Copper Ore: An Unlikely Global Commodity

What role does the British Industrial Revolution have in the new global narratives that historians have developed in the last two decades? Once, the coming of heavy industry was considered as one of the core experiences of modernity. That has long since ceased to be the case. Old views of the Industrial Revolution, which stressed its rapidity, its reliance upon revolutionary technological innovations, and its essential Britishness, have been rejected. Instead, historians now see the emergence of global modernity as a drawn-out process, one that must be understood as a phenomenon of Eurasian rather than European history, and one that is powered by new forms of consumption rather than radical changes in production technique. To compress a long and complex historiographical process to the point of caricature, we are now more interested in cottons from seventeenth-century Bengal than those from nineteenth-century Blackburn. This has been salutary. The new global history has undermined the Eurocentricity of older narratives, called once unchallenged technological certainties into question, introduced a greater sense of female agency, and forced historians to account for change over extended periods of time.

Notwithstanding these gains, it has to be said that the Industrial Revolution has been crowded out rather than integrated into our new visions of global modernity. Must that be so, or are there ways of harnessing the apparently narrow and atypical experience of British-style industrialism to new global agendas? The copper industry of the mid-nineteenth century offers an opportunity of thinking about this problem, for the British copper sector, a coal-burning leviathan that was localised in a corner of South Wales, assumed an unprecedentedly global character in the 1830s. It sucked in cupreous materials from Australasia, Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and many parts of Europe. By doing so, it created something entirely novel: a world market for mineral ores. ‘A World of Copper: Globalizing the Industrial Revolution, 1830-1870’, a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, investigates this transoceanic production network. Project leaders Chris Evans and Olivia Saunders of the University of South Wales (in partnership with the universities of Exeter, Santiago de Chile, Swansea, Toulouse, and Western Australia) report.

George Grant Francis, "The Smelting of Copper in the Swansea District, from the time of Elizabeth to the present day", (London: 1881), courtesy of the British Library.

In 1848, the copper works at Hafod, just outside Swansea in South Wales, was the world’s largest. Furnacemen there smelted a rich blend of ores that that included the relatively local (materials from the Fowey Consols mine in Cornwall and Wheal Friendship in Devon), the distant (Cuban ores with a copper content of over 28%), and the super-distant (ores from the ‘Monster Mine’ at Burra Burra, South Australia).[1] This global reach, with supply chains stretching out to the Caribbean and deep into the southern hemisphere, was historically unexampled, as contemporaries well understood. Metallic ores had never before been long-range commodities. Throughout human history, so the great French metallurgist Frédéric Le Play insisted, the smelting of metals had been ‘rigorously determined’ by geology. Ores were smelted in close proximity (‘almost always less than 10 kilometres’) to the mines from which they were extracted. In the 1830s that changed. All of a sudden, Le Play noted in his Description des procédés métallurgiques employés dans le Pays de Galles (1848), the Welsh copper sector seemed to know ‘no limits other than those of the globe itself’. Swansea received ores ‘from the island of Cuba, from Mexico, from Colombia, from Peru, from Chile, from Australia and from New Zealand’.[2]

In truth, the copper industry of the Swansea district had always been something of an anomaly. It had never conformed to the operational model of which Le Play spoke, with mine and smelter sitting cheek-by-jowl. It had from its first beginnings in the late seventeenth century depended on seaborne ores from the English southwest. That connection across the Bristol Channel stemmed from the Swansea district’s fundamental point of departure from several millennia of smelting practice – that it burnt mineral coal rather than wood in its furnaces. Cornwall could boast the Hiberno-British archipelago’s richest copper reserves but had no fuel, mineral or vegetable, with which to smelt them. Southwest Wales did have fuel: coal seams that outcropped on the coast. It therefore became home to a smelting technology – the ‘Welsh process’ – that used coal-fired reverberatory furnaces rather than charcoal-fuelled blast furnaces (the default everywhere beyond Wales).

John George Wood, "The Bristol Company Copper Works, Near Swansea", © The National Library of Wales 2001, reproduced under a creative archives license.

 

Anomalous though all of this was, it was still contained within a narrow compass. After 1830, however, the divergence became radical. Vessels carrying ore to Swansea Bay were no longer restricted to shuttling back and forth to the north coast of Cornwall. Thanks to changes in Britain’s tariff schedule in the late 1820s they could now fetch ore from any port on earth, provided that ore was of sufficient richness to warrant the cost of freighting it to Wales. Swansea copper thus became a truly transoceanic phenomenon, involving mining/refining complexes on different continents. Processes that were once geographically concentrated were now stretched across the globe. The copper industry of south-east Wales might even be said to be the first globalised modern industry (if globalised is taken to mean truly global rather than ‘principally Atlantic’ or ‘largely Eurasian’). Certainly, those who worked and traded within the British-dominated copper industry of the early Victorian age acquired a reflexive awareness of their own globality. An inlet on Kawau Island, New Zealand, where copper mining began in 1845, was christened Swansea Bay, for example, and in the wake of the mining boom in South Australia the words ‘Burra Burra’ acquired a talismanic quality for hopeful mine promoters elsewhere (hence the New Burra Burra Mining Company in South Africa and The Burra Burra Copper Company of Ducktown, Tennessee, both creations of the 1850s).

