Workshop announcement and call for posters: Early encounters with coal: Retrieving views from below

13-14 December 2022

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

The rise of coal and steam-power in the nineteenth century is now widely recognised as an epochal historical event. It put the world-economy on a path to large-scale, climate-shattering combustion of fossil fuels. While these trajectories have been intensely studied in recent scholarship, we know far less about how coal and steam were perceived from subaltern positions. This workshop addresses this lacuna with two days focused discussion of pre-circulated papers, a symposium on materials, mines, museums held at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, and a poster session. We meet online by Zoom, and in person at the History and Philosophy of Science Department, University of Cambridge on 13 and 14 December.

The full workshop schedule follows below.

To register to participate in person or online, email with the subject line ‘Early encounters registration’, stating in the body of the email whether you will be participating in person or online. Participation is dependent on reading the pre-circulated papers, which will be made available on 2 December.

To propose a poster sharing work related to the workshop aims, email a 300 word abstract to the subject line ‘Early encounters poster abstract’, by 14 November. Places are strictly limited and posters should bring out complementary perspectives on the coal histories, and ideally, their politics. Accepted posters will be notified by 21 November. Final posters will be due by 7 December and made available to participants from that day.

We cannot subsidize travel and attendance, but those wishing to attend in person may find accommodation through

Amr Ahmed, Andreas Malm, Simon Schaffer, Richard Staley

Early encounters with coal: Retrieving views from below

Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, 
University of Cambridge, and by Zoom


Tuesday 13 December


(Whose?) histories of coal

Josh Hillman, ‘Jean-François-Clément Morand’s L’art d’exploiter les mines de charbon de terre and the relationship between savants and mineworkers’

Jenny Bulstrode and Sheray Warmington, ‘Dust and debt, coal scars and “the coalskill”’

Daniela Russ, ‘Coal’s Resistance’


2pm-3:30pm (9am-10:30am in Philadelphia, USA and Toronto, Canada)

Imaginaries, names, uses 

Ben Russell, ‘“Lancashire Wizzards, Dragons, and Calamities”: The imaginarium of steam, 1725-1840’

Claire Conklin Sabel, ‘Fossil Fuel: Domestic Encounters with Coal in the Cotswolds c. 1760’

Sajdeep Soomal, ‘Coal, or Shilajit? : The medical economies of bitumen in colonial Punjab’

Afternoon tea

4pm-5:30pm (11am-12:30pm in Chapel Hill, NC and 8am-9:30am in Flagstaff, AZ, USA)

Working the seam, and steam

Mark Driscoll, ‘Coal’s Jim Crow CO2 : How Enslaved Blacks mined most of the coal used in the first four decades of racial fossil capitalism in the United States, 1790 – 1830’

Kent Linthicum, ‘Black Abolitionists, Emancipation, and Coal’

Amr Khairy Ahmed, ‘Of engine demons and global warming: Early Egyptian cultural encounters with steam engines and the Afarit of fossil-powered capitalism’


Materials, mines, museums: curating coal and other encounters

Held in situ at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge, with contributions from Liz Hide and the Sedgwick Museum, Vera Ludwig and the Deutsches Museum, Erika Anderson and the Hunterian Museum, and Rhiannon Seymour and the Rhondda Heritage Park

Wednesday 14 December

9am-10:30am (6pm-7:30pm in Wollongong, Australia and 4pm-5:30pm in Kunshan, China, and Taipei, Taiwan)

Industrial imperialisms in Asia

Adam Lucas, ‘Coal mining and coal miners in colonial Australia: 1789-1914’

Marlon Zhu, ‘An Offshore Source of Energy: The Coal Boats of Jardine, Matheson & Co. and the Smuggled Coal from Formosa in the 1850s’

Zhaojin Zeng, ‘An Eventful Encounter: Rothschild Families, Shanxi Coal, and the Transnational Making of China’s Regional Industrialism, 1896-1937’

Morning tea

11am-12:30pm (3:30pm-5pm in Asansol, India)

(Social) geographies of the fossil-fuel economy

Aritra Bhattacharya, ‘Rebellious Activist, Benevolent Don: Subaltern responses to coal mining in nineteenth century India’

Aparajita Mukhopadhyay, ‘On encounters with coal in the Bengal Presidency in British India’



Poster session

Proposed poster abstracts are due by 14 November (emailed to; accepted posters will be notified on 21 November, to be submitted and circulated from Wednesday 7 December. This session will allow presenters to discuss their work and meet participants online, and if possible in person

Afternoon tea


Coal narratives

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, ‘A Voice from the Deep Waters and Dark Mine: Narratives of Maritime Extractivism’

