Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Keeping spirits high

I have blogged before on the general hatred amongst sailors for coaling. It was dirty, hard work that lasted days and the coal dust penetrated everywhere, both in terms of the sailors and the ship. The diary of Joiner First Class George Michael Clarkson states ‘A shadow would come over the ship as soon as you heard you were coaling.’1 In order to help the hours pass more easily, a few coping mechanisms were introduced. There was always the promise of beer (and presumably women) when the job was done, and sailors recorded that some commanders would circulate with a rating with a blackboard with a picture of a pint of beer on it. Below the picture were the words ‘The sooner you get in, the sooner you can get ashore and have one of these.’2 If two (or more) ships were coaling at once, the sailors would compete to see who could coal the quickest. Special food was served; usually bully beef or salted pork, and cans of lime juice were distributed (although if they weren’t consumed quickly, they would soon fill with coal dust).

HMAS Brisbane Coaling, courtesy of astraltrader (http://www.worldnavalships.com/forums/member.php?u=1187)

Perhaps more interestingly, or perhaps bizarrely, were the two methods which I have managed to find pictures of. As I have mentioned many times, the whole process was a dirty one, and thus the sailors could not wear their usual uniforms. It would seem some used this as an excuse to liven up the coaling process by wearing fancy dress. A very camp example is included below.

Lastly, throughout the whole process the marine band played lively songs in an attempt to liven the mood. 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Lessons from the archives

So it’s been a while since I last blogged. I have been pretty busy, camped in archives and more recently moving universities and acquiring a couple of seminar groups.

Much of my archive work has been a straightforward case of identifying relevant sources from obvious places (papers of commissions etc).  It has not all been plain sailing, however.  Overall command of (most) coaling stations seems to be with the Admiralty. However, the War Office was responsible for the defence of Imperial fortresses (Malta, Gibraltar, Bermuda and Halifax (Nova Scotia)), and thus they are bizarrely left out of many of the discussions on empire-wide defence strategies for coaling stations. Furthermore, the garrisons for all the coaling stations were the responsibility of the army, whilst sea defence was in the charge of the Admiralty. Supply of coal was the responsibility of the naval supplies branch of the Admiralty, but this was subcontracted out to agents in the vicinity of coal exporting ports, and the accounts had to be verified by the Treasury.  It is not difficult, therefore to see why some sources are difficult to find, and why some turn up in places I would have never had expected.  The difficulty in finding evidence of contracts is further compounded by the Admiralty’s indifferent attitude to saving records for historians.

In a way, however, there is much to learn from these gripes, and for me there are two major things to be taken from this.

First is how the confusion I felt as a researcher can also be found in some of the sources. On cabinet notes, passed around the various Secretary of States and Commissions, there are often handwritten scribbles such as ‘should this go to the War Office?’ or ‘do we need to ratify this with the Treasury?’ Moreover, things that seem odd today, such as the use of army garrisons, rather than marines when the defences are under the command of the Navy, were equally strange to contemporaries, and the issue was repeatedly brought up in Parliament.

The second point is that the destruction of most of the supply contracts and records suggests that by this period (1870-1914) it was black boxed, and the only time it became noteworthy was when it failed (although these instances seem few and far between. In this way, it replicates every successful piece of infrastructure, and thus, as Bruno Latour suggests, ‘is made invisible by its own success’.1

1Bruno Latour (1999). Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Coal and oil

Once again the source for inspiration for this blog is the Sunday Times, this time in the Culture section. In the book reviews, Danny Forston reviews Daniel Yergin’s ‘The Quest: Energy, security and the remaking of the modern world.’ I would share a link to this, but it’s obviously behind Murdoch’s pay wall, so apologies.  The summary of the book however, I will include. Forston summarises- ‘Everything we do... depends on our struggle for energy sources.’

I often struggle to ‘sell’ my project to people. Usually the response is ‘so its just about coal?’ I have tried, in previous posts, to explain how coal was of great importance to the ability for a navy to project itself across the world. Perhaps it is easier compare it with the modern day struggle for oil. The book I mentioned above (which i must confess I haven’t read) looks at ‘petro-politics’, the relationship between power, politics and oil. This relationship is relatively well known, and its effects are seen in international events. Perhaps what is less known, and what my project is about, is that in the nineteenth century, it was coal which held this position.

