Edifices of Empire

Edifices of Empire

Capitalism, from its very beginning, was twinned with racism. Two books describe how these two forces emerged together, at the same moment in the unfolding of Western political economy.

The National City Bank of New York, Santa Clara branch, Cuba (lezumbalaberenjena / Flickr)

Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean
by Peter James Hudson
University of Chicago Press, 2017, 368 pp.

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
by Stuart Hall
Duke University Press, 2017, 320 pp.

In 1928, a bank that had once had a near monopoly in the Caribbean was losing business in Panama to its competitors, all Manhattan-based financial giants like itself. To recover its local fortunes, the National City Bank of New York’s Caribbean director Joseph Durrell proposed a new building to house the Panama City branch. The problem as he saw it was one of space: the lobby at the time, barely six feet wide, forced its customers into a shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy that breached the color line. In a letter to the bank’s president, Durrell complained that the lobby was “usually congested with Jamaicans and East Indians, which has resulted in our being known locally as the Nigger Bank.” A new building would solve that problem, Durrell continued, by “segregating the spades and the ragheads” with the hope of “secur[ing] the lion’s share of the white business.”

Peter James Hudson recounts this episode in Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean, a history of the exploits of U.S. bankers in the Caribbean and South and Central America from the 1890s to the 1930s. The author, a historian at the University of California in Los Angeles, completes his description of the City Bank’s new Panama City branch by noting that it was built near the demolished colonial ramparts of the old city, one of many intimations of colonialism’s revival that appear in the book. The new edifices—and the older ones they sat beside or replaced—underscore Hudson’s point that U.S. banks were informal successors to empire. Critics at the time pointed out that the banking world’s penchant for neoclassical architecture was an attempt to mask the ugly, exploitative realities of modern industry behind an elegant classical façade. Hudson pushes this critique further, suggesting that the mimicry of classical buildings in the financial world invoked whiteness as well as empire by claiming continuity with European culture and civilization.

Hudson’s analysis belongs to a black radical tradition that reaches back to the late Cedric Robinson, who used the concept of “racial capitalism” to explain the entanglement of economics and culture. Racism, Robinson argued, did not begin in order to justify the enslavement of Africans. It originated with the barbarizing of groups within Europe—Jews, Roma, the Irish—during feudalism. In Robinson’s formulation, capitalism from its very beginnings was twinned with racism. The two forces emerged together, depending on and constituting each other, at the same moment in the unfolding of Western political economy. As the historian Robin Kelley has put it, “there is no such thing as non-racial capitalism.”

That’s the definition of racial capitalism at work in Bankers and Empire. So what, then, is the architecture of racial capitalism? Is it a bank lobby reimagined and redesigned as a space roomy enough for apartheid, as in the evocative example from Panama City? The façade matters less than the foundation—and Hudson argues that the foundation for finance capital on the front lines of the United States’ informal empire was white supremacy.

Bankers and Empire documents how the sovereignty of formally independent nations across the region, from Haiti to Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, was compromised through the dubious practices of U.S. banks. Institutions with North American leadership and stockholders came to hold the customs revenues and currency reserves of fledgling governments and used this capital to finance roads, electricity, telephone services, sugar plantations, entire sovereign debts across the region. Credit was extended in sometimes risky ways, in a frenzy of speculation, and default meant that major employers, public utilities, even Caribbean presidents and politicians were, in a sense, the foreclosed property of Yankee businessmen.

Hudson shows us the enterprise’s racist underpinnings by studying the pioneers who built it on the ground: “always white, always male, half frontiersman, half accountant.” These “rogue bankers” had little formal experience or training; they were not the famous gentleman capitalists of the era but their little-known minions, the rough, self-made figures who got their hands dirty in the largely unregulated, fledgling field of international finance. They were men like the City Bank’s Joseph Durrell, with his anxieties about “spades and ragheads.” Hudson does an excellent job of demonstrating how racism permeated the culture of Wall Street with details from the archives of the banking institutions themselves. Their newsletters, pamphlets, and journals contained descriptions of waiters in blackface at company banquets; articles about the staging of minstrel shows and Orientalist pageants at company-sponsored events; and anecdotes and jokes ridiculing Asians, Native Americans, Jews, and African Americans. Behind the City Bank double colonnade in Manhattan in 1914, employees wearing coon costumes and blackface performed songs such as “Down in Monkeyville” and “There’s a Little Bit of Monkey in You and Me.” And the Chase Bank’s in-house newspaper in 1925 ran the short story “Dark Finance,” about two African Americans fighting over the meaning of a promissory note, with their financial illiteracy the punchline.

