Peter James Hudson with John Clegg
In his new book, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean,1 historian Peter James Hudson tells the story of how U.S. banks entered the Caribbean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Displacing local banks and those of European colonial powers, U.S. bankers saw the Caribbean as a new financial frontier—a place to make both one’s name and one’s fortune. They also brought with them the worldview of Progressive-era white America, with its penchant for race science and minstrel shows. Hudson shows that wherever the bankers went the American state was not far behind, exercising its growing taste for imperial power, sometimes with the gunboats to back it up. This is an insightful study of the connections between finance, racism, and imperialism at the dawn of the last century, one that has many points of resonance with the racialized and financialized capitalism of today. I caught up with Hudson when he spoke in Chicago to mark the publication of his book.
Rail (John Clegg): Bankers and Empire explores the fascinating but little-known history of U.S. banks in the Caribbean. How did you come to write a book on this topic?
Peter James Hudson: Origin stories are a little difficult when it comes to Bankers and Empire. It emerged out of a number of disparate though longstanding interests I had in contemporary African diaspora literature and cultural history, especially in relation to the Caribbean and North America, as along with my interest in critical political economy, especially as it concerns the history of imperialism and the history of capitalism generally. These interests were sharpened when I was a graduate student in New York University’s American Studies Program. As a student, I was a little frustrated by both cultural studies’ turn away from political economy and by the over-exalted status of “resistance” within African diaspora studies. I became interested in particular in the historical foment of the interwar period, and increasingly wanted to write about New York City and the Caribbean—both places where I have Jamaican roots.
I came across references to a series of articles on the U.S. military occupation of Haiti that James Weldon Johnson published in the Nation in 1920 under the banner “Self-Determining Haiti.” Johnson argued that the National City Bank of New York—the precursor to today’s Citigroup—was the primary institutional force behind the occupation and that a City Bank vice president, Roger Leslie Farnham, guided the policy of the U.S. State Department. At that point, I knew little about historical research and less about banking, but it seemed there was a project here: not just on the history of the City Bank and Haiti, but also on Wall Street and U.S. imperialism in the greater Caribbean. Reading the secondary literature on the Caribbean and the history of “dollar diplomacy,” I learned that most studies focused on the activities of the State Department, not on financial institutions, while all but a handful tended to focus on the history of one country or colony rather than the region as a whole: on Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, or Cuba. Comparative, synthetic studies were rare—even though Wall Street’s bankers, people like Roger Farnham, saw the Caribbean as a region and dealt with it as such.
I would add, finally, that attempting to write a history of banking that broke from what Herbert Aptheker once termed “vanity histories” of business was difficult. There simply isn’t a deep pool of critical historical studies of banking. Most liberal or Marxist writing treats banks at a high level of theoretical abstraction or, more often than not, of rhetorical invocation. In analyses by such writers as V. I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, J. A. Hobson, Rudolf Hilferding, and, more recently, David Harvey, the activities and internal institutional workings of financial institutions are hollowed out and flattened, even if their theoretical conclusions about banking and imperialism are more or less sound. Moreover, when it comes to analyzing questions of racism and capitalism and the blatant historical discourses of white supremacy shaping U.S. imperial encounters with the early 20th-century Caribbean—something that I tried to work through in Bankers and Empire—there is very little to be gleaned from these authors. Thankfully, there is a tradition of critical Caribbean historians and political economists—people like Walter Rodney, Lloyd Best, George Beckford, Kari Polanyi Levitt—who grappled with many of these questions (even if the history of banking wasn’t their primary interest). And there is a small number of economic historians working on the history of banking history in the Caribbean: Kathleen Monteith on the British West Indies, Guy Pierre on Haiti, Inés Roldán de Montaud on Cuba and Puerto Rico, Enrique Collazo Pérez on Cuba, and Humberto García Muñiz on Puerto Rico. From these secondary sources I was able to cobble together a methodology and a model.
