- Working on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern Port by Michael D. Thompson
Michael D. Thompson
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015
x + 284 pp., $44.95 (cloth)
Although Michael D. Thompson modestly never mentions it in the acknowledgments, the dissertation on which Working on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an Antebellum Southern Port is based won the 2011 Hines Prize from the College of Charleston's Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World. It well deserved that award. Historians have written about Charleston's waterfront before the revolution and about the struggles of a free and biracial workforce to negotiate the waterfront in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fewer scholars have examined the period between the 1780s and the 1860s, perhaps because it seemed relatively static and thus less interesting. This book proves the error of such an assumption. Its nearest comparator might be Seth Rockman's Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), although Thompson's work is more tightly focused on the waterfront than Rockman's. In the context of the history of Charleston, Working on the Dock of the Bay is an important precursor to postemancipation studies of the city's African American population by Bernard E. Powers Jr. (Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885 [Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994]) and Wilbert Jenkins (Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post–Civil War Charleston [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998]).
The book begins, appropriately, with a rich and multifaceted description of the working environment and the work itself. Charleston's wharves were hot, smelly, and loud, a chaotic scene of cotton, rice, and other goods piled up over a half-mile stretch of the Cooper River, with as many as a hundred vessels in the harbor loading and unloading. There were managers—wharfingers who ran individual wharves and stevedores who supervised loading—along with dockworkers who loaded and unloaded cargoes, cotton screwmen who jammed as many bales into a ship as they could, draymen who carted the goods through the city, and even women and men who mended the torn bagging on cotton bales. The work was done by hand and horsepower with very little technological assistance all the way up through the Civil War. Such conditions were more dangerous than dock work usually is, and accidents or just exhaustion from overwork in Charleston's hellish heat were common. Stevedores were paid a flat fee for stowage, but they paid their hands by the day, which encouraged them to drive workers hard, beyond the limits of safety and health.
Since black workers monopolized Charleston dock work through nearly all of this period, the boundaries of mastery were always contentious. Employers went back and forth on whether it made better sense to own slaves or just hire them. While businesspeople were most concerned with profits, city leaders worried more about security. Slaves required annual licenses in order to work on the docks or drive a cart, and the city [End Page 152] government tried, with mixed success, to regulate wages and to control their comings and goings, along with their power to choose whether and for whom they worked. Although white Charlestonians liked the money black waterfront workers brought them, many of these workers' actions annoyed them, whether it was singing bawdy songs at indecorous volume, driving carts at reckless speeds through the busy city streets, or absconding to freedom hidden among the cotton bales and rats.
Thompson points out that it was not just departing African Americans who worried white Charlestonians: the 1822 Negro Seamen Act and its successors sought to prevent the arrival of dangerous ideas. Free black seamen from outside South Carolina were jailed while they were in port, their stay paid for by their captains. Of course, this often meant that captains then hired local black workers to take their place on board ship, exposing Charleston's black workers to foreign influences. Years of tinkering never managed to...