Of Ballast and Land Reclamation

WTC and containership.jpg

That extraordinary image is from some time in the 1970s, and the container-ship steaming so serenely in Hudson River is a Jugolinija ship belonging to the Yugoslav national shipping line.  What is of course poignant about the image is that neither the shipping line nor the World Trade Center towers exist any longer.  I think the photograph is staged, as I don’t really think that there were any container ports up the Hudson River at that stage (the Chelsea Piers catered to passenger ships).  I first saw this image last weekend in Rijeka (the home port of Jugolinija) in a performance by artists/activists of the art project, Said to Contain.

But what i want to reflect on is the middle ground of the photograph – between the ship and the towers.  That 1970s empty space is today Battery Park City, a dense residential and business area.  And it was built by reclaiming land from Hudson River by dumping the rubble dug up from the foundation excavations of the World Trade Centre.

Land reclamation is of great interest to me because of my interest in ports, and seems to be of increasing interest the world over. For example, here is a link to an article about Singapore’s land reclamation projects:

Once I began looking for reclaimed land, I encountered it everywhere. The five towers of the Marina Bay Financial Center are built on reclaimed land; so is an assortment of parks, wharves and a coastal highway. Beach Road, in the island’s belly, at one time had a self-evident name; now it reads like a wry joke, given how much new land separates it from the ocean. Most of Singapore’s Changi Airport sits on earth where there was once only water. The artist Charles Lim Yi Yong grew up in a kampong, or village, near where work on the airport began in 1975, so his house looked out onto reclaimed land. “It was a wooded area, but if you walked there, the ground would be sand and not soil,” Lim said. “Then you went through this desert space. It felt like I was in ‘The Little Prince.’ ”

Before he turned to art, Lim, now 43, sailed in the 1996 Olympics on the Singapore team. He grew interested in the sea because he sailed, and he sailed because he came from a kampong on the coast. The kampong has long since disappeared, and the coast has changed beyond recognition. Lim’s major creation, “Sea State,” is an anthology of artifacts and installations: videos and charts, buoys and other nautical paraphernalia. Shown at the Venice Biennale two years ago, “Sea State” embodies Lim’s obsession with his country’s transactional relationship with the ocean. His art is a form of urban exploration, roving over, into and around Singapore, studying what few others see: outlying islets, sewage tunnels, buoys, lighthouses, sand barges.


But going back to New York City, a Facebook friend turned me on to this article which lists a few other places in New York City which are built on the rubble of excavations, but also wars. The one site that really interested me is FDR Drive which seems to be built on the war rubble of Bristol and other British cities bombed during the World War Two Blitzkrieg.  Apparently the rubble of those cities was heaved onto ships as ballast and dumped in New York.  The above article links to another article in which Michael Ballaban writes

With nearly 85,000 buildings destroyed, Bristol had lots and lots of rubble. Just plenty of it. And when push came to ballast, the Brits just sort of said “screw it,” I imagine, and heaved the remnants of their homes and their factories and their beautiful churches into the bowels of chugging cargo ships.

They dropped so much rubble there, in fact, that the area near the water’s edge between 23rd street and 34th street came to be known as the “Bristol Basin.”



So, cities become rubble become ballast become waste become foundations for infrastructure.

There is also a(nother) colonial story about ballast.  I often tell the story of this stone in my talks:


Among the holdings of the British Museum, warehoused in their massive storage among around eight million objects, is a carved dark gravestone inscribed in Hebrew and dated 1333 AD, from the port of Aden in Yemen. The inscription says, “Mayest thou rest in peace until the [redeemer] cometh! (2-6) In the month of Tebeth, in the year 1644 [Seleucid], was gathered in peace to her fathers the worthy, respected woman Madmiyah, the daughter of Se’adyah the son of Abraham (may his memory be blessed)”. The stone was donated to the museum in 1886 by Thomas Holdsworth Newman of the shipping firm Messrs Newman, Hunt & Co.  The stone had been brought over to Britain, however, some 30 years earlier, when it had been used as ballast for a ship sailing from India to Zanzibar and onwards to Britain (I have tried to find what sort of ship this was, but have not yet been successful). The shipping firm itself owned whalers in Newfoundland, owned vineyards in Oporto in Portugal, and traded with Mediterranean ports.

There is much about this object that I would love to note here.  It speaks of a long history of Jewish diasporic existence in Aden, in Yemen.  It bespeaks of an imperial carelessness that plunders gravestones for ballast.  And it points to Aden as a significant, perhaps the most significant, coaling station between Europe and India.  I want to say a few words about ballasts, and then I shall shift to Aden itself.