Rail: You mentioned discovering James Weldon Johnson’s powerful articles in the Nation, written during the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Weldon wrote that to understand “why some 3,000 Haitian men, women, and children have been shot down by American rifles and machine guns, it is necessary, among other things, to know that the National City Bank of New York is very much interested in Haiti.” What were the interests Johnson mentions, and how were they connected to the U.S. occupation?
Hudson: Since the beginning of the 20th century, the City Bank began a push overseas as part of a broader internal project of modernization and reform. Increasingly, they were interested in financing foreign debt, funding infrastructure projects, and establishing foreign branches. They also sought to take over foreign national banks as a way to control—and, of course, profit from—national monetary systems, customs collections, and national debts. Beginning in the 1910s, City Bank president Frank A. Vanderlip was offered the opportunity to finance dock and railway projects in Haiti. Vanderlip sent a man to Haiti to investigate, his report came back positive, and Vanderlip quickly realized that their initial investments in Haiti could act as a springboard to take over control of Haiti’s economy and financial system from the then dominant French and German interests by seizing the Banque Nationale d’Haiti, effectively a privately-run central bank. Over the coming years, as the City Bank’s investments in Haiti increased so too did their interests in Haiti’s internal affairs. A number of individuals working for the City Bank—Roger Farnham, but also a sleazy character named John H. Allen—soon became critical liaisons for the State Department regarding Haitian politics. The bank ordered the removal of Haiti’s gold reserve from the vaults of the Banque Nationale and its transportation to Wall Street aboard a U.S. gunship. They repeatedly requested the presence of U.S. warships to protect their interests. Farnham produced a memorandum on Haiti for Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, known as the “Farnham Plan,” that argued that Haiti’s internal political conflicts would only be settled through the takeover of the country by a stronger nation. The Farnham Plan was effectively enacted with the landing of U.S. Marines in 1915, an action justified by Haiti’s internal political turmoil, the supposed threat of Germany in the Caribbean, and the desire to protect U.S. interests. The presence of U.S. Marines served as a guarantee for the City Bank’s investments in the railroads and the docks. They worked to stabilize the Haitian government to ensure the functioning of the national bank, which was soon taken over entirely by the City Bank. And the U.S. military presence eliminated risks to investors when the bank imposed a $30 million loan on the Haitian Republic. Over the years of the occupation, Haiti became what Vanderlip called “a small but profitable piece of business” for the City Bank—but at great expense to the Haitian people.
Rail: In addition to telling the story of the City Bank in Haiti, your book follows U.S. bankers as they made forays into Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic over the same period. What kinds of activities were they involved in, in these countries?
Hudson: The City Bank and other major commercial banks at the time were seeking to recast themselves as full-service “financial department stores” and their activities in the Caribbean represented the range of activities this term suggests. They were involved in financing the expansion and modernization of sugar and tobacco plantations and in financing the sugar harvest; they controlled central banking functions, issuing currency and paying government employees; they invested in infrastructure from roads to sanitariums; they provided commercial loans to business and offered savings accounts and retail services to middle class customers; they funded labor migration from, especially, Jamaican and Haiti, to plantations in Cuba and the Dominican Republic; they provided financial services to shipping in the Panama Canal and paid the Black laborers and white managers working to build the canal. The results were often similar to those in Haiti. While both Puerto Rico and Panama were effectively permanent “wards” of the U.S., there were military interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua—the latter was referred to as “the Republic of Brown Brothers.” In all cases, local sovereignty was subordinated to the interests of Wall Street.
Rail: Your book departs from most financial histories both in its focus on individual bankers and in placing their activities in a wider context of U.S. imperialism. But you also diverge from standard accounts of imperialism in recognizing that bankers and state officials sometimes had conflicting interests. For instance, you show that American journalists and politicians were often harsh critics of the banks. How has this led you to rethink the nexus between banking and imperialism?