Hudson’s rogue bankers built their resumes and their reputations through ventures reliant on slavery, segregation, or white settler colonialism. Consider James Morris Morgan, point man in the Caribbean for the first truly international American bank. Born on a New Orleans cotton plantation, nursed by an enslaved woman, Morgan joined the Confederate Navy, then managed a plantation in Charleston before becoming an employee of the International Banking Corporation (IBC). His 1917 memoir, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer, brimmed with contempt for blacks fighting to claim equality after slavery. “Since emancipation,” he wrote, “an English bulldog was worth a great deal more to me than a free nigger.”

Morgan took that attitude with him to Panama, where the United States had backed the revolutionaries seceding from Colombia in 1903 and where he swiftly muscled his way in, maneuvering a foothold for the IBC. A few years later, the IBC won a U.S. government contract to pay a quarter of the workers in the U.S. Canal Zone, where the division of labor and the monetary systems were both segregated. Skilled, managerial employees were white and American. Manual laborers were black and from the West Indies. The former were paid in gold, the latter in silver. IBC branches in the towns of Empire (whose namers either had a twisted sense of humor or did not believe in euphemism) and Colon profited from this discriminatory currency regime, as black workers exchanged their silver for gold to send home to Jamaica or Barbados.

The Caribbean, where Hudson’s rogue figures helped propagate such racialized economies, was less rigid and less binary in its regulation and negotiation of race than the United States during Jim Crow. American bankers went to countries where property, rather than race, determined de facto voting rights, where whites were a minority, where a racial spectrum existed between black and white. Familiar Stranger, the posthumously published memoir of cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall, provides a distilled sense of this terrain. A founder of the New Left Review and British Cultural Studies, and an important figure in the Black Arts Movement, Hall was born in an English-speaking colony in the Caribbean. Still, the underlying dynamics he explores in the book apply just as well to the technically postcolonial and mostly Spanish-speaking geography that Hudson covers. Hall presents a portrait of a divided self, of what it meant to be not merely an object but a damaged subject of racial thinking.

Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, the son of the first “coloured” man to serve as the chief accountant in Jamaica for United Fruit, an American company known, in Hall’s words, “for summoning the dark arts in Central American politics.” From a young age, Hall was aware of his family’s position in an intermediary class, a position determined by skin color as much as income or profession. Even their physical location in Kingston—in a veranda-wrapped bungalow with a tennis court off the Half Way Tree Road, between poor black neighborhoods downtown and middle-class suburbs expanding uptown—reinforced a sense of being stranded in between two worlds. In Hall’s family tree, there had been slaves and there had also been slave-owners. His light-skinned mother, raised in a plantation world, held up whiteness as an ideal for herself and her children. She forbade him from bringing home friends from his elite high school who were not of “the ‘right’ color.” The women he dated, also the wrong hue, had to be kept “a guilty secret.” Most devastatingly, Hall’s mother ended his sister’s relationship with a black university student, precipitating a mental breakdown that led to her hospitalization. Hall reads her fate as an example of how “the whole colonial racialized system” lived traumatically “in the interior of the family and in the collapses of [the] mind.”

For Hall, his family, his class, his island—the color line was drawn inside them. It was a psychological legacy of the power held by slave owners. Racial thinking’s repercussions in the real world were only too concrete. (Hall could barely bring himself to speak of the breakdown that derailed his sister’s life.) The power of slave owners also had a significant material legacy—they were financially compensated for the loss of the enslaved human beings they had treated as units of production, who were suddenly abstracted into capital. As Hall explains, slave owners funneled the payments they received at emancipation into businesses—shipping, railways, merchant banking—that fueled Britain’s industrial transformation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hall juxtaposes this eclipsed history of racial capitalism with an exploration of the prejudices that misshaped so many lives in colonial plantation societies in the Caribbean to underscore the economic roots of all that internalized prejudice and self-loathing. Jamaican planters profited from both slavery and abolition; in self-vindication, they worked to instill “a continuing faith in the ‘truth’ of race” in the late-nineteenth century. On the ground, this manifested as an abiding “mental slavery” (to use Bob Marley’s famous words). The struggle for liberation from it was the task of Hall’s generation and continues urgently to be that of our own.