ST Gill, Burra Burra Mine, S.A., showing chief portion of surface operations 1850, Gift of Mrs F.M. Graham and family 1947, Copyright © 2012 Art Gallery of South Australia

 

The 1830s and 1840s saw a global division of labour come into being to supply feedstock to Swansea – ‘Copperopolis’ – whose furnaces were at that time responsible for over 40 per cent of the world output of smelted copper. Ore was carried to Swansea Bay. In reply, the Swansea copper industry exported the experience of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Not least, Swansea copper was responsible for generalising Cornish hard-rock mining techniques as a form of global best practice. The silhouette of the Cornish beam engine became as familiar to inhabitants of El Cobre in Cuba as it was to their counterparts in Camborne. It was not just Cornwall’s distinctive steam technology that travelled the world; Cornish mining terminology was ubiquitous. When miners at O’okiep in the Cape Colony hacked their way through non-mineralised rock they were said to engage in ‘tut-work’, just as they did in Cornwall; those who extracted the precious ore were ‘tributers’. Welsh smelting methods were also implanted overseas when ‘peripheral’ mining districts tried to break free of the gravitational pull of the Swansea district and process local ores in situ. In 1848, the Patent Copper Company shipped out the materials to build a Welsh-style smelter adjacent to the mine at Burra Burra. The refractory bricks and furnace doors were accompanied by a fully fledged workforce, most of whose members had been recruited at Loughor (Llwchwr in Welsh), west of Swansea. The settlement they established in South Australia was named Llwchwr too (pronounced ‘Loosha’ locally) to honour the fact.

Welsh furnacemen also travelled to Chile’s Norte Chico between the 1840s and 1880s, establishing giant streamlined works on the Welsh model. Wandering through the Protestant plot at Guayacán in 1874, a missionary found that Swansea had ‘sent many a lad to lie quietly in this place’.[3] Copper workers were industrial frontier scouts who played a strategic role in generalising the signature coal-burning technologies of British industrialism. Of course, they were not alone in this. British migrants took coal technologies far and wide in the post-Napoleonic era, but none so widely as copper furnacemen. Most workers (iron puddlers or glass blowers, for example) circulated within a North Atlantic ambit (the coal basins of Belgium or Pennsylvania, say), but Swansea’s emissaries travelled to Latin America, the West Indies, Australasia and southern Africa. They participated in a globalization that was authentically global.

 

ST Gill, "Kapunda Mine 1845", Gift of the South Australia Mining Corporation 1931, Copyright © 2012 Art Gallery of South Australia

Because their geographical range was so wide, those who ventured across the seas at the behest of Swansea copper were drawn into contact with an extraordinary array of workers, far beyond those normally encountered in the ‘free labour/free soil’ core of western modernity. Cornish and Welsh workers intermixed with the debt-stricken rural proletarians who flowed in and out of Andean mining camps on a seasonal basis; they shouted instructions to ‘native labourers’ who were subject to draconian ‘master and servant’ regulation in Namaqualand; and they oversaw a combination of indentured Chinese labourers and enslaved West Africans in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. In short, the international copper trade gave rise to a set of hybridised labour regimes that might, according to circumstance, be regulated by the lash, the magistrate, the machinations of labour contractors, debt peonage, or the cash nexus. British technologies also hybridised in new contexts: global spread brought about variegation not uniformity. The introduction of reverberatory furnaces to South Australia in the 1840s, for example, saw smelters have recourse to local hardwoods as well as coal imported from New South Wales. There was no simple cloning of British practices in distant locations. As the example of wood-fired Australian smelting demonstrates, British industrial practice often operated as a catalyst rather than a normative model.

The international copper industry that pivoted upon Swansea in the mid-nineteenth century affords us certain historiographical opportunities. Not the least of these is the opportunity of re-inscribing heavy industry – the clanking, smoke-spewing industry of Britain’s Industrial Revolution – into global history. The received view of the Industrial Revolution in the 1960s was that it was truly revolutionary. That view frayed apart in subsequent decades as new data and fresh conceptualization suggested trajectories of global change that were more drawn out and less centred on north-west Europe.  And yet there are elements in the classical conception of the Industrial Revolution that cannot be discarded altogether. The use of mineral energy on a colossal scale, the central feature of British industrialism, is one of these. Thinking about copper might be one way of realigning our historiographical compass so that the world-changing role of coal-fired industry is integrated into the narratives of global modernity that we weave. Copper’s explanatory potential stems from its diagnostic versatility. It was a producer good, of course, used for industrial purposes old (brewing) and new (electrical transmission). Yet it was a consumer good too, widely employed for domestic and decorative purposes. It also served as specie. Copper was a commodity with both use-value and minted value. Copper circulated everywhere, in many different forms, and it did so in rapidly increasing volume in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More significantly, in the era of Copperopolis it emerged from a transoceanic network of mineral production that stretched from arctic Norway to New Zealand. Other metals were traded globally but only copper was produced globally too.



[1] John Percy, Metallurgy: the art of extracting metals from their ores, and adapting them to various purposes of manufacture (London, 1861), p. 322.

[2] Frédéric Le Play, Description des procédés métallurgiques employés dans le Pays de Galles pour la fabrication du cuivre (Paris, 1848), pp. 6-7.

[3] Quoted in Bill Jones, ‘Labour migration and cross-cultural encounters: Welsh copper workers in Chile during the Swansea moment’, Welsh History Review (forthcoming).