Today, coral frequently symbolizes our ongoing planetary climate crisis, as the news brings almost daily confirmation that coral reefs are globally endangered by human-caused threats to marine ecosystems. The loss of coral tends to be measured in biological and economic terms: Reefs support about a quarter of all marine species, protect property and human life by buffering shorelines, and bolster the global economy through fishing and tourism. Yet coral’s loss also takes spiritual, cultural, and psychological tolls. Centuries of writing, storytelling, ritual, and painting attest that coral has given meaning and direction to human lives for as long as people have been around to marvel at it.
In Coral Lives: Literature, Labor, and the Making of America (Princeton University Press, 2023), Michele Currie Navakas—professor of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a 2017–18 National Endowment of the Humanities fellow at The Huntington—tells the story of coral as an essential element of the marine ecosystem, a highly sought-after ornament used for display and adornment, a global commodity, and a powerful political metaphor for early Americans in particular.
Navakas shows that as we lose coral, we are also losing a material that humans have long relied on to help us think about some of the most pressing political problems—such as the persistence of slavery in a country ostensibly dedicated to liberty. The following excerpt comes from Navakas’ introduction to Coral Lives.
In the twenty-first century, people in many parts of the world see coral only on rare occasions. A visit to the aquarium or natural history museum brings coral reefs or coral specimens close. A snorkeling or scuba excursion briefly reminds us of the shocking vibrancy of the underwater world. An alarming environmentalist documentary or newspaper report confirms that coral is dying, as warming seas bleach the world’s reefs beyond recovery.
Yet in nineteenth-century Europe and North America, coral was everywhere. Women and girls—wealthy, working-class, and enslaved—wore coral necklaces, pins, rings, earrings, and bracelets, jewelry far more accessible and affordable than gold or gemstones. A demand for these and other coral objects drove the global coral trade, then centered in Italy, where Mediterranean coral fishers brought yearly harvests of raw coral to “coral workshops” for workers to cut and polish and then prepare for packing aboard ships destined for foreign ports and markets. Reef ecosystems flourished throughout the Mediterranean Sea and in the warm, shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea, all of which were major sources of coral reef specimens retrieved from the seafloor by local divers to supply the curiosity cabinets of naturalists and tourists. Coral served as currency in the transatlantic slave trade; between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries Europeans exchanged coral for persons, capitalizing on the value of coral beads within certain cultures of Africa, such as in the Kingdom of Benin in what is presently southern Nigeria. Museum visitors peered at display cases of coral extracted from the Pacific by scientific expeditions. People were eager to learn about coral’s natural history of defying taxonomic boundaries separating animal, vegetable, and mineral from the classical period thought the Enlightenment. And children in wealthier families cut their first teeth on the “coral and bells,” a combination teething aid, toy, and talisman that evoked the classical myth of coral’s “birth” from Medusa’s blood and was believed to ward off maladies both physical and spiritual. [A coral teething toy is on permanent display in The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.]
On the whole Europeans and North Americans not only saw and touched coral more often than we do today, but they also had good reasons to think more about the nature and growth of living, reef-building corals in particular. As a well-known cause of shipwrecks, reefs raised the question of where and how coral grows, a matter of economic concern to traders, of terror to navigators, and of sovereignty to any empire with oceanic ambitions. These and other reasons drove intense global interest in scientific theories of coral reef formation, such as those famously advanced by Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell during the 1830s and 1840s. And these theories, in turn, engaged a wide public during a time when the sciences were not yet the specialized domain of experts, but rather, as literary scholar Laura Dassow Walls explains, “part of the buzz and flux of the newspapers, parlors, and periodicals, right alongside—often the subject of—poems and stories and gossipy fillers.”
Certainly the average person did not have a detailed understanding of coral biology. Yet it was common knowledge that tiny polyps, discovered during the eighteenth century, somehow produce massive and ever-expanding structures by continually fusing together, while collectively making a reef from their bodies, over a timespan so vast that humans could scarcely fathom it. This process was popularly imagined as “labor” or “work.” Descriptions of polyps toiling away, “down, down so deep” in the sea—to quote the lyrics of one song especially beloved by generations of US schoolchildren—filled countless poems, short stories, novels, periodical essays, and other widely circulating media.
For many reasons, then, people once encountered coral more frequently and knew and imagined much more about its nature, meanings, histories, and uses than most of us do today. These conditions set the stage for the particular phenomenon that this book explores: in the nineteenth century a powerful set of ideas about coral shaped US thinking and writing about politics, broadly defined as a system of managing and distributing finite resources and care. Thus, while this book tells the story of coral as at once a global commodity, a personal ornament, an essential element of the marine ecosystem, and a powerful political metaphor, it also asks us to consider what we of the Anthropocene might learn from the forgotten human lessons once encoded in coral, even as coral itself vanishes.
