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Interview with Christopher Bishof

Published: May 15, 2018

Christopher Bishof is an Assistant Professor of History  at the University of Richmond. He is the 2017 recipient of the Walter D. Love Prize for his article, “Chinese Labourers, Free Blacks and Social Engineering in the Post-Emancipation British West Indies,” Past & Present 231 (May, 2016): 129-168.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I became interested in this topic while I was reading through Victorian elementary teachers’ accounts of their summer trips to the West Indies as part of the research for my dissertation/first book.  I was surprised to encounter some incredibly enthusiastic accounts of Chinese indentured laborers, which led me to discover that planters, missionaries, and colonial policymakers also wrote about them in similar ways.  These enthusiastic claims about how Chinese indentured laborers would usher in a new era in the West Indies were a mystery that needed to be explained.

What was your most surprising revelation or important conclusion?

I was really surprised to find that planters, colonial policymakers, and missionaries – three groups who almost never agreed – all seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing several thousand Chinese indentured laborers to the West Indies.  I was also surprised to find that their enthusiasm wasn’t really about the work that Chinese laborers would perform or even the competition which they would create in the labor market.  Rather, it was about how Chinese laborers would create a capitalist culture by inspiring free blacks to emulate the supposed Chinese love of earning and spending money, thus pushing free blacks back to waged work on plantations.  At the same time, missionaries and colonial policymakers believed that Chinese laborers would stand up for their legal rights in ways that other indentured laborers – especially Indians – would not.  Missionaries hoped that this would inspire free blacks to stand up for their rights in cases in the face of planters who tried to withhold wages, use violence, or otherwise abuse and exploit them.  Though this would change within a few decades, much of the initial interest in indentured labor after emancipation seems to have been on account of how it would supposedly reshape free black culture. 

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?

Like my other articles and my dissertation/book project, this article developed slowly and with great frustration.  I tested its arguments at several conferences, went back to the archives several times to fill in gaps (as it dawned on me what those gaps were), and revised, revised, and then revised some more before ever submitting it.  Then, after I submitted it and received the reader reports, I had to revise it a further two times.  My advice to graduate students and my fellow early career scholars would be to keep working at it, and not to expect it to be a quick or easy process.  However, having this second line of research (which is quite distinct from my dissertation/first book project) offered a nice change of pace when I got bored or frustrated with my first project. 

What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?

The most challenging part of this project was mastering a new historiography.  My first book is about the history of elementary teachers in Britain.  It does engage with imperial history, but not too extensively.  Working on this article required immersing myself in both imperial history writ large and specific debates within the history of the West Indies – especially about the “flight from the estates” in the wake of emancipation, the turn to indentured labor, and the nature of political authority.  

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

I’d like to think so.  One of the things that this article – and the larger book project – tries to map out is the belief in the power of relatively small interventions to solve major economic, political, social, and ethical problems in a way that benefits everyone.  It’s easy to understand the allure of such interventions, but figuring out why they seemed feasible even to policymakers and social reformers who had a lot of experience requires examining the particular constellation of ideas about the market, the role of the state, and race that existed at this historical moment.  I think we’re living through another moment in which we’re fixating on easy fixes.  The downside, then and now, is that this fixation can make it seem unnecessary, even counterproductive to undertake the long, expensive, and difficult work of addressing underlying structural and cultural problems.  From the NHS to Britain’s relationship to the EU to urban violence to education, I think the obsession with finding an easy fix has drawn attention away from working towards real, sustainable solutions.     

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

This article will serve as the seed for my next book project, Easy Fixes: Race, Capitalism, and Social Engineering Schemes in the British West Indies, 1838-1880.  This new project should keep me busy for quite a while. 

 

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