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.

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