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