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Goucher Today

Q&A with Chelsea Schields

Image of Chelsea Schields and her book cover

Chelsea Schields ’08 is a transnational historian of sexuality, race, and energy, and an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. We interviewed her about her newly published book, Offshore Attachments: Oil and Intimacy in the Caribbean. The book examines how laborers, domestic works, sex workers, and housewives in Aruba and Curaçao challenged oil corporations and political authorities, molding the industry from the ground up.

What is your book about?

The book tells the story of the boom and bust of two massive oil refineries on the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao. A little-known fact is that the Caribbean was once home to some of the largest oil refineries in the world, and initially those were housed on the Dutch islands—islands under Dutch sovereignty and Dutch colonial control. Standard Oil, which is now ExxonMobil, owned the refinery in Aruba. In Curaçao, the refinery was owned by the Royal Dutch Shell Group.

The book shows how that massive industrial experiment relied both in its phases of growth and decline on interventions into Caribbean intimate life, which were always inseparable from the making and management of race.

In the minds of corporate management and state leaders, supporting the oil industry, whether it was growing or shrinking, was thought to require remaking intimate sexual and reproductive practice, often in ways that defied prevailing laws. But as much as the book looks at how these actors tried to control sexuality as a site of labor discipline and coercion, it also shows how Caribbean people challenged and embraced intimate interventions in ways that shaped the industry from the ground up.

What is significant about “the offshore”?

Scholars have used this term, “the offshore,” to understand the way that capitalism relies upon zones of apparent legal exceptionality in order to produce wealth. In Curaçao, Shell received really advantageous tax breaks that drew the company to the island in the first place. And certainly, relaxed labor regulations and environmental regulations have left a lasting impact on Aruba and Curaçao. But what I look at is how that dynamic of “the offshore”—the exceptionalized treatment of law—also applied to the regulation of sexuality. For instance, against laws introduced by the Dutch colonial government in 1918, in the following decades the state recruited sex workers to support an exploited male workforce. That was done illegally, and some people on the islands pointed out that hypocrisy, but the demands of the oil industry were always thought to be more important than sticking to the letter of the law. So I find that the exceptional treatment of racialized sexuality appears in a lot of different ways to support the oil industry, whether that be in the treatment of commercial sex work, marriage and divorce, or contraception.

What do you mean by racialized sexuality?

The oil industry relied upon divisions of race and nation to organize the workforce, which grafted onto longstanding colonial racist tropes. Fomenting division among workers was a corporate strategy to guarantee access to energy and to mitigate potential threats to the supply chain of energy that would arise, for instance, if people could mobilize across ethnic and racial lines. So the entire workforce was organized to prevent, as much as possible, the creation of solidarities. The treatment of sex and what theorists call the work of social reproduction—who sustains the workers—was also organized in a similar way to support that ethnic and racial division of labor.

Really different repertoires of intimacy were used to make race in the first half of the 20th century. As the theorist Hazel Carby says, race is a verb and not a noun. It is a process of creating difference and assigning differential value to human life. And part of the way that work was done was by allowing people different arrangements of intimacy. The white U.S. American and European managers, chemists, and engineers were allowed to reside in the field with their families, which legitimized their claims to white respectability and whiteness itself. They lived in walled-off enclaves behind gates that were expressly designed to limit the movements of people of color into and out of that space.

The men of color from the Caribbean region and Latin America, who were doing the value-producing work of turning oil into a commodity, were mostly not afforded the choice to bring their families. They were housed as cheaply as possible, often in barracks, and sex workers were thought to be part of what would content and assuage those workers. Oil companies initially tried to sever these men from their kin because workers were thought to be much more easily controlled if people were isolated and atomized. If laborers presented a political problem, they could be deported the next day—that was much more difficult if someone brought their family. Corporate and state leaders believed that sex workers maintained that calculus of labor transience or flexibilization.