One might argue that coal didn’t cause the scale of problems and war that the twentieth century has witnessed with the struggle for oil. But perhaps that is more by luck than anything else. Coal was the fuel of industry; also, it was the fuel of maritime trade, the two main forces for economic power of the nineteenth century.Thus it held a similar position to that which oil does now. There are important differences, however. There are many types of coal (I’m no chemist, but this is an important distinction) and the best quality coal, especially for steam ships, was to be found in South Wales, and to a lesser extent, in New Zealand. Britain, by this point, was already the leader in naval, trade and industrial power, and this control of coaling resources only served to strengthen its grasp of power.

This control of resources was further augmented by the size and spread of Britain’s colonial possessions. Many of the lands that Britain had acquired in the wars before Pax Britannica, some little more than a few rocks in the middle of the sea, became strategic points, and ideal places for steamships to coal. Thus, Britain was able to supply both its trade, and as importantly, its navy, with the best quality coal worldwide. Not only was it able to do this, but it was also able to allow or deny this privilege to other nations, cementing its place as a ‘police force of the oceans’. (This ability is best shown in a previous post).

Despite the many advantages that oil held over coal for naval ships (cleaner, easier to refuel, more powerful etc), the fact that Britain did not own a supply of oil made the decision to switch painful. With it, Britain bought a majority share of the Anglo-Iranian oil company, and the age of ‘petro-politics’ began.

It is interesting to note that when war did break out in 1914, Germany tried to take the coaling station on the Falkland Islands, as Britain had used its economic power to pressure South American countries into denying them coal. The result was the Battle of the Falkland Islands, a huge defeat for Germany.  

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

An American Perspective

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, many in Britain began to worry about her status as the only world power. Doubts stemmed from the rise of competitors to her trade, manufacturing and military power, particularly from the rising powers of USA, Germany and Japan, who joined her old competitors, France and Russia. British Imperialists looked to history, and could only come to one conclusion, that of the finite nature of empires. Even the mighty Roman Empire had fallen as its rulers became corrupted by power as their empire slipped away. They were determined to not allow the same to happen to the British Empire. 

Consequently, Gladstone’s laissez faire attitude towards the empire was not happily received by imperialists. Particularly vocal against Gladstone were navalists who feared anything short of a wide ranging overhaul would sacrifice Britain’s naval lead, and therefore her status as the leading world power.
Bold claims from some navalists about Britain’s weaknesses as a naval power and the likelihood of a defeat in a lengthy war are hard to test – Britain would not get into a real naval war until 1914 - but an interesting perspective can be given by analysing what the ‘threats’ to Britain’s hegemony thought about her naval power.

An example of this is an article in the New York Times on March 6th, 1892. (Article available here). Although the USA was fast becoming a genuine economic power, there were still real worries about her naval strength. Although relations with Britain were largely cordial, they had, on occasion, soured, as they had done in the 1860s, and thus Americans had to entertain the idea of a war with her, something that could only end in ignominy and defeat. In fact, if this article is to be believed, the USA was in no position to be involved in a naval war with anyone.  Although it is of course an alarmist piece designed to turn opinion in a navalist direction, it is interesting that it cites the reason for US naval weakness as the lack of coaling stations  owned by the navy. A war in the near future, it declares, would see this dearth of infrastructure contribute ‘largely to the embarrassment and retardation of the operations of the war vessels [of the United States].’
The article goes on to cite examples of how this poor naval planning had inconvenienced American ships in the past, courting near disaster, and discusses where new stations should be founded in order to alleviate the current problem.

The map of British Coaling stations included in the article

The second part of the article is, for me at least, more revealing than the first. The article lists the ‘twenty-nine coaling stations’, emphasising how the global nature of the stations allowed the Royal Navy to circumnavigate the globe protecting Britain’s trade interests without ever being precariously distant from a fuelling station. Not only did British possession of these stations ensure a ready supply of coal, but they were also places of ‘actual political and strategically importance.’ Furthermore, in case of war, ‘each one is amply garrisoned and defended.’

