Pigeons, Mules, Canals and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility

MIT Press, 2015

In 2015, MIT Press published a book manuscript of mine which is a culmination of research I undertook during graduate school, as well as during my first year as a professor at Temple University. A link to the publisher’s website for the book is at the bottom of the page.

On this page I explain some aspects of the book. I also go through some of the visual material which I prepared for the book, some of which didn’t make it into the final draft.

“Transportation and Revolt” looks at examples of modes and technologies of transportation which politically subversive groups have found useful for clandestine, politically rebellious logistics, especially during the past two centuries. The books argues that, in all of the examples presented, processes of ruling-class divestment from the modes of transportation under consideration were bound up in ruling-class fears of ungovernable patterns of mobility.

The book’s chapters:
I. Mules and Upland Banditry
II. Transportation across Intermediate States of Matter
III. Flyboaters, Filibusters, and Canals
IV. Chenangoes: The Replanning of Freight Flows in New York City

One of the book’s main examples is canals (Chapter III) in the British North Atlantic domains of Britain, Ireland, and Canada, during the 19th century. Between the 1840s and 1870s, the canals became associated with subversive logistical activities by radical transatlantic Irish liberationist groups. By contrast, the railroads did not, and by 1871 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was complaining before British Parliament that the Irish canal system was, in effect, "in the hands of the conspirators," whereas the railroads had resisted this sort of subversive cooptation. A shift in British capital flows from canal/waterway projects to railroad projects within these areas maps onto these emerging ruling class perceptions of the relationship between transportation technology and political control. Ship canal projects proposed, during the 1870s through 1910s, to ease the flow of Canadian Midwestern grain to British markets (see proposals below) were cast aside in favor of the development of British Canada as a railroad-oriented economic dominion.

Cartography by Jacob Shell. 2010.

The map above, which is included within the book, was in part inspired by a map included in Roy Wolfe’s excellent 1962 book, “Transportation and Politics.” Wolfe similarly portrays Canada cartographically by using an azimuthal projection – thus demonstrating that, as the boat sails, the Canadian Midwest is surprisingly close to Western Europe. Unlike my map above, Wolfe does not include the major ship canal schemes from the late 19th century which proposed to further straighten these potential maritime routes.

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“Transportation and Revolt” also lingers at length (in Chapter I and II) on transportation animals: mules, camels, sled dogs, carrier pigeons, and elephants.

What’s key about animal-based, as well as water-based, forms of transportation is that they allow mobility across geophysical elements where roads (built, mapped, and patrolled by the state) cannot easily go. Camels are mobile across windswept desert sands which inundate desert roads. Mules are mobile across rocky mountain ranges which similarly frustrate road building. Sled dogs are mobile across ice and permafrost, both of which present major challenges to road engineers.

I discuss the relationship between these road-resistant elements and modes of mobility with good access across them (and thus especially useful to insurgents and smugglers) as a kind of conceptual "color wheel," illustrated here:

A conceptual “color wheel” relating many of the book’s examples to each other. The elephant photo at upper left is from Shelby Tucker’s 2000 book “Among Insurgents: Walking across Burma.”

Another way to think of this six-fold scheme is to imagine a country with different geophysical zones – a tundra, a desert, jagged mountains, and so on – and to see different types of bureaucratically illegible mobility as having access to different sections of this country. Sometimes, key areas might even provide points of overlap enabling various kinds of “hand-off” relationships. An example of such a “hand-off” relationship in the book is between muleteers and elephant drivers (mahouts) at the Burma-Yunnan frontier during the civil warfare in that region during the 1980s.

Jacob Shell. 2013.

This map below, little more than a clumsy powerpoint visual, illustrates a pattern of “escape mobility” of several of the leaders of the 1857-59 Sepoy Mutiny in India. The rebel forces of Nana Sahib and Tantia Topi had elephants with them, which enabled them to ford difficult, flooding rivers during the high monsoon season, stranding their British pursuers (confined to foot or horseback) at the departed bank.

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The book also addresses urban transportation at length, in Chapter IV. During my masters thesis research (undertaken in 2007 and 2008), I became especially interested in a non-realized plan for freight transportation in New York City: the 1920 Port and Harbor Development Commission’s “Comprehensive Plan.” This scheme, largely forgotten (but it shouldn’t be!), proposed to invest in New York City’s urban core, especially the west side of Manhattan, as an industrially intensive, freight-handling space. The 1920 scheme’s key proposal was to build a complex urban freight subway system, with freight loading and unloading stations every seven or eight blocks.

I discuss the economic implications of this unrealized plan at some length in a 2010 article of mine in the Journal of Planning History, “Innovation, Labor and Gridlock: The Unbuilt Plan for Manhattan’s Geography of Production.”

In “Transportation and Revolt," I focus on surrounding political events which, I argue, largely explain the plan’s non-adoption. 1920 was also the year a bomb, likely set by anarchists, went off outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Furthermore, all throughout the 1910s, the city and its port area had been menaced by a wave of dynamite bombs, with any of a number of oppositional political cells (anarchists, Wobblies, Bolshevik sympathizers, German sympathizers, Irish liberationists, and Indian liberationists) getting the blame. Police officials, in particular the bomb squad captain Thomas Tunney, also extended that blame to the social and spatial organization of the port, which was at that time highly non-centralized and diffuse. The Port and Harbor Development Commission’s 1920 scheme sought, in effect, to support and complement this non-centralized socio-spatial condition. But, by the end of the decade of the 1920s, elite planning opinion in the city had largely rejected the thinking that had gone into the 1920 plan, in favor an ambitious scheme (called the "Regional Plan”) to deindustrialize the urban core and to transfer port facilities to contrallable compounds on the urban periphery.

