Blog post

Perennial Disasters in Port Cities

Port disasters, such as the recent deadly explosion in Lebanon, are an inevitable consequence of capital's global circulation, argues Edna Bonhomme.  

Edna Bonhomme20 August 2020

Boats in Miami in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew

On the 4th August 2020, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, an ingredient used in the production of fertilizer and explosives, caused an explosion in the port of Beirut, killing 154 people and displacing 300,000 more. The roots of the catastrophe can be traced back to a leaky and indebted Russian-leased cargo ship, the Rhosus, which docked in Beirut en route to Mozambique six years ago, was abandoned by its owners and never left. Its explosive cargo was transferred to the port and haphazardly stored there until the deadly conflagration earlier this month. Public outrage has erupted in Lebanon because the disaster could have easily been avoided. According to the New York Times, customs officials wrote to the Lebanese courts half a dozen times between 2014 and 2017 seeking advice on how to dispose of the ammonium nitrate. With the ship originating from Moldova and the contents originally destined for Mozambique, once the deal was abandoned, its cargo was unloaded in Lebanon. The arrival of the Rhosus and its cargo exemplifies the coalescence of global trade and capital at the port of Beirut. The port is now completely destroyed, one consequence of a result of a common practices of abandoning ships when owners want to avoid paying their workers, as Laleh Khalili, author remarked on Twitter on 5 August 2020

Unfortunately, port explosions of this type are not new. In 1947, an explosion of 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate in Galveston, Texas impacted areas ten miles away. Disasters at shipping sites and beyond are visual markers of the capital’s abandon and disregard for life, with sea crew and dock workers often facing the burden. Compounding the disaster in Beirut and hindering the rescue and rebuilding efforts, are the effects of ongoing economic austerity and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Lebanon. As William James remarked of the human psyche “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” James’s comments also remind us that we must interrogate the deep connection between lives lived on land and sea.

I grew up in the tacky port city known as Miami. A city famous for the campy television series Miami Vice and Brian De Palma’s seminal film Scarface, cinematic depictions that highlight the towering skyline and licentious activities at the Port. Yet, Miami had another side beyond neon caricatures and cartel wars. My experience of the city was of a beautiful paradise plunged into anxiety at the beginning of each hurricane season in early June. During these months, the afternoon rain would arrive around two o’clock in the afternoon, after hours of agonizing humidity, with reprieve coming only from the ocean breeze and the potential reward of eating mango picked fresh from a tree. The season was uncomfortable, but the anxious mood of the city seemed an overreaction. The disastrous power of nature only became apparent to me when Hurricane Andrew hit the coastline of Miami Florida on 23 August 1992. I was a child and I languished in the humidity, lamenting the restrictions on playing outside. It was not until much later that I learned the true toll of the hurricane. Andrew not only tore through the homes and natural environment of South Florida, causing $25.3 billion worth of damages, it also took the lives of forty-four people.

With sea levels rising and the strength and number of aggressive storms increasing every year, the disasters that strike port cities such as Miami call Rachel Carson’s utterance in The Sea Around Us, to mind: “But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.” As a gateway to the Caribbean Sea on one side and the rest of the United States on the other, Miami is a port city that operates at the intersections of trade and disaster, whether it be the smuggling of illegal drugs on coastal freighters, the city’s susceptibility to hurricanes, or cruise ship explosions. The symbiotic relationship between natural disaster and commerce is not unique to Miami, however. Rather, it is part of a global story of capitalism and the colonial hierarchies of war and trade.

Laleh Khalili's book, Sinew of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula is a story about ports, infrastructure and the ways in which the maritime transportation industry distils the mechanisms of global capitalism. Khalili shows us how the sea functions as an intermediary for the transportation and valuation of capital and commodities. Focusing mostly on the Arabian Peninsula, she steers the reader from understanding ports as a static and historic space, towards seeing them as a dynamic space built and adapted for the purposes of naval control and the extraction of labour. This is a material history, but it does not rely purely on narratives of economic determinism, rather Khalili invites us to engage in port city’s imaginary landscapes, through their literary representations in works such as Abdulrahman Munif’s seminal text Cities of Salt.

Sinews of War and Trade sheds light on how financial markets shape harbours and the cities around them, and the ways in which the shipping industry inhabits a liminal financial space often with little interference from economic regulations. Khalili raises pressing questions about boundary making in the ocean – a framework that traces the formation of borders claims and practices with relation to bodies of water addressing the importance of literature, worker’s accounts, and the role of scholarship. For Khalili, the sea becomes a way not only to transport commodities but a way translating of translating goods and currency between empires.  Entrenched in multiple layers of imperialism, from the era of the Ottoman empire to present-day multinational corporations, and as a region that has been crucial for shipping and trade, the Middle East is a central part of Khalili’s text.

Shortly after World War II, Khalili argues, the physical landscape of ports cities in the Arabian Peninsula began to transform because of the expansion of crude oil exports, made possible through tankers. Port cities in Kuwait and Bahrain went from having coastlines that were saturated with “mudflats, sabkhas (salt flats), mangroves, and shallow waters” to entrepots that could house large tankers. This meant that the relationship between land and sea had to be ossified, fortified to create earth where previously there had been none. Khalili shows how contemporary ports are visual markers of colonial decision-making, then facilitated by massive construction efforts. Yet, some of these spaces are territories where the local population may not have much say.

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Colonial hierarchies continue to dominate international shipping and they are deeply entrenched in trade networks for coastal countries in the Global South, leaving many of them to become laboratories for neoliberal economic testing. Through Operation Bootstrap, Puerto Rico became the first experiment for export processing zones – free trade zones where goods can be manufactured and re-exported without customs duty – promoted and implemented by an assemblage of US capitalists and politicians. These zones, as Khalili writes, were established shortly after the right-wing coups against Sukarno and Salvador Allende, in Indonesia and Chile respectively. These instances demonstrate how the unification of conservative forces leads to the creation of national conditions favourable to neoliberal economic free zones. At the same time, conservative forces can play out in other regimes, especially when the shipping and dock industry profits from immigrant labour. Khalili affirms, for workers in the Arabian Peninsula, “no labor force was safe.” In practice, this meant that Arab regimes were liberalising their economies while often suppressing labour unions who were struggling for worker’s rights. In the Arabian Peninsula, labour activism continues to face repressive measures.

As a result of Covid-19, the international shipping community faces a labour crisis, with sailors stranded in faraway ports unable to return home. Not only are crews down by 75%, sailors are also suffering from high rates of mental health problems and fatigue . As of July 2020, 200,000 sailors were unable to leave their vessels. This has opened up questions around whether sailors should be granted the right to return home and the extent to which they are essential workers. To date, approximately thirteen countries—excluding India and China---have indicated that sailors are key workers, meaning that they are allowed to fly home without quarantine restrictions or visas.

The power of Sinews of War and Trade is that it not only shows how port cities are connected, but how the hinterland economies dictate what happens out in the sea. I now live in a city 175 kilometres away from the closest sea, the Baltic. Far from Miami and the perennial storms and tropical fruit trees, South Florida is no longer home. As disaster capitalism continues to wreck and ravage global coasts, the colours of the seas, as Warsan Shire points out, “[are] not enough to stay.”

Edna Bonhomme is a Black feminist historian and writer and has written about the history of epidemics, racism, and imperialism for Aljazeera, The Nation, and The Baffler Magazine. Edna is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.

You can follow her on Twitter at jacobinoire.

Sinews of War and Trade
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