Jenny Bulstrode | Stolen Jamaican innovation made British manufacturers ‘millionaires’
New research has shown that Jamaicans developed one of the most important innovations of the British industrial revolution. Now as global societies enter the fourth industrial revolution, the question is will they get the benefit of their achievements this time?
For centuries, historians have celebrated “the Cort process” as one of the 10- most-important innovations in the making of the modern world. Patented by British banker turned ironmaster, Henry Cort, between 1783 and 1784, the process made it possible to convert scrap metal into wrought iron on an industrial scale that could be used for everything from machinery and engines, to bridges and railways.
By the mid-19th century, the profits made from the innovation had helped transform Britain into a global power. The Times newspaper told its readers to thank the “Cort process” for raising British manufacturers “to the position of millionaires”, while the Royal Society’s leading metals expert declared: “It is scarcely possible to over-estimate the effect of Cort’s invention upon the material interests of this country and I may add of the world. Modern civilisation, I need not remind you, is due in no inconsiderable degree to cheap wrought iron and we owe cheap wrought iron to Henry Cort.”
It’s been called one of the 10-most-important innovations in the making of the modern world, but now new research has shown that the so-called “Cort process” was first developed in the 1770s by 76 black Jamaicans in a foundry just west of Morant Bay, Jamaica.
Many of these Jamaicans were born in Africa and abducted from some of the most significant iron-working cultures in world history. For them and for other Jamaicans of African heritage, the skill to turn European scrap into useful tools, weapons, and objects of art and beauty was very important. These Jamaicans took inspiration from the way many West and West-Central African societies bundled iron blades as currency, and from the work of bundling sugar cane. They tied plantation scrap iron into bundles and heated the bundles in a furnace where the fuel is kept separate from the metal.
In the European tradition, smooth rollers were used to roll metal, and grooved rollers were used to crush sugar cane. But these Jamaicans were unbothered by European conventions. They fed the bundles through grooved rollers like those only found in sugar mills and through this process ingeniously transformed scrap iron into cannon, sugar rollers and ships’ metal. Their innovation and skill made John Reeder, the British enslaver who owned the foundry, an annual profit equivalent to 1,423 million Jamaican dollars in 2020.
Among the Jamaicans who developed the process were enslaved men, Devonshire; Mingo; Mingo’s son; Friday; Captain Jack; Matt; George; Jemmy; Jackson; Will; Bob; Guy; Kofi (Cuffee); and a Windward Maroon called Kwasi (Quashie) from the original Nanny Town, the same Kwasi who killed the legendary freedom-fighter, Three Finger Jack, in 1781. In fact, it was through the death of Three Finger Jack that Henry Cort first heard about the Jamaican foundry.
Cort was a banker who had recently taken over an ironworks in Portsmouth, England, laying out a lot of money to win a contract to supply the Navy dockyard there. Cort had thought he would make an easy profit, but these hopes were dashed when he realised he had agreed to accept the Admiralty’s rusted scrap and exchange it for new metal. Instead of making a profit he found himself surrounded by scrap and no way of working it up without making a loss.
The banker-turned ironmaster was facing bankruptcy when his cousin, a West Indies ship’s master, arrived in Portsmouth with the latest news from Jamaica. Cort’s cousin told him how a Maroon named Kwasi had killed Three Finger Jack after taking the name of the owner of a major foundry, where black metallurgists had discovered a way to convert scrap into valuable new metal and huge profits.
Within a few months of their conversation, the British government had put Jamaica under martial law and ordered the destruction of the foundry. The public reason was that the foundry might fall into enemy hands. However, in private, the military governor warned the foundry was too dangerous, because if black Jamaicans could convert scrap metal into cannon, then they could undermine British manufacturers and overthrow British colonial rule.
Cort was well-connected. He had been banker to the king of England’s brother and several other admirals, including the former commander-in-chief of the West India squadron. Pay agents like him regularly handled ‘prizes’ - the equipment, vehicles, vessels and cargo captured during armed conflict. His ship’s master cousin even transported prizes to England. With the foundry dismantled, its equipment was packed up and shipped to Portsmouth, where Cort operated.
Over the next two years, Cort patented the Jamaican innovation as his own. But he did not enjoy the profits for very long. In 1789 he was caught having embezzled Navy wages equivalent to 14,437 million Jamaican dollars in 2020. In response, the British government confiscated the patents.
This theft was nothing compared to the value of the innovation Cort stole from Jamaicans; and it is only one among many examples which are now being uncovered. The first British industrial revolution was founded on the stolen skill and knowledge of back people, the British government even enacted laws to prevent its colonies from competing with British manufacturers and to keep those countries as captive markets for British goods. Now as global societies enter the fourth industrial revolution and a new digital age, we must ask: will things be different this time?
Jamaican soils have been identified as a potential source of rare-earth minerals, crucial elements in the smartphones, laptops and other digital device that define the fourth industrial revolution. But will it be Jamaican people who benefit from this valuable resource? Or will this be another story of extraction and theft?
Jamaican skill and precision engineering developed what has been called one of the most important innovations in the first industrial revolution and the making of the modern world. Now we enter the fourth industrial revolution, that skill is long overdue recognition. Perhaps now is the time for the old colonial stories to be rewritten?
- Dr Jenny Bulstrode, is lecturer in history of science and technology at University College London, United Kingdom. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This article is based on new research “Black metallurgists and the making of the industrial revolution”, published open access and free to download in History and Technology, https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2023.2220991