Slavery and Steam

In March, Britain’s Daily Telegraph and GB News channel both reported that the National Museum of Wales would be relabelling a replica of the first steam-powered locomotive, unveiled by its Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick in 1804. Trevithick had no links to slavery, but the amendment has apparently been included anyway as part of the museum’s commitment to “decolonizing” its collection. In a statement defending what it described as the addition of “historical context,” the museum said: “Although there might not be direct links between the Trevithick locomotive and the slave trade, we acknowledge the reality that links to slavery are woven into the warp and weft of Welsh society.” The statement continued:

Trade and colonial exploitation were embedded in Wales’ economy and society and were fundamental to Wales’ development as an industrialised nation. As we continue to audit the collection, we will explore how the slave trade linked and fed into the development of the steam and railway infrastructure in Wales.

In a similar vein, back in 2014, MSNBC broadcaster Chris Hayes wrote an article for the Nation in which he drew a rather tenuous connection between human slavery—specifically, the kind practiced in the US prior to 1865—and the use of fossil fuels. Hayes argued that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to forfeit the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to surrender the financial value of their human “property.” He went on to assert that environmentalists attacking the use of fossil fuels are in a moral and tactical position similar to that of the pre-war Abolitionists.

This whole line of thinking reminds me of a few things:

1) Shortly after obtaining his freedom, former slave Frederick Douglass visited a shipyard in New Bedford, where he observed the cargo being unloaded. In his memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote:

In a southern port, twenty or thirty hands would have been employed to do what five or six did here, with the aid of a single ox attached to the end of a fall. Main strength, unassisted by skill, is slavery’s method of labor. An old ox, worth eighty dollars, was doing, in New Bedford, what would have required fifteen thousand dollars worth of human bones and muscles to have performed in a southern port.

2) Sometime around 1900, a young PR man recently hired by General Electric in Schenectady realized he had a problem. He had obtained his job with glowing promises of all the great press coverage he would generate for the company. But now his boss wanted him to place “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000-kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison. The PR man knew that such a story would only merit a paragraph on the financial pages, so he went to see GE’s legendary research genius Charles Steinmetz for advice. Headlines, he explained, need drama, and “there’s nothing dramatic about a generator.”

Following a quick calculation, Steinmetz determined that this particular machine could perform the physical work of 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million. “I suggest,” Steinmetz told the young PR man, “you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”

3)  Owen Young was a farm boy who grew up to become the Chairman of General Electric. Young’s biographer Ida Tarbell offers this description of what life had been like for a farm wife on “wash day” back then:

[Young] drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.

Hayes does not seem to understand—or at least, he was reluctant to recognize—that the benefits of an energy source accrue not only to the companies and individuals who develop and own that energy source, but also to the people of the society at large. The benefits of the coal and oil (and later natural gas) burned to power the turbines made by Owen Young’s company did not go only to the resource owners and to GE and the utility companies, but also to the farm housewives with whom he had grown up.

4) Fanny Kemble (1809–1893) was a famous British actress who was also an avid diarist and a brilliant social observer. In 1830, she became one of the first people to ride on the newly constructed London-to-Manchester railway line. Her escort on the trip was none other than George Stephenson, the self-taught engineer who had been the driving force behind the line’s construction. She noted that the British government had rejected Stephenson’s railroad plans on grounds of unfeasibility, but added:

The Liverpool merchants, whose far-sighted self-interest prompted them to wise liberality, had accepted the risk of George Stephenson’s magnificent experiment, which the committee of inquiry of the House of Commons had rejected for the government. These men, of less intellectual culture than the Parliament members, had the adventurous imagination proper to great speculators, which is the poetry of the counting-house and wharf, and were better able to receive the enthusiastic infection of the great projector’s sanguine hope than the Westminster committee.

She contrasted the character of men such as Stephenson with that of the aristocracy, as represented by Lord Alvanley in particular: “I would rather pass a day with Stephenson than with Lord Alvanley, though the one is a coal-digger by birth, who occasionally murders the King’s English, and the other is the keenest wit and one of the finest gentlemen about town.”

Kemble had a bit of a crush on Stephenson, to whom she referred as “the master of all these marvels, with whom I am most horribly in love.” Nevertheless, industrialization—Trevithick’s locomotive, Stephenson’s railway, and the steam engine itself (which Boris Johnson once called a “doomsday machine”)—enabled self-made men like Stephenson to gain influence they never could have had in a pre-industrial society, and that this reduced the relative power of the Lord Alvanleys. Aristocrats and would-be aristocrats have tended to disapprove of technologies which enable physical and social mobility. The railroads, Lord Wellington fretted, would “encourage the common people to move about needlessly.”

