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  • Fires on Shipboard:Sandbars, Salvage Fraud, and the Cotton Trade in New Orleans in the 1870s
  • Bruce E. Baker (bio)

At the beginning of 1880, the commercial world of New Orleans was in crisis. The problem was evident in the smell of burning cotton that often hung over the waterfront and the frequency with which the phrase fires on shipboard was used in the columns of the Daily Picayune. One businessman had pieced together "with considerable difficulty" a list of all the ships in the harbor that had caught fire since the end of the Civil War. The figures were startling. There had been thirty-seven incidents, but more significant was the trend. In the first thirteen years, there had never been more than four fires in a year, but in 1879 and the first five weeks of 1880 there had been fifteen, more than one per month. And more worrying, there was a pattern: "During these past three years fires seem to have systematized themselves," since they "have all been sailing vessels, either filled or partially filled with cotton, lying mostly in the upper districts, within a few posts of each other. The usual time of the discovery of these fires has been between the hours of two and five in the morning, the location on board in or near the main hatch and burning often in two or more places and always in the last bales that have been stowed." These fires damaged individual cargoes of cotton, but unchecked they could destroy the port's business if marine insurance companies had to raise their rates to cover the losses. The writer was convinced that salvage suits (called libels in admiralty) were part of the problem: "The incendiary is some one or more persons who are tempted directly or indirectly by the hope of getting salvage either by compromise or by a suit."1 These fires were the result of a cyclical [End Page 601] process in the organization of trade and commerce and of capitalist development in post-Civil War New Orleans. The process started, to the extent that these things have beginnings and endings, with a cartel of towboats that controlled ships getting over the sandbar at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and it led to a salvage fraud operation that threatened the commercial recovery of New Orleans shipping and to the creation of new policing, surveillance, and organizational practices that changed the business of the New Orleans waterfront.

That New Orleans struggled commercially after the Civil War has never been a secret, but framing that struggle within what has come to be known as the "organizational synthesis" oversimplifies the situation.2 The most thorough recent critique of this approach was presented by Richard White in Railroaded, his history of the transcontinental railroad corporations in the United States. He argues that, according to Alfred D. Chandler Jr. and Robert M. Wiebe, "modernity was synonymous with order imposed by impersonal large-scale organizations" as "temporary disorder gave way to a more lasting order."3 That is not what White finds with the transcontinental railroads, and it seems to have been even less the case with the business community of New Orleans in the same period. Rather than a march from disorder to order, capitalist development is better seen as a recurrence or cyclical process—two steps forward, one step back at best. Within the organizational synthesis, focused as it was on bureaucrats, experts, and businessmen, crime and corruption are treated as distractions, as noise in the system, or possibly as a sort of peasant rebellion. This article suggests instead that corruption and crime, motivated by personal gain, also served a diagnostic function within capitalist development, finding cracks and weak spots in systems, inspiring those with more power to control and shape those systems to fix the problems and to find more efficient and effective ways to do [End Page 602] things.4 Capitalists need criminals. Part of the reason why, though not argued explicitly here, is that corruption and crime have no ideology beyond self-interest, no vision of the city to boost, no theory to prove. They rely on the materiality and the reality...


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pp. 601-624
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