Companies like Standard Oil and Shell were initially very reticent to employ local men, because if those workers organized, they couldn’t be deported. And this was a practice implemented across the world’s mineral frontiers. In many places where the industry operated, you see concerted efforts to undermine the capacity of local laborers by instead relying on migratory laborers. When demand for local workers grew in the 1930s, there were simultaneous efforts to discipline those men to the industrial environment by encouraging the formation of nuclear families modeled on white Western norms. Even as automation threatened people’s jobs in the 1960s, various actors continued to insist that normative family forms would “save” the island economy, displacing blame for a structural crisis onto individual intimate practice.

Are these practices still prevalent in today’s oil industry?

There’s a fabulous book, Hannah Appel’s The Licit Life of Capitalism: US Oil in Equatorial Guinea, that looks at the way that oil industries continue to operate along lines of race, class, and intimacy. White U.S. Americans and Europeans overwhelmingly continue to enjoy free high-quality housing at their various posts, while men of color from the Global South continue to work more transient shifts, sleep in large communal barracks, and are not allowed to bring their families to sites of extraction.

I studied refinery sites, which are now managed a bit differently. The plants in Aruba and Curaçao were among the first large refineries in the world that produced all kinds of things in the 1950s. They could make aviation fuel, diesel oil, and heavy fuel oil for ocean tankers and railroads. They produced all kinds of petroleum and petrochemical products, the first refineries to really create that array of commodities. And they developed early; Shell signed the lease in Curaçao in 1915. But the massive growth of refineries in the post-war period took shape at a time when labor was no longer required to turn oil into commodities. When Shell and Standard Oil set up their operations, you needed human operators to adjust valves or regulate the temperature of a still. But with the introduction of computerized processes in the 1950s, energy production became one of the first thoroughly automated industries. Now, oil refineries don’t demand 10,000 laborers to keep operations running; you just need a handful of people in a control room. So that culture of the company town is no longer required in enclave refining sites.

Is the industry still active in Curaçao and Aruba?

Right now, things are paused. In 1985, both Shell and what is now ExxonMobil sold or shut down their operations. ExxonMobil planned to shut down the refinery, and it was eventually taken over by the island government. There have been experiments to reopen it that have not succeeded for any sustained period. In the last several years, Curaçao has sought a new buyer for Shell’s former plant, which had been leased by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, from 1985 to 2019. In the COVID-19 pandemic, as tourism shut down—tourism is now the major industry on islands like Aruba—the island governments sought to reopen these aging refineries in the Caribbean as a way to offset the reliance on tourism, which is ironic because tourism emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as the answer to the retrenchment of the oil industry.

How did you do the research for the book?

The book is based on multi-sited archival research. I went to the Netherlands, Aruba, and Curaçao. I also did research in the United States and in repositories such as national archives, libraries, and private archives. The archival record is challenging to work with, especially in the history of oil, because companies don’t have the obligation to share their records. But whenever workers complained to local governments, their complaints would trigger the sending of corporate records into state archives. And I found it fascinating that grievance entered the archive often through complaints about the corporate regulation of social reproduction. You get an interesting window into oil through the way that people talked about intimacy.

Did any of your ideas change as you were researching or writing?

The whole premise of my book changed along the way. Initially, I was interested in exploring how discussions of sex and race mediated the post-colonial relationship between the Caribbean and the Netherlands. I had been interested in the way that sex could cohere understandings of citizenship. But I had the realization that there was this other actor in hydrocarbon and fossil-fueled capitalism that profoundly shaped discussions on sexuality. It took me a while to see that oil was at the center of my story. I think a lot of that has to do with the way that oil hides in plain sight; it saturates every aspect of our daily lives. From the makeup that we wear to fulfill a certain gendered expression to our vinyl-sided house that allows us to say we’re upstanding middle-class citizens, oil has shaped our desires and aspirations and also our raced, classed, and gendered identities, which goes unmarked because it’s such a ubiquitous presence in our lives. Oil was everywhere in the background of my story, but it took me a mental readjustment to see that it was at the center.


Buy the book: Offshore Attachments: Oil and Intimacy in the Caribbean