Sequence of illustrations showing slaves pulling stone, Trevithick's locomotive, Stephenson's Rocket. (Getty Images)

If I had to guess, I’d say the people who run institutions like the National Museum of Wales are generally more like the Alvanelys of the world than the Stephensons (although perhaps without the wit for which Alvanley was renowned). In any event, the historical timeline suggests that the sailing ship, the cannon, and the instruments and mathematics of celestial navigation were more obviously enablers of the slavery and colonial expansion than Trevithick’s locomotive. But such a link fails to combine the anti-racist lesson with an environmentalist one. In fact, the human use of the horse likely did more to aid colonial conquest, since it enabled the use of chariots and mounted cavalry. Not to mention all forms of metalworking, from bronze to steel.

When a society compulsively disrespects its historical accomplishments—when it obsessively seeks to turn every good thing into a bad thing—the outlook for that society is bleak. It destroys social cohesion, and sends the wrong kind of message to actual and potential opponents. The matter of the steam locomotive display in Wales may seem minor, and certainly trivial when compared with the appalling events in Ukraine or the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. But it is not.

The behavior of the museum administrators in Wales is of a piece with other contemporary symptoms, such as the eagerness within influential circles in the US to embrace the conclusions of the New York Times’s revisionist 1619 project. It is part of the politicization of everything. Science, technology, and art cannot—indeed, must not—be appreciated simply on the grounds of beauty, utility, or truth; everything must be reduced to race, gender, and other academically and media-approved categories of analysis.

Trends such as these have real-world implications, including the growth and decline of nations and their relative power. Writing in 1940, C.S. Lewis, warned about the dangers of what he called the National Repentance Movement, which focused on the need to apologize for Britain’s sins (thought to include the Treaty of Versailles) and to forgive Britain’s enemies.

Certainly, the British State had done many bad things during its long and eventful history—as well as many good things. But the excessive focus on its sins was part of a phenomenon manifested in a 1933 motion debated at the Oxford Union: “This House will under no circumstances fight for King and country.” To the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, attitudes like these indicated that aggression would not meet much resistance. They also informed a policy of appeasement.

Liberals and progressives (as they call themselves) claim to be greatly concerned with physical sustainability of resources and ecosystems. But they are too eager to undercut the social sustainability of their own societies and the physical infrastructures on which those societies depend, however fond they may be of repeating the word “infrastructure.”


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/07/21/steam-electricity-slavery-and-societal-sustainability/
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Sad but true.

Whatever public infrastructures being it museums, theatres, concert halls, arts centres, public broadcasters, universities and schools, blind “critical thinking” is dominating the discourse in the wealthy western countries, mostly backed up by the private mainstream media and even conservative political partys like the CDU in Germany. That are seeds for disaster.

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What an awesome article! You brilliantly provide key facts and use them as a foundation for a comprehensive perspective that debunks the ignorance and self-regard of environmentalism, the ignorance and cant of neo-racism, and the blithe ignorance and self-regard of our “Lord Alvaney” master class who are suffocating innovation and virtue in our society.

Your article is a splendid demonstration of how even a single candle of truth illuminates a great darkness of ignorance.

Well done!

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Interesting article. The thing that always annoys me about the discussion around slave labor and climate change is the obvious link with fossil fuels that most folks seem to overlook.

Prior to the invention of the steam engine and later the internal combustion engine, our energy needs were met by our own human power output, supplemented by collecting some wood for heating purposes. In essence our output was limited to around 330 BTU’s per hour for about 8 to 12 hours in a day, or about 1 MMBTU ( similar to about 1 MJ) of output per year. This placed a severe cap on our standard of living.

To improve the standard of living of select individuals they would have to harness the output of captive animals and other humans who did not have equal access to the spoils of their labor.

Today we have access to fossil fuels and the average annual consumption of energy of a person in the West is around 290 MMBTU. That is the equivalent of each of us having access to 290 slaves, assuming that the slaves consumes no energy themselves. In reality that energy would have had to be sourced as a combination of slaves, horses and firewood, still an impossible task even for a the most lavish household in 18th century England.

In reality the fossil fuels economy freed us from slave labor. It also created a world of prosperity and wealth shared amongst a much greater proportion of the population than could have ever been possible without it.

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You’d think it would be obvious, the rise of industrialization and the decline of slavery happening at the same time.

I don’t get the museum’s reasoning at all, the Atlantic slave trade stopped before the invention of steamships.

These are probably the same Green people that think grubbing in the dirt 16 hours a day to fend off starvation, and dying young from wood or coal smoke is noble and romantic.

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The steam engine display is actually a perfectly good starting place for the critique of the “decolonization” project which is afflicting the Anglosphere. C.S. Lewis in his little volume of social criticism The Abolition of Man takes as his starting point an English literature textbook (the identity of which he shield by referring to its authors by the pseudonyms Gaius and Titus and the book as simply The Green Book) for a critique of the trends that have finally resulted in “wokeness”, actually not merely a critique, but a prophecy, combining both the accurate foretelling of the future and a call to repentance.

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Not to be difficult but I had the exact opposite reaction. I felt the penultimate paragraph linking the discussion to “appeasement” to be in rather poor form. Appeasement is only regarded as a national sin among the English because it proved to be wrong in the end. But at the time, it was quite en vogue. The author makes a lot of strong points and then, for no reason, chooses to load his freight onto an unnecessarily slippery slope at the end.

