Readers of History Reclaimed will probably have seen something in the press or online about an essay published earlier in 2023 in the journal History and Technology by Dr Jenny Bulstrode of University College, London. Entitled ‘Black Metallurgists and the Making of the Industrial Revolution’ it attracted appreciative attention from The Guardian, New Scientist, National Public Radio in the United States, and Caribbean media in general, because of its claim that a key process underpinning the manufacture of iron, and hence industrialisation itself, originated among slave labourers in a foundry in Jamaica and was ‘stolen’ and brought to Britain in the 1780s.[i] Subsequently, however, the claim has been subjected to critical scrutiny. Two British authors, Anton Howes [ii] and Oliver Jelf, [iii] have publicly raised doubts about Dr Bulstrode’s use of evidence, inferences from that evidence, and overall argument. David Wootton[iv] and Ian Leslie,[v] have summarised the dispute.
The editors of History Reclaimed have been contacted on various occasions as this story has unfolded and their comments have appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. But, to make it clear, we have not published on this subject, nor written to any journal or university about Dr Bulstrode and her research. Our view is that she is herself a victim of an academic system no longer able to judge projects properly, nor capable of supporting the best research.
Recently, the editors of History and Technology and also the British Society for the History of Science have imputed racism to those who have questioned Dr Bulstrode’s account. Meanwhile, Ian Leslie’s latest blog reproduces a letter from an anonymous historian who agrees with our criticisms of the evidential basis of Bulstrode’s article, but still sees fit to label History Reclaimed ‘reactionary’.[vi] It is time to let readers judge whether that it the case by explaining the issues, and I will add something about my own engagement with the academic study of the history of slavery at the end of this essay.
Dr Bulstrode’s article is more about the culture of African metal working, whether in early-modern Africa or the West Indies, than the technology. In an essay of twenty-one pages, fewer than four are devoted to the claim that Henry Cort, lauded as one of the great technologists of the Industrial Revolution, stole the crucial method for ‘rendering scrap metal into valuable bar iron’ from a foundry worked by black slaves in Jamaica. But those four pages compose the heart of the essay, give the essay its title, and are the focus of the essay’s abstract. Dr Bulstrode refers to the slaves as ‘black metallurgists’. She even, it would seem, inserts that term into quotations drawn from primary documents that she uses, in preference to the authentic descriptors originally used.
In her account, Henry Cort was struggling to turn a profit from an ironworks in the area of Portsmouth that he’d owned since 1775. Henry Cort’s cousin, John, returning from Jamaica at the end of 1781, told Henry about John Reeder’s foundry on the island where, according to Bulstrode, a new process using ‘water-powered rolling mills, remanufacturing several thousand tons of scrap into valuable bar iron’, and using grooved sugar rollers to invent that process, was technologically successful and highly lucrative. Apparently fearing that Reeder’s foundry might produce weapons for a slave rebellion, it was ordered to be dismantled by the Admiralty and then shipped to Portsmouth. In December 1782 Henry Cort declared that he had ‘found some grand secret in making iron’ using grooved rollers and took the credit for an invention that really belonged to the ’76 black metallurgists’, mostly slaves (with perhaps some free maroons, as well) employed by John Reeder, whose breakthrough this was.
Bulstrode’s essay is written in the style of cultural anthropology rather than that of economic history and the history of technology, and is mostly concerned to explore West African and West Indian ceremonies, rituals, and language connected with metals and their ceremonial use. In doing so, she returns several times to an equivalence, both spiritual as well as technological, between making sugar and making iron which she seems to employ as validation for her claim that innovations in the reworking of scrap iron derived from methods used to extract the juice from sugar cane. To quote Dr Bulstrode,
Just as Gold Coast metallurgists separated bars of European iron into polluting shackles and sacred blades, Black Jamaicans bound to sugar plantations fed bundles of cane into grooved rollers that separated the juice of enslaver values from the husks Black insurgents lit when they burned enslaver infrastructure to the ground.[vii]
The whole essay has a legendary quality to it, and is written in a style to match with many sentences that I found obscure. Anyone expecting hard-edged economic history will be greatly surprised. It reads like a new Promethean myth: this time the fire is stolen not from the Gods but from the slaves, and taken by the evil British far away across the ocean.
Of the essays in criticism, that by Oliver Jelf, a mature student finishing a Master’s degree, is the most searching: he went back to the archives to check on the sources used by Bulstrode and concluded that they did not support her principal contentions that Cort derived the new method for processing scrap iron from the slaves at Reeder’s foundry; nor that iron rolling machinery was in use there at all; nor that the foundry was shipped to Portsmouth. To quote Jelf (who is best read in his own words – I could not do justice to his clear, direct, and forensic analysis of the documents):
The sources instead suggest that ordinary and widespread ironworking processes were in use at Reeder’s foundry; that no innovation occurred there; that the chain of events by which Cort is supposed to have heard of the foundry’s activities certainly did not occur; that Reeder’s foundry was destroyed because of the threat of a Franco-Spanish invasion force; and that no part of the foundry was removed from the immediate vicinity of the island, let alone to Portsmouth.’
