An Exclusive Traffic: The Failed Collaboration Between Olyphant & Co., the United States, and the Republic of Peru in the Business of Human Trafficking in the First Era of GlobalizationIn 1862, the United States banned the carriage of “subjects of China known as ‘coolies’” in American vessels. The law did not address domestic circumstances, but the situation in foreign ports, where Americans trafficked in indentured laborers – China, but also Peru, Cuba, and other plantation societies. A complement to domestic efforts to destroy slavery, the law inaugurated a new era of state-led anti-human trafficking efforts targeting U.S. businesses. The ban was also a powerful political and legal tool for those seeking to restrict immigration. Enforcement of the law created reams of official records about abusive trafficking that xenophobes used as evidence of the supposedly inborn “servility” of Chinese migrants – and thus the impossibility of their citizenship.
Support for prohibitions on slavery, indentured servitude, and free migration were mutually sustaining ideas for American policymakers, businessmen, and voters in the late nineteenth-century. Which makes it all the more curious that in the late 1870s the storied American firm of Olyphant & Co., famous for its refusal to trade in opium, attempted to re-establish the traffic in indentured labor between China and Peru – and did so with the official support of both the U.S. and Peruvian governments, negotiating on their behalf with the Qing.
This paper investigates this unusual – and doomed – cooperation in human trafficking as an example of a failed collaboration between a rising imperial state and a fading mercantile business. Olyphant & Co.’s scheme – and then the firm – was brought to ruin in 1878 because the partners and their backers could not overcome the opposition of British and Chinese officials. The attempt and its failure together illustrate the declining reputations of once-powerful U.S. merchant houses, the end of Americans’ competitive cooperation with authorities in Asia, and the limits of the U.S.’s ability to support commercial expansion in an era of globalization.