Offshore Attachments reveals how the contested management of sex and race transformed the Caribbean into a crucial site in the global oil economy. By the mid-twentieth century, the Dutch islands of Curaçao and Aruba housed the world’s largest oil refineries. To bolster this massive industrial experiment, oil corporations and political authorities offshored intimacy, circumventing laws regulating sex, reproduction, and the family in a bid to maximize profits and turn Caribbean subjects into citizens. Historian Chelsea Schields demonstrates how Caribbean people both embraced and challenged efforts to alter intimate behavior in service to the energy economy. Moving from Caribbean oil towns to European metropolises and examining such issues as sex work, contraception, kinship, and the constitution of desire, Schields narrates a surprising story of how racialized concern with sex shaped hydrocarbon industries as the age of oil met the end of empire.

Chelsea Schields is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

This book is the winner of the 2024 Bryce Wood Book Award and the 2024 Luciano Tomassini Latin American International Relations Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association.

How did you come to this topic, linking oil and intimacy? What motivated you to write about it?

My own family history made clear the relationship between energy and intimacy. At the height of the Great Depression, my grandfather jumped on a freighter to China, where he initially sold kerosene door-to-door. He spent the rest of his career working for US oil companies abroad, eventually marrying and raising a family overseas. This was expected of many men in the industry if they wanted to succeed.

In Aruba and Curaçao, I learned that his experience was not unique. I first became interested in the history of these islands after moving to the Netherlands as a teenager. To this day, Aruba and Curaçao remain under Dutch sovereignty, but I quickly realized that the traditional metropole-colony narrative missed out on other important actors, like foreign fossil capital. Everyone on Aruba and Curaçao seemed to know this because most islanders have deep, multigenerational connections to the massive refineries established in the early twentieth century by the Royal Dutch Shell Group and the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Islanders’ enduring connections to the plants, and ways that intimacy surfaced in the archive as a way to manage labor and express status, resonated with the stories I grew up hearing.

You argue that Caribbean people both embraced and resisted oil corporations’ efforts to influence their intimate behavior. Can you give us an example?

Surprisingly, regulating sex, reproduction, and family life was a primary concern for building an oil economy, not a secondary one. To manage the labor force and keep the plants running smoothly and profitably, Shell, Standard Oil, and the Dutch colonial government all focused on intimate behaviors and household arrangements.

Take the case of some Aruban women in the 1940s and 1950s. Many eagerly adopted the middle-class domestic lifestyle promoted by oil companies. Managers from Standard Oil and Shell, both US-American and European, believed that married life would discipline Aruban and Curaçaoan men. Yet, at the same time, Standard Oil’s agents were recruiting thousands of “single” migrant workers largely from Britain’s Caribbean colonies. The idea was to maintain a workforce that could be easily hired or fired based on demand. Families did not fit into this plan. To support this strategy, the Dutch colonial government brought in sex workers, mainly from the Dominican Republic, even though this was technically illegal under Dutch colonial law.

Aruban women saw these sex workers as a threat, both as sexual competition and as sources of moral corruption. In 1951, they led massive protests that temporarily stopped this practice in Aruba. However, the women who sold sexual services also found ways to evade colonial control. By marrying Dutch subjects, they gained residence rights that shielded them from police oversight.

Why is this an important story? How does it contribute to our understanding of Caribbean history, the global energy industry, and of race, intimacy, and labor?

First, I think it is crucial to recognize that oil has a Caribbean history. People in the Global North often imagine the Caribbean as a tourist paradise, untouched by history. But in the twentieth century, the region was a center of heavy industry. Emerging industries deliberately relied upon colonial relationships and existing racial hierarchies. It is no accident that many oil refineries were offshored to islands unevenly integrated into the US and European states. These metropolitan powers created spaces of legal exception to attract oil companies, offering things like lax environmental regulations, generous tax exemptions, and patterns of racialized labor exploitation. The Caribbean, the proverbial birthplace of modernity, played a vital yet frequently overlooked role in the hydrocarbon age.

In showing how companies and colonial governments intentionally built an oil economy through the organization of intimacy, I hope readers will understand the kinds of labor required to transform oil into wealth. Oil does not simply emerge from the ground with value. The history of Aruba and Curaçao reveals how reproductive labor and care work helped commodify oil. Throughout this process, the regulation of sex and intimacy was inseparable from the making and management of race.

What is one key learning you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope readers will find compelling frameworks for understanding how fossil capital operates through the differential regulation of race and sex. But what might surprise readers the most is the importance of Curaçao and Aruba to the modern world system. The so-called “Dutch” Caribbean—a moniker that does not fully capture islanders’ own linguistic traditions and collective self-fashioning—is a marginalized part of an already marginalized region. I hope readers gain a deeper appreciation for the precarity, pain, and pleasures Caribbean people endured in creating a new global energy system. The practices of offshoring that the book describes show how profit flowed away from the islands, leaving behind legacies of toxicity and harm. As a result, the contributions of Caribbean people have not been materially rewarded or historically acknowledged.