourselves to feed and clothe the Indians?’, Finnie asked. In asking, Finnie pointed to the dual expropriations that the slave South existed through and to the ‘Indian’ dispossessions which did not occur in India. Finnie presented his failure in terms of the forms of colonial difference which made settler slavery in the US South singular. These were expropriations that industrial capitalism existed through, expropriations without equivalence.