Indigo Gray, ‘On Emile Zola’s Germinal and the politics of slime’

Andreas Malm, ‘The Coal in Violence: Prophets of Doom versus Friends of the Machine in the Swedish Movement of Working-Class Writers’

Early encounters with coal: Retrieving views from below

Workshop aims

The rise of coal and steam-power in the nineteenth century is now widely recognised as an epochal historical event. It put the world-economy on a path to large-scale, climate-shattering combustion of fossil fuels. While these trajectories have been intensely studied in recent scholarship, we know far less about how coal and steam were perceived from subaltern positions. How did people react to this novel fuel and the technologies it animated when they slammed into their lives? Did they admire or fear them, wish to escape and eliminate them, or rather emulate and acquire their powers? Through what cultural filters were coal and steam viewed when each first began to take hold? While the stories of early coal and steam have been told from the perspective of inventors, manufacturers, merchants, colonial administrators and other agents of their dissemination, the voices from the other side have yet to be heard: colonised people; workers in mines and ports, on fields, boats and railroads; those who were dispossessed and displaced by the onrush of the first fossil economy. Most of these voices will inevitably be lost to the historical record. Some, however, might be retrieved by studying sources spanning a spectrum from oral traditions and folk songs via travelogues and popular science magazines to pamphlets and novels, to mention only some. We need to examine technologies of extraction as well as use, and thus set the histories of mining and supply alongside those of trade and consumption. A more focused effort to reconstruct the variety and tensions of early encounters with coal, especially as seen from below, is, we believe, not only possible but potentially valuable. It might illuminate creatively the power relations of fossil-fuelled development, potentials for resistance, tendencies of accommodation and embrace and many other aspects of the historical process.

This workshop has invited contributions about encounters with coal anywhere in the world, up until the Second World War. Building on the recent emergence of literatures examining the development of coal technologies in radically different environments and regions – Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa as well as Britain and Europe – we ask how the histories of those who dug, wrought, fired and laboured for coal and steam can be enriched by the perspectives of historical industrial psychology, environmental history, science and technology studies, history of technology and conceptual history of energy, folklore, religious studies, gender and sexuality in industrial history/history of technology, socioeconomic history, labour history, anthropology, ecocriticism, history of urban environment/pollution, colonial/empire history, rural change and industrialization, energy humanities, maritime history, infrastructural history.

Paper abstracts

Tuesday 13 December

(Whose?) histories of coal

Josh Hillman, ‘Jean-François-Clément Morand’s L’art d’exploiter les mines de charbon de terre and the relationship between savants and mineworkers

Published as part of the Parisian Academy of Science’s Descriptions des Arts et Métiers project, the savant Jean-François-Clément Morand’s L’art d’exploiter les mines de charbon de terre was easily the most detailed study of coal, as a natural substance, and coal-mining, as a practice, to appear in the eighteenth century; yet it has been curiously neglected. This paper uses Morand’s three-volume magnum opus to examine the relationship between savants and mineworkers in the late eighteenth century, focusing particularly on Morand’s encounters with the coal-miners of Liège, where he conducted most of his observations. After providing a brief overview of the contents of L’art d’exploiter, I shall argue for three claims. First, that Morand was not only interested in the craft-technical knowledge of the mining engineers he encountered, but also the natural knowledge of the labouring-class coal-miners that worked at the coalface. Second, that he realised their knowledge was at least partially embodied and hence that it could not easily be codified in prose. And third, that he sought to use the instruments of natural philosophy to understand coal like a coal-miner as far as it was possible; this is illustrated by examining the process by which he developed and propose his taxonomic scheme for the coals of Liège. Indeed, he first adopted the same haptic and visual categories the coal-miners used to differentiate between many different varieties of coal, before using microscopy and combustive analysis to lump the coal-miners’ many ‘species’ (especes) into four main groups. However, at the same time as advocating a four-fold taxonomy for industrial purposes, Morand included all of the coal-miners’ categories in his alphabetical list of known coal species, revealing a tension between his work as a naturalist and as a statesman. Such a finding complicates recent attempts to historicise coal’s material properties.

