Book review: Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean

Authored by PJ Hudson and reviewed by William Conroy

22 Feb 2019, 12:21 p.m.
William Conroy

Bankers and Empire book cover

Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean

Authored by PJ Hudson and reviewed by William Conroy

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017; 368 pp.: 9780226459110, US$45.00 (hbk).


Recent years have seen a growing interest in the ways in which finance capital mediates both the enclosure of ‘vast swathes of the countryside’ (Arboleda, 2015: 4), and the production of space more broadly – not least, in places such as Latin America and the Caribbean, which sit outside of the purview of Eurocentric urban theory. However, what remain underexplored in this literature are the diverse historical roots of this mode of ‘extended’, financialised spatial production. In this context, Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean makes – to my mind – its most important contribution. Hudson mobilises deep archival research to demonstrate how American finance capital expanded into the Caribbean and Central America (and beyond) from the 1890s to the 1930s – with a particular focus on Cuba and Haiti. In the process, Hudson demonstrates how Wall Street’s historic search for new frontiers of accumulation not only navigated a ‘tattered’ legal geography and conflicting jurisdictional authority, but also built upon ‘patterns of racial thinking and racist perception’ (p. 14). Hudson also identifies how ideas of racial difference were ultimately taken up, subverted and contested in this context; and he makes frequent reference both to investments in immobile forms of fixed capital and plantation agriculture, and to the ways in which the symbolic spaces of the city were deployed to display (and obscure) racialised forms of financial power. Thus, ‘the theoretical and empirical substance curated in Hudson’s book calls attention to the importance of spatialising and grounding the workings of racial capitalism in those places that are supposedly peripheral’ (Moulton, 2018: 2).

Hudson’s story begins with an introduction, titled ‘Dark finance’, that straightforwardly lays out his book’s central premise: Wall Street’s practices of imperial banking were imposed upon a ‘postemancipation history of economics and finance’ and ‘intersected with questions of national sovereignty, political governance, and the political economy of race, labor, and citizenship’ (p. 6). It is here that Hudson links, in the first instance, Wall Street’s ‘search for new markets and the shift overseas’ (p. 10) to the domestic financial crisis – a crisis that was grappled with as financiers ‘lent money to sugar planters and commercial exporters, funded sovereign debt, and took over central banking functions’ (p. 14). Before long, Hudson plunges into Chapter 1 – ‘Colonial methods’ – primarily taking an in-depth look at a pivotal figure, Samuel Miller Jarvis, in this process. Jarvis was a Midwestern banker who began his career by financing US settler colonialism in the Missouri Valley, before turning his attention to the Caribbean. In a sense, Hudson uses this account to make an historiographical corrective, noting that Jarvis – and his institutions, such as the North American Trust Company (NATC) – functioned during a period ‘that is often seen as an interregnum between the closing of a capital-saturated West … and the emergence of the United States as a global creditor during World War I’ (p. 7).

Hudson’s following chapter traces similar themes, with a focus on the history of the International Banking Corporation (IBC). The IBC was an ‘expansive and ambitious project of imperial banking conceived of by lawyer and industrialist Thomas H. Hubbard’, who sought to establish a ‘world-encircling banking corporation’ (p. 56). While this chapter outlines how IBC ‘navigate[d] the plural, transnational legal environment of global finance’ (p. 64) – and ultimately struggled because of ‘problems of … capitalization, and organization’ (p. 78) – it is perhaps more interesting for its (brief) discussion of how such forms of international expansion were deemed necessary through ‘gendered discourses of national development and imperial virility’ (p. 61). In fact, an attentive reading of Hudson’s account will note that the entanglement of such gendered discourses with racist thought arguably led, for example, to the practices of IBC at the Panama Canal Zone, as they oversaw a disbursement operation wherein different racial groups were remunerated in different ways and tasked with different types of work (p. 71).

