The Burma Railway was built by the Japanese in 1943 to support their war effort. It travelled 258 miles between Thailand and Burma. The effort became infamous as reports of the brutality inflicted on laborers enslaved for the effort from the pools of natives and prisoners of war. Perhaps the most familiar depiction occurred in the movie The Bridge over the River Kwai. More recently, the building of the railway was described in the film The Railway Man, and in the award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
From Wikipedia we derive this information:
“Forced labour was used in its construction. More than 180,000—possibly many more—Asian civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, estimates of Romusha deaths are little more than guesses, but probably about 90,000 died. 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans.”
“After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes because of their brutalization of POWs during the construction of the railway, with 32 of these sentenced to death.”
There seems to be precise data on the mortality rate for prisoners of war. The brutality leading to a mortality level of 21% was deemed so extreme that 32 people were executed as war criminals for their actions.
Given that background, it was rather startling to encounter this statement by Steve Fraser in his book The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.
“Some didn’t survive the ordeal, having been worked to death: 44 percent of the 285 convicts building the South Carolina Greenwood and Augusta Railroad died. The mortality rate among convict laborers in Alabama was 45 percent.”
The United States had railroad construction projects in late nineteenth century where the death rate was twice that on the infamous Burma Railway, where the treatment of the prisoner laborers was considered a crime against humanity?
Fraser was referring to the system of convict leasing that became common in states of the South in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The South had the will and the power to re-enslave the recently freed black slaves.
“Making sure the supply of coerced workers was ample became a function of the region’s policing and judicial systems. wholesale arrests among black men in Georgia and throughout the South for disobeying a boss, being impudent, gambling, partying, talking to a white woman, having lascivious sex, riding freight cars without a ticket, vagrancy, or even for just being out of work produced a robust supply of convict labor at harvest time or when railroad track needed to be laid or phosphate mined.”
“In the South, convict leases provided workers for cotton plantation, mining, lumbering, and turpentine camps as well as for quarries, dockyards, and road-building projects; Alabama derived 73 percent of its state revenue from leasing convicts. Nor was this flow of unfree labor restricted to regional industries and agribusinesses. Large, northern-headquartered banks and corporations were complicit.”
More information on this disgraceful practice can be found in Wikipedia.
“Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States. Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations….The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners.”
“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”
This cruel system was allowed to continue for several generations.
“U.S. Steel is among American companies who have acknowledged using African-American leased convict labor. The practice peaked around 1880, was formally outlawed by the last state (Alabama) in 1928, and persisted in various forms until it was abolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via Francis Biddle's ‘Circular 3591’ of December 12, 1941.”
Fraser was providing examples of what he referred to as “primitive accumulation” of capital. That term is usually reserved for the initial accumulation of capital/wealth in a capitalist system, but it is possible to conclude that “primitive accumulation” is an ongoing process and “primitive” does not merely refer to an original trend but rather to a fundamental process. In Fraser’s view, “primitive accumulation” is accumulation of capital/wealth by taking wealth from someone else—a never ending process.
The most obvious example of “accumulation by dispossession” is slavery where people are deprived of their freedom in order to gain access to their unlimited labor. It is rather disconcerting to realize that forms of legalized “slavery” existed in our country until well into the twentieth century.
Yes, we are an exceptional nation!