One of the most popular political analogies that coral inspired during the nineteenth century involved the comparison of human society to a coral reef. The analogy usually suggested the power of collective labor for common good. In a chapter on cooperative labor in Capital (1867), for example, Karl Marx borrows this analogy by comparing humans to reef-making polyps: to make the point that collective labor promotes collective thriving, Marx cites a contemporary textbook on political economy that describes “mighty coral reefs rising” from the work of polyps who, though individually “weak,” are strong in the aggregate. Marx’s point is that coral offers humans a better model of labor and politics than capitalism, for the labors of coral serve not the “mastership of one capitalist,” but rather the sustenance of the whole, the work of each individual polyp ultimately enriching all. Variations on that political romance of the coral collective abound in nineteenth-century print culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet in an enormous range of nineteenth-century US reflections on coral reefs, that bright romance collides with and founders on a darker vision of life-consuming labor performed by the many for the benefit of the few. In one of the most popular nineteenth-century US poems about coral, for example, reefs exhibit a system of production in which collective labor appears to yield collective thriving, while in reality it requires one group of workers to give their lives and labors in full to a robust and expansive foundation that they can never enter alive. An instant transatlantic success upon its 1826 publication in a Connecticut newspaper, Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s “The Coral Insect”—a popular term for the coral polyp—describes a “race” of beings that “toil” to “build” the massive reef. They do so collectively, ultimately producing a “vast” work of lasting “wonder and pride.” Thus far, just as in Capital, reefs are nature’s celebration of communal labor for the common good.
In this widely reprinted poem, however, as in so many other nineteenth-century US reflections on coral, the details of reef formation disclose another story. Coral insect work is ceaseless and unvarying: the poem opens with repetitive labor—“Toil on! toil on!”—and closes with its continuance in the rhythmic “Ye build,—ye build.” That perpetual toil goes unacknowledged, absent from human sight and memory: it is “secret,” “noteless,” and “unmark’d.” Generation after generation, from birth until death without leaving, the workers build a structure that excludes them, for they “enter not in” but rather “fade” into the “desolate main,” where they “die.” Meanwhile, the reef rises from their laboring bodies, which endlessly merge to become a coral island that supports those who did not produce it and do not remember who did.
Sigourney’s poem, unlike Marx’s treatise, does not directly compare polyps to persons or reefs to human polities. Instead, the poem explores a key conceptual question raised by coral’s natural history: How can countless small and finite beings create and sustain a single, massive, enduring, and growing structure? The poem was published in a historical moment when this question was of the most pressing political and cultural relevance to a polity dedicated to collective thriving and sustained by the labors of millions who could never fully belong to the structure that they built. It answers the question by imagining extractive labor as a necessary condition of the most robust foundations. And it shows just how easily such labor may exist alongside, become obscured by, and even promote celebrations of communal labor for common good.
Sigourney’s poem is far from singular in that regard. Rather, it belongs to a vibrant tradition of nineteenth-century US accounts of coral reefs in which the vision of a cooperative coral collective can be sustained as long as one does not look beneath the waves to perceive that a reef can emerge into a robust island by continually and silently extracting the labors and bodies of countless millions of workers. By rehearsing that account of coral in innumerable texts in multiple genres across the long nineteenth century, Americans repeatedly described an extractive labor relation that strikingly resembled the chattel slavery that was then sustaining and expanding the US. Moreover, through repetition, that labor relation became familiar, and even routine.
Sigourney’s poem vividly registers just one of several branches of US political thinking about coral that emerged in the polity’s written and visual culture across the long nineteenth century. During this period, coral’s “cultural biography”—briefly defined as the various histories and uses of coral that generate its social meanings—intersected with political pressures and debates specific to a culture formally dedicated to common good yet increasingly indebted to “slavery’s capitalism,” the unprecedented, entwined expansion of slavery and industrial capitalism between the 1790s and 1860s. Tracking these intersections across US writing and visual culture, accounting for why they recur, and explaining their political significance among different groups of Americans at different moments in the long nineteenth century is the central work of this book.
Excerpted from Coral Lives: Literature, Labor, and the Making of America, by Michele Currie Navakas. Copyright © 2023 by Princeton University Press.
Michele Currie Navakas is professor of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a 2017–18 National Endowment of the Humanities fellow at The Huntington. She is also the author of Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).