Dr Jenny Bulstrode (University College London) and Dr Sheray Warmington (Independent Researcher, Jamaica; Honorary Research Fellow, University of Exeter), ‘Dust and debt, coal scars and “the coalskill”’

Drawing on technofossils, artworks and instruments from the end of the fifteenth century to the present day, this paper considers what it might mean to research the history of coal knowledge from marginalised perspectives. Tracing a trail of coal dust from Wales and the West Midlands to India and the West Indies, every episode reveals differing meanings and significances. What coal is and what coal means depends on who you ask. This local character of coal is asserted in opposition to the universalising claims of dominant ways of knowing. Claims that have had devastating consequences. Nineteenth-century notions of coal as a universal fuel and the extreme extraction of steam capitalism as a natural and inevitable tendency live on in the governing principle of twentieth and twenty-first century ‘develop-man’ economics – the development of debt that continues old colonial extraction and unfree labour in new forms. Articulating this history but not defined by it, coal continues to have a different primary meaning in Jamaica to the one in Britain. The people who made coal science in eighteenth-century Jamaica did so for their own purposes and within their own frameworks of meaning. This history and the history of debt are both elements in the meaning of coal for many Jamaicans today. This concern has motivated a new collaboration with Dr Sheray Warmington, launched to combine archival and material culture analyses of UK-based Jamaican collections with practitioner interviews in Jamaica. The research develops critical social and historical perspectives on the practices and purposes of coal and ‘the coalskill’ for Indigenous Jamaicans, past and present.

Daniela Russ (University of Leipzig), ‘Coal’s Resistance

Economic historians often describe coal as a dense, concentrated ‘store of energy’. In both Wolfgang Sieferle’s and Anthony Wrigley’s account of the shift to coal, the fact that coal contains more energy per unit of land than wood or water power is crucial, as it allows first British society, then humanity, to overcome the growth limits of an organic energy system. While such ecological-economic histories have helped to revive an interest in the material conditions of society in the humanities and social sciences, they tend to naturalize the uptake of coal and don’t capture the problems, setbacks, and resistances associated with it. This paper complicates these histories by focusing on nature’s resistance to economic valuation. Drawing on Theodor Adorno’s negative concept of nature and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s concept of ‘epistemic things’, it does not presuppose that coal is energy – as if nature itself had produced a material ready to be put to work. Instead, the paper asks how coal, a highly complex and locally diverse material, resists to behave as an energy commodity. In an analysis of scientific journals and reports in the fields of chemistry, geology, and fuel science over the 19th century, the paper traces the attempts and failures of scientists (1) to identify (and get rid of) the ‘non-fuel’ material within coal, (2) to formalize the chemically complex process of combustion in order to arrive at a meaningful heating value, and (3) to tackle the problem of the spontaneous self-combustion of stored coal. A historical epistemology of coal shows not only what is lost if we simply assume coal is a ready- made ‘store of energy’, it can also be read as a history of how coal-fired steam-power became a normal part of the forces of production, a technology – and a risk – producers had to reckon with.

Imaginaries, names, uses

Ben Russell, ‘“Lancashire Wizzards, Dragons, and Calamities”: The imaginarium of steam, 1725-1840

The Science Museum has one of the finest collections of steam engines anywhere. The museum’s East Hall is a shrine to steam, the evolution of which is traced from its origins pumping water from mines to becoming a universal power source in the form of the turbine. 

Re-displaying the East Hall has provided an opportunity to re-assess the steam collection. The collection was traditionally interpreted in formal taxonomical terms, from types of engines down to technical details. However, as the display scheme has become physically fragmented, so an approach has been sought which can work as a unified whole without relying on the previous taxonomy. 

This approach has suggested the existence of an ‘imaginarium of steam’, acknowledging that the steam engine exerted a tremendous imaginative impact on those who built, worked with, and observed engines. From Savery’s ‘Miner’s friend’ and Worcester’s ‘Water-commanding engine’ onwards, the engine was as much a symbolic and imaginative machine as it was a pragmatic and tangible one. This is reflected in a rich range of sources, including traveller’s accounts, poems, illustrations, and descriptions of engines at work, stretching far beyond the technical sources so traditionally and closely identified with the engine.

This paper will outline some of these primary sources with particular reference to the museum’s collection and other appropriate material culture, and attempt to identify some of their shared characteristics, which together form the imaginarium. They help us take a fresh look at this long-established but rather ossified subject in the history of technology.

