People-Works: The Labor of Transport, An Introduction
What would the history of transportation look like if the stories were about people rather than machines? About the constant presence of human power instead of the rise, expansion, and decline of transportation networks? The exhibits that follow tell the histories of the people without whom transportation systems would not function. From brick setters to aviation meteorologists, People-Works: The Labor of Transport examines the essential labor that makes transportation possible.
People-Works approaches the history of transport labor in a particular fashion. Scholarly and popular works generally divide the history of transport labor into stories about discrete regions or modes of transport. We decided to do something different – we juxtaposed histories of transport labor from the medieval period to the present day, from Ghana to Singapore to France, and from feet to ships under sail to roads to airplanes. Why? Too often, histories of transport labor subsume the story of labor to the story of the transport technology or the dominant economic system – they tell the story of transport labor as the story of the rise and decline of particular industries and their particular modes of labor. But transport labor has existed throughout human history. People-Works recuperates some of that labor in its many forms, showing that while technologies may rise and fall, human power remains constant.
Our juxtaposition seeks to achieve another goal as well. The history of transportation, and the history of technology more broadly, still struggles to address the residual consequences of imperial history writing – of the division of the world into technologically advanced and technologically undeveloped places (Bray 2013; Edgerton 2011). In the context of a global modernity that imagines its primary characteristic to be its embrace of speed and circulation, this division is often articulated in terms of a division between places where transport is largely human powered and places where transport is generally mechanized. Instead, we examine the work of Chinese seamen alongside the work of American automobile safety regulators and Ghanaian mammy truck drivers. The result is two, interrelated global histories: one, a global history of technology that shows how transport labor shapes politics, economics, and culture around the world, rather than a teleological history of transport modernization; and two, a global history of labor that illuminates how cultures of work and movement shape ways of thinking about technology.
This approach required a certain flexibility in how we defined the concept of labor. The primary way that we define labor is by drawing a distinction between “labor” and “technological artifact.” Treating labor as the many forms of work that humans do to make transportation technologies and systems functions differs from more standard models, which define labor in opposition to capital or management (Bellucci et al 2014; Lucassen 2006; Bagwell 1974).
We are conscious of the challenges that this approach presents. On the one hand, defining labor capaciously underscores our larger point about the role of the human in the history of transport. On the other hand, it runs the risk of flattening out the different stakes of different kinds of labor. Chinese seamen lived under threat of jail and poverty; brick setters were often prisoners. Medieval university messengers faced dangerous conditions in transit, but were richly compensated through tax exemptions, while federal safety regulators enjoyed secure employment and generous benefits.
Rather than flattening out differences between types of transport labor, however, we found that in the end that our juxtaposition served to highlight them. Each module explores the costs and consequences of the transport labor it analyzes. From the stakes of automobility in Ghana under colonial rule to the racial politics of street paving, the modules show how each transport labor shaped and was shaped by the larger political, economic, and social structures of its time and place.
We hope that you enjoy the exhibit. Before you depart, we would like to thank our team of experts, who double-blind peer-reviewed each module. Thank you for your excellent and insightful feedback. We would also like to thank Michael Bess, Editor of the Mobility in History Blog, for his enthusiastic support of this project.
Off we go!
University of California, Santa Barbara
Bagwell, Philip. The Transport Revolution from 1770. London: Batsford, 1974.
Bellucci, Stefano, Larissa Rosa Corrêa, Jan-Georg Deutsch, and Chitra Joshi. “Introduction: Labour in Transport: Histories from the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), c. 1750 to 1950.” International Review of Social History 59, no. S22 (2014): 1-10.
Bray, Francesca. Technology, Gender and History in Imperial China: Great Transformations Reconsidered. London: Routledge, 2013.
Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Lucassen, Jan. Global Labour History: A State of the Art. Bern: Peter Lang, 2006.
Kate McDonald is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Placing Empire: Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan (University of California Press, 2017) and co-director of the Bodies and Structures: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History project. Her work on mobility history in modern Japan and the Japanese Empire appears in Mobility in History, Transfers, and Technology and Culture.