The article is therefore almost in complete contradiction to what British sources were suggesting (although much had been done since the mid 1880s, when British criticism was at its fiercest). Perhaps most revealing is the last paragraph. While Britain was fretting about potential weaknesses in its naval grip on the world, one of its major rivals suggested that ‘with this enormous system under such splendid control... the British Navy can never be reduced to the humiliating and embarrassing situation that would necessarily involve the Navy of the United States in the event of hostilities with any country...’

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Some more filth

I posted some pictures and accounts about how dirty the process of coaling was here. Since then, I have trawled the internet some more, and have found some more and found some more brilliant pictures, mostly of American ships.
I also discovered this diary entry, from a former coal passer, Sailor Frederick Wilson, commenting on their lot in life in his diary:
that most humble, but necessary, evil, the lowest rating in the service, an object that isn't supposed to be human at all, but has to delve wherever dirt and grime is thickest, in back connection, in bilge, in mucky feed tank, in boiler, and in [coal] bunker. Poor coal passer! Cursed and damned by all parts of the ship, whose very foot prints are watched as he crosses spotless deck[s], who is blamed for every spot of dirt on deck and paint work as a matter of course. He is even looked askance by landsmen and marine, poor non-combatant that he is. Like many others of humble rating, his necessity and worth goes unrecognized.1

1908-1917 Sailors on board USS Isla de Luzon shovel coal.

Sailors of the battleship USS Rhode Island mug for a photo, covered in coal dust. C1913
1896-1901 Sailors stoke boilers in the fire room of the cruiser USS Brooklyn.1
Coaling ship at Honolulu, Hawaii, circa 1909-1910.
Some of the ship's firemen, apparently after coaling ship, circa 1909-1910. 2
Loading coal


Cleaning up the warship after coaling.3

Coaling the HMAS Melbourne at St Lucia. Note the native workers bringing the coal onto the ship.4




4 http://www.navy.gov.au/

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Samoan Tragedy

In reply to the map I posted a couple of weeks ago, someone was kind enough to point me in the direction of a New York Herald article from, March 31, 1889 (available here: http://www.samoa.co.uk/hurricane-1889-ny-herald.html)

The article relates the terrible loss of life that occurred on March 13th 1889, when a hurricane hit Apia, Samoa. The report describes damage to ‘every vessel in the harbour or shore except the English man-of-war Calliope, which got to sea.’

The German Warship Eber after the storm

Two American ships, the Trenton and the Vandalia, as well as two German ships, the Adler and the Eber, were a total loss, and two more ships, the American Nipsic and German Olga, were badly damaged. Despite many of the crews being saved, the loss of life was horrific. The article reports that ‘The Vandalia lost four officers and thirty-nine men... and the Nipsic lost seven men.’ In addition, ‘German losses are ninety-six’, bringing the total loss of life to 146.

Such a tragedy of course brought with it questions about how and why the German and American boats had not been able to get to sea as the British ship had done.

Although the British ship has been nearer to the harbour entrance, it was not the distance from port that had spelt disaster for the other ships. Whilst the British ship had easily been able to coal at Auckland on the way to Apia, both the American  and German ships had arrived without fuel, and, despite possessions in the Pacific, had been unable to find fuel. 

The German Warship Adler after the storm

The American coaling station of Pago-Pago, just thirty miles from Apia, had not been adequately supplied, and thus the ships were stranded in harbour. The Herald journalist cynically remarks ‘the island was acquired in 1872, but our government has not apparently discovered in seventeen years the strategic importance of having an ample supply of coal there’, then pointing out that ‘the nearest point at which coal could be obtained was Honolulu, 2,100 miles away.’

Even those who had been lucky enough to survive the ordeal faced a long wait to be rescued. Even though coal had been sent nearly a month before the hurricane, the wooden ship, seen as a fast boat, carrying the coal from San Francisco would not arrive for another four weeks. Another ship, sent from Philadelphia, would have to navigate around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific, and thus was ‘months’ away.

