Pacific (Im)Mobilities: Conceptualizing Race, Transportation, and Empire in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories, the OAH–Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians’ Collaborative Committee, Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Race; Transportation, Travel, and Exploration


This panel explores how a diverse set of historical actors entangled in American imperial projects of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries understood the relationship between race and mobility in the Pacific World. How have historians defined “mobility” and is this definition sufficient? Does our historical understanding of race change if we examine it from the perspective of a seafaring vessel rather than the static vantage point of a colonial settlement, city, or nation-state? How did racial or ethnic classifications intersect with other categories of identification—e.g. class, gender, or health status—to shape one’s migratory experience in the Pacific? What opportunities (real or imagined) did migrating to and through the Pacific afford to historically racialized “Others” given the overwhelming constraints that empire presented?
In an effort to answer such questions, this panel draws on an array of sources—from travel narratives and theatrical productions to steamship company records, medical reports, and government correspondence. “Embodied by Steerage: Asian Migrants, Steamship Travelers, and the Spatial Construction of Transpacific Mobility,” presented by Seoul National University Research Fellow Minyong Lee, explores the physical layout, usage, and cultural representation of “Asiatic Steerage” cabins aboard American-owned transpacific steamships. In so doing, her paper contends that a steamship’s spatial layout not only determined how Chinese migrants experienced transpacific voyages, but also shaped the American cultural conceptualization of Pacific crossings. “Fit to Float?: Race, Health, and Mobility in the American Pacific,” presented by University of Chicago doctoral candidate Christopher Kindell, charts the medical microhistories of two late-nineteenth-century steamships transporting Chinese and Portuguese migrants to Hawai‘i. His paper suggests that investigating racialized medical encounters aboard transpacific vessels can provide scholars with an alternative lens through which to examine the medical epistemology of public health. Whereas the first two papers focus on the physical movement of seafaring vessels, the third paper—“Imagining a Black Pacific: Empire, Culture, and the Birth of Afrofuturism,” presented by Auburn University Assistant Professor Guy Emerson Mount—investigates how fictional renderings of a Black Pacific during the age of Jim Crow enabled prominent Black communities to envision the Pacific as a region where racial oppression might be elided. While theatrical performances illuminated broader concerns over the types of racial ideologies that were possible in a “Black Pacific,” the circulation of these ideas were also instrumental in shaping the ways in which Black Americans tangibly engaged with the Pacific World. Katherine Benton-Cohen, Professor of History at Georgetown University, will serve as chair and commenter for the panel.

Papers Presented

Imagining a Black Pacific: Empire, Culture, and the Birth of Afrofuturism

Within the context of a massive state-sponsored proposal to “deport” over 60% of all African Americans to Hawai’i and the Philippines, James Weldon Johnson, and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote a Broadway operetta, “The Shoo-Fly Regiment,” in 1905. It quickly became a collective dress rehearsal for black colonization to the Pacific. This spontaneous cultural turn augmented the actual migration plans already underway among black activists. By permitting black audiences to travel intellectually, affectively, and creatively to the Pacific through a staged performance, the Johnson brothers created a new “virtual migration” where ideas were explored, debated, and reimagined. While the reality rarely matched the fantasy, actual black confrontations with Jim Crow in America’s Pacific empire took shape with these expectations in mind. While another world was possible, the legacy of slavery and the constraints of empire refused its engendering. What developed, instead, was a collision of past, present, and future that might best be described as an Afrofuturistic dream confronting a deeply Afro-pessimistic lived reality. Through a deep reading of a newly discovered copy of the play’s script against various War Department dispatches, this paper juxtaposes the Johnson brother’s fictional rendering of a black Pacific with James Weldon Johnson’s negotiations (both for and with) America’s Pacific empire as an (African) American diplomat in Venezuela and Nicaragua. This paper argues that the lines between fantasy and reality blurred into one another in the shaping of a black Pacific—both masking and illuminating its material conditions.

Presented By
Guy Emerson Mount, Auburn University

Fit to Float? Race, Health, and Mobility in the American Pacific

This paper investigates how public health challenges aboard transpacific vessels bound for Hawai’i reshaped American medical perceptions of race, health, and mobility. In the 1870s and 1880s, the economic success of Hawai’i’s U.S.-dominated sugar industry hinged on an expansive network of steamships that imported laborers from East Asia, Polynesia, and Europe. Regardless of a ship’s point of departure, migrants were lodged into overcrowded and unhygienic living quarters conducive to the spread of infectious diseases. This paper charts the medical microhistories of two steamships: the SS Lydia, which departed from Hong Kong in 1881 carrying smallpox and nearly 600 Chinese migrants, and the SS City of Paris, which departed from Madeira in 1884 carrying measles and nearly 950 Portuguese migrants. Drawing on ship surgeon journals, port physician records, and Hawaiian and American newspapers, this paper explores three questions: Who was deemed healthy enough to withstand the conditions and duration of transpacific travel? How did medical treatments differ depending on a passenger’s race, class, or gender? In what ways did migrant laborers resist the medical surveillance they were so often subjected to? Such questions intervene in recent scholarship exploring how contagion, race, and the human body were understood from the immobile vantage points of colonial settlements, cities, or nation-states in the Pacific basin. This paper contends that transpacific vessels, as self-contained communities in constant transit, offer historians alternative lens through which to examine the medical epistemology of public health.

