Stacy D. Fahrenthold unpicks the threads by which Syrian entrepreneurs sewed up Madeira’s famed lace and linen export trade.
Stacy is Associate Professor of History at UC Davis.
Funchal, April 1922—arriving via steamship from New York City that month, Elias Mallouk was met at the port by a heckling crowd, an ominous start to a difficult year. As Madeira’s most prominent exporter of hand embroideries, Mallouk represented the industry in Funchal and abroad. He came to the island with a specific mission: to restructure the industry to favor American exporters, overwhelmingly Syrian immigrants from New York. Mallouk met with the U.S. Consul General, Eells Stillman, before proceeding to the Madeira Embroidery Club, a manufacturers’ association that governed the wages for embroidery workers. Assembling that April, the body ordered an unpopular thirty percent wage reduction, drawing threats of a general strike by the Madeiran women who sewed Mallouk goods in their homes across the island.
Funchal’s trade unionists denounced the Madeira Embroidery Club, calling its Syrian members “a rabble of falsified Americans, pariahs without creed or country” who prosper “by the sweat of indigenous peoples.” O Operário accused Mallouk of “enslaving embroidery women (who) are finishing, in a hurry, a piece of embroidery to mitigate the hunger and illness of her rickety, sorrowful children.” Madeiran workers also denounced the island’s merchants as a parasitic class, enjoining:
Oh, Elias Maluco, oh prophet of whiskey… Why are you not going to Syria? Why are you not flaunting yourself as savior to your own people who are also vexed by the ignominious stigma of colonialism?”O Operário, April 1922.
In 1922, Syrian merchants controlled ninety percent of Madeira’s textile industries. Nearly all of the island’s namesake lace, linens, and handmade embroideries went to the United States via Syrian businesses, feeding garment manufacturers in New York City and the robust peddling trades universally associated with “little Syria” and Arab America more generally. But how did Syrian émigré capital come to Madeira Island? The answer is wrapped up in three contexts: the war and its aftermath; the rise of passport politics; and Syrian capital resisting organized labor through the exercise of supply chain power.
The first Syrian merchants came to Madeira during the war. Before 1914, German firms controlled this industry, manufacturing linens for export to Europe and America. From Syrian New York, Elias Mallouk, George Bardwil, and others bought German Madeira wares to support the wholesale peddling business, a suitcase trade bringing these goods into the Midwest, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and Latin America. The war challenged this work: embargos on German goods stalled Madeira’s export trade, and the Portuguese government ordered the liquidation of German-owned textile factories. In 1916, Syrian American manufacturers arrived from New York, purchased the firms, and rebranded their goods into American mainstays.
The transition from German to Syrian proprietorship was sudden and stunning, overtaking the industry and ushering in a fase síria that lasted until 1925. The Syrian merchant-manufacturers were primarily from Zahle, Damascus, and Aleppo, former Ottoman nationals who naturalized into American citizenship. U.S. passports advantaged these merchants over competitors carrying Ottoman or French papers, whose names ended up on trade blacklists. As Americans, the Syrian merchants of Madeira also benefitted from the support of the island’s U.S. Consulate, which sought to ensure the United States a steady supply of export goods.
Having the “right” passports facilitated the Syrian American takeover on Madeira, but the labor contests of the time also motivated it. As German U-boats circled Madeira in 1916, the garment district in New York City was roiled by textile strikes. Dozens of Syrian kimono factories were forcefully shuttered as thousands of their workers—young Syrian women and girls—picketed outside demanding safer working conditions and union recognition. Across New York, Syrian kimono shop proprietors refused to bargain with the unions; some closed their factories permanently, reopening outside of the city. Driven as much by opportunities abroad as labor disputes at home, then, Syrian American capital leapt into the world. As Madeiran woman embroidered, edged, and crocheted garment embellishments, the trade enabling Syrian textile manufacturers to outlast the garment strikes in New York while supplying Syrian retailers around the mahjar.
Between 1916 and the 1920s, Syrian textile manufacturers pursued global supply chains, not only to Madeira but also to China, Japan, and the Philippines. The strategy was mirrored in each supply zone: to produce export white goods in strategic partnership with American expansionist allies. Back in Funchal, dozens of Syrian factories hemmed in the streets, where workers received raw linen, cut it into pieces, and stenciled embroidery designs onto it. Runners transported the pieces into the rugged, mountainous countryside to be hand-worked by Madeiran women and girls. At the fase síria’s apex, sixty thousand women performed this piece work, feeding an export industry valued at $2 million annually. And from the luxurious Madeira Embroidery Club, manufacturers exercised unchecked control over Madeiran embroidery wages. Situated adjacent to the U.S. Consulate, the club maintained a hotel, a tavern, smoking rooms, and hosted Syrian American merchants as they shuttled between New York and Europe. Within the club’s walls, manufacturers negotiated among one another while excluding the island’s workers and trade unionists. Madeiran workers petitioned the Portuguese government, demanding Lisbon confront foreign merchant capital on the island and give embroidery workers control over the factories that employed them.
And so, Elias Mallouk’s 1922 wage cuts transformed him into a caricature in leftist print culture. As Elias Maluco (a pun on the Portuguese word for ‘crazy’), he represented an unscrupulous foreign merchant class, its reliance on U.S. diplomatic protection, and Portugal’s inability to protect Madeiran workers against it. When the Syrians arrived in Funchal, strikes were infrequent… but they were coming.
Stacy D. Fahrenthold is the author of Between the Ottomans and the Entente: the First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925, which appeared in paperback in 2021. The Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies recently published her study of labour relations among Boston’s Syrian mahjari community.
MAIN IMAGE: SYRIAN CLOTHING SHOP IN SÃO PAOLO, FROM THE NEWSPAPER AL-FARA’ID. FUNCHAL WORKSHOP IMAGE GPT-PF008741 © PATRICK FORGET.