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.  


  1. Interesting post, Steven. You doubtless know Robert K. Massie's books "Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War" (1991) and "Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea" (2003). He, too, noted that despite the advantages you list (not to mention the fact that oil is far less labor-intensive), the British Navy still saw conversion from coal to oil a high-risk move. I read that Jackie Fisher, a fascinating figure in his own right, was making the argument for conversion in the 1880s already:

    Paul R.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I haven't actually looked very deep into this,so thanks for those references, they look useful,



  3. Hi again Steven,

    I hope you do not mind my commenting yet again. I read this article a little while ago, which is cited by F. William Engdahl, at the link that I sent you earlier.

    Eric J. Dahl, ‘Naval innovation: from coal to oil,’ Joint Force Quarterly, Winter, 2000.

    It's not all that long but still pretty interesting. Upon a closer look at Engdahl's piece, it seems to me that his knowledge of marine engineering may not be where it needs to be, though I admit one could say the same for mine, too.

    Anyway, I look forward to keeping up with your research.


    Paul R.

  4. I'm very interested in your topic as I've just completed a PhD on 'British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923' at Glasgow University. One theme that emerged towards the end of WWI and just after was that British sea power was largely based on Britain's control of coal bunkering and that it was necessary to replicate this for oil. The Admiralty over estimated the speed with which merchant shipping would switch from oil to coal; the technical superiority of oil outweighed its greater costs for the RN, but cost was more important for the merchant navy.

    My thesis is available from Glasgow University's website, address as below (not sure if it's in a clickable format):

    Searching the .pdf for 'bunkering' should bring up the relevant references.

    Yergin's previous book, 'The Prize', covers the oil industry during your period, and is excellent. Dahl's article is fine, albeit largely from secondary sources. I gave a conference paper at Birmingham last year on 'The Royal Navy's Adoption of Oil Before the First World War.' A book of the conference is due to be published next year; see the 'Birmingham on War' blog or my 'War and Security' one for more details.

    I am not very impressed with Engdahl, who makes a lot of factual errors e.g. the British Government's purchase of a stake in APOC was public, not secret.

    Britain did not go to war for oil in 1914. It did realise during the war that it needed to control its oil supplies, and that the war had given it an opportunity to do so.

  5. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for replying, and for all that information. I cant get the thesis to work, perhaps it is just down today. I have come across Birmingham on War before, and actually chatted to Ross online, but didnt really twig that it might fit with what I was doing.

    Hopefully I will be be able to get it all to work soon,

    Thanks again,


    P.S. My email is if you want to contact me again