Locations discussed in Transportation and Revolt’s NYC chapter. (cartography by Jacob Shell. 2013)

The 1920 Port and Harbor Development Commission scheme, with the Lower West Side branch on the left, and an extended proposed system (in thick black lines) on the right.

A model urban freight station from the 1920 plan.

An early, 1911 version of the Port and Harbor Development Commission’s scheme. Here, a typical street in Lower Manhattan is imagined as having underground passenger trains (the four middle tracks) complemented by freight subways (the tracks underneath the sidewalks). These freight subways were to interconnect with freight elevators giving access to clothing workshops and other sorts of industrial loft spaces.

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“Transportation and Revolt” also explores the etymologies of certain words which contain double meanings evocative of the book’s broader thesis. These words include:

Today this term tends to refer to an obstructionist act during an political assembly. It appears to have dual etymological origin in the Dutch “vrijbuiter” (a freebooter or pirate) or the Middle English “flibutor” (a fly-boatman, or canal boat pilot).

This Chinese term (洋泾浜) means, roughly, a pidgin-like imitation of something. During the 19th century, it referred to a canal which separated the walled old city of Shanghai from the English and French Foreign Concession districts. Literally the term meant the “Foreign Boundary Creek” or the “Ocean-Flowing Stream.” The term also referred to a go-between argot used along the city’s docks, between Chinese and Western sailors. During the Taiping Rebellion, especially in 1853, the Yanjingbang canal became an important space of subversive mobility for smuggling arms to Taiping rebels holed up in the walled city.

This term referred to casual dock labor in New York City during the early 20th century. Its origin is highly obscure. One possible origin is the Chenango Canal in upstate New York, which became defunct during the 1870s. Another possible origin is the sabotage of the USS Chenango in New York Harbor during the American Civil War. In 1919 the New York bomb squad captain Thomas Tunney blamed the harbor’s “chenango” workers for terrorism around the port.

This Dutch word can mean to “to suppress” (as in, to suppress a riot) and “to fill in” (as in, to fill in a canal). Thus, the Eel Riot which took place on Amsterdam’s Lindengracht (Linden Canal) in 1886 – sparked by new laws regulating the Amsterdam working class’s use of the city’s canals – was “gedempte” (suppressed). And so too, shortly thereafter, was the canal itself, which was “gedempte” (filled in).

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in their 2000 book “The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic," talk about “pidgin” communication among sailors as crucial in the formation of a multinational and multilinguistic proto-proletarian political conscious in the Atlantic space-economy of the 18th century. But where does that word, “pidgin," come from? Like "Chenango," its origin is obscure. The English "pigeon” has been proposed (either for the pigeon’s pidgin-like chirps or for its potential use as a domesticated message mover) – so has the Hebrew “pidjom” (barter); the Yayo word “pidian” (people); the Portuguese “ocupacao” (business); and the “pequeno portugues” spoken in colonial times by the coastal peoples of Angola.

The central metaphor of Linebaugh and Rediker’s book, the hydra, similarly tempts an association between oppositional politics and anarchic mobility: “hydra” can refer to a many-headed monster, or to water.

The Sanskrit “naga” can refer to a many-headed serpent, or also (according to some dictionaries) an elephant. However, unlike the hydra, the naga does not appear to have a metaphoric history of symbolizing anarchy. Still, the formal similarity to the hydra, and the double-meaning of elephant, may be more than mere coincidence.

In modern parlance, "to mule” means, roughly, to smuggle – especially by using one’s own body as the vehicle. The term appeals to a longstanding association between mules and smugglers (discussed in Chapter I of Transportation and Revolt). The term “mulatto” is perhaps alluding to this association as well (the mulatto as one who "traffics” blood across racial boundaries) and to the peculiar biological condition of the mule, as the offspring of a horse and donkey.

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A visual I like which never made it into the final draft:

Experiments in deploying army mules by parachute to difficult roadless terrain (in Journal of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, 1946).

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“Emphasizing fear and class resentment, Shell’s Transportation and Revolt is groundbreaking in that it adds a novel and provocative twist to conventional histories of transportation. It gives a more complete social and political context about why certain things didn’t happen, and this work will no doubt stimulate other scholars to investigate the role of fear in shaping how we move.”—Antipode: Journal of Radical Geography

“Those interested in historical mobility, subversive or insurgent mobility, and animal mobility will find a lot to like in Transportation and Revolt. The book offers a powerful argument that the reasons why certain transportation modes become dominant while others fade away are not always economic or technical but can also be rooted in politics, fear and efforts to control suspect people.”—Journal of Transport Geography

“Transportation and Revolt brings together radical historical geography with transportation history to expand our view of the ways ruling powers thwart resistance movements. Authorities not only built infrastructure to contain subversion, they also un-built infrastructure to immobilize political others. Jacob Shell has unearthed important traces of a world of working animals and transport systems long rendered invisible.”—Technology and Culture

2008-2015. Transportation and Revolt