Claire Conklin Sabel (University of Pennsylvania), ‘Fossil Fuel: Domestic Encounters with Coal in the Cotswolds c. 1760

This paper explores an encounter with coal vividly recorded in the correspondence between Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717–91), an eminent London naturalist and specialist in fossils, and one of his specimen suppliers, a rural rector’s wife named Elizabeth Thomas (c.1716-79) of Northleach, Gloucestershire. Their exchange of letters, drawings, references, and specimens between the years 1757 and 1760 includes a fascinating debate about the identity of a fossil that Thomas found in her household coal supply: ‘…having found some pieces of a fish in some coals … I frequently had large Coals broken in search of some’, Thomas explained. ‘I search’d all the coal till I found a piece which has undoubtedly been the Head.’ In subsequent letters, da Costa presented a contrasting opinion that the fossil was botanical in origin; Thomas, though generally deferential to da Costa, refused to accept. Their exchange offers several valuable insights into changing ideas about the nature of coal in eighteenth century Britain. First, it suggests that the presence of fossils was a particularly relevant means of making sense of the matter of coal, which had long troubled classificatory boundaries. It also demonstrates the importance of the British household, and in particular women’s domestic expertise, as a salient though little-documented site for encounters with coal in the mid-eighteenth century. Lastly, contextualizing Thomas’s attitude to coal within her broader approach to sourcing fossils from local farms, quarries, gravel pits, and genteel collectors – as well as from her brothers serving overseas in the Navy – illustrates the role of agricultural and imperial contexts for knowledge of oeconomic minerals on the eve of the industrial revolution.

Sajdeep Soomal (University of Toronto), ‘Coal, or Shilajit? : The medical economies of bitumen in colonial Punjab

After annexing the Punjab following the Anglo-Sikh Wars, the expanding Government of British India hired a slew of mining engineers and geologists to track around the northwestern province to determine the occurrence and yield of oil, coal and petroleum. Ontologically stretching the earth for colonial extraction, geologists in the 19th century only briefly documented the way that substances like coal were conceptualized and utilized within their varied precolonial contexts. Returning to the geological accounts of colonial Punjab, I attempt to stick with the local vernacular used to describe these substances – shilajit, mumiya, leloora, kala pani and naphtha – to open up and multiply the existing worlds that surrounded and animated ‘coal’ in 19th century colonial Punjab. In this essay, I look specifically at how colonial geologists encountered a lively medical economy around the earthy substance that they deemed to be coal during their travels across Punjab. Known as shilajit among the local population, this medical substance was routinely used as an early pharmaceutical to aid in the repair of broken bones in colonial Punjab. Tracing the history of shilajit from its early mentions in third century Ayurveda to its contemporary emergence within the global industry of Ayurvedic pharmaceuticals, I offer an alternative reading of the history of coal that is dislodged from its colonial ontological frameworks. In this essay, I focus on the splattering of affective responses that the medical use of shilajit elicited among British colonial officials during the late 19th century – from curiosity to disgust.

Working the seam, and steam

Mark Driscoll (University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill), ‘Coal’s Jim Crow CO2 : How Enslaved Blacks mined most of the coal used in the first four decades of racial fossil capitalism in the United States, 1790–1830

Fossil-fuel use in the United States emerged in the last decade of the eighteenth century, more than a decade later than in England. Owing to both the large deposits of eastern Virginia bituminous coal within reach of coastal markets and the low labor costs of extracting it, the US quickly joined Great Britain as the only emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world.

None of this was possible without forcing enslaved workers into dangerously primitive miners. The only scholar to focus on this, Ronald Lewis, exaggerated only slightly when he wrote in a 1976 essay that Virginia coalmines ‘yielded the major supply of coal for homes and industries along the Atlantic Coast. . . until the 1840s’. It is impossible to overstate this: enslaved Blacks extracted the fossil fuel that allowed white capitalists to replace renewable energy with coal-power. The Industrial Revolution in the US emerged on the broken backs of Afro-descendants.

My contribution to the Early Encounters with Coal workshop will discuss enslaving families who turned to coal mining out of desperation to solidify their falling class position after what reformers like Edmund Ruffin critiqued as ‘soil-mining’ left them with depleted soils, denuded lands, and shrinking crop yields. Richard Morris (1732 – 1821)exemplified this shift from soil- to coal-mining. Morris grew tobacco on his 1000-acre plantation in the 1760s, 70s and 80s. Morris’s plantation records reveal that his tobacco yields declined steadily until he considered selling off his fifty enslaved Blacks in 1788. The chance discovery of coal on his property inspired him to stop farming entirely and he ordered all his enslaved men and boys to sink shafts and dig coal. By 1792 Morris’s property had returned to profitability and he began buying more Blacks to work his mines. Other enslaving families quickly followed Morris’s lead.

