Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Coaling stations as places

Part of my thesis looks at the experiences of those involved in coaling, and their interactions with imperial environments. As E. G. Anning, in The Log of H.M.S. Argonaut explains:

‘A ship on a foreign station, moving from port to port, offers continual opportunity for diversion, and as an abundance of leave is granted to men of good character, they have ample opportunity to visit the different towns, see the sights, and study the ways of the natives.’

This blog will give just a few examples of the impressions of coaling stations recorded in ships’ logs.

On the native workers of St Lucia: ‘Dressed in the most grotesque rigs imaginable: one in a pair of pants which are tied round his neck, and a bluejackets old cap.’

On Hong Kong: ‘Few places are more interesting to the traveller from Europe than this city, furnishing as it does such a change of scenery, manners and customs, so widely different from anything he has probably seen before.’

Amoy, like most Chinese cities was dirty and ‘exude[s] a foul stench unbearable to any but Chinese.’
Yokohama was of particular interest due to the ‘figure, physiognomy, costume, and customs of the people’

St. Vincent (Cape Verde) was‘dismal and uninteresting.’

Valetta was a favourite of blue jackets: ‘his requirements are catered for on a somewhat lavish scale.’

Port Said was the ‘acme of coaling ports, as coal can be brought on board ship here much faster than at any port in the world.’

Gibraltar contained ‘a mixture of races, customs, and manners, such as can scarcely be found at any other place in Europe.’

Ascension Island was so reviled that when it was planned to close it as a station was rumoured a sailor exclaimed: ‘for the sake of those who have from time to time to pass a portion of their life here, this is to be wished.’

Simon’s Town split opinion. One log suggests that ‘There can scarcely be a landscape more gloomy and desolate than the sterile rocky mountain and white sandy plains which inclose Simon’s Bay.’ Another, however, comments on the ‘loveliness of its fauna and the bold ruggedness of its rocky scenery.’

My favourite comment, however, is this:  ‘I cannot call to mind any other settlement more dismal, miserable, and devoid of all interest than this at the Falkland Islands.’ 

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words, and Other Clichés

In writing chapters for my thesis, I have been thinking about the use of pictures in academic work, and why scholars can often be reluctant to litter their text with illustrations. Perhaps it is the limits imposed by the publisher, or that there is a feeling that only popular histories use extensive pictures, as they may detract from serious academic discussions and complex ideas.

Through the use of three clichés, I will try to make the case for the inclusion of illustrations.

A picture paints a thousand words’. Rather than detract from an argument, a picture can actually augment it. Being able to see an image of a coaling station (like the illustration below), for instance, can help a reader understand how the infrastructure worked, or why certain problems occurred.

A diagram of Yokohama Coaling Station in the 1880s.

‘Assumption makes an ass out of you and me.’ The production of a piece of academic work is a serious endeavour, and often takes months of detailed archival work. It is easy to forget, therefore, that the reader hasn’t seen any of this. This can easily be solved by using a picture to illustrate the kinds of sources that have been used. A discussion about the production of knowledge through reports about coaling stations, therefore, is made even more persuasive by showing examples of the type of knowledge that these reports contained, such as maps (pictured below).

A Map of Port Louis Coaling Station from the Carnarvon Reports.

‘Always start a speech with a joke.’ Maybe this cliché is a little bit of a push, but it is worth considering the role of the picture when presenting research. Although the above points apply equally (arguably more) with presenting work, there is a further use for pictures here. I have often seen the use of a joke to relax the mood, but this requires some comedic skill, and material (not many jokes about coal.) In its place, a well thought out picture which shows the lighter side of the research (such as the one below) can ‘break the ice’ or provide a break between sections of the presentation.

A Sailor in Fancy Dress (

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The West Coast Mainline, and Nineteenth Century Admiralty Coal Contracts

I used to commute to Warwick once a week from St Albans. Thus I used to take a First Capital Connect train to London, then a Virgin train between London and Coventry. I have also 'enjoyed' other parts of First's railway empire in other parts of the country. In a year, there was one cancelled Virgin train. First trains are not only regularly late, or sometimes cancelled, but they often send four carriage trains at peak times. Furthermore, Virgin trains are far superior in every way, and first class is actually worth paying more for, and is only £10 or £15 extra if you go at the right time. Also, if you have a railcard, its always offpeak, making a £90 ish ticket £30.

Anyway, I think I established the better train company there. Which brings me on to Admiralty coal. Through many trials and, most importantly, practical experience, Welsh coal was chosen as the Admiralty coal, over that of northern England. As the Admiralty was the largest steam coal contract, this was a big deal, just like the West Coast mainline is. Welsh coal prices were always higher than northern coal, but in 1889 they were particularly so. Sensing an opportunity, the northern collieries sent a delegation to the Admiralty. They stressed the price issue, as well as that in various trials their product had been shown to be equal.

Despite these protestations, their appeal was rebutted by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord George Hamilton, who suggested that that practical experience had proven that Welsh coal alone was the only suitable fuel for the Navy, due to the ‘special duty and work which the Navy is called upon to perform.’[1]
The performance of the Navy was more important to the Government than saving money based on the spurious promises of collieries whose product had been shown by practical experience of those using it not to have been good enough.  

It is a shame that this government does not feel the same about the importance of the rail network, and more importantly, those who travel on it.

