Thursday, July 17, 2008

Matthew Pratt Guterl's "American Mediterranean"

Matthew Guterl is Associate Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, and Director of the American Studies Program, at Indiana University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation, and reported the following:
In my case, page 99 is both memorable and meaningful. That page falls in the middle of a book about Southern slaveholders and the Caribbean before, during, and after the Civil War. It also sits near the mid-point of a chapter about Eliza McHattton, a Louisiana planter’s wife who fled the war-torn South to establish a vast sugar plantation in Cuba. There, she struggled to reconcile an enslaved African population with Asian “coolies,” or contract laborers brought from China. She ultimately established a very carefully calibrated racial division of labor on her plantation.

To dramatize the plight of the Chinese, I used a logbook from the journey of The Forest Eagle, a “coolie ship” arranged by New England merchants and bound to reach Havana at nearly the same moment as Eliza. The journey of the Forest Eagle ends on p. 99. It was a disaster – well over twenty percent of the Chinese on board died, either at sea or in quarantine. The ship suffered an outbreak of disease. The profit-oriented captain of the ship was worried that the “cargo” was being fed too much, and so instructed the “coolie master” to limit the food intake of the group. And there were, perhaps not surprisingly, a series of rebellions and schemes that needed to be put down.

I remember writing this section of the book very well. I had been looking for a way to make use of the Forest Eagle logbook, and decided to just lay the story out for the readers and let the details do the work. The passage of that ship is, in a word, haunting. So, too, is Eliza McHatton’s memoir, From Flag to Flag.
Read an excerpt from American Mediterranean, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue