New Research Shows British Industrialization Drew Ironworking Methods from Colonized and Enslaved JamaicansHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, colonialism, British Empire, Industrial Revolution, history of technology, Metallurgy
An innovation that propelled Britain to become the world’s leading iron exporter during the Industrial Revolution was appropriated from an 18th-century Jamaican foundry, historical records suggest.
The Cort process, which allowed wrought iron to be mass-produced from scrap iron for the first time, has long been attributed to the British financier turned ironmaster Henry Cort. It helped launch Britain as an economic superpower and transformed the face of the country with “iron palaces”, including Crystal Palace, Kew Gardens’ Temperate House and the arches at St Pancras train station.
Now, an analysis of correspondence, shipping records and contemporary newspaper reports reveals the innovation was first developed by 76 black Jamaican metallurgists at an ironworks near Morant Bay, Jamaica. Many of these metalworkers were enslaved people trafficked from west and central Africa, which had thriving iron-working industries at the time.
Dr Jenny Bulstrode, a lecturer in history of science and technology at University College London (UCL) and author of the paper, said: “This innovation kicks off Britain as a major iron producer and … was one of the most important innovations in the making of the modern world.”
The technique was patented by Cort in the 1780s and he is widely credited as the inventor, with the Times lauding him as “father of the iron trade” after his death. The latest research presents a different narrative, suggesting Cort shipped his machinery – and the fully fledged innovation – to Portsmouth from a Jamaican foundry that was forcibly shut down.
The Jamaican ironworks was owned by a white enslaver, John Reeder, who in correspondence described himself as “quite ignorant” of iron manufacturing, noting that the 76 black metallurgists who ran the foundry were “perfect in every branch of the iron manufactory”, and, through their skill, could turn scrap and poor-quality metal into valuable wrought iron.
Some of these workers are named in records, and include Devonshire, Mingo, Mingo’s son, Friday, Captain Jack, Matt, George, Jemmy, Jackson, Will, Bob, Guy, Kofi and Kwasi.
Their innovation came after the workers introduced the use of grooved rollers into the foundry to mechanise the formerly laborious process of hammering out impurities from low-quality iron. The same kind of grooved rollers were used in Jamaican sugar mills.