[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Early-America]: Lee on Thompson, 'Working on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern Port'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Jul 23 15:12:05 MDT 2018

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Mon, Jul 23, 2018 at 4:34 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Early-America]: Lee on Thompson, 'Working on the
Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern Port'
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Michael D. Thompson.  Working on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and
Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern Port.  Carolina Lowcountry and
the Atlantic World Series. Columbia  University of South Carolina
Press, 2015.  312 pp.  $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-474-8.

Reviewed by Kristin C. Lee (Washington University in St. Louis)
Published on H-Early-America (July, 2018)
Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers

Dockhands skip around open hatches. Carts thump across wooden planks.
Work songs rise and fall in rhythm. Stevedores shout directives as
heavy cargo disappears into ship holds, sometimes followed by the
cries of injury. Cotton-menders furtively stuff fiber strands into
their work bags.

Michael D. Thompson's _Working on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and
Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern Port _offers a vivid picture of
the risks, rewards, and routine happenings of the nineteenth-century
Charleston waterfront, viewed first and foremost from the perspective
of its free and enslaved, black and white dockside workers. The book
challenges the popular narrative of this post-1819, South Carolina
town as in an irrelevant state of commercial decline by showing its
laborers in uninterrupted motion--not only navigating the rising
number of cotton bales, rice barrels, tobacco sheaves, and other
goods circulating through its ports, but also negotiating
contemporary concerns of slave rebellion, sectionalism, and illness
that threatened their continued employ. Thompson emphasizes that the
waterfront was "neither a safe nor easy place to make a living" but,
for those able to take on its burdens, it offered much-desired
moments of autonomy (p. 29). Indeed, _Working on the Dock of the Bay
_ultimately contends that it was the daily struggles of antebellum
dockside workers to dictate the conditions of their labor that laid
the  "groundwork for astounding triumphs [by organized labor unions]
in the otherwise tragic New South" (p. 2).

These opportunities were located among the many dichotomies of
Thompson's text: control and mobility, security and prosperity,
"slavery and freedom, restriction and agency" (p. 3). On one hand,
_Working on the Dock of the Bay _situates its workers in a political,
social, and cultural context dictated by the traditional big movers
of history, including city officials, merchants, and slaveholders.
The Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822, he acknowledges, created a
"siege mentality" among white Charlestonians, who lived with a black
majority until about 1860 (p. 31). The overwhelmingly enslaved
laborers on the docks, at least until midcentury, only cemented this
anxiety. Slaveowners certainly wanted the money that came with
leasing underutilized slaves to the waterfront, or more conveniently
allowing these workers to contract out their own labor. Yet, they
were uncomfortable knowing that this work brought with it contact
with free artisans of color and sailors from the abolitionist North
and, with this contact, an awareness of a life beyond slavery. But
what, asks Thompson, were they to do? If they curtailed the ability
of slaves to move freely in the antebellum city or required written
agreements between masters for each hourly bit of work, they made
this labor more onerous on themselves. Plus, in the lead-up to the
Civil War, slaveholders were particularly sensitive about others
telling them what they could do with their human properties, whether
these demands originated from federal politicians or local city

On the other hand, _Working on the Dock of the Bay _shows that
Charleston's waterfront workers found significant wiggle room
despite, and sometimes because of, local and national fears. There
continued, for example, to be efforts to confine the economic
activities of enslaved laborers, including limits on where they could
advertise for work, on their ability to reject job offers, and on
their daily pay. Yet, a cap on daily wages from 1801 to 1837, meant
to prevent overcharging, also helped slaves maintain their hold on
waterfront labor by deterring white competition until midcentury.
After 1845, these racial rivals--largely non-native Irish and
Germans--acted in a similar manner, encouraging suspicions of black
laborers as thieves while promoting themselves as good taxpayers. The
tactic was aimed, unsuccessfully, at reserving higher-paying roles
like that of stevedore for themselves. It was more successful in
pushing free workers of color out of the market and to the North by

