Asian Communities and the Origin of Large-Scale Resource Extraction in the Gulf of Mexico

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 4:30 PM
La Galerie 5 (New Orleans Marriott)
Jeffery K. Johnson, Georgia State University
New Orleans became important in the nineteenth century for connecting the resource-rich interior of the continent with the wider Atlantic patterns of movement and trade beyond. By the end of the century, growing Asian populations in the city and along the surrounding rivers, creeks, and bayous established durable connections across the Pacific as well.

One of those connections grew up along a robust filament of trade in a wildlife resource the dominant Gulf South economic system had no use for. Filipino fishermen in enclaves south of New Orleans harvested and dried shrimp for Chinese brokers in the city, who connected to a wider trade in dried seafood for Asian markets. In some ways a niche product, dried shrimp nevertheless shaped a distinctive cultural contour in the Gulf South.

This paper explores two ways the dried shrimp trade, operating as it did outside the region’s dominant cultural and economic patterns, exerted an outsized influence on the development and exploitation of marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico – first through connecting New Orleans to transpacific markets and second through initiating the systematic, large-scale harvest of Gulf marine life that continues today.

These two features of the Asian dried shrimp trade highlight an important ethnic, cultural, and economic pattern in the Gulf South that had little to do with cotton, sugar, wheat, or corn, and even less to do with the region’s Atlantic-aligned creole heritage. By exploiting an uncontested cultural space, Asian entrepreneurs made New Orleans an important part of a dispersed but dedicated supply chain for Pacific markets. Initially markers of difference, these features set the stage for an industrial-scale harvest that would make the Gulf of Mexico one of the most lucrative fishing grounds anywhere in the world.

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