Perhaps it is best to finish with the words of Richard Branson:
'The last two times UK government turned a Virgin bid down the companies they accepted both went bust. Insanity is doing the same thing over & over again & expecting different results. When will UK government learn?'

[1] Welsh Versus North Country Coal, Western Mail, 22 May 1889

Monday, 21 May 2012

Imperial History and the Public

I was at the National Maritime Museum at the weekend, and some things I saw made me think. I was in the excellent East India Company gallery (which was made with assistance from my MA supervisor, Prof. Huw Bowen), and at the end, it asks visitors to comment on the disputed legacy of the EIC.
As far as I could tell (and perhaps, as a scholar, it is difficult for me to have a 'member of the public' opinion), it was a well balanced, well told story, which both told of the immense riches the company brought to Britain, and  the effects, good and bad, this had on India and China.
The comments contained a predictably wide ranging spectrum of opinions. One Indian visitor reflected that British rule had united his country, and had, despite the bad, had lasting good effects on modern India. Several voiced disapproval of the policy of profit above all else, notably the plight of the Indian and Chinese. Both, I think, hold a lot of merit.
One, however, made me question myself. It was, in essence, a tirade against the 'bias' of the exhibition, stating that it focused on the bad only.The arguments are familiar to any imperial historian. We are taught to be ashamed of what was out country's crowning moment. All imperial historians push this myth, with their left leaning agendas.
It is often assumed this is the voice of an older generation, however. But I am starting to think it might not be. Recently, one of my students voiced a similar opinion about the course I was teaching. Frequently, when asked what I study, people respond with pride about the empire, assuming I am some sort of 1900s historian waxing lyrical about how we brought civilisation to the savages.
So where is this coming from? People often say that it is taught badly in schools, but I don't know of anyone who ever got taught about it before university. So if, not taught there, then where? Are people just taking the opinions of an older generation as fact? Are scholars like Niall Ferguson being seen as the most reasonable voice on the Empire? Or are imperial scholars out of touch with the public, and/or reason?
I would be interested to hear any views on this.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Effects of the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law

             At the end of the Crimean War in 1856 a declaration was issued to abolish privateering. In effect, it was something many powers were adhering to already, and was readily signed by numerous states including the United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, France, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire. It did, however, mark the first attempt by several powers to officially enforce maritime law in times of war.
Two of its key points were:
  • The neutral flag covers enemy's goods, with the exception of contraband of war;
  • Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy's flag.

          What it didn’t seem to do, however, was make any reference to what was considered to be contraband of war. Specifically, was coal included? Denmark certainly thought so, and in the Franco-Prussian War, refused to allow the French Navy to coal at Kïoge.[1]
           This left Britain with a huge problem. There was a paucity of Coaling Stations in some areas mainly due to the ad hoc nature of their acquisition and establishment, many being spoils of the Napoleonic Wars.[2] As the Royal Navy could habitually use foreign stations in peacetime, the Admiralty had made little attempt to rectify this situation. For example, on the route around the Cape, the Royal Navy regularly used Lisbon, Madeira and the Cape de Verde Islands to coal. As most ships could only steam for 3,000 miles, the reports suggested a war would present extreme difficulties for coaling the fleet, and thus protecting British interests in some key places.[3]. If British ships could not coal in neutral ports, as they did in peacetime, then they would need to establish a coherent plan as to where they would coal in war.[4]
This problem was discussed by the Carnarvon Commission, which looked into coaling station defence and the provision of coal in war. The report states that because of the Declaration, ‘the supply of coal to belligerents in the ports of neutral States is regulated by the laws of those States subject only to the condition that a neutral State must give equal facilities to all belligerents.’ Thus, it was not unlikely that Britain could be denied coal at coaling stations they regularly used in peacetime. It then goes on to warn that of the forty-seven stations now in use by Royal Navy ships, twenty-six were in foreign territory, so could not be counted on in war. The situation seemed bleak, but Britain still had more coaling stations than any other power, although they also had far more interests outside Europe. Even so, a foreign power would find it difficult to conduct naval warfare on a wide scale without using neutral coal.
The reports go on, however, to suggest how a power might do so. ‘Rules... would not prevent a belligerent ship from obtaining a full supply of coal in a neutral port... It is, moreover, difficult to enforce the rules; and it is doubtful whether the ships of a strong naval Power would submit to their operations being crippled for want of coal by the regulations of a small State in a distant port.’[5]
If this was the case, it makes it difficult to understand why Britain was so worried about coaling at a neutral port, being the strongest naval power of them all. Perhaps the Commissioners were looking to a worst case scenario, or assuming some sort of moral high ground, but it is hard to imagine that Britain would not coal at neutral ports if its enemy was to.

[1] Friedrich Wilhelm Rüstow, The War for the Rhine Frontier 1870; Its Political and Military History. , trans. J. L. Needham, vol. III (Edinburgh, 1871, 1872)
[2] Willock, Bulwark of Empire : Bermuda's Fortified Naval Base, 1860-1920. 1-3
[3] CO 537/208
[4] Vice Admiral P H Colomb, Coaling Stations and Their Relations to Our Trade Routes’, (British Library, BL. C.193 a.257 1893)
[5] Summary of Carnarvon Reports, PRO 30/6/131