To date, and to the best of my knowledge, there has been no response to this set of counter-arguments with one small exception: Bulstrode’s claim that John Cort sailed to Portsmouth from Jamaica has been withdrawn by the journal History and Technology, as it is clear he sailed to Lancaster.
Jelf’s critique was offered to History and Technology but the editors declined to publish it. It is common for academic history journals to publish replies and responses, but not in this case. An open, academic discussion that should have been moderated by the journal itself has thus been consigned to the internet and the press. The editors also received a critical letter from members of the Historical Metallurgy Society, a forum that brings together people with deep knowledge of the history and technology of metal working.
Bulstrode’s essay merely asserts its case when it needs to prove it. The key pages are based on circumstantial, coincidental, and suggestive rather than direct evidence. Now that the claims have been subjected to careful archival scrutiny, there seems no basis for the inferences made in the original article. If Dr Bulstrode were at this point to recognise that she has pushed her argument far beyond the sources (which is a common problem among young researchers), to grant that the associations made loosely in cultural history really cannot be used in the same way when writing about the specific origin of industrial processes, and simply accept the points, deriving from the archives, made by critics of her work, we would all understand and, to some extent, sympathise.
It is important to appreciate, however, that Dr. Bulstrode’s work fits into a wider set of claims about the history of the Industrial Revolution. Recently it has become fashionable to argue that this great episode in human history was dependent on slavery in the British empire. It is claimed that slave labour generated the profits that were invested in infant British industries; that slaves produced raw materials that fed the economic transformation in Britain; that British industries required the expanding markets of the Caribbean; and that the slaveholders required the new products from industrialisation to enable production based on slave labour. Counter-arguments to this case can be found in our review of the recent book Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution by Pat Hudson and Maxine Berg. https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/slavery-capitalism-and-the-industrial-revolution-a-dissent/
Dr Bulstrode’s case study now fills a gap in an overall argument that is trying very hard to associate industrialisation with slavery: she has apparently demonstrated that supposedly British technologies were invented by, and taken from, ‘black metallurgists’ in Jamaica. In this argument, therefore, it’s not just that the Industrial Revolution was primed by slave labour in the West Indies – the very technologies on which it depended were invented there. It is yet another argument that could be used to justify the campaign for reparations for slavery, a case recently contested in History Reclaimed by Rasheed Griffith https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/the-fatal-conceit-of-the-caribbean-reparations-movement/
In his 2019 Keynes Lecture to the British Academy entitled ‘”The Holy Land of Industrialism”’: Rethinking the Industrial Revolution’, Professor Joel Mokyr argued that it is difficult to demonstrate Eric Williams’s contention in his book Capitalism and Slavery, originally published in 1944, ‘that the slave economy and Atlantic trade were critical factors in the Industrial Revolution’. However large this economy, and whatever its impact on the demand for goods, the slave economy ‘would have done little to drive the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution had there been no prior high level of engineering competence’ in Britain itself. As an example of his case, Mokyr cites the Cornish copper industry whose products were used in the production of sugar in the West Indies, but in which the crucial technological advances had occurred before the sugar industry required them.[viii] It is in this precise context that we might place Dr Bulstrode’s work, as an answer to Mokyr in her attempt to demonstrate that slaves were innovative engineers who pioneered a vital technology. So far, the arguments in favour of the slave origins of industrialisation have focused on investment, raw materials, and markets. Dr Bulstrode’s essay would take the case a step further by focusing on technology deriving from the Caribbean. In her essay, slaves were not only exploited and mistreated; their technical innovations that led to the Industrial Revolution were stolen as well.
The publishers of History and Technology, Taylor and Francis, established an inquiry into the article which, rather than using independent referees, was undertaken by the journal’s editors, both from Drexel University in Philadelphia, with which History and Technology is affiliated.[ix] They were effectively marking their own homework. One formal correction has followed from this; the rest of the factual points made by Jelf and others have not been addressed. Indeed, at the end of their inquiry, the authors actually deny the existence of objectivity, that ‘facts are facts’, claiming that ‘our perceptions of objectivity themselves derive from situated experiences’. They claim that ‘empiricism’ – the use of evidence and reason – ‘is deeply conditioned by the predicating logics of colonialism and racial capitalism’. And they claim that ‘the primacy of white, Euro-American attainments in historical accounts of industrialization’ – the view that the Industrial Revolution occurred in western Europe from the late eighteenth century, in other words – ‘reflects the demographics of the history academy itself’. In short, they dismiss the possibility of accurate history based on the sources and play the race card. Perhaps even more surprising is that the British Society for the History of Science should have joined them in this. Its Council recently put out a statement that ‘In our view, the treatment of the paper and its author is clearly connected to its topic, which involves the enterprises of enslaved peoples, people of colour, and other individuals and groups who have long been ignored, marginalised and misrepresented by past historical studies.’[x]
There is a simple answer to the Society. It was Dr Bulstrode, not her critics, who brought race into the discussion of a highly specialised historical subject – the processing of scrap iron in the late eighteenth century – where it had no presence before, by claiming a special role for ‘black metallurgists’. All that her critics have done is to ask for the evidence that supports her claims.
