H-Net Book Review: [H-Slavery] Illingworth 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 James Illingworth (University of Maryland, College Park)
Published on H-Slavery (June, 2017)
Commissioned by David M. Prior

The South's nineteenth-century ships, docks, and waterways have
formed the backdrop for much important work in the field of labor
history. The men--enslaved and free, black and white--who toiled on
them connected the producers of staple crops to the regional,
national, and international markets on which their commodities were
sold. Southern maritime and riverine workers were not just crucial to
the region's prosperity; they also brought other southerners into
contact with transnational currents of news, information, and
dissident politics. Little wonder, therefore, that these workers have
attracted the attention of so many scholars. Michael D. Thompson's
_Working on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an
Antebellum Southern Port_, which examines the dockworkers of
Charleston, South Carolina, is a welcome addition to this corpus of
scholarship. Indeed, as the first book-length study of southern
waterfront workers in the years before the Civil War, Thompson's book
breaks important new ground.

_Working on the Dock of the Bay_ is a study of the "pre-Civil War
confrontation" between Charleston dockworkers, their owners, and
their employers, "viewed through the street-level experiences and
perspectives of the workingmen" (p. 3). Chapter 1 describes the
working lives of antebellum Charleston's black dockworkers. It uses
travelers' accounts to paint a vivid picture of the bustling
waterfront and then goes beneath the surface to reveal just how
grueling and dangerous working on the wharves could be. Chapter 2
examines the "incessant contest" (p. 31) between the African American
workers who monopolized jobs on the Charleston waterfront and the
owners, employers, and urban elites who aimed to both profit from and
control black labor. Charleston's commercial economy required a
flexible workforce, and the development of slave hiring to meet this
challenge gave black dockworkers a great deal of autonomy in their
working lives. Charleston's elite, meanwhile, was torn between
embracing the profits based on this flexibility and worrying about
the independence it gave to enslaved waterfront workers. Chapter 3
delves more deeply into what we might call the political culture of
African American dockworkers. Herein, Thompson shows how life on the
Charleston waterfront afforded these enslaved workers "ample occasion
to interact with northern and foreign mariners, stow away in dockside
vessels and abscond to northern ports, and steal or pilfer valuable
commercial goods" (p. 63). The independence and recalcitrance of
African American dockworkers met a stern response from Charleston's
elite, however. Indeed, as Thompson shows in chapter 4, concerns
about the restiveness of black waterfront workers was one factor in
their partial replacement by white immigrant labor in the late
antebellum period. Finally, however, chapter 5 demonstrates that the
susceptibility of these immigrants to diseases such as yellow fever
allowed African American men to maintain a toehold on the docks of
Charleston up until the eve of the Civil War.

_Working on the Dock of the Bay_ evokes some of the best work of the
"new labor history," and it shares many of the strengths of that
school. First and foremost, the book is based on what appears to be
extremely meticulous research in both archival and published sources.
This strong evidentiary base allows Thompson to paint a rich and
detailed picture of the working lives of the black men who labored on
Charleston's docks. His account of waterfront labor relations is
particularly compelling. The revelation that enslaved dockworkers
haggled over wages with potential employers adds a whole new
dimension to our understanding of urban and industrial slavery in the
antebellum South, for example. Similarly, Thompson does a fine job of
revealing the conflicted attitudes of Charleston's elite toward the
waterfront workforce. On the one hand, the city's prosperity required
a flexible workforce, and this entailed accepting that black
dockworkers would enjoy a certain degree of autonomy. On the other
hand, and especially after the discovery of Denmark Vesey's
conspiracy in 1822, sections of the urban elite saw this autonomy as
a major threat to the social order and sought to restrict it. By
capturing this conflict so vividly, Thompson helps us to understand
the contradiction between market forces and slave discipline that
plagued slaveholders throughout the antebellum South.

Thompson's focus on conflicts over working conditions on the
waterfront does feel a little narrow at times, however, and I was
left with questions about the families and social lives of
Charleston's enslaved dockworkers. Where did they live, for example?
Did enslaved hirelings stay in the homes of their owners or in
accommodation provided by their employers? Who prepared their meals,
washed their clothes, and cleaned their dwellings? What did they do
when they got off work? Where did they socialize and go to church?
Answering some of these questions would have enriched our
understanding of these men and their place in Charleston's black
community. It would also have allowed Thompson to include at least
some discussion of black women and their place on the waterfront and
in the city as a whole. One cannot help but feel that such a
discussion would have made a more satisfactory addition to Thompson's
book than the discussion of disease and quarantine in chapter 5__.
The material in that chapter is fascinating in its own right, but it
does relatively little to further the reader's understanding of labor
relations on the waterfront and feels like a slightly uncomfortable
fit with the rest of the book.

Overall, however, _Working on the Dock of the Bay_ comes highly
recommended. It is an unusually clear and well-written work of social
history, based on impressive research, and makes an important
contribution to our understanding of the antebellum urban South. It
will appeal to scholars of nineteenth-century labor history and urban
and industrial slavery, and would make a fine choice for an
upper-level undergraduate or graduate course that seeks to connect
these topics to a transnational context.

Citation: James Illingworth. Review of Thompson, Michael D., _Working
on the Dock of the Bay: Labor and Enterprise in an Antebellum
Southern Port_. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48489

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