The London Evening News featured the tragedy on its front page

What is obvious from the tragic tale is that, although certainly growing naval powers, Germany and the United States were not able to match Great Britain in terms of  naval infrastructure. Although in reality the disaster was perhaps a freak occurrence, in a world of growing geopolitical tension, especially in terms of naval arms races, it is clear that Britain held the ace card with its far superior naval infrastructure. Her ability to acquire coal worldwide was supplemented by her ability to deny coal to her enemies, not only at Britain’s extensive chain of stations but also those of her allies. The extent of Britain’s diplomatic leverage, though her economic and naval might, meant that any potential enemy would find it very difficult to sustain any fleet outside its own waters. 

All pictures from Wikipedia

Friday, 19 August 2011

Notes from a doomed journey

In the last few weeks, I have been looking to try and plot the coaling stations used by both the British and foreign navies on a map. Mentions of foreign stations tend to be sporadic in English, and without a working knowledge of German, French and Russian, it has been difficult to locate all of them. One of my supervisors therefore suggested that I look at the movements of the Russian fleet on the way to Tsushima, as it largely used French coaling infrastructure on its long journey around the Cape.

I discovered the diary of Eugene S Politovsky, who was part of that fleet, which has been translated and published. It is interesting on a number of levels. On a basic level it is the fairly sombre correspondence of a man on a naval mission which slowly deteriorates and ends in unprecedented disaster. It is also a fascinating insight into the day to day life of a sailor in the less fashionable age of steam.

What is especially interesting to me is the story it tells about infrastructure. The reason that the fleet had to steam via the Cape in itself was because of Britain's ability to deny Russia the use of the Suez Canal. By denying their own coaling facilities, and through their long standing alliance, those of Portugal as well, they were also able to fuelling opportunities to the Russians, delaying their movement and causing vast amounts of inconvenience to the fleet. Although they were able to make use of French coaling infrastructure, they constantly encountered British ships and possessions, and were even escorted by British ships around the Iberian coast.
The Route taken by the Baltic Fleet.(From http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Battle_of_Japan_Sea_%28Route_of_Baltic_Fleet%29_NT.PNG)

Throughout the doomed journey Politovsky laments the vast power Britain held around the global oceans, feeling constantly under the influence and at the mercy of the whims of the Royal Navy. He also laments the lack of infrastructure of his own country. He recognises the value of coal early on: ‘Coal! It is our weak spot. Our comings, our goings, our voyage, and even our success depend on coal.’ Later, as the delays mounted up, and the realisation of the precarious situation the Baltic fleet faced, he remarked ‘the coaling question is the question of life.’

In a short example, the importance of coal and coaling infrastructure is explicitly shown.

Reference: Politovsky, E. S. (1906). From Libau to Tsushima : a narrative of the voyage of Admiral Rojdestvensky's fleet.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Starkey: Symptom of a wider problem in television

Thought it might be time to wade into the Starkey debate (has anyone named it Starkeygate yet?) Anyway, I want to ignore what he said for the purposes of this little blog. I think enough has been written about how out of touch and insulting it was, and plus I must follow that famous quote misattributed to Voltaire (I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.)
What I wanted to question was the train of thought of whoever selects the guests of Newsnight. I can see the sense of getting an historian on. A bit of historical perspective is always good. I am not convinced they needed a ‘marquee’ name to bring in audiences, but I can see why they might have decided to plump for a well known name. I would have thought, however, that the expertise of the guest might have been more of a pressing issue. Ideally, an historian of twentieth century rioting. Or perhaps of social uprisings or disorder in general. I have read good articles on the historical precedents for urban riots from both. So to select a specialist in early modern England seems odd. The fact that his specialism is a King, and not even those further down the social ladder makes him about as unqualified as you can get within history. Furthermore, this country is blessed with fantastic historians, who would have been far more suitable, many of them internationally renowned. The only excuse I can think of is that, due to deadlines, decisions were rushed, or perhaps those more suitable were unavailable at short notice.
The more I think about this, though, the more I saw an emerging pattern. It seems since I last lauded the efforts of the powers that be in television for expanding the ‘educational’ output on our screens, some worrying trends have emerged. Firstly if the rumours surrounding BBC4 are true, it would be ten steps backwards. Following on from the ‘miscasting’ of Starkey, however, there have in recent months been some very interesting choice of presenters. First case in point was Richard Hammond and his Journey to the Centre of the Planet. I can see the logic, Top Gear is very popular, and Hammond has made some pretty good shows on engineering, where he is in his element. But he was clearly out of his depth in this series, and it would have been much better served by an expert. Another example of this was the recent history of Britain (I regret to say I cannot remember its title) with none other than Alan Titchmarsh. The less said about that the better I would imagine.
That is not to say that all educational programmes without academics are worthless. Despite many criticisms about his TV connections, Dan Snow is doing an admirable job promoting history, and is well qualified (double first in history from Oxford) and is genuinely interested in the subjects he covers, which therefore creates fulfilling television. A further example is a show that really didn’t think I would enjoy, with another history graduate, this time from Cambridge, Michael Portillo. Great British Railway Journeys, which has been shown around dinner time, works well because Portillo is so enthusiastic about railways and the towns he visits. Key, however, is the use of talking heads. By interviewing local historians in each locale, Portillo never looks out of his depth, yet the programme remains detailed and interesting.
So, in conclusion, it is possible to make good television without making it only suitable for academics. But there needs to be more thought in the choice of presenter and ‘expert’, and not just plumping for the one who gets the most coverage, or who is currently en vogue.  