Insofar as History Reclaimed has any view on this matter it is to look beyond Dr Bulstrode and her paper and consider the implications for academic history in general. We agree with the title of Ian Leslie’s recent blog: ‘The End of History. Academic historians are destroying their own discipline’. If the questioning of a historian’s use of evidence is either ignored, or is set down as a form of academic racism, our subject is in jeopardy. History Reclaimed was set up to combat interpretations of the past which are not firmly grounded in the evidence and which are influenced by present-day ideologies rather than the actions, experiences, and outlook of past actors themselves.
This affair also points to wider problems in academic life as they affect younger scholars. Funds and opportunities for research are increasingly focused by research councils and universities on a range of fashionable topics of today rather than issues and questions from the past. And in the fierce competition for resources caused by more postgraduates than ever before chasing fewer research awards, it is inevitable that young scholars will push their interpretations further than the sources will allow and claim to have uncovered remarkable results. The system itself is promoting exaggeration and triviality. It is for this reason that an independent research centre in the humanities, the Pharos Foundation, with its base in Oxford, has recently made its first post-doctoral awards. As one senior historian put it to me, ‘Here, it will still be possible to study the exchequer in the 14th century’.
Does History Reclaimed deserve to be described as ‘reactionary’? [xi] If it is now thought that using evidence carefully and accurately, and making rational arguments based upon it, is ‘reactionary’ then Ian Leslie is correct and the end of history is nigh. But I will end this piece by contesting this description, based on teaching and supervising the history of slavery, which I have done since the 1980s. It was certainly not ‘reactionary’ to teach the history of Atlantic slavery in a British university four decades ago when very few were doing it. Please excuse this autobiographical ending, but I have ‘skin in this game’, as the phrase goes. As an editor of History Reclaimed, my focus on the way the history of slavery is presented, argued, and (increasingly now) used instrumentally, is not part of some supposed ‘culture war’, but central to my historical interests and career.
I was introduced to the history of slavery in the American colonies and the United States as an undergraduate, and, on graduating, I studied it further on a scholarship to Yale University. I was taught there by some notable historians of slavery: Edmund Morgan,[xii] David Brion Davis,[xiii] and John Blassingame.[xiv] For three decades in Oxford I taught the very popular final-year undergraduate Special Subject on ‘Slavery, Race and the Crisis of the Union, 1857-1875’, on one occasion sharing the teaching with another great historian of slavery, Eric Foner of Columbia University. Students worked their way through approximately two thousand pages of primary documents and accompanying secondary reading over a term of tutorials, seminars, and lectures. A Special Subject is the climax of undergraduate studies in History in British universities and its purpose is not only to study a subject in depth but to learn how to use original sources. Students who took that course with me, or whose doctoral dissertations connected to the history of slavery I supervised, now teach in universities across Britain and the US, among them Stanford, Missouri, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Hunter College in New York, Durham University and Oxford. Dominic Sandbrook, known to many for his books, broadcasts, and podcasts, was another of my Special Subject students.
In more than thirty years of teaching the history of slavery to university students and many different branches of the Historical Association and the Workers’ Educational Association, I have learnt at least two things. First, that the story is so sad and brutal that there is no need whatsoever to embellish or exaggerate. Second, that the responsibility of academic historians, as in all that they do, is to explain the history of slavery accurately, honestly, carefully, and soberly. Anything more, especially the instrumental use of this human tragedy for ulterior ends, is to insult the memory and the sacrifices of the slaves themselves.
[i] Jenny Bulstrode, ‘Black metallurgists and the making of the Industrial Revolution’, History and Technology, 39:1, 2023, 1-41.
[vii] Bulstrode, ‘Black metallurgists and the making of the Industrial Revolution’, 12-13.
[viii] Joel Mokyr, ‘”The Holy Land of Industrialism”’: rethinking the Industrial Revolution’, Journal of the British Academy, 9, August 2021, 223-247, pp. 238-9.
[xii] Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1976)
[xiii] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966); The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823 (1975); The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014)
[xiv] John Blassingame, The Slave Community. Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972); J. W. Blassingame et al (eds.) The Frederick Douglass Papers.