Thompson does not offer an explicit outline of this back-and-forth
between employer and employed (as well as among employers) in his
introduction, an omission that initially feels disorienting but that
allows readers to immerse themselves expectation-free in his
narrative. Chapter 1 sets the stage by recreating the seasonal
sounds, rhythms, and tasks of the waterfront. The next three
chapters, in turn, couple attempts to assert control through
legislation with "creative and intrepid" efforts to extend the
boundaries of such laws by dockside laborers (p. 31). Readers learn
in chapter 2 of the occupational badges workers were required to wear
at various times between 1783 and 1843, which indicated their
legitimacy as laborers and set specific conditions of employ.
Thompson follows this with examples of runaways attaining illicit
work with badges they found and of supervisors simply ignoring badge
requirements, all in the name of commercial expediency. Chapter 3
similarly takes on the Negro Seamen Acts and New York Ship Inspection
Law, which were intended to prevent potential rebellion by limiting
slaves' access to people and news from the North--a weekly
opportunity after the establishment of a New York packet service in
1822. Yet, again, Thompson shows how free sailors of color were
permitted increasing proximity to Charleston's docks so as to ease
the mechanics of trade and how waterfront workers, in turn, located
moments to converse and sometimes to run away. Chapter 4 introduces
the dock's post-1845 white workers and follows their futile attempts
to use their political standing--a right inaccessible to black
laborers--to petition for better work.

These many tug-of-wars come together in chapter 5, which looks at the
struggle to maintain public safety, to continue business as usual,
and to benefit from both concerns during real moments of crises--the
cholera and yellow fever epidemics that appeared in Charleston from
1832 to 1858. As city administrators, doctors, and merchants argued
over whether and for how long to quarantine ships coming from
infected ports, black and white laborers struggled to keep their
daily employ. They sought sometimes real, sometimes forged
"certificates of acclimation," which allowed them to work on the
lighters that loaded and unloaded suspicious vessels not allowed into
the harbor. And occasionally they were able to use their exposure to
disease to negotiate for higher wages. Yet, Thompson acknowledges
that, for the majority of laborers, illness was just another risk of
working on the waterfront and the goal was not social advancement but
economic survival. In seeking this end, however, they informed the
larger conversations that shaped their city's history.

_Working on the Dock of the Bay _certainly aims to ground the
postbellum studies of other waterfront scholars, like Eric Arnesen,
in an earlier period.[1] The text, for example, begins with a
cross-racial strike in 1869, wondering how it was workers were able
to unionize so quickly and effectively after the Civil War. Yet, I
find Thompson's study in better company with Seth Rockman's _Scraping
By _(2008) and Walter Johnson's _Soul by Soul _(2001), both of which
recreate with great intimacy the everyday experiences of eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century laborers, free and enslaved. Thompson might
end on a brighter note than these two studies--although his dockside
laborers are encumbered by their political, social, and cultural
surroundings they still seem largely opportunists. Yet, read
together, the three texts pose questions well worth further
consideration, especially on the boundaries of agency in spaces of

Michael D. Thompson's first book is worthy of the praise heaped on it
by reviewers, not to mention the Hines Prize it received from the
Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World at the
College of Charleston. If I were to offer a mild suggestion, it would
be to better incorporate the many maps, drawings, and photographs
collected in the middle of the book into its pages, where they could
visually augment Thompson's rich written descriptions. Their
individual value--which is significant--gets a bit lost as a result
of their consolidation. Then again, these images' appearance one
after the other certainly fits the text's overall effort to submerse
readers in the lived and messy dynamics of an historical period from
a lesser-known perspective. And, to this end, it is quite successful.


[1]. Eric Arnesen, _Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class,
and Politics, 1863-1923 _(New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Citation: Kristin C. Lee. Review of Thompson, Michael D., _Working on
the Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern
Port_. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51806

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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