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  • Finding Biopower at Sea
  • Jason Oliver Chang (bio)

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Figure 1.

"Ho Yuck and Li Hung Pew, Chinese Sailors, Western Australia." ca 1905. Passey Collection of Photos. State Library of Western Australia, REF#b25438414. Sourced from the collections of the State Library of Western Australia and reproduced with permission of the Library Board of Western Australia.

Pictured in this photograph are Ho Yuck and Li Hung Pew, two Chinese sailors working aboard a British steamer around 1905 in Australian waters. This rare portrait of early-twentieth century Chinese sailors provides an intimate testament to the tens of thousands of other seamen like them who comprised a hidden maritime labor force on US vessels from the eighteenth to mid-twentieth century. According to one historian, more than eighty thousand Chinese sailors worked aboard transpacific US steamships [End Page 857] from 1876 to 1906.1 This mobile labor force made transpacific migration and commerce possible and profitable, but we have not fully considered their place in US Empire. Because sailors only occasionally became immigrants, they are not easily captured by historical records concerned with the practice of biopower that permeates the archived annals of states, churches, hospitals, prisons, schools, and libraries. Biopower, which Michel Foucault describes as a range of techniques for directing the "performance of the body" and managing the "state of health of a population," has largely been applied to terra-centric human activity. Terrestrial power has always been projected on the sea; indeed, all imperial powers depend in some part on the control and use of ocean space.

Even though we carry the salty water of the oceans in our bodies, human life is fragile at sea: to stay alive takes skill. The ocean resists our efforts to claim and surveil life upon it, and furthermore it remains incomprehensible to our consciousness and possesses physical properties that carry on without regard to human concern. Seafarers and their work mediate an empire's dependence on ocean transit and the ungovernable aquatic environment. Through biopower at sea, bodies, knowledge, technology, and authority are organized to ensure the continuous circulation of vessels. The reliance on Asian sailors and their seafaring cultures as a pivotal source of oceanic labor for the commercial and naval fleets of successive imperial regimes in the Pacific reflects the historical emergence of a race-based class of mariners. As they mediate US Empire's land-sea interface, their biopolitics have frequently stirred debate about the exclusion of sailors from the biopowers of its racial projects to facilitate the maritime circulation of goods and capital. Yet the debated maritime exception itself is an apt subject to investigate the analytical richness of the notion of biopower as it works out in an altogether different context.

In 1823 a British seaman named Daniel Fraser was arrested by a sheriff of Charleston, South Carolina, according to the recent reform to the state's Seamen Act prohibiting the arrival of nonwhite people at the state's seaports.2 The law, titled An act for the better regulation and government of free negroes and persons of color and for other purposes, empowered officials to imprison any person of color who arrived in the port. If the ship's captain neglected these colored seamen or refused to permit their imprisonment, the colored seamen "shall be deemed and taken as absolute slaves, and sold in conformity to the provisions of the act."3 Fraser, a black sailor aboard the English Atlantic, caused Great Britain to launch a legal rebuttal to the slave state of South Carolina, arguing that the aim to "prohibit ships coming into this port from employing colored seamen" is "incompatible" with the US federal government's facilitation of commerce with "foreign nations and our sister states." Fraser's British defense argued the [End Page 858] world's maritime shipping labor force is nearly all colored, from Sierra Leone's Krumen to Chinese, Filipinos, Moroccans, and Algerians, warning that South Carolina would be cut off from global commerce. He added: "And even the state of Massachusetts might lately, and may perhaps now, expedite to this port a vessel with her officers black, and her crew composed of Nantucket...


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