One of the incidental pleasures for the ocean going traveller en voyage to some remote colonial outpost in the service of the Empire, was the opportunity, when in port, to observe the efforts of the native population to resupply the ship by hand with coal. The ill co-ordinated struggle of hundreds of exhausted natives clambering the ship’s side with inordinately weighty baskets of coal must have brought a supercilious smile to the face of many an aspiring minor administrator as he languished on the ship’s rail and reflected on his good fortune in belonging to a superior racial group, destined for far higher things than the unfortunate creatures toiling mightily below.
These postcard images from Nagasaki present the spectacle of coaling the ship in uncomfortable close-up. Inconveniently they remind us of the demeaning character of slave labour when destitution and despair reduce the cost of labour to a pittance. The contrast in human dignity between those condemned to servitude and the ship’s privileged passengers could not be greater. All this seems to be written across the faces of the workforce as they swarm through a matrix of rope and bamboo, breathing copious quantities of coal-dust into their lungs. An epic composition of human misery makes a curious subject for a postcard - it could also have made a magnificent painting if an artist of the calibre of Géricault had been available.
Nagasaki’s place in history as Japan’s principal port for trade with the outside world during the years of isolation has been overshadowed by the nuclear destruction of August 1945. The leap in technology from the era of intensive labour to the detonation of atomic weapons took about 4 decades and with hindsight we could imagine that the agonised expressions to be seen somehow foreshadow the appalling events that lay in the future. To compare and contrast, see the jaunty cover of Meccano Magazine dated March 1926 where a distant team of turbaned labourers make light work of their task as the seabirds circle in picturesque formations.