Hudson: I think it has helped me to understand that the project of “U.S. imperialism” was contingent, marked by an incomplete hegemony, often notable for its confusion, experimentation, and failure, defined through competing interests, and rarely triumphalist. This is not to say that it didn’t exist—or that its effects in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, were not palpable, bloody, or real. But there was always pushback and, while the U.S. state often served as the intermediary for U.S. capital in the Caribbean, oftentimes government officials tried to be a brake on the activities of banks if they felt they were not in the strategic and economic interests of the state. Before I began this project I don’t think I was aware of the role of law and regulation in mediating the relation between banking and imperialism. More often than not, banking expansion was an attempt to evade, erode, or re-write the federal regulations governing banking activity. And of course, there is a simple response to your question: before I began the project, I simply didn’t understand how deeply intertwined were banking and imperialism, for the real links between them are often lost in rhetorical invocations and critiques of U.S. imperialism.
Rail: In addition to imperialism, racism is another key theme of the book. You describe how U.S. bankers carried their white supremacist views into the Caribbean, as indicated both in their interactions with Caribbean people and in their own internal communications. But you also stress that the question of racism was “not simply one of personal sentiment but [also] one of political-economic structure.” What do you mean by this?
Hudson: In my research, I quickly found blatantly racist statements by people like the City Bank’s Roger Farnham—or W. Bundy Cole and Albert Strauss of Brown Brothers—that revealed their belief in the biological inferiority of Blacks and Indians and asserted the inability of Caribbean people to govern themselves. Their statements were saturated with beliefs in the superiority and paternal benevolence of white Wall Street when it came to the region. But I also argue, as you point out, that while individual attitudes were important and played a role in shaping decision making within institutions, it is important to understand that decisions about banking policies were not only embedded in and shaped by white supremacy, but were themselves racial decisions—or, more pointedly, racist decisions. Banking policy operationalized racial thinking. Profits were drawn from a system ordered by the racial hierarchies that governed U.S.-Caribbean relations. The practices of extraction and accumulation from the Caribbean were as much involved in the reproduction of capital as they were in the reproduction of white supremacy. The main point is that while you can change the attitudes of individuals, this does not imply a shift in the behavior of institutions and it is the institutions that must be dismantled.
Rail: You describe not only the racist and imperialist activities of U.S. banks in the Caribbean, but also the local resistance to them. What forms did this resistance take?
Hudson: Resistance took a number of forms. In some cases, local bourgeois—local capitalists—sought to break the hold of North American institutions and re-assert their role in their national economies. This occurred through petitions to bankers and the State Department and through attacks on foreign banks in local newspapers—often spreading rumors concerning the insolvency of foreign institutions which then led to bank runs—and the withdrawal of money from circulation. But there was also a politics of refusal, for example, especially in the Cuban case, the refusal to honor debt obligations. There were also attempts to push for monetary sovereignty and the indigenization, localization, or independence of financial institutions. Occasionally, there were more radical gestures: strikes, attacks on foreign-controlled plantations, bomb attacks on foreign banks, death threats to foreign bankers. Resistance also came through the development of a literary culture with a focus on questions of local autonomy, the rediscovery of indigenous culture and history, and the critique of imperialism and finance capitalism: you can see this in the novels and poetry of Caribbean writers including Alejo Carpentier, Agustín Acosta, Nicolás Guillén, Jacques Roumain, Hernán Robleto, as well as in the work of African-American writers, such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. All of these gestures—both the idea of refusal inherent in them and the commitment to forging a culture of resistance to imperialism—offer lessons for the present. They are in many ways the precursors of everything from Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary” to Gregory Shollette’s “Citi Never Sleeps,” to Matthew Cooper’s novel of the subprime crisis Predatory Bender to Copper Greene’s interventionist take on Citigroup’s “Live Richly” advertising campaign—as well as the protests by anti-Apartheid activists against Citigroup and by #NoDAPL activists against JPMorgan Chase. I’d like to think that Bankers and Empire, through its historical research, works to recover, while adding to, this genealogy of resistance.