Kent Linthicum (Northern Arizona University), ‘Black Abolitionists, Emancipation, and Coal

Coal and American slavery are fundamentally linked. Even though few American coal mines exploited enslaved Black people, and even though few Black people worked in the industrial centers of the United Kingdom, the violently extracted labor of the cotton plantation was key for the success of coal-powered manufacturing.[1] Despite these links, Black American Abolitionists did not despise coal. Even though coal was known to be finite, to pollute, and to create inhumane labor conditions, these Abolitionists saw coal power as a tool for the ending of an even greater injustice. Frederick Douglass, in ‘An Appeal to the British People’ argues that steam is crucial to the British influence on the United States, that Britain and America are ‘drawn together by the power of steam’.[2] Seventeen years later, Douglass claims that slavery ‘has an enemy […] in the steam engine’.[3] Douglass is not the only Abolitionist to champion coal and steam. William Wells Brown notes that England’s coal-powered engines make her ‘indefatigable in her enterprises to shorten labour’.[4] And Henry Bibb argues that coal-power can help Black peoples escape enslavement.[5] None of this is to say that Black Abolitionists were insensitive to the plight of White coal miners or factory workers. Rather they saw the enslavement of Black people as a greater evil than the harsh working conditions of industrial Britain. These accounts and others speak to the complex politics of coal: despite contributing to climate change, in the nineteenth century some subalterns saw coal as a tool for emancipation. Reconstructing the history of energy—and advancing energy justice—means grappling with the ways that fossil fuels were and are the solution to some injustices, even as they cause others.

1. Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. 3rd edition, U. North Carolina Press, 2021. Malm, Andres. Fossil Capital. Verso, 2016. pp. 249–254. Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. U. Minnesota Press, 2018. pp. 39–43.

2. Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Edited by Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Lawrence Hill Books, 1999, p. 38.

3. Ibid., p. 259.

4. Brown, William Wells. Three Years in Europe, or; Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. Charles Gilpin, 1852. p. 225.

5. Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Macdonald & Lee, 1849. p. 169.

Amr Khairy Ahmed (Lund University), ‘Of engine demons and global warming: Early Egyptian cultural encounters with steam engines and the Afarit of fossil-powered capitalism

Primary historical material and modern Egyptian literature engaged with cultural perceptions of rural Egyptians towards fossil-powered machinery, at the turn of the 20th century, provide evidence on how people made sense of modern production technology by resorting to paranormal interpretations. The engines were seen as haunted by Afarit (invisible demonic beings of the underworld) that lent them fiery kinetic energy. The machines craved the blood and flesh of the young as they, according to the narratives, ‘ate’ the boys who approached them. Machine operators and owners (themselves demonized) used children as offerings to the engines to appease their demons, the story goes. A culturally accepted practice was to sacrifice, instead of humans, a farm animal and splash its blood on the machinery, once it was installed, to neutralize its inherent malevolence towards the young generation.

This article takes off from rarely (if at all) investigated fragments of information on paranormal cultural perceptions of the fossil-based technology, showing up in the archival records from when Egyptian society transitioned to steam-powered agriculture (late 19th century). The article offers two interventions. First, tracing historical records on the twists and turns of the engine paranormality, and deploying critical anthropological framings that mapped rural Egyptian cosmologies (roughly organized around an ontological dichotomy of the coexisting realms of the visible and invisible), I argue that peasants did not attach paranormality to steam technology out of an inherently superstitious fetishizing belief system that understood advanced technology as magic (the orientalist view). Rather, paranormality grew pragmatically on the steam-powered machinery, gradually and unevenly across different rural communities, under the impact of novel ‘industrial accidents’ that came, with fury, on the wake of the then-recently setup technology. Here, the realm of the invisible, encompassing and penetrating the visible, was instrumentalised to ‘rationalize’ these unprecedented calamities, and where the cosmic cultural schemes informed and made sense of fossil-industrial disasters that attacked communal and individual microcosms.

Second, by juxtaposing paranormal pre-modern subaltern reactions towards fossil technology to contemporary global informed climate denial and inaction, I argue for the pre-modern illiterate package of the peasants as the more ‘rational’ of the two. It can inform solutions to climate dithering.

Keywords: History of technology, Fossil capital, Modern Egyptian history, Anthropology of Islam.

Materials, mines, museums: curating coal and other encounters

Held in situ at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge, with contributions from Liz Hide and the Sedgwick Museum, Vera Ludwig and the Deutsches Museum, Erika Anderson and the Hunterian Museum, and Rhiannon Seymour and the Rhondda Heritage Park

Wednesday 14 December

Industrial imperialisms in Asia

Adam Lucas (University of Wollongong), ‘Coal mining and coal miners in colonial Australia: 1789-1914

Coal was first discovered to the north and south of modern Sydney in the 1790s, within only a few years of the first British colony being established there in 1788, although it was not until the early 1800s that the resource began to be exploited. 

