Society

The complex relationship between steam power, colonialism and slavery

energy

Some of the old steam-powered locomotives from the railway era. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

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Summary

  • Wealth generated in colonies using cheap slave labour was a great stimulus to industrialisation, long after the abolition of slavery in the UK and the US.
  • The large-scale burning of coal by factories signaled the beginning of pollution and environmental degradation which, today, is a very present threat.
  • One of the greatest attributes of steam power was that it provided mobility on water channels and on land.

Early this month, curators from the National Railway Museum and academics from the Universities of York, Leeds, and Sheffield launched a £9,000 project titled Slavery and Steam: steam power, railways and colonialism.

Even before the ink had dried and without reflecting on the context of the project, the usual suspects took to the trenches in defense of their positions claiming it was a waste of money on more useless research to rewrite history. Sponsors of the project were labelled revisionists and enemies of British gallantry, which championed abolition of the slave trade.

The University of York’s Jonathan Finch, who is leading the project, described the relationship between the railways and slavery as “complex”. He said “Steam engines replaced wind power on the plantations and waterpower in British cotton mills, steamboats transported raw materials and finished goods around the globe. Railways were critical to the expansion of colonial power across Asia, Africa as well as the opening up of the North American interior”.

Wealth generated in colonies using cheap slave labour was a great stimulus to industrialisation, long after the abolition of slavery in the UK and the US. The established commercial, legal, political, human networks, and frameworks of slavery of the late 18th and early 19th centuries fed, hand in glove, into emerging systems of steam and railway infrastructure.

Although the water-driven wheel was cheaper and more powerful than the coal driven James Watts’ steam engine, to the industrialist the advantage of coal was that it allowed factories to be located anywhere where there was an abundance of labour.

Since rivers did not necessarily flow through highly populated areas, it meant that hiring workers was more difficult. Cheap slave labour had resolved this problem in the colonies, but after the abolition of slavery in 1833, the situation was more complex.

Another problem was the occasional unreliability of water streams. When a river froze over during winter, production stopped. In periods of drought, the water flow would be inadequate to turn the mill. On the other hand, steam did not rely on such exigencies.

A reliable supply of coal brought together steam power, machinery, and an ample supply of workers could ramp up the production that was necessary for British textiles to dominate world markets after they had effectively killed the Indian textile trade by smashing their looms and other measures.

On a side note, the large-scale burning of coal by factories signaled the beginning of pollution and environmental degradation which, today, is a very present threat.

Andreas Malm, writing in his book Fossil Capital (2013) drawing on currents of Marxism demonstrates that British capitalists turned from hydropower to industrial coal-fired steam power in response to class struggle rather than, as mainstream views have it, because coal proved to be a cheaper or more efficient energy source. What steam power enabled was cheaper and more efficient control of labour.

One of the greatest attributes of steam power was that it provided mobility on water channels and on land.

During the period under review, steamboats dominated the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers creating growth in river-based trade. Partly because of its relationship to slavery, the proliferation of steamboats had a strong effect on the development of regional identity in the interior South.

As steamboats were becoming increasingly important in the South, many southerners became distrustful of the federal government, pushing for more state rights.

The government removed snags from rivers and clear-cut riverbanks to prevent trees from falling into riverbeds, helping the interior South develop a booming cotton market as well as markets for foodstuffs and lumber.

For slaves, work on steamboats could be desirable despite backbreaking work in dangerous, sweltering conditions because it allowed them a degree of mobility and access to information, and even escape, that plantation slavery did not.

Nearer home, in July 1890, Britain was party to a series of anti-slavery measures agreed at the Brussels Conference Act of 1890. In December 1890, a letter from the Foreign Office proposed constructing a railway from Mombasa to Uganda to disrupt the traffic of slaves from its source in the interior to the coast.

With steam-powered access to the interior, the British could transport people and soldiers rapidly to ensure the dominance of the African Great Lakes region and its vast resources.

Construction of the railway line started in 1896 with the line reaching Port Florence (now Kisumu) in 1901. Known in popular culture as the Lunatic Express author Charles Miller wrote: “Whatever power dominates Uganda masters the Nile, the master of the Nile rules Egypt, the ruler of Egypt holds the Suez Canal”.

Once they had control of the Suez Canal, the British would control trade between Europe and the rest of the world.

Of course, what followed had little to do with stemming the slave trade and was more about pillaging land and natural resources, which created a new class of landless peoples. In turn, a new form of slavery was born where these landless and disenfranchised people were forced to provide cheap labour on vast plantations and emerging industries.

The relationship between steam and slavery is complicated. In some instances, steam helped to stymie slavery while in others it masked slavery.

Let us wait and see what the new research digs up in our quest to unearth the truth.