Rail: In the conclusion of the book you discuss the implications of your research for theories of “racial capitalism.” This term is often associated with the work of Cedric Robinson. How do you understand racial capitalism?
Hudson: There are a couple of points to be made here. First, I think that many Black scholars and activists are probably a little bit bemused at the currency that “racial capitalism,” both as a concept and a term, has gained in the past couple of years—especially as arguments for a link between racism and capitalism, like that of capitalism and slavery, had for so long been dismissed, demeaned, and denied by scholars, many of them on the Left. Second, while the term “racial capitalism” is best known to U.S. audiences through the work of Robinson, the concept, and the historical and theoretical articulations behind it, have been debated and discussed long before Robinson’s Black Marxism was published in 1983. W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James are probably the most well-known but a number of other writers are as equally important: George Padmore in Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers and Pan-Africanism or Communism?, Frantz Fanon in the Wretched of the Earth, Walter Rodney in A History of the Guyanese Working People and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and Norman Girvan, especially his pamphlet Aspects of the Political Economy of Race in the Caribbean. This tradition of Caribbean critical political economy has profoundly shaped my understating of political and economic history, especially in its international aspects, and especially when it comes to thinking about Caribbean sovereignty.
Yet none of these writers present an explicit theory of racial capitalism, and this is where Robinson comes in. While drawing on many of these writers, Robinson’s prefixing “capitalism” by “racial” allows him to emphasize the always already racialized nature of capitalism. Robinson argues that the earliest capitalist divisions of labor emerged out of the internal racial and ethnic divisions of Europe and that these divisions were re-articulated in the evolving system of slavery and colonialism. As such, for Robinson, modern racism was not a product of capitalism or an appendage to capitalism (nor, on the other hand, was capitalism a product of racism). Instead, the two were inexorably intertwined to the point of being analytically inseparable—hence, “racial capitalism”—and, following this, any invocation of class for Robinson must necessarily invoke race.
Rail: In a recent article you avert to an important theorization of racial capitalism that predates Robinson, that of the South-African Marxist Neville Alexander. How has Alexander influenced your view of racial capitalism?
Hudson: I’ve had some difficulty with Robinson’s work. In my own research, I wanted to show the link between racial capitalism and finance capitalism, not just to connect them abstractly, but to ground it empirically. Robinson’s great historical sweep and his philosophical approach didn’t allow me to do that. And as I was reading around Robinson, I slowly became aware of an extensive debate on racial capitalism among Marxist and pan-Africanists involved in the South African and Southern African liberation struggles, long before Black Marxism was published. Intellectuals and activists including Harold Wolpe, Ruth First, Bernard Magubane, Martin Legassick, and, especially, Neville Alexander began using the term as a means of critiquing a liberal strain of thought advancing the argument that Apartheid was a dysfunctional aberration of capitalism and that the racial segregation and exploitation could be eliminated through the reformation and strengthening of South African capitalism. Additionally, they argued that the nature of South African society was such that even if Apartheid was formally dismantled, the Black working class would remain the most exploited under a post-Apartheid capitalism. History seems to have born this out. Alexander, a scholar and activist from the Eastern Cape, was arguably the most important figure in bringing the term “racial capitalism” to the center of the South African liberation struggle. He argued that the dismantling of Apartheid was but a step towards the dismantling of racial capitalism and he stressed the historical importance of the Black working class in this struggle. “Only the Black working class can take the task of completing the democratization of the country on its shoulders,” Alexander stated in his June 12, 1983 speech at the National Forum Committee convention in Hammanskraal. “It alone can unite all the oppressed and exploited classes… The nation has to be structured by and in the interests of the Black working class.”
While this literature on racial capitalism is well known outside of North America, it was humbling to encounter it only as I was correcting the proofs of Bankers and Empire. I’m not sure if it would have drastically shifted my narrative or analysis, but it has provided a new path of study.
- Peter James Hudson, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
JOHN CLEGG edits and writes for the journal Endnotes.