The bituminous coals that were found in what are now known as the Hunter and Illawarra regions had a high energy density and carbon content, and were initially used primarily for heating and some metallurgical processes. With the expansion of the new British settlements into what are now the states of Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, the identification of secure fossil energy sources for heating, lighting, transport and industrial processes was seen to be of increasing economic and strategic importance. Until the states federated in 1902, most preferred to ensure their energy self-sufficiency rather than trading energy commodities with their neighbouring sovereign states.

Being a British colony, coal mining techniques and technologies in Australia were, unsurprisingly, almost exclusively adopted and adapted from England and Wales. Both countries had well-established coal mining industries going back to Roman times, although the main techniques of underground coal mining were developed in the late 1700s. This paper focuses on the establishment of new techniques, technologies and know-how in the fledgling Australian coal industry, including the fact that convicts were used in the earliest mines and how the formation of the first Australian trade unions was in direct response to the poor conditions under which coal miners continued to work. The paper draws on local histories and the history and sociology of technology to examine how coal mine workers in Australia perceived the kind of work they were doing, as well as their attitudes to owners and to government regulation.

Marlon Zhu (Academia Sinica), ‘An Offshore Source of Energy: The Coal Boats of Jardine, Matheson & Co. and the Smuggled Coal from Formosa in the 1850s

Coal-enhanced steam transportation has marked, in a global scale, the fossil fuel consumption for power in the modern age. Steam coal became a necessity for the far-reaching steamers of naval and mercantile navigators, in which the British ones, such as the Royal Navy and the renowned P. & O., had been privileged, among others, by a network of sea-port coaling stations around the world by the 1870s. This article traces the teething phase of this coaling business, focusing on the East Asian littoral coal traffic for steamers by Jardine, Matheson & Co.’s sailing vessels in the 1850s. It was about a decade prior to the ‘opening’ of Japan and its abundant coal deposit. Coal from Kelung, a seaside village at the northern tip of the Formosa Island (Taiwan), became one of the major and available sources of ‘local’, or relatively nearby, coal along the East Asian coasts. However, the mining and export of the Kelung coal was prohibited by the Qing Government for various reasons thus made the traffic a smuggled one. It was supplied to the Hong Kong and Shanghai coal markets since their first decade, but almost invisible in the Chinese resources. This article, instead, using the English-language materials, official and private, sheds light on one of the earliest facets of the trans-boundary maritime trade on the local steam coal in East Asia.

Zhaojin Zeng (Duke Kunshan University), ‘British Capital and Chinese Coal: The Pekin Syndicate’s Mining Exploration in China’s Transition from Empire to Republic

Shanxi, a northern hinterland province of China, was identified by German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen as ‘one of the most remarkable coal and iron regions in the world’. In 1898, an Italian missionary named Angelo Luzzatti arrived, tasked with a secret mission from the Rothschild family to seek mining concessions from the Qing empire. Traveling along with this Rothschilds’ agent at the time were many other British, German, and French capitalists also in search of Chinese coal. Their mining explorations triggered violent clashes with the local people as well as resulted in profound impacts on China’s transition from empire to republic. Drawing on primary material collected from China, the UK, and Australia, this paper uses the transnational history of the Pekin Syndicate, a Rothschild business, to examine how Western mining operations explored local natural resources, interacted with elite and social networks, and managed political risks in early-twentieth-century China. Involved in the multifaceted processes of contestation, conflict, and cooperation with the local people, the Pekin Syndicate’s eventful encounter with Chinese coal engendered a series of local responses – the founding of China’s first mechanized mining enterprises, the importation of new machinery and other industrial technologies, and the entering of massive native capital into industry. As a result, after the collapse of the Qing empire, a new regional development apparatus took shape, where Western interests became entrenched and entangled with industrial initiatives launched by local actors. Using the experience of the British mining firm as the lens, this paper exposes the larger history of coal mining politics, transnational business, and local-empire relations in semi-colonial China.

(Social) geographies of the fossil-fuel economy

Aritra Bhattacharya, ‘Rebellious Activist, Benevolent Don: Subaltern responses to coal mining in nineteenth century India

This paper discusses two important figures – the union activist, and the mafia don – that have characterised subaltern positions on coal mining in the Raniganj Coalfields, where India’s first commercial mining operations commenced in the late eighteenth century. The first section introduces the two figures and their relevance in subaltern responses to coal mining in India. A variety of sources such as oral traditions, songs, newspapers and novels are then used to provide examples of important union activists and mafia dons in Raniganj Coalfields from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similarities and differences between the two figures, and their roles in the mining, trade and consumption of coal in the area are discussed. The waning presence/influence of union activists and the continued relevance of mafia dons in more recent decades is discussed briefly in the conclusion.