In his beautiful short reflection on ships’ ballast, Charlie Hailey recalls Joseph Conrad’s obsession with ballast, telling us that ships are either “in cargo” or “in ballast”, where the weight, here of stone, later of coal and still later of seawater, is required to balance the ship when the ship is low on cargo. Landscapes were harvested of ballast, looted clean of sand and shingle and rock.  And although ballast may speak of empty ships, of ships that have delivered their goods in one direction and are now sailing in the opposite direction with their cargo heaved to port, it also speaks of resource extraction in ways that would be considered “unproductive” but which are fundamental to capitalist trade.  This resource extraction transformed landscapes in ways that have been forgotten.  Once a ship arrived in port, ballast had to be discarded and despite laws that prevented the discharging of stone and shingle and sand into the sea, Hailey tells us that “discarded ballast spawned landscapes born of displaced materials from far-flung lands” and ballast islands and hills, this wastage “became infrastructure, with these unwitting spoils of trade repurposed for buildings, roads, and railways.” Today, when seawater from one geography is released in port in another geography, there is much concern about invasive species, about this uncanny mixing of waters, organisms, pollutions.

And the harvesting and dumping of ballast also echoes through the dredging and land reclamation processes that transform landscapes, looting far riverbeds of Myanmar for example for gravel to be poured on the seabeds of Singapore, or of ancient marine topographies ripped up to accommodate ships with deeper draughts. This is crucially important.  The making of ports and transport infrastructure in one place requires the despoliation of another place.  A port in Singapore or Dubai requires the ecological devastation of another country’s riverbeds.


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The Multivalence of Infrastructures II – Rail

I am reading a fascinating article about colonial engineering. Canay Ozden’s fabulous “Pontifex Minimus” is about the British engineer of the Low (or old) Aswan Dam, and the article just drips with all sorts of wonderful quotable sections.  For example, this:

The exportation of engineering practices from the metropole to the colony relied on a rhetoric of universal engineering and social principles. In fact, some of the more severe failures of the British in flood control and land utilisation may be explained by the emergence of a universalist perspective in British engineering in the second half of the nineteenth century. Historian Benjamin Weil argues that the generalist paradigm in British irrigation engineering, which emphasized qualitative observation and interactions with locals, was gradually replaced by the specialist paradigm, which assumed that geographic formations exhibited universal features. Engineers born and trained in England were sent to the colonies to apply lessons learned in Europe, often with little success. As Weil shows, the newly trained British engineers’ resistance to engaging with anecdotal data precluded sound explanations of past floods in the Indus Basin and appropriate measures to prevent further floods. (p. 188)

But the bit that really interested me was this:

Although the terms and logistics of Willcocks’ visit to Mesopotamia are unclear, it is unlikely that the visit had ‘nothing to do with’ politics. In the last years of the nineteenth century, several European powers were pressing the Ottoman Empire for concessions to construct a railway to Baghdad. Willcocks arrived in the region shortly after the Germans received the concession and the well-developed British plans had fallen through. Willcocks was certainly aware of the significance of the sought-after railways. It is because the railway was advancing steadily from the West, he wrote, that the increase in the agricultural wealth of the region had become more important than ever. The railway would also decrease the burden of ship traffic on the Euphrates and the Tigris and ensure that they were exploited for irrigation purposes only. Willcocks argued that his technical consideration of the irrigation potential of the region was sufficient evidence for the companies involved in the railway construction to conduct hydraulic surveys:

As always, I turn to Egypt for an example. In Egypt the railways and canals are designed together; the canals preceding the railways and settling their locations. If such a course be followed in Chaldea, the railways will aid the prosperity of the canals, and the canals of the railways; the canals will be able to devote themselves entirely to the development of agricultural wealth, and the railway will transport the agricultural produce by the cheapest and most favorable route. (p.198)

What is fascinating about this is that just earlier this afternoon I was reading an article from 1913 in the American Review of Reviews that was arguing for the importance of railways. In fact the article’s title is “Are Railroads Neutralizing Sea Power?”  The article has a few examples, but the striking one is this:

When the Deutsche Bank, with a concession from the Turkish government, opened the first section of the Bagdad Railway, from Constantinople to Sabandja in Asia Minor, it was well understood that this was only the first link in a great trunk line to the Persian Gulf, with branches toward the Caucasus and the northwest frontier of Persia; to Alexandretta on the Eastern Mediterranean; to the holy cities of Islam, Medina and Mecca, with a terminal on the Red Sea at Jiddah; and into south western Persia from Bagdad. A glance at the map will show that troops coming from any part of continental Europe could be thrown into any part of Asiatic Turkey and Persia right up to the Russian Caucasus and Trans-Caspian frontiers, the border of Afghanistan and the western boundary of British India, whenever the supplementary fines were constructed, without at any point coming under the guns of British or other warships.

