Chelsea Schields’s Offshore Attachments

“The offshore accounts for the archipelagos of legal pluralism, extraterritoriality, and supposed exception forged by colonial powers and redefined in the context of contemporary capitalism to reproduce wealth. Even as these spaces appear as expectations, they are, in fact, intimately imbricated in and make possible their seemingly anti-theses: the ‘normal’ business of onshore capitalism and the sovereign nation-state. These are not opposites of the offshore, but outcomes.”

– Chelsea Schields, Offshore Attachments, 193.

Aruba and Curaçao are two islands just miles off the coast of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo region. A visitor to the islands’ oft-publicized calm turquoise waters and white sands may scarcely recognize that these two tiny members of the Antillean archipelago were once among the greatest suppliers of the world’s oil economy. The islands provided the Allies with 80 percent of their naval and aviation fuel during World War II. Shell’s Curaçao refinery, along with John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil (now Esso) in Aruba, were both among the world’s most productive refineries in the late 1930s until the late 1940s (6).

To tell the story of these islands and their oil production means entering a dynamic and multi-faceted history, one that involves grappling with the complexities of emergent global energy sectors and the boom and bust cycles of the twentieth century, as well as with intricately renegotiated sovereignties in the years of destabilizing European empires. However, Chelsea Schields, in her masterful Offshore Attachments: Oil and Intimacy in the Caribbean (UC Press, 2023), recognizes that to narrate properly this history at the nexus of global political economy, energy and post-empire also requires a close examination of the lives and labor of those who actually produced the oil. What Schields uncovers is that sex and intimacy were always at the center of oil production.

Offshore Attachments argues that company management, island elites and Dutch officials controlled and regulated sex in myriad ways to enhance the profitability of oil production. And, just as importantly, the manufacture of an abundance of oil relied upon gendered, raced and classed ideals initially forged in earlier periods of colonialism and enslavement, and constantly reshaped in ensuing decades. Schields aptly situates her study within the boom of oil production which occurred from the 1930s through the early 1950s, and carries it through to the bust caused by automation. From 1950 to 1970 the refinery increased its production twofold, but the industry lost two-thirds of its workforce, while the economic crisis and oil shocks of the 1970s led to the shuttering and sale of refineries in the 1980s. Throughout boom and bust alike, oil managers and state officials developed policies and practices to reshape sex and reproduction.

To achieve the desired productivity levels in the 1930s to the early 1950s required creating an industrial labor force. In 1914 oil deposits were discovered in the Lake Maracaibo region. The following year, Shell commenced building the Isla refinery in Curaçao. Shell management began to recruit foreign workers from throughout the Caribbean for two primary reasons: on the one hand, tropes labeled the local men of African descent as “lazy” and ill-equipped for industrial work, and secondly, borrowing techniques the Dutch employed in Indonesian labor recruitment, it was assumed that a reliance on an itinerant workforce would make laborers more isolated and therefore more controllable. Indeed, in the 1930s – a moment of heightened trade unionism and worker activism – company management discussions were abuzz with debates about “unrest” and concern with achieving worker compliance. As other scholars have shown, Caribbean labor practices relied on enforcing racial and national divisions specifically to distract from labor inequities. Shell enforced such decision by assigning nationally divided camps patrolled by guards and colonial police. But Shell did not manage only to extract profitability through racial divisions; it sought as well to reduce potential expenditures by carefully controlling who would serve as domestic workers in the white homes of management and engineers. Dutch officials, for example, feared that an increase in foreign women workers would likely increase the numbers of children who would be entitled to rights as Dutch subjects. To mitigate such costs, officials placed restrictions on female workers, recruiting only women above the presumed childbearing ages.

Meanwhile, corporate management facilitated the supply of intimacy for the profitability of the oil industry by operating a brothel and importing foreign sex workers to Curaçao. In 1942, a committee that included two Catholic priests argued that the provision of sex workers allowed Shell to avoid the expenses associated with family migration and the higher wages needed to support families. Seeking to satisfy male “erotic yearnings,” and defying local laws that prohibited prostitution and brothels as well as international treaties on anti-trafficking in order to operate the Campo Alegre brothel, the authorities provided short-term contracts to light skinned women predominantly from Columbia and the Dominican Republic – whose proximity to whiteness the authorities presumed to be more sexually desirable to the workforce. Yet while this transactional sex was facilitated for the islands’ itinerant labor force, authorities sought also to manage local Afro-Curaçaoan men in a “late civilizing mission” by imposing on them marriage and domesticity. Shields documents the campaign to increase discipline in the household and thereby the workplace through monthly corporate magazines that publicized marriages and anniversaries of employees, and included articles on masculine duty, paternal qualities and responsibility in the home. In this section, Shields demonstrates how Caribbean “industrial paternalism” produced and imposed the model of the patriarchal family.

On neighboring Aruba, however, Schields shows how these two models employed in the 1930s-40s – domesticity and transactional sex – came into conflict when approximately three-thousand Aruban housewives protested the construction of a brothel in 1951. While histories of labor often highlight the unrest and strikes of male workers, it is rare to uncover a history of women—the wives, mothers, daughters of refinery laborers – demanding that Standard Oil change course.  Throughout Offshore Attachments, Schields maintains a light touch on imparting her own judgements on the historical subjects of her narrative; such is indeed the case with the 1951 protest in which a group of Aruban women employ their proximity to white racial identity and respectable domesticity against the perceived licentiousness of Afro-Curaçaoan foreign sex workers. Grasping the particularities of inter-Antillean racial dynamics, Schields’ analysis portrays how Aruban “self-understanding as a white or mestizo island, in contrast to the majority Black population of Curacao” aided Aruban women’s “spirited defense of a home life under threat from racialized sexual competition and economic danger (53).”   Employing values of chastity, white respectability and conjugal domesticity, the housewives used telegrams, mass demonstrations, slogans, and their knowledge of commonwealth laws to successfully reverse the support of building the brothel.