Aparajita Mukhopadhyay (University of Kent), ‘On encounters with coal in the Bengal Presidency in British India

This paper explores early encounters with coal in colonial South Asia. This wider point will be examined by focusing on use of coal for railway construction and operations in the Bengal presidency in British India – a region that had (and has) significant reserves of coal. 

History of coal in South Asia is distinctly colonial. Initially, (late 18th century) Bengal coal was found to be inferior in quality. But by 1850s commercial coal mining in the region was well-established. However, the main centre for coal consumption was Calcutta and transporting coal from the mines to the growing city (e.g., Raniganj was 150 miles away from Calcutta) was difficult. A railway connection from ‘coal belt’ to Calcutta was thought to be commercially viable solution, and in 1854 the first trains in the Bengal presidency ran between Calcutta and Raniganj. In this story, the role of Dwarakanath Tagore, one of the owners of Raniganj coal mine, and subsequently a promoter and shareholder of East Indian Railway Company is relatively well-known. 

However, Dwarakanath Tagore was not the only ‘native’ who showed interest in coal and its commercial prospects and possibilities. This paper will illustrate the ways in which encounters with coal in early colonial Bengal was not confined to elites or ‘respectable natives.’ Examining pamphlets, newspapers and travelogues the proposed paper will argue that coal and the possibilities of commercial exploitation of coal was understood and welcomed by different social groups in Bengal – and that is diverse and variable encounters are suggestive of different trajectories of transmission of scientific knowledge in colonial South Asia. 

Poster session

Proposal abstracts are due by 14 November (emailed to; accepted posters will be submitted and circulated from Wednesday 7 December. This session will allow presenters to discuss their work and meet participants online, and if possible in person.

Coal narratives

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (University of California, Davis), ‘A Voice from the Deep Waters and Dark Mine: Narratives of Maritime Extractivism

My recent book, Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion (2021), explored the rise of industrialized mining in Britain and its empire from the 1830s to the 1930s with particular attention to the role of literary discourse and literary form in mediating the socio-environmental impacts of extractivism. In my proposed paper for this workshop, I will expand on my book’s research and analysis by looking more closely at industrial extraction’s intersection with maritime and shipping labor. To provide a wide-ranging, global picture even while focusing on Britain’s extractive empire, my paper will focus on the intersection of maritime and mining labor in three different cultural contexts: an obscure pamphlet of printed verse, a curious historical episode in Latin America in the 1820s, and, finally, Joseph Conrad’s short story ‘Youth’ (1898), which depicts an ill-fated shipment of coal from Tyne to Bangkok.

A Voice from the Deep Waters and Dark Mine; Or, The ‘Princess Alice’ and Colliery Disasters, a pamphlet of verse printed in London in 1878 and authored by Enoch John Clark, links the dangerous work of the ‘deep waters’ with the work of the ‘deep mine’, foregrounding the sudden perils that can arise in both labor environments. Intriguingly, the poem suggests the interdependence of sailors and coal miners in industrial society and the hazards shared by those who extract and those who transport the coal on which imperial Britain had come to depend.

Many workers crossed the world’s oceans on the winds of industrial extraction as British investors, engineers, and laborers participated in the global expansion of steam-powered mining, and the next section of my paper turns to the case of the Real del Monte mine in Mexico. This mine had been abandoned and flooded with the waning of Spanish Empire, until a group of Englishmen launched the Real del Monte Company and attempted to introduce steam-powered mine-draining to Mexico. In 1825, they sent three ships full of machinery, engineers, and miners, all from Cornwall, and faced untold transportation and logistical challenges. The historical episode provides a snapshot of the intersecting work of miners and mariners in the global expansion of coal-powered extraction.

                The final section of my paper will return to the literary archive and discuss Joseph Conrad’s ‘Youth’ (1898), a story that takes us to another part of the world: Southeast Asia. Conrad focuses the narrative on the work of the sailors responsible for sailing a ship full of coal from Tyne to Bangkok. The sailors must manage both water and fire, confronting a gradual leak and then a slow-burning fire when the coal spontaneously combusts. As with A Voice from the Deep Waters and Dark Mine, ‘Youth’ makes an explicit connection between the work of the sailor and the work of the miner: when the ship’s sand ballast shifts to the lee bow, for example, the sailors must go below to shovel the sand windward, like miners at work below the surface in a stormy sea. The story explores the environmental volatility inherent to maritime extractivism and the perils for workers in a new steam-powered world. A quasi-nostalgic, retrospective account of the transformation from sail to steam, ‘Youth’ looks back to a transitional period in the rise of fossil capital, when a load of coal would still be shipped by sail. At the story’s conclusion, the narrator and his fellow sailors must get passage back to England on a steam-ship, since their own ship has sunk, implying the final victory of steam over sail for nineteenth-century maritime industry.