In Chapter 3, titled ‘Financial occupations’, Hudson turns his attention to the National City Bank of New York – incidentally, the institution that purchased a controlling interest of IBC in 1915. Specifically, Hudson discusses the ways in which City Bank worked to take over the financial affairs of Haiti, a practice that reached its crescendo during the 14-year US occupation of the country – an occupation that effectively reintroduced racial slavery. In this context, Hudson describes a situation wherein the power of imperial banking transcended even that which had become common during the era of dollar diplomacy, under which ‘private bankers worked with financial experts and local governments to re-fund sovereign debt, reorganize customs collection and currency systems, and organize nominally national government banks’ (p. 8). In the following chapter, ‘Foreign regulation’, Hudson maintains his focus on the City Bank. However, this time he looks at its move toward internationalisation through its branch bank network and its security affiliate. In doing so, Hudson draws attention both to the tenuousness of such modes of accumulation, and to the racialised violence of these contingent formations – with a focus on the role of imperial banking in Cuba’s economic collapse of 1920.

Chapters 5 and 6 are titled ‘American expansion’ and ‘Imperial government’, respectively. The former looks at the ‘staggered incursion’ of imperial banking in the years following the First World War through the Mercantile Bank of the Americas (MBA). Hudson attends to how the MBA operationalised a ‘new managerial and organizational structure for imperial accumulation’ – by way of ‘concentration, cartelization, coordination, and collusion’ – while taking advantage of an emergent ‘imperial legal regime’ (p. 152). ‘Imperial government’, on the other hand, discusses how the National City Bank of New York was restructured following the Cuban banking crisis of 1920–1921 – reading this process largely through the experience of Joseph H. Durrell, while also noting the (generally ‘infrapolitical’) resistance that it inspired. The theme of resistance appears in the book’s seventh chapter as well, which looks at the entrance of the Chase National Bank of New York into the world of Caribbean imperial finance through entities such as the Chase Securities Corporation. In fact, the chapter’s title – ‘Odious debt’ – refers to the claim that ‘Chase loans to Cuba were knowingly made to an illegitimate and tyrannical government and thus were not the responsibility of the Cuban people’ (p. 224). And yet, as Hudson notes in his concluding chapter, anti-imperial resistance to the ‘monopoly presence of foreign financial institutions’, at times, gave way to paternalism and even racist violence (p. 256).

Needless to say, Hudson’s attentiveness to the entanglement of finance, racialisation and spatial production clearly addresses the lacuna outlined at the start of this review. With his work, Hudson identifies a mode of accumulation that pre-empted contemporary forms of financialised spatial production in Latin America and the Caribbean. And, he does so while noting that these extended networks of racialised extraction found expression in the built form of the city – in the architectural style of banks themselves, as Hudson is apt to note. Still, Hudson’s impressive study – rather than closing the door on future research – only opens new avenues for work on the themes identified here. Not least, we would do well to develop more deeply and explicitly the theoretical implications of Hudson’s empirical narrative, given that the text only provides passing nods to scholars such as David Harvey and Cedric Robinson. For instance, how does Bankers and Empire – with its attention to the dense networks that were produced to link ‘outlying regions’ to ‘coastal cities’ (p. 109) – specifically relate to contemporary calls to read the ‘industrialization and infrastructuralization of erstwhile … hinterlands’ through ‘gendered, sexualized, racialized, biopolitical, and neocolonial power relations’ (Brenner, 2018: 583)? Further still, how does it speak to already contentious conversations regarding the ‘epistemology of the urban’ and ‘planetary urbanisation’? These are the types of questions we must now ask.




Arboleda, M (2015) Financialization, totality and planetary urbanization in the Chilean Andes. Geoforum 67: 4–13. 
Google Scholar | ISI


Brenner, N (2018) Debating planetary urbanization: For an engaged pluralism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(3): 570–590. 
Google Scholar | SAGE Journals | ISI


Moulton, A (2018) Book review symposium: Bankers and Empire. Available at: (accessed 28 November 2018). 
Google Scholar


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