Our Steamboat Imperialism

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Slaves returning from a cotton field in the American South, early 1860s

Chugging against the current on a boxy steamer, the officer closely monitored the course of the Congo River. You’d think a river might be easier to navigate than the sea, since it flows in one direction and looks, more or less, like a line. You’d think it would be more interesting to look at, and presumably safer, too.

You’d be wrong. Stones, sandbanks, widely varying soundings, sticky heat, banks a monotonous screen of jungle, and the menacing possibility of attack: being on the river was bad enough. And what surrounded it was ghastly, a rapacious imperial system to extract rubber or gold or timber, whose toll the officer had seen in the emaciated bodies, even corpses, of black laborers. The Congo journey was the most psychologically and physically challenging that Joseph Conrad had endured in more than fifteen years of sailing. Later, in the pages of his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, he described the river as “an immense snake uncoiled,” reaching into a horrifying “place of darkness.”

It’s significant that the best-known indictment of modern European imperialism begins on a river and moves by steamboat. Steamboats were to nineteenth-century empire-builders what caravels had been to the conquistadores, and what satellites and drones are to us: they extended political and economic power into hitherto inaccessible regions. In China, the British East India Company used steam-powered gunboats to wage the Opium Wars and secure access to inland waterways and markets. In the Middle East, steamships opened the Red Sea, Euphrates, and Tigris to reliable commercial navigation, dramatically reducing the travel time between Asia and Europe, and raising European imperial interest in the region. In Africa, river steamers achieved what centuries of coastal trade had not, by penetrating the interior for European commerce—and colonization—up the Niger, the Zambesi, the Nile, and, of course, the Congo.

But it was in North America that “steamboat imperialism” came into its own. It was here that Robert Fulton had first demonstrated the commercial potential of steamships, with boats on the Hudson that could take you from New York to Albany in about thirty hours, while a stagecoach took days. In 1811 Fulton launched the first commercially successful steamboat on the Mississippi. By 1820, sixty-nine steamers plied the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. A generation later, there were 740. Steamboats powered the push of white settlement into Indian territory, and facilitated the commercial development of the Mississippi Valley into perhaps the most profitable land in the world. The “Cotton Kingdom” was created by steamboat imperialism.

Even today’s politically correct textbooks, sensitive to the United States’ genocidal campaigns against Indians, do not conventionally describe America’s continental expansion as “imperialism” in the same vein as early European colonization, or as later US interventions overseas. Yet to the founders, imperialism was precisely what the United States should aspire to—to be an “empire for liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, in …

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