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Global Context

Just thought I would share something I have been working on for a couple of days. Based on a few sources I have been reading through, I have plotted as many of the British coaling stations as possible onto a google map. I must admit to being a novice to this, so please bear with it, but this represents the beginning of what will hopefully be an interactive map, showing change over time, as well as a plethora of information and pictures of individual stations. It will also show the range of warships from the stations, as well as the principle trade routes. The aim is to try and explain why certain stations were seen as more important than others, by analysing their strategic placement and their proximity to important trade routes, rival stations and important colonies. It is a work in its infancy, but any pictures, stats or comments would be most welcome.

View Coaling stations in a larger map

Monday, 25 July 2011

A Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

The Sunday Times last week extolled the virtues of investigative journalism, and highlighted the various coups it had performed 'in the national interest'. Although perhaps the meaning of 'national interest' has changed, this style of journalism is over a century old. The election of John Morley to parliament in 1883 led to the promotion of W T Stead (shown below) the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

 Having already made his name as a journalist who approached stories from a different perspective, Stead set about transforming the style of the Pall Mall Gazette, and subsequently British journalism as a whole. What became known as 'New Journalism' incorporated illustrations, large headlines, and interviews, all very familiar parts of newspapers today. Furthermore, he introduced the 'scoop', along with high profile campaigns which highlighted a wide variety of injustice, scandal and political inadequacies. Much like the power the Murdoch press has been found to have had over contemporary governments, Stead's campaigns carried considerable clout in high circles. Not only were they picked up and amplified by other newspapers, but they were also instrumental in changing government policy. 
His other campaigns, such as the one against white slavery and child prostitution, are possibly higher profile, but The Truth About the Navy and its Coaling Stations (By One Who Knows the Facts), was crucial in changing public opinion towards naval reform and away from the Liberal government's policy of low spending on the navy and naval infrastructure. Although (like many contemporary newspapers) the figures quoted by Stead were questionable, he utilised contacts in high places, along with popular support from high profile figures in the Admiralty, to lend an authenticity to his claims. The campaign was taken up by other newspapers, questions were asked in Parliament, and even Queen Victoria asked Gladstone what his government proposed to do about the coaling problem. The panicked Prime Minister proposed token measures for coaling station defence, but Stead had brought naval issues to the public attention, and pressure continued until a Conservative government at the end of the 1880s proposed widespread naval and coaling station defence works. 
Little remembered now, W T Stead was an instrumental influence in both introducing a new style of journalism, and also changing public and government views on important contemporary issues. He died as a passenger of the Titanic in 1912. Memorial plaques dedicated to him are present in New York NY, 91st St and Central Park East and the Embankment in London near to Fleet Street, and a plaque is outside his house in Smith Square, Westminster.

