First there were slaves, then there were coal-fired machines, then there was climate change wreaking havoc on the descendants of the slaves. Jeremy Williams goes around a vicious circle.

Friday night, 27July 2012, and London’s new Olympic Stadium is revealed to the world for the first time in the blaze of the opening ceremony. It’s just gone 9pm, and a large green representation of Glastonbury Tor breaks open to reveal scurrying factory workers. Drums pound, top-hatted industrialists tear away the turf of our archetypal green and pleasant land. To the astonishment of the crowd, seven huge brick chimneys rise from the ground and the landscape is transformed into one of the most audacious pieces of public theatre ever attempted. In amongst the chimneys, five beam engines nod their heads in approval.

These are the beam engines of James Watt. With their huge pistons and levers and flywheels, they are the iconic machines of the industrial age, all pride and power and genius. It features alongside its inventors on the fifty-pound note. Visitors admire them in the Science Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. Improving dramatically on the older Newcomen engine, James Watt created a steam engine that was efficient and affordable. With abundant coal to fuel them, they were the breakthrough technology that ushered in the industrial revolution.

But there’s a dark twist to the tale. Watts had partnered with the Birmingham manufacturer Thomas Boulton to build his pioneering engine in 1776. The venture was financed by the Lowe, Vere, Williams and Jennings bank. And they, in turn, were funded by the profits of slave plantations in the West Indies. The blood and sweat of slaves provided the capital for Watt’s innovation.

This part of the story isn’t usually told to the tourists. It was the Caribbean historian Eric Williams, later the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, who highlighted the connection in his 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery. Right from the start, he suggests, the industrial revolution drew on the resources of slavery for finance and for raw materials.

Later historical research has borne out this connection. When slavery was formally ended in the British empire in 1833, the slave owners were essentially bought out by the government. A careful record of slave ownership and investment was made so that compensation could be correctly allocated. These records were made available online in 2013, as part of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project at University College London.

As it unfolded in history, the industrial revolution was always entwined with the legacies of empire and slavery.

Among these records we see a London financier with interests in a plantation with 217 slaves in Antigua. He invests substantially in the London to Brighton railway, now part of the Thameslink franchise that runs through my own town of Luton. A registered owner of 88 slaves in Tobago ploughs his gains into mining, railways, canals and a gas company. A Scottish lord who has 185 slaves in Jamaica builds a steelworks in Ayrshire.

Some might argue that these were rich people with many interests beyond slavery. The industrial revolution, with all its transformational change and its many benefits, might have happened without the trade in human beings. Maybe, but that is conjecture. As it unfolded in history, the industrial revolution was always entwined with the legacies of empire and slavery. The huge profits from the colonies provided the capital for industrialisation. The mills of Manchester then ran on slave-grown cotton, essentially subsidising the raw materials of industry with the stolen labour of Africans.

This legacy puts a different spin on the other dark side of the industrial revolution: the climate emergency. In ways that could never have been predicted by those early inventors and industrialists, coal would become the foundation of a new fossil-fuelled era. Steamships and railways and power stations would bring huge advances in wellbeing, connectivity and prosperity. In time it would also spawn a new crisis – rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, disrupting the climate as we know it.

The disruption of climate change is unfolding in extreme weather: hotter heatwaves, stronger hurricanes and longer droughts. Rising sea levels nibble inexorably at coastlines, encroaching saltwater pushes communities off the land. But while it will affect everyone eventually, the damage from climate change is not evenly distributed. As one might expect, the prospect of higher temperatures is a bigger threat in places that are already hot. Global warming doesn’t sound as scary in Scandinavia as it does in the Sudan. Maps of climate vulnerability show that the greatest risk runs in a band across the Equatorial regions, from the Caribbean and central America, to Africa, India. With tragic circularity, these are the same places that were plundered by empire in the first place.

Leon Sealey-Huggins is an academic who researches climate change in the Caribbean. He describes this same cycle: “Wealth expropriated from the Caribbean during the period of early colonialism was expended on the processes of industrialisation, which has in turn contributed significantly to the climate change-inducing emissions that now threaten Caribbean societies.”

This is the reality of climate change, compounding the harm of empire and slavery, piling injustice upon injustice.

My own personal connection is through Madagascar, where I lived as a child. In the era of slavery, one in ten of the island’s residents were carried off to labour on plantations. Malagasy names appear on the records of tobacco plantations on the other side of the world. Colonial powers then helped themselves to the country’s timber, ores and precious stones. Today, Madagascar is battered by cyclones that have been supercharged by climate change, threatening to send development into reverse for many communities.

This is the reality of climate change, compounding the harm of empire and slavery, piling injustice upon injustice. Always the same people suffering, always the same troubling divisions along racial lines, with black and brown people now expected to bear the burden of climate breakdown.

As I describe in my book Climate Change is Racist: Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice, this inequality makes the climate crisis an example of structural racism. Unlike inter-personal racism, structural racism does not require intent. It is about outcomes, and how existing patterns of inequality are reproduced for new generations along the same racial lines.

This injustice has implications. Global climate change will only be addressed with a truly global sense of common purpose. That is impossible without recognising how some parts of the world are more responsible than others, and some are more vulnerable than others, and that these divergent outcomes have deep historical roots. Climate change cannot be unpicked from existing global inequalities, including racial divides. Action on climate change will need to go hand in hand with social justice.

Perhaps, in fifty years time, our displays of national pride will celebrate reconciliation and global unity. And instead of the technologies that began the fossil fuel era, they will honour those that ended it.

Jeremy Williams

Jeremy is a writer and campaigner for environmental and social justice. He writes at The Earthbound Report (twice recognised as Britain’s leading green blog) and is the author of Climate Change …

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One Comment on “Coal, climate and the circle of injustice”

  1. This article is juvenile historicism.

    The solution to climate problems isn’t kumbaya and circles of social awareness zen! That’s just a way to cry endlessly without seeking a solution that people ordinary can genuinely back and have ‘the system back’. A demonstration of personal pain and contrition that may liberate the authors soul…but leaves all those ‘lesser’ souls as trapped as ever.

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