Just shit on the woke for the simplest of reasons: they’re stupid and wrong. There’s no need to attach any greater historical significance to it.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment: I think can bring myself to some measure of understanding their reasoning. If I were to imagine the museum as being placed into the year 3022 instead of 2022, then the closeness of events blurs much more. From a more distant perspective, it could be argued that the entire era is marked (and therefore marred) by slavery. This is similar to the way we might view The Warring States period of ancient China. It was hundreds of years long and contained multiple dimensions, but it is easily considered as a piece of intellectual furniture when we place it under a single title that defines the entire era.

It’s important to note that wokeness is not really new, it is merely ascendant. The self-flagellation and general oikophobia and repentance/reparations mentality now dominant has been with us, if not forever, at least for a very long time. From The Mikado’s ‘a victim must be found’:

And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;

The ‘praising every country but his own’ goes back at least that far. Orwell described the wealthy socialist who actually despised the working poor, but hated the wealthy even more.

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Yabut that’s basically a deliberate unfocusing, a deliberate misunderstanding. Fact is that during that period, as industrialization went up, slavery, and most other forms of human misery went down. Warts and all – and God knows there were warts – the industrial revolution was the engine that made virtually everything we now value, possible. The steam engine was not the ally of slavery, it was it’s profound enemy.

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Indeed.

I once read a rather convincing theory that Heron of Alexandria (c. 10 AD – c. 70 AD) had invented or adapted most of the technologies that nearly two thousand years later would lead to the industrial revolution.

However he used them to build toys for rich people and self opening doors to impress the masses. In a society that was top heavy with slaves, the idea of labor saving devices was completely unnecessary.

image

In this way, not only is the steam engine the enemy of slavery, but slavery itself is the enemy of progress.

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Perceptive and on-point article.

The people who wrongly call themselves “progressive” today are in reality a sad parade of economic, technological, and historical illiteracy. This illiteracy is being promoted as a kind of higher knowledge, which reveals the mentality of those increasingly in charge. The contrast with the quotes from Douglass and Steinmetz, both men of the left and who both saw the displacement of slave and other degraded labor by technology in real time, is telling.

Old joke: The socialists want to use candles. What did they use before candles? Electricity, of course.

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Diseases can also be progressive, they tend to be the worst kind.

Which era could they be talking about? The last 100 000 years? The fossil fuel era dominated a period of about 100 years within that?

What does appeasement mean in simple terms?

noun. the policy of acceding to the demands of a potentially hostile nation in the hope of maintaining peace. the act of appeasing.

Not sure why you have issue with this?

In a society that was top heavy with slaves, the idea of labor saving devices was completely unnecessary.

Of course. The key things to understand why the modern West turned out differently from almost all other civilizations are: the gradual disappearance of slavery in Christian lands, replaced by feudalism and government by mutual consent up and down the ladder of power; the appearance of new farming tools in the early Middle Ages; and the ravages of the plague and Black Death in the later Middle Ages, causing labor shortages and forcing the development of labor-saving devices and the concept of accumulated capital put to productive and new uses. These were and remain the engines of progress.

The rise of slavery in the New World began with the Portuguese and Spanish borrowing the existing slave trade and agriculture from the Moors and the Islamic world generally, where slavery had expanded considerably in the first Islamic centuries (in contrast with Christian Europe). The most common forms were plantation (slave estate) farming of rice and cotton, later expanded to include indigo and tobacco. This system in turn was an adaptation of the older forms of Roman large estate slavery (latifundia, a word still used in Spanish and Portuguese).

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Slavery is largely coterminous with more advanced agricultural civilizations in most places. Commerce and cities blunt its effects, but are not enough to really challenge it. Only industrialism and progressing technology could do that.

On the one hand this implies that putting men to work without reciprocal rewards is one way to improve your standard of living.

But we seem to always forget the other reason for enslavement - the alternative to genocide. What do primitive people do that don’t have the ability to enslave their opponents set on wiping them off the face of the Earth? You proactively annihilate them and all their genetic offspring.

The more profitable and humane alternative is that you sell them off to a civilization that will displace and enslave them for you.

The Romans had 3 choices when conquering their enemies. Assimilate if they fancied them, enslave them if they did not but could use their labor, or annihilate them if they were just too much trouble. The last thing you did was leave them alone and ask them please to behave and not seek revenge in the future.

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Empire and Hegemony are additional options.

Not an option for primitive people with low level resources. Unless you know someone with said resources …

I guess that the question for us racist-sexist-homophobes is: Why? What’s the point of making everything about slavery and oppression, as our wokey friends like to do these days?

First, you get your name in the paper.

Second, you get to parade your moral superiority.

Third, the folks that brought us the Industrial Revolution were commoners: not really out of the top drawer, old chap, as the writer makes clear.

Back then, the top drawer was aristocrats. Today the top drawer is people with advanced degrees. This is called Progress.

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