Sources: Griffiths, Dennis (ed), The Encyclopaedia of the British Press, 1422-1992, (London: Macmillan, 1992)

Monday, 18 July 2011

A Dirty Business...

Coaling wasn’t the cleanest or most pleasant of processes, as shown by the words of E.E.K Lowndes and pictures featured in the Illustrated London News. The arduous and dirty nature of coaling was one of the reasons cited for the adoption of oil fuelled vessels in the early twentieth century.

From A Ship in Dock Coaling by E.E.K. Lowndes
                ‘...a ship in dock coaling is not the pleasantest place imaginable... From eight in the morning until ten at night, working by electric light, a procession of wagons loaded with coal went slowly by. As they stopped, strong natives, begrimed with coal-dust, each seized a bag and emptied it into the ship. Canvas was put up and port-holes closed; but the coal dust penetrated everywhere.’

Coaling was dusty and physically demanding 
British Sailors wash in the sea after coaling

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The difficult second blog post. A widening gap in television?

So it has been a week since my last blog post, and it seems the world of tabloid fuelled celebrity  has been turned on its head.

I am not going to try and write anything regarding the scandal, other than the allegations are deplorable, but unsurprising.

But it did make me think. Much has been made of the rise of 'celebrity' culture, but that has been around a long time. Nelson, Rhodes, Wellington were all superstars of their day. Even the celebrity 'villain' goes a long way back (Admiral Bing for a start). But these celebrities were at least 'famous' for doing something major. There seems to be an almost weekly addition to the plethora of 'reality docudramas' celebrating vacuous, talentless and, frankly, depressing, groups of people.

This rise has, however, been concurrent with a rise of 'academic' television. The popularisation of science, led by Brian Cox, the lauding of David Attenborough, and the plethora of historical documentaries showing on television all attests this. However 'popular' these are, many are excellent, and are doing a fantastic job of closing the gap between academics and 'ordinary' people.

These observations bring me to my final question. What does the rise of these programs at either end of the spectrum tell us? At first glance, it would appear that there is a widening gap between two groups of television  watchers. While that might be true to an extent, it is plausible that many of the audiences for the 'reality docudramas' watch them as they are intended, with tongue firmly in cheek. It is difficult, however, not to link the events of the last week with the rise of  (z list) celebrity culture. Although the News of the World did some disgraceful (and illegal) things, the only reason they did was to fuel a public appetite for titbits of celebrity gossip and a 'need' to dish the dirt on anyone they fancied.

N.b. Dont worry, I go back to talking about history next time.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Oceans, Empires and Coal

I thought I would use my first real blog piece to explain a little about what I am looking at doing in a more general and historiographical way.  

Napoleon famously remarked in 1803 that ‘no colonies are possible without a Navy’, yet when scholars have thought about the British Empire they have thought more about the terra firma of the empire. To look at arguably the most famous map of the British Empire (shown below) it is easy to concentrate on the large swathes of land coloured in pink, but if one looks more closely, also present are the great commercial sea lanes, the empire’s lifeblood, and small strategic naval and coaling stations which extended British influence far beyond its ‘formal empire’. 

 There has, however, been a movement towards both oceanic history (most prominent of which is Atlantic History) and Global and Transnational History (although both these are in their infancy).  This has led scholars to ask the question suggested by Karen Wigen and Jessica Harland-Jacobs, ‘What if seas were shifted from the margins to the centre of academic vision?’ If we apply this question to the history of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, then we must take coal and coaling very seriously indeed. Coal was crucial to steam navy’s ability to both protect British trade and interests and in acting as a deterrent and bargaining lever in any disputes. Thus the availability and protection of coal and its infrastructure were a constant source of worry and tension in the years c1870-1914.
Thus, my task over the next couple of years is to understand how coal fitted into wider questions of imperial defence, imperial federation, cultural exchange and imperial infrastructure.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A journey must start somewhere

As I am contemporary and modern and all that jazz.... and because I want to share ideas, ask for help and generally become part of bigger online debates, I am blogging (is blog a verb?), as will seem fairly obvious.  I think my next post will be asking some wider questions about maritime and imperial histories, and hopefully that will explain what I am trying to do and why (I think) it is important to how we understand these histories.

Cheers for now,