Most historians trace the origin of American energy security politics to the ascendance of oil in the twentieth century. Others argue the story began when the United States seized an overseas empire during the Spanish-American war to secure distant coaling stations. Coal and Empire argues that both these accounts are wrong. First, debates in America linking energy security and national interest began not around oil, but antebellum coal. Second, serious questions about coaling stations were raised only after the United States had established its empire. Impressively researched, Coal and Empire draws from over twenty different archives to weave a compelling narrative focused on US naval officers, diplomats, politicians, businessmen, scientists, and engineers. The book begins by exploring the antebellum relationship between the “politics of information” and the “economy of time and space.” The speed and predictability of coal-powered oceanic steamships was often not worth the cost, and the contested international geography of provisioning coal further recommended against fully committing to steam. Almost all nineteenth-century steamships were capable of traveling by sail most or some of the time. For mail-carrying ships, however, American leaders embraced steam power. In the 1840s and 1850s, interstate and regional rivalries led to a boom (and bust) of federally subsidized private mail steamer lines, and for Americans “the challenges of limited fuel resources quickly shattered the fantasy that steam power would annihilate time and space” (p. 39). Instead of annihilation, Americans spoke of a geography of steam based around the idea of “economy.” Approaching coal and steam as a problem of economy, rather than empire, created space for a technocratic, but not quite imperial, politics aligning naval officials, congressmen, diplomats, chemists, engineering experimenters, ship designers, and geologists. Coal and Empire is largely a study of failure, specifically failures to launch a coaling station empire. During Reconstruction, the US navy actually replaced coal power with sail, believing coal to require “entangling alliances” and dangerous dependencies; they saw Britain’s network of coaling stations as vulnerabilities, not strengths. Even as the navy later rebuilt its coal fleet, Americans pursued an “entrepreneurial diplomacy” of opening markets and sought to transcend the limits of coaling stations through a cheaper, more agile system of coaling at sea. One of the most intriguing chapters explores how, during the first years of the Civil War, Lincoln pursued a plan to colonize free black Americans in the Panama borderland of Chiriquí, where they would mine coal as an industrial shortcut to autonomy. Fourteen thousand people volunteered, but the inability of speculators and US officials to navigate the international politics of Central America led to the project’s collapse. The attention to diplomacy is to be applauded, but this chapter highlights an issue facing the book overall: the unacknowledged sole focus on elites creates the impression only elites mattered, especially considering the continual slippage between their perspectives and those the author terms “Americans.” The unexplored alternative knowledge and politics of coal miners, engine workers, firemen, Indian guides, sailors, and free black volunteer colonists haunt this elite-centered narrative. Coal and Empire reveals countless fascinating paths for research that it will be up to others to follow. The final chapter shows how the science of logistics was invented following the Spanish-American War, but by arguing against the oil thesis, struggles to explain why such thinking was not widely embraced, even by those teaching the subject at the Naval War College, until World War I, when, significantly, the navy transported and consumed six times more tons of oil than coal. Shulman demonstrates that logistics and energy empire repeatedly failed to take hold within a coal-sail technics, but gained a foothold as a coal-oil technics began to emerge, and achieved centrality only when oil all but eclipsed coal in the waging of war. Rather than historians choosing between coal or oil, Shulman shows it may be more enlightening to explore the contested interrelations and hybridities among energy regimes. Coal and Empire will be of interest to undergraduates and anyone studying the history of energy. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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