Coral, Labor, Slavery, and Silence in the Archives

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Michele Currie Navakas

In the archives of The Library Company of Philadelphia in Spring 2018, I encountered a Caribbean atoll called Coraltown. The fictional setting of “Sea-Life” (1866), a short story by Massachusetts educator Jane Andrews, Coraltown is the work of millions of microscopic, reef-building polyps. They began creating Coraltown thousands of years ago and, by the time the story takes place in 1865, the town is a full-blown island that serves humankind by sheltering survivors of a shipwreck. Thus, through coral, “Sea-Life” teaches humans an important lesson in labor: even the most seemingly insignificant individuals may produce massive and socially beneficial results by working together over time.

Drawing of coral.
James Dwight Dana, Zoophyte Atlas (1846), 136.

Coral has historically inspired people to think about all manner of human concerns, and there is a particularly rich literary tradition of imagining reefs as models of collective labor. During the Victorian period, as Michelle Elleray observes, reefs gave rise to a pervasive “cultural fable” of labor.[1] As the product of millions of interconnected polyps, feeding on micro-algae and secreting a limestone exoskeleton that eventually becomes large enough to form land, reefs were evidence that a small and humble being, by choosing to work with others, could “produce a result disproportionate to its size, in turn provoking admiration and wonder” (224). This fable appealed especially to Victorian writers promoting voluntary labor for a “socially-mandated purpose,” such as missionary work (226). In the nineteenth-century British literary imagination, then, reefs endorsed elective labor for the benefit of a community that included the laborers themselves.

Nineteenth-century American writers also drew on coral to endorse this model of labor, and “Sea-Life” is no exception. After all, Coraltown island saves seafarers from certain death. And scenes of communal polyp labor beneath the waves inspire the narrator to observe that “people sometimes live in communities and divide the work as suits their fancy,” and thus “the good Father teaches all his creatures to help each other.”[2] Yet this narrative of voluntary work for mutual gain begins to erode as Andrews offers a fuller account of coral’s production.

Screen Shot 2019-04-19 at 11.17.54 AM
Jane Andrews, “Sea-Life” in Our Young Folks (1866), 331.

At Coraltown, an unsettling fusion of laborer and product prevails. “How do you like this little circular town?” asks the narrator, who then directs readers to notice that each polyp “from day to day fastens himself more and more firmly to the rock where he first stuck” so that “[t]he part of his body touching the rock hardens into stone, and, as the months and years go by, the sides of his body too turn to stone, and yet he is still alive” (333). Whereas British writers tend to take an observer’s perspective on coral, reflecting on the wonder of coral islands rising, Andrews zeroes in on what that rising means for the polyps. Coraltown, we learn, is made of the “stone bodies” of polyp “settlers” and “emigrants”—of generations of “fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts,” of “children,” of “great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers,” into whom “their descendants” merge endlessly (334). One day a speaking starfish visits Coraltown and asks the polyps to come out of their “houses,” by which he means the reef walls. The polyps answer collectively that they cannot, for “[t]hese [walls] are not our houses, but ourselves” (334; italics in original).

This account of Coraltown sits rather uneasily alongside the story’s explicit fable of willed self-sacrifice for collective gain. For the production of coral, as Andrews describes it, forecloses all prospect of the producer’s very existence, bodily or otherwise, apart from the material itself. Reefs, she reveals, are countless generations, solidified, with all of the benefit accruing to others. Yet, while images of self-sacrifice for others populate “Sea-Life,” the story contains no explicit reference to familiar forms of human labor that involve such dispossession, such as slavery. This absence seems especially remarkable in light of the narrator’s comparison of Coraltown to the settlement of colonial Plymouth (333). For this event was hailed by nineteenth-century Americans as the origin of national founding, a project enabled by the enforced labor of many persons who were inseparable, and yet excluded, from the nation that they built.

Since encountering “Sea-Life,” I have come to think of Andrews’s silence as reflective of a larger archival silence surrounding slavery within nineteenth-century American imaginings of coral and labor. I have uncovered a wealth of historical associations between coral and the institution of slavery in particular: geographically, coral grows in tropical waters, such as the Caribbean, where it was sometimes harvested by enslaved persons working as coral divers; visually, coral evoked the southward reach and riches of empire, as its appearance in early modern European still life paintings suggests; and economically, coral was traded for enslaved persons along the coast of West Africa from the 1490s through the late 1800s. Yet, across years of archival research on coral in early America, during which I have found analogies of coral to many kinds of labor—including motherhood, abolition, and temperance—I have yet to find a single, explicit analogy of coral to slavery.

Why did so many early U.S. writers explicitly celebrate coral as a model of willed self-sacrifice for collective gain, while simultaneously describing coral as enforced labor solely for the gain of others? I have begun to suspect that descriptions of reef-making were a popular way for Americans in the U.S. to expose, while remaining silent about, the historical and ongoing exploitation of laboring bodies.

As I pursue this speculation, I am struck by its potential relevance to our current, entwined social and ecological crises. Recently, for example, the call to “think with coral” has been issued by artists and scholars across the humanities who urge us to imagine ourselves and society as a reef. Their work suggests that we could build a more socially just present and sustainable future by thinking of ourselves as a consortium of mutually dependent organisms of different species who are capable of producing significant change by working together over time. Clearly, then, there is historical continuity in the cultural imaginary surrounding coral, reefs, and human labor. Now, as in the nineteenth century, we embrace a reef metaphor to champion “the power of the collective,” as does Irus Braverman in her wonderful recent book, Coral Whisperers.[3]

Yet as we celebrate the undeniable promise of this metaphor, we should also examine its history, with particular attention to the forms of labor it so readily silenced. For in the long U.S. literary history of imagining coral and labor, reefs both illuminate and dangerously elide the exploitation of laboring bodies by imagining that they had a choice and a reward. If we wish to assess the stakes of our present-day desire to imagine ourselves and society as a reef, then we should turn back to a time when coral and its nature were a more regular part of life.

Michele Currie Navakas is an Associate Professor of English at Miami University of Ohio where she teaches early American literature, culture, and environment. Her recently published first book, Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), is the winner of the Florida Historical Society’s 2019 Rembert Patrick Award and 2019 Stetson Kennedy Award. She is currently at work on a cultural history of coral and politics in early America, a project that has been recently supported by a long-term fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Title image: Winslow Homer, The Coral Divers (1885).

Further Resources:

Chasing Coral (Netflix documentary, 2017).

Irus Braverman, Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink (University of California Press, 2018).

Danielle Coriale, “When Zoophytes Speak: Polyps and Naturalist Fantasy in the Age of  Liberalism,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.1 (2012): 19-36.

Michelle Elleray, “Little Builders: Coral Insects, Missionary Culture, and the Victorian Child,” Victorian Literature and Culture 39.1 (2011): 223-238.

Marion Endt-Jones, Coral: Something Rich and Strange (Liverpool, 2014).


[1] Michelle Elleray, “Little Builders: Coral Insects, Missionary Culture, and the Victorian Child,” Victorian Literature and Culture 39.1 (2011): 223-238; 224. Elleray borrows the useful term “cultural fable” from Laura Brown, who uses it to describe a story encoded in and carried by a material, and that emerges across disparate reflections on that material over time. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell 2001), pp. 2-4.

[2] Jane Andrews, “Sea-Life” in Our Young Folks: An Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1866): 331-38. 335, 337. The story was also reprinted in an independent volume titled The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children (1889). I found this text thanks to curator Connie King of The Library Company.

[3] Irus Braverman, Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink (University of California Press, 2018), 206.

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