The Bagdad Railway was intended to be the main line of a military system of interior lines against exterior sea-power. The German government, which is behind the Bagdad Railway enterprise, selected Koweit on the Persian Gulf as the sea terminal, but the British government intervened and took the Sheik of Koweit, which is an integral part of Turkish Arabia, under its “protection.” Great Britain then claimed the right to joint participation with Germany in the construction and administration of the Bagdad-Koweit section. But the Germans and the Turkish government arranged for its construction by a purely Ottoman syndicate. There the matter stands at present, the construction of the main line through Mesopotamia being pushed as rapidly as possible. (p. 607)

The British engineer mentions the economic uses of the canal/rail system, while the American journal sees it as a grand strategic technology.

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The Multivalence of Infrastructure I – Roads

As always Paul Rabinow’s French Modern is an extraordinary reminder of how transport infrastructures serve functions at once military and commercial – and in fact “war, commerce, and transit” (in Paul Nizan’s memorable phrase) cannot be prised apart. Here is Rabinow about Gallieni’s pacification of Indochina:

There were only the most casual asides about more standard ethnographic realities-such as that the Mans didn’t like villages-Gallieni’s interest was infrastructural and instrumental. In village after village, he covetously and proudly noted every new bridge and road built; the French were spinning a growing spider’s web of installations-and Gallieni was the spider.

Roads were the key; without them there could be no movement of troops, no commerce, and ultimately no society. Gallieni was adamant that posts be constructed in durable materials, to demonstrate that the French intended to remain permanently. He ordered a masonry blockhouse built on a high outcropping overlooking the Chinese border. The post served a triple function: to observe both sides of the border, to provide solid military security, and to function as a representation of France’s enduring presence. All of these measures fell within a coherent if rather limited conception of conquest, human motivation, and social organization. Describing a meeting with one of the pirate-rebel leaders, Gallieni argued that signing a peace treaty was in everyone’s self-interest, as it was good for commerce. Although Gallieni basically distrusted the “feudal” warlords, he was pleasantly surprised to meet a Chinese warlord with whom he could drink (mediocre) champagne and discuss the need for peace and markets. (p. 148)

Definitely useful to remember that the roads were military conduits were commercial routes.  Those functions were never separable because the separation of economic and coercive force is just an abstract heuristic we impose today on imperial infrastructures.

I have written a little bit about the function of these roads in counterinsurgency as well – in an article which unfortunately is behind a paywall.

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Logistic Routes and the Détente

Reading an interesting article on the alignment of USSE with Siad Barré’s regime in Somalia from 1969 onwards and it has some interesting tidbits having to do with military logistics and transport.  The article by Gary Payton is standard Cold War era analysis, but this bit was of interest to me:

Throughout the I960s, three major logistic routes existed for trans- porting weaponry from the industrial centres in the western U.S.S.R. to South-East Asia. By the first route, arms loaded in ports of the Black Sea transited the Suez Canal, travelled through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, across the Indian Ocean, and finally arrived at the ports of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, or Haiphong. With the closure of the Suez Canal in June 1967, merchant vessels were forced to steam around the African continent before entering the waters of the Indian Ocean. On the second route, weapons departed from the Siberian port complex of Vladivostok and Nakhodka and were transported south through the China Sea to the awaiting Communist armies. Finally, Vietnam-bound war material travelled along the Trans-Siberian Railway and was routed across China’s Xinjang (Sinkiang) Province for entry into the North Vietnamese rail and road system. Thus, any actions taken by the United States or China to impede the arms flow, directly challenged the Soviet strategy of entrapping the U.S. in Vietnam and forcing China to take a more conciliatory approach towards Sino-Soviet relations. (p. 496).

What I find interesting about this is that Nixon’s visit to China and the Détente could have been as much about cutting off supply lines to Vietnam as it was about China’s role itself in Vietnam.