Presented By
Christopher Steven Kindell, University of Chicago

Embodied by Steerage: Asian Migrants, Steamship Travelers, and the Spatial Construction of Transpacific Mobility

This paper looks into
the space that
had been
central to many transpacific migrants’ mobility: the
steerage of steamships. Once the Pacific Mail Steamship Company began its
regular service between San Francisco and Hong Kong in 1867, the company became
the sole major transporter of Asian migrants to the United States for decades
to come. From the beginning, Chinese laborers were confined to the steerage,
which soon came to be called the “Asiatic Steerage” on all transpacific
steamships. The Asiatic steerage was a segregated and racialized space, a
spatial manifestation of the segregation and racism the Asian migrants would
face in U.S. society. It was a mobile equivalent to Chinatowns created on land,
variably serving either as a visual and spatial manifestation of the utter
un-assimilability of the Chinese, a curiosity or slumming spot where
upper-class passengers visited for fun, or a carved-out space for migrants to
exert a degree of restricted autonomy. A look into the construction, usage, and
representation of spaces within steamships will thus provide a deeper
understanding of the transpacific movements of people. By examining the
steamship company records, personal papers of steamship agents, pictorial and
photographic images of steamship travels, and the early- twentieth-century
oceanic travel narratives, this paper argues that the steamships and theirits
spatial construction not only dictated conditions in which Asian migrants moved
to and entered the United States, but also indelibly affected the
conceptualization of Pacific crossings in the American cultural consciousness.

Presented By
Minyong Lee, Seoul National University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Paul A. Kramer, Vanderbilt University

Presenter: Christopher Steven Kindell, University of Chicago
Christopher (“Topher”) Kindell is a PhD candidate in American History at The University of Chicago specializing in public health, race, urbanization, and mobility in the long-nineteenth-century Pacific World. His doctoral thesis, “The Sanitary Sieve: Public Health, Infectious Diseases, and the Urbanization of Honolulu, 1860-1914,” examines how health officials, Native Hawaiians, and Chinese migrants transformed Honolulu from a placid, mid-Pacific harbor into an urban clearinghouse that could filter out infectious diseases traversing the Pacific. His research and teaching interests include public health, race, visual and material culture, and American imperialism in the Anglophone Pacific World of the long-nineteenth century. 

Presenter: Minyong Lee, Seoul National University
Minyong Lee is a lecturer and research fellow at Seoul National University, South Korea. She received her Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Chicago in 2018. Minyong is the recipient of the 2018-2020 Park Wansuh Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship at the College of Humanities, Seoul National University. She is currently working on her book project, Circuits of Empire: Seaways to California and the Making of America’s Pacific, which expands upon her doctoral dissertation on the maritime transportation networks and U.S. empire-building in the Pacific during the California Gold Rush. Her research interests include the nineteenth-century American West and the Pacific World/s, transportation and travel, Asian/Asian American transnationalism, and U.S. imperialism.

Presenter: Guy Emerson Mount, Auburn University
Guy Emerson Mount is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Auburn University. He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago in 2018 where he also served as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Division of Social Sciences. His work focuses on the intersection of Black transnationalism, Western modernity, and global empires.

Prof. Mount’s current research interests include the African Diaspora, slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow, colonialism, American empire, the Atlantic World, Critical Mixed Race Studies, Afro-Asian solidarities, Peace Studies, and radical Black politics. Additionally, Prof. Mount is exploring a new field of inquiry that is now coalescing under the moniker of the Black Pacific—a liminal site of global Blackness where alternate formations of race, empire, and self-invention were re-imagined and contested against older identities established in the circuits of the Black Atlantic. Methodologically this work spans across the fields of intellectual, social, cultural, and political history.

Stressing the complex dialectic between subaltern and elite-driven narratives, Prof. Mount aims to examine big ideas in small spaces. Emblematic of this commitment is his current book project which seeks to tell a global history of empire and emancipation through the everyday lives of transnational Black workers who jettisoned the Atlantic World for a new life in the Pacific. Tentatively titled From Slavery to Empire: Colonization and Reconstruction in the Black Pacific, this project revisits the older historiographical debates surrounding American Reconstruction through new archival sources assembled across multiple countries. Collectively, these sources reveal concrete plans after emancipation for a massive state-funded colonization program that promised to relocate over five million formerly enslaved peoples to America’s nascent empire in Hawai’i and the Philippines. By following the lives of ordinary black teachers, chefs, artists, and sharecroppers who attempted to enact this program, this book promises to unveil the profound connections between the death of American slavery and the birth of America’s overseas empire.

Prof. Mount’s work has earned numerous honors and awards including recognition from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Foundation, and the American Historical Association. He has traveled widely giving invited addresses at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Gettysburg College, Loyola University of Chicago, and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.