The Era of Canals, Cable, and Coal

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1992-2009:

The Suez Canal also encouraged a far greater Atlantic presence in Southeast and East Asia, stimulating the development of intercontinental port cities, a phenomenon hitherto rare in the region. Before the Europeans, local polities had placed their capitals inland for greater security. Europeans brought an ocean-consciousness that many Asian elites had previously lacked, with Singapore typical of the newly created seaport city, part of a network that would spread along Asian coasts, from Mumbai (Bombay) to Yokohama, cities forming spearheads for modernization on Atlantic models, linked to one another and to a wider world by cable and the coal-burning ship.

Everyone dreaded the inevitable time-consuming and dirty task of loading and stowing coal on shipboard, a task grueling for the worker and disagreeable for all aboard. On warships, officers as well as enlisted men were obliged to participate. Moving coal raises a gritty dust, throat-choking and eye-stinging, leaving a dark film on every surface it touches. To handle the coal aboard, ships carried among their crew a “black gang,” which was divided into two groups. Typically firemen on most ships watched and fed three fires, burning down one at the end of each watch, shoveling the coal into the furnace, using long pokers to aerate the flames and periodically cleaning it of clinkers. Trimmers kept the firemen supplied, wheeling coal in steel barrows from bunker to furnace. They called it “being on the long run.” Often these men were Bengali or Gujerati but the British shipping world applied the term “lascar” to them and uniformly to Asian seafarers, from Chinese to Yemeni.

Fireman or trimmer, the tasks were difficult and dangerous work in an airless environment thick with dust. In the tropics the temperature could soar to excruciating heights. The men wore heavy leather boots and not much else except a rag around the neck to mop sweat and grime from eyes and noses. Burns were frequent as was heat exhaustion. Working on the black gang was comparable to the arduous labor of the coal miner in the pits but at least the miner got to go home every night. A black gang might be away at sea for an entire year.

By the time the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, oil was replacing coal as the source of energy on steamships.

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Filed under China, energy, Europe, Japan, labor, Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia

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