In Hall’s lifetime, the struggle for both political and psychological liberation took shape in 1938, a year of strikes and worker uprisings led by trade unions in Jamaica and other countries in the region. Across the Caribbean, black consciousness stirred alongside anti-colonialism. The former marked a radical cultural reversal from the colony of Hall’s upbringing, where blackness wasn’t an identity to be claimed with pride. As Hall remembers, the “Back to Africa” mantra of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) “was a source of ridicule around Kingston middle-class dinner tables.” But 1938, Hall writes, inaugurated “a world of new possibilities, a world in which blackness itself came to function as a resource for the future.”

If U.S. finance capitalism and European colonialism rested on racist foundations, resistance to both was built on assertions of black pride. In Jamaica, it would find expression in Rastafarianism and reggae. Garvey’s UNIA, founded in the same prewar era when American bankers established their neocolonial ventures abroad, represented the early stirrings of an African diasporic consciousness in the Caribbean and the broader world. Literary and intellectual movements in the United States, such as the Harlem Renaissance and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism, documented and interrogated American empire—and did so with the help of black migrants from the Caribbean.

As American bankers flowed into the region, black immigrants flowed out. They included Harlem-based newspaper men closely associated with the New Negro Movement and the socialist secret society the African Black Brotherhood, such as Wilfred Domingo, the Jamaican-born founding editor of Garvey’s Negro World, and Cyril Briggs, the Nevis-born founding editor of the Crusader. These Caribbeans in diaspora proved critical to resistance movements against racial capitalism. (They were also indispensable to the development of the Communist Party and other worker and socialist organizations in the United States, as historian Margaret Stevens argues in her 2017 book Red International and Black Caribbean.)

Wall Street’s exploitative foundation overseas was exposed by activists rejecting its claims to white supremacy. As his coda, Hudson provides a genealogy of forerunners who perceived that U.S. finance abroad was a form of racial capitalism. He swiftly surveys the critiques and contributions of the NAACP, inventive writers such as Langston Hughes and Alejo Carpentier and black radicals such as Communist International activist George Padmore. Bankers and Empire joins this tradition of resistance and unmasking, telling the story in the incriminating words of the rogue bankers themselves.

If there’s one indelible, definitive image to emerge from mining their archives, it’s the scene Hudson paints of eight U.S. marines armed with canes and revolvers marching through the streets of Port-au-Prince at 1 p.m. on December 16, 1914, to the vaults of a bank and emerging with seventeen wooden boxes laden with half a million dollars in gold—Haiti’s treasury reserves. They transported the gold by wagon—while undercover marines watched and four U.S. military vessels stood by—to a waiting motorboat that sped it to a U.S. marine vessel that set sail immediately for New York. Within two days, the gold was inside a Manhattan bank. Justified by the need to safeguard the deposits at a time of political instability and insurrection, the controversial secret operation took place at the request of a City Bank director with the ear of William Jennings Bryan, then secretary of state.

The military occupation that soon followed led to the deaths of 3,000 Haitians, including peasants resisting U.S. marines conscripting them to build a road. When exposés about the repression in the Nation prompted an investigation in 1920, City Bank directors testifying before Congress painted a bluntly paternalistic portrait of Haitians as backward, inferior, and in need of white rule. One stated: “Today, they are nothing but grown-up children, ignorant of all agricultural methods, and they know nothing of machinery. They must be taught.”

Hudson, fittingly, returns to architecture to make his point. In the late 1920s, with the world on the verge of financial crisis, the City Bank constructed new headquarters in a style described as “bull market architecture.” The new building was a fifty-four-story Bessemer steel frame skyscraper of white Rockwood Alabama stone. (Hudson observes, dryly, that the stone turns whiter over time.) From the tower’s eighteenth story, fourteen massive carved heads representing the giants of finance stared down. Seven smirked. Seven scowled. The faces of the architects of American global banking were on display. They needed no façade.

Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (University of Chicago Press, 2013), a narrative history of Indian indentured women in the post-emancipation Caribbean. Her short fiction, a story set in an unnamed country in the West Indies, appears in the collection Go Home! (Feminist Press, 2018).