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.