The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom
Authors: Jason Chang, Ben Barson, and Alexis Dudden • Illustrated by Kim Inthavong
Series: PM Press
Subjects: Graphic Novel / History: Asia, Maritime History & Piracy, Slavery, Imperialism
The Cargo Rebellion tells a true story of mutiny on the high seas in which four hundred indentured Chinese men overthrew their captor, the Connecticut businessman and slave trader Leslie Bryson, taking a stand against an exploitative global enterprise. The laborers learned that Bryson’s claimed destination of San Francisco was a lie to trick them into deadly servitude in the dreaded guano islands of Peru. Reaching a dramatic tipping point, the mutineers rose up and killed Bryson and several of the ship's officers and then attempted to sail back to China.
This book's centerpiece, a deft graphic account of the rebellion in the context of the “coolie trade” and the struggle to end traffic in human “cargo,” is supported by essays that spotlight the rebellion itself, how the subject of indentured Asian workers is being taught in classrooms, and how Chinese workers shaped the evolution of American music, particularly in the making of the first drum set. The Cargo Rebellion is a history from below that does justice to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of indentured workers and demonstrates how Asian migration to the Americas was rooted in slavery, colonialism, and the life-and-death struggle against servitude.
“A powerful graphic tale of the Robert Bowne Rebellion of 1852 in one of the darkest moments of human trafficking: the coolie trade. Fearless and visually striking, The Cargo Rebellion celebrates the unbroken spirit of the dispossessed as hundreds of indentured Chinese men mutinied against the captain to set themselves free.”
—Lydia H. Liu, author of The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
“Slave Mutiny in the Pacific? Hell yeah! Here in these pages is a history we should have known, a powerful account of ‘Coolie’ rebellion during the other oceanic slave trade—the one organized in the name of free labor and abolition. Beautifully illustrated and told, this is a text you will read many times over.”
—Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
“Three cheers for this creative graphic history from below! The mighty mutiny of 400 Asian workers aboard the ship Robert Bowne is told here with verve and visual power, showing how the violence of global capitalism met resolute resistance. Read and be inspired by this timeless and heroic tale.”
—Marcus Rediker, co-creator of Prophet against Empire: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel
“We chose to remember. Through deft writing and powerful illustrations, Ben Barson, Jason Oliver Chang, Alexis Dudden, and Kim Inthanvong draw our attention to Chinese rebellion, a mutiny of 400 Chinese indentured men to secure freedom from captivity. Their insistence on remembering dislodges us from a collective amnesia that erases histories of Asian resistance. This is a story needed now more than ever to connect violence against Asian Americans to the workings of global racial capitalism and ongoing enslavements in the present.”
—Diane Fujino, editor of Contemporary Asian American Activism: Building Movements for Liberation
“The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom is an eloquently written and beautifully illustrated account of a landmark incident of successful resistance and rebellion by nineteenth century indentured Chinese workers. It relates a story that has been hidden from official histories but which endures in the counter-memories of freedom loving people. Today when new virulent and violent forms of racial capitalism use displacement, dispossession, and deportation to consign working people to increasingly unlivable destinies, The Cargo Rebellion provides a model of the irrepressible power of the people that is well worthy of admiration and emulation.”
—George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness
“If we are to defeat the evils of globalization, we must make it our duty to unearth the lost histories of workers, refusers, and rebels—especially those who have been moved, en masse, against their will, around the globe and across the oceans in the service of capitalist accumulation. The Cargo Rebellion moves a heavy history in just 28 exquisite pages. It’s an invitation to remember. An ode to an audacious workers’ struggle on the high seas. And to salute those who refused to work on an island of shit.”
—Kanya D’Almeida, author of “I Cleaned The.,” winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
“Leave it to this dynamic foursome—Ben Barson, Jason Oliver Chang, Alexis Dudden, and Kim Inthavong—to tell this important and hidden history of Chinese indentured workers’ rebellion. The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Choose Freedom is beautifully illustrated, succinctly told, and passionately argued. With its timely historical lessons for today’s urgent fight against dehumanization of workers in the face of global racial capitalism, The Cargo Rebellion should be a required reading for everyone from K–12 schools to PhD programs.”
—Lili M. Kim, author of Decolonization Dreams: Gender, Race, Empire, and the Korean American Transnational Freedom Struggle
“The Cargo Rebellion is a brilliant fusion of arts depicting a global working-class struggle, long ago, for the precious hope of freedom. Hurrah for Ben Barson and his collaborators!”
—Paul Buhle, co-editor of Encyclopedia of the American Left, authorized biographer of CLR James
“Cargo carries a precious load. Long live the Afro Asian legacy to liberation!”
—Quincy Saul, author of Maroon Comix: Origins and Destinies
“This strikingly illustrated work recounts a very powerful and inspiring story of resistance to Western imperialism and capitalist exploitation. It is a notable chapter in the struggle between domination and liberation that must not be forgotten. Perhaps even more importantly, it is the kind of story that kindles our righteous indignation and strengthens our will to continue that struggle today.”
—John P. Clark, author of Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community
About the Contributors
Jason Chang received his PhD in ethnic studies from the University of California–Berkeley in 2010, his masters in public policy and administration from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst in 2005, and his BA in Latin American studies and political economy from Prescott College in 2002. He is associate professor of history and Asian and Asian American studies at the University of Connecticut, where he directs the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute.
Benjamin Barson received his PhD in music from the University of Pittsburgh in 2020 and his BA in African American studies from Hampshire College in 2010. He is an adjunct professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, teaching courses on jazz improvisation and history.
Alexis Dudden received her PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 1998 and her BA in East Asian studies, magna cum laude, from Columbia in 1991. She is professor of history at the University of Connecticut, specializing in modern Japan, modern Korea, and international history.
Kim Inthavong is a visual artist. She received her BA from the University of Madison–Wisconsin and is engaged in numerous arts projects.
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