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Labour and Capital

From Walter Rodney’s wonderful How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, this passage on the making of infrastructures in Africa:

The combination of being oppressed, being exploited, and being disregarded is best illustrated by the pattern of the economic infrastructure of African colonies : notably, their roads and railways. These had a clear geographical distribution according to the extent to which particular regions needed to be opened up to import-export activities. Where exports were not available, roads and railways had no place. The only slight exception is that certain roads and railways were built to move troops and make conquest and oppression easier. Means of communication were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. More important still, they were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or manganese or coffee or cotton. They were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies, and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers. Any catering to African interests was purely coincidental. Yet in Africa, labor, rather than capital, took the lion’s share in getting things done. With the minimum investment of capital, the colonial powers could mobilize thousands upon thousands of workers . Salaries were paid to the police officers and officials, and labor came into existence because of the colonial laws, the threat of force, and the use of force. Take, for instance, the building of railways. In Europe and America, railway building required huge inputs of capital. Great wage bills were incurred during construction, and added bonus payments were made to workers to get the job done as quickly as possible. In most parts of Africa, the Europeans who wanted to see a railroad built offered lashes as the ordinary wage and more lashes for extra effort.

Reference was earlier made to the great cost in African life of the ( French ) Congo railroad from Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire. Most of the intolerable conditions arc explained by the non-availability of capital in the form of equipment. Therefore, sheer manpower had to take the place of earth-moving machinery, cranes, and so on. A comparable situation was provided by the construction of the Embakasi airport of Nairobi. Because it was built during the colonial era (starting in 1 953) and with United States loans, it is customary to credit the imperialists for its existence. But it would be much more accurate to say that the people of Kenya built it with their own hands under European supervision. Embakasi, which initially covered seven square miles and had four runways, was described as “the world’s first handmade international airport.” Mau Mau suspects numbering several thousand were to be found there “laboring under armed guard at a million-ton excavation job, filling in craters, laying a half million tons of stone with nothing but shovels, stone hammers and their bare hands.” (p. 209)

And after decolonisation:

The high proportion of the “development” funds went into the colonies in the form of loans for ports, railways , electric power plants, water works , engineering works.hops, warehouses , which were necessary for more efficient exploitation in the long run. In the short run, such construction works provided outlets for European steel, concrete, electrical machinery, and railroad rolling stock. One-fifth of FIDES funds were spent on prestigious public works in Dakar, which suited French industry and employed large numbers of expatriates. Even the schools built under FIDES funds were of unnecessary high cost per unit, because they had to be of the requisite standard to provide job outlets for white expatriates . Incidentally, loans were “tied” in such a way that the money had to be spent on buying materials manufactured in the relevant metropole. The “development” funds were raised on the European money market by the governments concerned, and in effect the national metropolitan governments were providing their own bankers and financiers with guaranteed profitable outlets for their capital. In 1 956, the French government started a scheme which was a blatant form of promoting their own private capitalists while paying lip service to African development and welfare. The scheme involved the creation of an institution called SDOM (Financial Societies for the Development of Overseas Territories ). SDOM was nothing but an association of private capitalists interested primarily in the oil of North Africa, and having large government subventions to achieve their goals.  (pp. 214-215)


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Malta-Dubai; 27 August 2016 – Day 18, Arrival



@Jabal Ali at Dawn.JPG




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Malta-Dubai; 26 August 2016 – Day 17, Steaming towards Hormuz

26 August

09.25 (GMT +4)

Steaming towards Hormuz Straits

The only thing that lightened the monotony yesterday was the alarm at around 10 last night. And the ridiculous conversations between the Iranian ship’s captains on channel 16 (which is supposed to be reserved for emergencies).


22.00 (GMT +4)

The air outside is at last bearable. Just warm, not furnace hot. It was at some stage 41 degrees outside and the water temperature was 33 degrees!

The port-side horizon is red with light pollution and the lights of Ras al Khayma and Sharjah twinkle in the distance as we make our way towards the pilot station of Jabal Ali, where we are to be met at 23.00. I have stayed up as we are apparently going to steam through the harbour to the back of Jabal Ali (a different terminal than before) which is very exciting. The captain said something about a private berth, but I am not sure what that means.


The Milky Way is glorious, once your eyes get used to the dark. The Indian Ocean was too grey and overcast and hazy for a nighttime perusal of the sky, and before that, I was too ensconced in my routines of going to sleep at 9 to actually think about going out there to look at the sky.


Strange how much more jaded I am this time around. I have just looked at my notes from last year and Corte Real and I was so much more attentive to all the details. I suppose my writing time this trip was spent on love-emails and book proposals, so a slightly different experience.

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