Indigo Gray (University of Sheffield) ‘On Emile Zola’s Germinal and the politics of slime’

Coal haunts literature of the nineteenth century in various guises, weaving fictional networks of fuel, labour and colonialism. These networks reveal complex connections between the bodies of those involved in coal’s formation, extraction and consumption, bound by a ‘politics of slime’ that highlights interspecies power relations in the mine and the text. In Emile Zola’s 1884 novel of coalmining and strikes, Germinal, slime appears in the form of mud, phlegm, and the flood that ultimately destroys the mine and many of its workers. The miners are continually immersed in semi-liquids that seep through the cracks of their bodies and environment, which begin to overlap, awakening the workers to an ambivalent revolutionary politics of ‘slimy’, imperfect strikes. Their overlapping bodies can be elucidated by revisiting contemporaneous Darwinian theories of evolution and connection to the miners’ nonhuman ancestors, portraying the workers as pre- or subhuman and drawing them closer to their animal compatriots as they recede from their bourgeois masters.

This paper summarises the way that the slime of the coal’s birth – decomposing vegetation – seeps out and vengefully floods the mine in Germinal. This leads onto further explorations in my thesis: 1. the flesh of the human and nonhuman miners to whose physicality the coalmine draws attention in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers; 2. the dangerous ‘firedamp’ (methane) that threatens the lives of the workers and spurs on a volatile politics of strikes and violence on the picket line in Lewis Jones’ Cwmardy; and 3. the smog that contaminates the working, domestic and natural environment and promotes an ethic of care and labour regulation in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Each chapter reads the material in the text to trace international links of coal as product and fuel, drawing colonial ideologies and products into the coal-blackened spaces of England, Wales and France.

Andreas Malm, ‘The Coal in Violence: Prophets of Doom versus Friends of the Machine in the Swedish Movement of Working-Class Writers

In 1927, Ivar Lo Johansson was a young vagabond and journalist with a hubristic mission: to portray the life of working people all over the world. At the time of his death in 1990, with 50 books under his belt, he was widely considered the finest writer of working-class fiction in Sweden, the pre-eminent representative of a proletarian literary movement with few if any equals in the world. Before his career took off, however, he made a trip to the coal districts of England. In the year after the General Strike, he was drawn to the idea that coal constituted the hidden bedrock of modern society. What he found in the mining regions was an unmitigated inferno of air pollution and degradation of lives and bodies. His reportage was published in 1928 as Kolet i våld, roughly translated as The Coal in Violence. Most remarkably, the book contains one page of prediction that if the combustion of coal continues at this pace, the climate will change, temperatures rise, the ice caps melt, ecosystems collapse and diseases spread. 

Widely reviewed and acclaimed in the Swedish press at the time of its publication – but all but forgotten since – Kolet i våld triggered something of a quarrel over coal in the movement of working-class writers. One poet, Josef Kjellgren, reviewed the book negatively, considered its hostility to coal a petty-bourgeois deviation and responded with poems in praise of the fuel and the machinery it powered. Others weighed in with poems and other reflections. This debate partly mapped onto political allegiances: Kjellgren and other defenders of coal were loyal to the Comintern, while Lo Johansson and similarly proto-environmentalist writers tended to stay in the fold of social democracy. Remarkably, if there was any winner in this debate, it was the latter camp. Although the dispute over coal subsided after the second world war, a discomfort with fossil-fueled machinery and other manifestations of technological modernity remained the hegemonic position in the movement. In an ecological register, working-class writers who never broke with social democracy nevertheless voiced their disappointment with how the Swedish welfare state came to evolve.

This paper will tell the story of Kolet i våld and the literary controversy it provoked and offer some reflections on early working-class attitudes to the fossil economy, as well as hint at the post-war sequel of proletarian-environmental critique of Swedish developmentalism.

[1] Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. 3rd edition, U. North Carolina Press, 2021. Malm, Andres. Fossil Capital. Verso, 2016. pp. 249–254. Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. U. Minnesota Press, 2018. pp. 39–43.

[2] Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Edited by Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Lawrence Hill Books, 1999, p. 38.

[3] Ibid., p. 259.

[4] Brown, William Wells. Three Years in Europe, or; Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. Charles Gilpin, 1852. p. 225.

[5] Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Macdonald & Lee, 1849. p. 169.


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