In yet another twist, as the effects of automation led to mass layoffs and Shell embraced austerity policies and reduced the social programs they had formerly provided (which had included widower pensions, company homes and healthcare), Curaçaoan officials displaced blame for the economic downturns onto working-class reproductive behaviors. As men lost jobs, officials focused on measures to reduce population growth. Relying on radio broadcasts and TV programs depicting images of crying babies, blame was placed on Afro-Curaçaoan men, depicted as absent fathers, and the language of “responsible parenthood” was promoted with thinly veiled racial tropes. Nonetheless, the brunt of the measures to curtail population growth were directed at Afro-Curaçaoan women. Just as authorities had found ways around the legal prohibitions of prostitution to facilitate sex for itinerant male workers in the 1930s-1940s, authorities now defied laws that had prohibited contraception, sterilization and abortion in order to accommodate the industry’s reduced labor demands.

While recent works in labor history acknowledge that labor requires the reproduction of labor, and thus seek to include the work and experiences of women whose daily activities supported men’s waged work, Schields’ analysis pushes this framework much further. And although the field of labor history often bemoans a lack of access to the voices of workers themselves, Schields’ archival discoveries are a true testament to the value of exhaustive archival research yielding a plurality of voices, including those of voices largely marginalized by historical analysis such as women, nonunionized workers, and people of color. For example, Schields relies on diaries of employers to glean revelatory glimpses of the experiences of women serving as domestics in middle-class households. Furthermore, she uses police records (found in a 1966 dissertation) to include the voices of prostitutes, including Teresa Perez, a 35-year old sex worker from the Dominican Republic. She also mines newspapers and magazines to include quotations from marginalized voices. Notably, in Chapter 4 on 1960s protests movements, Schields’ provides a close reading of Vitó and Kambio, two leftist journals launched by graduates returning to the Antilles from their studies in the Netherlands. Using the journals’ interviews, letters and editorials, Schields enriches the narrative with lively expressions of subjectivities, opinions, and challenges. Methodologically, this intervention supports one of Schields’ main argumentative positions: that while the global economy and corporations like Shell or Standard Oil manipulated sex and reproduction for specific industrial imperatives, workers and Caribbean people challenged and protested to shape their societies.

The term “offshore” is widely used in globalization studies and development discourse to describe ways that the global economy seeks havens in peripheral areas. As Schields so richly documents, to “offshore” also means to create exceptional spaces in which metropolitan practices and laws (such as those on prostitution, marriage, abortion, sterilization, contraception) were deliberately circumvented to meet the demands of the oil industry, and she skillfully uses the concept of the “offshore” as both an analytical and a descriptive category. Indeed, in this transnational examination of the intimate lives that shape the global oil economy, Schields reveals how twentieth-century industry offshored not only tax incentives, itinerant labor and commodity production, but also offshored ideas and practices. Currents of ideas analyzed by Offshore Attachments do not just include the four-way conversation between Dutch metropolitan and Antilles-based politicians, oil industry executives and religious leaders to shape others’ personal practices for the benefit of profits. The book additionally traces the vectors of radicalization among the returning students as they interact with currents of ideas imported from the Cuban Revolution, the 1968 protests, and the Black Power movements that sought to challenge the paradigms sustaining oppressive racial hierarchies and sexual unfreedoms.

Offshore Attachments merits broad readership among scholars of empire, the Caribbean, the Oil Industry, labor history, and scholars of sexuality and race. To read this fascinating work of historical research, one is invited alongside Schields’ nuanced and analytical mind, as she turns over her sources meticulously and with care. Attendant at every turn to the concomitant effects of race, gender and class, the book masterfully maintains equal weight for the messy complexity of the particularities, while also grasping their continuous remolding within the purview of the movements of global capital. While the work overwhelmingly benefits from Schields’ capacity to hold so much nuance, at times, this humility may cause readers to lose sight of the work’s understated argumentative developments and interventions – not least of which is the way the book invites much further analysis on the ecological consequences of the oil industry and the consumption practices so deeply embedded in the plastics economy that so powerfully shaped mid-twentieth century domesticity.

This account of twentieth-century oil production in the Dutch Caribbean historicizes the making of the oil industry, but also historicizes the making of racialization and of sexual practices and mores. Yet precisely by attending to the historical specificities of these practices and mores, and thus their capacity to change over time, Offshore Attachments also invites readers to imagine the fungibility of these categories and in doing to so to imagine political remaking. As Schields points out, her work “invites historians of sexuality to account for that which, in its ubiquity, hides in plain sight: fossil fuels” (186). But no less significant is that her work brings to light how our energies shape the categories of our everyday life that too have the potential for re-creation, as Schields’ writes, “if we dare to imagine a more just and equitable world to come (187).”


  • Marybeth Tamborra

    Marybeth Tamborra is a PhD candidate in Modern European and American History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is working on a dissertation, a transnational intellectual history, that focuses on the 1935 Invasion of Ethiopia and the critiques generated by Black intellectuals in this moment. She has taught Global History at Brooklyn College.

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