At the world’s ports, rows of stacks of shipping containers in an array of colors create a rich metallic vibrancy. On construction sites they are used as storage boxes. They can be seen lying prone and rusting in abandoned plots. They perch on the back of trucks speeding down the motorway. On flatbed cars they trundle through railway stations, box upon box upon box.
As a child living in relatively close proximity to a port, the sight of these large metal boxes offered a sense of wonderment, both an aesthetic joy at their geometric simplicity, and bafflement at what was in there behind those heavy doors. The geographer David Harvey has argued that these objects play a critical role in the changing nature of our cities, our politics, our labor, as well as our shopping habits. Without the container, cities like the Port of London would not have changed in such a dramatic manner. Harvey calls this process deindustrialization—the removal of a region’s heavy industry. Likewise, without the container and deindustrialization, the availability of cheap imports from China and other emerging economies would not have been possible.
Such claims might seem somewhat farfetched given the apparent simplicity of the shipping container: a standardized steel box in lengths of 20, and 40 feet by approximately 8 feet square. But consider the number of these boxes circulating the globe (let alone those lying abandoned in yards): in early 2011 there was a global fleet of nearly 5,000 container ships each carrying roughly 14 million containers. We take shipping container for granted precisely because of the sheer quantity of them moving around us. They are so common as to disappear. And as with similar objects, it’s only when things go wrong that we begin to recognize their presence.
One such incident occurred on January 18, 2007 when the container ship the MSC Napoli was damaged in a storm off the South coast of England. The ship, capable of holding more than 4,000 containers, was towed towards a safe harbor. However, fearing it would break up authorities beached the vessel in sheltered waters. Of the 2,318 containers on board, fifty were washed up on beaches along the coast. The sight of overturned automobiles, bumper packs of diapers lying strewn next to dog food, or tins of spaghetti nestled alongside boxes of expensive French perfume alerted the British public to the contents of these containers. This surreal juxtaposition of goods that had previously been neatly hidden behind metal shrouds sparked a momentary media interest in the logistics of how these products arrive in our retail spaces. It also seemed to trigger a primordial spirit of looting, as some Britons were seen wheeling off expensive motorcycles under cover of darkness.
The shipping container has been associated with other forms of illegality, both in reality and fiction. The Port of Baltimore was the backdrop for season two of The Wire, and there viewers bore witness to Port Security Office Beadie Russell’s macabre discovery. Her interest triggered by the sight of a damaged security seal on the container doors, she maneuvered the handles. The door slowly opened, and we, the viewers, were permitted entry into a space that is typically sealed tight. Russell navigated her way through an assortment of packaged computer equipment. This darkened, windowless space, led her to a horrific discovery: in a partitioned section of the shipping container she discovered a pile of dead bodies, suffocated by lack of air.
Reality turns out to be starker than fiction. Containers are often used for illicit practices such as human trafficking, narcotics and tobacco smuggling, and as hopeful holds for stowaways hoping to breach national borders. Their ubiquitous, taken-for-granted nature has meant that containers are often the vehicle of choice used by smuggling gangs. In December 2001, thirteen Kurds were ushered into a supposedly sealed shipping container at the Port of Zeebrugge in Belgium by a smuggling gang. Having made their way through Europe via different routes, the group had each paid approximately £5,000 to travel onto the United Kingdom. But nine of the thirteen Kurds would die from suffocation en route.
Whilst much of the discussion surrounding containerization focuses on the efficiencies of the system, in this case a series of inefficiencies led to the deaths. In particular there were a series of fatal errors: the journey from Zeebrugge to the Port of Dover was scheduled to take eight hours, but it actually took five days. The container in which the group was stowed was incorrectly picked from the stacks at Zeebrugge and loaded onto a ship bound for the Port of Waterford in Ireland instead of Dover. Upon arrival at Waterford, the container met an automated unloading system on the dockside. Though the occupants’ cried for help, the machine couldn’t hear them. From there, the container in which the group was stowed was scheduled to be loaded onto a lorry, but once more the wrong container was loaded. It was only on December 8, some five days later, that the group was eventually discovered by the lorry driver conveying the crate to its next destination. Imagine the sound of human hands banging desperately at your truck from the inside.